Despite opening back in 2013, there’s still a bit of a furore surrounding Manchester House, and indeed the entire restaurant scene in the city. After the infamous BBC series Restaurant Wars, Manchester found itself amidst a debate whether the city was truly ready for the full ‘fine dining’ experience (presupposing that the inhabitants have been surviving purely on McDonalds up till this point). Many dismissed the three-million-pound installation as a passing fad, with critics such as Jay Rayner deeming Manchester House as ‘maddeningly overbearing’. But even Rayner had to eventually concede that the food is spectacular, a notion which became very apparent when visiting this controversial eatery for myself.
Curated by founders Tim Bacon and Jeremy Roberts, and renowned Michelin chef Aiden Byrne, hopes were high to finally nab Manchester that ever-elusive Michelin Star. But perhaps in a case of style over substance, Manchester House at first adopted a rather theatrical approach to its menu, featuring dry ice and ‘sensory experiences’ that somewhat detracted from the quality and cooking of its ingredients. It was therefore pleasantly surprising to see that Byrne had finally toned down the gimmicks, instead focusing on what he does best- creating precise, bold dishes that are tasty and intriguing in equal measure.
When entering the restaurant, it’s not difficult to work out why Manchester House cost so much. Tastefully constructed interiors with an industrial edge, teamed with a vast, open plan kitchen (you can already see Byrne lurking by the pass) give a certain aesthetic charm. Whilst certainly impressive, especially the generous table spacing, I began to wonder whether it was all completely necessary. Don’t get me wrong, ambiance plays a significant role when dining out . But I personally found that the restaurant staff, being such warm welcoming individuals, were far better at setting the tone of our meal than lavish decor.
Opting for the ten-course lunch time tasting menu, we were waited on by the lovely Marcus, who not only guided us through our courses, but was also happy to ensure my dietary requirements were catered for (I don’t eat anything from a pig you see). In my experience, few high- end restaurants were willing to adapt dishes for specific diners, with disdainful staff usually giving you the ‘this is the way the chef serves it’ explanation. Marcus carefully went through the entire tasting menu with me to pick out the parts of the dishes I couldn’t eat, and passed it onto the chefs. Definite brownie points for this.
For our starters, we were served a beautiful trio of elegant nibbles; baked potato soup with chicken skin, foie gras ballotine and apple, a squid ink cracker topped with ever-so delicate pickled squid, lemon sole and red pepper jelly, and scallop in sushi vinegar sitting on a bed of raw apple and green peppercorns. All cold starters, but nonetheless excellent. Highly recommended is the squid ink rice cracker, a truly magnificent piece both visually and gastronomically.
Next, a medley of haddock and mussels promptly arrived at our table, without lardons for myself. This was a meticulous plate that offered a perfect balance between taste and texture, serving as the ideal follow up to the seafood orientated starter. However, what superseded forced me to diverge from my culinary comfort zone. A cottage pie type affair of venison mince topped with celeriac, accompanied by liver parfait croute. Feeling apprehensive about both the venison and liver, I was therefore surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed the venison mince. Deep, rich and gamey, it was the standout dish of the menu. I sadly can’t say the same for the liver- I tried my best to like it, but I don’t think I’ll be eating it again.
Now onto the mains. First we were presented with delicate monkfish, accompanied by mushrooms, teeny tiny potatoes, shallots and some sort of watery sauce. While visually impressive, this dish was probably the low point of the menu- the texture of the monkfish was more of a rubbery consistency that was rather disappointing. The main courses were fortunately redeemed by a particularly exquisite piece of duck served with gin and juniper sauce, blackberries, barbequed kale and roasted turnip. The sauce packs a punch- in fact it almost knocks you over- but paired with the rest of the ingredients, there was a harmonious blend of flavours that proved a particularly memorable plate.
The desserts were probably the most consistent dishes. Bite sized carrot cake with jelly and vanilla parfait, a white and dark chocolate bomb with pumpkin, and several treats from the after-dinner trolley finally finished us off, and placed us in desperate need of a lie down. Each plate also seemed to take an eternity to arrive, slowing the pace of the menu down considerably. Although this may have been due to our lethargic state at this point of the meal.
Overall, the food at Manchester House is unquestionably delicious. Yet there’s aspects of the experience that do let it down slightly. It’s tucked away in tower block on the edge of Spinningfields, with several other businesses operating within the same building. You’re packed off into a lift with hordes of office workers, and spend a good ten minutes visiting every other floor but your own. Logistically, it’s a bit of joke just to make it to the restaurant. With only one lift working during our visit, we were whisked off to the stunning top floor bar, but found it particularly irksome to travel all the way back down to the second floor where the actual restaurant is located. Why all the needless toing and froing?
This also became a bit of an obstacle when ordering drinks, as we had to wait quite a while for our gins to be prepared at the top floor bar and transported to our table. We had waited over twenty minutes for these drinks to arrive, by which time we had ploughed through another two plates. I do feel like I’m nit-picking here though, as we did receive an apology and our drinks for free. And free gin is probably the best way to appease me.
For a first visit, it’s fair to say that Manchester House has definitely impressed me. The restaurant does its best to give a quality fine dining experience for this working-class city, but at times dishes can feel slightly untested or experimental. Most of the dishes served were fantastic, but a couple here and there didn’t quite manage to balance its complicated flavours. Whilst adding a certain excitement to the meal, it’s not completely necessary to rotate the menu so quickly. Stick to solid, tasty plates of food and the Michelin star might finally make an appearance for Manchester House. Some glimmers of outstanding cooking, combined with quality service and aesthetic interiors, it can’t fail to please. Unless your name is Jay Rayner.