I suppose I’m still in mourning for the “grand old lady” that was the Midland French until earlier this year. Opened in 1903, it retained its style and dignity until the very end – serving up classic, generally French-ish dishes, in elegant, formal surroundings. The chateaubriand for two was always a delight. Still, I suppose the problem for the hotel was that classic dining tends to be favoured by the more elderly customer and we have a natural tendency to pop our clogs. The Midland has looked to the increasingly common practice of teaming up with a well known chef to run the restaurant.
So, there’s a partnership with Simon Rogan and a makeover of the dining room. There’s still the lovely oval room and the original plasterwork covings, mirrors, etc have been retained. Two enormous and very modern chandeliers now dominate the room and, oddly enough, they don’t look at all out of place. Which, in my view, is more than can be said for the furniture which looks a bit too much Ikea for the room.
The menu is pure Rogan and will be familiar to anyone who has visited L’Enclume (and I now suspect I have little need for a 2 hour schlep up the M6 now his food is available nearer to home). It’s a tasting menu style and your only decision is whether you’ll take three, six, or ten courses. That’ll be the ten courser please.
You kick off with four “snacks” which are additional to the ten courses. There’s crispy kale and truffle; crab and horseradish on a biscuit, topped with chicken skin; a black pudding ball served with Cumberland sauce and topped with crispy sage; and a chickpea, garlic and ox-eye daisy concoction. It was then on to the menu proper. The first offering of which wasn’t a great success. A beetroot mousse with goats cheese and salted walnuts was all a bit, well, moussey and not that pleasant to eat.
However, next up, was one of my star dishes. A grilled radish with fronds of fennel and little cubes of a heavily smoked eel and a lovage cream. This really was a lovely thing assuming you like things heavily smoked. Next, a mix of split peas and turnip, with a crisped and very delicious sweetbread.
Ox in coal oil is, apparently, one of the WOW dishes according to many reviewers. The raw beef comes with pumpkin seeds, kohlrabi (one of the most pointless vegetables known to man) and sunflower shoots. We didn’t like it. It just didn’t taste very nice.
My favourite dish of the evening came next. Perfectly cooked (ie slightly underdone) scallops with what were described as “coastal herbs”. They came with a mousse made from the roe and some caramelised heart of cabbage. The contrast here of the soft and sweet scallop with the crisp and slightly bitter cabbage was masterful.
My partner’s favourite plate was, effectively a salad of “late summer offerings” – herbs, flowers, vegetables, etc. Skilfully put together, this looked a picture (not that I would be criticising the excellent plating of the other dishes.
A tiny offering of plaice may have been a tad overcooked but it tasted really good and was complemented by roasted carrots and a little scattering of nasturtium leaves which I suppose were intended to give a little pepperiness but didn’t really.
The final savoury dish brought some Middle White pork, just cooked to medium (you wouldn’t want it even a tad rarer). It came with blewits which we can’t recall eating before. An unusual strong flavour to this mushroom but one difficult to describe. Sort of a bit bitter, but not really. Also adding a sort of bitter was mugwort (nope, I’d never heard of this herb either).
The first dessert was a killer dish, to my mind. Poached cherries came with a sweet cheese ice cream and crushed hazelnuts. Perfect combination of sweet flavours with the hint of savoury from what I suspect was a goat cheese in the ice cream. Second up was more straightforward - macerated strawberries, mint and meadow sweet.
And then there’s a final unadvertised offering of “sarsparilla” – a stalwart of the area’s temperance bars of the early 20th century. Here, it’s a glass of the cordial, together with a sarsaparilla wafer “sandwich”, enclosing a sarsaparilla puree. Really nice.
Needless to say, service is delivered by a team approach and is spot-on. Formal, yes. But with the young staff engaged in their work and interested in knowing how you found the food. I liked it. In fact, I liked it more than I like the service at L’Enclume which can seem as though the staff are a bit “up their own arses”. Unusually these days, there is no service charge and old-fashioned tipping is the way to go.
By the by, I believe the French was the first British restaurant to gain a Michelin star. It lost it many years back (1980s ?) and the city hasnt had a starred place since. It'd be great if they could win back the city's first star in more than a generation. If anyone can do it, then it's Rogan.