Gone Dining: Thom Hetherington at Higher Ground
Higher Ground, Faulkner House, New York St, Manchester M1 4DY
“Cobnuts!” exclaims Joseph, a triumphant grin upon his face, before I’ve even settled myself at the bar.
It’s an unusual greeting in any restaurant, but chef Joseph Otway, one of the softly evangelical trio behind Higher Ground, has taken an unusual delivery and is excitedly shaking a large box of Organic North’s finest, still in their leafy husks.
“What are you going to do with them?” I ask. “No idea” he says gleefully, “But I’ll work them in for you!”
Such freewheeling responsiveness to the vagaries of seasonal British produce is emblematic of Higher Ground, a restaurant which identifies itself as a “thoughtful, modern bistro”.
But is this a genuine show of self-awareness and copywriting fit to earn respectful nods from both Descartes and Don Draper? The three founders here bring a global pedigree – Copenhagen’s Relæ, Simon Rogan’s Fera at Claridges, Noma – so surely there’s a chance.
Poetically, Higher Ground forms the third prong of the triumvirate’s hospitality trident. It follows on from Flawd, the small plates/natty wines bar which was launched as a meanwhile project when Covid put plans for Higher Ground temporarily on the back burner, but which became a permanent and much-loved fixture in its own right, whilst both venues are powered by the exceptional produce from their own organic farm, Cinderwood.
In the plus one seat for this particular visit was a visibly giddy James Eden, the founder of Salford’s Private White V.C., one of the world’s most respected menswear brands, which dresses everyone from David Beckham and Tom Hardy to, erm, me.
James is a delightfully garrulous dining companion, and within seconds of entering the room had cryptically declared himself “as game as a bagel” for the whole reviewing experience.
We were met by front of house impresario Richard Cossins, the second of the HG trio. I’d happily watch a TikTok compilation of Richard welcoming guests on loop; he should be Life President of The Greeter’s Guild.
Following a glass of Loire crémant, ably delivered by the third founder, Sommelier Daniel Craig Martin, we slid around the bar into the dining space which is more window than wall, with a pleasingly soft and textured utilitarianism.
From an all natural and low intervention wine list (if you think you don’t like such things, Dan is the man to convince you) I picked a modish Luc Baeur 2019 Altesse from Savoie. Try it if you like Riesling or Pinot Gris.
Then the menu itself, a missive as warm as a hand-written note, which gets updated so frequently you’re expecting the words on the page to magically writhe and change beneath your gaze, as if Dumbledore or Gandalf themselves were on the stoves.
Dishes are listed in order by their varying sizes, meaning you can have a full tasting menu, indulge in free-range small plates grazing, or construct a kind of a la carte three-courser if ‘dadcore’ dining is your vibe. The latter was certainly ours.
First up, heirloom tomatoes and brown crab on toast, like a pimped-up pan con tomate, with sweetness, sharpness, softness and crunch. Then a superlative Pitchfork cheddar and yellow bean tart. Joe had made a signature of this loose, short pastry, seemingly held together by willpower alone, which melts on the tongue like a savoury digestive. Along with the beans, devoid of squeak yet still with snap, and the rich cheese it was as finely balanced as a gyroscope.
Next, golden beetroots with sour cream, borscht on its best behaviour, draped under their own leaves with salted rhubarb adding some zing. And a bowl of marinated Sungold tomatoes, bobbing like buoys in a “burnt vegetable dressing”.
Finally, a stunning steak tartare – superb beef, roughly cut and hiding a scoop of equally nubbly potato salad, beautifully seasoned and topped with preserved pine needles and tiddlywink slices of fresh cobnuts adding a soft crunch.
Yes, those cobnuts.
You can’t fail to notice from the photographs that every dish here is a deft aesthetic delight, like someone so confident in their natural symmetry and golden ratios that they simply roll out of bed looking effortlessly, minimally perfect. Fibonacci plating. But of course, to paraphrase Dolly Parton, we all know it takes a lot of effort to look this casual.
We dithered over some fine sounding steaks, numbers limited as the chefs work their way through full carcasses from Jane’s Farm, but felt the whole plaice might challenge the kitchen more.
Roast in a KOPA charcoal oven, it arrived languidly lolling across a rich sauce of tomato and seaweed, fronds of kale hiding its modesty like an Italian nude. The flesh slid easily from its bones, meaning even a ham-fisted amateur like me could fillet it without appearing to have used a strimmer.
As we’d eased through the Altesse, Dan shimmered back alongside our table to recommend a glass of Domaine Mataburro Macabeu from the Languedoc. The service here happens just when you want it and just where you need it, rich in knowledge and guidance, which is lightly worn and gently delivered. Like being waited on by an entire squad of synchronised Jeeves.
For desserts, a quenelle of sharp outdoor rhubarb striped with bay leaf oil, a muted blush rather than Barbie pink, was a zingy refresher, and opal plums, poached in red vermouth and served with a Nantwich milk ice cream, were magnificent. Desserts as a soothing high to finish a superb meal, rather than merely functioning as sugary punctuation.
An old friend, legendary hospitality maven Jacqueline Hughes-Lundy, arrived at the next table, and as we exchanged gossip the conviviality in a now thrumming room cranked up another notch.
I seldom come here without seeing an off-duty chef, restaurateur or food writer tucking in, and take it from me, as an indicator species, such people are a sure sign of a good time.
Higher Ground itself may have taken its time coming, but like a long-proven sourdough it has risen to produce something complex and layered yet comforting and deeply delicious.
It’s uncompromisingly contemporary but rooted in the fundamentals of hospitality. It is indeed a ‘thoughtful and modern bistro’, and it left James and I feeling as game as bagels.
- Following on from the review above, Cinderwood Market Garden in deepest Cheshire deserves a fuller explanation, as it’s not just the engine of Higher Ground and Flawd but a gamechanger for leading chefs across the North. When the legendary Paul Heathcote first returned to the region from France he couldn’t source the level of produce he was used to. So he persuaded local farmers and suppliers, including Reg Johnson et al, to grow and supply specifically what he needed, and that produce powered his Longridge Restaurant to two Michelin stars and inspired a whole generation of chefs. Cinderwood is doing likewise, for restaurants ranging from Erst and The Edinburgh Castle in Manchester to Bench in Sheffield and even The Timberyard in Edinburgh. It provides ‘kitchen garden’ quality, variety and seasonality to largely urban landlocked restaurants who lack the space to grow their own. Brilliant.
- My last London trip saw me visit Mountain in Soho, the newbie from North Wales’ Tomos Parry, Chef Patron of the iconic Brat in Shoreditch. It was, as expected, a classy delight, and coincidently had many produce-led parallels with Higher Ground. Do go. Also in London, I’ve decided The Midland Grand Dining Room is my new favourite stop-off for sustenance ahead of the off peak trains home from Euston – it’s only a five minute stroll away. Northern restaurant-goers will spot some friendly faces, not least Emma Underwood, previously of Elite Bistros and Where the Light Gets In, and Molly Dixon, ex of Mana. And reversing the North-South flow, Scottie Bhattarai, of Mayfair’s Isabel, is planning to launch a new restaurant, Maya, in the long empty Mash and Air site on Canal St in Manchester. A private menu tasting was very encouraging, and an intended 6:00am license for fine wines and great cocktails will surely find an appreciative audience.
- Opening of the month has to be the new San Carlo in Alderley Edge, taking on a site which ran for many years as Piccolino, before a short-lived stint as Gino D’Acampo’s Luciano. A press dinner was fantastic, with great Italian wines, a super monkfish pasta, and the best veal chop I can remember. But what really sets it apart is the £3m fit-out, putting it on a par with their prime London sites – no skimping here in Marcello Distefano’s home town. The lighting and art are dreamy, the kitchen has been shunted out back creating an entire second dining room, and the huge terrace has been melded into a hybrid indoor/outdoor space, complete with al fresco fireplace. With its fringe of palms and Italian X LA Spago vibes it will surely be the place to see and be seen this Summer and beyond.
- I recently took my childhood friend, Tim Conroy, now CTO at Experian, around Manchester, a city he’d barely returned to in the last decade. The pace and scale of change left him delighted and disorientated, and in viewing the city through an outsider’s eyes I spotted a pattern in the places we liked best and lingered most – Kampus and New Islington/Ancoats. In both instances we didn’t go for one particular bar or restaurant, which saved us the hassle of booking in advance and sticking to a schedule, we just rocked up because they are compelling districts to hang out in, and we were happy to snag a spontaneous spot in any one of a handful of tip-top restaurants and bars in the vicinity. It really illustrated how attracting audiences isn’t just about banging in a tent-pole opening, it’s about the chemistry created from the right blend of operators and investment in pleasurable public realm too.