Gordo strives to get over his big issue with small plates
Someone once said to me, “If you see a bandwagon coming around the corner, you’re too late.” The bandwagon I’m now writing about is full of ‘small plates’ and it could be said it trundled past my door and disappeared round the corner a while ago.
Yet more and more restaurants are offering them.
The thing with small plates is they must be absolutely stunning in and of themselves, whilst dancing well together.
Simon Wood, chef patron of Wood, a popular restaurant opposite Manchester’s HOME complex, is self-taught. Previously a data analyst, he won MasterChef back in 2015 and then opened the restaurant in 2017 and did well with it. Post pandemic he made two interesting changes. He has a section offering dinner based on an expertly curated stable of cheeses, called ‘Homage to Fromage.’ The Confidentials review by Jonathan Schofield a couple of months ago spoke well of it. I agreed with him.
The second innovation was to pivot away from the tasting menus he started out with (rather well in my opinion) to, yes, you guessed it, small plates. Otherwise known as SFPs (Small Fucking Plates).
My personal take on small plates is that they are overdone over here. I’m bloody desperate for a plate (with wine pairing) of smoked wild Scottish salmon (Montrachet '10) a rack of salt marsh lamb (pink) with green beans and dauphinoise (Château Ducru-Beaucaillou ’96) and erm, well…Îles flottantes (Château Rieussec ’96). Yes. That’s it.
I’m a man of simple tastes.
The thing with small plates is they must be absolutely stunning in and of themselves, whilst dancing well together; a chef needs the skills of Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé. Otherwise, they finish up, like the first result of an eight-year-old’s chemistry set, a brown smelly mess.
The stunning ones are few and far between. But in Manchester we are blessed with teams who have succeeded. Will’s lot at Erst, the wonderful Justin and Max at Another Hand, Climat’s Luke Richardson and let’s not forget the three wise men at Higher Ground. I’d back any of these teams against the new wave bubbling away in Paris.
Can Simon and his team bring it off over in Wood?
Service, by Mary and Enzo, is friendly and on the ball. It turns out that Mary hails from Rochdale, where our Jonathan Schofield grew up. They spent a few minutes going on with themselves and irritating me, but it did give me time to figure out the menu.
Or try to.
That figuring takes a little time. It starts with breads; milk bread and the good butter (£8) chosen by me. It arrives as a small loaf, glazed on top with a tranche of, yes, good butter on the side. The loaf, which I pull apart with my fingers, is fresh out of the oven, warm and blousy - it’s giving off farmhouse kitchen vibes as if it’s trying to sell a house. You can choose from three different patés with their own bloomer breads on this part of the menu.
Then there is a section of nine small plates. You can, according to the instruction manual, “enjoy to start, to share or to have on the side”. We had already been given a complimentary dish of chicken and sweetbreads, ‘rich sticky glazed lamb sweetbreads with corn, crispy chicken and thyme’, Simon delivering them himself.
Jonathan chose the Rag Pudding; ‘a deep-fried suet bun filled with succulent braised beef alongside blue pepe nasturtium’(£12). Simon says it was invented in Oldham, Jonathan was disagreeing with him, saying it was from Rochdale. For you guys out there who don’t know, the two towns are neighbours, and as I’m from down the road in Salford I don’t particularly give a shit. It was very good. Jonathan sent me a note on the pudding:
"The rag pudding (£12) comes in a traditional suet casing filled with rich beef brisket and brightened by ‘blue pepper nasturtium’. Yep, flowers. Simon loves his culinary blossoms. These deliver a green-tinged collation which adds a colourful peppery addition to the dish.
It’s an interesting and brave decision to fry the rag pudding which is not traditionally the method of cooking in Rochdale or Oldham. The frying hardens the shell which is usually soft and yielding prepared in muslin."
Now you know folks.
My hand dived scallop (£16) came on the shell, described as ‘sashimi’. It was more ceviche to my mind, served raw bathed in a powerful tomato ponzu, yuzu sake and mirasol chilli pepper. I’m sure the scallop started out as being a right little darling but frankly the bath it got was heavy handed. The scallop got lost.
I had decided that we would deal with Simon’s ‘unique style of dining’ by choosing from the menu as starters and mains, so on we went to the mains, or ‘large plates.’ Three of the small dishes were taken with the two mains. Artichoke, garlic and parsley in a split lemon chervil cream (£18); the artichoke hadn’t been cooked. It was crispy. I’m wary of artichokes at the best of times, these were clearly a mistake in the kitchen. At least I wasn’t farting all the way home on the tram.
The peas, lettuce and sea veg (£8) baffled me. To this day I’m not clear what had happened with this dish. There was something acidicly Asian in the mix that overwhelmed everything. The deep fried pommes anna (£9), a dish spreading across the city like good news on a gloomy day, were great, if a bit light on the salt. There was a well matched and lush aioli for dipping.
We didn’t have any of the ‘extras’. I am totally unclear why I would order any of these, if only from the point of view of where to insert them into the meal. Meat Sauce? Vegetable Demi-Glace? Pommery Mustard? All at six quid? Me, I’m baffled with this lot I’m afraid. Not a clue. I can’t see one dish that needed them.
The plaice fillets (£32) were beautifully prepared and cooked with a sauce that pointed towards an understanding of Escoffier techniques. Flesh just giving, coddled in a reduction of fish stock, white wine and cream, seasoned with caviar, this wouldn’t have been out of place during the Sharrow Bay’s heyday.
A whole poussin (£30) with sticky glazed wings, whole roast crown and chicken fat brioche bread sauce completely missed the mark. The crown (breasts) was cruelly overcooked and lacked flavour. The deep-fried wings had so many ingredients it could have been any protein with a delicate bone stuck through it and the legs, again, overcooked and overpowered.
Pudding was Caramel and koji (£12). A tarte of kinds, filled with a caramel sauce of near-Turkish delight consistency. It was joined by a pleasantly peculiar ice cream. You need to be on form to figure this one, I’m afraid it was beyond me.
The common problem in Simon’s current cooking is the overkill of ingredients, many unrecognisable in the bar-room brawl that takes place in many dishes. Coco Chanel advised ladies, before leaving the house, to look in the mirror and remove one garment. In this case, many dishes need to do a full strip.
The wine list is one of the best in Manchester. I had a glass of the Taisne Ricour (£13), a good champagne from a family grower I know little about but I’m going to do my research. It appears fairly priced and full of digestive biscuits and bubbles.
All in all, I think Simon needs to step back and take another look at this offering. He and his team are great cooks, but I came away confused.
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, and ALWAYS paid for by Confidentials.com and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
If you want to see the receipt as proof this magazine paid for the meal then a copy will be available upon request.
Venues are rated against the best examples of their type. What we mean by this is a restaurant which aspires to be fine dining is measured against other fine dining restaurants, a mid-range restaurant against other mid-range restaurants, a pizzeria against other pizzerias, a teashop against other teashops, a KFC against the contents of your bin. You get the message.
Given the above, this is how we score: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: sigh and shake your head, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: nothing's that good is it?
Milk Roll 9, Orkney Scallop 5, Rag Pudding 7, Poussin 5, Plaice 8, Pommes Anna 8, Peas 4, Caramel Koji 5