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Restaurant review: Belle Epoque, Knutsford

Deanna Thomas finds Knutsford’s famous restaurant a florid delight

Published on December 2nd 2010.

Restaurant review: Belle Epoque, Knutsford

THERE was a time in Europe between the late 19th century and the beginning of the First World War that came to be known as the ‘Belle Epoque’ or ‘Beautiful Era’. Champagne was perfected, exotic fruit was first grown in heated glass houses and posh Parisian restaurants served haute cuisine to the upper classes who wanted to hang out and be seen.

My husband chose saddle of deer with crispy Wiltshire pork (£17.50). He’d been saying “BelleEpoqueBelleEpoque BelleEpoque” in the car, so was well in the mood for some ‘belly pork’ by the time we got there.

So who would be the modern equivalent of these rich, high-living gadabouts? In these current belt-tightening times, who earns huge amounts of cash seemingly disproportionate to effort?

Footballer’s maybe? Soap actors? Property developers? Quite naturally, such meanderings bring us to Cheshire. The local high-flyers may tend to prefer hanging out in trendier Alderley Edge or Hale these days, but far more lovely Knutsford has a couple of gems that are worth a visit.

The Belle Epoque has been owned and run by two generations of the Mooney family for over 35 years. The restaurant is housed in an extraordinary building created in 1907 by Manchester glove merchant Richard Harding Watt. He was like a magpie, collecting redundant architectural gems from demolition contractors and using them to creating new buildings. The courtyard part of the Belle Epoque even includes two pillars that used to belong to the original St Peter’s Church in Manchester.

Inside is just as eclectic, housing more opulent marble pillars and life sized figurines holding oversized plants. The mixture of gothic and modern decor sets the scene for a theatrical dining experience. With deep cerise pink walls, thick drapes and dark oak beams, think Marilyn Monroe meets Marilyn Manson and they go into interior design.

Guests are encouraged to relax first in front of the art nouveau fireplace. A few of the other tables had ordered champagne but we stuck to a gin (£3.10) and tonic (£1.50) and a pint of Kalten beer (£4) to start with. Anyway, it illustrates that this seems to be more of a special occasion place than an everyday restaurant.

The menu was one of the best I’d seen for a while. Mostly classical French dishes but with light modern influences such as the use of lemongrass and pickled ginger here and there. There is also a section headed ‘From the Grill’ which includes various steaks (£19.95-£23.95), local lamb and fish. The menu mentions that all steaks are locally sourced from certified Cheshire farms and aged for a minimum of 21 days.

To start with, I chose soup landaise (£7.50) described as a white bean soup, foie gras, confit duck, ham hock and truffle, so I had no idea how it was going to be presented. This dish was not a looker but it did have a great personality. The beans were blended into the soup producing a thick, rich, brown base from which my spoon would randomly discover one of the submerged edible treasures.

The rabbit galantine with apricots, pickled girolles, carrot and roasted pine nuts (£7.95) was much prettier but arrived cold, straight from the fridge, so tasted of nothing. It’s just a shame that such a delicate dish, so painstakingly crafted had fallen at the last post, when all it needed was 30 seconds under the hot lights of the kitchen pass to bring out its best.

For my main course, I chose Tasting of Glynn Arthur farm Welsh lamb (£18.50) which consisted of several cuts cooked in various ways. It came with a little story. Mrs Mooney told me that the farmer was a bright young lad who used to work at Belle Epoque

as a kitchen porter. He phoned her up years later after marrying a lady sheep farmer and now supplies their lovingly reared meat exclusively to the Belle Epoque. The individual shepherd’s pie came in a cute copper pan and had a touch of the school dinners about it. The poached cannon was my favourite over the very herby slow cooked shoulder which is not something that re-heats well if made in advance.

My husband chose saddle of deer with crispy Wiltshire pork (£17.50). He’d been saying “BelleEpoqueBelleEpoqueBelleEpoque” in the car, so was well in the mood for some ‘belly pork’ by the time we got there. Unfortunately the skin wasn’t crispy and the pork meat not meltingly tender but the venison main feature was perfectly cooked and the Madeira jus excellent.

The international wine list boasted a wide range of well-priced bottles starting from £17.50 with a few more fancy ones. After wrestling the wine list away from my husband (why do they always give it to the man?) I’d decided on a Beaujolais Villages 2009, (£19.95) because it was described as very versatile in terms of food choices and it was.

The portions had been reasonably generous so we weren’t really bothered about dessert but for review purposes, we ploughed on.

I went for seasonal parkin with ice cream. It was ok, but maybe too gutsy to be the main player. Parkin can be heavy going and oats tend to leach all the moisture out of your mouth leaving it sticking to the roof. Husband fared better with a well balanced rhubarb and apple crumble which was good so we overlooked the oversweet over-runny custard.

Together with side-orders of beef-dripping chips and French beans, the bill for two came to £101.90. This is pretty much what I’d expect from a place like this, each dish had several components made from top quality ingredients - though they do offer a market menu from Monday-Thursday with two courses for £13.95.

The service was slick and professional - the front of house manager had been there over 25 years. Nowadays, restaurants are opening and closing like Kate Middleton’s wardrobe door, so what is the secret of keeping a successful restaurant open for 35 years? Is it the food? The ambience? Staff loyalty? I’m not sure, but it looks like the Mooney family have the recipe.

Breakdown:7.5/10 food
4/5 service
4/5 ambience
Address:Belle Epoque
King Street
WA16 6DT
01565 632661

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

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