I like Manchester. I know as a Brummie I’m supposed to be belittling it as a way of confirming our rightful status as the second city, but frankly I can’t be arsed. It’s a nice place, the people are kind, and it looks decent even when it’s pissing with rain, which it does every time I visit. They have a proud cultural heritage and in the Northern Quarter have a arguably the best district in the country. Whilst Birmingham is beautifully self-deprecating, Manchester has swagger; an arm-swinging, have-you-shit-yourself, broad simian stroll with added bad haircuts. And it’s wonderful. I think it owes this attitude to it’s music over any artist or football team. The Smiths, Buzzcocks, The Stone Roses, Oasis; they all have that can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it special ingredient that makes Manchester the most musically rich city in the country. But not Simply Red. Simply Red are shit.
They play a lot of that music in the dining room of The French. Over the course of the two hours nestled in the deep boothes, directly under one of the oversized chandeliers, we get Elbow and Stone Roses and Oasis and Joy Divison. It’s just one of many connections to it’s terroir, the glue that binds it to the base of Manchester. It’s an atmosphere that works against convention; the decor is smart, befitting of the five star hotel it resides in, yet the ambience is one without pretence; there appears to be no dress code and everyone – including the staff – look like they are enjoying themselves. This may have to do with the lack of Simply Red. Simply Red are shit.
The opening passage comes thick and fast. A broth is syrupy in texture, with a depth of flavour obtained from browned vegetables and quickly reduced added water. There are bowls of lightly smoked whipped cods roe, to be dredged with shards of chicken skin and lineseed crackers, and then slabs of cheeses and hefty pieces of cold ham with piccalilli and house-made mustard. As fun as it is, it is the most underwhelming part of the meal. Whilst the rest of the menu proves to be high in skill, these feel like a collection of ingredients thrown together for the purpose of generosity. The bread is better and the beefy butter even better than that.
The first course on the lunch menu would sit high on the list of best things I have eaten this year. A tartare of aged sirloin is mixed with fine of dice of root veg, all loosely bound in a mushroom condiment that brings an earthiness to it rife with umami. It does what it intends in riffing on the flavours of a potato hash, albeit with a subtlety and clever change of textures. It is genuinely fantastic; that kind of clever cooking that every chef tries but very few successfully pull off. Then cod with lightly pickled mussels and a chowder that hugs the acidity away. It shows great self-control to let the produce speak in such a simple style. The gamble pays off; we go back to the bowls until all four are wiped clean with the last of the bread.
I’m slightly less taken by thin slices of red deer which appear to have lost more temperature than those being eaten by my girlfriend and her parents. There is plenty of bright acidity in the sauce and from the pickled quince, whilst the accompaniemnts of bacon and mushroom further echo the sentiment of a one-pot casserole. It’s clear that this is where Adam Reid’s skill is at; the ability to take familiarity and spin it on it’s head to something more finessed.
There is no such finesse with the dessert, though nor should there be. This is a plate of food designed to be eaten, not fawned over with cameras. Apples baked until their form has long dissapeared and the texture is softer than the soulful tones of Mick Hucknell. A disc of caramelised pastry and a quenelle of cold custard. I don’t need to tell you what it tastes like because you can probably guess, but I will, because I am better at describing food than you are. It was fucking fantastic. There you go. We get a boozy cake to finish. Also fucking fantastic. You came here for the descriptions and I’ve given them to you.
The bill is £400 for the four of us with a bottle of wine and a round of drinks. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Claire’s father for offering to pay almost half of that. It’s value for a lunch that goes from solidly good to exceptional in parts. It’s clear that the kitchen is around the level it wants to be; the tartare, the cod, and the dessert are clearly at one star level. In my eyes it’s only a matter of time before they get the recognition they deserve.