There’s a sense of occasion in having dinner at the Midland French. It’s about the setting – the knowledge that the restaurant has been around since 1903 when the hotel was built. It’s the oval room, still decorated in a Belle Epoque style that looks sort of old-fashioned but yet is entirely right. I can visualise my grandfather eating
here in the early part of the last century – doing the deals with American cotton traders that brought such wealth to the city. Not for nothing was Manchester known as Cottonopolis. Probably in his day, a string quartet played in the lounge bar. Now the background strings music comes by way of CD proving that nothing stands still except, possibly, the entirely formal style of service. In itself, that adds to the occasion. You know you’re being treated well. The restaurant was the first in the UK to hold a Michelin star but that’s some considerable years ago. But, don’t get me wrong, there’s some very good food here (far better than the Good Food Guide’s miserly score of 2 might indicate)
As for the food, there’s a good looking set price menu offered midweek – three courses for £35. But, you’re here for an occasion. You want the carte – even though some dishes are priced to induce a sharp intake of breath. Once seated, you’re offered bread. It’s served from a trolley, perhaps a dozen choices, all made in the kitchen daily. There’s a garlic & rosemary, a cheese & onion and, perhaps best of all, a lemon & thyme. It’s something to nibble on till the amuse arrives – a sliver of duck breast, another of duck foie, half a quails egg, a little micro leaf. Perfect – even a little grating of bitter chocolate seemed to work (although only just)
The food has its roots in French cuisine but is entirely at home in north west England. One starter brought what looked like three almost perfectly cooked scallops. Two had the usual charring from their brief time in the pan. But the third was pale and it was only when it was cut into that the cleverness was revealed. This was scallop mousse shaped like the real thing – a delicate yet flavoursome mousse. Other contrasts from some shreds of long cooked pork, an almost ubiquitous cauliflower puree and a drizzle of cumin infused oil.
The menu is written in that modern style of almost single word description. And my eye was immediately dragged to the item marked “Pie”. Well, of course it was – I’m a man and northern. It promised pork, prune, egg and pickle. I wondered what cheffy twist might be played here. But, no, I was served a slice of pork pie. A superb pork pie – full of flavour, with little dots of pistachio and a perfectly crisp pastry. Alongside, more quails egg, the pickle resembling Branston but lighter in texture and with sweet vinegary notes, the prune forming a dab of thick sauce which reminded me of the tomato ketchup I might have at home with a pie. This was a good plate – not a WOW plate but WOW isn’t what the Midland French is about.
We’d have happily ordered any of the seven main courses on offer. But, for such a classic setting, there was only one for us. A classic Chateaubriand for two. It’s probably been on the French’s menu since Grandad’s time. There’s some theatre in this dish. It‘s brought from the kitchen and presented for inspection before being carved tableside for us. Bang-on at medium rare and a generous portion at that. The plates have already been dressed with an array of vegetables – turned carrots, cubed beetroot and turnip, wilted spinach, fried mushrooms and a rich and, possibly just too sweet, onion marmalade. And there’s chips of course – because we’re in Manchester. But only four “fat chips” each, because this is the Midland French. There’s a light red wine sauce poured over to coat the beef and a big dollop of a superb béarnaise, heavy with a tarragon zing. This is a proper plate of food in my book – good ingredients, cooked with finesse.
We needed to wait for desserts to be prepared but they were both well worth waiting for. A light treacle soufflé was a perfect consistency and came accompanied by malted milk ice cream. The other plate brought a chocolate fondant, oozing with a rich sauce which contrasted well with slightly salted caramel and a pistachio ice cream. Absolutely the sort of desserts you want to eat at a place like this.
It had been three years since we’d last eaten here. It isn’t somewhere you’d want to come very regularly but three years is far too long. This really is good cooking and this meal makes it into my top ten of 2011.