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Belle Epoque, Knutsford, review

Deanna Thomas finds Knutsford’s famous restaurant a florid delight

Published on December 15th 2010.

Belle Epoque, Knutsford, review

There was a time in Europe between the late 19th century and the beginning of the First World War that came to be known as the ‘Belle Epoque’ or ‘Beautiful Era’. Champagne was perfected, exotic fruit was first grown in heated glass houses and posh Parisian restaurants served haute cuisine to the upper classes who wanted to hang out and be seen.

My husband chose saddle of deer with crispy Wiltshire pork (£17.50). He’d been saying “BelleEpoqueBelleEpoque BelleEpoque” in the car, so was well in the mood for some ‘belly pork’ by the time we got there.

So who would be the modern equivalent of these rich, high-living gadabouts? In these current belt-tightening times, who earns huge amounts of cash seemingly disproportionate to effort?

Footballers maybe? Soap actors? Property developers? Quite naturally, such meanderings bring us to Cheshire. The local high-flyers may tend to prefer hanging out in trendier Alderley Edge or Hale these days, but far more lovely Knutsford has a couple of gems that are worth a visit.

The Belle Epoque has been owned and run by two generations of the Mooney family for over 35 years. The restaurant is housed in an extraordinary building created in 1907 by Manchester glove merchant Richard Harding Watt. He was like a magpie, collecting redundant architectural gems from demolition contractors and using them to creating new buildings. The courtyard part of the Belle Epoque even includes two pillars that used to belong to the original St Peter’s Church in Manchester.

Inside is just as eclectic, housing more opulent marble pillars and life sized figurines holding oversized plants. The mixture of gothic and modern decor sets the scene for a theatrical dining experience. With deep cerise pink walls, thick drapes and dark oak beams, think Marilyn Monroe meets Marilyn Manson and they go into interior design.

Guests are encouraged to relax first in front of the art nouveau fireplace. A few of the other tables had ordered champagne but we stuck to a gin (£3.10) and tonic (£1.50) and a pint of Kalten beer (£4) to start with. Anyway, it illustrates that this seems to be more of a special occasion place than an everyday restaurant.

The menu was one of the best I’d seen for a while. Mostly classical French dishes but with light modern influences such as the use of lemongrass and pickled ginger here and there. There is also a section headed ‘From the Grill’ which includes various steaks (£19.95-£23.95), local lamb and fish. The menu mentions that all steaks are locally sourced from certified Cheshire farms and aged for a minimum of 21 days.

To start with, I chose soup landaise (£7.50) described as a white bean soup, foie gras, confit duck, ham hock and truffle, so I had no idea how it was going to be presented. This dish was not a looker but it did have a great personality. The beans were blended into the soup producing a thick, rich, brown base from which my spoon would randomly discover one of the submerged edible treasures.

The rabbit galantine with apricots, pickled girolles, carrot and roasted pine nuts (£7.95) was much prettier but arrived cold, straight from the fridge, so tasted of nothing. It’s just a shame that such a delicate dish, so painstakingly crafted had fallen at the last post, when all it needed was 30 seconds under the hot lights of the kitchen pass to bring out its best.

For my main course, I chose Tasting of Glynn Arthur farm Welsh lamb (£18.50) which consisted of several cuts cooked in various ways. It came with a little story. Mrs Mooney told me that the farmer was a bright young lad who used to work at Belle Epoque as a kitchen porter. He phoned her up years later after marrying a lady sheep farmer and now supplies their lovingly reared meat exclusively to the Belle Epoque. The individual shepherd’s pie came in a cute copper pan and had a touch of the school dinners about it. The poached cannon was my favourite over the very herby slow cooked shoulder which is not something that re-heats well if made in advance.

My husband chose saddle of deer with crispy Wiltshire pork (£17.50). He’d been saying “BelleEpoqueBelleEpoqueBelleEpoque” in the car, so was well in the mood for some ‘belly pork’ by the time we got there. Unfortunately the skin wasn’t crispy and the pork meat not meltingly tender but the venison main feature was perfectly cooked and the Madeira jus excellent.

The international wine list boasted a wide range of well-priced bottles starting from £17.50 with a few more fancy ones. After wrestling the wine list away from my husband (why do they always give it to the man?) I’d decided on a Beaujolais Villages 2009, (£19.95) because it was described as very versatile in terms of food choices and it was.

The portions had been reasonably generous so we weren’t really bothered about dessert but for review purposes, we ploughed on.

I went for seasonal parkin with ice cream. It was ok, but maybe too gutsy to be the main player. Parkin can be heavy going and oats tend to leach all the moisture out of your mouth leaving it sticking to the roof. Husband fared better with a well balanced rhubarb and apple crumble which was good so we overlooked the oversweet over-runny custard.

Together with side-orders of beef-dripping chips and French beans, the bill for two came to £101.90. This is pretty much what I’d expect from a place like this, each dish had several components made from top quality ingredients - though they do offer a market menu from Monday-Thursday with two courses for £13.95.

The service was slick and professional - the front of house manager had been there over 25 years. Nowadays, restaurants are opening and closing like Kate Middleton’s wardrobe door, so what is the secret of keeping a successful restaurant open for 35 years? Is it the food? The ambience? Staff loyalty? I’m not sure, but it looks like the Mooney family have the recipe.

Rating: 15.5/20
Breakdown: 7.5/10 food
4/5 service
4/5 ambience
Address: Belle Epoque
King Street
WA16 6DT
01565 632661

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

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14 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Piers MorganDecember 1st 2010.

Used to be a regular here, they are really good at the old school french, not many left

ellpollolocoDecember 1st 2010.

"The poached cannon was my favourite over the very herby slow cooked shoulder which is not something that re-heats well if made in advance." _I'd love to know who makes slow cooked shoulder of Lamb to order Deanna.

bigearsDecember 2nd 2010.

Haven't been here since Dave Mooney left - food has gone right down hill. Overpriced isn't the word! £101.90??! Can go to far better places for that price. Also the reviewer musn't be from the food industry if she thinks you cant reheat shoulder of lamb.

ellpollolocoDecember 2nd 2010.

fur coat and no knickers in my opinion. Obsessed with provenance in the menu descriptions, although caught out a few years ago with "Steve Coopers greens" - wasn't the grower, just managed the fruit and veg wholesalers they used!!

A Dr WhoDecember 2nd 2010.

The writing is a big improvement on that dreadful Destino piece.

Knutty OneDecember 2nd 2010.

Went past here a couple of Saturdays in the summer and each time the place was closed for some hideously loud wedding/private party/karaoke affair. Hmm...

AndrewDecember 2nd 2010.

Not been here for donkeys years. Not sure whether to having read that. Sounds okay. Though I'm not sure about any "proper" restaurant that serves pints of beer as an aperitif, but maybe I'm too snobby.
Not sure how far I can trust a reviewer who says "slow cooked shoulder [...] is not something that re-heats well if made in advance" As ElPolloLoco suggests, that's how all restaurants do it. You can wait seven hours for your slow-cooked piece of meat to be cooked to order.

DeannaDecember 2nd 2010.

Of course it can't be cooked to order. This was shredded, packed into a little ring and reheated, therefore removing all the best qualities of slow cooked shoulder - sweet and tender meat. If you can't do it justice when constructing a dish, then don't include it.

Trevor EDecember 5th 2010.

I like the swagger and verve of Belle Epoque. It's a grand destination for a bit of a show and good food, can't really udnerstand these comments.

Mandy StaggDecember 5th 2010.

Trevor E I agree. I love this place for special occasions and I love the good service too.

sharxDecember 5th 2010.

Ate there a couple of weeks ago on a sunday. The food was good. Very flavoursome and good value. 2 courses for £14.50. Additionaly its an amazing building. As for the lamb shoulder there are ways of re-heating shoulder without losing flavour,moisture etc.

Carole BerlyneDecember 6th 2010.

Slow cooked shoulder of lamb when done properly is food of the gods and far more succulent and flavoursome than the more expensive leg. Of course it can not be cooked to order in a restaurant except as a "special" as it takes hours. Reheated, there is always that underlying taste of greasy lamb fat although eaten cold it is very good. Spain is the place for lamb restaurants where the baby shoulders are cooked to perfection in brick bakers ovens and served whole on the bone. Deanna is right to say that if it can't be done to perfection it shouldn't be done at all. I thought her comments were very informative and I would certainly consider the Belle Epoch for special occasion dining.

Gordon BerlyneDecember 6th 2010.

Eppicurist is absolutely correct. Only offer slow-cooked shoulder of lamb if it is served straight from the oven. The Botin Restaurant in Madrid has been doing this continuously since 1725 - and would never reheat anything. If you get a chance, go there, but book beforehand.

ellpollolocoDecember 6th 2010.

Agreed Gourmand...but I would have the suckling pig myself.

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