Last week, Moor Hall was crowned 'Best Restaurant in England' for a second year in a row at the Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards. And having visited last month, I can confirm the restaurant is one of the nicest – and most flawless – I’ve visited in the UK.
Up in a beautiful part of West Lancashire, this restaurant with rooms can be found on the edge of the village of Aughton, in a striking 13th-century, Grade II-listed building within five acres of gardens. Since the property underwent a multi-million-pound refurbishment in 2015 and Moor Hall launched in 2016, the accolades have kept on coming for chef-patron – and Lancashire native – Mark Birchall and his brigade of talented chefs: the restaurant holds two Michelin stars and a coveted Michelin Green star.
It’s that Green star that really offers diners a clue to Moor Hall’s excellence. Birchall has worked at some seriously impressive restaurants in his time – three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Spain and Nigel Haworth’s Northcote in Lancashire – but it was his time as head chef at Simon Rogan’s multi-Michelin-starred L’Enclume where he won the coveted Roux Scholarship, that surely showed him the importance of a restaurant having its own space to grow as many ingredients as possible. The result is his own restaurant where exceptional produce-driven menus showcase ingredients from the estate’s own garden, plus a handful of unique specialities – think Gairloch langoustines, Isle of Mull scallops and guinea hen from Saint-Sever in France.
I visited on one of the year’s first sunny evenings, but even if it had been miserable weather, the garden tour would have been one of the highlights. Before dinner, we were invited to stroll around the Victorian walled gardens, peer inside the many greenhouses and walk among the rows of vegetables, trees, flowers buzzing with bees and herbs, each labelled up to whet the appetite for what might make it onto the plate later on. From one of the garden’s many seating areas and firepits, guests are able to see inside the back of the kitchen, where a small army of chefs can be seen prepping dishes for the evening ahead.
The dining experience begins with snacks in the bar in the oldest part of the building – picture grand stone fireplaces, wood panelling and cosy nooks, all vibrantly punctuated with modern art, such as pop-art style works of local legends the Beatles. In contrast, the main dining room is housed in a modern extension, in a space that mirrors the high ceilings and wooden beams of a barn. On two sides, there are huge panels of glass that give diners a view over the lake and into the gardens, while another side showcases the open kitchen, wine cellar and cheese room. White and bright, the room is decorated with beautiful abstract pendant lights and flowers, no doubt from the estate gardens. With just a handful of tables, all spaced out nicely, the atmosphere is special and exclusive – even at breakfast, where multiple courses replicate the experience of the night before.
At Moor Hall, the ten-course tasting menu is anything but. In the bar, I was presented with a parade of bite-sized snacks: a selection of in-house cured charcuterie; crunchy parcels of black pudding and pickled gooseberry that explode in the mouth; a bite of baked celeriac with chorizo and egg yolk; langoustine with redcurrant, radish and nasturtium; and finally a tin of chicken, chervil and caviar topped with cod’s roe and served alongside delicate, flower-pressed biscuits. It’s a wonderful start, raising anticipation levels even higher for the main event.
At the table, diners are treated to a well-paced rollcall of inventive, flavour-packed dishes, each presented with flair and a clear understanding of every ingredient. You can always judge a restaurant on its bread and Moor Hall doesn’t disappoint – neither does the gorgeously bright green herb-packed cultured butter that accompanies it. There are bright orange carrots served multiple ways alongside Doddington cheese, chrysanthemum leaves and sea buckthorn; then a delicate turnip and crab dish with anise hyssop and sunflower seeds (you’ll need even more of that bread to mop up every drop of the accompanying broth). This is followed by Birchall’s signature dish: an amazingly mustard-packed Spoutbank Farm beef tartare with prettily barbecued lattices of pablo beetroot and shallots. In striking form, it delivers all the flavours of the best burger you’ve ever eaten. Other courses that left an indelible impression were the scallop, served with green tomatoes, asparagus and truffle; a stunning dish of turbot served with roe and sea vegetables; and the first course we tried in the main restaurant – a poached oyster theatrically plated up at the table alongside white beetroot, dill and buttermilk.
Pudding is rarely my meal highlight, but Moor Hall is an exception. Among the four great dessert courses, the sticky Ormskirk gingerbread (a nod to the nearby village that’s been making and selling the dish since 1732) served with pine was sensational, as was the beautiful bowl of green strawberries with sweet cicely and cream cheese. Back in the bar, we ate our final course – a sweet-and-sour bite of honey and blackcurrant cake with mulberry and sour cream, which ended the meal on a high note.
Before the main series of courses in the dining room, we were taken from the garden into the kitchen to watch the chefs, say hello to the team and have an incredible bite of smoked eel with fermented garlic, edible flowers and crispy potato. I loved this level of interaction, which treads the line between being immersive and letting you enjoy yourselves in peace. As well as being talked through brilliant, interesting wine pairings, I enjoyed being led into the cheese room to see and hear about the vast selection, before choosing which to try back at the table. All this adds to the idea of a visit to a restaurant being a journey. Often that can present itself as a voyage through different cuisines and countries via what’s on the plate. In Moor Hall’s case, it involves a physical journey from drinks in the bay window of the bar to the main meal with its many highlights, through breakfast and on to the two homemade cronuts we were given at checkout to enjoy on the train home. Thanks to friendly, flawless execution, it makes for a very special experience.
Next to Moor Hall, around the same lawn and lake, you’ll spot The Barn. This is Birchall’s newest venture, a relaxed, neighbourhood restaurant which serves dishes like Cornish lobster and chicken wing with white asparagus and chorizo sauce; and butter-poached cod with sea greens, capers, smoked pike roe and jacket potato sauce (a contender for best condiment idea ever) – alongside Sunday lunches, affordable set lunch options and children’s menus. The Barn was awarded its first Michelin star last year, and as we’re keen to sample everything the team has their hands on, it’s the place we’ll be booking next time we’re in Lancashire.
Where To Stay
Moor Hall has seven luxe guest bedrooms, each with large comfy beds and smart bathrooms with rolltop baths. Five are located above the main hall, with views over the lake or gardens, and there’s a further two rooms in the gatehouse by the lake.
How To Get There
Trains from London Euston to Town Green take just over three hours. From there, it’s a short taxi or 20-minute walk to the restaurant. If you’re driving, allow around four hours from the capital. And if you’re looking to explore the local area, Liverpool is less than 30 minutes away on the train.
Aughton, Lancashire, L39 6RT