Does an average diner reach the same conclusions about restaurants as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised? Tony Naylor and olive reader Emma Foster compare notes on Grafene, Manchester.
Tony Naylor is a Manchester-based journalist who regularly writes for olive as well as Restaurant magazine and The Guardian.
Emma Foster lives in Manchester and works for the NHS. She eats out once a week and her favourite dining experience was at The Seahorse in Dartmouth.
Not many restaurants take inspiration from a type of carbon, but Grafene is proud of its Mancunian heritage – it was at Manchester University that graphene, the world’s first 2D material, was discovered. Hence the hexagonal theme – a nod to graphene’s structure – that runs through the shiny, modern interiors of this new restaurant on King Street, complete with island bar and open pastry-kitchen.
Executive chef Darren Goodwin offers a wide-ranging menu, using ingredients sourced from non-GM local or artisan suppliers. Choose a seven-course tasting menu or dishes from the à la carte, including smoked ham terrine and seared scallops for starters and sea trout with potted shrimps and salt-aged ribeye for mains. Desserts are worth saving space for – try sorrel posset with sumac meringue granola, or a simple but excellent chocolate delice.
That I had to ask three different staff members to find out what guest beers Grafene had on (even then, the Cloudwater ‘pale’ turned out to be its session IPA), is indicative of the service here. *I wasn’t recognised.
The staff were friendly and attentive – one provided a taster of a gewürztraminer as I was mulling over the white wines – but their product knowledge was patchy. I was there a week after opening, but, still, staff should be fully briefed.
Nerves were ripe among staff (Grafene only formally opened that weekend), which in turn made us feel a bit on edge. Everyone was friendly, although the five members of staff standing chatting in the entrance as we arrived didn’t give the greatest first impression.
It was difficult to decipher what was on each artfully composed plate, aside from gastronomically pointless garnishes (flavour-limp powders; amaranth leaves, dainty fresh herbs). Like Grafene itself – a swanky space staffed with handsome people – its food will look gorgeous on Instagram but, taste-wise, it was less exhilarating.
Potentially great dishes were marred by odd affectations. Creamy, yielding scallops came with an excellent little black pudding bonbon, but also fried, shattering shards of prosciutto, a silty, tomato-y chorizo purée and a chorizo powder unpleasantly reminiscent of hot, sweet paprika powder raw from the tin. Brill with samphire, heritage vegetables, cauliflower risotto and a slightly bitter crab bisque offered complementary layers of creamy, sweet vegetal flavour, but it was mined with halved grapes. Fish with grapes is not unheard of, but it jarred here.
Crispy, fatty, toothsome lamb breast with saffron yogurt and pomegranate was better. But fried aubergine discs, aubergine powder and spinach muffled the dish’s potential vibrancy. Similarly, a piece of sweet pickled mackerel was rather overwhelmed by the stridently savoury, soured-apple flavour of the sorrel soup it sat in. Good idea but it was another so-so dish.
The highlights were an accomplished apple tart and a grown-up chocolate delice (not too sweet, not too rich), with nutty malted barley ice cream.
The à la carte menu reads well; pickled mackerel in chilled sorrel and apple soup was fresh and delicate, the softness of the fish complemented by the tartness of the apple. Lamb breast was less successful, with the meat overpowered by the crispy crumb and lost in the saffron yogurt. Seared scallops with prosciutto purée is a classic combination, and it was well executed here: perfectly caramelised scallops and punchy chorizo to lift the dish.
For mains, brill fillets with grapes, cauliflower risotto and crab bisque was impressive. The fish had a perfect crispy skin, and the grapes cut through the rich bisque with bursts of sharpness. My partner had a simple, tender pork chop, which was accompanied by dry roast potatoes that were a tad overdone. We drank a bottle of subtly-flavoured viognier that went well with the fish.
Puddings were the highlight of our meal. A pitch-perfect caramelised apple tart was served elegantly with vanilla ice cream; while the chocolate delice, with malt barley ice cream and meringue, was melt-in-the-mouth, made as it was with incredibly creamy chocolate. It takes a skilful pastry chef to make simple ingredients into something so special.
The bottom line
With its buzzy, informal warmth and slick cocktail bar, Grafene is like many Manchester restaurants. You might have a fun night here, but on this evidence – despite the way its dishes seek to technically and conceptually mimic Michelin-standard dining – you’ll not eat astounding food. I won’t be rushing back. Tony’s total for one, excluding service: £55.25
Grafene clearly wants to make an impression on Manchester’s dining scene. The restaurant itself looks great, with a subtle hexagon theme running throughout, a nod to the restaurant’s scientific inspiration. We were sat in a quiet area of the restaurant, which unfortunately meant there wasn’t much of an atmosphere. But, given time to settle in, for service to relax, and for word to spread about the good value for money, Grafene will hopefully be a success. Emma’s total for two, excluding service: £108.75
You might also like…
Marco’s Chophouse, Birmingham: restaurant review
El Gato Negro, Manchester: restaurant review | Tony Naylor
Santa Maluco, Liverpool: restaurant review
The Alford Arms, Frithsden: Restaurant Review