Lucy Tomlinson visits a Courthouse turned restaurant. But what’s the verdict?
When writing a review I like to pick out a subtle theme to link the whole thing together. This month, at the Barristers Restaurant in Knutsford, I don’t have to work too hard. It’s the first jurisprudence themed restaurant I’ve ever come across, (though there is also an Old Sessions House pub down the road) but such is the ambience here that you can’t help but be pervaded by an uneasy legalese.
Woman cannot live by carrot alone, no matter how many types there are
The location – in Knutsford’s old Courthouse – demands the theme. The building itself is a beaut: an imposing sandstone Georgian monolith, unleavened by such fripperies as windows. Inside there is the impressive vaulted ceiling with a stunning rose, plus various columns and secret entrances that architecture buffs will just love. Even if you are not a building nerd, the sense of history is captivating.
Luckily, the developers (Flat Cap Hotels) have seen fit to keep many of the courtroom features since it was closed in 2014. The dock has been transformed into a well-stocked bar, while the dining area occupies the stalls where the jurors sat and anxious family members would have watched proceedings. There are plenty of reminders of the building’s former life littered around the place, from the gallery of offenders lining the walls to the barristers’ wigs hanging from pegs that I initially mistook for evidence of a particularly grisly crime against Santas.
If the themed décor is more of a jab in the ribs than a subtle wink, then the menu doesn’t let up. The nibbles come under the heading “opening statement”, the starters are “the proceedings” followed by “grilled on the stand” then desserts are “closing statements”. A fun theme or horrendously twee? The jury’s out (and I feel like chopping my fingers off for typing that, but the theme commands it).
We adjourned to the bar (hmm) for a pre-dinner drink. It’s eerie to be sipping on an espresso martini (£8.50) in the very spot where lives that have been changed and fates decided. Alan Turing received his sentence for “acts of gross indecency” here, while seven bowler hats arranged above the door commemorate the men who were sentenced to death by hanging.
While I might have my modern-day anxieties about turning a building with a sad, bloody but very interesting history into a themed restaurant, I still think the two local brothers who took it over have done a far better and more sympathetic job than a large corporate entity would have. At least here an important piece of local heritage has been preserved (unlike some other areas I can think of). Overall that’s got to be a good thing. Of course another way to assuage all these worries is to stop being so angsty and pretend you are in a sexy legal drama like Suits or The Good Wife.
For, ahem, opening statements, we choose cured cod and guinea fowl (both £8). Normally I’m a sucker for these cold, mineral Scandinavian flavours. In this case maybe a little too cold, as I found I was eating fish-flavoured ice chips, nicely if incongruously decorated with a courgette flower.
The guinea fowl was slightly better, being surrounded by all sorts of jazzy extras such as salt-baked beetroot, artichoke puree, harissa carrots and a chicken liver parfait for richness, but the meat itself was gritty and dry.
The main evidence was a tough choice. In the end we went for ‘carrots’ (£14) and ‘fish pie’ (£19), inspired by the fact that the menu had the dish titles in quotation marks. They caught my eye because it remind me of newspaper headlines which use quote marks in order to comply with press regulations but end up coming across as horribly sarcastic.
I have to admit I was not expecting all that much from our sardonic mains, given the starters, but the ‘carrots’ were a revelation. Three different types of carrot (Asian, purple and the classic snowman’s conk) roasted and served with a warm carrot mousse, pickled carrot ribbons, a curried puree and a ‘sponge’ which thankfully was more of a bread than the Victoria kind. The flavours were warm, earthy, and autumnal with the occasional swerve towards pumpkin spice territory. A lovely and unusual vegetarian dish, but where’s the protein? As a former veggie who has come over to the dark side, woman cannot live by carrot alone, no matter how many types there are.
Protein happily abounded in the ‘fish pie’; a heap of sous vide cod, langoustine and firm poached haddock topped with a sous vide egg yolk and accompanied by peas and a little nugget of charred leek. The quote marks were more revealing here as the pie element was nowhere to be seen, but luckily a side of bubble and squeak did the job nicely, all washed down with a lovely pinot gris from the New Hall vineyard in Essex (£29).
The ‘closing argument’ was an almond and polenta sponge (£8), which I rather liked. The sponge was still warm and accompanied by a delicate green matcha tea ice-cream. The drunken Stay-Puft man that I presume was the lemon espuma was so subtle-tasting as to be rendered undetectable but overall this was a sophisticated pud.
As it is practically a legal requirement to finish the review by slamming down my fake judge’s gavel (supplied with bill) and deliver my verdict. Certainly there was some interesting highlights in the food but not as memorable as the surroundings. On the charge of over-theming – guilty! But then who isn’t?
Barristers, The Courthouse, Toft Road, Knutsford, WA16 0PB. Tel 01565 743 333
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Cod 5, guinea fowl 6, carrots 8, fish pie 7, almond sponge 8