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Restaurant review: Fairway to heaven

Has Birkdale has got more going for it than golf? Definitely yes, says AA Grill, after finding an ace in Michael Wichmann's restaurant

Published on January 14th 2010.

Restaurant review: Fairway to heaven

For some, opening a restaurant is a business opportunity; the kitchen an assembly line of pan-fried sole without the soul.

Or, worse, it’s an ambition fulfilled. Once, we all believed we had a good book in us. Now, we all think we’ve got a good cook in us.

Wrong. On both counts. Vanity catering is loaded with as many duds as vanity publishing, turning out the same clichés, the same badly crafted characters: the big-breasted bird with lots of sauce but no taste; the hunk of beef, devoid of personality, and the last thing you want to share a restaurant table with.

The difference is you can waste £5.99 on a duff novel, but the last bad meal we ate set us back a hundred quid.

Many are called, few are chosen. Enter Michael Wichmann who, as it happens, is not backwards in coming forwards. A regular radio broadcaster, he has honed his culinary talents around the world, notably at the Savoy and the Intercontinental in London, and the Michelin-starred La Truffe in Frankfurt, a couple of hours’ drive from his Black Forest birthplace.

His first solo venture, Michael’s, is in Birkdale, an affluent district of Southport and chosen for its proximity to a championship golf course where the chef-proprietor swaps the cast iron for the nine iron. “A good wok spoiled,” Mark Twain might not have said.

Michael’s is a low-key, low-fuss operation. Tables, with a maximum 28 covers, are laid out in a squareish room, with bar, at the front and off down a long, narrow, but by no means claustrophobic, side room. White-painted brick walls, stripped floors, wicker chairs and local artwork complete the job.

Bread and a herb and red pepper dipping sauce to begin and then, wham, the best scallops ever. A generous half dozen of the beauties, sweet and succulent. Consummate molluskular gastronomy. They came with lovely tabbouleh and balsamic-dressed, locally-supplied wild rocket, all singing from the same sheet. Twangy approved the duck spring roll, crisp and dry, cut into cross sections, bathing in “light and delicate” hoi sin dressing.

We grabbed a glass of house white apiece and wished we hadn’t. A vapid vin de pays, it is the only house choice across red, white and rose. A bottle of Castlegreve Chianti Classico cheered us a little but the list needs work if it’s to do justice to the food.

Among the mains it was good to see rare breed pork. Not so good to see chicken that was corn fed but not free range: Flavour 1 Compassion 0.

Fine, roasted Scottish venison loin, pinky, perky, and shaped, with German precision, into a neat rectangle, crowned a sumptuous potato and celeriac rosti and creamed savoy cabbage. Not forgetting a good redcurrant sauce and three-centimetre strip of crispy pancetta – small is beautiful.

Rump of Forest of Bowland lamb came with a "proper" red wine reduction and, happily, had been allowed to keep a little of the fat that gave the meat its sweet, intense flavour. Sauteed spinach, wild mushrooms ("full of flavour") and a creamy, scrummy, painstakingly-constructed square of dauphinois made excellent companions.

We did a bit of swapping (I gather they like that kind of thing in Birkdale) and so it came to pass that the loin lay down with the lamb and all was peace and joy in our lives. “Mmm, nice rump!” I exclaimed, narrowly avoiding a diplomatic incident, the Twang pacified only when she realised that the sheep, not the waitress, was the object of my desire.

What sets this menu apart is the role, rooted in Wichmann’s classical French training, of vegetables. Not an afterthought, they are employed with diligence and imagination, complementing and adding to the plate.

Any restaurant that makes you pay an extra six quid for your veg is a rip-off merchant. Any chef who serves every meal with “a selection of fresh vegetables” is doing half a job. If you don’t understand this, open a buffet.

For pud, crème brulee, whose beautiful simplicity is ruined by cooks who can’t resist a twist. Twits. Real cooks don’t mess with crème brulee. Raspberries go well with it, not in it. This one was stunning, only improved by – on the side – a gorgeous raspberry coulis.

Twangy had chocolate fondant after being warned it would take 15 minutes to make. The result, “light as air”, she would have waited forever for, had it not been for our Cinderella deadline. At least we’d had a ball.

Wichmann is not only blessed with The Gift but is a nice fellow; enough to allow certain diners, a weeny the worse for drink, to patronise him and suggest where he might like to purchase his chicken in future, without suggesting in return that they (and their chickens) get stuffed.

My only other gripe was the listing of a Dom Perignon at an irritating £99.95. Where were we, Dixons? I’d gladly pay the extra five pence to avoid this assault on my blood pressure; my doctor says it’s bad for me.

Funnily enough, my doctor is a fan of Wichmann’s cooking. He also, not very funnily, suffered a heart attack last year. I trust these two facts are not, in any way, related.

The doc would probably advise against this sort of food on a regular basis. Sod that. If the means were available, I would dine at Michael’s every night for the rest of my, probably rather brief, life.

Score: 17/20

Price: Three course meal for two, including wine, aperitifs, water and coffee, £85.10.

AA Grill

47 Liverpool Road
PR8 4AG.

Tel: 01704 550886.

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AA Grill's DoctorMarch 2nd 2007.

I am indeed a great fan of Michael's cooking and can assure readers that it had nothing to do with certain cardiac events affecting me. Seeing that Michael and my forebears come from the German region of Baden which undoubtedly has the best cuisine and the best wines in Germany I would wish this to be reflected a bit more in the menu and wine list. Nevertheless, this is definitely the local restaurant by appointment of the German Consulate in Liverpool, I would be more than happy to entertain the German ambassador there when he comes to Liverpool this autumn.

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