Back in September I went to a press event at Provenance, a restaurant and food hall in Westhoughton that was celebrating its inclusion in the Good Food Guide for 2017 under the skillful watch of head chef Lewis Gallagher, North West Chef of the Year 2012. Impressive credentials, and ones which stood up to vigorous tasting: we all loved it, our only concern being whether there was really a market for fine dining at pretty-much Manchester prices in a location just south of Bolton.
Well, thankfully Provenance is not only still going strong, but - if the near-flawless meal I had there last week is anything to go by - is better than ever. I'd begun idly perusing the new Spring menu at around 7.30am on the day of my visit, and the more I looked, the more I wanted; indeed, there is perhaps too much choice, prompting worries over whether this would be a case of jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. A more careful look however makes it clear that this is actually a very clever menu, with the same core ingredients and flavours running through the dishes and suggesting a sensible approach to both food preparation and waste reduction. There has also been an exciting development since my last visit in the form of a CHEESE TROLLEY (more of which later), and it was this overwhelming need to last it out until the cheese course that prompted my sensible approach in ordering two fish dishes for my starter and main.
And what inspired choices they turned out to be. Our charming waitress (young; friendly; knowledgeable; enthusiastic) told me that I'd chosen her two favourites from the new menu: the crab starter (Picked White Crab Meat, Mascarpone, Lime and Radish. Crab Crackers) and the King Prawn Linguine main (Tiger Prawn Tails, Wild Garlic Pesto, Langoustine Bisque). The crab starter was quite the prettiest thing I'd seen for some time (with apologies to my dinner date for the evening); almost too pretty to eat. I'm glad I did though - light, well-seasoned crab adorned with a fetching cracker hat which turned out to be one of the best things of the night. If they sold these in packets like Snack-a-Jacks I'd be bankrupt within the week. My only thought was whether the £10 price tag was a bit steep (maybe), and I had the same concern over my £19 main. This worry, however, was misplaced; this was a generous and wonderful dish, with eight plump prawns, a subtle-but-punchy pesto, and a little jug of lobster bisque that actually tasted of lobster (unlikely a woefully disappointing dish I had at a well-regarded place in Manchester recently, which tasted of nothing and didn't cost much less than this). The waitress even pours the bisque for you, although rather embarrassingly kept telling me to "say when" until it became obvious to us both that the jug was now empty (does anyone actually stop her pouring? anyone??) and the word "when" had never been further from my lips.
Meanwhile, across the table my date had chosen rather meatier options, having apparently spent the day worrying that three courses of fine dining plus cheese trolley might leave him unfulfilled. The Duck Egg & Ham Asparagus starter (Poached Duck Egg, Asparagus Spears Wrapped in Homemade Duck Ham) might not be a looker (a friend who saw the photos on Facebook queried why we were eating asparagus wrapped in beef and served with ice cream) but was spectacularly tasty, with a perfectly-cooked egg and a lovely sharpness to the hollandaise. For main, he had the Crispy Duck Breast with Creamed Cavalo Nero Cabbage, Smoked Bacon and Wild Mushrooms; this was a similarly good dish, with pink, tender duck and impossibly light, fluffy gnocchi (which weren't even advertised as coming with the dish, but which were a real highlight). On the side we ordered the veg of the day, which turned out to be a generous dish of green beans, mange tout, sugar snap peas and purple sprouting broccoli, all beautifully al dente and dressed in just the right amount of butter. Yep, even the veg was perfect.
I've never really been a dessert person (and I still had both eyes firmly on the cheese trolley), but was swayed by the prospect of the Chocolate Orange Bread and Butter Pudding with Blood Orange Sorbet. There are no two ways about it: this was one of the best desserts either of us had eaten anywhere, ever. The bread and butter pudding was soft and light, without that cloying texture that so often comes with a chocolate pudding, and the sorbet was sharp and bitter and sweet all at the same time. Outstanding. The Arctic Roll with White Chocolate Ice Cream and Gariguette Strawberries, which we ordered in a fit of 70s nostalgia, simply couldn't compete; indeed, we both felt a bit sorry for it as we openly fought over the Bread and Butter Pudding (technically mine). Still, it was perfectly nice (and banished all thoughts of the Bejam's horrors I remember from childhood), even if it was the part of our meal that didn't quite match the flavours and quality of the rest.
Finally, FINALLY, it was cheese trolley time. All cheeses are locally sourced (although not necessarily locally produced), and you can choose any three for £9, served up with really good crackers, a lovely grainy fig chutney, grapes and celery (which I ignored). We shared a Cornish Brie, a goat's cheese, and the Lincolnshire Poacher from a selection of seven; I could happily have eaten all seven, although would have liked some kind of offensively oozy blue rather than a rather standard-looking Stilton. Next time, I might just see if they'll park the trolley up by me for the duration of the evening.
The restaurant was busyish but not noisy, and dinner was accompanied by a nice man playing on the piano, which made for a pleasing atmosphere and masked the sound of lobster bisque slurps; service, as mentioned, was excellent. When we left, I noticed one solitary green bean on the floor where it had clearly fallen from our dish of vegetables; this was literally the only thing that got away from us all night, and still I regret it. Provenance is very, very good, and I for one will be making the journey to Westhoughton far more frequently from now on.
- Provenance is at 46-48 Market Street, Westhoughton, Bolton, Lancashire, BL5 3AZ. Go - it's a belter.