Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The French by Simon Rogan - Opening Night

Ox tartare, coal oil, pumpkin seeds, kohlrabi

Bowing my head to the plate and inhaling the aromas of raw ox and coal oil, I immediately break into a smile and think, “Simon Rogan, you’re a bloody genius!” 

On the back of our menu Rogan is quoted as saying “The city is definitely ready for it”. From many people's point of view this couldn't be more of an understatement. I and countless others have decried the lack of fine-dining options in Manchester for some time; but, no longer. 2013 is shaping up to be a game-changing year and Simon Rogan is spearheading the move to put Manchester back on the culinary map.

Upon entering The French, the first thing to note is that this is not a restaurant, it is a dining room. The kind of dining room people of my generation have rarely, more likely never, eaten in. Decor, though, is the least of my concerns, suffice it to say that I quite like it - the colour scheme and comfortable furniture do a good job of mitigating the opulence of the otherwise formal setting.

However, we were here for the food and it was a foregone conclusion to choose the 10-course tasting menu at £79 (there was also a 6-course option (£55), and 3 courses (£29) will be offered, I imagine at lunchtime). £79 will seem excessive to many; but it is interesting to note that five years ago Jay Rayner was paying £70 a head at The French for what he termed a 'gruesomely expensive' and at times 'authentically bad' meal. 

Under the guidance of Rogan and Adam Reid, there will be no such worries. This is unequivocally the best meal I've had in Manchester; full of subtleties, surprises, and damn good cooking. I can't think of a single ingredient that wasn't perfectly prepared, bar the couple of fragments of shell in the crab dish. So, I'd rather not bore people with gushing descriptions of each of the 10 courses and, furthermore, I don’t want to spoil the surprise; but I will dip into some of the highlights reel.

The amuse bouche of onion cracker with eel and onion ash was a delicious assault of smoke and umami, once you got over the fact that it looks like someone's stubbed a fag out on it. 

I never thought I'd see the day come when I spooned black pudding mousse into my mouth with a seaweed twig. You'd feel like you were being secretly mocked if it wasn't so good. 

The ox tartare with coal oil might well become a 'signature' dish. The oil is infused with burning coals so that the aroma of barbecue hits you as you lift the tender rib-eye meat to your mouth, the blackened pumpkin seeds add texture and more charred notes, the kohlrabi spheres and sunflower shoots refresh and mellow it all. Multisensory heaven. It's worth going for this alone.

Early spring offerings
Early spring offerings was a salad of incredible depth. I had seen Simon Rogan make this salad at the NRB show last week and he used more than 30 ingredients if my memory serves me well. The range of textures and flavours is extraordinary, from the charred leaves to the silky purees, to the flower petals and crisp turnip. A compositional tour de force.

The larded veal with split peas and beetroot jus was an exceptional main. The lean veal is studded with fat so it appears moister, richer, and altogether more flavourful. The ingredients were in rich, earthy symphony.

Larded veal with split peas and beetroot jus
I'll stop...there was overall very little to dislike. The homemade cola at the end was a little to sweet and the razor clam and scrambled egg dish a bit too rich. But that's being picky and only my personal preference. The wine list was reasonably priced for a hotel restaurant, with some definite bargains in the Pinot Noir and the Tasmanian Sauvignon.

I imagine Simon Rogan will now set the trend and others will follow, not so hot on his heels, for it will take a supreme effort to usurp The French even on first impressions. The menu was pitched perfectly, the cooking near faultless and the service was smooth for the most part, except one waiter who was prone to saying “thank you very much” with the alarming frequency of an erstwhile Elvis impersonator.

It was disheartening, as Rogan pointed out on Twitter, to see two no-shows, especially on opening night. It highlights the fact that it may not be plain sailing and it will take some time to win Mancunians over to the style of food and distract them from the price-tag, even with the big name attached. We've been without this kind of thing for so long that it'll perhaps be re-embraced slowly. I for one, to parody Greg Wallace, am giving it a great big hug!  

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