December 3rd, 2013

Manchester House: restaurant review by The Guardian

Aiden Byrne's brilliant cooking is left to fend for itself at the maddeningly overbearing Manchester House

By Jay Rayner, The Guardian

Manchester House: restaurant review by The Guardian
In the round: the dramatic interior of Manchester House. Photograph: Jon Super for the Observer

18-22 Bridge Street, Manchester (0161 835 2557). Meal for two: £140

I am staring at my plate and trying not to be distracted. This has happened to me before with Aiden Byrne's cooking. The last time I ate his precise but gutsy dishes was at the Dorchester Hotel's Grill Room, where the walls heave with 10ft-high murals of strapping men in kilts tossing cabers. It's not camp. No, no, no. It's just big men in their prime, exerting themselves so that sweat runs down the creases of their highly defined trunk-thick thighs, the hems of their tartan skirts rising skywards with the exertion, the better to let us view their rippling...

Hang on, where was I? Oh yes, at Manchester House, staring at Byrne's food and trying once again not to be distracted (albeit in a different way) from the fact that he can cook; that he marries serious, nerdy technique to an instinct to flavour. Just getting bread is a moment here: there's an ineffably light brioche, a quenelle of sweet salty caramelised onion butter, plus a little roasted onion consommé topped with a pungent parmesan foam.

That's followed by a silky chestnut soup, with pitch-perfect bursts of acidity. Next a board arrives looking like a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, both rough hewn and polished: to the right, a smoked-eel beignet perched on a tiny mound of apple and smoked-eel salad. In the middle, a shiny curl of smoked apple purée. To the left, inserted into a forest of metal filaments, a fennel cracker the colour of coal. Soon the Hepworth is gone in a burst of salt and smoke and fish and the high notes of sour apple.

Best of all these miniature dishes is a stew of braised snails in the richest of bourguignon sauces, all reduced red wine and stock and effort, topped by a thick potato foam which avoids tipping texturally towards something Gillette would market to men with stubble.

The good things continue into the starters. Frogs' legs Kiev is an absurd amount of work. Ever considered half boning out a frog's leg and then back-filling it with garlic butter? No, which is why we get people like Byrne to do it. These are crisply fried and presented so as to be picked up by the remaining sliver of bone. They form meaty little bonbons, bursting with old-school garlic butter. A duck dish is less successful, though the ambition is immense. The leg meat has been braised and then reformed around the bone and perched on the plate, claw to the ceiling. There are sweet-sour cherries, a pistachio crumb and some freeze-dried cherry spooned on to the plate tableside with a billow of dry ice. There is a nipple-pert ball of smooth foie-gras parfait in a cherry gel. A piece of breast has been cooked sous vide and, as too often, the skin isn't quite crisp enough. It's all a little confectionery-shop sugary. And yet you can feel your £16 worth.

Manchester House: restaurant review by The Guardian
Jay Rayner: 'Ever considered half boning out a frog's leg and then back-filling it with garlic butter? No, which is why we get people like Byrne to do it'. Pictured: frogs' legs Kiev. Photograph: Jon Super for the Observer

No quibbles on my main. It is, quite simply, one of the best lamb dishes I have ever been served. Two thick-cut chops arrive alone under a porcelain dome. It is removed to a puff of bonfire smoke. A still-smouldering faggot of wood, one of those it was cooked over, is removed. There is a trickle of sticky lamb jus. This has the funk and depth of an animal that has lived a proper life. Alongside is a bowl of fried ricotta cheese balls, lambs' tongues, dinky little dumplings and a lighter lamb broth. It is simple and close to perfection. I gnaw the bones clean.

Not everything works. A misjudged turbot and sauerkraut dish produces fishy cabbage. Desserts - a peach and chocolate parfait construction; a take on the custard and raspberry jam concoction known as Manchester tart - are too processed. There is a touch of the Arctic roll to both of them. But these can be fine tuned. There is much else on the menu I would like to try.

If only that's all there was to say: great food in Manchester, a city which historically has done high-end poorly. The problem is not the food. It's the restaurant, which cost £3m. It's all so overworked, mannered and, well, just so damn Manchester. It's a terrific city, full of energy and enthusiasm, but it has a tendency to tip over into overkill. Manchester House delivers all that self-conscious, tiresome swagger via fixtures and fittings. The space, reached by a lift in an ugly office block, is all about size. Everything is BIG and overengineered. The tables are so huge a booking for two feels like a lonely table for one. My companion and I consider chatting by instant messenger until she simply shifts herself around to sit side-on to me.

Manchester House: restaurant review by The Guardian
The peach, pistachio and milk-chocolate dessert at Manchester House. Photograph: Jon Super for the Observer

It's there in the service, conducted by bearded men in waistcoats and jeans who yearn to appear informal but won't - and I mean this in the sweetest way - sod off and leave us alone. Lunch begins with a dreary speech about menu options and permutations. We're given a hard sell on the "extended à la carte", £15 for those mini dishes at the start. Suddenly we feel on edge. Can't we just choose things to eat?

The wine list is full of think-of-a-number prices. I imagine nervous 20-somethings bringing dates here for the first time and shuddering as the digits swim before their eyes. The cocktail list contains essays on each one, plus - oh God - tributes to Mancunian culture, such as a concoction called the Stone Roses. It "toys with Manchester's music history and love of performance and presentation". What a mixture of gin, elderflower and cucumber has to do with all that goodness only knows. If it was a fizzing glass of liquid amphetamine sulphate with an MDMA chaser, then maybe - but cucumber? My, but they really are jolly mad for it, aren't they.

Our waiter also insists on putting the word "my" before each dish name as he delivers it. As in: "This is my chestnut soup" and "Here's my lamb." Really? It's yours? Because I thought Mr Byrne's brigade over there in the open kitchen cooked it. That's not the waiter's fault: it's probably how he's been trained. But it's annoying. I flinch each time he arrives. I want to concentrate on Aiden Byrne's often brilliant cooking. I want to focus. But almost everything at Manchester House makes it a struggle to do so. I am struggling to dig this terrific food out from under a drift of unnecessary cobbler. It's a real shame.

Tags: Aiden Byrne, Jay Rayner, Manchester House, Review
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When you approach Tower 12 in Spinningfields Manchester, it looks like a very normal city tower, don’t be fooled. Inside lies a very special experience for both food lovers and lovers of a life with a view. Two stunning independently different environments. The Lounge on level 12 and the Restaurant by Aiden Byrne on level 2.