Mr Cooper's House and Garden: Restaurant review - the Midland hotel has been reborn as Simon Rogan's Gourmetghast
Saturday 18 January 2014
For a talented chef, there are many routes to stardom. Television is the quickest, if not necessarily the easiest. A documentary a few years back featured the strivings of Aiden Byrne, ex of The Dorchester, to boost his TV profile. I'm afraid that flash of Byrne's galvanised-steel ambition was enough to put me off ever going to one of his restaurants again. Shame, because by all accounts, his latest, Manchester House, is wonderful.
A film crew has been following Byrne and another relatively new arrival in Manchester, Simon Rogan, for a forthcoming BBC2 series with the working title Restaurant Wars. I'm sure they're both thrilled with that name; after all, one of the UK's biggest cities only has room for one Michelin-starred restaurant, right?
Rogan built his stellar reputation at L'Enclume long before the telly bods came calling. His "journey" – as the voiceover will no doubt put it – from the Lake District village of Cartmel to Claridge's, where he's due to take over the restaurant from Gordon Ramsay later this year, shows what can happen when talent and determination are the drivers of a career, rather than TV exposure.
His "if you build it, they will come" philosophy is now being tested in Manchester, where Rogan recently took over the restaurant operations at the venerable old Midland. An enormous railway hotel left behind when they moved the station, like a Victorian Gothic version of Bates Motel, the Midland has been reborn as Rogan's Gourmetghast.
His first restaurant there, The French, opened last spring, going to the top of every Manchester foodie's to-do list. It's now been joined by a second, more casual, restaurant, Mr Cooper's House and Garden, which opened in September.
The twee name honours the city father who once lived on this spot, and is reflected in the indoors/outdoors design, which grafts a leather-bound, gentlemen's club-ish bar on to a larger expanse of pale wood and greenery. It's an odd space, like the café at an upmarket garden centre. As pale as porridge, all ecru and eau de nil, it's punctuated by random outbreaks of garden ephemera – watering cans, bird houses and parasols. Our table was beneath a huge tree, complete with fake leaves. It's Narnia with a wine list.
Quite how Rogan's playful, experimental style, fusing avant-garde techniques with hyper-local ingredients, accommodates to the demands of a 150-cover hotel dining room is answered by a lengthy menu which is distinctly nonconformist, and more international than we've seen from him before: Mexican gazpacho, wasabi and avocado; chipotle polenta with hot smoked salmon; roasted teriyaki tofu steak. Anyone expecting retro pleasures in the style of Heston Blumenthal's Dinner will be bamboozled by a list owing more to Google Earth than Mrs Beeton.
The food is inevitably simpler than at the fine-dining French, but it's still remarkably sophisticated for the prices (starters are mainly £4-£6.50, mains around £16). It also presents challenges.
But let's begin with the hits. A starter of beef meatballs, wonderfully light and garnished with foamed tzatziki and pitta croutons, offered a wallop of big, robust, flavours, like all your Greek holidays come at once. The truffle pudding – a dense, eggy brioche heady with truffle oil – which came with the Cumbrian rib-steak was sinfully seductive. And we admired a rhubarb dessert which paired sharp granita and syrup-poached fruit with a baked custard flavoured with meadowsweet.
Now for the 'Marmite' dishes. A starter layering a loose terrine of pork belly and smoked eel on a rye crumb base under a parfait-like layer of cream cheese looked disconcertingly like cheesecake, and arguably fell on the anaemic side of subtle. A dish of gorgonzola-stuffed red peppers and flaked salt cod floated in an otiose hollandaise. Both dishes left my guest and me uncertain (he's in charge of University Challenge, but luckily didn't insist on not conferring about starters).
The dish I most enjoyed was also the one I can imagine horrifying many: a Turkish Delight-inspired syllabub served with honeyed flapjack which was overpoweringly flavoured with rosewater. I love Turkish Delight, but, like truffle oil, it divides tastes, and only a bold kitchen would push the point to this extent. Lunch lingered on in my olfactory system long after I'd left Manchester.
Rarely do I go away from a restaurant genuinely undecided as to whether I've liked it. But that was the case with Mr Cooper's. It's also hard to say who the room is designed for – a group of businessmen looked decidedly out of place under their garden parasol. But at around £50 a head for three courses, it's a relatively accessible way of sampling the ideas of one of our brightest talents. One thing is clear, Rogan doesn't do bland. When he and his team hit Claridge's later this year, it promises to be quite a show.
The Midland Hotel, Peter Street Manchester (0161 932 4128). Around £50 per head including wine and service
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