Knutsford newcomer, Linden Stores, adds a new level of taste to Cheshire's restaurant scene

Will this chef-patron spot finally put Cheshire on the map? Thom Hetherington takes Frank Cohen for lunch to find out.

By Thom Hetherington | Last updated 3 March 2024

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Linden Stores, Knutsford

Cheshire has no great restaurants because the people of Cheshire have too much money and too little taste. We’ve all heard this right? Maybe some of us have believed it, or even repeated it. You will be unsurprised to hear that as a “needless contrarian” (as a random social media commenter once labelled me) I vehemently dispute such a statement.

Of course there are great restaurants in Cheshire per se, and although I can’t disagree that ‘critic-catnip’ options are a little thin around the fabled ‘Golden Triangle’, especially when compared to the similarly wealthy Cotswolds or North Yorkshire, it just doesn’t follow that the people there have “no taste”. Or else how come I regularly bump into Cheshire friends and acquaintances everywhere from Erst to L’enclume?

I’d argue the issue is simply the market economy, red in tooth and claw. It’s not that there is no appetite for ambitious chef-patron led places, it’s that the predominantly local (rather than visitor-driven) demand is for excellent but accessible places you can visit often for all occasions – think family-friendly Italian restaurants, classic grills, all-day diners. The sheer volume of that trade means such operators can use their scale and robust financials to outbid more directional indie restaurateurs on almost every site.

And this is to the considerable chagrin of local foodies like Frank Cohen, the Cheshire-based but world-renowned art collector. Frankie, who is almost eighty but annoyingly has more energy and indeed more hair than I do, has eaten in the world’s finest restaurants and is a significant supporter and vocal advocate for my Manchester Art Fair. Our friendship was forged over the years through a series of long lunches, which often brought him to Manchester but rarely me to Cheshire.

And then Linden Stores landed in the genteel market town of Knutsford, via a peripatetic journey which started in Islington before passing briefly through Audlem, South of Crewe. It’s a small plates and natty wines sort of place – of course it is, because they are the trattorias or bistros of our modern age and every town or suburb needs at least one – and is the passion project of Laura Christie, co-founder of Oklava in Shoreditch, and Chris Boustead, who previously worked at London’s Opera Tavern and Ten Bells.

The look is softly industrial, concrete floors combined with factory lighting and heavy drapes. Which feels mildly shocking set amongst the traditional Georgian streetscape of Knutsford, all red brick and chintz, though doubtless Elizabeth Gaskell, the progressive and quietly radical local, would have approved. We perched on bistro chairs at a table by the bar, clutching an la carte menu of small and large plates, a short six course chef’s tasting menu, and a wine list.

Decisions? A la carte and an Aligote – a toasty Au Pied du Mont Chauve 2020 with a reassuringly classical profile, and as we rattled through our usual anecdotes the dishes started to land. First up was a glossy ball of duck liver parfait, clinging to a cracker with a jaunty titfer of caramelised apple. The rich texture demanded I rolled it around my mouth like a Wall of Death stunt biker, coating my palate with intense flavours as it melted across my tongue.

Linden Stores Pate

As a benchmark this was up there with the mushroom parfait from Fallow in St James’s, and in the small but competitive world of parfait there is no higher praise. Linden Stores had our attention.

We were still licking our chops, like dogs given a peanut butter treat, as the Cheshire smoked duck arrived. Served as delicate slices, it was topped with Lancashire cheese, pickled walnuts, and finely dressed baby spinach. Manx scallops, queenies I assume, came with their corals and a purée of cauliflower, which can sometimes bring a back note of school dinners but here was a confidently earthy schmear, flanked by a strident chilli and lemon butter.

Leeks were scorched cylinders, bitter and sweet, set on end and anchored in another purée, this time parsnip, and supporting a tumble of mushrooms and crispy onions. The skin on our seabass was also perfectly crisped, possibly torched, and balanced by a tangle of bitter leaves, with the sharpness of fennel cutting through and a unifying quenelle of burnt apple.

After a succession of dishes featuring judicious singeing we were debating whether the kitchen employed a high-functioning pyromaniac, but the carefully written menu implied it was merely a confident brigade having fun with the flavour profiles and textural contrasts only a naked flame can impart. As stout Northerners we happily picked soot from our teeth and contemplated a hearty round of carbs.

On that note the British Isles famously has more words for a bread roll than Inuits have for snow, but I think the same now applies to the ubiquitous confit potatoes pioneered by London’s Quality Chophouse – finely mandolined tubers, packed into a terrine dish, pressed and confited in duck fat, then chilled, cut into Jenga-style blocks and furiously deep-fried. Here, they were simply called ‘layered crispy potatoes’, and they were exemplary.

Said spuds arrived as ballast alongside a large plate of venison with celeriac, quince, Chantenay carrots, a bon-bon of braised meat, and yes, burnt shallots. The Cumbrian haunch was seared but gloriously soft and rare within, the celeriac purée so smooth it must have been passed through a film of graphene, and the fine dice of citrussy quince lifted a sauce the colour and sheen of fresh conkers. This was a muscular, unctuous dish, fit to make your nostrils flare.

And then, dessert, a chocolate and peanut butter tart which prompted me to echo Super Hans’ pithy review of crack – “Tell you what, that is really moreish.” The chocolate was lustrous, with a generous layer of peanut butter and a short, dark base of crushed Oreos. Was it a low-born Snickers going all My Fair Lady, or an aristocratic bit of pastry cheffing slumming it as petrol station confectionary? Either way, it was outstanding, and meant our meal was pleasingly bookended with superlative squidginess.

Linden Stores Chocolate and Peanut Butter Tart

When I launched Manchester Art Fair everyone told me I wouldn’t sell contemporary art in the city, yet that felt like a belittling not of me but of the appetite and appreciation of audiences up here. The fair now sells almost £1m of art in a single weekend. As serial disruptors both Frank and I had faith, and likewise, we believe Linden Stores will prove the naysayers wrong, and that audiences from Cheshire and beyond will vote with their feet, their bellies and their fabled wallets.

Frank Cohen and Thom Hetherington ate at Linden Stores, 15 Minshull Street, Knutsford, Cheshire. WA16 6HG

Petit Fours

  • The global property world will descend on Cannes for the MIPIM conference in mid-March, and yours truly will be there among the Manchester vanguard. But taking a narrower view the restaurant real estate issue here in our city is that the influx of aspirational London and international operators only want to be in what they see as the prime district – Spinningfields, Peter Street and Quay Street, the strip of Deansgate between there and John Dalton Street, and a grudging nod to upper King Street. But with limited capacity within that area (and Flat Iron, Blacklock, Louis’ etc. already incoming) bunfights are breaking out around the few available sites – think the Island development where the late, lamented Grill on the Alley stood, and Gary Neville’s St Michael’s. How and where do we grow our prime pitch? Will the Square Half Mile absorb the overspill? Can Lower King Street and St Ann’s Square become a hotbed of hospitality? Or St John’s around Fenix and Aviva Studios? Which operators will finally open in The Lincoln building on Brazenose Street? Best guesses on a social post please!
  • Yet again most of my OOM (out of Manchester) dining tours seems to have been to London (though Liverpool and Leeds trips are incoming) and the star of the show this time around was The Dover, by ex Soho House COO Mark Kuczmarksi. Tucked away in Mayfair it offers a crowd-pleasing menu of New York style Italian dishes – chopped salad, spaghetti and meatballs, lobster ravioli – as well as a curvaceous bar space serving world class martinis. I’d also pop Kolae and Donia on your radar. The former is a grill-heavy Thai restaurant in Borough Market from the team behind Shoreditch’s renowned som saa, whereas the latter is a riot of contemporary Filipino cooking just off Carnaby Street, honking with big flavours but delivered with sharp precision. I’d love versions of both here in my home town asap please.
  • The hospitality industry will descend on Manchester next month as NRB fires up its engines at Manchester Central 12th-13th March. The trade only exhibition looks bigger and better than ever, with the usual line-up of superstar chefs and speakers, as well as a sparkling charity dinner with Eat Well Mcr. Also happening in Manchester on 19th March is Restaurant Magazine’s R200 conference, which attracts hospitality leaders from across the UK. Either side of this, geographically and temporarily, The Institute of Hospitality’s Thrive in the North conference takes place in Leeds on 6th March, whereas in Liverpool the Art of Hospitality conference is on 27th March. This unprecedented upsurge in hospitality events across the North is testament to the resilient energy in the sector and its unwavering belief in the region. Despite the current gruesome headwinds and some terrible losses Mancunian hospitality remains on a resolutely upward trajectory.
  • And in unrelated news Manchester didn’t get a new Michelin star, though the outstanding Mana retained theirs. But warm congratulations to the new Northern stars which included Myse in North Yorkshire (a previous review and huge favourite of mine), as well as the excellent Lake Road Kitchen (surely long overdue more recognition) and Hrishikesh Desai’s The Cedar Tree at Farlam Hall, both of which are up in Cumbria. The region in and around the Lakes now has a staggering fifteen Michelin stars, and if nothing else we Mancunians are lucky to have such a world class cluster on our doorstep.