[Manchester, city centre] Manchester House
We were looking forward to this dinner. We last ate here in October, just four weeks after opening. It was very good, although not glitch free. Since then, the restaurant featured in “Restaurant Wars” – a programme packed with as much fake tension as you could ever want, as both Manchester House and Simon Rogan’s “French at the Midland Hotel” established themselves in the city with the avowed intent of gaining a Michelin star. The publicity has done no harm whatsoever – place was packed and it takes weeks to get a Friday or Saturday table.
So, were there to be glitches? Were there to be disappointments? Well, no – not a one. There’s a greater clarity to the cuisine. It was bang-on cooking of things that just made sense together. As far as we were concerned, Aiden Byrne has absolutely nailed it.
There’s a tasting menu as you might expect but we decided to go for the main carte – we find a traditional three courser generally more to our taste these days. But they offer an interesting twist, in that you can “extend” the carte by buying in the first three starters on the tasting menu, before getting to “starter proper”. Oh, yes, we went for that, although swapping one of the taster dishes did mean two of the three were now soups.
And a third came in the amuse bouche. A clear onion soup, topped with a potato foam – clean, clear flavours and, alongside, a Parmesan brioche that was as light as the proverbial feather.
Next up, a bowl is put in front of you containing a little smoked mozzarella, basil, truffle and heritage tomato. A tomato consommé is poured over. They get techie with this - the tomatoes have been whizzed in a centrifuge to extract the liquid. It’s essence of tomato. It’s delicious. Then the replacement for our swap – a borlotti bean soup – creamy with a couple of beans. And finally, a rice crisp topped with slivers of sardine, a little micro salad, the occasional edible flower – the crisp was so, erm, crisp it was impossible to eat with knife & fork and just had to be picked up and nibbled at.
We both went with the same scallop starter. It comes, perhaps a little oddly, as two servings. On one plate, a roasted scallop presented on the shell, accompanied by a thin curl of cucumber. On the other, a chunk of deseeded and charred cucumber, topped with chopped scallop, prepped in a gravadlax style, accompanied by a cucumber sorbet that was one of the nicest things I’ve put in my mouth for quite a while.
The Texel lamb main course brought a perfectly pink cutlet and some very flavoursome breast. It was a seemingly simple presentation, strewn with wild garlic and surrounded by a little jus (or gravy as we say in these parts). It takes skill to be this simple! And, anything but simple, was a “cannelloni” made from leek, rolled in something black (nope, I couldn’t identify it and forget to ask) and stuffed with chopped sweetbreads.
Beercan chicken brought an enormous breast and a little thigh. Good chicken with the cooking accurately judged, leaving it still very moist. It’s difficult to describe the accompanying macaroni. Lets call it a slab, with the individual pieces of pasta stuck together somehow and stuffed with onion puree. Clever. All very clever.
We then shared a cheese course. All seven in their prime and served without a hint of fridge coldness. A fig chutney was thick and rich and had another flavour in there – fennel perhaps. Olive sable biscuits to pile it on to. The cheeses – Kinderton Ash, Cornish Kern, Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire, Tornegus, No. 5 Goddess, Blacksticks Blue and Mrs Bell’s Blue.
As our last visit, desserts were outstanding. One centred around a warm date sponge – lovely light texture, a mile away from the traditional sticky toffee pudding. It plays to the current fashion of incorporating vegetables into desserts with a parsnip pannacotta – sweet, but not overly sweet; spicy but not overly spicy and appropriately wobbly. There’s also bits and bobs of sweet, creamy, carroty,stuff on the plate. Chocolate cake was another bit of bang-on baking. There’s coffee (?) ice cream and shards of dark and white chocolate.
Service feels sharper, yet more relaxed, than last time. Certainly not as much up its own arse. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. And, truth be told, I’m going to be right disappointed if Aiden Byrne’s skill isn’t recognised by the Michelin inspectors in a few months. The cooking really is up there.
So glad to hear they've actually improved. Like you, we ate shortly after opening. Looking forward to booking again...
Really interesting to read this John. I thought Aiden came across as a nice guy in the programme. Someone with a lot of talent who was desperate to prove that he could do quality food and I was glad when he seemed to click that the gimmick is not the be all and end all. I looks like he's striking the right balance now.
What's the ambiance of the place like? It came across more bar than restaurant on tv and I'm not sure I would enjoy that.
As you'll recall from the TV, the restaurant is owned by the Living Ventures group who also own a couple of local mini-chains. They know exactly what's what about turning a profit.
The restaurant is on the second floor of the block and there's the associated bar on the 12th floor. You can visit the bar just for drinks and it was busy with young, well heeled Mancs.
As you enter the restaurant, you're met by a couple of greeters - as you were when you entered the bar and, indeed, as you came into the building at ground level. They are all direct from central castng for the role - tall, thin, good-looking young women. You then walk through the very open kitchen area - not actually through the kitchen, of course - you have the main kitchen to your left and a smaller (pastry?) section to your right.
General ambiance is good. Quite busy and buzzy but not intrusive. Tables are large - those for two easily big to generously seat four. And they are well spaced apart. Each table is lit from above - but, even though the lighting is quite low, it doesnt heat the space up. There's some outside terrace space with chairs but I'm not sure what function this serves
When we were there last time, service was a bit "Manchester". Jay Rayner said it was "conducted by bearded men in waistcoats and jeans who yearn to appear informal". I know what he meant but I felt things had changed or, at least, settled down. Difficulty back in the autumn was that it was all new and many of the staff had been drafted in from other Living Ventures operations where they might be experienced in a "steak and pasta" sort of place but werent quite hitting the mark for this level of dining. Last night, we were very happy with the servers - knowledgable and relaxed - comfortable in their own skin if you know what I mean.
There is still some degree of gimmick. There's a Galloway beef dish for two which comes on a board, complete with bones and stones . Sauce comes separately in an animal horn. All very Fred Flintstone.
This is not a discount dining operation, with mains in the mid to upper £20s and expensive drinks. There were three of us (I only ever mention the food my partner & I have eaten, regardless of how many others there were) and I was a bit gobsmacked about how much we had managed to rack up - until herself later told me that there was £100 on the two bottles of Chablis she and her sister polished off.
As you might have gathered, we havnt enjoyed a meal so much in ages. I want to go back and try the chef's table which is right there at the restaurant end of the kitchen. Absolutely, thoroughly recommended.