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Great British Menu 2019: Northern Ireland recap

Great British Menu 2019: Northern Ireland recap

by Howard Middleton 11 May 2019

The last regional heat before finals week showcases the culinary talent of Northern Ireland – Howard Middleton lets us know what happened.

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Few things in life make you feel quite so old as when Great British Menu’s ‘veteran’ chef is barely thirty. Tommy Banks had a Michelin star by the age of twenty-four and has twice achieved success on the show in getting his fish courses to the banquet. Now he shows he can easily give the old guard a run for its money – presenting a fresh, unfussy interpretation of the judge’s role, whilst still performing his contractual obligations of pacing in the corridor, shuffling the score cards and looking inscrutably pensive.

Tommy welcomes newcomers to the competition, Chris McClurg and Alex Greene. Both originally from County Down, now working as head chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants, Chris is at Paul Ainsworth’s No.6 in Padstow and Alex is at Deanes Eipic in Belfast.

Missing out on the judges’ chamber this week was another newbie, Glen Wheeler from Fermanagh who is chef=patron of the Michelin-recommended 28 Darling Street in Enniskillen. Glen’s kitchen stint ended on a high with his near-perfect Champagne Pavlova but it just wasn’t enough to pop past Alex and Chris’s identical scores.

For his starter, Alex offers ‘Breakfast: Oh You Pretty Things’ dedicated to Bowie and all the artists who have mentioned breakfast in their songs. There are quite a lot allegedly, so do feel free to identify them if you have a spare hour or two. He arranges ‘petals’ of set cep ketchup, interspersed with roasted and pickled mushrooms, then places a duck egg yolk on mushroom foam and scatters with pork scratchings as the centre of his ‘flower’. Bacon and dashi broth in a teapot and a slice of stout soda bread complete the breakfast table.

The broth hits the spot with Andi, who praises the ‘good dashi’ and Oliver agrees it’s ‘absolutely delicious’ but Matthew picks at the set cep, calling it ‘carpet underlay’. Guest judge, the charming Loyle Carner, asks ‘is it a bit underwhelming?’

With fond memories of post-gig kebabs, Chris presents ‘Brixton Academy Through the Years’, a cleverly classy, on-brief starter that gained him top marks from Tommy Banks. Cubes of hogget breast are cooked over charcoal, then skewered with pickled cucumber, fried veal sweetbreads and a battered oyster and pocketed in soft charred flatbread. It’s accompanied by a bowl of yoghurt, mint, lemon and oyster leaves, a bitter leaf salad and dukkah on the side.

‘Oh man… delicious!’ says Loyle, but Andi is quick to question the hogget seasoning and Matthew asks for views on the salad. ‘It works within the context of the meat,’ replies Loyle. Matthew teases him for sounding like a professional judge. ‘I’ve been gunning for your spot for a long time,’ Loyle responds dryly. ‘Don’t think I’m here by chance!’

On Wednesday, narrator Wendy Lloyd described the Champagne sauce of Chris’s ‘Champagne Supernova’ as ‘sauce’. Chris helpfully elucidated that it’s ‘roe butter sauce with that kombu, katsuobushi and Parmesan rind velouté’. Thanks Chris. Chris does have a tendency to talk about his cooking with such passionate intensity that it’s just a little scary at times. Back in the kitchen at No.6, we saw Paul Ainsworth visibly prod the young chef and instruct him ‘this is all about layers’. Adding a huge herb-stuffed and butter-basted scallop, along with seaweed, scallop roe and vinegar powdered crisps, Chris mesmerically repeats ‘all the time building layers’.

The judges seem pretty mesmerised by the dish too. Loyle clicks his fingers in appreciation of the crisps and declares ‘those are good!’ Oliver says ‘I love the balance of flavours’ and adds ‘that’s a very perky little sauce’. Matthew agrees ‘it’s beautiful’, whilst Andi thinks the dish is just missing a cold glass of Champagne.

‘Coney Island and Dundrum Bay’ is inspired by the laid-back sound of Van Morrison, which is somewhat ironic when you consider the hectic activity needed to get it on the plate. Alex starts with celeriac two ways (pureed and salt-baked) then adds charred salmon, lobster meat, cockles and mussels, all drizzled with lobster oil. Pasta coloured with lobster coral (which fascinatingly changes from green to orange in the pan) is cut into a net pattern, then garnished with sea vegetables and tapioca crisps. Pans of lobster sauce are on the side.

Matthew extols the virtues of cockles, calling them ‘plump little cushions of marine flavour’. ‘The puree is delicious,’ he declares, adding ‘I wish I could say the same for the salmon sitting on top of it’. Loyle agrees it’s ‘OK but a bit bland’. ‘This is not wild and crazy,’ Oliver laments, ‘this is safety net’.

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Hoping to achieve the perfect fusion of classical and contemporary, ‘The Proms, from Park to Plate’ is Chris’s main event. Guinea fowl ballotine is served with beer-pickled onions and mushroom puree and topped with crispy chicken skin. Alongside are Grana Padano tacos containing a highly refined Caesar salad and little glass tankards of Proms in the Park IPA.

The judges love the Caesar salad and beer but Oliver isn’t keen on the ballotine stuffing. Andi agrees – ‘it sort of brings it back to being pedestrian’. Which, after all, is probably to be expected in a park.

Poignantly dedicated to his late brother Paul and inspired by the Donna Taggart song ‘Jealous of the Angels’, Alex’s heartfelt main course is a hearty meat feast that features Dexter beef fillet marinated in Bushmills whiskey. Shredded ox cheek, layered with feuille de brick pastry and homemade beef sausages are accompanied by bone marrow sauce, carrot puree and pickled and salt-baked carrots. ‘The sausage looks quite macho but is incredibly gentle,’ discerns Matthew. The carrot puree is a huge hit and Oliver sums up the dish as ‘quite joyous’.

For dessert, Chris dishes up ‘Camden Rocks’, a dark sticky mound of muscovado monkey bread served with salted soft-serve vanilla and brown butter ice cream and what Chris calls his ‘allotment jewels’ – raspberries, strawberries and cherry tomatoes marinated in hibiscus and verjus. Chris needed an engineer to assist with the ice cream machine on Thursday and he’s back on the phone again on Friday. Problem solved and the judges tuck in to what looks like a near-orgasmic experience as Loyle describes the monkey bread as ‘insane’ and Andi calls it ‘ridiculous’. (That’s ‘insane’ and ‘ridiculous’ in an insanely ridiculously good way.) Oliver sums it up – ‘God is alive and well in that pudding’.

The stunningly beautiful replica of a green apple that’s featured in the GBM opening shots is finally revealed as the work of Alex. Paying tribute to Apple Records, he crafts apple mousse, white chocolate and apple gel to form a work of art that fully deserves its own Perspex plinth and case. Hazelnut crumble and sorrel ice cream provide fine accompaniments.

‘They’re not making anything easy for us,’ concludes Andi, adding ‘the mousse is like a cloud’. Matthew commends the ‘technical wizardry’ and Oliver calls it ‘a thing of great beauty’.

It’s one of those weeks when you think the judges might just allow both chefs to go through… but no. The brilliant artistry of an exquisite green apple is beaten by a sweet, sticky, hulking hunk of monkey bread and Chris becomes the Northern Ireland finalist. Matthew suggests that both probably need a stiff drink. Alex longingly eyes up the bottle and Chris finally stops talking long enough to take a sip before he’s back to the mantra of work. ‘All the time building layers’.

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