After our excellent starters had been cleared from the table, there was a perfect illustration of the key issue confronting Joseph Benjamin, the new restaurant/deli snuggled into the Chester city walls.
I was absent-mindedly twiddling a toothpick when my grip failed me and it shot out of my hands. In another restaurant, the toothpick would simply fall on to the floor and my wife would roll her eyes at my stupidity. However, at Joseph Benjamin, space is at a premium and my toothpick actually landed on the plate of an oblivious fellow diner at an adjacent table. The main etiquette texts are short on answers for such a situation, so I stealthily leant across and plucked it nimbly from his plate, observed only by his wife who issued me a look of confused disdain which is now etched into my private gallery of shame.
The restaurant claims to be able to seat 20 but unless its hosting contortionists or the cast of Snow White then I sincerely doubt it – the 13 seated during our evening session was quite snug enough. Size, fortunately, isn’t everything and, in theory, this is an excellent venture that seems set to succeed. The business is split between the top-floor, open-plan kitchen, the basement-level dining room and the ground-floor delicatessen that supplies produce for the restaurant.
Apart from crying out for more square footage, this arrangement works excellently, and it’s a nice twist to be able to buy the produce that featured in your meal on your way out. The deli offers several home-made items (including chutneys, pâtés and some excellent cakes and chocolates) and choice produce from Cheshire farms and global producers. The cooking is looked after by Joseph Wright, five-times winner of Cheshire Young Chef Of The Year, while front of house is handled by his brother, Benjamin, and even though it’s only six weeks old, it would appear that the Wright brothers have got off to a flyer.
Three out of the five dishes we ate deserved a standing ovation and the pick of these was a starter of open ravioli (the contents come sandwiched between two deconstructed parcels) with saffron, leeks and smoked haddock. The simple taste of the delicately smoked fish combined with a velvet-smooth yellow sauce was frankly awesome. A main of grilled sea bass served with potatoes and olives suggests that brother Joseph has a way with fish that avoids the desiccation that grilling often produces.
The deli produce featured notably on a tasting plate that was served as either a starter or main. The finished plate looked like someone had won a trolley dash around the deli counter and highlights included some brilliant Cumbrian salami and a melting, refined goat’s cheese. Caper berries, gherkins, pickled walnuts and one of the deli’s home-made chutneys rounded things off nicely. Another winner was the Winsors Pressed Apple Juice (from nearby Tarporley), derived from Cox and Bramley apples which results in a terrific flat and cloudy juice with none of the bitterness you can get in other apple juices.
In fact, it was so good it detracted nicely from the limited wine list that offers only two reds and whites by the glass and only a few more by the bottle. Aside from these stand-out dishes, we got the impression that the kitchen was playing it safe. The Thai chicken skewers clearly utilised excellent meat but a relatively mainstream and simple dish like this provides an opportunity for a chef to display a bit of creativity and deliver another dimension, even if it’s just a different dipping sauce.
Equally, the vegetables of the day and the mixed salad reflected fresh produce but could have done with an extra push. Only six weeks into a venture, a safety-first attitude is to be expected, but once the chef is more comfortable with his surroundings and the tastes of his customers, then it would nice to see a few more innovations, especially when a serving staff brigade of three (one for each level) provides such a favourable chef to customer ratio.
Pudding was a portion of the homemade chocolate brownies with a serious vanilla ice cream – this was sensational and proves the deli is worth locating for any local workers looking for a lunchtime cake fix. Joseph Benjamin is definitely a place to seek out but our current advice would be to get a big group of friends or family together and book en masse; after all, it’s not often you get the chance to book out an entire restaurant is it?
In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed it will expand soon and forget about twiddling the toothpicks.