I must say, it was certainly novel going for a weekend away in my home town, but thanks to Oddfellows, my weekend in Chester showed me a side of the city I never knew existed.
Set in the heart of the city is the glorious Grade II listed Georgian townhouse that is Oddfellows Hall – a bar, restaurant and hotel which is bursting with whimsical delight. Building on the Georgian roots of the building the design is like a grown-up playhouse filled with oddities, antiques and a fair share of taxidermy.
In the hotel are 18 individually designed bedrooms located on Lower Bridge Street close to the bank of the beautiful River Dee. Since its construction in the late 17th Century, the building certainly has a lot of stories to tell, and the minds behind Oddfellows have managed to pay homage to its many lives throughout its design.
Eccentric and charming is what you will find here, and if you do not believe me, you can look to the Valkyrie aircraft wing that is the reception desk, an Alice in Wonderland themed tea room complete with a fully dressed tea-table on the ceiling, Sophie Ryder boxing hares and magically suspended chandeliers for proof.
Oddfellows Chester doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that is all part of the fun.
I was rather chuffed when I was shown to my room which was on two floors- something I have never experienced in a hotel room before. On the bottom was a bathroom and a small living room with the bedroom (and enormous roll-top bath) on the upper floor. It would be sacrilege not to enjoy a bath like that, and after a long week at work, it was just what I needed along with a glass of Prosecco from the wonderfully stocked mini bar.
After a welcome bit of R&R in the bath, I swung by the stunning wood-panelled Champagne Bar before heading to the on-site Restaurant Cultivated headed up by Executive Chef Elliot Hill. Now, Elliot is a fascinating chap, and I actually got caught with him on the stairs for about half an hour talking all things food.
Elliot has such a refreshing and passionate outlook on food with a certain sensitivity towards sustainability, locality and the power of humble ingredients. “I don’t bother hiding behind fois gras…” he told me, “just let me show you what I can do with a leek.”
After this conversation, I was positively ravenous.
I have to say that the menu of ‘Odd Plates’- which are based on the small plates phenomenon that it sweeping menus nationwide looked mighty inviting, but I couldn’t look past the 5-course Tasting Menu. That, and Elliot recommended it to me and we all know we should always trust what Chef recommends.
Changing often, this Tasting Menu is seasonally-led and uses only the finest ingredients available. This means that the menu can change almost daily depending on the obtainability of produce. This means that the meal you receive after reading this might not be the same as the one I review below, but I certainly hope it is because it was nothing other than sublime.
The meal began with a selection of handmade breads served with yeasted butter and olive tapenade. The yeasted butter was smooth, silky and with a familiar twang of Twiglets which I would happily spread on my toast until the end of time. The tapenade was salty and tart as one would expect and was a delectable (and different) way to begin the meal.
An amuse bouche of cured trout followed. This was beautifully fresh and light with crisp, cubes of apple, woody beetroot and a lemony twang of lovage. After this, you could consider my ‘bouche’ thoroughly amused.
Following Elliot’s promise, course one consisted of blackened leek with whipped goat’s cheese and a sprinkling of hazelnuts. The leek was deliciously tender and obviously lovingly poached before a final blackening with a blowtorch. The goat’s cheese was incredibly light and so full of air it was reminiscent of the sweetened cream I used to drink straight from the can as a child without my mum ever finding out. I have to say the whole experience was terribly nostalgic.
It is important to point out that these courses were all paired with beautiful wines hand-picked by the restaurant manager who really knew her stuff. With the goat’s cheese was a 2017 Picpoil de Pinet from France with a delicate nose and floral flavour which was perfect with the lightness of the cheese.
Course two was my favourite. Stone bass with yeasted cauliflower, two of my favourite flavours that are expertly paired with tart pickled grapes. It was a flavour sensation. The fish was beautifully cooked too, which at this point, I didn’t expect anything less.
This was paired with a 2017 New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Bascand Estate which was light and crisp but much more depth than the previous white with tropical notes. It pulled out the sweetness of the grapes and artichoke without overpowering the delicate texture of the fish.
Hogget was the main element of course-three and a first-time experience for all three diners. It was interesting to choose a, let’s say “old fashioned” bit of meat on such a sophisticated tasting menu, but this is what Elliot’s food is all about. Availability and locality is key, so if hogget is about, it’s hogget you’re going to get and you’ll get it made with as much precision and finesse as physically possible.
Granted, I do not think it would be to everyone’s tastes. The meat is strong in flavour and slightly more on the gamey side, but I was a big fan. It was served with a faggot of the lamb offal which was tender and certainly full of flavour and artichoke mash. My only complaint is I wish there was more sauce and the hogget was a tad on the rare side (even for me) – but I see that ‘bloody-as-possible’ is very much in vogue right now so I will let go.
The smooth, elegant Marques del Atrio Crianza was the pairing to this hogget which was woody and earthy to match the flavours in the dish.
Moving on to the enigmatically named ‘Cheese and Their Friends’ – we were presented with three already built cheese and crackers. These, in my opinion, were a fantastic idea as it took the stress out of building your ultimate cheese-biscuit without cracking it upon building, covering yourself in sticky cheesy crumbs and looking like an absolute fool in front of your much-more-sophisticated friends.
There was a Welsh brie with coffee, chocolate and hazelnut (a bit of an acquired taste but I was a fan), Blue Monday with nasturtium, date puree and apple, and finally Snowdonia black bomber with beetroot and fennel. The latter was my favourite – can we all just admit that Black Bomber is the best cheese ever made?
We ended things with a Chocolate Creamaux with real cacao and yoghurt ice cream which perfectly undercut the savoury-sweetness of the chocolate. This had crisped artichoke for a little texture, which is a great example of Elliot’s minimal-waste policy in his kitchen. Pudding wine, or sweeter wine, is a guilty pleasure of mine and the rosy-pink-hue of the 2016 Ventus Moscato was what dreams were made of.
As you can imagine, I was stuffed after eating these five courses, but I didn’t regret a single moment. After waddling out of the restaurant, I treated myself to a nightcap in the garden which is my new favourite drinking hole that I will frequent on every trip home from here-on-in.
The Secret Garden is an idyllic hideaway from the city outside and a wonderful outdoor space within the city walls. You can, and are encouraged to relax outdoors with food and drinks in all seasons thanks to canopies and outdoor fires. After nursing the last of my dessert wine, I retired up to bed for a very restful night sleep in my enormous double bed.
Come the morning, I sprang out of bed, got dressed and left the building for a walk around the centre of town. There is plenty to do in the general area when you come for a stay including nightlife, shops, cafes and restaurants – but to be completely honest, you will have no need to leave the hotel.
If you are looking for a weekend away somewhere lovely, I urge you to bear Oddfellows Chester in mind. It is a sophisticated hotel with impeccable service, tongue-in-cheek decor and a restaurant worth raving about.
If you are just there for a day trip, I recommend you pop in for a cocktail, for dinner or even a quick cuppa so you can admire the space. Oddfellows Chester is the grown-up playhouse you never knew you needed, and it is going to knock your socks off.