Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Fraiche, Wirral

There are not too many things that keep me up late on a humdrum midwinter weeknight any more. And yet there I was, burning the midnight oil, poised with laptop and credit card in hand, trying to grab a table at Marc Wilkinson’s bijou, and extremely popular restaurant, Fraiche.

With a mere fifteen covers a night from Wednesday to Saturday, and a Sunday lunch service, reservations (even with a £25 per head deposit) are snapped up almost instantly when the books are opened at the beginning of each month. Fortunately my compromised night’s sleep was not in vain and we soon had our booking for the Ewing’s birthday, a mere three and a half months later.

The danger of customers waiting long to enjoy a meal there is not lost on the chef, with the extra pressure from such expectation pushing him to experiment with yet more flavour pairings and new techniques in the kitchen. With many of his fruit and veg grown to order on the Wirral, butter imported from France and olive oil from Italy, and a kitchen crammed full of Willy Wonka-esque gadgets, expectations and excitement were running high.

Wilkinson, still holder of Merseyside’s only Michelin star, is known as something of an obsessive perfectionist in the kitchen. Each day he orders all the food and wine for the restaurant, and plans all the menus; and each night he toils alone behind the scenes to produce multiple courses of his classic French food with a modern twist. A recent Valentine’s feast took three days to prepare for just one evening and admits that his bedtime reading is less Delia and Gordon and more Ramon Morato and Paco Torreblanca.

Our dinner started rather modestly with a dish of spiced pecans and a glass of manzanilla sherry. I had read the atmosphere could be muted, or even awkward, but during our visit the background music (the new Laura Mvula album, and, slightly less welcome, Michael Buble among the easy listening offerings) was pitched at just the right level to drown out our inane chatter for the benefit of the surrounding tables, while still keeping things cosy and intimate. With only five tables in the place, and only three filled on our visit, the joint's never going to be jumping, but there is a genuine warmth and homeliness in the room.

Each evening's menu is set for all diners, with the only choice being between 'salt' and 'sweet' to finish the meal. Salt included a visit from the 'cheese chariot' and another little savoury course, while sweet was a selection of three desserts. Hearing the word chocolate was enough to persuade The Ewing to chose the sweet option, I erred at first, but - knowing that she wouldn't share - decided to join her, lest either of us got pudding envy.

While I wasn't at all disappointed with our choice, seeing the magnificent cheeses - one of the finest selections I've seen - being wheeled past to the adjoining table did make me feel a little pang of dairy envy.

A little palate cleanser came in the form of a cucumber granita with pineapple and mint, a spritely combination of flavours made tableside with a thermos of dry ice by maitre d', James. Apart from the visual spectacle the thing I found most impressive was the finely diced fruit and veg in the bottom of the dish. Such tiny pieces, cut with such symmetrical precision, already demonstrating the single minded dedication to perfection from the kitchen.

Another pre starter of plump vividly orange mussels in a deep crustacean rich broth, peppered with cubes of citrusy yuzu jelly, soon followed. The little bowl, shaped like a fragile sea urchin shell, mirrored the dish's subtle delicacy.

Our 'starter' proper was a glorious Spanish omelette with quails egg and chorizo, although this was a country mile away from a backstreet barrio in Iberia. The deconstructed dish saw a creamy light custard, topped with little cheesey croutons, hiding a soft quails egg (deftly transferred to the Ewing's dish) and cubes of paprika-spiked sausage jelly in it's foamy, sweet onion infused depths.

Bread was served over two courses in a dizzying eight different varieties which, as I pointed out to the Ewing later, outnumbered the patrons in the restaurant on our visit. As I have confessed before, I am a confirmed bread-a-holic, and my picks of the bunch were a black olive loaf with a gentle metallic edge, a cloud-like little cheese roll and an earthy sweet granary and treacle number.

As much as the Ewing appreciated the bread, I think she saw it more as a vehicle for the cow's butter, scattered with Hawaiian pink salt, and the perfect disc of a pearly white goat's butter that were served alongside.

The next course, a dish of salt baked kohlrabi with wild garlic, feta jelly, potato, perigord truffle and watercress wafer, tasted like the start of summer and was the second showing of this unusual brassica I had encountered in as many days. The flavours on the plate mined both the earthiness of the tubers and the freshness of the allium and again cleverly proved that meat and fish do not always make the dish.

The wild turbot, possibly my favourite fish, with asparagus and dashi was light and fresh, with a lovely smokiness from charred wheat - something that put me in mind of unsweetened Sugar Puffs. The dish, while clean and delicate, was a little mild mannered for my tastes, and I really needed a spoon to scoop up the dregs of umami rich broth.

The main event was Black Faced Suffolk lamb with leeks and artichoke. Despite the encroaching fullness, this disappeared pretty quickly. The gently gamey meat had been cooked expertly two ways - low and slow and grilled pink - but my highlights were the charred leeks and sweet melting onion in a sticky pool of gravy.

The first of our three deserts was what has become a bit of a signature dish, lemongrass panna cotta with sour cherry and dehydrated grapes. This was a perfect balance of smooth, sharp and creamy, and all heady with sweet tropical perfume. The Ewing loved it  and while flavour of lemongrass usually makes me think of those little scented hand wipes you get with fried chicken, this time I had to agree with her.

This was followed with another Fraiche favourite, fizzy grapes that burst with a tongue-tingling effervescence in your mouth. The Ewing was also particularly enamoured with these, and I breezily assured her that I could knock up something similar when we got home - until it was explained that the effect was achieved by placing them in an air compressor, which, when they're released, causes them to burst and fizz. Looks like they're going to have to remain a memory until I get that compression unit, then.

The first pudding was a rhubarb soup, sorbet with sesame wafer. I can't think of many things I love as much as rhubarb, (me! - TE) and this was a perfect showcase of its tart and fragrant charms. The Ewing was particularly captivated by the freeze dried strawberries, which we were told were an element refined just that afternoon. (I would say perfected, but somehow I'm not sure Wilkinson would ever be satisfied enough to stop developing a dish.)

The final desert saw this sparkly little number arrive at our table; a white chocolate mousse with passion fruit curd, glittery coffee meringues, chocolate 'soil' and some obligatory popping candy for good measure. 

This, to me, was the essence of a good pud; lots of little beautiful and interesting things, balanced perfectly between sweet and sour. The only slightly awkward note came from the silver leaf 'spoon' provided to eat it with; the Ewing somehow managing to sprinkle more of her dish across the table than she managed to scoop into her mouth.

Never one to turn down yet more sugary treats, the Ewing was very excited at the prospect of petit fours and coffee to round off the meal. Unsurprisingly they didn't disappoint; pick of the bunch was a shot glass of earl grey scented tapioca with an apricot compote. We were also treated to popcorn lollipops, homemade marshmallows and a selection of salted Amedei, and lemon and raspberry filled chocolates.

Yes, the decor is rather beige and brown and a bit suburban, but it also feels personal (Wilkinson chose it) which is rather a good thing in this fast paced, oh so trendy, restaurant world. And while your socks might not be knocked of by the muted decor, the food certainly paints the town red. 

Fraiche on Urbanspoon


  1. Amy! You can make fizzy grapes in a whipping siphon. I can get Jamie to e-mail you the exact process if you want to do it :) They are (I imagine) a fair bit cheaper than an air compressor.

    Really want to go here - wanted to take Jamie for his birthday but couldn't get a table :(

    Thanks for giving me serious food envy ;) x

  2. Yes, a recipe would be great, thanks! (not that I have a whipping siphon, either. Yet...)
    It's well worth the faff trying to get a table, top evening x