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culinary bear

Fraiche

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Fraiche got 6/10 in the 2005 Good Food Guide, and chaf-patron Marc Wilkinson has the right ticks in the box, with stints under Germain Schwab at Winteringham Fields amongst others. The food looks pretty, technical, and sound.

but... but...

Birkenhead?

Is this a brave venture into the cemetary of Merseyside, doomed to fail in a masive sea of local apathy towards good eating?

Will he prosper?


Allan Brown

"If you're a chef on a salary, there's usually a very good reason. Never, ever, work out your hourly rate."

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Have you been here CB? I must admit to having never heard of it despite being only down the M53 in Chester. The Wirral is not exactly a hot bed of great restaurants, usually the more-upmarket chains to keep the posh scousers happy (yes, very much like Chester!)

There's more about Fraiche here

http://www.sugarvine.com/Cheshire/minisite...estaurant=13090

I might endevour to find ths place the next time I venture up that way!

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Have you been here CB? I must admit to having never heard of it despite being only down the M53 in Chester. The Wirral is not exactly a hot bed of great restaurants, usually the more-upmarket chains to keep the posh scousers happy  (yes, very much like Chester!)

I haven't been there, in fact, I wasn't aware the place existed until recently.

I lived in Hoylake for two years (what might be termed the more affluent area of the Wirral, or at least getting on for it).

The Wirral has always been a bit odd... on the Dee side it's very affluent, loads of disposable income and the properties are amazing. On the Mersey side, well, Birkenhead.

I notice that the word 'Birkenhead' doesn't appear in any articles I've read about Fraiche, even though Oxton 'village' is right in the middle of Birkenhead, not too far away from my still beloved Tranmere Rovers.

You're right about the chains - good luck to the man, I hope he does well.


Allan Brown

"If you're a chef on a salary, there's usually a very good reason. Never, ever, work out your hourly rate."

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I have a table booked for myself and Mrs Bear on Friday - expect a full report. :)


Edited by culinary bear (log)

Allan Brown

"If you're a chef on a salary, there's usually a very good reason. Never, ever, work out your hourly rate."

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Funny you should mention Fraiche CB.

It hadn't been on my radar either but lately a handful of people have mentioned to me that I should take a look at it. Caterer also did a big piece on Marc himself with a front cover splash no less.

I actually wondered about getting him to do a spot at the exhibition but with a fairly tight team in the kitchen (just him and a sous at the moment I think) and late notice it just wasn't possible. Pity, we like to have first dibs on the local talent.

His background is certainly top notch, and from what I've read about him he's a talented chef with huge potential. Certainly people in the industry whose opinions I trust have spoken about him in glowing terms.

Yes, and in Birkenhead too...

CB, let me know how you find it.

Cheers

Thom


It's all true... I admit to being the MD of Holden Media, organisers of the Northern Restaurant and Bar exhibition, the Northern Hospitality Awards and other Northern based events too numerous to mention.

I don't post here as frequently as I once did, but to hear me regularly rambling on about bollocks - much of it food and restaurant-related - in a bite-size fashion then add me on twitter as "thomhetheringto".

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First, a caveat... I'm not a restaurant reviewer, and this isn't a review in the strictest sense. In fact, this is the first time I've put figurative pen to paper and actually written an account of a meal I've had in a restaurant, so if this is more than a little rough around the edges, you'll have to bear with me. I don't have a word count to adhere to, so I shall fill you in on as much detail as I can remember - I took some photos, at first surruptitiously, then as I was rumbled as a chef, openly. These were promptly and accidentally wiped from the phone, so this really is by memory alone. Those of you who are paid by the word might have fun extrapolating your income per column and using the resulting figure, applied to this piece, to happily pay off the mortage on your second home.

From the outside, Fraiche is unprepossessing. The door is completely level with the outside windows, leading to a small vestibule only just large enough for myself and Karen - Mrs(ish) Bear - to simultaneously occupy before the server opened the inner door. Much like an airlock, this brought us into a light and airy front room from the bitter cold outside.

Immediately, a departure from the normal chain of events; I wasn't asked who I was, nor if I had booked. I glanced around in vain for a photoboard next to the waiting station, on which I would no doubt find an ursine mugshot alongside those of Rayner, Durack, and Roger McGough. Not to be; either the server has an uncanny memory for voices or it's assumed that no-one would enter and steal a booked table. A bold move on Merseyside.

We were the first table to arrive, and as such, we had the full although not overbearing attention of one Claire Green, who was to slide deliciously into still-respectful informality over the course of our four and a half hour stay. The 'can-I-tempt-you-into-a-glass-of-champagne' was polite and as sincere as I've heard it sound, and when I instead asked for a dry sherry, a choice of manzanilla or fino was offered without recourse to rummaging around in the drinks cupboard.

With my manzanilla came the canapes; two light and savoury cheese and chorizo puffs and a small bowl of spiced glazed pecans. The puffs - their word, not mine - were delicate, intelligently constructed warm choux discs, with a squidgy - my word, not theirs - lump of blue cheese melting in the middle; the chorizo was lurking throughout the choux and it worked very well. The pecans combined rosemary and possibly smoked paprika, though I didn't want to risk being rumbled as a chef by asking too many questions too soon. They stuck to my teeth in the same way as the sticky caramelised bits from a very slowly fried sausage. Good.

The menus came, functional little folded A5 jobs in a smart black 'and the winner is' sleeve. The premise is simple. Four starters, four mains, four desserts (five if you include the cheeseboard, which can be taken as an extra course). Two courses are £25, three are £30, the Fraiche gourmet menu of 5-6 smaller courses taken from the 4-4-4 a la carte is £35, and Marc Wilkinson's tasting menu, "a collection of signature and new dishes capturing the flavours of fraiche" is £45. I felt a overwhelming duty to eGullet to sample as much as I could, as if I needed an excuse, and the decision to go for the tasting menu wasn't a hard one. Karen, as if she had any choice, went along for the ride.

As she was driving, Karen was to be on still water for the evening; I've always felt a bit of a heel drinking on my own, and when I explained that we wouldn't be drinking with the meal this was accepted without comment. The wine list was neither exceptional nor exorbitant, which is precisely what a small restaurant like Fraiche should be offering. Seeing one of your favourite less-well-known wines on a list for the first time is something that always makes me smilethough, and the Clos de l'Obac, an up-front Spanish red from Priorat, was a sign that some thought had gone into the list. I also know how much it costs retail, and the £33 asking price in the restaurant is very fair.

So, to the table. Brown plush liners, damask linen and Price cutlery. Clean uncluttered crockery, later to include some interesting teapots and Villeroy and Boch cups and saucers. It was to be a shame that some of the plates weren't as well-polished as they should have been, but with a front-of-house staff of two and presumably a mountain to clean every service, a few watermarks are not a hanging offence. A dropped and replaced lap-napkin, likewise.

My sentences will get shorter as we get on to the food. Think of them as mental post-it notes.

First course - an ameuse-bouche - of a coffee cup of pea veloute. Very green, very fresh, perfectly seasoned. Scaldingly hot. The foam on top had the right amount of truffle oil in it, which is to say enough to taste of truffle but not to overwhelm the rest. It's been wrong too often, and this was spot-on. I asked Claire about the 'powder on top', and she came back within thirty seconds to say 'dried mushrooms'. I felt a bit bad testing her like that, but I suppose it had to be done. The rest of my questions were genuine, I'm happy to say.

Second course - seared scallops, muscavado glazed chicory, mushroom espuma. Unannounced rocket, but went well. Ditto the fried ceps, and even more so. The best chicory I have ever tasted - the muscavado (later found out to be 50:50 with normal sugar) was at once subtle and strident, and the bittersweet flavours brought the mushrooms, rocket and scallop together very well. More please. The scallop - halved to give two thinner discs - was I thought perhaps too lightly coloured, though this is more than likely my preference talking. Espuma - foamy, not too light, as intense as it could be without masking everything else. This was a peach of a dish. Karen, who regards seafood with as much relish as she would do botulism, genuinely liked this.

Third course - fillet of sea bream, pistachio pesto, crisp rice, tomato consomme. In an offset glass bowl, rimless. The bream had been cooked skillfully, the pesto smeared on the skin side, topped with the puffed up rice thin rice noodles, and hot tomato consomme poured over from a jug by Claire. An interesting small cube of green jelly that dissolved with the heat of the consomme, but I suspect also with the heat of the room - perhaps frozen to keep it solid before melting away to add a very fresh green herbed liquid to the consomme. Neat touch, and a well-thought-out dish. The naturally jellied seeds from a tomato as a garnish didn't add a terrible amount, but neither did they detract any.

Fourth course, or was this the fifth course? To hell with it, I told you there were rough edges here - torchon of foie gras with quince jelly, poached pear. Good foie gras. The best restaurant brioche I have ever had, and produced from the requisite folded napkin (as was all the cutlery this evening - splendidly done). Quince jelly of the standard kind in cubes on the plate, a shard of caramel which I half-suspect included coffee, or possibly the muscavado again, a rectangular wafer of both singular crispness and singular unidentifiability, both sticking out of the disc of foie gras (rolled in brioche crumbs? sitting on a thin ring of poached pear, anyway) like a television aerial. Dressed frisee with tiny cubes of fruity matter. Very good indeed. Tiny little bitter chocolate nibs, too. Memory tries to play tricks by pairing them with the venison but I think they were here, and to good effect.

Fifth, er, next course, I think. The first not to come from the carte, anyway - polenta with a fried quail's egg, pomelo compote, boudin noir. I wasn't overly impressed by this, not compared to the rest of the dishes. I love pomelo, but even this small amount of compote was jarringly bitter, and the little disc of boudin was lost against it. More effective as a palate cleanser than anything else, and as a very small tasting portion wasn't going to do much else, but far from my favourite of the night.

Sixth, again not on the carte. I know that the non-carte dishes can be experimental and far from completely evolved; this one worked well for me, miles better than the last course. Red mullet, cooked flawlessly, crisped skin, savoury and very juicy. Sitting on tiny cauliflower florets and if I remember rightly, tomato concasse. Good vinaigrette. Unobtrusive, and it let the mullet do the talking. Up there with the best mullet I've had (with red wine sauce and sauce albufera on creamed leeks at Martin Wishart).

Seventh, off-carte - rare venison fillet, perigord truffle, celeriac puree, bok choi, potato fondant. Beautiful. The Balmoral estate venison was tender and rich, the bok choi maddeningly resistant to all attempts at cutting it. Terrific fondant, intense sauce. The celeriac puree was the only underseasoned thing I ate all night, but not by much. I had to ask Jerome (the sommelier/runner) the provenance of the small rectangular cube of jelly on top of the fondant.

Eighth, back on the carte - the cheeseboard with 'a contrast of flavours'. Each cheese opposite a cheese partner, in an affineur's version of Strip-the-Willow. From left to right we had reblochon, kidderton goat, montgomery cheddar, gorgonzola and munster, enough for four small tastes of each. Partnering, in the same order, a cube of dried fig and nut 'cake', a slice of fig with truffled honey, a cube of Bourne's fruit cake, red wine jelly, and white wine jelly with cumin seeds. The cheeses were in excellent condition save the cheddar, which was drying and cracked around the edges. The munster was especially good, resolutely evil-smelling, but the real star was the truffled honey. A pot for christmas, please. Good wafers, including oatcakes and charcoal wafers, the latter especially useful for deodorising one's intestinal tract from the effects of the munster, presumably.

Ninth, a pre-dessert in a shot glass - vanilla cream, rhubarb foam. Like liquidised rhubarb and custard boiled sweets. Heaven for a sweet-toothed bear. Good balance between the liquid rhubarb layer and the two layers it separated - cream on the bottom, foamy syrup on the top. Small sweet biscuit on the interface of the rhubarb layers. Lasted precisely 47 seconds, including at least 15 spent trying to assist the staff in washing the glasses by precleaning every last vestige of cream off with the tip of my spoon.

Claire came with the cutlery for the final course, only to stop half-way through, and remember that we were on the tasting menu and had a couple more to come before then. Comedy self-wrist-slapping off to the side, but still deliberately in my view. Grinning all round. Why can't more staff see that some people actually like to have fun and laugh when they're eating out? Some seem stuck in rigid mode...

Tenth non-carte, and alongside the pomelo/egg/boudin taster, a disappointment - apple and cranberry crumble. Bland, lacking much in the way of flavour, not even much astringency from the cranberry. A miniscule smear of what might have been something custardy, but it wasn't a big enough sample to run through a mass spectrophotometer. Like the pomelo/egg/boudin mix, a very small tasting sample, I'd say about an ounce and a half, in a dimple on a wavy white plate. Moving on...

Eleventh - chocolate spoons, with, I think, orange and passionfruit, and chocolate crisp. Ahoy, space dust. Down in one, and about seven seconds until the popping started. If the rest of the food had been tongue in cheek, this would have failed, but alongside everything else this was perfectly placed; good texture contrast, and nostalgie de boue not only for the mud of childhood but for everything gooey and chocolatey I have ever eaten between the ages of two and ten. Cracking.

On asking Jerome again, I got my answer to the seventh-course jelly question, though not before an enjoyable moment where Claire insisted to Jerome the it was sage, Jerome maintaining to Claire it was earl grey. Jerome returned looking sheepish, Claire punched the air in victory, and the matter was settled.

Twelfth, accompanied by a glass of Trentham Coonawarra dessert wine at a fiver, and back on the carte - sweet and sour pineapple, poppy seed parfait, red pepper croquant. Fantastic, a real high-note to bring the main food to a close. Warm pineapple, good enhancement of the natural sweet/sour balance of the fruit itself. Watermelon was the least audible element on the plate, but its textural contrast was a contribution. Beautiful poppy seed parfait, and I'm still extracting seeds from between my teeth a day later. Intense gossamer-thin triangle of red pepper croquant, and the sugared nasturtiums on the pineapple were my first encounter with flowers that contributed to the overall effect of a dessert. Warm crisp dried coconut shavings were slightly lost, but when taken with the parfait worked well.

Tea - fresh mint for me, and white leaf for Karen, who was sitting with a look of cumulative bliss on her face. Petits fours - oh my. Chocolate coated peanut butter ice-cream balls, the smallest banana muffins in existence, a cinder toffee lollipop and a bitter chocolate counterpart, and two thin squares of white chocolate with black olive fragments running through them - especially nice, and marred only by the inclusion of an eyelash in one of them, spotted by my sharp-eyed companion. The offending square removed with apologies and no fuss.

A 1941 Armagnac. I need not say more.

Having ascertained my profession about the time of course four by the simple expedient of the question "are you a chef? I thought so" I was asked more and more about how we'd found the dishes. Once it became clear than we were happy and willing to talk shop, Claire and Jerome would ask Karen and I for, to be fair, slightly more feedback than the average customer. We heard them ask other tables, and like all good staff, judge on their response and their tone how much more in the way of enquiry would be welcome. I can't emphasise this enough; they are very good at judging where to pitch their service, because they pay attention to your responses and know what shape you would like them to adopt during your meal. There's always courtesy and efficiency, but I was heartened to see that they were enjoying serving us, genuinely enjoying it, especially Claire. Some mistakes, dropped napkin, but hey, we're none of us perfect.

I don't usually ask to see the chef in restaurants. Claire didn't ask either, but said she'd bring him along once the tables had had their mains. Like all good conversations between chefs, this one remains between him and I but I was invited into the kitchen (it's miniscule) and shown the toys (pacojet, water bath, thermomix). Suffice to say that he's a chef for chefs, who seems to revel, as w all do to a certain extent, in the voluntary apartheid of the catering profession, especially the AFD brigade, from the rest of the world.

I have rambled too long, and I have missed out whole swathes about the decor (tasteful, minimalist, modern), the acoustics (crafty) and all the other things. Jog my memory if you want to hear more.

Oh, and the bill. £90 for two for the food, mineral water at £3 per large bottle, sherry unremembered but reasonable, dessert wine a fiver, tea and petits fours just over three quid each, armagnac a stupidly reasonable £12. £122 all told. I shall be back.


Edited by culinary bear (log)

Allan Brown

"If you're a chef on a salary, there's usually a very good reason. Never, ever, work out your hourly rate."

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Utterly outstanding.

The review (well, for a first-timer, and a chef to boot), and (by the sounds of it) the restaurant. I'll put it (the restaurant) on my 'to do' list.

You even shoe-horned the phrase "mass-spectrometer" in there - a brave and impressive use of nerdy science terminology. Jay got ideas above his station and came up with "single egg molecules" and look what happened to his career!

Eat somewhere else good and tell us about it soon.

Cheers

Thom


It's all true... I admit to being the MD of Holden Media, organisers of the Northern Restaurant and Bar exhibition, the Northern Hospitality Awards and other Northern based events too numerous to mention.

I don't post here as frequently as I once did, but to hear me regularly rambling on about bollocks - much of it food and restaurant-related - in a bite-size fashion then add me on twitter as "thomhetheringto".

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"and a chef to boot?" cheeky monkey. :)

It all burst forth in textual effluvia from my typing fingers last night, though I really enjoyed writing about the whole experience.

You need to go. Everyone does.


Allan Brown

"If you're a chef on a salary, there's usually a very good reason. Never, ever, work out your hourly rate."

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"and a chef to boot?" cheeky monkey. :)

It all burst forth in textual effluvia from my typing fingers last night, though I really enjoyed writing about the whole experience.

You need to go.  Everyone does.

Lovely review. And from a squaddie too.

And all that for £45 really is intriguing.


Jay

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And all that for £45 really is intriguing.

Staring into my crystal ball, I see the words "Observer Magazine" and "day return to Birkenhead" wavering in the mists. What can this mean?

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Very nice, Allan.


"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

Flickr Food

"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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Lovely review. And from a squaddie too.

I should have been expecting that...

And all that for £45 really is intriguing.

The GP on some of the dishes is obviously better than on others, but given the quality of the ingredients - the venison is from the balmoral estate, the carte quail is from the loire valley, the carte lamb is suffolk black-face, the scallops are hand-dived and the space dust, surely, was of the highest quality money can buy - the price is remarkable. The portion sizes on the tasting menu are never going to be gargantuan, but I saw some of the carte dishes going out and they weren't meagre in the slightest. I'm no sommelier but I have a working knowledge of wine, and the mark-ups were not of the sort that try to make up for lost profit on the food.

I would be prepared to put myself through the anguish of another visit to birkenhead in order to act as bodyguard to any national newspaper critics. *cough*

One of the things Marc and I talked about as regards the restaurant is that he's trying to gear the front of house up - replace the acrylic Boizel wine buckets with silver, apply a few other glosses, acquire laguiole meat knives - so this is clearly a man who doesn't want to stand still either front or back of house.


Edited by culinary bear (log)

Allan Brown

"If you're a chef on a salary, there's usually a very good reason. Never, ever, work out your hourly rate."

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Thanks to Culinary Bear's lovely post I've booked to eat here on the 2nd. I called to book yesterday and ended up chatting with Marc for 30 minutes. I think I was a welcome respite to fixing the central heating, which is what he was doing when I called. It's just him and one other in the kitchen at the moment and it's all hands on deck when it comes to cooking as well as the general upkeep of the restaurant.

Am really looking forward to this place. We're going for the 6 course tasting menu rather than the 12 course signature menu as I'm eating with a vegetarian and Marc can easily accomodate him over 6 courses. I was interested to chat with Marc about a la carte vs tasting menus and discover that a lot of their business is tasting menus. Feels to me like Marc knows what he wants to serve and I'm guessing this was a bold move for this area that seems to be paying off.


Suzi Edwards aka "Tarka"

"the only thing larger than her bum is her ego"

Blogito ergo sum

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Happily, Fraiche has been awarded a one-star "rising star" in the 2006 Michelin Guide.


Allan Brown

"If you're a chef on a salary, there's usually a very good reason. Never, ever, work out your hourly rate."

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I worked with (and stepped out with) Marc when he was at the Mirabelle in Eastbourne (in the days before he had his own restaurant) - and I would heartily recommend anyone visiting Liverpool pays his restaurant a visit. His consuming passion in life is food and this is reflected in the quality and inventiveness of his menus.


www.diariesofadomesticatedgoddess.blogspot.com

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well to answer the question can a fine dining restaurant survive in merseyside by hook or crook ive made it to the end of my 3rd year next week, though saying that im not too sure if one`s sanity is still intact :wacko: , must say hasn`t been the easiest time in my career but hey ho im still here and pushing the food forward

marc

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Congratulations !! We are just about to celebrate beating the odds for three years too! I can completely understand your sentiments!


http://www.allium.uk.net

http://alliumfood.wordpress.com/ the alliumfood blog

"Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, champagne in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming - Whey hey what a ride!!!, "

Sarah Poli, Firenze, Kibworth Beauchamp

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:blink:

Congratulations !! We are just about to celebrate beating the odds for three years too! I can completely understand your sentiments!

congrats to you too, hows the twitching? but the question is would you like to do it all again? :biggrin:

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In a heartbeat!!


http://www.allium.uk.net

http://alliumfood.wordpress.com/ the alliumfood blog

"Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, champagne in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming - Whey hey what a ride!!!, "

Sarah Poli, Firenze, Kibworth Beauchamp

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After failing to get a booking for Fraiche for my birthday in June, Mr Woman has come up trumps with a lovely Christmas pressie of a meal there this Friday :biggrin: Hubby has no idea which menu it is we're having (he mentioned markets but who knows? he has a memory like a sieve), but I'm certainly looking forward to it.

I knew my web bookmark entitled 'Places I really want to visit please' would be noticed at some point

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After failing to get a booking for Fraiche for my birthday in June, Mr Woman has come up trumps with a lovely Christmas pressie of a meal there this Friday  :biggrin: Hubby has no idea which menu it is we're having (he mentioned markets but who knows? he has a memory like a sieve), but I'm certainly looking forward to it.

I knew my web bookmark entitled 'Places I really want to visit please' would be noticed at some point

hope you have pleasant visit as for the menu it will be a take on the signature with produce i can find, venison for sure and maybe textures of chocolate which im playing with at the moment hot, cold,iced,soft,crisp etc

if i can get langoustine il be doing a parsley quinoa with black olive powder and chicken skin crisp

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Hi Marc, yes he remembers now you saying the menu will based on what market produce is available. Venison is always a winner for me! Just hoping my cold buggers off so i can actually taste something.

See you Friday :smile:


Edited by Mrs Woman (log)

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So unfair, the cold I mentioned on BD has ballooned into a full-on sneeze and cough fest. I doubt you'd want such a red-eyed and nosed customer in your restaurant Marc, so my hubby has just called to cancel. :sad: Sorry if it's too late, I wanted to see if I was well enough to go today. Hopefully we can rebook when you're back open in mid-Jan and I have my taste buds back. I will make it to Fraiche one of these days I promise!


Edited by Mrs Woman (log)

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There's a lot of it about, 1/2 my bookings for tonight have cancelled today( I was full)

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