Deanna Thomas wants more from this highly recommended restaurant
When the Waitrose Good Food Guide 2017 came out last September, there weren’t too many curve balls. Most of Confidential's favourites were in there, but we were caught out by a new entry none of our writers had heard of.
Provenance Restaurant and Food Hall in Westhoughton, a suburb south west of Bolton, offers 'the best quality, locally sourced fresh produce with full traceability.' The judges had awarded it a cooking score of 1; putting it on a par with Easy Fish Company, Levanter, Baratxuri, Lunya and The Waggon at Birtle, but lower than Nutter’s or El Gato Negro, who both managed a 2.
We’ve had it marked down for review since then, but what triggered its move up the priority list was a recent visit by my in-laws who, assuming they’d discovered it, described a delicious meal of huge plump mussels and crispy proper chips which projected me up the M61 at the next available opportunity.
I’ll admit to not knowing much about the area, but a Wigan-dwelling colleague assures me that Westhoughton has enough of a moneyed catchment area to support a food hall with a butchery counter selling fillet steaks at £33 per kilo. Sitting upstairs, looking out over an adjacent funeral home and a shuttered up pharmacy, gave me reason to doubt.
The first floor restaurant is accessible only via the ground floor deli, which closes at 5pm, giving the building an empty first impression when entering at dinnertime. The interior has been enhanced by being kept relatively plain; white panelled walls reflect light streaming in through windows and skylights. A dark wood floor and hand rail imparts a timeless colonial look. The spacious dining room and bar is divided by the stairwell into three separate rooms, making it ideal for groups who can take advantage of a semi-private area.
They have got it right with the menu which manages to navigate the tightrope between classic, approachable dishes and culinary chance-taking. Leading the kitchen team that attracted the attention of the guide is bright young thing Lewis Gallagher; North West Young Chef of the Year 2012, Lancashire Young Chef of the Year both 2011 and 2012, and National Young Chef of the Year Runner Up 2012.
For starters, quality paté, home smoked salmon and freshly made soup are joined by more ambitious first courses such as duck ham Benedict or curried scallops with pickled cucumber and onion bhaji. They offer a range of salads and good looking sandwiches and mains are split into categories; favourites, steaks, fish and ‘something different’.
We were sat within rubber necking distance of the semi-open kitchen and I’m almost positive that Chef Lewis wasn’t in that day. In theory, the absence of a head chef shouldn’t affect a well-drilled kitchen team, but I can’t help but wonder whether the lack of a strong creative lead took the shine off our meal in comparison with the one my in-laws had waxed lyrically about the fortnight before.
We couldn’t describe our mussels (£7 as a starter, £12 as a main with bread, truffle and parmesan fries) as plump. At least a couple were no bigger than a fingernail. They were also gritty, resulting in us amassing a collection of half a dozen elf-sized pearls. They came with one misguided slice of toasted brioche.
The curry in the curried scallops (£10) was indiscernible. Although high quality, the scallops had only been briefly introduced to a hot pan, which left the inside glossy and all but raw. Their comparative warmth jarred against fridge cold red pepper hoummus and the onion bhaji garnish was still liquid inside. It was a good idea which hadn’t realised its potential on the plate.
Turbot topped with a vibrant green crumb, sprouting broccoli, purple potatoes and edible flowers (£12) was as pretty as a mermaid’s garden. It was delicate and well balanced, brought together by a well crafted beurre blanc, but the spuds peeking out from under the fish had been cut thicker than a weightlifter’s thigh, which marred its charm.
From ‘something different’, chicken broth with leek, barley and sage dumplings (£12) was a good hearty dish which managed to be light at the same time. The poached breast retained its flavour well and the leeks and carrots were allowed to shine just as brightly. However, I was brought up supping Gedempte chicken soup along with mother’s milk and I’d bet my taste buds that they’d used some kind of unnecessary gravy browning/thickening shortcut to finish it off before it reached its full potential.
Portions are not shy so we shared dessert, which came from a menu of beautifully pimped up classics; pineapple upside down cake, sticky toffee pudding, rhubarb and custard. A slab of chocolate orange bread and butter pudding came with a stunning, sherberty blood orange sorbet, garnished with a dehydrated slice of ruby-hued citrus fruit. One light press of the pudding made it bleed melted butter, but no-one orders that sort of thing for a lighter option, so fair enough.
I’m struggling with this one. I love what they are doing and wholeheartedly cheer at the brass balls it takes to open and run an independent restaurant and shop so far out of the city centre and attract the attention of a well recognised guide. I just wish, on our visit, that it had been a little better. I've little doubt it will be next time.
Provenance Food Hall & Restaurant, 46-48 Market Street, Westhoughton, Bolton, BL5 3AZ Tel: 01942 812 398
(mussels 6, scallops 6, chicken broth 7, turbot 7, bread and butter pudding 7.5)
stripped back but a pleasant enough place to spend an hour or two
charming but still at training stage