Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The French

I love Manchester.  I love the fact that as a major city we aren't a smaller, underdeveloped version of London.  We have our own 'thing' going on here and this can be seen in the people, in the streets and certainly in the food and the drinks.  That 'thing' is undefinable I think (or at least I'm not going to try to define it here) but a symptom of that 'thing' is that our best bars and restaurants have a very welcoming atmosphere and the good people of the Manchester food scene are naturally very inclusive.  There are of course some exceptions to this rule that go out of their way to make their offering as exclusive as possible and as a result I'm not interested in visiting those establishments which employ door staff to weigh up the cost of the labels I'm wearing or checking that my face fits.  I've also mentioned a couple of times previously that it was this air of exclusivity or elitism that discouraged me for a long time from visiting 'fine dining' establishments because it caused a genuine fear that I would not be made to feel welcome.  Luckily our visits to Aumbry and L'Enclume completely blew my misconceptions away and proved that you can serve fine food in fine settings without sacrificing a warm welcome especially in the case of L'Enclume which was almost certainly our favourite meal of all time that we have eaten in the UK which was down to not only the strength of the food but also the perfect service.  This brings us nicely to Manchester's brightest hope for its first Michelin Star in the form of Simon Rogan's new (well it was quite new when we went back in May) restaurant The French.  There are some big questions hanging over The French with the biggest being 'Will it get that Star?' as well as 'Does Manchester need a Michelin Star?' but really that isn't that important to me as long as I enjoy the experience and on this occasion it was Jules' birthday so the stakes were a little higher than usual.

Located in The Midland hotel we arrived a little early to hear the sounds of a pianist bashing out modern 'classics' (think Radiohead/Coldplay/Alicia Keys) in the main lobby of the hotel.  We weren't there for long as we spied the unmissable doorway to The French and scuttled through apologising for our anti-tardiness.  Once through that epic archway the space opens in to a glorious dining room.  You will almost certainly have seen lots of photos of the 'light fittings' shown in the above image but none of them do the real thing justice.  Despite the extra high ceilings the room still feels cosy as tables are snuggled together without encroaching on each other's space and the natural wood of the furniture gives a warm feeling to the decor without sacrificing the grand nature of the room.  The French had pulled off its first magic trick successfully.  Jules had a particular penchant for the carpet.

After a lovely welcome we were seated and we ordered our customary G 'n' T while we pondered whether or not to go six or ten course.  We pondered for all of 30 seconds before plumping for the ten course.  A word of caution, the number of courses is deceptive as it was at L'Enclume.  Before course one arrives you are presented with an amuse bouche and two snacks as well as a surprise at the end.  Deception of the best kind.

The amuse bouche was raw radish served with nutmeg mayo and toasted pearl barley.  This is the kind of plate of food that exemplifies what I love about Rogan's cookery, it sounds a plate so simple it's silly.  But it isn't and the flavour and textures crammed in to just three very simple elements puts most chefs to shame.  The pearl barley was like the most natural popping candy in the world, sublime.

A bad start to the next course as a non pescetarian plate was brought out and placed in front of Jules, as the description was a little rushed we were left wondering if the dish was correct or not.  We asked a moment later and the dishes were whisked away from us again returning a minute or two later the waiter brought back the parsnip crisp with belly pork (Jules' version swapped the pork for smoked eel).  The topping of pork was lovely but sadly the crisp had gone past being a crisp and I feared for my teeth which was a shame.  It was also a shame that due to the mix up with the timings our next snack was delivered before we could even finish the first...

Crowding the table was the pickled mussel in edible shells with seaweed sticks.  We had gone for this menu without reading any reviews or looking at the menu so that every course would be an absolute surprise.  On top of this I didn't want the opportunity to pass on ingredients I normally avoid like mussels.  I'm so glad I didn't as this was by the far the best mussel I had ever eaten, absolutely loved it.  The shells and sticks didn't disappoint either.  When it comes down to it there is also a lot of fun to be had eating sticks and shells.

Beetroot, goats cheese, salted hazelnuts with apple marigold appeared swiftly after our snacks were cleared from the table.  The waiter informed us we should try the apple flavoured micro herb first on its own.  This tiny innocuous herb tasted like a full on bite of a granny smith.  It was so unbelievable that it made us laugh.  When combined with the other elements in the bowl it all came together as another amazing dish.

Another ingredient I would normally side step due to my seafood squeamishness is razor clams which is lucky as I might have missed out on razor clams, egg yolk, celeriac and sea herbs.  I'd previously only seen razor clams served rustic style in their own shells, well presented with more refinement here to match the gentle flavours of this incredible dish.

A quick word about the bread which we patiently consumed over the course of the meal, this took some will power as they all looked so attractive.  The only one that didn't live up to its appearance was the mini french baguette which was a real denture breaker, disappointing to have this served up alongside the Manchester beer roll which was a delight.

Boiled sole, onions, truffle and aliums caused me to look up the word allium in the dictionary to figure out why this was so delicious.  This was so very rich but not overpowering, a very crisp flavour to each element and the broth was strangely refreshing.

I had heard hushed whispers of the next course and how exceptional it was so when the waiter announced I was receiving the ox in coal oil with pumpkin seed, kohlrabi and sunflower sheets I was pretty happy despite the fact I rarely find pumpkin very inspiring at all.  The pumpkin seeds were my favourite element, a real stand out flavour!  The ox was still beautiful and the coal oil was a subtle but interesting flavour.

The next dish was fresh crab, caramelised cabbage, horseradish and chicken skin with crow garlic.  Crow garlic might sound scary but it isn't and it was the lightest flavour on the place.  At the same time crab and cabbage might seem like odd bed fellows and appearance wise this is not as elaborate but this was our favourite dish of the night.  Absolutely amazing, rich but supremely balanced.

The next plate didn't sound very inspiring from the generic title of spring offerings, vegetables, herbs, flowers and lovage salt.  How wrong could I be?  I don't think I've ever been so inspired by a plate of food in my life.  This is a plate of plants and vegetables with some salt, how can it taste so good?  There was no protein at all and it didn't need one.  There were 32 ingredients on the plate and whatever combination of those ingredients ended up on your fork it still tasted amazing.  This was a real lesson in getting full flavours from unassuming ingredients.

A pretty classic dish next in the form of hake fillet with buckwheat, cresses and smoked roe butter.  A simple and beautiful portion of fish perfectly cooked.

We weren't done yet.  Reg's duck, ruby chard, king oysters, mulled cider and nasturtiums.  Like so often in Simon Rogan's food you look forward to the protein such as the duck on this plate and then something blindsides you.  On this occasion it was the ooof of the oyster mushrooms.

With the savoury dishes out of the way we moved to the lighter dessert plates.  Chamomile with cheshire rhubarb, toasted oats and douglas fir was our first sweet plate and it was a lovely comedown from the savoury plates.  That said it didn't quite hit the mark as much as the L'Enclume equivalent we had enjoyed previously but maybe that was a conscious decision.

The final plate of the evening was pear, meadowsweet and rye, buttermilk, linseeds.  There was a pretty immediate issue with this plate as the brittle was almost impenetrable, in an effort to cut hers Jules managed to propel it some distance before it hit the floor.  Apart from that crunchy problem the dessert was an absolute triumph, a wonderful way to end the meal.  As the waiter collected our plates Jules wailed 'It's so sad it's all over now!".  With a flash of a grin the waiter lets slip "Or is it?" before disappearing in to the kitchen.  A cruel trick by the waiter?  No, there was one more surprise.

That surprise was sarsaparilla tonic, sarsaparilla wafer and sarsaparilla frozen mousse.  Now this is a way to finish a meal.  Incredibly powerful flavours but very natural, sums the whole meal up really.  It was an absolutely phenomenal meal, fourteen fantastic plates of food despite two or three minor issues that mean this is certainly the best food in Manchester and in our opinion it is also great value for the quality of the food you receive.  That high praise said, we do have to judge it against the standards of its little sister L'Enclume and when you do that you see it just falls short of the perfection they are aiming for.

A general comment is that (with the exception of the floor manager) all the staff really want to to tell you is how good the food is which ended up feeling a little bit robotic.  When I tried to respond to the oft repeated question 'It's brilliant isn't it?' they seemed a little bit uncomfortable and unprepared to actually have a conversation about the food.  As we arrived the manager had ensured us we would 'get to know' all the waiting staff and this couldn't have been further from the truth although L'Enclume absolutely succeeded in this respect.

There was also an awkward/hilarious moment between the gent who delivered the food to the table and our actual waiter which is worth a mention.  For each dish the waiter would lead the food carrying gent to the table so that he could introduce the dish.  In one instance the food carrier (apologies if there is a posh name for this role!) stopped one table short and the waiter proceeded to stop at our table.  I immediately saw the food carrier furrow his brow as if the waiter had made a heinous error.  The waiter spun on his heel only to see that the food carrier was the one who had made the error.  Now I understand that he couldn't just shout 'OI you've gone to the wrong table you absolute wazzock' but I did expect there to be some communication, instead the two men locked each others' steely gaze on the other and neither was speaking or flinching.  Then began an inaudible conversation discussing the pressing issue of which table the food should be delivered to. Both men allowed only silent words to escape the corners of their mouth, they appeared to be highly skilled ventriloquists but I wasn't sure where they were throwing their voices to.  It was the quietest argument in history.  After what must have been 20 seconds or so (it felt like an age as we sat in silence watching the conflict unfold) the food carrier relented and took the final steps to our table.  We did laugh at this but it does add to the general feeling on the night that the service required a little bit more fine tuning.

The final issue that ties in to this general feeling was the pacing of the meal was a little off, possibly caused by the mix up of the 2nd plate to be brought out.  It was noticeably quicker for the first half of the meal (making it feel a little rushed) when compared to the slower pace of the second half. Watching the floor staff later in the night they appeared to be a bit pushed out when the restaurant was full.  Also the delivery of the bill seemed to be at the bottom of their priorities when we had been waiting some time, they even fell in to the classic trap of stopping to have a nice extended chat and a laugh in full view of the guests when we were waiting for our bill.

Let's pretend for a moment that I had never visited L'Enclume.  This would be the best UK restaurant I'd have ever visited.  No doubt.  The quality of the food and the restaurant is amazing.  We loved it.  The comments on the service are minor rough edges only worth mentioning because we all know what Mr Rogan and the people of Manchester want and that's perfection as well as a big fat Michelin Star.  I'm pretty sure it's inevitable that we will get both.  If Manchester needs a Michelin star or not Rogan deserves one.

The French by Simon Rogan on Urbanspoon


  1. I'm happy to report that the serving issues seem to have been resolved, as we were at The French last Wednesday. We spent more than three hours there (no rushing at all), and none of that 'isn't it brilliant' commentary either, simply, explanations of the dishes, where ingredients came from, etc. Flawless service, incredible food. Not been to L'Enclume to compare, but hope to correct that soon.

  2. That is good to hear! In all fairness we haven't heard from anybody else of similar issues so it may well have been an off night. Please please do go to L'Enclume, it is indeed a magical place!


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