By Ray King:
A Chester restaurant is at the vanguard of a new wave of quality food in the city.
Chester is a delightful place to be at any time, but it has a magical quality over the festive season and it has been raising the bar on its culinary offer recently too and so, with enthusiastic recommendation ringing in our ears, we arrived at Joseph Benjamin, an engagingly unpretentious restaurant-cum-delicatessen tucked away closer to the walls’ Northgate.
Run by brothers Ben and Joe Wright, the former manages the front of house while the latter is head chef – the venture has won a hatful of plaudits not least the Chester Food and Drink Festival’s Best Small Restaurant’ accolade two years running.
It’s an all-day operation starting with coffee and breakfast, serving lunch in the middle of the day and dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, emphasising throughout home made specialities based on an enviable quality of seasonal ingredients, mostly sourced locally.
Our visit was at lunchtime on a Saturday – the full menu is available and the place was buzzing. The dining room is furnished simply with square beech pedestal tables and functional chairs set on a bare-boarded floor, décor is limited to a few prints and drawings on walls picked out in slate grey, exposed brick and a large mirror.
The menu, which changes completely at least once a month and is augmented by a list of ‘staples’ and specials of the day, is short but entirely appealing.
Torn for choice, I eventually settled for a starter of smoked haddock, quail eggs and black pudding with grain mustard dressing, a plate of ingredients in perfect harmony. The fish was the real deal; the black pudding deliciously moist and seasoned and the dressing brought all the components together. Mrs K, meanwhile, opted for grilled whole king prawns with chilli and garlic butter from the Staples menu, listed as both starter and main course. Once again presentation, on a bed of peppery rocket, was attractive without being over fussy and while shelling the prawns was a messy business, they were plump and flavourful, the saucing excellent.
For the main course I had roast leg of Welsh lamb that was as far from standard carvery fare as it’s possible to imagine. Lovely pink, delicious thin cut slices were partnered by a wonderful salad of puy lentils, a wholly complimentary caper and mint dressing and a slow cooked lamb rib topping at all off.
The presentation was first class and the flavours divine. Mrs K enthused over another work of culinary art: her grilled fillet of perfectly cooked, creamy Scottish hake – a truly great fish with its skin expertly crisped – came resting upon a tangle of chilli and tomato linguine with Devon crab. The balance of flavours was admirable and the quality of ingredients tip-top. A shared bowl of superb chips vanished in record time.
Joseph Benjamin’s accessible wine list, with a commendable choice offered by the glass or 500ml carafe, provided a bottle of rich, fruit driven Languedoc viognier that proved an excellent partner for the starters and the fish and a carafe of soft blackcurrant flavoured Chilean cabernet sauvignon, great with the lamb.
We rounded off with a sumptuous chocolate brownie with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream and wedges of Stichelton Blue, fruitcake and a glass of moscatel and counted ourselves lucky to be on home turf.