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The Riviera Restaurant at the Hillbark Hotel (Royden Park) does the thing that the very best restaurants do: it welcomes you through the door, takes your coat and then very politely and professionally allows you to escape from the rest of the world, because the time that you spend in its company is indeed a place apart for all the right reasons as it helps to put the world ‘on pause’ for a special hour or two.

Tonight’s Wirral Young Chef finalist, Ellie Fletcher, developed a real passion for cooking as a student at Wirral Metropolitan College, and is currently the only female chef in the Contessa hotel group. Described as Hillbark’s very own ‘Jewel in the Crown’, Ellie has grown into a calm, level-headed young chef, and her menu tonight clearly displays her craftsmanship with plate after glorious plate of killer ingredients orchestrated beautifully by Ellie and the team in such a way as to allow the ingredients to simply ‘be themselves’, a real skill indeed!

As we were led to the depths of the ‘cellar’ first impressions were that everything in the dining room felt careful and considered, from the clothed tables and candles, tables bubbling with chatter and the utterly infectious tunes eminating from the baby grand and resident pianist-we imagined that something special could be about to happen, and we wouldn’t be disappointed!

The Mediterranean ‘appetiser’ on the table did not come as a surprise as myself and my fellow diners had already experienced this at the Hillbark’s sister hotel, the Leverhulme, in Port Sunlight village, but tonight the addition of three different types of bread roll,  plain white, treacle and guinness and our favourite, fennel, provided a perfect platform for the fresh tomatoes, lemon, salt and olive oil on offer.

And so to Ellie’s menu……

Amuse Bouche
Although we had some knowledge of the menu in advance, we really had no idea what to expect from Ellie’s palate teaser, however what we were presented with by the knowledgeable and engaging dining room service team was a pitch-perfect, elegant tomato consommé that was earthy, sweet and yes, packed with a punch of intense tomato. The consommé itself was served in a glass with a ‘lid’ of thinly sliced bruschetta topped with red pepper and tomato-delicious!

To Start: Pan-Fried line caught sea bass with fennel, shallots and artichoke
As the starter arrived (explained in detail by the flawless waiters) we couldn’t help but be in awe of the delightful presentation of pan-fried bass served with a delicate sauce vierge (virgin sauce) made from olive oil, lemon juice, chopped tomato, basil and capers. Alongside this sat thin slices of artichoke and fennel and an artful scattering of textures of crunchy shallot topped with a tangle of fresh green pea shoots-quite superb and surely a difficult act to follow!

Main Course: Welsh Black Rib of Beef
Not to mirror the quality of the starter would have been an error of judgement, and clearly Ellie and her team behind the scenes understood this as we were served a faultless main course of tender strips of beef rib complemented by a party full of beef’s old ‘friends’ such as roasted heritage carrots, carrot purée, potato and a salsa verde, or ‘green sauce’ packed with fresh herbs and yet another nod to the Mediterranean. Like a good book I found it almost impossible to put down!

Dessert: Rhubarb and Goat’s Milk Cheesecake
And so to the (almost) finale, a cylinder of goat’s milk cheesecake dressed in a coating of dehydrated rhubarb and served on a biscuit base with a deep note of ginger, rhubarb tuile and delicate spheres of orange and rhubarb purée that burst pleasantly on the roof of the mouth-wow! Ellie at her best!

Petit-Fours
Thankfully the show didn’t end here and the ‘encore’ (which indeed deserved a standing ovation) was a superb plate of petit-fours, which although could be considered by some as simply ‘grandstanding’, actually showcased Ellie’s natural affinity with all things pastry and clearly justified her place as a real contender for Wirral Young Chef of the Year 2016.

So how would I sum up this dining experience? I suppose it felt like being locked away  inside the wine cellar (literally!) of somebody with exquisitely good taste! From start to finish we were entertained throughout by attentive floor staff, superb musicianship, a fabulous ambience but above all the loudest applause is reserved for Ellie Fletcher who, on this showing, has a real future in the industry she clearly embraces.
Congratulations Ellie! Sadly Ellie is unable to compete in the cook-off on 4th April however we wish her well for the future and perhaps we will see her again at this stage of the competition next year.

Tony Boustead (College Manager for Hospitality & Catering)

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