Deanna Thomas sniffs around on the hunt for a new brand

THERE'S been quite some interest in the recent opening of Fox in Hale Barns. There are the friends who have been rubber-necking work in progress between Wilmslow and Altrincham, and there are those in hospitality, familiar with the work of owner Danny Fox, keen to see how he’s used his years of experience to finally create a place of his own.

Just as Fox doesn’t poke its head above the radar by pushing culinary boundaries, it doesn’t slip below standards either

Many moons ago, Mr Fox was one of the founding fathers of Living Ventures with the late Tim Bacon and Jeremy Roberts, helping to develop their brand and sub-brands over the next decade or so. He eventually moved on to become Operations Director at Individual Restaurant Group, owners of groups such as Piccolino and The Restaurant, Bar and Grills. This man knows restaurants; he knows waiters, suppliers, customers, chefs, menus and wine lists.

I’ll cut to the chase; with catchment areas of Hale, Hale Barns, Altrincham, Bowden and Wilmslow, this restaurant is indeed the sum of all those years in the business, but it’s more than that, this is the beginning of his new brand. Mr Fox has worked out that what many successful people don’t enjoy after a hard day spent being professional and making money is having to think too much. They don’t want to be faced with complicated flashy wine lists or dishes with a convoluted list of ingredients. They actually prefer to outsource social decisions by delegating them to hospitality professionals like Danny Fox.

Even the fit-out of this new-build restaurant is undemanding. Suited more to Mr Magpie than Mr Fox, he’s taken lots of ideas from other unchallenging business models that work; dark green tiles, marble counter tops, brass rails and a mosaic-tiled pizza oven. It’s basically the love child of Gusto and Pizza Express.

He’s even commissioned a range of eponymous organic smellies for the bathroom, (‘Foxygen’ reed diffusers, ‘Refoxify’ hand lotion etc.) creating the most satisfactory olfactory lavatory in the North West.

If Dan Fox is a leviathan, then his staff are merely well-meaning amoebas in comparison; from the barman who only realised half way through making my pre-dinner ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ cocktail (£7.50) that he didn’t have all the ingredients, to the sweet young waiter who needed help pronouncing the name of our wine (it was Albariño, £29.50)

Fox’s menu is full of people-pleasing global dishes and nothing more; wood-fired pizzas (check), steaks (check), fish (check) and salads; goat’s cheese (check), beetroot (check). Starters take in more countries than a middle-class gap year student; Portuguese Prawn Pil Pil, Thai Chicken Satay, Italian Melanzana Parmigiana and so on.

Burrata Mozzarella (£8.95) was straightforward but slightly behind the times. It sat atop thinly sliced purple and golden beetroot (which the chefs hadn’t even bothered to cut to the same size rounds) and a pretty ordinary quinoa salad. The cheese’s shiny pate was covered with a 10cm backcomb of ubiquitous rocket and a drizzle of predictable balsamic glaze. I’d be less harsh on this dish if I hadn’t been spoilt by a stunning burrata at Sugo the week before; that one was served with added texture, some attention to detail and a bit of skill.

Chickpea Coriander Cakes (£5.95) could have gone wrong, but these were fine. Just as Fox doesn’t poke its head above the radar by pushing culinary boundaries, it doesn’t slip below standards either. The accompanying aromatic salad has a pleasant punch but I’m not sure they travelled further East than Booth’s next door for the Sweet Chilli sauce dip.

I took a punt on the fact that you’ve probably looked through enough pictures of steak and wood-fired pizzas this year, so we both ordered fish. ‘Whole Fish of the Day’ at ‘market price’ basically means you have no idea what you’re paying. Asking our waiter to go back and forth to the kitchen to determine weight and price per kilo would have ended in farce, so I went for it, risking the wrath of our accounts department. In the end, whole Sea Bream on the bone (nicely cooked) came in at a reasonable £19.50. This was served with yet another quinoa salad, ‘but we can change that for you of you’d prefer,’ said our waiter, ‘because some people don’t know what it is.’ Then he stumbled over a weak explanation before I offered him a more solid description about proteinous grains he’s free to pass on.

Seabass Fillets (£17.95) came on a bed of spinach. My friend pointed out that they’d ruined it with an over-enthusiastic drizzle of oil and a gleaming, tell-tale slick of shine on her chin confirmed it. We pimped up our mains with some sides; five definitely un-charred chargrilled carrots (unless I missed the lesson at catering college when chargrilled actually meant boiled) for £4 and some unseasonal asparagus (£4.50). Side orders and wine are going to keep this place afloat for some time.

From a dessert menu that Danny Fox got out of his filing cabinet marked ‘1996’, we shared a Lemon Tart (£6.50). I’m already congratulating myself for finding this many words to describe things that are ‘fine’, ‘very nice’ and ‘ok’, so please don’t make me open the Thesaurus tab again. Let’s just conclude that Fox is the restaurant equivalent of an upmarket new-build Wimpy home or an Audi estate for those with a reasonable disposable income that they didn’t get from following a career path in some creative pursuit. I’m sure it’ll do very well.

Fox, The Square, Hale Barns, Cheshire, WA15 8ZN. Tel: 0161 980 3000

Rating: 12/20

Food: 6/10 (Burrata 5, Chickpea Cake 6, Seabass 6, Sea Bream 7, Carrots 5, Asparagus 6, Lemon Tart 7)

Atmosphere: 3.5/5 

Service: 2.5/5