Does an average diner reach the same conclusions about restaurants as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Tony Naylor and reader Suzanne Stockton-Lappage compare notes on Manchester House.
Tony Naylor is a Manchester-based journalist who regularly writes for Olive, as well as Restaurant magazine and The Guardian. You’ll also find him blogging online for The Guardian’s Word of Mouth.
Suzanne Stockton- Lappagelives in Chorlton, Manchester. Her favourite food is modern Indian and her best eating out experience was at QuoVadis in Soho, in particular the rabbit pie and calves’ liver.
Aiden Byrne was, at 22, the youngest chef in
Britain to be awarded a Michelin Star while working as head chef at Adlard’s in Norwich. His latest venture, Manchester House, opened in October, with a view to turning out more Michelin-quality cooking. The industrial space, in Tower 12 of Manchester’s Spinningfields development, is split into a lounge with an impressive terrace and views on level 12 and the informal but ultra-modern restaurant on level two. The tasting menu
is the most expensive in the city, but comes with theatrics such as dry ice and spheres of sauce. There’s an open plan kitchen, with a six-seater chef ’s table that puts the diner in the heart of the action.
With its quirky terrace and its bold, post- industrial design, Manchester House feels pretty radical. Certainly for a ‘posh restaurant’ chasing a Michelin Star. Dressed in tweed waistcoats, ties and jeans, the chatty demeanour of the well-drilled staff sets the tone for a less formal, warmly Northern experience. However, as with the food, there is still too much fayn dayning faff (napkins draped in laps; wine parked remotely and poured for you). *I wasn’t recognised.
On our arrival, we were invited for canapés in the 12th floor bar. However, we were left in the bar for an hour and had to ask several times to be taken to the restaurant on the 2nd floor. Once in, after a ‘Hi’ from Aiden Byrne himself, service was friendly. The menu was explained well. My husband asked the waiter to choose wines to go with the dishes, and he made inspired selections.
Once Britain’s youngest Michelin star chef, Aiden Byrne can cook, no question. Personally, I don’t think the tropical fruit element of his prawn cocktail (a Great British Menu winner) is sharp enough to counter-balance its powdered seafood base. And there were small technical flaws. But these were minor gripes, amid much pleasure. Byrne’s fire-roasted lamb was terrific, smoked to the bone, but subtly. Tenderfrogs’ legs kiev in panko crumbs, burst with buttery garlic flavour.The steak in Byrne’s ale pie was profoundly beefy. Its salad of capers, heritage carrots and veal tongue delivered a lovely interplay of pickled, vegetal and mineral flavours. Yet, despite all this nice food, two thoughts nagged at me. Firstly, none of it made me do that startled double-take.Secondly, for all the menu’s refreshing straight- talking, there is less candour on the plate. That steak ‘pie’ is, in fact, pastry-less. The base is mash, the case a potato ring, the top an espuma (foam). It’s clever, but is it better than an actual pie? No. Likewise, the lamb dish is served across two plates: the meat and a bowl of broth with faggots and gnocchi. Do you combine the two? If so, how?They aren’t entirely satisfying individually. The menu promises gutsy British food. Broadly, it delivers, but it does so in spite of Byrne’s tendency to reconstruct dishes and equally dated theatrical flourishes, such as lamb served with a smouldering ember or prawn cocktail under a frozen dome of its sauce.
There are lots of expensive options here: for a start, the full 12-course tasting menu is the most expensive in Manchester. There is also the à la carte, as well as a two, three or six course lunch menu. I had the six-course taster, with the wine flight to match. While all my wines were well- matched, none were particularly imaginative. My husband ate from the à la carte. Bread was a mini brioche with pea butter and juice, very refreshing and a great palate cleanser. My first starter, lobster with borlotti beans and grilled lettuce, was sweet and meaty, the charred lettuce adding texture and smokiness. The best dish I ate was a rabbit ballotine with carrot lasagne sheets giving added crunch. The meat was rich, with a deep flavour. My husband opted for frog’s legs kiev. Some were covered with fermented black garlic, some plain, but all were really punchy. My John Dory with a crab and lettuce ravioli was a touch over-seasoned, but the ravioli was made from the lettuce, with the unctuous crab meat inside – clever cooking. An accompanying lemongrass mousse however, had an unpleasant slimy texture. The suckling pig with fennel was much better, with sticky, tender meat and light-as-air crackling. The sauce had the slightest hint of fennel and held up well against the strong flavour of the meat. The star dish, though, was the rack of lamb, tender, melting lamb with a bright pine broth. We shared desserts, a disappointingly zing-free pineapple cannelloni, and a silky chocolate panna cotta which added nothing to the dish. As a final flourish we were given six macaroons with the bill.
the bottom line
I love the space: the stark drama of the open kitchen, built right into the room; the cotton and industrial design features. It feels fitting for Manchester. If tweaked, the service and food could make a similarly clean break with fine dining’s pompous past. But, three weeks in, Manchester House felt like it was hedging its bets.
FOOD 7/10; ATMOSPHERE 7/10; SERVICE 7/10; TONY’S TOTAL: 21/30
Aiden Byrne brings some real technical know-how to quality ingredients. But the menu is quite broad and spreads itself thinly by trying to please too many people. Next time, we’ll go à la carte, as the flavours get a better chance to shine in the bigger dishes.The service and relaxed atmosphere are definite plus points.
FOOD 8/10; ATMOSPHERE 8/10; SERVICE 7/10; SUZANNE’S TOTAL: 23/30
Manchester House Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) rating:
Manchester House mostly serves locally sourced meat, but it would be encouraging to see them use more free range and organic meat. Despite purchasing seasonal seafood from British waters, it would benefit from implementing a sustainable seafood sourcing policy. Social sustainability is where Manchester House excelled, though, especially through robust staff management policies, responsible communication with customers and close engagement with its local community.
Written January 2014