So it turns out the heaving throng and buzzing high street of Chester are about as thumping a riposte to that hoary old phrase, "it’s grim up north" as could be imagined. True, there are places north of our offices in Kensington that are grim, but on a chilly weekend in November, this affluent town, used as a commuter point for workers from Manchester, Liverpool, Wrexham and the like, is positively bubbling. On first inspection, the restaurants aren't bad either.
We have taken Ben and Adele, who moved up here earlier in the year, to La Brasserie at the Grosvenor hotel. Next door, chef Simon Radley has a very upmarket restaurant, replete with seven-course tasting menu and Michelin star. But working on the basis that most of us look for something less decorous when out of pocket because of Christmas, we’re trying the humbler option.
There is a Parisian vibe, with black leather chairs, granite tables, oak-panelled wood, and overhanging ornaments. It’s smart, elegant and comforting, as is the food. Of the starters, my duck egg on toasted brioche with livers, frisée and crispy bacon (£11.95) is superb. The little livers are succulent and sweet, and, once disturbed, the golden yolk binds the whole plate together.
Ben’s piglet with crispy belly and squid cassoulet (£11.95) works surprisingly well, with the meat coming apart in delicious tender ribbons. And Adele’s scallops with salt-cod pâté, potato skins and garlic butter (£13.95) is a coherent plate of coastal goodness. The skins offer a clever contrast with both the pâté and the scallops, which somehow manage to be firm and soft at the same time.
For the mains, there is a selection of sea bass, Atlantic cod, scallops or salmon that come three different ways: poached with hollandaise and steamed potatoes; grilled with shrimp and chopped-egg ravigotte; or with a bisque sauce and Devon crab salad.
Charlie, my wife – as I must get used to calling her – has the excellent cod (£19.95) with bisque sauce, which is fresh and pungent. Unless you like your steak blue, meanwhile, I’d ask for it cooked medium-well here, because though it has a strong, fine flavour, Ben’s is a long way short of the medium-rare he asked for. I can’t chew blue meat, and give up about halfway through.
Luckily, there’s a very good, fleshy alternative in front of me. When I pick the saucisson – a “selection of continental style sausage and boudins, pickled cabbage, mustards” (£16.95) – I half-imagine it will turn up cold.
Instead, there’s a warm plate with three excellent and varied sausages, two of which have a flavour close to chorizo; and a tray with separate Dijon, tarragon and grape mustards. These are, in order, good, very good and excellent; a little cake of black pudding accompanies them well.
I’m having something of a moment with gammon currently, having alighted on the idea of boiling it in Coke and smearing it with marmalade. Gammon copes with sweet, fruity flavours better than most meat; and here it comes baked in molasses, with grilled lettuce hearts, split peas and pineapple confit (£16.95). If pineapple’s not your thing, this dish is best avoided, because the flavour of the fruit is powerful, to the point of overwhelming. For me, though, it sits just about right, and I would gladly eat two portions.
There are some very good desserts, of which perhaps the best is the Café Gourmand (£8.50), a tasting plate with a selection of little bites, including a delicious apple parfait and chocolate cheesecake.
With a strong wine list, vegetarian options and friendly service, this place ticks a lot of boxes. But if you were looking for faults, which is half the task with this restaurant critic lark, I’d say it is about 10 per cent more expensive than is reasonable. The Parisian brasserie is the very summit of French culture, and half the charm of the real thing on the banks of the Seine is that it’s so damn affordable.
Here, in wealthy Chester, even if you avoid Radley’s establishment next door, you’re still forking out well over £100 for a family meal. Which is not to fault the cooking or the kitchen: they have produced a menu that generates quality rather than quantity, in a formidable but friendly establishment that Chester should be proud of.
La Brasserie at the Chester Grosvenor, Eastgate, Chester, Tel: 01244 324 024. £95 for two, with drinks
Four more things: I've been eating this week
Oatcake and chocolate
Charlie taught me this. Put a bit of Lindt chocolate on an oatcake. It's a posh KitKat, basically, and ridiculously addictive.
Scalini in Chelsea is very expensive, but one smart freebie is its excellent chopped-tomato mix that comes with the table.
The cheese I can't get enough of at the moment. Chalkier than Parmesan. Sainsbury's does a pretty good one.
My mum's version, made with jaggery, is thick, sour, sweet and irresistible. Best taste on the planet, anywhere. Fact.