[Manchester, city centre] The French at the Midland

There was something of a sense of history to tonight’s dinner. It was the centenary of my great uncle’s death during the First World War and we were at the Midland – then a new hotel which would have been known to him but in the restaurant that would have been financially and socially out of reach to him. Since we were last here, they’ve “done up” the previous “doing up” when Simon Rogan took over. The centre of the room is now occupied by banquettes. Yes, it gets more seats in, but it doesn’t half detract from the elegance of the oval shaped room. And it doesn’t half detract from the enormous modern chandeliers that were installed in the earlier doing up. It looks even less like a “grand restaurant in a grand hotel” and much more of a bistro effect (posh bistro, mind). Service remains quite formal like the L’Enclume of old but seemingly gone are the young local lads and lasses, to be replaced by older French (?) staff. Progress is not always progress.

The food is by way of tasting menu. Now, to paraphrase John Lewis, we’re never knowingly underfed but the ten courser just seemed too much effort on this visit, so we settled on the six courser.

The first course is described as a couple of snacks. In recent weeks, I’ve come to like the idea of “snacks” – so much more sensible a description than “amuse bouche”. One has the texture of a rice krispy cake the kids might make but there’s a good flavour of pork in amongst the crispiness. That’s followed by a piece of raw, but marinated pollock on a cracker.

The first of the proper courses was smoked eel mixed with a (horseradish ?) cream served alongside a beetroot mousse. There’s real smokiness in the eel but the other flavours are quite muted so the eel almost overpowers. I think my favourite dish was next – raw scallop served with peas and slivered almonds in a pea broth. It’s light, delicate and summery, tasting very much of the ingredients. A seemingly simple dish but one that almost certainly isn’t.

Hake was poached in oil - presumably meaning the oil was at too low a temperature to be called frying. There’s contrast from grilled spring onions and a well balanced watercress sauce. Hang on, I’ve changed my mind – this may have been my favourite dish. The meat course was an almost perfect bit of chicken breast. I say almost perfect because there had been no attempt to crisp the skin and flabby chicken skin is not a thing of joy. There’s a little chard and an unusual, but successful, turnip butter sauce.

Dessert was bang-on for seasonality. Cheshire strawberries had been macerated and served with a strawberry sorbet and a dab or two of a blackcurrant (?) jelly. Really rather good.

I don’t generally mention restaurant prices but the six courser is priced at a reasonable £65. However drinks, coffee and tip added 50% to that. It now seemed quite expensive for the experience and we came away wondering if we’d actually had a value for money meal. We also came away thinking the food seemed simpler than previous visits and wondered if Rogan had given up on a quest for a Michelin star here (which, with my lack of skill in predicting Michelins, probably means he’ll get one in the autumn).

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Once again, Manchester is ignored by the Michelin inspectors, with the French and Manchester House having both been hotly tipped (again) to get stars, to no avail. Like others with views on Manchester’s dining scene, I now conclude that the city will never get a star, regardless of how good its restaurants are.

Why is that? Even Blackburn got one.

BTW, welcome back.

Thanks for the welcome back.

I really don’t know why Michelin keeps ignoring the city. Over recent years, we’ve had a number of places which are easily on a par with starred places I’ve eaten at. The last star in the metro area was Juniper, in Altrincham, which closed in 2009, when the chef relocated to Edinburgh.

To my mind, both the French and Manchester House are star worthy. The former is the more worthy, not least because of Simon Rogan’s track record and cooking style. I really do not understand why Michelin should recognise his London restaurant, Fera, just one year after opening, yet three years on The French remains starless. I’ve not eaten at Fera but presume that the food is not dramatically better than the French but I’d be interested to read reports from anyone who knows both places. Assuming there is not some anti-Manchester bias amongst the Michelin people (a view held by a number of local professional commentators), then my note that the food seemed simpler than previous visits may be the answer. Although I would still take the view that the food is more interesting and better than other places I know.

Link to BBC article on the matter - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-37542370

And one to the main regional evening newspaper - http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/whats-on/food-drink-news/michelin-guide-star-manchester-restaurants-11972799

By the by, Northcote (the restaurant at Langho, nr Blackburn) is my favourite starred place in the northwest. I don’t think we’ve ever had a bad dish there. Very much my sort of “Modern British” food - take local and seasonal ingredients, cook them well and don’t chef about with them too much.

I’ve had lunch at Fera and thought it was wonderful food. I suppose we just must get to Manchester one of these days and try the French for comparison.

Well, they have definitely been to Manchester given the one Bib Gourmands.

Perhaps the UK inspectors are all Liverpudians.

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold