Monday, 9 December 2019

The Bull & Bear, Manchester

Bull and Bear is... well, actually, I don't know what it is. I don't even think the Bull & Bear knows what it is. The name suggests a pub, another addition to the North West's phalanx of world-class boozers, except this one is set up in the grand dining hall of the new Stock Exchange hotel, with its soaring ceilings, elaborate plasterwork and plush leather seating, and feels about as much like a normal pub as does the restaurant at Claridge's. There are, admittedly - and hilariously - flatscreen TVs all around the room showing Sky Sports, but none of the seating really face them, the sound is on too low to hear anyway (thank God) and halfway through our lunch the satellite signal failed, so they just started showing powerpoint slides of the hotel rooms upstairs.

If you're wondering what kind of person thinks putting Sky Sports on the walls in the dining room of a five star hotel is a good idea, well the answer is Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Winston Zahra, Premier League footballers being about the demographic in the world unable to really enjoy their £9.50 pollock scotch egg without the footie on in the background. The whole venture, in fact, feels very much like Kerridge with his successful restaurant brain on was gamely pulling in one direction while Neville & Co were insisting that the menu should somehow involve a baked potato (£8.50, featuring raw steak; we weren't brave enough to try it), a Caesar salad and pints of lager on tap.

To his credit Kerridge has, thanks to his talent as a chef and experience in the field of fancy hotel restaurants (I believe his place in the Corinthia is lovely), put together a menu that tries its darndest to keep all these separate interests happy, and occasionally succeeds. The aforementioned fish scotch egg is, well, not a vast amount of food for £9.50 but seasoned properly and prettily presented even if the flavour was in the end a bit subdued.

Less successful was this dish they called a "cassoulet" but turned out to be nothing of the sort. There were no chunks of sausage, no tasty slabs of pork skin, no thick, buttery sauce around the beans and in fact if I hadn't have been told it had been cooked with pork fat could have easily assumed it was some kind of vegetarian stew. And there's nothing wrong with a vegetarian stew of course, I just hadn't ordered one, and even if I had the vast amount of truffle dumped on top could not distract from what was a rather ordinary, underseasoned bowl of food, containing strange cubes of pickled something-or-other (apple?) that just made the whole thing taste even more bizarre.

There were occasional glimpses of Kerridge's more celebrated work. Mussels Marinière with Warm Stout was a thick seafood mousse with a lovely deep malty stout flavour, studded with mussels and served with a warm bun similar to soda bread. Putting aside the obvious criticism that this was £11.50 for about three spoonfuls of food, it was declared "really good" and was about the only thing we'd order again if we were to return. Though that's a big "if".

Elsewhere, things continued to disappoint. In no universe I can think of can a single quail stuffed with black pudding cost £17.50, especially not one with dry breast meat, chewy skin (had it been standing around the pass too long?) and containing an unadvertised and unwelcome surprise of a mushy apricot I think it was in the centre, which oozed out as I cut into it like a lanced boil.

Chips were fine. I never really like the chunky wedge shape for my chips (Kerridge's Hand & Flowers in Marlow do dainty little tube-shaped chips, but has decided not to do that here for some reason) and the potato didn't have a great deal of flavour but they were, you know, OK. Plenty of them though (as you'd hope for £5.50), and just as well as even I with my pretty meagre appetite was beginning to panic that a single quail and some weird veg stew wasn't going to keep me going until dinnertime.

"Profiterole" disappointed in a similar way to the "cassoulet", insofar as they weren't really profiterole because they weren't made with choux pastry. Instead, some little pastry casings - brittle and savoury like crackers - were filled with sour vanilla cream and topped with an admittedly lovely caramel-chocolate sauce. They weren't horrible, just a bit like everything else - not quite as advertised, slightly underflavoured, and slightly mean-spirited for the price (£8.50).

It all added up (and thanks to a few glasses of wine it certainly bloody did add up, to around £60/head with service charge) to a very strange experience indeed. If ever world class service was needed to rescue a birthday lunch from the jaws of a mediocre menu it was now, and fortunately a familiar face I recognised from the launch team at Fera, Mayfair back in the day was on hand to ensure everything ran smoothly and our every whim was catered for in good time. Take a bow, that man. But otherwise, a pub that isn't a pub serving overthought and underpowered bistro food in a room that would be plush if it didn't have more 4K capability than the nearest branch of Dixons, does Manchester really need this? Does anywhere?

I guess it could have been worse. The big name chef originally slated to take over the space was Michael O'Hare, and lord knows how his sci-fi experimental Spanish/Japanese alien food would have coped with the expectations of an all-day bistro and the requirement to serve breakfast. Or maybe it would have been brilliant, I guess we'll never know. All I do know is that the Bull & Bear is not the vehicle for Kerridge's undoubted talents it could have been, and I honestly wonder how long his name will stay above the door. For now, put it to the back of your mind - go to Mana, or Sugo Pasta Kitchen, or Kala - and leave alone until they've decided what on earth they want to be. Life's too short for meat-free cassoulet.


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