Fine dining restaurants in Manchester are a bit like buses. You wait ages and they all come at once.
Hot on The French's heels is Manchester House, the collaboration between Chef Aiden Byrne and Living Ventures. In the words of LV's CEO, Tim Bacon, it's a restaurant that the city can “potentially be very proud of”. A modest admission for a man who has made no secret of his intention to give Manchester its first Michelin Star.
Bacon is someone who acknowledges that there has been a “lack of traction with fine-dining in the city”, so the £3 million he's invested in this venture will seem to many as pure extravagance; and a cynic might say that he is trying to buy greatness. It’s a lot of pressure, also, for Aiden Byrne. "Dancing to the Michelin drum" as Marco-Pierre White puts it, has been many a chef's undoing.
To have hope of winning over the Michelin inspectors, the food will have to be better than anything on offer in Manchester. So what of it? Well, to analyse the dishes in too much detail would be superfluous. This, after all, was no ordinary service. It was well orchestrated 'press lunch' (i.e. complimentary); everyone on their best behaviour for the BBC's cameras. We all ate the same seven-course tasting menu. There were no slip-ups in service, save for a bit of pea in the pea juice ("It's supposed to be clear", the waiter explains, rushing to fetch a fresh one).
|The offending pea juice|
Better to judge the food at a later date, during normal service. Though, for those on a writer's wage, it's going to be a long time before the next tasting! First impressions were unanimously positive with the food impressing in many areas; and letting down in other respects. It's perhaps telling that the 'WOW' dishes like those from Byrne's Great British Menu repertoire (the paleolithic beef dish and the 'prawn cocktail') were outshone by the breads: the first, a bun filled with oxtail and served with oyster mayonnaise; the second, a bacon brioche served with pea butter and pea juice.
|The decimated prawn cocktail|
The pigeon dish with black cherries and pistachio was, however, a standout: the one plate that could please the gods of Michelin. So good was it that Manchester Confidential's Gordo prematurely named it 'Dish of the Year' in a fit of shameless self-publicity. But one plate of that calibre won't be enough to achieve Tim Bacon's dream. Nevertheless, there's no doubt that Manchester House is a restaurant that can get better with age; Byrne won't allow it to be otherwise.
Perhaps, more interesting than any food was to hear what the two collaborators had to say about their vision for the restaurant.
During the post-dinner Q & A, Byrne came across as simultaneously humble and ambitious, eager to get the point across that he wanted to challenge himself. Reinvention was born out of boredom: “I wanted to throw away my recipe book.” Strange then that a couple of the dishes we tried were well-known dishes from his time on The Great British Menu. One guess as to whose decision that was.
|The award-winning pigeon dish|
Byrne was preoccupied but took the time to stop at tables and have a chat. It’s evidently been a tiring year and already a tiring day – Byrne and his team have been here since seven in the morning and last night’s shift finished at 2am. Maybe that accounts for the negative language (the word frustration is scrawled on my notepad/menu in huge caps); maybe its the whispered troubles he's had with Tim Bacon. Perhaps it's competition with The French that worries him. He made a point of distancing himself from Simon Rogan: "Simon's product and mine are a million miles from each other." Here's hoping that these worries won't consume Byrne and he can put his full attention into making the food truly exceptional. Easier said than done, with £3 million riding on it.
Sitting next to Byrne, Tim Bacon took a different tack and endeared himself to the common folk: first by talking about how Byrne phoned him whilst on holiday in the Maldives, and later by reminding us that the “combined turnover of [his restaurants] would blow your mind.” Well, customers aren't going to be thinking about turnover when they're eating at Manchester House and the only thing they want to blow their mind is the food.