I started to write this review before I had my tea. That was a mistake, like the folly of shopping at the supermarket on an empty stomach. The memory of the virtually-indescribably wonderful meal I had at Aumbry made me salivate to such an extent that I abandoned my keyboard and nipped downstairs to fill my face.
Back at my desk with a full stomach and I’m still struggling to know where to begin. How do you write a synopsis of the best meal north of (the now defunct) Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s? Until I shuffled along to Aumbry, hidden down an unremarkable side street in the centre of Prestwich, I thought I’d tasted the higher echelons of gastronomy. In a former life, when I lived in London and beans on toast was as much as my budget would allow, I was taken to some of the best restaurants in the capital. I ate at both Angela Harnett’s and Jason Atherton’s chefs’ tables, I sampled the delights of Ramsay at the Chelsea eaterie bearing his name and the aforementioned upmarket hotel. I rubbed shoulders with Kate Moss and, er, Nick Ross, at Nobu on Park Lane, and I sat across from Sue Ellen in The Ivy‘s private dining rooms. But, BUT, nothing prepared me for the brilliance of the food in a small converted cottage just a few short miles from where I grew up.
If you think about it, it’s rather an odd place to site what should clearly be (if wishing made it so) the first restaurant in Manchester to win a Michelin star. Prestwich’s own star has been on the wane of late, and the only reason I visited the town as a child was to do the ‘big shop’ with me Mum. But husband-and-wife chefs Laurence Tottingham and Mary-Ellen McTague (aged just 34) saw the building’s – and the location’s – potential.
The couple met at Michelin-starred hideaway Sharrow Bay and, later, worked together at the Fat Duck, so it’s no surprise to find out they can cook. But even top chefs get it wrong – I can think of countless top-starred restaurants which serve up lacklustre and overpriced meals night after night. After an evening at Aumbry, this is something I can’t imagine, even in my wildest dreams.
In a restaurant known for its tasting menus and bijou dimensions, I expected meagre portions served in an array of tiny cups and balanced on a series of teaspoons. With this in mind, my dining companion and I opted for the nine course extravaganza, with a different wine for each serving. Our preconceptions were utterly wrong.
We began tickling our taste buds in a culinary holding pattern – a room above the 26-cover dining area, all country chic and white floorboards. Before we even got to the Amuse Bouche, our bouches were amused by the most exquisite cheese puffs: a heady combination of homemade choux pastry and a filling of warm cheese that makes own-brand supermarket cheese taste like feet. This was accompanied by a teensy pot of black beans which recalled nights down the local Mexican but in a good way.
And then, downstairs for the main event. By this stage, I was chucking down amuse bouche like they’d gone out of fashion (which I suppose they probably have done in Prestwich) so forgive me if I’m a bit light on detail here. Next up was the home smoked mackerel, sitting cheek by jowl with roast celeriac, pickled beets and mustard cream. It was at this point in the proceedings that my friend and I had an inkling that nine courses might mean just that – nine proper portions of food. Before long, a Bury black pudding scotch egg was on its way out to us, with tomato ketchup and mushroom relish as its charming companions. Now, I don’t usually eat black pudding. I once wrote an article for a well-known newspaper about this Northern delicacy and was introduced in a graphic manner to its composition, including where the frozen blood actually comes from. But I closed my eyes, thought of Bury, and was rewarded for my bravery: best Scotch egg EVER.
Onto the next course. A slight sheen of sweat was layering my brow but I pressed on. Oh.My.God. The frothiest, foamiest, freshest and most frolicksome potato and wild garlic soup (with a soupçon of English truffle) appeared as if by magic: if angels cooked, they would make this. The garlic is foraged locally (natch) and there’s some kind of super-duper machine involved to achieve the garlic air which, if truth be told, may be the best thing I have ever inhaled.
While still high from the previous course, roast halibut made its entrance, hovering over a bed of Jerusalem artichoke, candy beets, pak choi & Lapsang Souchong. Now, I’m more of the boil-in-the-bag type when it comes to fish so this melt-in-the-mouth halibut may have ruined me for life: Morrisons cod will seem like eating in steerage now I’ve consumed the first class version.
The greatness just kept on coming. For the last of the ‘main courses’, we were left speechless: 33 day aged Longhorn beef jostling with oyster, salad blue potatoes, pastrami and Langdon greens. Reader, I wept. I should also mention that each course came with its own glass of wine. And not that namby-pamby “here’s a sip of something really pricey and you’ll have to make do with that” approach to tasting menus, oh no. These were full-on, proper glasses of some of the best vintages I’ve ever had the good fortune to try. Including the dessert wines and the glass of bubbly at the outset, me and my mate quaffed ten – count ’em – ten vinos, all of which were superb. And there’s a special shout-out for the Meinklang Konkret, Sankt Laurent 2009, an Austrian wine which is made in an unusual way (if you want to know how, I’m afraid you’ll have to google it because I was quite tipsy and my notes look like they were written by a three-year-old).
Are you still with me? Then then let me tell you about the desserts. The innocuously named ‘British & Irish Cheeses’ turned out to be better than sex. Admittedly, I’m in a bit of a drought at the moment but I’m pretty sure that if George Clooney came a-knocking, I’d choose Aumbry‘s cheeseboard over a slice of Clooney goodness. My companion may have come to the same conclusion concerning the grapefruit posset with celery granita and sherbert given her conclusion that “that’s just mental, isn’t it?”
The meal still wasn’t over. A heavenly apple tart was laid before us, swiftly followed by a final set of petit fours. Now, this was late in the evening and I’d had a fair bit to drink but I swear to god that we were instructed to sniff a bowl of synthetic musk to improve the flavour of the sweets. You know about musk, right? It’s a civet essence, now illegal in its natural form, and, if memory serves, comes from the bum of a cat-like animal. I imagine it’s quite expensive. If I’d known, I could have offered the services of one of my three felines; I expect Seamus would have been the most obliging.
However, I don’t really want to end a review of such a place as Aumbry with talk of cats’ posteriors. Let me just say this: you might need to raid your piggy bank, your kid’s piggy bank and your next door neighbour’s piggy bank to go all out at Aumbry but it’s worth every penny. And, compared to those high-end restaurants in that there London, a frickin’ steal.
Review by Helen Nugent
Where: Church Lane, Prestwich, Manchester
More info: www.aumbryrestaurant.co.uk