Review: The French, Manchester

I HAD AN unwelcome feeling in my head that this was going to be one of those meals you build up to the high heavens, only to see it tumble down to earth with a big fat bump that makes you regret making the booking in the first place.  However, this is Simon Rogan’s joint, and it was my cynicism that I was soon to be the regretting.

The French is found nestled on the ground floor of The Midland Hotel in Manchester, and has essentially been charged with bringing a Michelin star back to the area – its first since the now Edinburgh-based chef, Paul Kitchin, vacated his former restaurant in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, back in 2008.

Sarah and I watched the BBC Restaurant Wars documentary with much interest.  Two British heavyweights in the form of Rogan (with head chef Adam Reid running the kitchen on a day-to-day basis) and Aiden Byrne (we visited Manchester House later), both have totally different styles, but share immense reputations and the same starry-eyed ambition.

The dining room at The French looked even more exquisite than it did on TV, in fact, almost like something from a fairy tale tinged with Rogan’s trademark Scandanavian furniture bringing a modern edge to this old lady.  You couldn't not admire the two globe chandeliers and the generous space given to each table.  It took me a while to convince myself a white linen tablecloth wouldn't have gone amiss, but I liked that in the end... this is the 21st century after all. 

The first thing I picked up on is the informal nature of the service, despite the grand setting suggesting a stuffier affair.  Waiting staff, lead by former L’Enclume maître d (Rogan’s two starred flagship eatery) Kamila Plonska, were chatty and attentive, giving the impression they fully believed in the quality of the experience and the L’Enclume philosophy.

We started with a complimentary glass of English sparkling wine, which was sublime and a real statement of British intent; a classy touch indeed. Opting for the six course taster menu (£59), our first course of celeriac with apple, rye, eel and lovage seemed to come in two parts, although I’m not sure that was intentional.  An oyster shell with a celeriac sort of cream placed to look like an oyster was perfectly seasoned, then came a delightful rye cracker with meaty chunks of smoked eel and a moussey substance that was in total harmony with the nutty cracker and smoky fish.

We selected a ridiculously good value Emiliana Riesling from Chile (£22) with the help of Kamila, which seamlessly took the baton on from that delicious English sparkling.  It's definitely a wine we’ll track down and buy.

Second plate was a proper delight:  Maran yolk with peas, beans, anise hyssop and broth of turnips. Maran is a breed of chicken hailing from the west of France, although I expect a British twist from Rogan somewhere.  It was sumptuous and just one of a millefeuille of flavours in this excellent dish.  The turnip broth was silky and earthy, the beans brought texture and freshness, and then came the yolky goodness topped off with an inspired note of aniseed.  Wow.

The next dish, Ox in coal oil with pumpkin seeds, kohlrabi and sunflower seed shoots, was probably the most anticipated and frequently talked about, although not always in a favourable sense.  But, it smashed it for me.  The meat was chunkier than a normal tartare, but this was anything but a normal tartare.  The Ox was rich, with the kohlabi bringing acidity and the seeds necessary crunch, the coal oil then comes into play and suddenly it erupted to taste like a barbeque dish.  Delightful.

At this point we had to pace ourselves as we had already devoured three little rolls each: one white, one brioche and, my favourite, a Manchester ale.  All so light I could have sent them across the room with one puff.  The slick service was also worth noting too, not just because of the professionalism of it, but because two of our young waiters were only 18 years of age.  Both were very clued up about not just this menu, but L’Enclume as well.  One of the pair (sorry lads, your names escape me) told me how he got the job after a successful work experience stint while studying hospitality at college and how he was proud to have gained a position at somewhere like The French.  Good on you kid.

That course would be hard to top I thought, but then again there was chicken skin in the next course. Accompanying that was caramelised cabbage with mussels, pickled mushrooms and arrow grass. The chicken skin was out of this world, but the mussels were even better.  I’ve never had mussels that tender as in all of my life; they literally melted on your tongue. The pickled mushrooms and cabbage worked in tandem to make sure this course was superbly balanced.  The dish also came paired with a little glass of sweet, fresh white wine, another class touch, which was exceptional, especially with the mussels.

So far so good… but to the next course we go: butter poached pollock with ox eye daisy spread, lobster, courgette and oxalis.  Little disappointed with this one, because the pollock was pretty bland and only just cooked, while the lobster was too rubbery for me.  The courgette flower was lovely but its bitter taste blitzed the flavour of the pollock in particular. Still, we ate it all. 

The penultimate course of Holker spring lamb, onion, blewits and sheep’s milk smelled amazing, and was a decent plate of grub.  I maybe would have liked another slice of the lamb, as one small slice seemed a little stingy, or perhaps I’m just being greedy as it was so delicious. I found the sweetbred component pleasing enough, but the batter could have been a tad crispier.  The onions provided a foil for the sweet lamb and sheep’s milk elements in what was a real master class in how to balance flavours and textures.

The dining room was full at this point, with a much younger clientele than I had imagined, but that’s encouraging to see as we came to dessert.  Cheshire rhubarb with chamomile, pineappleweed and gooseberry went down a treat: the pineapple came in meringue form and I enjoyed the sharpness of the gooseberries and rhubarb.  There was a little ginger bread crumble topping that just made the dish for me.  

As we polished off that sublime Riesling, our waiter brought as a post-dessert treat of Sarsaparilla, in the form of a little shot and a meringue with a parfait inside.  Outstanding little pudding and a fitting end to a super experience. 

This was a difficult to review because there was all sorts going on.  I’ve never eaten anywhere where the food had so many layers of flavour, all balanced with meticulous standards you’d expect from a Simon Rogan restaurant. The hospitality was first rate throughout and there was no hint of pretention to be found anywhere – credit to the team at this truly outstanding place.I have no doubts whatsoever that a star will shine brightly at this iconic hotel once again.  Different class. 

Follow: @ThefrenchSR

Opening times: Lunch: Weds- Sat 12-13.30
                       Dinner: Tues-Sat, 18:30- 2100