Restaurant review - The Dining Room, Hillbark Hotel
PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 September 2014 | UPDATED: 19:02 23 May 2016
Hillbark has seen a couple of good chefs come and go. Now there’s another chef at the helm. Merseyside’s only five star hotel has a great reputation to maintain. How is Rich Collingwood doing?
Now you see him, now you don’t. Virtually as soon as Merseyside’s only five-star hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Stewart Warner at Hillbark, had been acclaimed Cheshire Life’s Cheshire Restaurant of the Year 2013, the said Stewart Warner was gone. Don’t ask me why, I haven’t a clue; I only eat and drink. But what might have been at issue were the three AA Rosettes, earned during Warner’s stint as head chef, that put the restaurant in the nation’s top ten per cent.
Then enter Richard ‘Rich’ Collingwood heading up a new culinary brigade - and just seven months later, the three coveted Rosettes are reconfirmed. And I wouldn’t bet against Collingwood and Hillbark’s eye-poppingly extravagant Dining Room Restaurant joining Marc Wilkinson’s Fraiche, only ten or so miles away on the other side of the Wirral, in the Michelin starred elite.
We sneaked into Hillbark for dinner during the calm after the storm. The golfers and the media circus that descended on the hotel for the British Open at the nearby Royal Liverpool course in next-door Hoylake - the eventual winner, Rory McIlroy had done a TV interview in the restaurant on the eve of the championship - had all gone. Early on a Tuesday evening, before the busy weekend wedding programme, Sir Ernest Royden’s pride and joy - moved beam by timber beam from Bidston Hill in 1930, an exercise that would cost £40m in today’s money - was quiet and tranquil.
Collinwood offers a three course a la carte for £60 a head or a tasting menu of eight courses for £90 plus a discretionary service charge of 12.5 per cent. Prices, then, are in the Fraiche league; what about the cooking? Well, the new man comes with an enviable pedigree; more than ten years in the industry under the tutelage of the likes of Michael Caines (two Michelin stars at Gidleigh Park) and Chris Horridge (a Michelin star at the Bath Priory). Ambition to emulate these culinary heavyweights burns bright at Hillbark; from the arrival in the bar-lounge of the canapés - delicious white crab with herbs on tapioca crisps and exquisite sweet-sour foie gras doughnuts set on cherry jam - it was evident we were in for something special.
In the Dining Room, sporting chairs like thrones, grand chandeliers and a view over the gardens to the Clwydian Range beyond the Dee, the amuse bouche, set an epic epicurean tone. A semifreddo pea parfait was partnered with petit pois, pea shoots, an impossibly fine dice of shallots and - wait for this - essence of Parmesan: daring flavour combinations and an incredible amount of highly-skilled work. On a pre-starter!
Following a selection of superb home baked breads - treacle, rosemary focaccia and cheese and onion - my starter proper, like every course, was a culinary work of art; dainty, expertly crafted ballotine of succulent quail was accompanied by chorizo granola providing texture and subtle smokiness, the tiniest of mushrooms, slivers of baby sweetcorn and sweetcorn purée, a perfectly cooked ‘scotch’ quail egg (imagine!) and young leeks. Mrs K’s goat cheese pannacotta came enveloped in beetroot gel surrounded and by sweet red and yellow baby beets, beetroot sorbet, morsels of apple and topped with a crisp black olive tuile; testament once more to the skill and imagination at work in the kitchen
I was sorely tempted by the main course lamb - loin, neck and rib with mutabel (Syria’s version of babaghanoush) - but opted instead with absolutely no regret, for Huntsham Farm suckling pig, the sweetest, tenderest pork you’re ever going to encounter. It came with crackling that crunched and melted, oxidised pear, liquorice-scented kindergarten carrots delivering impossible amounts of flavour and (sorry Bury) the very best boudin noir. Opposite, Mrs K cooed over her thick fillet of creamy, moist seabass with its retinue comprising sweet Scottish langoustine, almond puree, grilled baby cauliflower florets and flavours of grapefruit.
Desserts were not just afterthoughts but provided a fitting finale to the preceding excellence. Mrs K’s English strawberry, served in various textures was perfectly partnered by light, crumbly olive oil and pistachio genoise cake; my choice brought a magnificent mélange of Blacksticks Blue cheese and date and tamarind purée on the thinnest, crunchiest middle eastern-style caraway lavosh crackers. The wine list is long and quite expensive with little choice under £35, but we did find a relatively modestly-priced bottle of tip-top Errazuriz Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2011 from one of Chile’s most respected producers, for £34.
There may be a new man at the helm but Hillbark’s upward culinary trajectory has not faltered. n
The Dining Room, Hillbark Hotel, Royden Park, Frankby, Wirral, Cheshire CH48 1NP.
Tel: 0151 625 2400. www.hillbarkhotel.co.uk