Cheshire Life Luncheon - The Oak in Kelsall
PUBLISHED: 12:41 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:19 20 February 2013
We lunch at The Oak, Kelsall, where an award-winning team is hungry for further success WORDS BY ANDREW HOBBS<br/><br/>PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATTHEW STANSFIELD
It's three years since Max Baker and Stephen Cooper took over at The Oak in Kelsall. In that time they have overseen a half-a-million-pound revamp, won a clutch of awards and established the old coaching inn as a fine dining destination. But that's not enough for these former conference and banqueting managers from Chester's five-star Grosvenor Hotel.
'After being in the industry this long we know we have to re-invent ourselves every three years,' says Stephen, who describes the next step as a change of style which will broaden the appeal of The Oak, making it more than just a special occasion venue.
Now that Cheshire has a good choice of gastro-pubs, he and Max have worked with owners Punch Taverns to subtly alter the interior, introduced three cask ales at the bar and a 20-bin wine list, all available by the glass, and a brand new menu. The aim is to cater for customers who want a burger and a beer, alongside those sitting down for a three-course meal with a good bottle of wine - from noon until late at night.
The Oak still has its function room and eight en-suite bedrooms, and 10 new members of staff - the free-range chickens wandering around, who supply some of the eggs for the kitchen. A herb garden and vegetable garden are also on-site. What they don't grow themselves is supplied by Chester Produce, the Cholmondeley Food Hub and butchers Clancys of Chester, showing The Oak's commitment to local food.
Although they want to be much more than a special occasion destination, they do have some special occasions of their own this month, including a celebration of The Oak's third anniversary in its new incarnation on August 15, and a summer charity ball with casino, dancing and more on August 22.
Judging from Cheshire Life's luncheon, Stephen, Max, head chef Liam Lang and the rest of the team have managed to square the circle, maintaining the quality of the food in a relaxed, comfortable pub atmosphere, with not a hint of stuffiness or pomposity.
As guests arrived, we were treated to a glass or two of Mercier Brut Reserve champagne, and canapes of tempura king prawns, goats' cheese tarts and savoury tiramisu. The bubbly, and all the luncheon wines, were supplied by John Clegg of Willoughby's, who have a wine warehouse in Frodsham.
Lunch was served in a sunny dining room at the front of the pub, and began with rich, beetroot-cured salmon with Cheshire asparagus, sweet and sour shallots and a raspberry dressing. The asparagus, which until very recently had been growing on Mr Wilding's farm less than a mile away, was so fresh and tender that it nearly upstaged the salmon. It was matched by an easy-drinking, elegant and fruity 2007 Pinot Grigio.
The main course was slow-braised shoulder of new season Welsh lamb, and what better to go with this meat than a Pinot Noir, in this case a bright, silky 2005 Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The flavoursome lamb came with a vignole, an Italian stew of spring vegetables made popular in this country by Jamie Oliver. No coincidence that head chef Liam Lang was a sous chef at Oliver's London restaurant, Fifteen.
One of The Oak's many awards was for its puddings, and a thick and creamy creme brulee maintained the reputation. Each one arrived in flames, apparently with the help of a secret formula which ensures that the topping crisps itself on the way from the kitchen to the table. The best wine was saved until last, an Australian 2007 Brown Brothers Orange Muscat and Flora, light and flowery with a citrus aroma.
Proof of The Oak's calm and comfortable atmosphere was shown by the difficulty guests had in tearing themselves away, long after the meal was over.