What is it about Manchester and Michelin? The city's lack of culinary status rankles (well, if you believe "stars" are the measure of success), as you'll know if you watched Restaurant Wars last year on the BBC, in which The French and Manchester House, both new openings, whipped themselves into quite the frenzy ahead of the announcement of the hallowed stars. Neither got one then – despite lavish spending and long, long hours of work – and neither got one in the just-announced 2014 list either.
So what’s going on? I’m flummoxed by the no-star status of The French, Simon Rogan’s place within The Midland Hotel. It’s chic and creative, clever and celebratory – right up Michelin’s street, surely?
I hadn’t been to Manchester House. I was not keen after seeing chef Aiden Byrne’s novelty cooking on Great British Menu (which is itself rather too reliant on “novelty”) and very much turned off by Restaurant Wars – too much piling posh ingredients on the plate and cooking up culinary tricks.
But I find myself in Manchester with my colleague, political editor Jane Merrick. What might she, who stalks the corridors of power searching for stories (in fact, tells me that the House of Commons has mice), make of the glitziest place in town? Should the secret society of Michelin inspectors return?
Not able to face a 12-course tasting menu at 9pm, we decide to order from the à la carte section of the expansive menu, which has put my teeth rather on edge with its “beginning”, “middle” and “end” sections.
Bouncy young waitress Georgia explains “how it works” – or I think she does: the table for two is so huge that since she’s near Jane, all I hear is booming room noise – and it’s hard to find her among the legions of Manchester’s elite MAW (model actress whatever) staff who roam around. This must be at the behest of Byrne, who stands at the entrance end of this vast space, at once a blur in the back of the open kitchen then surveying the room from the pass, stony-faced. The man is driven.
From six starters and eight mains, I choose hay-baked partridge with malt-infused celeriac and liver parfait (£15) then John Dory with langoustine, beurre noisette sabayon, artichoke and smoked potatoes (£28). Jane, perhaps buoyed by seeing a Labour MP and his wife across the room eating lavishly, chooses roasted scallops with white chocolate-and-truffle risotto (£18), and Cumbrian veal fillet with cacao beans and foie-gras mousse (£34). See what I mean about littering everything with expensive ingredients? The quality of food and precision of preparation are faultless, but Coco Chanel’s “look in the mirror and take one thing off” edict comes to mind.
The risotto is a thing of beauty: four plump, sweet scallops, with nasturtium leaves prettier but less potent than the generous rich shavings of truffle. Mercifully, the white chocolate is nothing more than a murmur of flavour.
And did I need a tricksy edible branch and faux egg containing parfait with the perfectly cooked partridge? I did not, nor celeriac in powder form. My fish is at the other extreme – a nude tranche with just a large coiled langoustine on the plate. It’s crying out for a rich, rusty shellfish bisque, although the potato and artichokes, served in a creamy sauce on the side, offer some emollience. Again, it clearly has a posh provenance, but this time there’s not enough going on.
Jane’s veal is on the edge of red-to-pink, which makes it an unlikely bedfellow for, for instance, “beer can chicken with onion macaroni”. Has Byrne lost some of his early confidence and added crowd-pleasers to the challenging menu? There are three steak options, too.
For pudding, the chocolate-and-violet millefeuille is breathtakingly beautiful, but the flavours feel heavy-handed, designed to linger – a reminder, perhaps, to departing customers that it may have cost £75 each, but by god it was good. It’s a shame, really: this place is wearying for both diner and staff.
One suspects that the homely quote from Byrne on the restaurant’s website, which speaks of informal fine dining, is designed to drive custom to make returns on the vast investment. It screams, actually, “We’re not elitist!”
I hope Byrne doesn’t get watered down or puffed out too soon as I reckon the best is yet to come from him. He just needs to forget about a certain white-tyred behemoth.
Manchester House, Tower 12, 18-22 Bridge Street, Spinningfields, Manchester. Tel: 0161 835 2557. £150 for two with drinks
Four more foodie notes from the past week
Best breakfast of the year so far: sweetcorn fritters, avocado, tangy tomato salsa. And good, strong coffee with a chilli chocolate!
Pre-performance supper at the brilliant play Albion at this west London powerhouse: rustic soup and charcuterie, both excellent.
British street food
A-mazing array of great dishes at the final of the awards in Leeds. Only wish I hadn't had to eat 37 dishes in an hour…
My spring obsession is back in the shops: turns out they have a second harvest in the autumn in the Wye Valley.Reuse content