Review: The Lawns at Thornton Hall Hotel & Spa, Wirral
I can always tell when I’m about to enjoy a really special meal. The giveaway is the lightheaded feeling I get as I bend double in the car and unlace my comfy driving trainers before slipping into my wedding/funeral shoes while endeavouring not to beep the horn with my nose. After all, in some restaurants, that mouldering pair of Adidas just won’t do. And The Lawns at Thornton Hall Hotel is definitely one of those places.
It was a bright Saturday lunchtime and the grand Wirral venue was looking glorious in the mid-winter sunshine. The hotel itself, in pretty Thornton Hough on the edge of the Leverhulme estate, was once home to a Liverpool shipping family but was converted into a hotel in the 50s. The original building now bristles with modern add-ons and extensions, like a Swiss Army knife with better spa facilities, but my family and I were heading for its wood-panelled heart where Saturday afternoons are a strictly old-school affair. By this I mean that the stately surroundings are more akin to the Eton refectory than the canteen at your local comprehensive.
There are a range of food options at Thornton Hall including a brasserie and a bar but the centrepiece is undoubtedly The Lawns restaurant. With executive chef Matt Worswick having joined last November – the youngest chef in Scotland to earn a Michelin star when he was at Glenapp Castle in Ayrshire – it’s clear that in culinary terms it’s aiming as high as its mother-of-pearl-inlaid ceiling. And, believe me, that’s very high indeed.
While our eyes popped at the grand surroundings and my son boggled at the fact that the staff unfolded his napkin and laid it across his lap (“Are they paid to do everything for you? That’s amazing”) we drooled over the menu and made our selections. Being lunchtime, the choice was restricted to four starters and four main courses, but as none of them featured our usual Saturday staple of reheated chow mein from the previous night we were already confident that whatever we chose, it was going to be deliciously different. And so it proved.
First up, the tiniest, dinkiest loaves of bread you’ve ever seen. Served on slate with some creamy Irish butter, they were cuter than kittens falling off chairs. The more we thought about them, the cuter they became. “Imagine the little baking tins they make them in!” squealed my wife. They were also delicious, with the seeded onion bread finally triumphing in the battle for our affections, though all were irresistibly warm to the touch and, once broken open, released the kind of homely aroma that sells houses in seconds. Plus, you could have used them to make sandwiches for gnomes.
My starter was a chicken and ham hock terrine – a generous rectangular slab which lay across the plate like one of those pink and white nougat bars you can buy at the newsagent (see top image). Arranged around and about were artfully placed translucent discs of baked swede, and a few small peaks of something creamy – like the top bit off an iced gem. It was so light and delicately flavoured that there was no danger of being overfaced by my main course, but there was still plenty of it which was gratifying as I was starving. Like the onset of summer, one swallow just wouldn’t have been enough.
It was a similar story round the other side of the table. My wife’s citrus-cured mackerel was also generously proportioned and presented just as exquisitely, with the fish displaying that pearl-like quality that shows it hasn’t been troubled by anything as vulgar as heat. Between the two flanks of flesh nestled some “textures of beetroot” and hibiscus gel. Beetroot I’ve heard of, and these were tasty examples of that ruddiest of roots, but I admit that hibiscus gel is a new one on me. The internet seems convinced that it’s for detangling your hair but, on this evidence, it also adds a tantalising gleam and fragrant edge to well-prepared mackerel and beets.
My son’s celeriac and chestnut soup was necessarily more puritan in appearance but he still pronounced it “amazing,” much to the delight of James, the friendly restaurant manager. So with our starters dispatched and our crockery cleared, it was onto the mains…
Once again, there were few complaints. My beef was presented as a bavette steak in three thick slabs that oozed pink juices, with the meat encircled by vivid green kale and punctuated by more of those beetroot textures – including a fabulous creamy beet purée – and dainty potatoes modelled on that masterpiece of culinary art, the cheese football.
Across the table, the dominant flavours were dark and smoky as my wife eased apart some almost molten charred aubergine that came with aubergine caviar and some intensely flavoured leek ash. If there was a weakness here it was that there wasn’t enough variety; every mouthful was dominated by the powerful aubergine which, though delicious, could have done with some additional vegetation.
Over to my left, my son consumed his crispy-skinned stone bass and orzo pasta in no time. “How was that?” I asked. “Amazing,” he replied. For his birthday, I intend to buy him a thesaurus.
At £18 for a couple of courses, the lunchtime deal at The Lawns is fantastic value for food of this quality. But we weren’t about to bail out; after all, I’d changed my shoes specially for the occasion. So we chose desserts too, bumping the price up to £23 each.
It was a good decision. Between us we destroyed a moist and sticky block of treacle tart with molasses and pear sorbet, a hazelnut cream concoction accompanied by some wonderfully organic-looking sponge, and a delicious chocolate terrine with spiced walnuts and crisp chocolate swirls studded with burdock root. Each impressed with its see-sawing flavours and combination of textures – from comforting ooze through to nutty, nuggety crunch.
It was a brilliant end to a delightful meal and a positively serene way to spend a Saturday afternoon. As we strolled back to the car and I prepared to return my feet to more familiar surroundings – nothing elevates the soul quite like cheaply-made branded sports shoes – we agreed that if the food was that good at lunchtime, it must be worth coming back to have a go at an evening meal. Though I fear that in addition to sensible footwear, this might necessitate a pair of decent trousers too.
Clearly, I’m a changed man. It seems I’ll now do anything for my hibiscus gel fix.
What: The Lawns at Thornton Hall Hotel & Spa
Where: Neston Road, Thornton Hough, Wirral
More info: www.thorntonhallhotel.com
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