Gone Dining: Thom Hetherington at Nord
Gone Dining, June 2023.
Nord, The Plaza, 100 Old Hall Street, Liverpool, L3 9QJ
Nord had a difficult origin story. It was created by Graffiti Sprits Group, the acclaimed Liverpudlian hospitality operator, and all was progressing apace until Covid hit and the intended head chef moved on, stalling the entire project within sight of the finishing line. Ouch. But admirably their tenacity never wavered, and sometimes resilience brings its own serendipity.
Enter stage left Daniel Heffy, a Liverpudlian chef who had cut his teeth at The Art School before forging a stellar career in Scandinavia, with stints at the three Michelin starred Frantzén and Adam/Albin. Daniel wanted to come home, and here was the opportunity. What a story Nord could be – Local hospitality legends combining to form an all-conquering dining Megazord.
Happily, the initial word of mouth was strong, and that sweet scent of success lured me down the East Lancs Road like a Bisto Kid to gravy.
A golden rule of restaurant writing is to pick a contrasting plus one to ensure a wide breadth of perspectives. Admittedly Helen Davies also works in the arts, studied in Liverpool and now lives back home in Manchester, but she did offer some points of difference, not least that she is an award-winning artist. This seemed a perfect opportunity to continue our ongoing discussion as to whether emerging artists need to be in London to progress their career. (Me: “No.” Helen: “Maybe.”)
We crossed through the crisp, light foyer of The Plaza before sliding around an island bar the colour of coral. Nord is a riot of clean lines, bold shades and circles within circles as a recurring design motif. Late mid-century maybe, with a dash of knowing kitsch. Kristie Palmer ran the front of house deftly; one minute eloquent on the minutia of dishes, the next leaving us to fractiously discuss whether emerging artists need to be in London to progress their career. (To recap, me: “No.” Helen: “Maybe.”)
The menus, plural, were extensive to say the least, but we brushed the limp hand of indecision from our shoulders and picked quickly and precisely, like seasoned pros.
Gougères first, richly flavoured with a gloop of Mrs Kirkham’s inside and another dusting on top. The obligatory Brat-inspired flatbread was excellent, blistered and tearable, a soft foil to the punchy anchovies and confit tomatoes. And crab, topping an isosceles of fried bread, was zingingly fresh, as was all the seafood here. Their sourcing is impeccable. The zucchini was fine, but the accompanying burratini were a little fridge-cold, and their size precluded any runny stracciatella innards.
I swear there was a time when starters were often the highpoints of any meal, but recently the pendulum appears to have swung back towards main courses. Maybe the small plates craze has chefs yearning for a broader canvas on which to work; a nuanced test match of a dish rather than the reductive hit of Twenty20. Here, the monkfish for two leapt out at us. It’s a technically challenging fish for a kitchen, but a delight for diners when done right.
And this was indeed glorious, a thick wodge of juicy fillet from behind the head, sinews neatly removed, with a bouncy firmness to the flesh which would give Finbarr Saunders a breakdown. The real cleverness came in the saucing, a classic brown butter flecked with the briny tang of capers, which cleaved the richness and meatiness in one satisfying swoop. The fish had snuggled into a luxuriant celeriac puree, less the cliched ‘bed’ than an enveloping cashmere Oodie.
Alongside this we had a bowl of excellent Jersey royals, lightly crushed, caught around the edges and getting intimately acquainted with a yielding pat of café de Paris butter, and roasted new season carrots which were a revelation. Coated in herbs, the skin just starting to blister, poised on that pinhead between firm and fudgy. A crisp and clean organic Nachbil Riesling from Romania, well priced at £42, saw us through.
Nord’s head chef, Paul McLoughlin, cut his teeth at Gary Usher’s places, and anyone who’s spent their formative years making endless quail Wellingtons in a shed understands solid classical techniques. “How do you get the carrots like that?” we asked him in chorus. “Basically”, said Paul in a conspiratorial Scouse twang, “We slow-cook them in loads and load and loads of butter.” Bravo, I’d eat my own Cheaneys if they were prepared in this way.
And then dessert. My common lament with crème brulees is simply insufficient bruleeing. Sugar is sparsely scattered, as if reseeding a lawn, and then seemingly warmed through with a lit match. Whereas I demand a burnt crust thick enough to bear my weight, all caramelised toffee notes, and a rich contrasting crème fit to grace a 1950s dressing table. This hit both marks, causing some light spoon-jousting and a bowl scraped clean.
Nord feels as proudly scouse as, well scouse – the majority of the staff and much of the seafood is locally sourced – but with a tasting menu, a flexible lunch menu (mid-week too!), a vegan menu, and even a timely graduation menu, it has clearly opened its arms to every stripe of guest. Hipsters? We have cavatelli and flatbreads. Cautious diners? Come for steak and chips or roast chicken. Old school traditionalists? Gougères, tart tatin, butter in everything!
Marketeers sometimes worry about being all things to all people, but rather than dumbing down to chase the masses Nord is aiming high, artfully democratising delicious and ambitious dining. We should all embrace it.
- On a related note it was great to see Manifest, another proudly Liverpudlian restaurant, run by Paul Durand and Charlotte Jones, edge into this year’s National Restaurant Awards list. With San Carlo’s stunning arty refurb, Hawksmoor bedding in nicely, and new indie venues planned for the remaining sites at the Albert Dock, it does feel like a city with momentum.
- And talking of the NRAs, the North came out well, with Moor Hall named England’s Best Restaurant, newbie Higher Ground straight in at 51, Best Gastropub in The Parker’s Arms, and Best Chef in Kenny Atkinson. The North East did particularly well overall, with Pine at number 6, Kenny’s Solstice and House of Tides at 17 and 23 respectively, and Hjem at 63 too. I’m thinking another Northumbrian road trip is required?
- My launch of the month was Madre at Kampus in Manchester, the new outpost of the Liverpool based Mexican concept. The press lunch, featuring asador dishes as well as tacos and raw plates, was excellent, and the space is a beauty. I intend to become a regular, and indeed tried to pop back for dinner a few weeks later, on a Monday at 6:30pm, only to find it was booked solid. I think the hospitality industry has adopted it, which is a good sign.
- On a recent London trip I popped in to Lasdun, the critically acclaimed new restaurant at The National Theatre, run by the Marksman team. It was great, but highlighted just how disappointing much cultural catering can be – reconciling world class programming and priceless collections with sometimes price-sensitive and gastronomically cautious audiences can be tricky. It did though make me excited to see what Super Serve Manchester, the F&B company with links to the excellent Ox Club in Leeds, can achieve at Aviva Studios. In the meantime, a lunch for the patrons of The Manchester Contemporary Art Fund at Manchester Art Gallery reminded me quite how good the gallery café is. As a trustee I’m biased, but they ace coffee and cake, casual lunches and corporate events, so do give them a try.