Thursday, 5 January 2017
Manchester House, Manchester
I have this theory, which may or may not have any basis in reality, that the dominant architectural style in any given town or city marks the point in time in which said town or city was at its most important and prosperous. So plucking a few examples at random, there's Lavenham in Suffolk, whose perfectly preserved 15th century half-timbered streets indicate the time in which the wool trade was at its height and it was one of the wealthiest parts of the country. Or the wonderful Regency terraces of Bath and Bristol, cities that grew rich on the 18th century slave trade with the American colonies. Once these industries peaked, the demand for contemporary buildings lessened and we are left today with these perfectly preserved moments in architectural time.
And so it is with Manchester and Liverpool, administrative capitals of the industrial revolution that for a good hundred years or so were the two most important cities in the country. Home to a collection of the most beautiful Victorian Gothic buildings you're ever likely to see, that so many of them have survived to this day is at least in part because those same industry forces responsible for their creation eventually faded and left areas like Castle Street in Liverpool, or Princess St in Manchester, as stately reminders of a time, only just out of the reach of living memory, where it seemed the whole world looked to the North West of England.
What's all this got to do with food? Well, only that whatever challenges Liverpool and Manchester hold for the restaurateur (including but not limited to "persuading people to pay more than £20 for an evening meal"), a shortage of stunning Victorian Gothic buildings will never be amongst them, and it must be frustrating to London food industry types, used to squeezing their ventures into ugly converted shipping containers or charmless shopping malls, to see the kind of places people are allowed to eat in up North - gleaming marble-decked palaces, ex-bank or insurance company headquarters with painted ceilings and grand stone staircases that were the wonder of the industrial age. Admittedly, most of these buildings house restaurant operations so utterly inept you'd sooner jump in the Manchester Ship Canal than revisit, but there are a few real gems, not least of which the French, housed in the Midland Hotel, where the food more than lives up to the stunning surroundings.
So it was somewhat of a surprise to discover that another Manchester chef with dreams of the heights of gastronomy, Aiden Byrne, hadn't found some beautiful old gothic pile to convert but had instead set up shop in a snazzily redeveloped 1960s tower block. The twelfth floor of the building is home to Lounge 12, probably the most intelligent and attractive bit of interior design I've ever been fortunate enough to drink a martini in, and the panoramic views of the city from way up there are worth the price of admission alone. But if anything, the space on the 1st floor housing the restaurant proper is even more jaw-dropping, a vast open kitchen complex leading to a spacious and beautiful dining space, all polished wood, floor-to-ceiling glass and industrial steel detail that brought to mind the very best of the Scandinavian restaurant style - in particular the lovely Amass.
A more theatrically exciting setting for a Modern British tasting menu can hardly be imagined, so I will forgive Manchester House their first mis-step in deciding not to even show us the cheaper lunchtime a la carte. An oversight, I'm sure, and there was no way we were going to be persuaded out of the 14-course Full Monty either way, but I would have liked them at least to have gone through the motions of offering us the 2 courses for £22 option, even if just to make us feel we weren't being taken for complete hopeless restaurant spods.
Anyway, as hopeless restuarant spods we were powerless to order anything other than 14 courses and matching wines, and pretty soon we were on our way with this trio of nibbles. From left to right, a squid ink rice cracker topped with some teeny but extraordinarily powerful cherry tomatoes and chunks of cured lemon sole, a raw scallop dressed lightly in vinegar and some lovely pickled green peppercorns, and a ethereally light potato mousse studded with chicken skin and foie gras which played with a beguiling mixture of temperatures and textures. All very cheffy, very clever, and extremely enjoyable.
"Cured halibut, mussels and lardo" was the kind of surf and turf arrangement that in lesser hands could have been a disaster - even on paper it sounds a bit of a mess - but the halibut was gorgeous, bound in a light mussel emulsion, and the lardo provided a delicate meaty seasoning. This is the kind of dish I go to restaurants for - top ingredients, innovation and skill all in one neat, gleaming, pig-draped package.
The next dish was perhaps a more conventional set of flavours - a goat's cheese and onion soup - but with a presentation that was nothing short of gasp-inducing. Somehow - and don't ask me how - they'd made a half-shell out of some kind of delicate soft frozen cheese, at the bottom of which sat a few cubes of Iberico ham jelly. Into this shell was next poured the most wonderful, frothy cheese and onion soup you can imagine, like a light fondue mixture, which melted the shell and turned it all into a silky cheese and onion and ham mixture, all hot and cold and with interesting soft jelly textures. A faultless bit of cooking.
"Butter poached frog's legs" were delicate and savoury, meticulously boned to produce a little lolipop of meat and with a dollop of caviar to season. Caviar and meat (that is, non-seafood meat) is a thing you're about to hear a lot more about - chef Elizabeth Allen is doing a popup based on fried chicken and caviar this month which you would do well to get yourself some tickets for.
This beautifully pink pigeon breast, gamey and dense with flavour, is presented with a little ballotine of I think pigeon leg meat, a neat quenelle of cherry sorbet and, in the middle there, Manchester House's own version of Heston's Meat Fruit, an extraordinarily convincing cherry-that-is-not-a-cherry, a foie gras paté covered with cherry sauce. Isn't it beautiful? And even the 'stalk' is edible spun sugar. An incredible amount of work had gone into this dish and you could taste every bit of it.
I wasn't as completely bowled over by this pig's cheek croquette as I had been by the previous run of courses, but then that's probably more to do with me than them. There's only so much I'm ever really going to enjoy pig's cheek, no matter how well it's presented and no matter what else it's delivered with, and so I could only muster a faint approval in comparison to the embarrassing raptures over the cheese soup or pigeon dishes. Still, I did enjoy it, particularly the sheet of sharp fermented pear jelly resting on top.
This pretty thing is a mushroom, snail and celeriac tart which, as you might imagine from the words "mushroom", "snail", "celeriac" and "tart" being used in close proximity, was a very fine thing indeed. A supremely delicate bit of pastry work containing a light, earthy mushroom filling, it was recognisably haute cuisine but also quite familiar to anyone who's ever eaten a mushroom vol-au-vent at a party in the 80s.
The grand finale of the savoury courses was hay-baked mallard, and being a huge fan of duck I could ask for nothing more. It was perfectly cooked to moist and pink, but then you'd expect that. What lifted this above most duck dishes was the gentle notes of hay smoke that lingered without being overwhelming, the crunchy kale which is always such a great foil for duck, and the salt baked beetroot which was almost meaty in its dense salty richness.
I think perhaps blue cheese ice cream is one of those ideas that work better as a concept than in reality. I can kind of see what they were trying to do here, a hybrid cheese course/dessert with elements of both, but it all hinged on the success of the blue cheese ice cream, and as it turns out, I do not much like blue cheese ice cream. Still, you've got to admire their ambition, and it was all very prettily done.
Much better was this chocolate and hazelnut arrangement, the chocolate Aero'd up into big bubbly chunks and with more of Manchester House's clever ways with ice cream. I'm afraid I don't really remember much else about this dessert, which could be because it was a fairly tried-and-tested collection of flavours and techniques or could be because we were one martini and 14 glasses of matching wine down each by this point, and my attention had drifted away from the dinner and onto making it to and from the toilet without crashing through the Christmas decorations.
Two points to be made before I attempt a summing up. Firstly, though service was generally attentive and the pacing perfect, the sommelier gave the very strong impression there was somewhere he'd rather be, and though I'm sure that's not the case (why wouldn't you want to be a sommelier in a restaurant as good as this), it was an unfortunate impression to give. Wine descriptions were rather terse and mumbled, and a couple of times we had to ask them to be repeated. Not a great issue in the grand scheme of things, but enough of a distraction to be noted. Also, as well as neglecting to show us the cheap lunch menu our server added a naff handwritten "thank you" note on the bill, something I'd expect in the US where you live off the tips but not in a top-end British restaurant costing £215 a head with service automatically included. Again, a little thing really, but there you go.
And yes, I'm afraid you read that right. Don't get me wrong, it was a storming meal, 14 courses of invention, passion and skill, matched with proper grown-up wines, and we enjoyed every second of it. But £215 (the bill above was slightly incorrect, listing a couple of drinks we didn't order) per person is about as much money as you'd really want to spend - or could spend - on lunch without it being one of those "once in a lifetime" meals and if I'm going to be brutally honest, there wasn't quite enough perfection, not quite the refinement or delicateness of touch that separates the top class with the truly world class. Of course it goes without saying that it deserves the Michelin star they so publicly are gunning for, that much is blinking obvious, but who the hell knows what Michelin are up to these days, and there's no point losing sleep over that. They'll probably get one eventually, it's just a shame it means so much to chefs (and their investors) when it's increasingly obvious the people in charge of giving out those stars have only a passing relationship with reality.
Often with overwhelming - and overwhelmingly expensive - meals like this you don't really finally make your mind up about a place not just after the buzz of alcohol has worn off but many days or weeks down the line. There's so much to take in on the day, so many facets to the food and nuances of service, that you need a bit of space to grow a sense of perspective and separate the excitement of the moment with the substance of what really went on. And now, a couple of weeks after the event, I'm happy to say that Manchester House is one of the best meals I enjoyed in the last twelve months, just not one of the best of the last decade, and I'm afraid for that wallet-busting bill that's probably what I felt I was entitled to. Still, what a thing it is, this gleaming temple of high-falutin' haute cuisine, another reason Mancunians should be very pleased with themselves indeed. Now, Liverpool, your turn.