William Sitwell reviews Higher Ground, Manchester: ‘This is how I’d wish all restaurants would be’

On top of the world at the Higher Ground counter
On top of the world at the Higher Ground counter - Shaun Peckham

Higher ground, of the moral variety, is, as you well know, the position I’m most comfortable occupying. It’s also the name of a restaurant in Manchester, a place in which I’m also much at ease; particularly if seated at the counter. It is built of thick, smooth concrete which is delectable to touch and somehow set at the perfect height, glorious to sit at. There’s an overhang that accommodates the long-limbed (they don’t call me llama man for nothing) and the chairs are decently high, built with firm backs.

I often find myself squirming about to get comfortable at restaurants, yearning for a position that would see my osteopath nodding in approval, so that, with core engaged, I can attack a meal with confidence. Thus, the high-backed stools and the concrete bar are an ergonomic triumph.

And, perched as I was, with a good view of the restaurant and full sight of the open kitchen, I had a sort of Zeus-like delusion that, for the time I was at Higher Ground at least, I was somehow ruling my destiny. It was a good start and continued thus until I was exquisitely glutted and could serve no further purpose by remaining there.

Which is how I’d wish all restaurants to be. Doing the necessary feeding, but tickling the taste buds all the way without unnecessary flotsam and jetsam. It’s no mean feat; so many chefs are unable to restrain their urges to litter a plate with supererogatory flourishes.

Lindisfarne oysters with pickled wild garlic
Lindisfarne oysters with pickled wild garlic - Alex Cocking and Richard Carroll

Higher Ground’s menu is guided by produce grown in their own garden in Cheshire and meat from an associated farm. But while the produce is firmly British, some of the cooking struck me as Italian-influenced with a dash of Scandi flair.

I began with an oyster from Lindisfarne, garnished simply with pickled wild garlic; an early show of the chef’s deft touch, letting the ingredients breathe, nudged just a tad further with a sprinkle of his tart and lively magic dust.

A bunch of sharing dishes followed. Crab toast was a beautifully crisp, slightly charred piece of toast with a layer of crab meat hiding under a gooey mountain of chilled tomatoes, topped with chives. It was the antithesis of the ‘perfect’ canapé; sloppy, awkward to eat, dripping, cumbersome. And absolutely, bell-ringingly delicious.

Pea fritters and Quicke's Cheddar
Pea fritters and Quicke's Cheddar - Alex Cocking and Richard Carroll

Although I’d barely clocked it before the pea fritters arrived. Was my perch so perfect they wanted me out? Fat chance. Even if all the food arrived in one go – which it sort of did – I would hold my ground and stay as long as I needed.

Those fritters hid under a snowy pile of Parmesan; more dirty, perfect finger food. I had the beef tartare too, which was actually a potato salad mixed with aged beef sprinkled with tiny fried onions, with a scent of pine. This was like an hors d’oeuvre in a smart Alpine cabin in winter. A palate energiser after a morning’s skiing, the segue to a mountain of pasta.

Hand-rolled wholewheat pasta with aged Dexter beef ragu
Hand-rolled wholewheat pasta with aged Dexter beef ragu - Alex Cocking and Richard Carroll

Which, indeed, I then had. A magnificent plate of Dexter beef ragù, mixed with sliced courgette, tossed with Spenwood cheese. A marvellous, generous, umami-filled treat. I had some simple leaves to balance the occasion, before wrecking it with poached plum and milk ice cream; the plum perked to further heights of late-summer flavour with a few sprigs of fennel pollen.

With a glass here and there of red, white and a fabulously dry pudding wine (Damien Bureau, La Jeannette), I was breaking all my night-time dining rules. So I slept appallingly, if at all.

But, as you also well know, I suffer for my art. And this place is well worth the pain.

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