Monday, 23 April 2012
Michael Caines at ABode, Manchester
"Food in Manchester", I was informed shortly after I stepped off platform six at Piccadilly station, "is two years behind London". I know that by repeating such a sweeping statement I will immediately alienate a good number of Mancunians, but I mention it only because the first notable thing I saw on a stroll through the Northern Quarter was a huge queue for a trendy, underground six-week burger popup. In a quite marvellous bit of serendipity, Saturday 21st April was the last day of the first stage (there will certainly be more) of Almost Famous burgers, Manchester's answer to #meateasy, and it was on this same day in 2011 that year-long New Cross popup shut its doors.
People throw words like "influential" around far too easily sometimes, but in all honesty can there be any food outlet that has left its mark on as many places in recent years as Meatwagon/MeatLiquor? I sometimes wonder if messrs Papoutsis and Collins (MeatLiquor owners) feel proud that so many restaurants have found their back-to-basics all-American style so appealing (and profitable), or miffed they aren't able to charge some kind of royalty fee every time they see another butter-fried chilli burger appear on a menu. And yes I know the pedants will try and argue that in fact they themselves only "copied" more famous US burger joints like Hodad's (CA) and Bobcat Bite (AZ) but that's not the point - it was Meatwagon that did the leg work, did the travelling, researched the recipes and - most crucially - painstakingly sourced UK equivalent ingredients before anyone else. It's also probably the reason why they're still the best (prove me wrong, I dare you).
But this post isn't - for once - about burgers. We did briefly consider a trip to Almost Famous, but one look at the queue snaking down the road in the torrential Manchester rain (it seems this part of the world only has two types of weather - drizzle, or downpour) and we felt glad we'd made a booking at somewhere a bit more sedate. In the dimly-lit basement of the ABode hotel, then, is restaurant Michael Caines, high-end in the classically-trained French style, with ambitious prices to match the ambitious cooking served by almost as many staff as there were customers. Sadly, with regards to service at least, quantity did not on this occasion equal quality, but more on that later.
The food itself, and this is really what it's all about, is hard to fault. An amuse of salmon sashimi topped with a very good radish and subtle apple sauce was colourful and brilliantly fresh. House bread was good too, warm and crusty and if not baked in house then baked somewhere nearby that cared.
ABode let me swap the first course off the tasting menu (lamb sweetbreads) into the A La Carte as a starter. This was very nice of them of course, but what was even better was when the bill arrived they'd only charged me for the cheapest (vegetarian) ALC starter. Anyway the sweetbreads were just perfect - good crust on them, rich and smooth inside, and presented in a meaty/buttery sauce with the odd crunchy radish providing more texture. A friend's quail "salad" contained expertly pink and moist game with some nice gummy gnocchi, although I'm afraid the egg introduced by our waiter as "poached" was nothing of the sort - it was hard boiled. Still, only a minor criticism really.
Mains were equally accomplished, in terms of skill and ingredients at least. I ate a tender, pink lamb chop with one of those wonderful reduced sauces that the French can do so well and a crispy, fluffy potato fondant topped with some kind of tomato salsa. And my friend's duck was nice and pink and crusty with an interesting black pudding sauce and roasted onions. We just wish both had been a bit hotter - by the time I got round to the stage of attacking the potato fondant, it had nearly gone cold, and the duck fat had started to congeal unpleasantly.
Cold food sometimes points to issues with service, and I'm afraid it was in this department that ABode didn't quite live up to the promise of the prices they charge. This was particularly evident when it came to the cheese course, where our admittedly enthusiastic waitress responded "well, they're all delicious" when asked which were available, before realising we weren't likely to settle for that and scurrying off to find a list. Sharpham was listed as washed rind (it's not) and when challenged on this point they responded "it's washed with water, so you can't taste it". I know it's easy for me to fire smug questions at people on a minimum wage in a cheap bid for blogging material, but there's no shame in saying "I don't know", and if I'm paying £120 for dinner it's quite nice to know where your money is going.
Yes, the cost. The prices at ABode are bold for anywhere in the UK, and if any of the above seems like I'm nit picking then it's only because at this level, you need to fight for value. Despite the cheese incident, service elsewhere was generally very good, particularly a sommelier who suggested a £32 Valpolicella that turned out to be one of the best things I've drunk in weeks, but the food was only just worth those eye-watering numbers and had we had just that little bit more to complain about in any department, I would have felt the faint sting of ripoff. But no, we enjoyed our meal; when the food was good it was very good indeed, and even when the service was a bit wobbly it was always charming. ABode isn't perfect, but in a town where you can eat wasabi prawn pizza (Fire and Stone idiocy isn't confined to Covent Garden, it seems), you can definitely do far worse. So, after all is said and done and paid through the nose for, is Michael Caines at ABode worth it? Yeah, why not.