The Spring half term is always a watershed time of the year, marking the end of the long dark winter nights and the start of warmer, brighter times. It was on a wave of such optimism that our visit to Manchester was booked in and, with it, our long awaited visit to Manchester House. The ‘our’ being myself, Red the wife (that makes her sound like a movie lead from a 1980s fantasy film: Conan the Barbarian or Hawk the Slayer), and our two friends Vincenzo and Lady Furness. Before arriving at Manchester House we visited another Living Ventures brand, The Alchemist, for some cocktails and to meet two other friends, Morrissey and Hera who had spent the afternoon lunching at Manchester House. Amidst our anticipatory questions about their experience we were entertained by the drama, showmanship and skill of the mixologists in The Alchemist (I would particularly recommend the Fools Gold – a cocktail for 6 served in a soda fountain and champagne flutes). So with the ringing endorsements and string of superlatives from Morrissey and Hera, echoing in our ears we made the short walk to Manchester House.
Manchester House is the brave enterprise of Living Ventures owner Tim Bacon and Liverpool born chef Aiden Byrne, which was pitted against Simon Rogan and his endeavours to turn around the ailing Midland Hotel dining room, The French, in last year’s TV series Restaurant Wars: The Battle for Manchester. The essence of the programme being the race between both restaurants to win Manchester’s first Michelin Star (spoiler alert: sadly they both end up like Red trying to watch Wolf Hall – they don’t get it). Bacon’s restaurant empire is considerable and very successfully based around themes and ideas: Smuggler’s Cove (click link for my review last year), The Alchemist, The Botanist to name just a few, but Manchester House, as the TV programme made clear, was a significantly bigger (to the tune of £3m) and bolder venture than any that had gone before. Bacon’s choice of chef in Aiden Byrne was equally as bold: a man whose skill and creativity saw him become the youngest chef to obtain a Michelin Star and whose back catalogue includes roles at Pied a Terre, The Commons in Dublin and a spell as Head Chef at The Grill at the London Dorchester as well as countless TV appearances.
Upon Arrival the building itself is as uninspiring as it gets: what appears to be a 70s office block more likely to house Wernham Hogg than high end dining, however looks can be deceiving and, once in and greeted by the first of many ‘beautiful people’ or BPs as we shall call them (I am beginning to think Mr Bacon only employs beautiful people, maybe with a swim suit round as part of the selection process!), we were in the lift and heading to the restaurant on the 2nd floor. Again we were greeted and seated by more BPs and introduced to Jacob, our waiter, who was obviously on a gap year from his Calvin Klein work. It is clear upon arrival where the £3m has been spent, this is a carefully balanced room of contrasts: the industrial sculptural references to Manchester’s textile’s based history, the bare table tops and open soffit ceilings contrast with the warm lighting, leather clad menus, soft seating and beaded dividers. It shouldn’t work but somehow it all does. In the heart of all this is a huge open plan kitchen where the various chefs do their work (clearly this is an area where the BP policy does not apply! Sorry lads but you know you are there for your excellent culinary skills rather than your looks!).
The atmosphere in the dining room was a relaxed, almost informal one, unlike the Headmaster’s Study feel that detracts from Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume. Our table, centrally placed gave us a great view of all that was happening and of the kitchen area which, even at its busiest time, maintained a calm efficiency a long way removed from the sensationalist images of Gordon Ramsey’s four letter tirades. This was clearly a kitchen with a purpose and shared vision, like an orchestra toiling away to produce things of beauty but without the fuss, and all this being conducted from the front by Byrne with a firm and calm authority (and a green highlighter) built on respect rather than power or fear as in many other kitchens.
Anyway to the food. Having dined heavily on a Tudor Feast the night before at the excellent Albina in Crosby, the Taster Menu would have been a step too far. Instead we opted for the A La Carte Menu. We all initially received a pre-starter goat’s milk brioche with hazelnut mustard and turnip soup with horseradish and chestnut foam. This was a wonderfully light way to open any meal and appealed particularly to Vincenzo’s more effeminate palette. Only Vincenzo and I engaged in starters, the ladies choosing to entertain a dessert instead. I opted for the snails (the full title of which I cannot recall and omitted from my notes – such an amateur! And does not appear on the online menu) which were served with lettuce and a salty crumb which contrasted delicately with the earthy sweetness of the drizzle. Vincenzo’s scallops were equally well received with the classic saltiness of the bacon encouraging the luxurious splendour of the scallop, whilst the sauce elicited the following from him “..it had an explosion of fruity loopiness that even Timmy Mallet couldn’t match.” I too am also at a loss as to what he means but the intonation suggested a positive opinion.
Moving on to the mains, Red and I shared the theatrical signature Belted Galloway Beef with mushrooms, sticks and stones. Like a Rogers and Hammerstein musical this was a delight on so many levels, visually (see pic) it is a masterpiece of theatre and creativity, in terms of skill it offers three very different cuts of beef all cooked in very different ways and, in terms of taste, it is a cleverly constructed dish that even its grandeur of presentation belies. The stars of the dish, the steaks were both cooked to perfection, oozing flavour whilst almost dissolving in your mouth. The crumbed tail had a smoky depth and flakiness whilst the braised ox cheek was, as Red suggested, “like pulled pork only nicer”, we all know what she means! Then the supporting cast of kale, mushroom, salsify and charcoal roasted potatoes (the latter a little unnerving at first!) all enhanced the show. Finally the jus, presented in a horn, acted like the musical score bringing all the elements of the performance together, no simple task which such a varying collection of main actors. Encore!
Our dining partners, as ever, shared their two mains: John Dory and Veal with Fois Gras. Lady Furness described the veal as both light and delicious and the crumb was absolutely gorgeous (though she cannot recall what the crumb was – an alcohol related bout of amnesia). The John Dory was perfectly cooked, retaining a moist yet firm body and was accompanied by a very good celeriac fondant.
To drink we started with some beers: Hells Beer from the Camden Town Brewery and Freedom Organic Lager from the award winning Freedom Brewery both fresh, crisp and with subtle citrus under taste. With our mains we had an excellent Graves Chateau Picque Caillou 2009, soft, light to medium bodied red which went well with the meaty Broadway number of a main course. [Note: you may want to take special care with selecting your wines from the wine menu: extensive and at times expensive!]
For desert, in the ongoing spirit of collegiality I shared the cheeseboard with Vincenzo whilst Red and Lady Furness ignored Jacob’s informed guidance to indulge themselves in the Manchester Tart (not shared!). The 8 local cheeses arrived in a clock-like formation with the mildest, Garstang White at 12 o’clock and then becoming stronger as you moved clockwise around the board until you got to Blue Monday, a clever and simple idea. The cheeses had an accompanying labeling guide (see pic) and and two chutneys: onion and fig. All of the cheeses were good though the Crabtree was my least favourite, I am not a big fan of the harder cheeses whilst the Harrogate Blue was the pick of the bunch with the strong, bold intensity you would expect from a blue cheese whilst maintaining an element of creaminess. As for the chutneys, Byrne once again manages to produce something that seems to work with everything. The caramalised onion being particularly excellent. The cheeses were accompanied by sweet crumbly shortbread biscuits and black tile-like crackers, and plenty of them.We indulged ourselves with a delightfully sweet 10 year old Portuguese Tawny Port to accompany our chronographic cheese board.
As for the Manchester Tart, here there was the only moment of disappointment from the ranks. Not that it didn’t taste very good with layers of white chocolate and various flavoured jelly, the delicious moreish nature of the dish was beyond reproach and very much enjoyed by Red. The criticism, from Lady Furness, was that it just wasn’t a Manchester Tart and, in her own words, it takes one to know one! Red said she did not have great experience of Manchester Tarts but enjoyed this. Vincenzo piped up that he had had plenty of experience of Manchester Tarts but, for all our sakes, this was not a path I chose to explore any further.
Our meal concluded with the surprise arrival of macarons in a variety of flavours and each with their own matched fillings. I cannot recall each and everyone of them but suffice to say that, stuffed as we were, they all went. They were delivered in a small wooden box with the inscription ‘Thank You’ on it. Now this to me is the final example of why Manchester house is so good, not that you get a few free macarons at the end, it is the detail. The little things throughout the meal and in fact throughout the whole service. It goes without saying that Aiden Byrne is a chef at the top of his game (or in the colloquialism of youth speak – ‘on point’, ‘Bae’, ‘owns the moment’ etc) his understanding of flavours and balance is outstanding and he combines this with his sense of show and theatre. This is not simply another extension to the expanding Living Ventures portfolio. Byrne has taken ownership of this and made it something special.
Byrne’s skills, howver, go far beyond this in that he is not just a chef but a leader: the various staff (of which there are many) whether front of house, waiting on, clearing away, cooking, cleaning etc all have that clear sense of purpose. They are like his family and the restaurant like his house and throughout your visit he and they make you feel welcome and happy. Something many other restaurants fail to do. To quote St Julie Billiart they do ‘small things with great love’ from start to finish and this makes Manchester House not just a restaurant but an epicurean home.
- Service: 9.5/10 Excellent service from the BPs
- Atmosphere: 9.5/10 beautiful decor and a relaxed and informal atmosphere for formal dining
- Food: 9.5/10 excellence as you would expect from one of Britain’s best chefs
- Value for money: 9/10 Total of £266 for 4, you get what you pay for in life
- Overall: 9.5/10 A restaurant at the top of its game
These are judged against the best of that type of restaurant. For example cafes against what you would expect from the best cafes, high end restaurants against the best high end restaurants etc.
Website: Manchester House