I’ve had some posh dinners in my time but I have never, ever been served a meal perched on a dish of artificial turf, all enveloped in a haze of dry ice. Until, that is, I went to the newly-launched Manchester House.
During a tasting menu that would have tickled the pickiest of palates, a combination of oyster, beetroot and oxtail arrived at a precise 50 degrees. Within moments, the base was spouting ghost-like waves across the table. This was food as theatre.
Manchester House is a joint undertaking between Living Ventures, the Knutsford-based bar and restaurant group, and Aiden Byrne, the youngest ever chef to win a Michelin star. Some £3 million has been ploughed into the 2nd floor restaurant and top floor bar, both housed in an ordinary-looking office block in central Manchester. During the day, bemused city workers share the lift with diners hoping for a Michelin-style experience from the man who was head chef at The London Dorchester and Tom Aiken‘s head chef at his Chelsea restaurant.
The setting augured well: less cavernous than sister restaurant Artisan across the way, an open kitchen that brought a whole new meaning to ‘chef’s table’ and post-industrial decor which suited the location. So far, so good. Well, except for the price – at £95 for a tasting menu, Manchester House is one of the most expensive places to eat in the city. Would it be worth it?
D’you know, I think it was.
Byrne kicked things off with a deceptively simple Ajwain cracker bread with carrot butter (yes, you read that right, carrot butter). It melted in the mouth and eased us in to the aforementioned highlight of the first act: the culinary fog machine complete with oyster and samphire mayo and dough-surrounded oxtail. Me and my fellow diners sat with mouths open and eyes wide as smoke entrails wafted around the room. To borrow a phrase from John Simm, Holy Shitbox.
Next up was roasted pigeon with black cherries and pistachio. Brushing aside thoughts of the pigeon with the gammy leg I’d spotted on the way to lunch, I marvelled at the freeze-dried sour cherry dusting and silently congratulated Byrne on his cunning: he’d disguised one of the whole cherries as foie gras. Clever boy.
The first half climbed to a crescendo with a bacon and onion brioche served with pea butter. Byrne likes his veggie butter concoctions and, after sampling a couple, I’m on board with his experiments.
Just as a theatre director often likes to start the second half with a bang, so it was with Byrne. Taken from the BBC’s Great British Menu, the prawn cocktail was unlike anything I’d ever seen. At first glance, it looked like a bath bomb (you know, those soaps that explode in water). No limp lettuce leaves and marie rose sauce languishing around the plate here: instead, a sorbet globe that begged to be popped was set before us, opening up to reveal said ingredients. If truth be told, this was my least favourite dish, not least because I’ve spent a lifetime ordering prawn cocktails and knowing what to expect. I knows what I like and I likes what I know.
All this was forgotten once the piece de resistance was laid before us. My oh my. The menu described it as ‘Welsh black beef with grilled mushroom and salsify’. I had no idea what salsify was but I bloody wanted to find out (I later discovered it is a root vegetable belonging to the dandelion family). Take a look at the picture to the left – the menu description didn’t do it justice.
As a former vegetarian, I found the idea of presenting the meat within a ribcage both alarming and fascinating. Byrne is quite the set decorator. The tender fillet of beef juxtaposed with ox cheek worked brilliantly, as well as dividing opinion on the table. Then there were potatoes encased in edible clay (yes, edible clay) and a portion of jus served in a frickin’ big horn. It made quite a change from a gravy tureen.
Sadly, I had to leave before the curtain came down and the iconic Manchester Tart made an appearance. I’m told it was delicious and, based on the previous two hours, I believe it.
I’d really like to tell you about the superb selection of wines that accompanied the outstanding series of dishes, I really would. But I spent all of my time marvelling over the food and totally forgot about what I was drinking. Maybe that’s how it should be in a restaurant angling for Manchester’s first Michelin star.
Review by Helen Nugent
Where: Tower 12, Spinningfields, Manchester
More info: www.manchesterhouse.uk.com