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 Beverley Hardie compare notes on Mr Cooper’s House and Garden.
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 for The Guardian’sWord of Mouth.
Beverley Hardie is from Silsden in West Yorkshire and eats out around twice a week. Her favourite type of food is seafood and her best eating out experience was at The Old Schoolhouse on the Isle of Skye – she can’t forget the gingerbread trifle.
The Midland Hotel in Manchester is already home to one restaurant from Simon Rogan,The French. Towards the end of last year he added a second – Mr Cooper’s House and Garden.The name refers toThomas Cooper whose family of coach-makers lived on the premises. The restaurant is divided into the house, made up of a library, dining room and bar, and an indoor garden area.The menu includes international dishes such as starters of Mexican gazpacho with wasabi and avocado millet bread, manchego, quince and pickled chillies and mains of roasted teriyaki tofu steak and mussel, monkfish and potato romesco. Desserts focus on classic flavours with a twist, such as apple butterscotch pie with cinnamon crème anglaise.
The staff are certainly willing to go that extra mile – well, 50 feet – given the first thing the manager did was run off to the main hotel bar, to retrieve a choice of Robinson’s beers for me. That set the tone for the bright, confident service that followed. It was a model of discrete efficiency and quiet enthusiasm with no needless interruptions. A waiter returning to correct himself, after giving us the wrong info about an ingredient, illustrates a rare diligence. *I wasn’t recognised.
Service was very good – our waitress was attentive without being obtrusive, was knowledgeable about the menu and referred us to the sommelier when we asked some questions about the wine list. The sommelier was helpful and charismatic and recommended arioja blanco, which we really enjoyed. Tap water was brought on request and our wine was topped up regularly.
Mr Cooper’s is a break with Rogan’s usual modus operandi (often deploying obscure British ingredients in fiercely cutting-edge dishes). Cooper’s menu is populist, globe-trotting and full of quirky creative flourishes, such as spicy popcorn and chipotle polenta. It sounds fun, and it is, but, as I would expect of a Rogan kitchen, the dishes are executed with surgical precision. With its oatmeal base and top layer of cream cheese, smoked eel and pork belly torte is, essentially, an elegant savoury cheesecake; its rich filling is intelligently offset by a verdant spoonful of earthy lovage cream. Lamb meatballs with baked apricots, topped with a clean, aerated tzatziki ‘sauce’ deftly refines southern Mediterranean peasant food, without sacrificing flavour. Bone-in pork chop as flavourful as gammon and ridged with sensational, caramelised fat, exemplifies how these straight dishes are given interesting twists. It is served under a traditional sage crust with a silken mash of Michelin provenance, but its green beans are dressed in an unusual, robustly mushroomy tofu cream. Likewise, wrapping halibut in chargrilled cabbage gives this potentially bland dish an edge. Al dente broad beans and a twangy velouté sauce provided further clear, well- balanced dimensions of flavour. A bland, fridge-cold cheese terrine with an unpleasant granular texture, was the one notable, uncharacteristic clanger. Mostly, these are clever dishes: easy to love with hidden depths.
To start, I had smoked eel torte, lovage and belly pork, a delicious coarse paté with a crisp base and creamy topping. I was wowed – it was fabulous! My friend had the Mexican gazpacho, wasabi and avocado which was nicely chilled, with a thick consistency and real zing of citrus and spice. The Cumbrian rib steak, truffle pudding and purple potato latkes came with a rich jus and was cooked exactly as requested. The latkes were thick and flavourful with a crunchy top and the truffle puddings, which resembled tiny onion bhajis, added a great contrast to the tender meat. A main of roasted teriyaki tofu steak with glazed chilli greens and garlic was crisp on the outside and soft in the centre and the sauce was nicely spiced.We also shared three sides – minted chargrilled courgettes, which were a little overdone and oily, a rich, buttery, super-smooth mash, and deep fried pickles, gherkins in batter with a bowl of unusual, but delicious creamy dip (these would be great as a bar snack with an ice cold beer). Desserts were both disappointing. I had the cheese terrine, golden raisins, nut and fruit bread. The terrine resembled a piece of squashed cheddar, while the nut and fruit bread was dry as if it had been sliced many hours earlier.The dish was dry and crying out for some chutney (or even some butter for the bread). My friend chose the chocolate hazelnut pavlova which didn’t taste of hazelnut, and the meringue was solid, without the hoped for chewy centre. The chocolate sauce reminded us of something you’d get out of a squeezy bottle.
the bottom line
Once in the restaurant, as opposed to the blandly upmarket bar (book- print wallpaper does not a library make), the conceit that this is Mr Cooper’s House and Garden works. With its trees and plants, it does feel like an idyllic English garden.The French may hog the headlines, but I found Mr Cooper’s a more enjoyable experience
FOOD 8/10; ATMOSPHERE 7/10; SERVICE 8/10; TONY’S TOTAL: 23/30
The restaurant is split into the house and the garden. We were seated in the garden part where the décor is a little more garden centre café than fine dining. It was comfortable and vibrant, though. I would return, but I’d choose my dessert more carefully.
FOOD 7/10; ATMOSPHERE 8/10; SERVICE 8/10; BEVERLEY’S TOTAL: 23/30
Mr Cooper’s House and Garden Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) rating:
Almost all the ingredients sourced from the land have excellent provenance, but the seafood raises some questions. Meat and eggs are free-range and locally sourced. Of the imported ingredients, a number are Fairtrade. However, eel is a vulnerable species that the SRA would recommend is taken off the menu and halibut, unless farmed, is rated a ‘5’, the worst rating, by the Marine Conservation Society. Mr Cooper’s does recycle its food waste, but falls down on a number of other environmental practices.