I really wanted to hate this place. Est Est Est used to be one of our favourites.
We had our favourite dishes, our favourite table, we even dared to believe the waiters vaguely recognised us - then all of a sudden it's gone, replaced by another part of the Living Ventures restaurant group. It's like when one of the characters in a soap opera goes away for a while and comes back played by a different actor. It just couldn't ever be the same.
And the new place is achingly trendy in a way that screams out to be mocked.
The Living Ventures website goes on about 'exuberant' dishes, cooked in a way that 'allows nutrients and flavours no time to escape,' as though nutrients and flavours are pesky little imps that would jump at the slightest chance to do a runner and wreak havoc in the city centre.
But just to be awkward, the Black House Grill is an absolute triumph.
The first thing you notice is the noise. We hurried in, chased by a chilly evening breeze, and our ears were filled with sizzling platters of food, with animated conversation from the trendy young clientele, with waiters bustling around between the 30 or so tables and with the maitre d' offering to take our coats. Most alarmingly of all, we heard from the direction of the open kitchen what sounded like a drunken rugby team practising their Gregorian chanting.
As we sat down and our ears attuned to the noise, we realised what was happening: A man was yelling names of dishes in a gruff voice that sounded accustomed to being obeyed - and a large chorus of acolytes was shouting 'YES CHEF!' in response. It was disconcerting to say the least. We couldn't make out every word but every five minutes or so we'd hear: 'SPATCH-COCK ... GARLIC ... CHATEAUBRIAND ... BUTTERSCOTCH ... RUMP. YES?' 'YES CHEF!' Our fellow diners had learned to live with it, so we shrugged our shoulders and dived into the menu.
If you're someone who likes their food (as opposed to someone who merely likes eating), you could spend hours on the menu at the Black House Grill. The choice is massive, varied and hugely tempting. This isn't an easy thing for a restaurant reviewer to admit but I found it all a bit bemusing. What does 'spatchcock' mean? What do you do with a lobster? What's Kobe beef and why does a fillet of it cost £50? What would ostrich taste like? Why does the menu caution against mixing oysters with liquor?
This last one was like a red rag to a bull. I managed to resist ordering a mound of oysters and a quart of absinthe, but only because I was driving. Erica didn't have as much choice as me - the word 'Grill' in the name of the restaurant had forewarned us that veggie options would, quite understandably, be thin on the ground.
The waitress came to take our order. Seconds later, had we been listening, we may well have heard: 'CLAM CHOWDER, SPINACH AND RICOTTA RAVIOLI, EIGHT-OUNCE FILLET STEAK (medium rare, with chips, French beans and sugar snaps), VEGETABLE FAJITAS AND A BOTTLE OF STILL WATER. YES?' 'YES CHEF!'
Our starters arrived very quickly. We barely had time to wonder if the chef behaved like that at home before Erica's ravioli and my chowder were placed before us. We'd both played it safe but were pleasantly surprised - the chowder had a delightful smooth taste, complemented by a few small water biscuits to stop me stuffing myself with bread, while the ravioli was flavoursome and served with a warm salad of basil, pine nuts, spring onions and peppers.
Our main courses barely fitted on the table. What with a skillet of sizzling vegetables, a board of guacamole, salsa, sour cream and the like, a plate of tortillas wrapped in a napkin, an 8oz fillet steak, a generous serving of chips, a pot of peppercorn sauce and two bowls of veg, there was hardly room for our cutlery.
We soon set about making some space. Erica's fajitas were delicious - the vegetables perfectly cooked with that inimitable smoky fajita taste. The tortillas, so often an afterthought, were soft, warm and not too big while the home-made salsa was sweet and herby.
It took me a while to get into my steak because I was busying myself among the chips. I believe I may have waxed lyrical on the subject of home-made chips before - these were good enough to set me off again. When I managed to tear myself away from them and tuck into the meat, I wasn't disappointed. It practically tore itself apart when I applied the knife - always a good sign - and was so full of flavour it nearly rendered the peppercorn sauce redundant.
The French beans and sugar snaps were crisp and served in a lovely garlic butter. The noise around us continued but all was quiet at our table, save for the sound of contented munching.
And the portions, while satisfying, fell short of being intimidatingly huge. Which meant puddings. Nothing on the dessert menu caught our eye but we were intrigued by a section of the cocktail menu that seemed, to the untrained eye, to consist of more desserts.
This offered the opportunity to have pudding but to call it a cocktail. Erica went for a Grand Marnier hot chocolate - a liquid pudding, in other words - while I went for something called a 'Number Four Split' - a tall glass of milkshake with chocolate sauce and strawberries, topped (no kidding) with a bourbon biscuit. Both were beautifully done, even if Erica's was a touch heavy on the booze for her taste.
If you're detecting something slightly pretentious about the dining experience, you're right. The place is self-consciously hip, from the bare brick decor to the Gordon Ramsay schtick blaring out from the kitchens. 'Some customers do find it a bit off-putting,' admitted a waitress when I asked about all the shouting. It doesn't get any more down-to-earth when you have a brief flick through the cocktail menu.
It's a 24-page glossy booklet, filled with arty black-and-white pictures of cocktail glasses and painstaking descriptions of the origins of the word 'espresso' and the history of Heineken. There's one on every table. You don't have time to sit down and read the thing (especially as they gave us a two-hour time limit), so why bother printing it?
Rant over. I'm being extremely harsh and I must stop because the food was simply outstanding and the service excellent, both of which matter far, far more than a bit of pretentious window-dressing. It's not cheap but it's not expensive either and its city setting makes it convenient as well as high-class. It's definitely worth shouting about. Yes?
* Black House Grill, Newgate House, Newgate Street, Chester CH1 1DE
* Starters: Ravioli £5.95; clam chowder £4.50.
* Mains: Fajitas £9.55; steak £14.50; chips, vegetables and sauce £9.
*'Cocktails': Hot chocolate £2.75; split £3.75.
* Drinks: Water £3.75.
* Total (for two): £53.75 pBest bit: Flawless food.
* Worst bit: Pretentious presentation.
* Would suit: Trendy young things who appreciate quality food.
* Wouldn't suit: Anyone looking for a quiet, understated evening out.