It was the ox that got me. It was the ox that made me really, honestly, genuinely get misty eyed with happiness. I realised I was ruined. No matter how many times I would try to search out its equal, I would never be successful. I photographed it so that every now and then I could call up the picture to gaze upon; to try and summon up the taste again.
But I should start at the beginning.
One of the first really good restaurants I reviewed was Roganic, a temporary London offshoot of the Michelin-starred L’Enclume in Cumbria. Its chef-patron, Simon Rogan had brought his seasonal, local, ‘let’s worship at the shrine of the potato’ cuisine to town and it was lovely. Ever since, I’ve wanted to go north to Roganville (actually Cartmel).
But now I don’t need to go that far, because in his latest venture Rogan – now with a second Michelin star and a legion of new fans thanks to a winning appearance on last year’s Great British Menu – has taken over the restaurant at Manchester’s Midland hotel.
It's not as mad as it sounds, this proponent of farm-to-plate dining setting up shop in the city. It’s an hour from Rogan HQ, allowing both staff and produce to shuttle easily. The hotel, established in 1903, has a fine-dining history – it received a Michelin star in the very first guide (in 1974).
It is a delightful room. What might have been an unholy marriage is instead a bit of a romance. Two glittering globe-shaped modern chandeliers are at once blingy and bohemian, and the mirrored panelling serves to make the oval room feel airy. Funnest of all is a carpet made to resemble broad oak floorboards. It is the softening touch that marries the austere Scandinavian furniture (a Rogan trademark) and the plushness of the setting.
And the food? There are ten courses (and four unbilled dishes) on the menu. This costs £79 and is Money Well Spent.
Set aside an entire evening and what you’d spend on two average meals elsewhere and your reward is a deftly presented, well paced array of memorable dishes.
Before we even get to the menu proper, a collection of extraordinary canapés: a parsnip crisp with pork fat and smoke eel; a small bowl of an extraordinarily rich and quite challenging black pudding mousse; a wooden tray of black pebbles on which are two pickle-poached mussels on the half shell (the wheeze being that the shells themselves are edible); two little dock puddings – crisp little fried balls of creamy dock leaf (who knew?!) with a tang of salt and vinegar; and two tall sticks set within sand in a small shot glass. This is faux sand, and tastes – in a very good way – like the crumbs in the bottom of a packet of cheese and onion crisps (crisps made by a Michelin-starred chef). The sticks are edible seaweed, in flavour, if not material.
So, already a little blind-sided, we take a breath and a look around. The room is full, the customers those keen to get in at the start of what will be the star of Manchester’s dining scene. Oh, and a table of hotel guests with a baby. Never too young to start on fine dining, I suppose.
One can only imagine the scene if word got out in certain other high-falutin’ establishments that someone had ordered a pina colada with their ‘fresh crab and caramelised cabbage, horseradish, chicken skin with crow garlic’. Here, the atmosphere is relaxed, accommodating rather than stridently 'foodie'.
There’s something refreshing about a room full of people just experiencing this, rather than Instagramming and live-blogging it. And staff explaining, only if it’s wanted, what each dish is and what’s in it.
Me, I like to know what’s what and the keen young waiter – one of a handful transferred from L'Enclume – has explanations just the right side of jaunty.
Like we quickly are, he’s a fan of the chestnut bread, Manchester ale roll and pillow-soft baguette that arrive next. Then, after an intense clam dish with egg yolk, clam foam, toasty oats and sea herbs, he beams with pride delivering light as a feather truffle dumplings in a broth with an impossibly intense artichoke flavour. If it hadn’t been fatally appropriated by Gregg Wallace, I’d broadcast a loud “corrrr”.
‘Early spring offerings’ is a plate of delightful vegetables with herbs and flowers, and a salt flavoured with lovage that sing out their freshness and the love with which they were prepared; simple, yes, but plain? Not at all.
A Rogan favourite – hogget - is a meltingly soft tranche with a crisp sweetbread, a cloud of frothed sheeps milk and wilted ramsons. On the point of wilting myself, from sensory overload, I allow Mr M my next dish, Reg’s duck with mustard and beetroot. A humble description of a galactic-looking ensemble of discs swirled with sauce.
I recover in time for the prettiest plate of all, a vivid pink ensemble of rhubarb as a crisp, poached, and in gel form, with toasted oats and a creamy ice made from sweetened marscarpone cheese. And finally, on slate (my least favourite of all serving surfaces, but oh well, if any one can…) a tender pear with buttermilk sorbet and a rye crisp.
But that ox. If I had eaten it blindfold, I would have sworn it was a world-class piece of meat that had been cooked on a barbecue but - puzzlingly - had managed to keep extraordinary tenderness. In fact, it was raw, diced and dressed in charcoal oil to give it that smokiness, and with small rounds of kohlrabi and a scattering of pumpkin seeds for crunch. An immediate entry into my lifetime top-10 dishes.
At the end of the meal, my mouth felt as if it had been on a magic carpet ride - from the richness of that black pudding to the last whisper of buttermilk. Nothing had jarred, or felt tricksy, or fiddled with. It was simply outstanding – a testament to the devotion of Rogan (at the stoves here for the time being, before he moves on to resettling Roganic in a new home and then back to a newly expanded kitchen at L’Enclume).
It’s no wonder that Kamila, his restaurant manager, takes such pride in offering diners a visit to the kitchen. ‘See the magic,’ she seems to be saying. ‘Be astounded by the humble kitchen from where gold was spun.’
Manchester is a lucky, lucky city. The gentleman at a neighbouring table was certainly celebrating. He strolled out of the dining room and fell asleep on a sofa in the lobby. Ten courses with wines matched to every course can do that to you. Or perhaps he was simply staking a claim on a table for lunch the next day. And who can blame him?
(SCORES: 1-3 STAY AT HOME AND COOK, 4 NEEDS HELP, 5 DOES THE JOB, 6 FLASHES OF PROMISE, 7 GOOD, 8 CAN'T WAIT TO GO BACK, 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS)
The French The Midland, Peter Street, Manchester, tel: 0161 236 3333 Lunch, Wed-Sat; dinner, Tues-Sat. About £210 for two, including wine
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Reviews extracted from ‘Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2013’, www.hardens.com