To my wife’s intense irritation, I have recently been spending quite a number of weekends in the North West. For the most part, this is because, in an inversion of accepted economic norms, their comedy promoters generally pay their comedians better than their southern counterparts. Added to which, a bewildering array of motorways means it is feasible to double up gigs over a geographical range that would be unthinkable in London. Liverpool and Manchester is a doddle, but I have recently managed three gigs in Manchester and one in Leeds on the same night, and last Friday opened Bolton and closed Chester the same evening. I mean, as Rishi Sunak so winningly pointed out in his conference speech last week in Manchester telling Mancunians HS2 was no longer coming to Manchester, before tweeting about it from his private jet – who needs trains anyway? What that man doesn’t know about politics…
Another highlight of the northern circuit, to my wife’s even more intense annoyance, is I tend to find myself at a bit of a loose end on Saturdays with both a day, and a stomach to fill. My usual routine involves getting up and going for a run, entirely so I can justify the money I’m about to spaff on lunch. As I was in Chester, the brilliant comic Danny McLoughlin, who lives nearby, suggested I complete a hattrick of Elite Bistros (having recently eaten at both Hispi and Burnt Truffle) by giving Sticky Walnut a visit. As Danny had also booked me the night before for the very lovely Alexander’s Live, I felt it would have been rude to refuse. Well, that’s what I told my wife anyway.
A little tip for anyone visiting the pretty little terraced streets where Sticky Walnut nestles – all the street parking is for half an hour, which as far as I’m concerned is a disgracefully short amount of time for lunch. However, behind the street opposite is a car park which costs 50p for two hours, which I would very much like to take all other car parks to, in order to educate them in something known as ‘appropriate charging.’ I slipped through a small passageway and into Sticky Walnut. I have received a delightful welcome in every Elite bistro I have been to (especially as Claire welcomed me both times) and this was no different, but aesthetically I thought this was the most pleasing of the bunch. Still plenty of polished wood and tasteful lines, but somehow cosier, perhaps by dint of being in a terrace.
At this point I realised that a number of items across the chain do tend to replicate themselves, which is not really a criticism when they are as good as the Welsh rarebit I had a couple of weeks ago at Hispi, but I was determined to try something different. Obviously this was a completely selfless move made entirely for your benefit, dear reader. My lamb’s breast was a succulent sliver of meat, nestling on a garlic puree that achieved the notable feat of making me like butterbeans. Presumably because they were crushed into a paste and covered with smoked garlic honey and sesame dukkah spice. This was a wonderfully moreish taste combination, the smokiness combining beautifully with the fattiness of the meat, but I’m afraid this is where my criticism comes in. The meat was dwarfed by the amount of fat attached to it – beautifully rendered though it was, and as the breast often is – but overall, the whole thing was just a bit…small. I bow to no one in my admiration for the cookery skill on display, but for £9.50, I did expect a bit more of it. To give you an idea of my reaction, I can do little better than copy the note I made on my phone – ‘salty yummy acid onion small fatty’. Maybe I am being harsh in this time of tight margins, but as it was only a parking space away from a tenner, and I hadn’t had any breakfast, I licked the remaining puree from the bowl a little dolefully. To cheer me (and my stomach) up, I ordered some focaccia, at which point four pieces of the most delicious, moist rosemary cake/bread arrived and all was well with the world again.
This also put paid to any worries about the size of what appeared to be a relatively small coley fillet which arrived next. Luckily, three other things stood in the way of further complaints. Firstly, I am not that au fait with coley, but this was one of the most perfectly cooked pieces of fish I have ever eaten, crispy skin, moist, translucent flakes melting away from one another – all the clichés. Like cod that had been to finishing school. Secondly, I had (on the waitress’s sage advice) ordered a plate of perfect truffle chips that had clearly gone on from finishing school to some sort of potato university. And finally, the sauce. My god the sauce. I think I could happily drink jugs of it. Apparently, merely chicken stock, lemon, thyme, parsley, a touch of white wine vinegar and A LOT of butter, but it elevated an already excellent dish to the absolute heavenly. I gibbered at the waitress about it.
After this, a poached pear with walnut praline ice cream and an armangac prune puree could almost be seen as a mild disappointment, but the addition of individual caramelised walnuts added such a pleasing texture that it was, in fact, the perfect palate cleanser.
My bill arrived, and seeing as I hadn’t drunk anything stronger than water and a cup of coffee, I’m inclined to think almost £60 is quite a step up from Burnt Truffle (£42) and certainly Hispi (£36.) However, the bottom line is – did I have a good lunch? To which the answer is an unequivocal no, I had an excellent one, and I will remember that sauce in my dreams. Not only do Elite Bistros clearly know what they’re doing, they have an eye for the perfect location – providing absolutely top-end, imaginative bistro food at (mostly) affordable prices. If you have one nearby, count yourself lucky. And use it. Like all good franchises, their outposts are individually brilliant, but also as a group, much more than the sum of their parts. There is a clear philosophy behind them, and it is a deeply pleasing one.
As I left, my cheery waitress wrapped the two remaining pieces of focaccia for me before I jumped back in a car that had stretched to the full quota of my 50p outlay, and headed to Manchester to park for half the time and 12 times the money. Then it was on to Darwen before hot-footing it to South Yorkshire to close a show in Holmfirth. Luckily, I saved the focaccia for the journey home, which meant I was able to make the three hour journey without stopping. A better man might have saved it for his wife, but after the lunch I’d had, turning up after three days, at 1:30am, with a couple of bits of foil wrapped bread might quite rightly have been seen as somewhat taking the p*ss. And I do enough of that for a living.