Friday, 31 May 2013

The French by Simon Rogan, Manchester

Manchester may be known for many things - the music, the football, the Victorian architecture, the rain -but until now the restaurant scene has been somewhat lacking. Beyond the curries, a thriving Chinatown and old fashioned boozers with great hot pots and pies, was a wasteland, not just for fancy-pants Michelin starred restaurants, for mid range eateries that weren't more style over substance and populated by perma-tanned footballers wives.

Well, the times they are a changin’. Twitter and the weekend broadsheets are abuzz with new independent openings, from the Beagle to Barburrito; Solita to the polarizing Almost Famous. A range of street food can now be found in Picadilly Gardens and the Arndale Market and Mary-Ellen McTague from Prestwich’s Aumbry appeared on the Great British Menu earlier this year. But nowhere has caused quite such a buzz as Simon Rogan’s new venture at the Midland Hotel (even if Tony Naylor remains unconvinced).

The French is a beautiful space; a mirrored room, dominated by two magnificent chandeliers that the staff told us took over twice the anticipated time and manpower to put up, that has an easy going charm, exemplified by the warm blonde wood and lack of tablecloths. While it may feel a bit IKEA-esque for some, the deep carpets and comfy high backed chairs make the room feel opulent in an understated way.

Many of the staff are from Rogan’s flagship, Le Enclume in Cartmel, and during our, very friendly, welcome the idea of Rogan’s food ‘growing from the plate, as it’s found in nature’ is impressed upon us. And we were impressed, the atmosphere is relaxed, the staff knowledgeable and clearly proud to work here - and we hadn’t yet eaten a morsel.

Thankfully that was soon righted by a dish of Cumbrian radish, nutmeg mayo and toasted barley. The presentation of this brassica, something so small and simple, is really the litmus test of Rogan’s cooking. For some it may seem pointless to plate such an inconsequential vegetable with so much reverence, but for others it is the very essence of what good food is about; taking something so familiar and considering it in a new level of detail.

That maybe a lot of words to write about a radish, but when it’s been picked on Rogan’s own farm that morning, before being paired with the spiced mayo and crunchy seeds, it really reinforces the old adage that the simple things are often the best.

The next morsel was far fancier; a parsnip crisp dotted with smoked eel, pork and fennel cress. This is a special mouthful; an earthy, sweet mixture of surf and turf with the warming anise note from the greens.

Chestnut bread, Manchester ale roll and baguette, served with the whipped butter on a stone Rogan has become famous for. All exemplary, and luckily for a carb addict like me, they were also in plentiful proportions.

The first dish ‘proper' of our six course lunch, an allium soup presented in a glass teapot and poured over a bowl full of leeks, ransoms, baby onions and truffled artichoke dumplings, may have been the high point of my whole meal. The broth was deep and sticky and beautifully perfumed with the scent of sweet onion, while the tuber-scented dumplings really did seem to dissipate on your tongue.

The ox in coal oil, pumpkin seed, kohlrabi and sunflower seeds has already become something of a signature dish here (there is also a similar venison number on the menu at Le Enclume) with Giles Coren proclaiming that 'I'd walk to Manchester barefoot in the rain for one more mouthful of the chopped raw ribeye of ox in coal oil’. While the Indie’s Lisa Markwell wrote it was ‘an immediate entry into my lifetime top-10 dishes’.

Thankfully it did not disappoint; the charcoal infused rapeseed oil lending a smoky barbecued element to the raw meat, cleverly giving both a rich charred flavour and melting softness to every bite. Very clever stuff, with little raw kohlrabi balls and sunflower seeds pepping up the dish with some freshness and crunch.

Fresh crab and caramelised cabbage, horseradish, chicken skin with crow garlic, The Ewing’s pick of all the dishes we enjoyed. The cabbage, hiding an impossibly large mound of glorious crab meat, was so sweet, and tender I originally thought they were braised lettuce leaves. The crisp chicken skin dotted around the dish shattered into sweet, fatty shards while the roasting juices and horseradish imbued everything with a gentle smoky note.

Hake fillet with buckwheat cresses and smoked roe butter the second fish dish saw a perfectly judged piece of fish, atop a mound of  herby buckwheat and accompanied by a chlorophyll laden scattering of purple sprouting, possibly my favourite veg. I wasn't as sure about the smoked roe butter, which rather gilded the lily in a dish that already had a rich and creamy sauce.

The meat course was Reg’s duck cooked two ways; both roasted pink and cooked slowly until it melted into sticky strands of protein, alongside king oyster mushrooms, ruby chard and a mulled cider sauce. While the Ewing wasn't a fan of the duck breast element of the dish, I really rather liked it all, although I couldn't help feeling that, as with many multi-course meals, the ‘main’ event is usually the least interesting.

They very kindly allowed the Ewing to swap the advertised  pear, rye and linseeds for a rhubarb and oat dish with camomile ice cream; I chose the same, lest I got pudding envy. This was clean and fresh, with tart fruit and gentle herbal notes from the milky ice and douglas fir, although it put me more in mind of a virtuous breakfast than a indulgent pud.

The final course definitely had the treat factor, being a surprise desert of sarsaparilla based goodies named ‘sass and soda’. While the root beer/dandelion and burdock-esque drink used to be a popular in the days of yore, the ubiquitous cola has rather stolen its thunder. So much so that when I overheard the waitress ask the next door table if they remembered the drink from their youth, her question was met with looks of bemusement.

Nostalgia aside this was a very pretty dish, and as well as a sarsaparilla wafer, sandwiched with sarsaparilla parfait and jam, the waiter poured us a cup of the syrupy drink itself. It always feels rather exciting to get an unexpected treat, despite the fact it wasn't really to my tastes. While I'm rather fond of a frosty mug of root beer, I found the overall effect too sweet and slightly medicinal, although the Ewing would beg to differ. She was such a fan that a couple of days later we ended up buying a bottle of the local Fitzgerald’s – the only temperance bar still left in the country -  sarsaparilla cordial to take home.

Coffee came with frozen aerated peppermint ice cream bon bons and chocolate wafters 'planted' in a bed of edible chocolate nibs. The perfect balance of sweet and bitter, and my favourite of all three sweet courses.

The French may be fancy but it isn't fussy. On our visit there was a lack of pretension and a genuine enthusiasm from staff while the atmosphere in the dining room was cheerful and relaxed. Yes, dinner here isn't cheap, but with the care and imagination invested into every plate it still feels good value. 

This is exciting, clever food which feels as though it has been designed for people who actually like eating, rather than pandering to a self-conscious sleb clientele who are more interested in being noticed than noticing what's on their plates. And while I can’t comment on the (lack of) Manchester 'fine dining' scene pre-Rogan, what I can say is that, in the French, they have got a restaurant that any city would be proud of.

The French by Simon Rogan on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. I adore The French. It's nice to see the menu changing so much as well!