Cheshire Life luncheon - Hillbark Hotel, Wirral
PUBLISHED: 16:53 28 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:04 23 May 2016
A shining new culinary star was unveiled at the Hillbark as the food from Stewart Warner's kitchen delighted our diners WORDS BY RAY KING PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS
It’s all change at the Hillbark, one of the Wirral’s most iconic hotels and popular wedding venues, as the famous Yellow Room restaurant has been rebranded and a shining new culinary star – Stewart Warner - has taken the helm as head of the kitchen brigade.
Not that the Hillbark, near the charming village of Frankby, hasn’t been used to dramatic change for more than a century. For the much photographed late Victorian mansion - built in the Tudor style and crammed with fascinating period features including a Jacobean fireplace from Sir Walter Raleigh’s house - was moved lock, stock, beam, stained glass and barrel from Bidston Hill in Birkenhead where it was originally built for soap magnate Robert Hudson, by shipping tycoon Sir Ernest Royden in 1931.
Sir Ernest enjoyed the view over the Dee estuary towards north Wales from his estate at Royden Park and so, 80 years after his house was relocated, did guests at Cheshire Life’s July luncheon. We gathered on Hillbark’s sunlit terrace, with its lawns tumbling away towards the wooded hillside, for welcoming glasses of sparkling French Crémant de Limoux and a selection of canapés featuring pigeon and pork with truffle marinade that dropped a broad hint as to the avant garde cooking that was to come.
Current owners Craig and Lisa Baker, who also have The Leverhulme Hotel in Port Sunlight, have striven hard to ensure that the Hillbark boasts a destination restaurant within its stately walls alongside hosting around 150 weddings a year. The last couple of years have seen chefs with formidable reputations arrive and then depart. Michael Riemenschneider late of the stellar Abbey Hotel in Penzance and then Juniper in Altrincham pitched camp briefly; more recently it was former Great British Menu contender Aiden Byrne of Church Green, Lymm, who passed this way.
Stewart Warner, at the tender age of just 27, is less well-known, but judging by the brio and sheer audacity of his Cheshire Life luncheon menu, all I can say is: ‘watch this space’. A protégé of Byrne – indeed his head chef at Church Green and the Hillbark after honing his skills at Cliveden and the Dorchester – Stewart has so impressed the hotel’s owners that the flagship Dining Room restaurant, as the Yellow Room is now named, bears the subtitle Stewart Warner @ Hillbark.
Despite the name change, the Dining Room retains its glorious opulence with extravagant gilded Louis XV armchairs upholstered in embossed velvet arranged around generously spaced tables dressed with the finest linens, crystal and china. Decor is sumptuous, the chandeliers spectacular and the original 1795 Robert Adam fire surround grandiose; in short a room that requires the finest dining.
We were not disappointed. After a selection of exemplary home-baked breads, the amuse bouche – a soft-boiled hen’s egg, its shell carefully cut open and filled with asparagus foam and morsels of cured ham – provided not only a lovely delicacy but an immediate talking point. And the chef kept us talking from that point onwards. His stunningly presented poached langoustine starter was a summertime joy, its delicate sweetness marrying perfectly with the textures and subtle flavours of cucumber, crème fraiche and dill and the fresh lively fruit of the Languedoc chardonnay that accompanied.
The main course was another demonstration of finely tuned culinary skills and real appreciation of seasonality. Hay-baked saddle of rabbit – a brave but absolutely delicious dish - was served exquisitely with wilted butterhead lettuce and smoked bacon combining impressive presentation with delightful summery flavours. The red wine, like the white, straight from the Hillbark’s own cellar, was warm soft and subtle Rosso di Montalcino.
Dessert was a complete delight, bringing the fabulous colour and flavour of poached Yorkshire rhubarb together with silky vanilla panna cotta and truly amazing smoked honey ice cream, arranged beautifully on a slate platter. Stewart Warner has arrived at the Hillbark with considerable style.
Cheshire Life Luncheon Menu
Poached langoustine, cucumber, cream fraiche, dill.
Aimery Nobles Vignes Chardonnay, Vin de Pays d’Oc, France
Hay-baked saddle of rabbit, English butterhead lettuce, smoked bacon.
Rosso di Montalcino, Italy
Poached Yorkshire rhubarb, vanilla panna cotta, smoked honey ice cream.
The Dining Room, Hillbark Hotel, Royden Park, Frankby, Wirral, Cheshire CH48 1NP. Tel: 0151 625 2400.
Stewart Warner @ Hillbark a la carte menu: £45 for two courses, £55 for three; Seven-course Taster menu £75.