Manchester House

22 Sep

I’m a recent convert to the religion of fine dining, and like most new believers, have found myself quite happy to sign over a tithe of my salary in the name of finely paired wines and silver service. I was baptised at Northcote Manor, and attended full mass (see: the ten course taster menu) at The French in Manchester shortly after it re-opened, but being freshly versed in the ways of the cheese trolley and formal attire, felt too inexperienced to share the epiphanies I experienced. I simply held the joy of dining under two very talented Michelin star chefs close to my heart.

Only an invitation from Living Ventures, to break bread with the latest fine dining disciple on the Manchester food scene, has encouraged me to sing out.* Thanks be to God (and Aiden Byrne) that it was good.

Having experienced so little, and nothing beyond the cloistered confines of the North West, I have a limited base for comparison, though to be fair, so does the rest of Manchester. Until April this year, Abode and the Old Testament version of The French (see: white tablecloths, full drama cloche service) were the only fine dining wafers available for nibbling. Then word was out. Both Simon Rogan, of L’Enclume fame, and Aiden Byrne, youngest chef ever to be awarded a star were coming to Manchester to convert the poorly palated (not a word but it works) masses.

To what exactly – back in March before our city rose again for a new foodie beginning – I wasn’t sure. With molecular gastronomy having made a name for itself through the efforts of El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, then Noma, with its naturalistic view of dish development being awarded Best Restaurant in the World three years running, I was aware of the major trends; but, unable to afford international indulgences or cite chef’s names like saints, had no real idea what to expect.

From famine to feast, it seems, here in our most irreverent city, with Rogan preaching the bounteous beauty of foraging and Byrne turning water into wine with his scientific take on things. Whereas The French offers delicate textures and intricately built up floral and herbaceous flavours, all in the majesty of The Midland Hotel, the newly opened Manchester House restaurant – just £3m in the making – is a far more eclectic affair.

Manchester House Kitchen

Manchester House Kitchen

Manchester menu classics of the likes of Boddingtons steak and ale pie and Manchester tart sit seemingly uncomfortably against frogs legs kiev on first reading, and the unbecoming 1960’s business block gives way to a laid-back, comfortably glamorous and (not too blingy bar) with some of the best views out over Manchester, followed by an understated dining room inspired by Manchester’s textile and industrial heritage.

Clever really, playing up to us sentimental, slightly sensitive Mancs, who sing Smiths and Stone Roses songs like they’re psalms, and never tire of drinking in the blood of pig through the unholy medium that is black pudding. Tim Bacon, CEO of Living Ventures has paid testament to the need to meet Manchester on its own terms, and the latest venture is making sure it contains a small sermon on everything we know and love, even if the pricing is enough to convert you back to pasty and peas. Flattery will get you everywhere, especially with an increasingly moneyed Manchester crowd.

Tim Bacon and Aiden Byrne

Tim Bacon and Aiden Byrne

Having spent lunch sat with Mr Bacon, and half an hour in Q&A with Mr Byrne, we learn the menu has been pulled together through each dish’s playfulness, and a commitment to convoluted techniques that intensify and juxtapose flavours, served with a soupcon of the miraculous about them, (as opposed to Rogan’s more seasonally rooted, breathtakingly pared-down presentation, I guess). Despite initially being a doubting Thomas, it all works wonderfully, and the food, atmosphere and service from the knowledgeable, warm and polished staff is worth paying homage to.

Oxtail Consomme and Beetroot Oyster

Oxtail Consomme and Beetroot Oyster

Oxtail Donut (of dreams)

Oxtail Donut (of dreams)

Sampling across the al a carte menu, an oxtail consommé, fragrant with anise and rich with slithers of oxtail meat offset a light, moreish oxtail donut, revealing the best of the beefy, pulled meat within – not to mention a tantalising taster in the form a beetroot steeped oysters – was a firm favourite, despite being served on a slightly showy tray of liquid nitrogen infused with smells of the sea. Far less showy, but no less successful was the intensely flavoured bacon and onion brioche with pea butter (essentially pea matter when whizzed round a centrifuge) and the ultra-fresh remaining pea juice. ^

Squab Pigeon and Cherry

Squab Pigeon and Cherry

The star of the show was undoubtedly the cherrywood smoked squab pigeon, liberally sprinkled with toasted almonds and pistachio and served with two cherries, one which surprisingly revealed itself as an artfully disguised slick of foie gras, achieved through equal parts liquid nitrogen and miracle, it seems. The freeze dried cherry powder wasn’t necessary, however, overpowering the pink and tender meat with its sharp tang, simply adding a bright splash of colour to an already pretty dish.

Prawn Cocktail

Prawn Cocktail

Two dishes from Aiden’s foray on Great British Menu made an appearance too. The prawn cocktail dish, complete with chilli and shellfish powder atop a mess of golden and ruby beetroot was completely dominated by the showy and tartly flavoured passionfruit orb, which once tapped, dissolved onto the dish, and again overwhelmed the delicate flavours below.

Er, Meat?

Er, Meat?

The beef dish, however was a much more pared down affair, even though the presentation was pure machismo. Pink welsh beef, mouth-watering nuggets of hickory braised oxtail, bizarre clay potatoes and weathered (charred) salsify, and who can argue with a rich, light truffle jus served in its very own horn of plenty? Playful, deep punchy flavours and theatrical presentation, the dish summed up everything Aiden is trying to achieve with various menus available, from the fixed price lunch at £27.50 to the twelve course taster at £95 per head, allowing you to sample as much or as little as you like.

Without doubt, Manchester House will be a success. For a city little exposed to such polished hospitality and fine flavours, along with The French, it’s a massively welcome addition, especially for those of us who suffer the cardinal sin of gluttony. For those who make regular food pilgrimages, or travel the long, dusty road out of London up North, doubtless it will have all been seen before, and the tricks plated up alongside the painstakingly designed dishes may seem a little tired to some.

For a city that prides itself on its individualism and creativity, such endeavours tell the gospel truth, showing the majority of our food inspiration comes from beyond the M60, (see: Almost Famous and Solita). Here’s hoping any such judgement sees beyond our capacity for enlightened thinking, and is solely reserved for the class of the cooking and non-pretentious, Northern hospitality for which we’re renowned. After such a goddam long wait, Aiden Byrne and Simon Rogan are finally helping turn us into the food heaven we have yearned so long to be.

So, here’s praying one of them earns a Michelin star, even if just to give us something new to sermonise about. We can’t wang on about Oasis and the industrial revolution forever.

*Though mostly, it’s part of the oath you take when you’re invited to eat for free, or if you will, a chosen one, (albeit who will do your preaching for free).

^ Or pea wet, depending on just how Northern you are.

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