There have been a lot of dissatisfied, listless, un- settled souls littered around television sets of Britain lately. Their hands go out instinctively to the remote, but what is the point? There is no Gordon Ramsay, no expletives not deleted, no sneaky behind-the-scenes encounters and no fly-on-the-wall glimpses of F-list celebrities who would feed on devil's spawn if it meant being on the screen.
With Hell's Kitchen gone, it's cold turkey all round. Unless you log-on to the 24-hour webcam on www.establishmentrestaurant.com, the website of an ambitious new restaurant regarded as the most significant opening in Manchester this year.
Eternally focused on the kitchen pass (servery), there is no sound, not much happens outside lunch and dinner service, and you can't tell what anyone is doing - aaaagh, it's Hell's Kitchen Revisited. But reality being much more fun than television, I front up for dinner only a week or so after it opens its doors.
Located in a very beautiful 114-year-old, Grade II-listed Lancashire & Yorkshire Bank building, Establishment is all awe-inspiring grandeur, two gloriously restored domes, polished-marble columns and walls, delicate stained glass and ornate plaster ceilings. It even has the original wooden counters where customers once dutifully filled in their deposit slips.
In stark contrast to all this venerability, there is a backlit modern bar and a kind of bright-purple indoor gazebo that doubles as a semi-private room. The unclothed tables jar somewhat with the thick carpet and boardroom chairs, and I am not convinced that a square vase of what look like blue bath crystals and a cactus thingy add to the joy of the table.
What does add to the joy is the food, and the impressive talents of head chef Ian Morgan are immediately exposed by the arrival of bread rolls, marvellous warm puffy things, some with the flavour and consistency of cheese scones. This is a good sign. Great bread is very rarely followed by rubbish food.
One of five partners in the business, Morgan trained with the Lanesborough in London, and was head chef for several years at Gary Rhodes's Manchester outpost, Rhodes & Co. He's good.
Airy-fairy amuse-geules show too much of the mad Spanish Ferran Adria influence and not enough flavour, but it isn't long before the real pedigree shows. A chunky, solid slab of shredded and reformed corned beef (£5.50) is topped with a globe artichoke heart and a crumbed deep-fried egg, attended by some soft feathery herbs and some very cute, very tiny, green beans. The beef is moist and subtly salted and gets even better when sauced with the breakaway yolk-spill.
A simple and elegant green risotto is coloured and flavoured with mint, marjoram, spinach and parsley (£5.50), and has a lovely celery freshness running through it. Slightly soupy with correctly just-cooked grains, it is text-book stuff, except for one little thing: the addition of a scoop of overly sweet Parmesan and basil ice-cream. It's wacky, alright, but it doesn't alter the fact that it is still a great risotto.
The high level of skill and attention to detail in the kitchen is not mirrored on the floor. This is where the webcam should be, to show the kitchen what is happening out here. Our waiter is out of his depth and covers his amateurism with bravado. Fortunately, Jeremy Cowan, the sommelier, is young, enthusiastic, and obsessed by wine, steering me on to a plummy, herbaceous "I" Barbera from Australia's Garry Crittenden (£28.50), for which my slow-cooked beef is grateful.
Mind you, for slow-cooked beef, it sure comes fast, arriving 45 seconds after the first-course plates are cleared. I send it back. This throws the kitchen into chaos, but better them in hell than my digestive system.
After a more civilised pause, new dishes are brought, and extremely bloody good they are, too. The rare, rested, slow-roasted beef fillet (£19.50) is served on a creche of baby, baby carrots and baby, baby leaves, with a thin slice of braised beef shin. There is a marrow beignet on a little puddle of mash, a roasted shallot and a well-made ravioli filled with kidney. Despite all the detail, the various elements combine effortlessly, making the whole thing more single-minded than it first appears.
The slow-cooking treatment comes to the fore again in a pretty-in-pink fillet of Orkney salmon (£14.75), topped with salmon caviar and served with braised fennel and a tortellini of smoked salmon frothing with beetroot foam. It even tastes pretty, soft and well-mannered.
A pre-dessert of champagne cream and straw- berry jelly with a pepper tuile feels a bit clunky and is too similar to a dessert proper: layered strawberry milk-shake with raspberry ripple ice-cream and white-chocolate cheesecake (£6.10), which is all very sweet without being satisfying.
But even in these early days, Establishment is doing more right than wrong, and has what it takes to be the finest restaurant in Manchester. Just turn that webcam on the dining-room to sort out the service and help the kitchen pace the courses with more sympathy for the diner. Hell's Kitchen is one thing, but what the world needs is more heavenly dining-rooms.
16 Establishment, 43 Spring Gardens, Manchester, tel: 0161 839 6300. Open lunch Monday to Friday and dinner Monday to Saturday. About £85 for dinner for two with wine and service
Second helpings: Other banks turned restaurants
The Bank Restaurant, 32 High Street, Crieff, Perthshire, tel: 01764 656 575
This handsome, red Dumfries stone building, once a British Linen bank, is now home to Bill and Lilias McGuigan's popular Perthshire restaurant, as well as being home to Bill and Lilias (they live upstairs). Great produce stars in dishes such as East Coast crab and salmon beignets with chilli caramel and rump of Borders lamb with brown lentils and pommes parmentier.
1 Lombard Street, 1 Lombard Street, London EC3, tel: 020 7929 6611
The business lunch flourishes in this former banking hall, especially in the buzzy front brasserie. Try the blackened cod or squid and red-wine risotto in the brasserie, or supreme and fricassée of black-leg chicken, and seared scallops with caramelised sweetbreads in Herbert Berger's elegant Michelin-starred restaurant tucked away behind it.
Seven Dials, 1 Buckingham Place, Brighton, tel: 01273 885 555
After a shaky start, Sam Metcalfe's Brighton venture, housed in a former Lloyd's Bank (the downstairs vault is now a private room) has blossomed into one of the region's most consistent performers. Metcalfe's time at high-profile London restaurants from Chez Nico to Pied à Terre shows in dishes such as steamed lemon sole with crab and saffron mousse, and peach tart and basil sorbet.
E-mail Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at firstname.lastname@example.orgReuse content