At this particular time of year, people are prone to eat lots of things things they don’t really like because it’s Christmas.
You can see them everywhere, grimacing as they force down mouthfuls of bone-dry turkey, overcooked sprouts, parsnips and Christmas pudding, sometimes all at once. For this reason, it’s probably best to approach the term ‘festive menu’ with some suspicion. We can report, though, that the seasonal offerings from the Browns venue in Manchester city centre is on the side of the angels.
If you’ve never sampled the delights of Browns, you may know it from its previous incarnation as The Athenaeum, a striking and spacious 90s pub on the edge of Manchester’s financial quarter (in fact, it was originally built back in 1902 as a banking hall). ‘Swish’ is a handy word here: it’s a large, baroque sort of place, a tasteful riot of marble oak, plasterwork and stained-glass panelling. It’s glamorous, verging right on the OTT, but that’s the appeal, really. I’m accompanied by my partner who remarks that it’s exactly the sort of place where the Great Gatsby might want to take Daisy were she available, though alas she’s not (it’s OK, she’s an English teacher and she often comes out with this kind of stuff).
The more intimate brasserie section is tucked away to one side from the bar area – though when it’s busy with works outings as it is during our visit, you might just wish it were even further away. The staff are helpful and attentive, though, and the food itself isn’t half bad. Of the starters, the British pig, cured bacon and apple terrine with home-made beetroot chutney is a pleasantly light appetiser, while the Severn & Wye Valley smoked salmon with horseradish cream and sourdough toast is a hit – a generous helping, too, though a bit stingy on the sourdough side, I’m told.
From the mains, the slow roast belly of pork with cinnamon glaze, creamed Savoy cabbage and smoked bacon is quite a treat. The pork stops short of being pulled, but it’s meltingly soft and tender and the cabbage is buttery and flavoursome. Across the table, from the vegetarian menu the smoked beetroot & goat’s cheese tatin with warm green beans and rocket gets a middling reception. It’s tasty, and the beans are nicely al dente, but the filo-style pastry is somewhat on the thick, claggy side and the goat’s cheese is deemed a bit excessive, overpowering the flavour of the beetroot. The seasonal vegetables get a thumbs-up, though, and as a nice touch, the sprouts come seasoned with thyme. Christmas thyme, presumably.
For dessert, neither of us can resist the salted caramel profiteroles with orange and cranberry cream. It’s a real melange of flavours, the citrusy cream contrasting with the sweetness. There’s a dash of panache in the caramel shard balanced on top, too, though overall the sugar quotient perhaps overbalances the saltiness. On the drinks side, my partner is very taken with her alcohol-free ‘softail’ consisting of mango, passion fruit, coconut syrup, orange juice and honey. It’s declared to be fruity and delicious, and after a good pint of Aspalls Cyder I’m similarly taken with a very creamy chocolate milkshake (well, if a grown man can’t bolt down a milkshake out in public during the festive season, when can he?).
So the Browns experience is pretty good, and they certainly don’t disgrace themselves with their festive menu. There’s a nice emphasis on sourcing local ingredients, too. Ultimately it’s solid, agreeable fare rather than anything spectacular, but it doesn’t disappoint. The seasonal over-indulging can start here.
By Andy Murray
What: Browns Restaurant
Where: 1 York Street, Manchester
When: Mon to Wed 8am – 11pm, Thu & Fri 8am – 12pm, Sat & Sun 9am – 10.30pm
More info: http://www.browns-restaurants.co.uk/locations/manchester/festive/