As Preston city centre restaurant 263 has recently made it into the Michelin Guide, I decided that I would kill two old birds with one stone by taking my 76-year-old mother Yvonne for a Mother’s Day treat whilst studying her in an unnatural habitat out of her kitchen, and reporting back to Blog Preston readers.Advertisement
The restaurant is located in Camden Place off Winckley Square, but we couldn’t find the building. After ten minutes of panicked drive-bys we phoned the restaurant and the manager had to walk into the street to wave at us. That was embarrassing, but beat the only other option which was to make Yvonne run at each of the walls in the hope that she’ll eventually Platform-Nine-and-Three Quarters-it into the magical world of Michelin so I can safely follow her in.
The unruffled manager took our coats and asked us if we had any food intolerances before taking us to our table. Understated decor was casually cosy, without the tablecloths, crystal glasses and lines of scrolled cutlery that can be off-putting for some whilst appealing to others.
The only option available that Friday evening was the seven-course taster menu at £70 per person or a vegan equivalent, which meant diners had to put their trust entirely in the hands of the chef. In 263 those hands fortunately belong to Chef Director and finalist of MasterChef: The Professionals, Oli Martin.
Read more: Masterchef finalist to become 263 restaurant in Winckley Square’s executive chef
The first course was new season pea tart. It featured almond cream, lemon balm vinegar gel and what I later found out was smoked eel. I’ve never eaten eels as I find them mildly horrifying and assume they’d taste like a carnivorous swamp, but there was no swampiness to the little pile of peas. Just a mouthful of sweet, metallic spring pea flavour with a smoky, tart background on a base of wafer thin, crisp pastry. It worked as intended, whipping the duvet off sleeping taste buds and handing them a green smoothie and a pair of trainers.
The next course was Goosnargh fried chicken with a wild garlic emulsion. Dietary restrictions aside, who wouldn’t love the ultimate chicken nugget and garlic dip?
Spelt grain bread and cultured butter followed. The nutty flavour came from leftover spelt grain from Rivington Brewery, and the thin, crispy crust held a surprisingly fluffy and slightly sweet inside which paired perfectly with the saltiness of the butter.
As we were eating the bread we were brought the next course of sea trout tartare with radish, apple, cucumber and horseradish buttermilk and lovage oil.
The soft cubes of raw trout combined with English herbs and crunchy slivers of fruit and vegetables was so delicate in taste and texture that it created a welcome breather in between the other courses.
Then we were back in the ring with a truffled potato pie, Leagram ewe’s milk cheese custard, allium jam, winter truffle and sweet onion gravy.
The restaurant manager who brought the pies made a bold claim that it’s a butter pie the likes of which we’d never before experienced. This was a gauntlet thrown because I’ve lived in Preston for 50 years and slummed it around so many purveyors of pies in Lancashire that I can’t even remember their names, they’re just notches on my table top.
This was a suspiciously sexy pie, crowned with tumbling locks of truffle and a wispy negligee of a crust that made me immediately suspicious as anyone who’s been affronted by a Mr Kipling’s French Fancy knows, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
We were overjoyed to discover a dense filling of potatoes layered with a wooden clog kick of cheese that let us know that we were still safely in Lancashire, and can enjoy the fact that if a young Sophia Loren was possessed by Wallace and Gromit and turned into a pie, this would be it. The gravy was also a relief as charging £70 for a meal that doesn’t feature the life blood of the North is an act of aggression.
We’re only half way through. Next came North Sea cod, mussel cream, dill oil, and smoked cabbage. The strongest flavour was the mussel cream, magnified by the scattering of mussels pickled in beer vinegar. It was a little too mussely for me as I enjoyed the combination of the more subtle ingredients, but Yvonne was happy to eat mine so it all worked out well.
Crispy lamb breast with anchovy mayonnaise, ramson buds and sea purslane came next. One hot bitesize chunk on a skewer each. The taste of slightly charred lamb with the saltiness of the anchovies was wonderfully oofy, and paved the way for the next course of salt aged lamb loin, Wye Valley asparagus, black garlic, basil emulsion, and anchovy relish.
Like a double A-side vinyl single by a favourite band, they were both appreciated but it was a matter of individual taste as to which one was preferred. The basil emulsion in the second lamb dish made it the star of the evening for me. I didn’t immediately recognise it as basil, as although it was intensely perfumed it had an almost floral smell to it. There was only a dot of it, but it was best used in the same ratio as English mustard to beef as more would have overwhelmed the perfectly cooked lamb.
The savoury courses were over and we moved on to Woodruff parfait, forced rhubarb and rhubarb granita. I don’t like the phrase ‘forced rhubarb’ because it always makes me imagine some young, hopeful stalk of rhubarb that wanted to be a sunflower or an actor before its dreams were crushed by parents who made it join the family accounting firm.
Yvonne explained that forced rhubarb meant rhubarb that was only allowed a few hours of daylight per day, so when it sees the sun it pigs out on it and tries to grow all at once, so fast that people can actually hear it growing. Now I imagine a hangar full of rhubarbs, all screaming as they try to clamour towards the sunlight. So thanks for that, Yvonne.
There is nothing featuring rhubarb that isn’t wonderful; it’s like Tom Hanks. At worst it would be Turner and Hooch but with the addition of the Woodruff it was Forrest Gump. I had to Google Woodruff before I went to the restaurant, but as long as rhubarb was involved I wouldn’t have cared if it meant a rare Alpine pixie was mashed into the sorbet. Fortunately it’s just a herb that tastes slightly sweetish with a tinge of hay.
Next was baked manjari chocolate mousse infused with hogweed seeds, salted yoghurt sorbet and yallo rapeseed oil, which was the most magically chocolate thing I’ve ever had. Occasionally things are so unbelievably good or so shockingly bad that all you can do is quietly drop a one word F-bomb to yourself. 263’s chocolate mousse got one. The Avenham Park Pavilion Cafe’s vegetable soup got another for entirely different reasons.
Lastly there was a piece of salted malt fudge each. It was perfectly good fudge but it couldn’t follow the intensity of the mousse so mostly just tasted sweet. We had a nibble but didn’t eat it all because we wanted to enjoy the taste of the chocolate for as long as possible.
£70 per head for a meal without drinks isn’t the cheapest. However, at 263 you get what you pay for. Everything about the restaurant is spot on, and manages to be quietly excellent without a trace of pretentiousness. From the welcoming and knowledgeable manager and staff to the tattooed Chef Director in immaculate whites coming out of the kitchen to chat about some of the dishes with maximum enthusiasm and minimum pomp, 263 encapsulates the very best of modern Lancashire food culture.
Read more: Food historian explores Preston and Lancashire’s rich culinary heritage in new book
Wear your jeans or a dinner jacket. Pick up your chicken nugget and garlic dip with your fingers or go at your Goosnargh chicken and garlic emulsion with your fork. Buy the wine flight or ask for tap water. Mispronounce courses, ask questions and give feedback good or bad. This restaurant is all about the joy of food, and if that means the chef, manager and staff foraging for wild garlic and hogweed in Avenham Park then that’s what they’ll do.
All Karen’s reviews are carried out without the prior knowledge of the restaurant unless stated otherwise
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Have you gone foraging in Avenham Park for wild garlic and hogweed? Lie to us about it in the comments.