One particularly rough night out in Manchester, Marco Pierre White saved Terry Durack's life.
Sunday 07 July 2002
Manchester is not at all united. A river runs through it, in fact, in a gleaming demarcation of where Manchester finishes and the neighbouring city of Salford begins. Manchester is divided into past and future, too; the cottonopolis of the past is making way for a sleeker, smarter, Star Trekky sort of city. There are futuristic shopping complexes, evocative Daniel Libeskind architecture, and a £100m stadium to house the XVII Commonwealth Games later this month.
Naturally, many of the country's top restaurants have kindly set up shop in Manchester – selfless contributions to the local economy. Paul Heathcote, Raymond Blanc, Gary Rhodes, Terence Conran and Marco Pierre White have all done their bit to beef up the local restaurant industry, along with popular food chains such as Wagamama, fish! and Livebait. Sadly, much of the city's once famous Chinatown is now reduced to all-you-can-eat buffets, and – worse – new-wave Oriental.
I feel particularly kindly towards the River Room Marco Pierre White at Rocco Forte's extremely swish Lowry Hotel because it once saved my life. Being the sort of person who can move seats up to four times in a cinema in order to avoid the smell of popcorn or the crunch of potato crisps – both of which are more offensive than smoking and should be banned from confined public places – I am also able to walk out of a restaurant when I feel it's only going to get worse and not better.
In Manchester one Saturday night, I paid in full and left not one but two of the city's leading Chinese establishments, unable to eat-here what I would normally consider take-away. The over-cooked, cornflour-glugged, sweet-sauced food that came in response to my careful ordering was a travesty.
It was late, I was starving, and my wife had that look on her face she gets when I want to move seats in the cinema for the fourth time. Flinging ourselves at the foot of the River Room's maître d', we were quickly restored to something like sanity with a magnificent daube of Aberdeen Angus, a muscly roast chicken with bread sauce, chipolatas and jus, and a bottle of velvety Burgundy. Night rescued, marriage saved.
Now, when I hear people complain about the predictability of Marco Pierre White's menus – the omelette Arnold Bennett, the roast chicken, the soup of mussels Billy-Bye, the parfait of foie gras en gelée, the potted shrimps and the confit of lamb printaniere – I tell them to stay home more often. Familiarity with a good roast chicken, as with a good old friend, should never breed contempt.
Now I'm back six months later, for both breakfast and lunch. By day, the dining-room is less romantic and moody, taking on that polite and spacious feeling of ocean-liner anonymity that seems to go with hotel dining-rooms. A gentle Art Deco touch puts bev-elled mirrors above smart booths, although decor is sublimated to the view of the river Irwell and Santiago Calatrava's sweeping white Trinity bridge.
The staff appear to be night people. Service is correct, but too remote-control to be personal, with one waiter bidding the steak-eating business group at the table "good evening".
The excellent breakfast costs £15, but the special lunch menu is £12 for two courses, a state of events that can only be described as silly. It also proves that all things good and cheap, are not necessarily cheap and good.
Parting ways with the MPW canon of classic-French-turned-modern-British dishes is a fairly scrappy salad of crispy duck with bok choy cabbage and Asian broccoli (gai laan); the duck over-caramelised and over-cooked. Why, when you are capable of producing superior European food, would you settle for sending out inferior Oriental? Next, a plain dish of three small red snapper fillets in an intense crab bisque studded with cactus-like cords of samphire is small and unremarkable.
Thankfully, other dishes ordered from the regular menu reinforce my belief in The Marco Way. A terrine of venison with sauce Cumberland (£11.75) is a beautifully crafted thing; moist, shreddy and dense. It tastes more of duck liver than venison, but it does that thing that all great terrines do: elevates rustic country flavours with sophisticated technique.
Grilled sole (£16.50) is a whole fish, though I wonder if it really needed to be be-headed and de-tailed. It is frosted, rather than sauced, with a rich creamy warm tartare sauce studded with capers. It is all a bit fiddly, and a bit reminiscent of that Lurex-like fish topped with oscietre caviar that appeared in MPW's 1990s oeuvre, but it is effective, without dismissing the exemplary freshness and sweet taste of the fish itself.
A small tarte tatin of mango (£6) ordered for dessert is a reminder to chefs everywhere to stick to apples and pears when caramelising fruit in butter and sugar. Good, soft, buttery pastry and vanilla bean ice-cream can't turn gluey, stick-to-your-teeth bits of seemingly dried or glace mango into anything at all interesting.
Before he succumbed to the false gods of bagels, burgers and gourmet sandwiches, Marco Pierre White put in place a classic restaurant formula. A restaurant like this – with a smart chef like David Woolf – is his true legacy. When the service kicks in, and they drop the Oriental stuff, then I wouldn't swap my seat for anyone.
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