It's probably all my fault, I am the pickiest of eaters and I am the most anxious of formal restaurant service. As a result I think we probably put fine dining to one side, we would happily watch the world's most famous chefs knocking together miraculous plates of food on telly safe in the knowledge that we would never get to try it ourselves either because we didn't think our common palates would accommodate the exotic and intense flavours we knew existed as part of these dishes or we simply never thought we would have enough bunce to pay the bill at the end of the night. I think the real fear was that we would pay a lot of money to eat crazy combinations of flavours presented using super wacky techniques in an unwelcoming and stiff environment. Which wouldn't be fun.
Putting all of this to one side (with some lingering fears still in my mind) we set foot in a highly prestigious eatery just this week in the shape of Aumbry. It was an easy choice for us to pick Aumbry as our first steps in to fine dining, it is located just up the road in Prestwich, the menu is inspired by the more comforting elements of local produce and cuisine, it had been very well reviewed by some of our favourite bloggers and the Tuesday tasting menu is undoubtedly brilliant value. As backup we also took two friends who know their stuff when it comes to fine wine and top class food, if we were to commit any faux pas then they would have our back.
The route we took for the brisk walk to the restaurant from the tram stop was not a glamorous one and did involve us navigating between the Biffa bins behind Iceland but this may have been bad luck on our part. It didn't matter though because the freezing temperatures (combined with my panicked decision not to wear a jacket) meant the brisk walk was almost a full on jog and so before we knew it we were swooping through the door in to the warm glow of the Aumbry dining room. Coats being hung up (I just stood there shivering while this was happening) the waitress advised us that it was customary to pop upstairs for a 'cheeky' drink prior to eating. We happily obliged.
The restaurant itself is a converted cottage and so doorways, beams, floors, stairs and windows are all nestled together in a refreshingly higgledy piggledy fashion. On this dark evening the majority of light was coming either from candlelight or the harsh lights of the open kitchen pass, this was ideal for setting a lovely mood but not ideal for taking snaps so apologies in advance for a couple of dodgy images. That said we really liked the environment and that combined with a really warm, friendly welcome from the staff put us in good spirits. While perusing the menus a glass of cucumber water was delivered to our table along with a little plate of cheese gougeres. The water really helped to cleanse your mouth but in itself was quite a tasty refreshing drink and the gougeres was a perfect little appetiser that disappeared all too quickly. Sadly the Lambicus Blanche wasn't available so the gents had to take one of the more pedestrian bottled beers from the menu, it was a little surprising that there weren't more interesting local ales on offer when the wine list was so exhaustive and spanned the globe. As we were taking up the excellent offer of paired wines for the tasting menu the ladies didn't want to dabble in wine and so went for a refreshing Aumbry Fizz, a simple concoction of sparkling wine and sloe gin.
Drinks still in hand we giddily toddled back downstairs to the dining room and were seated slap bang in front of the kitchen, now some people might not have liked this as the light is a little harsh there, you are in a little bit of a thoroughfare and can hear/see the vast majority of goings on in the kitchen. Obviously we are massive nebheads (people who enjoy nebbing or being exceptionally nosy) and so we loved sitting there keeping out beady eyes on every morsel of food that was being manipulated by head chef and owner Mary-Ellen McTague in the small confines of their kitchen area. Something quite unexpected happened when we sat down. As our friend Beth sat on her chair there was a loud clattering of wood and she leapt back up to discover that a chunk of it had fallen off the bottom, not the leg but one of the supporting poles. Heads were turned and eyebrows were raised by a few of the patrons but we were pretty giddy at this point and so all we could do was laugh. The waitress was alerted who responded with sincere care for her well being first before joining us in seeing the funny side of it which was really really endearing, a new chair was sourced pretty quickly and we got on with our meal.
The amuse bouche consisted of a clever combination of delicately cubed root vegetables served alongside a super smooth savoury cream topped with the freshest of herbs. I couldn't tell you exactly what was in it as a curious symptom of these tasting menus is that they fly by and even by the end of the meal your brain struggles to reconcile the wild variety of flavours and ingredients that you have consumed. I can tell you that it was very nice and did it's job proudly setting us up for our starter. While I am making confessions I may as well say that I also will struggle to walk you through the paired wines that accompanied each dish, suffice to say that each wine served was an excellent partner for the associated dish and even to my untrained gob they stood out as quality wines.
Following on from the amuse bouche was a small plate of freshly baked bread accompanied by warm dripping. Now I had already enjoyed this as part of a great dining experience at the The Beagle (who not coincidentally worked with Mary-Ellen's husband Laurence Tottingham on the development of their menu) so I was prepared for a real treat. I don't really understand the process of making good dripping, in my head it is a very simple technique that leaves little room for failure or excellence. Well Aumbry are definitely doing something different because their dripping was outstanding, the richness of the flavour very nearly blew my head off. I should also mention that the bread and butters were also absolutely amazing, the whole thing was so good it tempted Jules off her vegetarian perch to eat the meat by-products with the rest of us. I've been proved wrong before but now I would like to firmly say that I don't think bread and dripping can get any better than this.
On to the next course of Bury Black Pudding Scotch Egg with Tomato Ketchup and Mushroom Relish. Black pudding is always a little bit of a gamble for me, if done badly it can be very dry and one dimensional. Not so here. It worked as both a hearty protective shell for a delicate runny egg yolk contained within as well as the delicious flesh hidden itself by the super crispy breaded exterior. I didn't need anything further as there was plenty of flavour contained within and it was certainly not dry but the relish and ketchup were a welcome addition which could be added or excluded from each mouthful.
Jules was following the pescetarian menu and so she received the Home Smoked Mackerel, with Roast Celeriac, Pickeled Beets and Mustard Cream. Somebody else had already put it in my head that Aumbry's smoked mackerel looked like a slug and I couldn't argue with that once it arrived, especially with the addition of a small saddle. In all honesty, like everything else, the dish was beautifully presented. Jules' eye lit up with every taste of this plate, the fish was delicate, the rye bread was super crunchy but not just there for texture as it had its own distinct flavour, the mustard cream added another dimension and Jules wanted particularly to point out how well the wine was matched.
The Field Mushroom Soup with English Truffle was up next. I've eaten soup before but I've rarely eaten it in restaurants, there always seems to be something more exciting happening elsewhere on the menu, the best soups I have ever experienced have either been homemade soups that are very rustic or those served as part of set menus further afield in Europe or South America. I've had good soup before but I've never ever had soup this good. The texture was unbelievable, people say food is like velvet but this soup must have had the rich textile substance as its primary ingredient, it was so satisfying. The flavour was sensational, very rich but never sickly or overbearing. I could have drunk a vat of this. Our friend told us that days later she would think of this soup and it would make her smile.
The main event appeared shortly after the soup bowls had been cleared, we were happy to see that the Slow Cooked Milk Fed Goat with Fresh Goats Curd, Cauliflower, Barley and Scotch Pine was a close relative of the dish Mary-Ellen had prepared as part of The Great British Menu which had aired just last week. The GBM version of the dish went down well with judges and fellow chefs alike and this similar dish didn't disappoint. It has a very earthy appearance which isn't any kind of trick as the dish itself is a very comforting combination of flavours and textures, the goat surprisingly being the most subtle element as it melted in the mouth. The crunch of the barley was a little abrasive but not in a bad way, it gave the dish a real bite and all the other flavours clung to the barley, it seemed to be the central part of the dish. A brilliant plate of food and not insubstantial in any way, a really worthy main course.
Jules' menu once again diverted to a pescetarian option in the form of Poached Hake with Red Cabbage, Radish, Clams & Mussels. Jules said this was an absolutely gorgeous dish from beginning to end, each element was lovely and light with just the right amount of crunch in the cabbage. The only weakness was that the wine pairing of a Riesling was the least appropriate of all them, it overpowered the subtlety of the rest of the dish and so it was put to one side for a few minutes and enjoyed afterwards.
We started the meal in a giddy fashion and spirits were still high, each dish brought an exciting new contrasting set of flavours so now we were heading in to the home straight we didn't want it to end. A cheese board was offered and we snapped it up to share between us, we didn't want to over indulge but we wanted more of those fine flavours! The cheese board was brilliantly put together, each cheese really had its own character and with the more than generous chutney dollops in the middle of the board you could move between them without it turning in to one big mixed cheese taste. The highlight for me being the Brother David's which we would be tasting again just a few days later and can be ordered from the lovely people at Cartmel Cheeses.
There was one more magic trick up the proverbial sleeve of Aumbry in the shape of a Grapefruit Posset with Celery Granita and Sherbert. Possets along with grapefruit flavours are once again, like the traditional soup, not normally something that comes close to blowing my skirt up but by eck Aumbry managed to knock my socks off. The first taste is the spoon of sherbert which is hoofed in to your mouth before you tuck in to the posset. The two layers of posset are divine, the granita was crunchy and refreshing and a huge contrast, when combined, with the creamy, almost custardey, grapefruit posset hidden beneath. Its worth mentioning that Jules adored the presentation of this dish in the tea cups.
Unfortunately at this moment we realised there was a real and present danger of us missing our last tram of the night meaning the aforementioned Iceland owned Biffa bins would become our shelter for the night. As a result we had to pay the bill, grab our petit four and jackets before running off to get the tram. A slightly undignified end to the evening but we were still on a high as we ran through the frozen Prestwich streets that it mattered not a jot.
Let me just sum up the food. On this night I enjoyed the best soup I had ever tasted and the best bread and dripping I had ever tasted alongside dishes that would easily rank as some of the best food I have ever tasted, there was not moment when I thought the food was anything short of fantastic. The consistency of quality was astonishing and with each dish I found myself thinking "I wish I could just carry on eating more of this" only to take it back when the next plate arrived. Accompanying this fine food was a really great selection of fine wines, as I always say I'm not a wine expert but I can still appreciate good pairings, for me they didn't put a foot wrong with the wines.
I haven't mentioned the service that much yet, possibly my greatest fear within fine dining is that the service is stuffy and that means I can't enjoy my meal no matter how good the food is. I am happy to say that Aumbry have three of the best waitresses I have had the pleasure to meet. They all struck a great balance between being professional and knowledgeable while at the same time coming across as genuinely wanting to put you at ease and make sure you have a great time, they weren't afraid for their own personalities to come out which made them so much more human than any of your gruff hipsters usually found in Manchester or your chain restaurant workers passively following a well learnt script. Now I do have to mention that Aumbry also had a fourth waitress on the floor who wasn't as much of a delight to be served by. She looked distinctly unhappy to be there (Jules has informed me that I am not allowed to use the phrase 'face like a smacked arse' so I will refrain) and even snapped at us when we asked a question about the wine while she was still pouring it. She didn't take the shine off the evening I just have no idea what she is doing there along side those other great human beings. The only other blip service wise was that they really struggled to deal with one of our friends dietary requirements of a mild nut and dairy allergy. Only one alternate dish was offered, the rest was just the same dishes with the absence of the dairy/nuts (so incomplete in my eyes) and one dish was even served with the dairy by accident with the waitress skipping over to inform us once David had already started tucking in. Oooops. Neither of these two hiccups really damaged our enjoyment of the experience but are probably things to watch out for in the future.
So our first steps in to fine dining couldn't have gone any better. None of my worst fears were realised, the environment was warm and friendly, the food was familiar and comforting with just a real step up in sophistication and actually this was one of the best value meals we have ever eaten with the tasting menu coming in at £25 plus another £22 for the paired wines. It was an absolutely brilliant experience from beginning to end and I cannot wait to return for the full menu later in the year. I am sure one day I will find one of those fine dining establishments that I fear so much and I will be horribly disappointed and I will return to my cheap eats and my street food and my simple home cooking but for now I'm thoroughly converted. With a visit to the slightly more challenging and less familiar environment of the two Michelin starred restaurant L'Enclume just two days later I was about to find out how long my passion for fine dining would continue.
Special thanks to David Crayon for taking photos that don't look like they were taken in an unlit cave and sharing them with us.