Saturday, 14 March 2015

Manchester House

Manchester House
Tower 12, 18-22 Bridge Street

Date of visit: 6 September 2014

The first thing to get out of the way is that it's a Living Ventures restaurant. So it's blingy. There's a bar with lots of cocktails (though here on a different floor). The staff are trained to within an inch of their lives and only the best of them break out of the confines of appearing somewhat automaton-like with their scripts.

But for all that, it's an attractive and engaging place, both the bar and the restaurant. The most off-putting thing is the entrance, which looks like an entrance to any old office block (which is what it is, of course) and the woman gatekeeper on the desk at the entrance.  Being challenged before even getting near the bar or restaurant itself is something I find particularly uncomfortable.  When the bloom's worn off, they may regret having this barrier against any possible passing chance trade.

Having got past the first greeter (we had booked), we went up to 12th floor, as much because we felt we should, than any particular desire for drinks beforehand.  We went on a rainy lunchtime, so the views from the bar, sorry The Lounge, weren't as engaging as I imagine they can be.
A couple of White Lady cocktails, however, were excellent examples.  Though the excessively loud music playing in the bar was out of all relation to the number of customers (only us two while we were up there!).
White Lady cocktail
That's what you call a bar

Descending in the lift back down to the 2nd floor and the restaurant (all a bit of a faff, when you think about it: surely it would have been better to put them on adjacent floors, though perhaps they had to work round existing tenants and leases?) we met the third greeter of the day.  It's worth saying that once we'd got past the gatekeeper at street level, the other two greeters knew exactly who we were and we didn't have to repeat our names at each floor.

The restaurant is chic industrial glam, and a little less glitzy than the bar.  It's a big space and they must be able to seat a significant number of covers: it was empty when we went in, but full (having turned the odd table too) by the time we left.
The open kitchen and (because the bar upstairs isn't enough, another bar on the right)

Restaurant interior

One uncomfortable feature is that the tables are unusually large. Not just larger than normal (which would be welcome in many cases) but so big that you can't imagine coming to Manchester House for a romantic date à deux. You'd have to have long legs to play footsie. Indeed, the couple at the next table made a point of moving one chair and place setting so that they sat next to each other on adjacent sides of the table.  All the tables for two would have been better turned through 45° and the diners seated next to each other.

Very much to the credit of both front of house and the kitchen, there was the merest hint of a batted eye at our decision that one of us would go à la carte (with the rather odd "A la Carte Extended" option) and the other would take the option of turning the 2-2-2 table d'hôte lunch menu into a six course tasting menu.  Obviously, there was the occasional hiatus for one or the other of us, but the kitchen worked the timings well to produce a meal that flowed well for both of us.

Bread course
First to come was the bread: a feather-light brioche, served with seaweed butter, and (in a separate glass teacup Chinese mushrooms on which was poured some sort of (I think) dashi stock.  I'm not sure about this trend to bread as a course in a meal. I can see the attraction for some chefs, as it both limits consumption and bullies those who'd normally ignore it into eating it. But I find it hard to think of bread as other than an accompaniment to a meal, preferably for the mopping up of sauces, which is something that many chefs forget entirely: which is curious really, as they spend so much time making excellent sauces, yet so often omit to give the diner any means to eat it all up, whether bread or spoon.

The "A la Carte Extended" seems to me mainly a way to charge £15 for three amuses bouches that would come under the category of "freebie nibbles" at many other places. Apologies for the vagueness of my descriptions of these "extended" dishes: it was difficult to catch everything the waiter said, as often when they're working from learned scripts.
"Extended à la carte" nibble 1
I didn't really catch what the first was but it involved peas and I think some sort of curd cheese on some sort of wafer.  Quite Rogan-y in style, but not as well executed as the wafer was a bit soft.
"Extended à la carte" nibble 2
The second extended nibble was a sort of cold foie gras soup with foie gras & something else. Not sure what. But it was damn good.
"Extended à la carte" nibble 3
The third, and final, extended nibble was the weakest: cured mullet, ?sardine? caviar, confit tomato and a bouillabaise sauce. It just wasn't exciting and didn't amuse the bouche.

Crab risotto
The first of the courses of the table d'hôte tasting lunch was an excellent crab risotto with a thick slice of a confit Scottish cep on top. A terrific dish. Simple, classic elegance. And great flavours.

breast & leg of quail, foie gras torchon & chicory with pain d'épices
 The second starter off the tdh was a very good breast & leg of quail, but however good the quail was it was completely outshone and made to feel quite otiose by the accompanying two thick slices of perfect foie gras torchon & some roast chicory with a pain d'épices crumb on top.

Langoustines and carrots
 Off the à la carte came a good starter of a pair of stunning langoustines served with a multitude of carrot preparations and spherified olives.  A good dish, but it somehow didn't hang together as well as the two table d'hôte starters.

lobster & chicken lasagna

lobster & chicken lasagna: so good, it's worth another look

Lobster & chicken lasagna revealed. Look at the work in that!
 The first table d'hôte main course was an absolutely stunning lobster & chicken lasagna that came with charred lettuce & lobster tail. Without any shadow of a doubt, this was the star dish of the meal.  The amount of work in it was remarkable. Really delicious, perfectly executed and remarkably generous, particularly on a table d'hôte lunch menu.  It's remarkable to get lobster and all the more so that much of it on a £22.50 for 2 courses menu. (Since this visit, the lunch menu has gone up to £27.50 for 2 courses, but it'd still be a bargain.)

Poached chicken, gnudi, chanterelles
The second tdh main was poached chicken, gnudi, chanterelles & clever little puri-like baked potato shells. It was good but very definitely in the lasagna's shadow.

Rose veal fillet with cacao beans and foie gras mousse
The à la carte main was less successful. A somewhat insipid dish of lovely Cumbrian rose veal fillet served with cacao beans and foie gras mousse. It needed more salt and more maillard reaction on the meat.

Lemon cheesecake, blackberries
We split the desserts off the table d'hôte.  A very technically involved dish involved lemon cheesecake wrapped in a blackberry gel cannelloni and served with a sorrel sorbet and various textures of blackberry. 
We'd had the flight of wines by the glass with the table d'hôte: most had been solid matches, through drawn, I think, only from their regular selection of wines by the glass.  However excellent the lemon cheesecake and blackberry concoction was, the Recioto di Soave that was served with it was a terrible match that detracted from the dessert. It might have been the best match from what they'd got to play with, but it was a very poor match.

Gingerbread, plum, pear & chocolate
The second dessert was a terrific, restrained dish, involving gingerbread, plum, pear & chocolate. By complete contrast to the other dessert the 10yo tawny port served with this was a fabulous match.

Top espresso (a massive single!) in a cup and a half

Espresso was superb and a single was remarkably large.  Apparently those cups cost £80 each! It's worth saying that all the crockery and cutlery was not merely good, but also very impressive. No slates either!


With coffees came a wooden box containing a kaleidoscopic selection of very good macarons. Some of the flavours were good, others less clear. Although not perfectly matched (something highlighted by them all being presented lined up next to each other), there was a pretty decent uniformity too. Accomplished.

Manchester House on Urbanspoon

Monday, 9 February 2015

Waiting for Michelin in 1974

Whenever a new Michelin guide is due, there always seems to be a flurry of interest among "foodies", restaurateurs and chefs, and it's easy to assume that this is a reflection of the modern obsession with all things food.  But that fascination and speculation has been around for years.

Recently Michelin UK added to their website a couple of articles reproduced from the Telegraph Magazine of 15th March 1974.

Someone at Michelin must have been rummaging through their archives and found a copy of The Telegraph colour supplement from 1974 introducing its readers to the idea of Michelin's red guide and making some predictions as to which restaurants might get stars.

The Piquant Foretaste of Stardom (Note that page 19 is repeated, initially out of sequence.)
The Maigrets of Haute Cuisine

I find them really rather fascinating, as a historical document in themselves, as a testament to how much things have changed, and yet also how so little has changed.

In the first article, I was particularly amused by Prue Leith quoted as saying "You have to be pretty awful not to get into The Good Food Guide" and rather perplexed as to why it refers to Albert Roux throughout as André Roux.

I remember the Stevensons' (no relation) Horn Of Plenty at Gulworthy, and Patrick Stevenson one night intoning that anyone who didn't like opera and model railways should have been put down at birth.

The interview with Michelin in the second article almost reads just like any interview with Michelin you ever read, save, maybe, for the occasional condescending dig at English cooking.

I thought it might be interesting to look at the Telegraph's predictions and see how accurate they were.  Very, as it turns out.

"Our experts consider it unlikely that any British establishment will be found deserving of two stars, let alone three."  Well, their experts were certainly right about that.

"As to numbers of one-star restaurants, our experts think it unlikely that they will number fewer than a dozen or more than 20."  Ah well, close: there were 22 stars awarded to UK restaurants in the 1974 Red Guide.

These are the restaurants they predicted would get one Michelin star when the 1974 red guide came out:

  • The Connaught Hotel ("the restaurant, not the grill room") - one star from 1974-1976, 2 from 1977-1981, then back down to 1 again.
  • Thornbury Castle - one star from 1974-1982
  • Le Gavroche - one star 1974-1976, 2 stars 1977-1981, 3 stars 1982-1991, then 2 stars again
  • La Toque Blanche - one star from 1974-76
  • Waterside Inn - 1 star from 1974-76, 2 from 1975-84, 3 stars from 1985.
  • Le Poulbot - one star 1974-79
  • Bell Inn, Aston Clinton - one star in 1974 which it lost in 1975 before regaining for 1976-79.
  • The Box Tree - 1 star from 1974-77, 2 stars 1978-1987
  • Horn of Plenty - 1 star from 1974-1983
  • Hintlesham Hall - 1 star from 1974-1982
  • Le Bressan - 1 star 1974-79
  • Wilton's - Had to wait till 1975 for a star, presumably when they deigned to return Michelin's questionnaire

The only two of those I'd not heard of were La Toque Blanche and Le Bressan, both in London.

These are the one-stars in 1974 that the Telegraph's experts didn't predict:
  • Hole in the Wall, Bath
  • Randalls, Brixham
  • Duck Inn, Canterbury
  • The French Restaurant, Midland Hotel, Manchester
  • Hotel de la Poste, Swavesey
  • Malmaison, Glasgow (the old BTH one, not the newer Michael Caines one!)
  • Carrier's, Islington
  • Le Coq Hardi, Kensington
  • Lee Ho Fook, Soho
  • Simpsons in the Strand
I had no idea there was a Chinese restaurant with a Michelin star in 1974!

You can see the full history of Michelin stars 1974-2015 for London here and for the rest of the United Kingdom here.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Losehill House Hotel and Spa, Hope, Derbyshire

Losehill House Hotel & Spa,
Losehill Lane, 
Edale Road, Hope

Losehill House Hotel is an old walkers' hostel built at the start of WW1, and still displaying a few arts & crafts touches here and there.  It is now a privately owned hotel with a small scale spa up a  narrow single-track lane lane off the Edale road north out of Hope in the Derbyshire dales.

The unprepossessing entrance One of the lounge areas

We only ate, so can't comment on the hotel or spa side of things, though my father and I appreciated the young ladies laid out in the grounds below in the skimpiest of bikinis.  Slightly odd later when some hotel/spa guests came into the dining room wearing just dressing gowns over said bikinis.

The grounds (well, a tiny bit of, and no sunbathers)
The dining room is light and airy with panoramic views over the Peak District landscape.

View from the dining room

Chef Darren Goodwin's food was terrific. By prior arrangement, he did us a "Taste of Losehill" tasting menu.  There were clean, precise flavours and excellent seasoning throughout.  Confident, assured, delicious cooking.  This is not show-off modern cookery, though onion ash, an elderflower espuma and a broad bean spherification did make appearances: but they were bit part players, not centre stage and certainly had their part to play. Except maybe the spherification.
Service was by local youngsters, but really pretty good: they all seemed knowledgeable about the food and were engaged.
A wonderfully pleasant, relaxed place.

Losehill Cured Bresaola Salad

Sea Trout with Cauliflower and Apple

Pressed Chicken Terrine, Parfait and Pickled Vegetables
 Chicken terrines can often suffer from being a bit dry, from a lack of flavour, or (to counter that) over-enthusiastic seasoning. This managed to tread the very narrow path of being just right.

Razor Clam

Cabrito Kid Goat with Parsley Quinoa

Monkfish with Broad Beans and Ham

Ribeye with Spring Onion and Old Winchester

Strawberry Parfait

White Chocolate, Lime and Sheffield Blossom Honey

Orangery Restaurant, Lounge and Bar on Urbanspoon
Date of visit: 6th June 2014

Monday, 19 May 2014

Mughli, Rusholme, Manchester

The Curry Mile is not somewhere I'd ever have rushed to normally. I'm not a huge fan of Indian food, finding it too often too heavy and formulaic, and designed for post-pub alcohol mopping up. I don't really get on with lots of chilli or a heavy hand with spices generally.

But a few months ago, Mughli suddenly burst onto my radar, and then, lo and behold, while I was watching Nigel Slater on the telly, even he suddenly appeared at seeking advice on spice at Mughli.

The sudden burst of recommendations on twitter tended not to mention curries, but other more interesting sounding dishes.  Looking at the menu online, my attention was particularly drawn by the words "charcoal pit" and the mention of lots of street food, snacky type things.  Talking with the owner (one of the owners?), he even suggested he'd prefer if people stuck to the street food and charcoal grilled stuff, rather than the normal curries.

You certainly can't miss Mughli on Manchester's Curry Mile: the facade is about as subtle as Jay Rayner going undercover to play D'Artagnan in a Bollywood version of the Three Musketeers.  Inside, it's a bit more discreet. It looks dark and a bit canteen-like at first, but it isn't.  There is an open kitchen area which contains the charcoal pit (actually just a charcoal grill rather than anything especially pit-like, I think), with another kitchen with the stoves and ovens beyond.

There seemed little point messing about, as it was the street food that we'd really come for, so we just ordered the lot. It amused me that, rather than writing our order down, the waiter just stuck the menu in the kitchen's tab grabber.

The charcoal pit
The chef looking very smart in his whites and toque

In general, I thought it was terrific, with a judicious, skilled use of the various spices employed.

Onion & spinach bhajis were one of the weakest of their streetfood selection we thought: a bit heavy and lacking the sophistication of some of the other dishes. Still better than some though.
Onion and spinach bhajis

Chicken pataka - "firework" chicken supposedly (according to the menu) tossed with sesame seeds, though I can't say we particularly detected them. But it was good & tasty, although might be improved with slightly larger pieces of chicken.
Chicken Pataka

Tamarind masala-battered fish was terrific: pieces of very good haddock deep fried in a masala batter and served with a chilli, tamarind and lime dressing.  A nice light, beautifully spiced batter. This worked really well, and it's worth saying that the size of the pieces of fish were just right so you got the perfect balance of fresh clean fish and crisp, spiced batter.
Tamarind masala fish

I loved the pani puri: little crisp hemispherical puris, filled with chickpea and potato chaat and served with sev, yoghurt and pomegranate seeds, and a sort of tamarind(?) water dressing to spoon over.  Such fresh, bright flavours. Why would anyone have poppadums when you can have these?
Pani Puri

Halloumi Menander - slices of halloumi, in a spiced batter - were one of real highlights of the street food menu for me. Admittedly a very similar (if indeed not the same) batter as the haddock, and really just as good. The halloumi was firmer than the haddock, so it didn't feel like the same dish.  The halloumi also avoided any trace of squeakiness.
Halloumi Menander

Samosa chaat is weird but very moreish. A vegetable samosa topped with chickpea & potato chaat, tamarind, sweet yoghurt and crisp sev so that the samosa goes soggy. The idea of piling stuff on top of a crisp samosa until it goes soggy seems very strange to my eyes, but the flavours are great, and the soggy samosa itself is curiously moreish too. 
Samosa Chaat
I've never had anything quite like the samosa chaat before. Genuine question: is it an actual Indian dish, or the rather fortuitous result of the Mughli team playing with their food as children?

Gunpowder chips are sweet potato fries with chilli salt & lemon.  Crisp on the outside but almost marshmallowy inside. Stunning and very, very addictive.  I had to slap myself to stop myself ordering an extra portion on the way out to eat in the car on the way home.
Gunpowder chips

Obviously I couldn't avoid the charcoal pit. Meat+charcoal=lust. So there came some excellent charcoal-grilled lamb chops (easily the equal of the possibly unjustifiably famous Tayaabs in London) and charcoal-grilled huge king prawns, looking liked small children's fists that have been skewered and marinated. Two separate dishes, I should add.  The lamb chops were amazingly good. But I thought the king prawns had just been a little over-basted with the marinade, which meant it ended up masking the flavour of the prawns.
Lamb chops from the charcoal pit
Giant king prawn from the charcoal pit
Chicken lollipops were something that was not currently on the menu, but on a specials menu that seemed to be somewhere between imaginary and invisible, but ultimately on its way eventually should they get round to it.  These were juicy chicken thighs, on the bone, deep fried I think. Sort of like a cross between American fried chicken and chicken piri piri, but nicer than any of either of those I've ever had. Sort of like a Nando's lorry and a Kentucky Fried Chicken lorry crashing into an Indian restaurant, but better than you'd imagine.

Chicken lollipops

Chilli okra fries: in Mumbai batter apparently. This was the poorest dish.  It had decent flavours but the okra were dried out, rubbery and very chewy.  This was the only thing we couldn't finish.  We pointed out they were a bit rubbish, but on reflection we should simply have sent them back.

Chilli okra fries

Chicken kati roll was a roomali roll filled with good tandoori chicken pieces, fresh spinach and red onions.  Good, but a poor relation of the tava roll that came next.  This kati roll was almost too packed with chicken, making it a bit monotonous to eat. Reasonably tasty, but it really needed some chutney or yoghurt within the roll to add moisture: the dressing provided on the side, didn't quite do that.

Kati roll

The tava roll didn't need anything else though: excellent juicy, spicy lamb kofte wrapped in a butter basted roti strip.
Tava roll

inside of the tava roll
Indian restaurants don't normally do desserts.  I thought Mughli was the same, and when some kulfi lollipops were offered, I assumed that was that.  But I see from other reports of meals at Mughli there may be a bit of a dessert offering, which - given what I had - it might be worth leaving room for.

Kulfi on a stick (chai flavoured kulfi, I think)
Back home where I live, all the Indian restaurants are strictly moslem, with no alcohol (not even BYO) allowed.  So a particular note for the cocktail list at Mughli.  Some really interesting, and extremely delicious cocktails, including a number of non-alcoholic versions for drivers.  I liked the watermelon lemonade mocktail, but commented that it felt a bit sweet.  When I ordered another, it was adjusted to be less sweet. That's good service. A delicious drink, with some ginger adding a hint of fire.  I must try engineer being able to try the alcoholic version (with gin) some time.  I had a quick taste of a Goan Martini (lychee, guava, vodka, lime) which was extremely delicious: you could so easily find yourself on the fifth or sixth one of those!

Mughli on Urbanspoon