Restaurant: The toque of the town

Paul Heathcote's new Manchester restaurant is simply the best
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Every region needs a Heathcote. Only one, mind. I'm not saying Paul Heathcote has a big head, but it seems in healthy proportion to the effect he has had on eating out in Lancashire. This is fulsomely recorded in the glossy magazine Heathcotes (read about the Bolton-born wonder chef, apply for your Paul Heathcote Privilege Card now), copies of which were spread around his latest restaurant. And with his name on all three - the original Michelin two-starred Paul Heathcote's in Longridge, Heathcote's Brasserie in Preston, and, since last autumn, Simply Heathcote's in Manchester, occupying the city's old register office - we might form an impression of the size of his toque.

But then this chef and businessman has single-handedly created a contemporary regional cuisine. His celebrity, earned by providing food that is true to its origins and can be appreciated at several levels of income, is well-deserved.

The Manchester branch is enormous. Downstairs is a bar where everything - bright colours, flower arrangements - has a growth hormone-induced quality. Upstairs, covered with more bold colours and red-rose (of Lancashire) motifs, the L-shaped dining-room is reflected at twice its already unnaturally large size by a mirrored wall. Tables are as far apart as tram stops, and the staff don't always have the telescopic vision needed to make request calls. "The guys in suits take orders," said a passing waitress, and we wondered if no one would come for ages and then three would turn up at once.

As well as effectively producing more standard-issue Mediterranean stuff, Heathcote and his Manchester head chef, Max Gnoyke, bring technique, vigour and intelligence to regionally inspired recipes such as bubble and squeak with chicken livers, and chicken breast with buttered cabbage, glazed with Lancashire cheese, or, on the launch menu (it changes every two months), raised pork pie and an ice-cream made of Boddington's bitter. Sometimes these sound like a parody, but, at its best, it's food that knows its place, without being clodhoppingly traditional.

Is the "salad of Lancashire cooked breakfast" a salad because it's cold or because it has lettuce with it? In this case, the answer is both. This plate of black pudding, seemingly spiced with liquorice, sliced into surprisingly delicate discs, with baked haricot beans, grilled mushrooms and a perfect poached egg provided an uncongealed essence of breakfast at a mildly perturbing temperature. Its consumer, a broad-minded Yorkshireman, relished it but said it reminded him of being interrupted mid-breakfast by a phone call and returning to find his fry- up no longer hot.

The relatively scant amount of shredded ham hock, on mustard-speckled potato salad with lentils, may have been because it came from the two choices-per-course, set-price lunch rather than the much more expensive carte. Followed by a rather repetitive plate of grilled mackerel fillets with smoked mackerel risotto, this deal was remarkable in substance if not subtlety. Pig's cheek terrine was firm and just a little dry, but compensated for by beetroot relish and sauce gribiche, although this latter was not as caper-sharp as some.

My economy-conscious companion complained, too severely I thought, that her roast lamb with peas, faggots and fondant potatoes, at pounds 16 was "outrageous for two chops - not the most delicious, succulent bit of lamb I've ever had". The faggots were properly offaly, the peas too few to earn equal billing with everything else. Her "gravy" wasn't noticeably minty, either, but seemed similar to the fine veal jus around pork knuckle with sage, crushed potatoes and butter beans.

Was it the large tables, spacious plates, capacious glasses, sturdy cutlery and substantial price tags that made these two main courses seem smaller than their hearty constituents suggested? Had it occurred to us to order chips, vegetables or salad on the side, each for pounds 2, the two northern appetites might have been completely satisfied.

Bread and butter pudding, however, was as extra-large as it was excellent. This outsize outfit of custardy egg and bread, draped with orange jam and accessorised with apricots was pounds 5.50 - or pounds 1.80 each, as it fed three people comfortably.

Excepting the cool Philippe Starck chairs, we didn't warm to the brasserie's two other white plastic elements. The satiny PVC tablecloths seemed low- rent, considering this is not a quick turnover, wipe-and-go cafe, and the background music was MoR soul. But then this is the home of Simply Red, of big hair, big portions, big ambitions. And now of Simply Heathcote's. For around pounds 25 a head for three courses without wine, it's enjoyable, and huge

Simply Heathcote's, Jackson Row, Manchester M2 (0161-835 3536) Mon-Sat 11.45am-2.30pm, 6-11pm, Sun noon-9pm. Daily set-price lunch pounds 9.50 two courses, pounds ll.50 three courses, Sunday lunch pounds l8.50. Mon-Sat pre-theatre menu 6-6.45pm pounds 18.50 three courses. All major credit cards except Diners Club

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