Wednesday, 30 October 2013
The French, Manchester
Anyone who has been following this blog for long enough will know that I consider Simon Rogan to be one of the most talented chefs working in Britain today, and that my meal at l'Enclume is unlikely to be superceded any time soon as the best meal I've ever eaten. I realise labelling anything the "best" is fraught with problems, especially with anything so subjective as restaurants, but much as I try to avoid quixotic praise, the more I think about that afternoon in Cartmel, in that bright conservatory overlooking the garden, the more I realise how special it was. Sixteen courses of love and joy, and edible pebbles. What more could you want?
It is probably due in part, then, to this hopeless fanboyism that I and a friend were invited up to Manchester last weekend to sample his latest ventures (more on his more informal spot, Mr Cooper's House and Garden, from Lizzie in due course) at the Midland hotel. The chances of my not having a great time at a Simon Rogan restaurant are so slim that the PR powers that be clearly decided that it was worth putting us up in this swankiest of city centre hotels and letting us loose on a ten-course tasting menu, for which we are of course very grateful. So after a morning swim in the basement pool and a brief wander around Manchester in the rain (I believe this is Manchester's default weather setting), we settled in for the midday sitting.
Much like the way things kicked off at l'Enclume, the dazzling selection of amuses that preceed the menu proper at the French are each mini works of art. Crispy kale, chicken skin and horseradish bore a certain resemblance to a similar creation at l'Enclume but substituting the cracker for a sheet of crispy kale was a stroke of genius, and having it all dissolve in your mouth into a riot of animal fat and cream was quite the sensation. Cute little crab and sorrel canapés, too, played with contrasting textures thanks to a crunchy, puffy base laced with seaweed (I think). And 'Rye, mustard and linseeds', spiked with pickled red cabbage, was fresh and invigorating, the seeds toasted just to release a bit of smoke and oil. The only not-entirely-successful item was a black pudding and sage croquette thing which should have been right up my alley but turned out to be rather bland and pappy. Or maybe it was just suffering in contrast to everything else.
Plenty to discuss, then, and we hadn't even reached course one. That arrived next in a little stoneware pot, and consisted of two impossibly sweet new potatoes covered in a rich cheddar sauce. Toasted bread added crunch, and chives colour. It was all very comforting and autumnal, a cheese and potato pie gone posh.
"Grilled radish, leek and watercress" doesn't sound like the most amazingly interesting dish, does it? Except there is nobody who can do vegetables like Simon Rogan, and thanks to a range of techniques and some incredibly fresh ingredients, it was an absolute dazzler. A young leek, gently charred and tasting of wood smoke, was draped around a couple of pieces of rich, salty ham in an ever-so-slightly gelatinous sauce studded with mustard seeds. A fresh radish on top added a bitter crunch to compliment the salt and soft notes elsewhere, and another type of cooked radish was so sweet and smoky and had a flavour so arresting it could have won Best In Show on its own.
And so, just as had happened at l'Enclume, that course kicked off a run of five that could each barely be faulted. Take each of these ingredients in isolation and tell me you don't want to smother yourself in them - mushroom broth, salt-baked swede, smoked yolk, truffles. Now imagine all forming part of one extraordinary dish, rich and soothing, like wrapping yourself in a blanket in front of a log fire in an old thatched cottage.
Then the ox in coal oil dish, much discussed by others as a highlight of their meal at the French but supremely impressive even despite all the hype. On the one level, it's a steak tartare, prettied up with neat little balls of kohlrabi and toasted pumpkin seeds. But the coal oil adds a bewildering extra dimension, the flavour of a charcoal-charred steak without the char.
Caramelised cabbage - ah, you had me at "caramelised cabbage" - scallops, herbs and smoked roe had the trademark Rogan way with smoke and vegetables, with some lovely sweet little Scottish scallops boasting a golden brown crust. I wish I'd known that the roe was quite so punchy before I downed a whole puck of it in one, though - it was so powerfully salty my squeal of surprise turned heads from more than one neighbouring table.
Next was one of Rogan's famous salad explosions, consisting of at least fifty or so separate elements and presumably having taken some poor bugger the best part of the day to put together. I won't even begin to remember everything that went into it, but it was great fun to work our way through, and was interesting seeing how it had evolved from a similar dish I tried at the Electrolux Cube when he was cooking there last year. Just as pretty, though.
Plaice with carrots was a dainty arrangement of bright-white, superbly-timed fish and carrots done caramelised/roasted and as a little purée. Whether it was because it was towards the end of the savoury dishes by this point or just my delicate stomach, I'm afraid neither of us really much enjoyed the deep-fried nugget of bone marrow that topped the fish; it was rich to the point of defeating. Nevertheless, it's always nice when a top chef turns his hand to a fish like plaice - you rarely see it looking and tasting this good.
Middlewhite pork belly was just about the nicest bit of pork I've enjoyed in a very long time, the flesh hammy and bouncy and edged with a thin layer of golden crackling. The accompanying veg - blewits, turnip and mugwort - had the added benefit of sounding like something from Hogwarts' Advanced Potions class as well as tasting earthy and mysterious. A pork jus poured on top made some popcorn crackle like breakfast cereal.
Apples, woodruff (wiki here, I had no idea either), sweet cheese and hazelnut was a pleasant if unspectacular introduction to the sweet courses. Even here, though, despite rather muted flavours, there was some interesting technical skill on display in the form of some nitro-frozen, apple-flavoured meringue things which completely disappeared in the mouth like cold candy floss.
Then a marvellous course consisting of toasted oats, raspberries and hyssop where the fruit had been teased into a thin sheet of translucent raspberry-flavoured candy, and the medicinal, minty hyssop came in the form of a crumbled sorbet. As you may have noticed by this point, there's always plenty going on in terms of technique, but never at the expense of enjoyment.
It was all, of course, as it was always likely to be, a joy. Opening Manchester's first fine-dining restaurant in its most grand and classical old dining halls is a pretty serious achievement in itself, but to do so while sacrificing so little of the charm, inventiveness and fanatical devotion to detail that made l'Enclume so special has not just created the first high-end restaurant in Manchester worth visiting, but another regional destination restaurant, a jewel in the crown of the north that deserves to draw in visitors from all over the country.
I hesitate to mention the dreaded M-word but enough people have made comments to the effect of "if it's so good, why didn't it get a Michelin star", and enough Mancunian pride has been hurt by the omission in this year's guide that it probably deserves addressing. Firstly, and most importantly, Michelin are an ignorant bunch of foam-frotting dinosaurs who wouldn't recognise a good meal if it was tied to a brick and flung in their faces. The briefest of glances at the awards as they currently stand nationwide reveal no obvious pattern other than that if you are connected in some way to a famous name treading water in the Michelin comfort zone (Ducasse, Gagnaire, Robuchon) or are at least serving the kind of dishes they recognise from other restaurants they've awarded (the Greenhouse, Gordon Ramsay, Le Champignon Sauvage) then you are likely to do well. Other than that, you may as well be pulling names out of a hat. The dreadful Ametsa gets a star and not the Clove Club? The gimmick-fountain that is Bo London is awarded, and not the refined, innovative Kitchen Table? It's a crapshoot, in all senses of the word.
So the fact that l'Enclume is "deserving" of two stars and the French not even one says nothing - absolutely nothing - about the quality of the food at either restaurant but everything about how risk-averse, unpredictable and utterly irrelevant the Michelin guide is. Simon Rogan's crafted, intelligently seasonal, creative dishes in the heart of this grand old hotel may not have been deemed as good as somewhere in Mayfair charging £80 for an edible used condom but nobody - not him, and certainly not you - need to worry about that. One day the Michelin guide will be a forgotten relic of a time when the wrong people valued the wrong things about eating out and we will laugh about how chefs would drive themselves loopy to win their favour. Until then, just know this - there are few better restaurants than the French.
I was invited to the Midland to review the French