Saturday, 21 September 2013

Manchester House

That dish
Fine dining restaurants in Manchester are a bit like buses. You wait ages and they all come at once. 

Hot on The French's heels is Manchester House, the collaboration between Chef Aiden Byrne and Living Ventures. In the words of LV's CEO, Tim Bacon, it's a restaurant that the city can “potentially be very proud of”. A modest admission for a man who has made no secret of his intention to give Manchester its first Michelin Star.

Bacon is someone who acknowledges that there has been a “lack of traction with fine-dining in the city”, so the £3 million he's invested  in this venture will seem to many as pure extravagance; and a cynic might say that he is trying to buy greatness. It’s a lot of pressure, also, for Aiden Byrne. "Dancing to the Michelin drum" as Marco-Pierre White puts it, has been many a chef's undoing.

To have hope of winning over the Michelin inspectors, the food will have to be better than anything on offer in  Manchester. So what of it? Well, to analyse the dishes in too much detail would be superfluous. This, after all, was no ordinary service. It was well orchestrated 'press lunch' (i.e. complimentary); everyone on their best behaviour for the BBC's cameras. We all ate the same seven-course tasting menu. There were no slip-ups in service, save for a bit of pea in the pea juice ("It's supposed to be clear", the waiter explains, rushing to fetch a fresh one).

The offending pea juice
Better to judge the food at a later date, during normal service. Though, for those on a writer's wage, it's going to be a long time before the next tasting! First impressions were unanimously positive with the food impressing in many areas; and letting down in other respects. It's perhaps telling that the 'WOW' dishes like those from Byrne's Great British Menu repertoire (the paleolithic beef dish and the 'prawn cocktail') were outshone by the breads: the first, a bun filled with oxtail and served with oyster mayonnaise; the second, a bacon brioche served with pea butter and pea juice.  

The decimated prawn cocktail

The trickery of the prawn cocktail's melting passion fruit sphere seemed a time-consuming effort for a dish that didn't have its desired impact. Too much of the fancy maltodextrin powder, and not enough flavour. The beef dish was lovely but, at £58 for two people to share, it wasn't that lovely. The sea water and soil distillation that smoked out of its bed of false grass failed to hit its multisensory target.

Sea water and soil distillation 
The pigeon dish with black cherries and pistachio was, however, a standout: the one plate that could please the gods of Michelin. So good was it that Manchester Confidential's Gordo prematurely named it 'Dish of the Year' in a fit of shameless self-publicity. But one plate of that calibre won't be enough to achieve Tim Bacon's dream. Nevertheless, there's no doubt that Manchester House is a restaurant that can get better with age; Byrne won't allow it to be otherwise. 

Perhaps, more interesting than any food was to hear what the two collaborators had to say about their vision for the restaurant.

During the post-dinner Q & A, Byrne came across as simultaneously humble and ambitious, eager to get the point across that he wanted to challenge himself. Reinvention was born out of boredom: “I wanted to throw away my recipe book.” Strange then that a couple of the dishes we tried were well-known dishes from his time on The Great British Menu. One guess as to whose decision that was.

The award-winning pigeon dish

Byrne was preoccupied but took the time to stop at tables and have a chat. It’s evidently been a tiring year and already a tiring day – Byrne and his team have been here since seven in the morning and last night’s shift finished at 2am. Maybe that accounts for the negative language (the word frustration is scrawled on my notepad/menu in huge caps); maybe its the whispered troubles he's had with Tim Bacon. Perhaps it's competition with The French that worries him. He made a point of distancing himself from Simon Rogan: "Simon's product and mine are a million miles from each other." Here's hoping that these worries won't consume Byrne and he can put his full attention into making the food truly exceptional. Easier said than done, with £3 million riding on it.    

Sitting next to Byrne, Tim Bacon took a different tack and endeared himself to the common folk: first by talking about how Byrne phoned him whilst on holiday in the Maldives, and later by reminding us that the “combined turnover of [his restaurants] would blow your mind.” Well, customers aren't going to be thinking about turnover when they're eating at Manchester House and the only thing they want to blow their mind is the food.

Tim Bacon's got the money and believes Manchester can give London a run for its money; and Aiden Byrne was the youngest chef ever to win a Michelin star. So, perhaps they're a match made in heaven. I'm not so sure.

Manchester House on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Duped by Dinner

Dinner by Heston. It was probably the most anticipated restaurant opening of 2011; it was definitely our most anticipated meal of 2013. Were our expectations too high? Did the allure of Michelin stars and San Pellegrino Top 50 lists cloud our judgement? Whatever the case, we left thinking: ‘How on earth has this restaurant earned such a great reputation?’

It’s not the food that's the problem. It’s still ‘fearsomely expensive’ and, dare I say, over-rated. It’s rather the service that caused the whole evening to feel off kilter. Now, I’m no veteran of Michelin-starred establishments but, having been to a fair few, the service, at its worst, has always been discreet if a little formal. At its best it has elevated the evening and the dining experience. At Dinner, we often felt uncomfortable and at times downright harassed.

Imagine it’s the anniversary of a special occasion and as you raise your glasses for that celebratory toast, your waiter clumsily chimes in like a pissed wedding guest in the middle of the best man’s speech. Your gauche, French sommelier asks if you’d like to see the wine list and proceeds to hold on to it, so much so that you are forced to peer at it until he graciously hands it over. Why do that? This wine list caused the waiting staff much vexation. Surely they had more than one? Yet, each member of staff seemed intent on retrieving it from our grasp despite many protestations.

Add to this a dining room devoid of intimacy, the overwhelming feeling that every other table is more important than yours, the realisation that most people are here on business, staying in the Mandarin Oriental and have charged a steak and chips to their room – and the entire experience quickly lost its charm. Perhaps my account is a little revisionist, tainted by some not so rose-tinted glasses? Maybe we were just naive? But I expected more: the glowing reviews; the high standing; the endless superlatives.

I wish these were the only caveats and I could now utter as Jay Rayner did ‘Oh, but the cooking!’ It was very nice in parts but that obsessive compulsive attention to detail that Heston is always bragging about didn't materialise.

As per usual, we’d agonised over what to choose beforehand (this was after all a very expensive meal and we didn’t want to make any costly mistakes) so the choice of starters was already a foregone conclusion.

Ever since I saw Ashley Palmer-Watts cook the scallops and cucumber dish, it had made my shortlist. It was as I expected and no more: refreshingly clean with a lovely minerality from the scallops and seared cucumber and great acidity from the cucumber ketchup. This is really more about the cucumber than the scallops, treating the ingredient in ways that many will not have seen before. The best dish of the meal. The salamugundy was full of wonderful textural contrasts – slippery marrow studded with crispy chicken skin, crisp chicory, juicy chicken oyster.

The special of Royale of Beef (which brought to mind Pulp Fiction) with ox tongue, smoked anchovy and onion puree was a delicious exercise in savouriness with a great depth of flavour. The Turbot with cockle ketchup was expertly cooked and balanced. To be honest, I'm struggling for things to say. Whether it was a side effect of the service and ambiance or not, everything rang a bit hollow. Come to think of it, Jay Rayner's review must have also exerted some subconscious sorcery on us as we unwittingly chose exactly the same menu. Great minds...or maybe fools never differ.

If you happened to be staying at the Mandarin Oriental, it would however definitely be worth popping down for a dessert. The tipsy cake brought a smile to my face and the buttery, syrupy brioche pudding actually recalled of all things a krispy-creme pudding I'd had some weeks ago at a FireandSalt supper club. Bearing in mind the accompanying pineapple is roasted on what must be one of the world's most expensive spits, it has that air of overindulgence. The brown bread ice cream with salted butter caramel was malty, salty, sweet goodness that actually might have salvaged the meal.

So, an evening of highs and lows. The food might have disappointed less had we not been to Simon Rogan's new opening at The French in the same week. And I doubt we would have been so critical if the service were up to scratch. I'm wouldn't write the place off on the back of this one meal but at these prices I'm not hurrying to return. Frankly, there are better places in London to spend your hard-earned cash.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Michelin Stars - The Madness of Perfection

It's that time of year again. Michelin mayhem: sleepless nights for chefs, winners leaked early, joy and pain in equal amounts. The power of the guide to grant chefs' dreams is undeniable; but only if you strive to 'dance to the Michelin drum' as Marco Pierre-White poetically claims. Is anyone else skeptical about the reliability of the guide, anxious about its impact on businesses, and most importantly, is it relevant?

These are some of the questions posed by William Sitwell in the 2010 BBC documentary 'Michelin Stars - The Madness of Perfection'. If you're wondering what all the fuss is about or incredulous as to the worthiness of a guide that started out as no more than a petrol station finder, then this piece of programming is a good place to start. Despite being two years old, its relevance seems ever present regarding the weight of Michelin, particularly at this time of the year. If nothing else, its worth a watch for Pierre-White's intense glare and rhythmic speech.

The pernicious influence of the guide is best demonstrated by the fate of French chef Bernard Loiseau. A notorious perfectionist, Bernard committed suicide after his restaurant, La Côte d'Or, was rumoured to be demoted from three to two Michelin stars. A tragic example no doubt of the pressure faced by award-winning chefs, but the documentary glossed over the fact that Bernard was also heavily in debt and suffered from bouts of depression.

Is it the fault of the guide or do the chefs themselves attach too much importance to the coveted stars? Marco Pierre-White, who famously handed back his stars, believes it is the latter, saying that chefs must accept that they are being judged by people who have less knowledge and skill than they do. Raymond Blanc, who publicly criticized the Michelin guide, wants chefs to aim for perfection rather than aim to please the whims of the Michelin inspectors.

The pursuit of Michelin stars undoubtedly drives chefs to be more creative, more exacting and hopefully leads to better food; but shouldn't chefs who want acclaim have these standards anyway?
And is the guide biased towards certain chefs? The programme claims that with the guide's heritage based firmly in the finesse of French cuisine, it naturally favours classically trained French chefs, citing the example of Alain Ducasse whose restaurant at the Dorchester was slated by well-respected food critics such as Jay Rayner, A. A. Gill, and Sitwell himself, yet was still promoted to three stars in 2010.

The big boss of Michelin explains that such decisions are not made lightly and when it is the case of awarding or removing a star the restaurant in question is visited numerous times throughout the year by different inspectors. One would therefore imagine a degree of objectivity and that bias is weeded out, but who truly knows when it comes to such a secretive organisation?

The best approach is surely one of ironic detachment. By all means, play the Michelin game but don't beat yourself up if it doesn't turn out the way you want. There are great chefs producing amazing food who aren't deemed worthy of a star but should be very proud of their talent and achievements.

What do you think - do you turn to Michelin for places to dine on special occasions or do you shun this potentially outdated authority and rely on other, more modern authorities? 

Friday, 13 July 2012

Pollen Street Social

An artist's impression of Pollen Street Social

We couldn't think of a more fitting way to start our food blog than with a celebration. Jamie turned 26 last week and the surprise venue for the birthday meal was Jason Atherton's Pollen Street Social, which won Time Out's best new fine-dining restaurant award last year. We have admired Jason since he won Great British Menu in 2008 and subsequently became a judge for the show (albeit a very stern one); so you can imagine our excitement at finally being able to try one of his menus.

Compared to somewhere like Pied A Terre, where we went two years ago for the same occasion, Pollen Street Social is more sleek and showy yet maintains a modicum of intimacy, despite the seemly endless processions of staff. Admittedly, it was surprisingly busy for early evening on a Tuesday; a good indicator of things to come, we thought. We were sat at a table from which Anna had a bird's eye view into the kitchen and near to which was the epicentre of all the waiter's activity - so no complaints there!

It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we would have the tasting menu. So, after a brief perusal of the à la carte menu, we opted for the 7-course menu à degustation and ordered a couple of cocktails to whet our appetites. Anna's 'Curiously Clear Manhattan' was, well, curiously clear, being as it was made with unaged whiskey; and my Dry Martini (made, incidentally, with Death's Door - a very fine American gin) was expertly mixed.

Our amuse-bouche was a trio of olives, cod brandade, and the airiest of pork scratchings (imagine, bizarre as the image is, a pork skin meringue, only lighter). The meal began with the Cornish crab vinaigrette: a perfectly dressed crab with wafer-thin pear, pickled cauliflower and a small mound of peanut powder. Delicious. And the delicate crab wasn't overwhelmed due to the mildness and sparsity of the other ingredients.   

Scallop Ceviche

The same cannot be said of the scallop ceviche (above). It's always a pleasure to eat scallops (in fact most seafood) in a fine-dining restaurant since the best quality ones are usually prohibitively expensive to buy from the local fishmonger. When grilled, scallops take on a fuller flavour due to those lovely Maillard reactions; when 'cooked' in yuzu, the flavour is so subtle that even radish and cucumber drowned it out. The micro-planed horseradish snow was, however, sublime.

Slow-cooked egg

Next came a dish that could not fail to please. Chorizo. Patatas Bravas. Slow-cooked egg. Baked Potato Foam. Combine those four ingredients and you have in my humble opinion some of the best comfort food ever made. The best thing is getting all the flavour of a buttered baked potato without any of the stodge. 

Turbot next. More excitement at having a fish that is also particularly expensive. Perhaps the novelty of the flavour combinations was the reason for my not enjoying this dish. The fish was slightly under-seasoned but it was the coco beans with their pungently perfumed taste that really got in the way. The fish was well cooked, the bisque delicate and flavourful, the courgette nicely al dente, but my palate could just not comprehend those strange little beans.   

Cornish Turbot

The choice for the meat course was then between the duck or lamb. So, naturally, we chose a different dish respectively in the interest of culinary adventure.

The lamb (below) came with aubergine puree and olive reduction and a unappetizing swirl of brown stuff (what were they thinking!). It was described by Anna as tasting like a Turkish kebab. No bad thing obviously, but not much more interesting than that.

Salt marsh lamb

The duck was better but we couldn't help feeling a lack of imagination when it came to the main courses (and that the standard had started to slip in the kitchen). The braised leg and breast were both tender and moist, the purple sprouting broccoli looked a bit like felled trees, the mandarin and clementine jus wasn't as sharp as expected, and the jersualem artichoke was incredibly salty. 

Creedy carver duck

Hooray for the desserts! The food that came before could have been of the most mediocre sort and the meal would have been rescued by what followed. 

A beetroot and strawberry sorbet of the most exquisite texture was just what we needed after such rich main courses. The sorbet was adorned with the tastiest English strawberries I've ever had (apparently due to our mild spring) and a basil ash meringue (still not sure what this is, see photo).

Beetroot and strawberry sorbet

 It's always great to finish a meal with a panna cotta or a crême brulée - the creamy, unctuous mouthfeel is so satisfying. This time the panna cotta, a white chocolate and coconut version, was the best dessert we've had in recent memory. Served in a bowl, which is apparently customary since if it could support its own weight it would be too set, the rich panna cotta was dotted with mango, candied pistachios and topped with lemongrass granita. I can still taste it now. Simply amazing!  

White chocolate and coconut panna cotta

We ordered coffees feeling not as uncomfortably full as anticipated but then were undone by the smallest and cruelest of petit fours. We were presented with a single, tiny, innocent Madeleine that tipped us both over the edge. Damn you madeleine! Sluggishly we paid up and waddled to the nearest bar for a nightcap. 

The consensus among critics is that Jason Atherton is at the top of his game in London - a strong start and a stellar finish meant it certainly lived up to expectations, with informal and welcoming service throughout. If you can't or don't want to plump up the cash for the tasting menu, there's a very reasonably-priced lunch option.

A satisfied customer

Pollen Street Social on Urbanspoon