Matthew Fort reviews Lisa’s NEW 6-course Tasting Menu
Lisa Goodwin-Allen is a kitchen goddess. I’ve always thought so ever since she served up a sequence of brilliant dishes on the Great British Menu, and swept all before her. Rabbit turnover with piccalilli may not sound much, and yet it still sparkles in my memory – light, buttery pastry; delicate juicy saddle of rabbit neatly encased in a waistcoat of air-dried ham; with a little mound of the very vegetables the rabbit would have did on, lightly piccallied. It was witty, clever and, above all, a joy to eat. Skill, technique, imagination, wit and, above all, intelligence were – are – the hall marks of her cooking. Recently she slipped quietly into the top position at Northcote, taking over the kitchens from her long-time mentor, Nigel Haworth.
Northcote has been a citadel of northern hospitality for – good Lord! – thirty years now and I never return without the sense of being enveloped in the warmth of a home-coming and a duvet of comfort, good cheer and kindliness that flows naturally from the exuberant personality of Craig Bancroft, Nigel’s business partner, and his team. There was no point in pretending that I was incognito. It was ‘Hello, Mr Fort.’ ‘Welcome back, Mr Fort.’ ‘Good to see you again, Mr Fort.’ And it was very good to see them, too. But I wasn’t there to exchange pleasantries. I was there to eat. So I did.
Our metropolitan critics like to have a dig at ‘fine dining’ and tasting menus from time to time, poor dears, but people of the Ribble Valley like to have a properly good time, with proper, snowy white table cloths, proper sparkling glasses, proper shimmering cutlery and attentive (but not over-attentive) service in a dining room where comfort and space are put above fancy design frills. And they like a Gourmet Menu, particularly when it’s as packed with goodies as Lisa Allen’s. There are six courses to it. Away I went with Chargrilled Wye Valley Asparagus with Leagrams Sheep’s Curd and Sorrel leaves.
This was a marker for the Allen style. Like the menu rubric, the dish had been pared back to its absolute essentials. There was nothing redundant, nothing surplus, on the plate, just spears of asparagus, a puddle of curd and a few clover-leaved sorrel leaves. But I was actually shocked by how much flavour those spears had. I hadn’t tasted anything like them for about fifty years. I don’t know how Lisa Allen extracted so much flavour from a vegetable that is usually a limp shadow of the asparagus powerhouses of my youth. The flesh was firm and sweet, that distinctive cabbage-and-leaf-mould taste heightened by the charred note from griddle. The puddle of sheep’s curd was amiably creamy by contrast, and sharp acidic note of wood sorrel pinged like a triangle in an orchestra. There was no bling about the dish, and you could eat it in a flash with delight without remarking on any of the details I’ve noted. But should you pause to taste, register and consider, you should be struck by the finesse of the parts and the confidence of the whole.
I was still pondering on the asparagus when the next dish Sticky New Season’s Lamb, Sweet Onion arrived – narrow tile of lamb breast; dollop of shallot puree; small rings of pickled onion; rich gravy. It doesn’t seem much as I write it down. But … but … the detailing lifted it from being a decent dish to a brilliant one. The depth and balance of the jus provided the foundation on which the dish was built. The surface of the lamb tile was crisp like the thin caramel on top of a crème brulee. Its apparent density gave way to fibrous softness and long flavour that miraculously combined the lightness of spring with the punch of a heavyweight. A soft pillow of lightly caramelised shallot puree was a clever variation on a classic combination, but the particular note that gave the dish its elegance came from a few rings of lightly pickled onion, like a gentle reminder to pay attention.
Jersey Royal Potato, Young Leek, Cigar – Lisa Allen has a clever way of re-imagining classic combinations. This was vichyssoise by another name, gentle, refined, a moment of relative gustatory repose before –
Scarlet Prawn with Foraged Wild Garlic, Butter Sauce, a plate of blinding brilliance. Each element – fat, sweet prawns, wild garlic foam, beurre blanc sauce, tiny notes of chilli, sharp nip of lemon gel – exemplified individual perfection and individuality, but combined, they lifted and intensified the ringing caramel-and-seaweed flavour of the shellfish. It was exquisite on the eye, but wasn’t beautiful for beauty’s sake. It seduced the eye just as the combination of flavours and textured seduced my palate. It was what in the trade I call a cracker.
The Squab Pigeon with Morel, Turnip and Shoots was just as assured and satisfying as the course before. While the prawn dish was chic and airy, the pigeon dish was anchored in an earthier world, and showed Lisa Allen’s gift for knowing there’s a place in the modern kitchen for classic techniques and when to use them. The breast of the pigeon had been roasted in the bone, which helped keep its shape and give a juicy succulence to the easy-going density of the meat. The leg, with foot attached, had been confited in duck fat. Leaving the foot in place may ruffle those of a sensitive nature. However, the foot looked very healthy that meant that the pigeon had lived a decent and comfortable life. Add the earthy morel, slightly bitter curl of turnip and its shoots and you have a dish of impeccable elegance and suavity.
The Northcote Black Bee Honey ‘Bubble’ with organic milk and lemon looked like a mini coracle made of the finest of white chocolate, bobbing along under sails of thin, amber caramelised honey. It carried a cargo of airy, honied mousse and raw milk jelly with sharp notes of thyme and zing from the lemon granita underneath. It managed to be both ethereal and seductive at the same time, a pudding to satisfy the aesthetic if not the ascetic side of me.
In an era of culinary Mini-Mes, Lisa stands out as a true original. There’s nothing obvious about her cooking, no ego, no ‘look at me, aren’t I clever’. Their beauties for the eye, but the true beauty of each dish lies in their flavours and their textures. Each dish has a strong sense of focus and direction, the different elements woven together with skill, imagination and care to produce the most exquisite effects.
Nigel Haworth was a doughty champion of all things and produce Lancastrian. Lisa’s roots are no less Lancastrian and she shares an instinctive feel for gastronomic weight. However, she’s quite different in her tone and range. The flavours she conjures up have heft, but the textures she employs are lighter, wittier, and playful. It’s rare for one chef of such individuality, style and command to follow another of such quality, but it has happened at Northcote. It’s customers and admirers are lucky.