Great British Menu 2016: Northern Ireland heat recap

Great British Menu 2016: Northern Ireland heat recap

by Food Urchin 25 October 2016

Danny Kingston lets us know what happened in the final heat of this year’s Great British Menu, during which one of the chefs achieved the highest score ever seen on the programme.

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Danny is a food adventurer, home grower, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurean blog, Food Urchin.

Danny is a food adventurer, home grower, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurean blog, Food Urchin.

Over the years, I have offered a long line of excuses for not getting things done on time and it is with great sorrow (and embarrassment) that for the last week of the regional heats of the Great British Menu, I have to trot out one more. To put it basically, I have lost my treasured notebook, which keeps all the details, all the observations and all the pithy asides that I use to compile these reviews. Worse still, I seem to have to lost it in a pub. So for Northern Ireland, I am going to focus purely on the judging round. I only hope that the chefs, namely Chris McGowan, chef patron of Wine and Brine, Eddie Atwell, head chef at Ardtara County House and Mark Abbot, head chef at Daniel Clifford’s Midsummer House, can forgive me. I am sure they’ve been there. Monday’s nights are usually the nights for chefs to lose things.

And I am sure that somewhere, in the depths of Essex, someone is having a good old laugh at my spidery scrawl and comments about Michael O’Hare’s dyed blonde hair, who was this week’s mentor. If you are reading this Michael, please don’t take that last sentence to heart. I am merely jealous of your locks. For mine left me a long time ago.

The two chefs that made it through to the judging round were third time lucky Chris and rising star Mark. Grafter Eddie threw the kitchen sink at everything during the week, including a commendable mains called the ‘Bounty of Baronscourt’; a fine, forest-like display of venison, set upon a dock leaf pudding and carrot jam. But it wasn’t enough, as Mark in particular was on fire. He ended up notching the highest score of the competition ever in the regional heats.

Chris impressed throughout the heats
Mark, however, was particularly focused, earning him the highest score ever given in the competiton

Helping our judges on this occasion was Amol Rajan, who manages to not only write about food for The Independent, but he also edits the newspaper. Which came as a surprise to Prue: ‘I’ve never known a newspaper editor to know anything about food.’ A possibly cutting remark but suave Amol laughed it off, because the jacket he was wearing was much smarter than Oliver’s. Meanwhile, Matthew said ‘cracking’ for the 100th time this series, a new world record.

To start proceedings then, Chris set about constructing ‘Hugh’s Piece Box’, a take on the ploughman’s lunch and an homage to a man called Hugh, who was awarded an MBE. I think he was a farmer. A very good farmer. By combining loaves of onion bread with ham knuckle ballotines and crubeens, dressed with radish and shards of pork scratching (not forgetting a cheese soup), Chris was doing the tried and tested ‘elevation’ number and the judges were impressed. Matthew thought it tasted like a ‘well-cut piece of tweed’.

However Mark, who also used the same approach, really punched through with his ‘Ordinary to Extraordinary’ by cooking spuds six different ways. Let us count them. He made buttermilk mash, topped with puffed potato. He made a salad from purple heritage potatoes. Creamy garlic potato in a potato skin. Champ croquette dressed with pickled onion puree. Pomme souffle topped with crispy bacon and bacon jelly and also a baked potato infusion. Phew. I am sure there were more elements and the judges loved them all, with Prue declaring that ‘there is nothing on this plate that is not delicious’.

Chris' fish course was served on miniature ships made out of balsa wood
Mark cooked five different types of seafood, which impressed the judges

For the fish course, it was a case of ‘Ships Ahoy!’ for Chris’ take on fish and chips called ‘National Treasure’. Not only had he made himself busy by constructing a plate of pickled onion rings, pea and spinach puree, seared scallop, a fillet of cod and triple-cooked chips, Chris had obviously spent some time in his shed making boats out of balsa wood. And boy did Matthew like his boat. Bathtimes will never be the same. Oliver on the other hand, whilst appreciating the quiet pleasures of this dish, felt things were just a touch too quiet. Or uninspiring maybe.

Not wanting to make life simple for himself, Mark’s ‘Shellsational’ again ploughed the line of ‘let’s see how many elements we can put on a plate’ with five different types of seafood. Lobster cooked two ways – meat rolled in pickled apple and smoked tail, served with a smoky butter sauce – scallop seared and baked, tempura mussels with lemon gel and a razor clam on a bed of fennel, all made it onto the scoresheet. For Amos, it was like a ‘collection of short stories, each one a jewel in itself’.

Smashing through the first two courses, as he had done during the heats, it looked for a moment like Mark was unstoppable. But then he gave our judges his ‘Grazed for Glory’ and suddenly, all was undone. The ingredients themselves should have sung loud and clear. Wagyu rump with braised tail and feuilles de brick, filled with more rump tartare and tongue certainly showcased this celebrated beef. And yet, it all amounted to just a posh plate of restaurant food, that just wasn’t good enough and with rubbery oyster mushrooms to boot. A dropped rubber ball, according to Matthew.

As a result, it looked like Chris could sneak back into proceedings with his ‘For Rib and the Empire’ – a celebration of venison, smoked beetroot and Irish whiskey, with baked red onions and a blackberry and venison jus thrown in for good measure. Having taken the time to make his own venison sausage also showed some artisan flair, which left all the judges feeling very happy with themselves for eating it. Most importantly though, his dish really did give a sense of performance and theatricality. Which is surely a must for a banquet and perhaps an element that has been lost or forgotten by some of the chefs during this series.

Despite Eddie's enthusiasm, he didn't make it through to the judges' round
Amol Rajan from The Independent was on hand to help Matthew, Prue and Oliver

Wheeling into the desserts round, you could tell that both Mark and Chris, the new boy vs the old dog, were neck and neck. Again Mark, with his tendency to go all ‘cheffy chef chef’ (this is a new saying by the way) did leave you wondering if he had overstepped the mark once more. His ‘Time to Reflect’, full of berries, compressed, jellied and gelled, with sponges and pickles and quenelles of yoghurt ice-cream and topped with a Union Jack tuille drew giggles from our judges at first and the overall response was mixed. For Oliver it was too muddled and for Matthew, too small.

Chris tried the smarming route with his dessert titled ‘A Sense of Occasion’ and very nearly pulled it off. By announcing in a note that ‘Britain was a better off place for the likes of you’, the judges, especially Prue, took the sentiment thoroughly to heart. But I suspect the sentiment behind his sensory creation of white chocolate balls filled with lemon curd, fresh raspberries and lavender ice-cream presented in a gift box of lemon verbena smoke was meant for the guests who would be at the banquet at Westminster Palace. Rather than solely for the judges.

Will they get to taste Chris’ pudding though? Well no, I am afraid to say that they won’t be. Because after some very closely matched scores, it was Mark who made it through to finals week and deservedly so. Chris, when asked whether he would be coming back for a fourth consecutive time, did make me laugh though. ‘Oh please!’ he bellowed, loosely translating as, ‘Sod that for a game of soldiers.’

And that is a shame. For I will miss chirpy Chris and scribbling down his exploits, as I watch him on the screen. Which reminds me, I must get down to the shops. WHSmiths opens in ten minutes.

Next, the FINALS!