As I sat on the train reading up about the dinner I was heading for at Northcote in Lancashire, a Michelin-starred restaurant and AA Hotel of the Year 2017, I started to get indigestion. And feelings of inadequacy. It wasn’t the menu: octopus followed by cod, foie gras, barbecued pork ribeye, peppermint crisp… see the full menu below. I can handle that with pleasure. It wasn’t the Roederer champagne and the wines: again, sheer pleasure. It was the CVs of the four chefs who were cooking that evening. Here’s a pea-sized taster: Canadian-born, New Zealand-raised Anna Hansen MBE, chef patron of The Modern Pantry in London, of which there are now two branches; Chantelle Nicholson, group operations director for Marcus Wareing, overseeing Marcus (two Michelin stars), The Gilbert Scott and Tredwells, and in a previous life a lawyer in her native New Zealand; Claire Clark MBE, pastry chef extraordinaire (ex Ritz, Claridges, House of Commons and The French Laundry) and the only female Meilleur Ouvrier de la Grande Bretagne; Lisa Goodwin-Allen, winner of a clutch of chefy gongs and on home turf as executive head chef of Northcote.
As you’ve spotted, they’re all women. Yes, it was Girls’ Night. To be honest, it wouldn’t have been my first choice. Those two words not only smack of hen nights but inspire the same feeling of quiet dread as ‘Sunday school outing’ did when I was about nine. But Girls’ Night was the date I could make and I wasn’t just hoping but assuming that it was going to be a cut above the usual. It was.
Girls’ Night was the fifth dinner in Obsession17, a series of 17 dinners, running from 20 January to 5 February with 23 chefs travelling from California, Japan, China, Australia, Italy, Slovenia, Portugal and various parts of the UK. Between them they have 16 Michelin stars. Not a bad start, but more than that it speaks volumes about Northcote and the reputation Obsession has gained around the world. Top chefs are renowned for taking busmen’s holidays, escaping their kitchen for a night only to go and cook in a restaurant somewhere else, but I wonder whether the care that goes into matching wines to their dishes at Northcote is an added attraction. It deserves to be. Continuity is surely another. For the first Obsession in 2001 there were just four dinners, but the same people were behind the series then as now, Northcote chef patron Nigel Haworth, whose idea is was, and managing director Craig Bancroft.
Back to the dinner. This is the menu.
I had been thinking about commenting on the two puddings (desserts if you prefer) first, because I read a magazine review recently in which the writer (new to the game) said he always wondered why reviewers said so little about puddings. I hadn’t noticed this was the case but, sure enough, the reviewer got to the end of his allotted words just as he was getting to the puddings. As I haven’t got an editor breathing word-counts and hellfire down my neck, I can write as many words as I like; so I shall start at the beginning and take it from there.
If there’s octopus on a menu, I’m hard pushed to skip it, but I feel differently about fashionable liquorice. I’d usually choose something else. Anna Hansen off-set it (left) with smoked ricotta and macadamias, but it was fairly assertive in a cumulative sort of way (emphasized by fennel in the crispbread). What rescued it for me (although not my liquorice-loathing neighbour) was the brilliant pairing by the Northcote wine team with the smoky, mineral and citrus intensity of the Greek Assyrtiko.
The wine pairing with Chantelle Nicholson's foie gras and chicken liver parfait (right) was also clever. A sweet, powerful Madeira to match the sweetness and richness of the dish. Pickled ginger and smoked almond cut the richness, but there was no question we were in a sweet zone with malt loaf, meringue and ginger-wine gel. A bit sweet for me.
The cod, chorizo, caramelised celeriac and smoked mascarpone (left) was a winning combination (Chantelle Nicholson), although, oddly, the oak-aged white Rioja wasn’t quite up to it. It needed a more incisive wine, but the powerful Madeira coming before it probably didn't help.
Lisa Goodwin-Allen's pork (right), cooked to tenderness at 57º for 20 hours and served with grated iberico ham and sorrel and leek purée and soot, was another winner, especially with the Newton Johnson Pinot Noir that I thought might be overpowered but which had the structure and the combination of fruit and savoury intensity needed.
Peppermint crisp (left) was airy, frozen mint Aero balls with liquid nitrogen poured over them. No wine. Very wise.
Claire Clark's kalamansi & mango pebble (right) was a glazed citrus mousse looking for all the world like an egg yolk (but that's probably better than looking like an eyeball – not that I'm thinking of the octopus above). It came with yoghurt snow (liquid nitrogen stars again), coconut, almond and pecan granola and tiny lime and blackcurrant meringues. The sweet citrus intensity was ideally matched to the Tasmanian dessert Riesling, switched that afternoon from a sparkling Sake that wasn’t sweet enough (I tried it).
Close of play, except for coffee, tea, petits fours and for those with the stamina, the bar. The girl chefs were already propping it up as I passed by on my way to bed. I felt inadequate, but comfortably without any sign of indigestion.
And here's the wine line-up (once we'd had the Louis Roederer Champagne with canapés)
All photographs by Joanna Simon