We last visited the French in 2013, not long after it reopened as a Simon Rogan gaff. Then, we were sort of moaning the loss of the old French and would still regard it as a shame that the city’s grand hotel cannot support a grand restaurant in the traditional style. But it seems it can’t.
Food is by way of tasting menu – these days no longer our favourite style of eating – and your decision is between the six- or ten-courser. We went with ten, of course.
The first of these comes in three disparate parts. A venison “lollipop”, a pine grilled prawn and, to my mind the best, a dehydrated kale leaf, topped with a Westcombe cheddar & garlic sauce.
Then on to my partner’s star dish – turnip dumplings and dice of fresh horseradish and a powerful beef broth. Really fresh.
Next up, the restaurant’s signature dish and one that is the only constant on the menu. There’s raw ox in coal oil, with crunchy kohlrabi, and mustard. We didn’t like it last time and didn’t like it this time. Now, OK, my partner isn’t a fan of tartare but it’s actually the flavour that just doesn’t work for either of us.
Then a couple of dishes where vegetables are the centrepiece. Braised cabbage with crab was an excellent idea. The slight bitterness of the cabbage working as a good contrast with the sweet crab. Pickled beetroot comes with a Beenligh Blue cream and a scattering of nuts. Another dish with good contrasts – sweet yet earthy beetroot, sharpish cream.
Then on to my favourite dish - poached (?) pollock, just about cooked through. There’s sweetness from caramelised onion and nuts, both of which highlight the delicate fish. The final savoury brings Reg’s guinea fowl. This is presumably Reg Johnson from Goosnargh who seems to supply chickens and other fowl to many of the top restaurants in the country – another good quality food producer from the north west. It comes as a little bit of breast and a little bit of leg, the latter served as a a ballotine and, probably, waterbathed. Delicious meat, helped along with a couple of blewits and thinly sliced turnip.
We weren’t going to have a cheese course, but we, and other tables, were offered a complimentary one for reasons I cannot mention as it breaches CH posting policy. Never one to pass up on a freebie, doncha know. A trolley with easily a dozen British cheeses. All clearly at the peak of condition and perfectly room temperature, as the trolley had sat in the restaurant all evening (covered with a cloth of course).
The first dessert was bang-on for seasonality. Poached forced Yorkshire rhubarb, topped with toasted oats. Cooked to what I think is now a fashionable al dente, I confess to being an old fogey in preferring fully cooked rhubarb. Tasted lovely, though. Then a barley malt “biscuit”, a little caramel with an interesting (if not entirely successful) sorrel ice cream.
And , last up, what I suppose was “sarsaparilla three ways” – an ice cream lolly, on a liquorice stick, a biscuit enclosing a sarsaparilla cream and a shot glass of the soda.
I think it would be fair to say that the cooking had been faultless. Service was also pretty much perfect. Many of the staff are young local people – the restaurant manager told us she likes to get youngsters straight from college so she can train them “properly”. She does it right – her team are on the ball, knowledgeable about the food and interested in engaging with customers. This is a world away from the stiff formality that, to my mind, plagued the experience at L’Enclume.
I wonder how much direct involvement Simon Rogan now has with the kitchen. When it first opened, he said he would divide his time between Manchester & L’Enclume and there was a declared intent to win a Michelin star here. Then he opened Fera in London. And now said he would divide his time between London and L’Enclume. And London got the star, while the longer established Manchester place didn’t. Funny old world, innit – I can think of three or four places in the metro area that easily cook at a level consistent with starred places I’ve eaten at, but not a sniff for them.