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Restaurant review: Wizards of Odd

AA Grill finds the former Malmaison double act conjuring up their kitchen magic just down the end of the Wirral line, at Oddfellows

Published on January 14th 2010.

Restaurant review: Wizards of Odd

I WAS off to check on a couple of blokes who only a little while ago were making Liverpool start to think it was well off for good food. And then, before we could get used to the idea, they buggered off.

There was a reasonable chance I was going to break government sensible drinking guidelines so I gave the car the night off and caught the 17.52 to Chester with a straggle of commuters and a group of teenagers whose combination of low intelligence and an utter inability to be embarrassed reminded me of chimps in a zoo whose method of alleviating the tedium of captivity has traumatised coachloads of Townswomen’s Guild members through the ages.

With a shared passion for cooking and swearing, Bennett and Wright briefly served up the best restaurant food, and the worst language, in the city

The chumps were sat behind me so I couldn’t see their faces and, more importantly, they couldn’t see mine. If I gave you a sample of their conversation, Liverpool Confidential’s Friday email would end up enmeshed in a thousand profanity filters.

As planet-friendly public transport experiences go, it was a great advert for drink driving. A pity, too, because there is a brilliant direct service from Liverpool. From Chester station it’s a brisk 10-15 minute walk or grab a cab for a couple of quid to breach the Roman walls.

Chester’s social scene has been needing new blood. Apart from a few quaint old pubs and the Arkle restaurant, all that’s changed since Sextus Julius’s time is that some killjoy decided to move the lions out of the amphitheatre and into the zoo.

But a little recent entrepreneurial endeavour has brought the 21st century to Chester in the shape of developments like the £2.6m 'boutique' nightclub Cruise, a network of bars and dance floors with a capacity for 1,550 people, and Chester Racecourse’s two-tiered, glass-fronted Restaurant 1539.

Among the newcomers is an old-fashioned sounding place. Oddfellows is the result of a £3.25m transformation of a down-at-heel former services club into a complex of hotel rooms, champagne bar, private members lounge, (the Alice) tea room, brasserie and a la carte restaurant. From a table and chairs clinging to the ceiling of the tea room, to the mad jumble of styles in the members lounge, the eccentricity is inevitably bought in, but mostly achieved with taste and good humour, and kept in check by the fine windows and wood panelling of the original Georgian manor house.

Mark Bennett is in charge of the food, having made his name at the Malmaison in Manchester, and as he bedded in the Mal’s Liverpool brasserie. It was in Liverpool that Mancunian Bennett pinched Andy Wright, a Scouser, from the city’s Simply Heathcotes, a move that – unsurprisingly – rankled with Wright’s old bosses. With a shared passion for cooking and swearing, Bennett and Wright briefly served up the best restaurant food, and the worst language, in the city (you could even pay extra to watch them on CCTV).

Now Bennett has pinched him again, and trusts him enough to have put him in charge of the restaurant. Bennett, meanwhile is concentrating his efforts on the brasserie which has been going down a storm with the Chester public.

A smallish restaurant menu, with nothing so plebeian as steak and chips, and fish making up three of the six mains, is keen to be taken seriously. Starched white linen and waiters deftly dropping napkins into your lap reinforce the impression that Oddfellows is after a piece of the Arkle’s action.

The room looks the part: more of those elegant panels painted a period shade of blue-grey, windows looking on to Broadgate and a chandelier whose style is cramped by the giant mock shade – filled with images of cinema icons – that encircles it. One eccentricity too many.

At three courses for £39.50, the bread could have been better but the butter, rich and creamy with a hint of salt, couldn’t. A tantalising appetiser comprised a morsel of lovely ham hock terrine – you can have (a lot) more of it as a starter in the brasserie – sandwiched between a disc of brioche and a daub of nice fig chutney.

Grilled scallops with crisp, air dried ham and braised fennel, were beyond reproach, ditto an accompanying red wine reduction. Saddle of rabbit had been roasted, not too much, with a little black pudding, spinach, thyme, a dot of this and a dash of that, and served up with a wild mushroom farce and slivers of vegetables that had me drooling happily.

I have to be pretty confident to order fish in a British restaurant. I normally do so purely from a sense of duty. We are surrounded by the damned things, permanently, but for every restaurant that has presented me with a decent fish, there are a dozen that didn’t. Wild, line-caught sea bass had a flavour that the farmed variety never could and came with mussels, clams and a sweet-natured, lip-smackingly gorgeous saffron broth.

Brilliant organic loin of cod was presented with a crisp pancetta slice, pureed minted peas, melting button onions and fennel veloute. The fish had seemingly been timed to finish cooking at the moment it was placed on the table – not a second more, not a second less. It looked like a pure-white marble sculpture, too good to be true. Dead fish as still life. If there was a glossy mag for fish fetishists, it would have graced the cover (“you like sexy gills?”).

I don’t normally approve of mucking with cheesecake, but an English rhubarb variety with ginger snap biscuits was very good. British and French cheeses came with biscuits rather than the advertised fruit bread, and more of that fig chutney. None was less than good but a tangy, ripe Blackstick Blue gave victory to the English by a good nose.

The bar and brasserie were bouncing while for much of the night upstairs it was just us and the waiters. That will surely change once the word gets around. A couple of days after we were in, a man from the Michelin guide poked his head round the door. He wasn’t there to eat, but doubtless will do some time soon.

I’m thinking they might require a little more innovation if they want him to part with one of his precious stars, and then I learn that dandelion and burdock features on a new menu, so who knows?

Meantime, I might not follow Bennett and Wright to the ends of the earth but I’ll happily go to the end of the Wirral line. Just as soon as someone puts those bloody chumps in Chester Zoo.

Breakdown:9/10 Food
4.5/5 Service
3.5/5 Ambience
Address: Oddfellows
20 Lower Bridge Street
01244 400001

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

Mr. GarrickJune 27th 2008.

Ah, but who would bother to visit Chester, a "city" that recently demolished its only professional theatre and has no plans to replace it? To compound its Philistinism, the narrow pavements are clogged with rude, ‘mockney’-speaking chumps using mobile phones.

GordoJune 27th 2008.

Well well shifty! i shall have to pay you back :-)

AnonymousJune 27th 2008.

It's a shame that these two aren't in Liverpool any more but I did track them down in Chester a few weeks ago and have to say that it's a good reason to get on the train there (and they have a Habitat there, which Liverpool One still hasn't managed to pull off)! A very nice restaurant indeed.

shiftyJune 27th 2008.

let me know if you need a shifty dining partner after not coming to my Sommelier wine tasting!

GordoJune 27th 2008.

Interesting review this Grill. That mark is a tricky bast**d at the best of times mind, 'organic cod loin?' my arse. Get practising Bennett, I have just come back from Joel Robuchon in Paris, two stars and a Menu at 55 Euros... You had better be on form when I get there. And don't be expecting me to be boning chickens out for you either. AND,tell young White to get his finger out.

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