It’s Wednesday lunchtime at The Barn in Aughton, a classy, “relaxed”, fine-dining restaurant, and each and every table is filled with chipper, liberated, double-jabbed sixty-somethings. They are eating plates of brown butter-poached Cornish turbot with terrines of plump, glazed jersey royals on the side. They’re ordering guinea fowl with celeriac puree and caramelised apple mille-feuille. Each group appears to be catching up with gossip that’s been stacking up for at least 15 months. It’s a spiriting sight.
The ladies and gents who seriously lunch are out of the house again. They’re choosing fancy wines and one-upping each other with tales about their grandchildren’s reading prowess or their new garden sprinkler system. Nature is definitely healing, and living well, as those taking advantage of The Barn’s lunchtime set-menu deal are so clearly doing, seems all the more precious right now.
The Barn is a lavishly converted outhouse a few dozen footsteps from Moor Hall, a double Michelin star-garlanded restaurant run by chef Mark Birchall. Moor Hall should be on any earnest restaurant nerd’s stop-off list while travelling the M6; it’s just there, being quietly gorgeous and outstanding, a short drive from junction 26. I’m sure, however, that many people opt instead to head on up to the Lakes, which is why so much of the north-west, including the lovely, dining-abundant Ribble Valley, is overlooked.
The Barn, you could say, is Moor Hall’s more relaxed little sister who lives next door. It’s a place to eat confit this, pickled that and emulsions of whatever, yet in more laid-back surroundings. Or at least I think that was the original notion. I do smile when very good chefs and their brilliant teams plan to be “relaxed”, because their definition of cool and breezy is often “we have two fewer fork changes over seven perfectly executed courses, but there will still be ornate amuse-bouches, a sommelier and 80 quid hand soap in the loo”. Any chef who has won two Michelin stars bade farewell to the concept of “going with the flow” many, many moons ago. They just can’t do it, because it hurts their heart.
Which is why, on any given service, The Barn is like the Bolshoi Ballet performing Swan Lake for Khrushchev. And why I’d been sat down for only five minutes – drinking a “foraged” martini of local gin and overlooking Moor Hall’s dreamy manor house lawns and flower beds, which lead through to thriving allotments – before I was already planning a return. I wish there was more science and skill to being a restaurant critic but, alas, it’s often as primal an instinct as sitting down in a joint and, within seconds, already lamenting the time when you’ll have to vacate this jocund view and these attentive staff who keep bringing glasses of chilled petit chablis, tiny tastes of bizarre, yet delicious dehydrated, smoked carrot slivers that taste curiously of bacon, or warm slices of sourdough and pats of soft, glossy, homemade herby butter. No, no, no, I thought, I deserve to live in a cosseted world where it’s standard to have eight versions of liqueur coffee on the menu and the cheeseboard arrives with a freshly baked dried fruit loaf and small-batch chutneys.
On what was, I’d already decided, my first of many trips to The Barn, I started with celeriac poached until soft in brown butter and served in a celeriac broth strewn with pickled apple and walnuts. It appeared arranged in a perfect ring, emitting gentle Midsommar vibes.
Charles ate gloriously rich 60-day-aged shorthorn beef with cured egg yolk, tarragon and crispy potato. For mains, we shared, via clandestine plate-swapping, Cornish turbot with an unforgettable warm roe tartare, Sladesdown guinea fowl with pickled leeks and morels and, my favourite, a stuffed, roasted jerusalem artichoke with hen of the woods, white asparagus and pickled pear, which is the vegetarian option of dreams.
No sane being has ever stuffed a jerusalem artichoke in their own time; it takes a team of experts in white coats during a long winter lockdown to plot this sort of delicious eccentricity. Pudding was fresh ginger cake with pear sorbet and a light, sweet honey parfait made pretty with oxalis, though, next time, I have my eye on the chocolate namelaka with coffee granita and milk sorbet.
I’ve heard that the evening menu at The Barn is a little fancier than the lunchtime offering, but I fail to see how they can push the boat out any farther. Althoughthe restaurant world is precarious right now, it is comforting to know that at places such as The Barn and Moor Hall, the car park is full, the standards are high, the staff are world-class and the till seems to be ringing. Life may never be the same again, but at least there are some delightful, morale-lifting spaces where things came back bigger and bolder and better.
The Barn at Moor Hall Prescot Road, Aughton, Lancashire, 01695 572511. Open lunch Wed-Sun, noon-2pm (Sun noon-6.30pm), dinner Tues-Sat, 6-9pm. About £50 a head à la carte; £25 three-course set menu, all plus drinks and service.