Great British Menu 2021: North West recap

Great British Menu 2021: North West recap

by Howard Middleton 08 May 2021

Howard Middleton keeps us up-to-date with how the chefs of the North West fared in the Great British Menu kitchen.

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Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients.

Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients.

‘Banquet worthy’ – a phrase once appearing so regularly on GBM, it was part of its DNA. Then it seemed to fall out of fashion and favour. However, quite unexpectedly, it made several returns this week. Veteran chef Tom Aikens said it first. Sadly, it wasn’t specifically about any of the dishes served up by the North West’s newest batch of fresh-faced chefs. Instead, Tom used it as a benchmark… which, judging by his meagre marking, nobody quite managed to meet.

Andi Oliver described Tom as ‘known to reduce hardened chefs to jelly’, which essentially meant he had to prudently avoid any obvious signs of enjoyment and carefully check himself if he felt a smile coming on.

Tom quickly despatched two cheerful chefs – the ebullient Ashwani Rangta from GupShup in Hale and chirpy Dave Critchley from Liverpool’s Lu Ban, leaving judges Oliver, Rachel and Matthew to ‘blind taste’ the other two’s menus. Except, for once, there’s little mystery as to who cooked what. Vegan chef Kirk Haworth from Plates in London is serving a purely plant-based menu. Anything with meat, fish or dairy is undoubtedly from Dan McGeorge of Rothay Manor in the Lake District.

As an appetiser, Dan serves venison tartare with barbecued beetroot and charcoal emulsion. He offers extra beetroot for vegetarian guest judge, Wayne Hemingway. The dynamic designer swiftly discloses a dislike for beetroot but he’s willing to give it a try. He’s not impressed, and the other judges agree the smokiness is ‘overpowering’. Kirk’s canape combines crispy potato and leek, pickled grape, spirulina and a dusting of cashew ‘blue cheese’. It fares better, despite Wayne’s complaint that ‘it’s all over the blooming table… and my jacket’.

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On to the starters and Kirk’s celebrates the region’s invention of Vimto, with a suitably fruity booty of purple produce. He plates tender, glazed baked beetroot with strands of golden beet and confit fennel, adding a whoosh of wasabi emulsion and a drizzle of blackcurrant sauce. Bottles of tincture await the diners’ dilution. The judges agree with Oliver – ‘he’s pulled off a good dish’.

Dan’s starter ‘Doctor’s Orders’ pays tribute to both Lucy Craddock, one of the first female doctors in Liverpool, and the chef’s faith in the restorative properties of a pan of scouse. Herdwick lamb from Cumbria is brined and pan-fried with black garlic and thyme and served with Roscoff onions, confit potatoes, kale crisps, red cabbage foam and baby carrots. A syringe of lamb gravy provides a booster shot to the medical theme. Wayne squirts his syringe of chickpea jus over cep-roasted celeriac… and misses, spattering Oliver’s jacket instead. However, this brief splash of light relief isn’t enough to counter Matthew’s damning review of the dish – ‘dull’.

The same could hardly be said for Oliver’s outfit. He reappears in a clean, bright blue shirt and jacket, fresh for a judging chamber first – the completely fishless fish course. Courageous explorer Isabella Bird is the inspiration for Kirk’s own pioneering venture, as deep-fried leek, sesame and seaweed parcels sit on truffled artichoke puree and apple, cucumber, caper and ponzu salad, and are topped with samphire, crispy onions and a flurry of truffle. Rachel says it shows ‘how a purely plant-based dish can be exciting’ and Oliver agrees ‘it’s delicious’. However, Matthew says he finds it ‘more interesting than pleasurable’.

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In honour of submarine inventor George Garrett, Dan serves barbecued monkfish with braised kohlrabi discs, pickled kohlrabi noodles, pickled dulse and cockles. Tiny submarines of XO sauce are moored nearby, ready to dive into a sea of dashi. Matthew approves. Wayne asks for bread to mop up the sauce of his onion-based alternative. As none arrives, he licks the plate clean.

‘The Amazing Adventures of Isabella Bird’ continue in Dan’s main course, which follows her globetrotting footsteps with flavours of Asia – char siu pork, Korean-style sweetbreads, tempura vegetables, soy quail eggs, morning glory and stir-fried lotus root. Matthew praises the ‘whirligig of flavours’, but Oliver questions if there are too many. Rachel vehemently disagrees, saying ‘I think it’s really exciting’. Wayne agrees his veggie version is ‘right up my street’.

For his meat-free main course, Kirk gives a respectful nod to church minister and pioneer of vegetarianism William Cowherd, serving a heavenly array of earthly delights. Caramelised onion and carlin peas congregate in mushroom broth with a herb dumpling, smoked kohlrabi noodles and crispy salsify, alongside butterbean puree, maitake and beefsteak mushrooms, stuffed hispi cabbage and cavolo nero foam. Rachel complains that she finds the dish ‘hard to navigate’. Wayne, who’s loving everything on his plate, cheekily shows her how to successfully transport food from fork to mouth.

Dan’s pre-dessert tribute to malt loaf ‘Sweet and Squidgy’ is scathingly snubbed for being neither. Kirk’s fruity little tartlet is generally judged to be more refreshing but it’s ‘too coconutty’ for most tastes.

Honouring the first guide dog training, which took place in Wallasey, on the Wirral, Dan’s bone-shaped milk chocolate mousse dessert also features miso caramel, salted caramel ice cream, yuzu gel and a honeycomb tuile. ‘Lovely back story, lovely pudding’ says Oliver. Wayne admits, ‘I could keep eating it until I was sick’.

We’re back to the malt loaf for Kirk’s dessert, which tries to emulate a butter-slathered slice in lighter, non-dairy form. It’s a quirky-looking creation, as two little redcurrant eyes stare at the judges from their scoop of vanilla ice cream, atop a curvy cushion of cacao and prune sponge. Wayne says he really likes it but, despite its endearingly Muppet-like appeal, Rachel decides it’s ‘leaving me lukewarm’.

As the winner is announced, Dan looks genuinely shocked to discover it’s him. He says he thought Kirk had it in the bag. He’s not alone. Kirk’s ground-breaking, plant-based wizardry is undoubtedly ‘banquet worthy’ – sadly not this year on Great British Menu.