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Restaurant review - Fraiche: Catch a rising star

Fraiche is Merseyside's brightest hope when it comes to landing that elusive Michelin star. AA Grill finds out if it really does stand out from the rest

Published on September 22nd 2010.


Restaurant review - Fraiche: Catch a rising star

THE anguished quest for just one Michelin star, never mind the holy grail that holds all three, by Merseyside’s male-dominated army of chefs, reminds me of a charming children’s story frequently demanded by my three-year-old.

How To Catch A Star tells of a boy who loved stars very much and wished he had one of his very own. The boy waited and waited for one to come his way. Lunch came and went, but no star. Dinner, still no star . . .

You can see where I’m going with this, although how many of the region’s restaurants are cheffed by little boys crying for approval, you can judge. Not me. Oh, no, there are a lot of mean-looking mothers in those kitchens, with all-too-easy access to the meat cleavers.

It’s a frustrating business trying to impress the Michelin crowd. They never announce themselves, never tell you what you need to earn a lone star, other than to be “a very good restaurant”.The tyre manufacturers and self-appointed culinary know-it-alls have never considered Merseyside to be worthy of the award. Simply Heathcotes got close, ish, with a Bib Gourmand granted by Michelin for good quality food at good value prices.

But no, even the capital of culture elect, with its hundreds of restaurants and no few egos annually throwing up their hands and wondering what else they have to do, has yet to catch a star. Plenty of litter, but no glitter for Liverpool.

The chef jumping higher than any other on Merseyside – stardust staining his fingertips – is Marc Wilkinson, chef patron of Fraiche, a not-surprisingly French restaurant in Oxton.

Wilkinson’s food impressed the Michelin mandarins enough to grant him Rising Star status in 2006. That usually guarantees the real thing next time round but, in 2007, he got the same again. Quite an accolade but Wilkinson was said to be fed up.

Just before our incognito visit to Fraiche we were told, by one who should know, that Wilkinson was expecting us. Thus a prickly ethical issue stared us, eyebrows raised, in the face: he would be prepared, have the advantage on his rivals, compromise our judgement.We nearly called it off but Fraiche is a small outfit, a dozen or so tables and narrow profit margins. We had cancelled once already, at late notice, and we couldn’t do it to them again. After all, it wasn’t their fault they knew.

So we went. But at least now you know, in case anybody should sidle up in a tut-tut-tittle-tattle kind of way and say “oh, do you know, they knew, and, "ooh, it’s not right”. You know what people are like.

Oxton is part of Birkenhead but wishes it wasn’t. Leafy, well to do; a little place best known previously for educating the woman who would become Hyacinth Bucket.

Inside, Fraiche is bright and uncomplicated, leather and suede, artwork on the walls, but the mood rather sombre, a place of worship - “stop that sniggering, and pay attention”.

My companion was edgy on arrival. Would they covertly monitor our every cough and spit? And me with a cold coming on. We knew they knew, but we didn’t know if they knew we knew they knew. It was never discussed – such vulgarity would be frowned upon at

Fraiche which, one suspects, does not welcome hen parties, unless the hens in question are slaughtered and plucked (isn’t that what hen parties are for?).

My recollection of the food is somewhat sketchy. Next day, no connection, I went down with a week-long lurgy of the body and brain. And so much to remember. Not a meal but a beauty pageant, each dish a synthesis of taste, tone, shape and structure. Modern French with elements of molecular gastronomy, this is food as art.

Aperitifs with toasted, salted broad beans (no more dry roasted peanuts for me, unless I’m really drunk), three tiny lollipops, one a dinky, round cheese on toast; six lovely breads, one tasting of maple and shaped like a shard of broken glass, and all baked in-house.Along came red mullet with tomato water, foie gras with extract of pistachio, a pesto sorbet. Mains were Loire slow-cooked guinea fowl, dry poached to an even, moist finish, with hazelnut dressing and lime extract, and a perfect fillet of sea bream, with Claremont Farm asparagus in top tip condition.

Pudding included tiramisu served in two parts, first the dish in miniature, each element laid on a strip of rice paper then sprayed, at table, with amaretto. Gimmicky, but impressive, and when the unabridged version followed it was stunning.

The waitresses played their part in the night’s performance. Slips of girls, the two dressed identically, begged to please identically. The Stepford Waifs.

Young Gemma, still a teen, valiantly held up the front of house. She knew everything about her boss: every detail of his food, every thought that went into the decor, “this represents the moon and the stars, this the view from Marc’s home”, all his CDs. Paul Anka was singing a swing version of Eye of the Tiger, as I strongly suspect he was the day the Michelin judge decided not to upgrade the chef.

Whether there is sufficient ingenuity in the mix to land that star next year is Michelin’s call but Wilkinson is doing something that no-one else is on Merseyside: preparing haute cuisine, technically flawless and with a good deal of panache. For that alone, he deserves to be cheered around the dining room in a sedan chair – even if polite applause might suit him better.

How To Catch A Star is by Oliver Jeffers. Buy it if you want to please an infant or gain insight into the wretched mind of a glory-hunting head chef.

*Despite what it says at the top, this review was written in 2007. Fraiche went on to win a Michelin star in January 2009, which it still retains.

Rating: 17/20
Breakdown: 9.5/10 Food
4.5/5 Service
3/5 Atmosphere
Three course dinner £36 each. Total bill £156.
Address: Fraiche
11 Rosemount Oxton
Wirral
0151 652 2914

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7 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

GordoJune 1st 2007.

Lots of good reports on this place, I am going to publish this on ManchesterConfidential.com as well, it appears to be well worth the journey. I will swap you the Juniper review angie -) ....

robroyfingerheadJune 1st 2007.

Mr Grill - many thanks for your detailed explanation!

AnonymousJune 1st 2007.

The food in here is stunning and like you say, in a league of its own on Merseyside. Marc Wilkinson sets the standard here and it's actually not too expensive, £36 a head. But then we live in Birkenhead so we're lucky a bit

chris mellorJune 1st 2007.

so did I. The food was amazing but the atmosphere was a bit cold. I felt we had to speak in hushed tones.

DanJune 1st 2007.

I went to Fraiche once

AA GrillJune 1st 2007.

You might have a finger for a head, and you clearly have a head for figures. In fact, £72 is the price for a standard three course dinner for two. Anything else is extra in this case a half decent bottle of wine, aperitifs, the cheese board, coffees and petits fours. You might call this greed, I call it being thorough on your behalf. I didn’t mention everything we had because there just wasn’t the room – I am already told I have too much to say for myself. For the record, and since you bring it up, the cheese, from a Chester supplier, was excellent, coffees were not, petits fours were pretty scrummy and gin and tonics were, well, gin and tonics. So now you know.

robroyfingerheadJune 1st 2007.

£72 for the dinners, £156 for the final bill - that's some service charge!

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