Wednesday, 1 March 2017
Adam Reid at the French, Manchester
Some days it's all I can do to stop this blog becoming a single-issue publication for rants about Michelin. I know I shouldn't let them wind me up as much as they do, but really, is there any more insidious influence on our nation's dining habits than these people, trolling miserably around the country marking up anywhere conforming to their decrepit idea of what a meal should be (French, apparently, only French from about 30 years ago). My opinion of them was bad enough, too, before they launched their Twitter account, which seems to be written by a frustrated middle-manager in their mid-50s who seems to hate every aspect of his/her job and spends nearly all of their time complaining about service and sneering at provincial plating techniques. And I'm not just saying that because they had a go at me once.
Anyway, Michelin have an awful lot to answer for, not least the way chefs bend over backwards to get a star often at the expense of their other guests' enjoyment, and their own sanity. Famously, as documented in the TV series Restaurant Wars, both Aiden Byrne and Simon Rogan both set up shop in Manchester at the same time with the intention of winning the city's first star, something which, if Michelin hadn't been a miserable bunch of gout-ridden gastronomic dinosaurs (which they are), they would both have achieved almost instantly; Manchester House is a wonderful way to blow a fortune on lunch, and The French was, under Rogan, a triumph of colourful, seasonal cooking. If they didn't deserve a star, then nobody did. It was - and is - madness.
Fast-forward to 2017, though, and with Rogan's name taken off the operation at the Midland Hotel it's left in the capable hands of Adam Reid to serve beautiful food, in this beautiful room, to the beautiful people of the North West (and me). Nibbles on the "terrace" (just a curtained-off section of the lobby, really, but a clever idea to make you feel that the restaurant is separate somehow from the otherwise rather ordinary Midland décor) consisted of a powerful cod's roe and pine nut oil mousse - fresh and salty and full of ocean flavour - with (a Rogan technique I'm sure) delicate, pitch black squid ink crackers.
Reseated inside the lovely Art Deco dining room, the first proper snack was "prawn cracker", raw prawn and some vaguely Asian flavours encased in a little rice cracker. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of raw prawn so probably would never have given this full marks, but my friend enjoyed it very much so clearly they're doing something right.
The little bowl of pebbles used to present the prawn cracker was cleverly re-used for the next snack, a raw scallop on an attractive modernist spoon, with pickled spruce tip and caviar. Again, I'm more of a fan of cooked scallop than raw, so I'll refer you again to my friend who declared this mouthful of seafood the single best thing she'd eaten so far all year. Which is I'm sure a compliment they'll take.
The next course was much more my kind of thing, a delicately tempura'd broccoli shoot, in a densely truffle-y cheese mousse. The batter really was supremely light - just enough to provide a quiet crunch - but still carried a surprising amount of nutty flavour. The kind of thing that reminds you why you eat out.
The next dish, a steamed bun in the "bao" style stuffed with pork and pickled onion, didn't quite work for me. I think it was because the pickled onion flavour was overwhelming and quite distracting, tasting like Monster Munch crisps, and the chunks of pork were a bit lost. Still, some interesting techniques on display and it's good to see experiments like this occasionally even if they don't always come good.
If it's even possible to make a bad smoked eel dish, I haven't found one yet. Artichoke pieces - cooked to a firm bite - and a few pretty leaves of endive surrounded bouncy chunks of sweet-glazed eel, each a bitesize package of meaty, smoky flavour and irresistibly moreish. It was just as good as the smoked eel pasta at Padella, and as anyone who's ever tried that will tell you, that's praise indeed.
Hot smoked bacon with squid is an idea I unequivocally support; unfortunately the bacon itself was incredibly salty and rather dry, which made the dish hard to enjoy overall. The broth at the bottom of the bowl was good, though, as was the ribboned squid slowly poaching in it. Perhaps they just need to work on their bacon-making technique a little bit.
Bread came next, bread-as-a-course seemingly being a trend that's not going anywhere any time soon. And why not, because the art of a good loaf is worth celebrating just as much as any other bit of cheffery. These were apparently made by a local bakery to a recipe from the French, both sourdoughs I think though one had stout in it. The traffic light of butters were impossible to overfeed on, particularly one which had some kind of meat or offal element which was like spreadable foie gras.
This also arrived with the breads, a dense shot of meaty soup, a bit like a gourmet version of Heinz Oxtail. It was great.
I'll forgive the pretentious renaming of red mullet as "rouget" as the dish in question was so good - a beautiful fillet of fish, bright white flesh and orange skin shining like a Christmas decoration, with a charred piece of baby gem lettuce and an intriguing prawn/tomato mayo. A simple dish in essence, perhaps, but so easy to enjoy.
I'm afraid the duck element of this next dish was a little on the dry side, which is a shame because the concept and execution of the secondary elements - the delicate slivers of beetroot, the sharp pickled cherry sauce - was spot-on. Perhaps a seared fillet of duck breast would have worked better than whatever bit of the animal this was (rolled leg? Bit hard to tell) but I'm sure they had their reasons. Just as I have mine for not liking it very much.
Desserts, though, were cracking. Literally, in the case of the "clementine", which involved smashing a delicate sugar casing spiked with clementine zest to reveal a smooth white chocolate mousse within. It was an unbeatable combination of stunning to look at and to eat, the super-concentrated clementine flavour being particularly notable.
And this "custard tart", surely more than a nod to the version from Gregg's only (understandably) refined and reworked, with a delicate thin pastry, a smooth custard filling and a nice thick layer of shaved nutmeg. The rhubarb and ginger compote on the side didn't do much for me - rather bitter and lifeless - but the malt ice cream was great, and the effect of the custard and nutmeg took me right back to childhood, as I'm sure was the intention. Clearly someone in the pastry section at the French is having a ball.
There was the option to go for Adam's Great British Menu dessert "Golden Empire", but by this point we were stuffed and more than a little drunk thanks to a series of genuinely interesting and geographically diverse wines, from all over the world and various nooks and crannies in Eastern Europe. Apologies for not listing them, but you know what I'm like with wine.
As you will have hopefully realised by now from the above, despite the odd misstep and wobbly technique this is a mature and confident kitchen, aided by friendly and efficient front of staff, blessed with one of the more beautiful dining spaces in town. Reid himself spends service stood behind a kind of plating and dessert bar at one end of the room; guests ordering the Golden Empire special decamp here to watch it all being made up close. It's a lovely bit of theatre, and is a great way of showing guests his command over proceedings given the lack of an open kitchen.
So, the team at the French under its new head chef have already settled very nicely into the space and are turning out fine dining very much worth the fine dining prices they're asking for it. I'd like to say it's easily worthy of a star, but I don't want to give the impression I place any currency in stars at all, or imply that they - or anyone for that matter - should be aiming for them. It's a good restaurant, is all you need to know, and that's that. Who the hell knows what Michelin will make of it. Who the hell even cares.
The French's PR organised our booking, hence us getting nine courses for the price of six, and a slightly cheaper matching wine option.