Gordo has a game of two halves in Manchester's most hyped (and highest) new restaurant
Two restaurants in one, 20 Stories is separated by a good-looking but dysfunctional round bar that serves as the sentinel to an outside terrace that looks like the swimming pool area of a five-star hotel in Dubai... minus the weather. You'll find it in the centre of Manchester, on the top floor of the new No.1 Spinningfields tower, nineteen stories up. It's called 20 Stories...
On the left of this beautifully appointed room is the ‘fine dining’ restaurant. To the right, the grill. Gordo has visited three times during the opening week, avoiding the pre-launch shenanigans which has, according to Gordo’s landlord, Mingle the Merciless, been 'very successful'. Mingle is slightly biased, as he owns that building as well.
The first visit was to the fine-dining area with Gordo’s daughter, Georgina. The second visit, the following day, was to the grill with one of Confidentials' in-house food writers, Deanna Thomas. Then, the following Monday, Gordo was back in the fine-dining restaurant, this time with Ruth Allen, another member of the Confidential reviewing team, and Editor-in-Chief, David Blake.
The purpose of that second visit to the fine-dining restaurant was to ensure that the Fat One hadn’t been tripping out during the first occasion.
So, ladies and gentlemen, you will today have two reviews in one; you get your money’s worth with Gordo. But did baldy get his money’s worth from this southern chain of venture capital botherers? Good, bad or a game of two halves?
Let’s crack on. Fine-dining. The menu is à la carte, nodding towards the current move away from complicated taster menus, which send Gordo into a coma after the sixth course. This is a good thing. Mind you, this looked a bit of a halfway house; definitely not The Ledbury (currently Gordo’s favourite restaurant in the UK), more of a Table D’Hote affair in a Hilton Hotel.
Having recently visited Paul Bocuse in Lyon, where Mr. Paul hasn’t wavered from starters, main and pudding for sixty years, it’s a welcome trend. Mind you, Mr. Paul - voted chef of the century by his peers - passed away, aged 91, the morning after Gordo’s birthday visit. You can take from that what you want.
The staff here were complete unknowns to Gordo, apart from the charming Becky Wilkes (ex-Manchester House and a total pro) this team were all new to the party. The journey from Latifa on the front desk to the table was special, friendly, with no “and how’s your day been” ultra-training bullshit. On the ball Mayfair. It’s a welcome that sets the mood. And a silky one to start.
Sat down, the sommelier arrived. Gordo thought he had landed in a Jean-Luc Godard movie; mid-twenties, slim, close-cut blond, tailored trousers and flats, this young woman wouldn’t look out of place walking through the front door of the Ritz in Paris. Coup de coeur for Gordo.
Meet Fabia, a wine elf who can out-elf Audrey Hepburn, who proceeded to astonish Gordo with her knowledge. “See Gordo," squealed Thom Hetherington, the professional chef-botherer, “I told you, she’s a star”. For once Thom, Gordo is totally with you.
Anyway, back to Earth. There are four starters on the menu. On the first evening the roast scallops with pearl barley and a Rioja distillation (£14.50) looked bland and tasted blander. They were under-seasoned and overcooked, which ruined what was going to be an ordinary dish at best. The Rioja was on holiday. The pigeon starter (£14) was described as ‘slimy’.
On the second visit, Ruth’s smoked foie gras with fig puree and violet mustard (£13.50) would have been one of the best dishes, but the foie gras had spent about fifteen seconds too long in the pan which, with foie gras, might as well be fifteen minutes too long. Gordo thought that smoking foie gras was a ridiculous thing to do in the first place. Thankfully, it appeared the kitchen had forgotten this stage in the process.
The broccoli, mussel and razor clam tart (£12.50) tasted unpleasant and was watery, with the pastry case falling apart and bleeding out over the plate.
The leek and truffle salad with confit egg was again an attempt at a delicate mix of flavours and textures that fought with each other; the leeks used were tough outer rings and slightly too burnt, turning the dish bitter. The egg was a poor imitation of a three-star Michelin dish at Azurmendi near Bilbao. It was just medium boiled, a state that drives Gordo mental at home when he’s trying to time his chuckies runny.
The bread, by the way, is nigh on perfect; Gordo thinks it may be from his favourite bakery, Pollen. The butter, whipped, under-seasoned with a consistency and taste of margarine was abysmal. Gordo asked for some normal butter. The kitchen refused. Churlish? Or is it all really margarine?
The bread board, by the way, had 'born and bread in Manchester' stamped on it. Gordo thinks not. Des, I’d burn them on that barbecue outside along with whoever came to you with the idea. While we’re at it, get that sodding mural on there as well. You know, the one with all the Mancunians on it headed up by Chef Byrne, the Scouser. Puzzled? Read Sleuth...
Anyways, the mains. More of the same. Wild turbot, peas, morels, wild garlic cepes (£32) was a great idea on paper, but the turbot was overcooked, the peas undercooked. Texel lamb, potato gnocchi, pine and chanterelles (£26) had world class jus with lamb that was once again cooked incorrectly. Overcooked.
Yorkshire Wolds duck, blackberry gin and kale (£24) came with foie gras the first time, duck heart the second. The foie gras on the first night was overcooked. This dish was boring, cooked correctly or not. Duck is all about the whole bit, if you are going to do a la carte-style, let’s get a breast, a leg, some suitable carbs on the plate. Visit the aforementioned Ledbury. At the moment the whole menu is starting to look lazy, like someone is just offering slightly beefed-up in size ‘modern British’ taster recipes. They aren’t working guys, it’s looking unimaginative, lazy in fact.
At this point, let’s check in with Gordo’s daughter, Georgina, who, from the age of eight, has eaten in more Michelin starred gaffs across Europe than any other Northern Monkey at her age. She was with the team that first evening.
“I was terribly disappointed. I wanted to book to take my fiancée for a treat. Not anymore. It was just not very good." Damning words.
You can order the steaks from the grill menu for your mains. Gordo’s advice is do just that, you’ll see what he means below...
There are three sides to order, each at £4. Why on earth would you expect to have to order sides as an extra outside of a grill menu? Pure stupidity, or greed. Or both. I’ll let you lot decide.
The puddings? They priced out at £7.50 to £8.50. The chocolate, peanut praline & caramel mouse, banana ice cream was good. The Manchester tart looked like “a wedding dessert” (not a compliment) opined Blakie. The toasted meringue seemed “based on a cold crumpet" with lazy cream on top, a soft fruit or two and that modern way with meringue, over-sweet cardboard. The Yoghurt parfait? “Nothing wrong with it; nowt right either…”
The staff, however, were incredible. Mattia, the aforementioned Fabia, and latterly Mauro, the chief sommelier, saved the day on both visits to the not-so-fine dining area. Let’s hope they’re not just here for the opening period. It must be said that the ambience, comfort and setting will be difficult to beat in the city.
Sandwiched in between these meals was a visit to the right-hand side of the room, ‘the grill’, on Friday lunchtime. The room is quite similar, no downgrading of furniture, comfort or looks. Then you meet the guys looking after this section. Diana. Oh my. Colin. Oh my. Gordo has never come across front of house as good as these guys outside of New York.
But Gordo was prepared for the worst with the food.
Reading the menu, it’s clear that someone was looking to out-Hawksmoor Hawksmoor. The menu reads beautifully. It’s talking the talk, but does it walk the walk?
Nibbles. Parmesan gougeres with truffle mousse (£4) - cracking. The mousse needs to be more mousse than cheese on toast, but fatty loved them. He wants a pint of man beer at the bar and these at 5pm every day. Nocellera olives (£3) were well chosen and lovely. Vegetable crudités with creamed blue cheese (£4) were little stars, Gordo could have licked the bowl.
Starters. The baked onion and thyme filo tart with balsamic shallots was getting there (£6); big flavour, fine ingredients treated well. Cured salmon salad, orange, fennel & beetroot (£6.50) looked fab and tasted better. This was a star.
The grill menu is a top three from the point of view of the ingredients. A young feller came over showing some of the cuts of the day. Apparently, he’s the in-house butcher. Gordo isn’t too sure whether he'd be able to do a boar with a boning knife at a particular unnamed slaughter house in Cheshire (a highly illegal rite of passage for a young and very startled Gordo forty years ago), but he seemed nice enough.
The meat looked the dogs though, through and through. Gordo shared the wing rib for two, 42 oz., cooked medium rare (£72). The third partner in crime had a fillet steak, 8 oz. (£32.50). This beef is exemplary. Dry-aged to 32 days, fed on, at a guess, high rainfall grass, it’s correctly cooked and well presented. In the case of the wing rib, cooked with its fat. A pure pleasure. Alston Bar and Beef and Hawksmoor have competition. Gordo wants to go and try the pork chop (£25). Just the words ‘Pork Chop’ are enough.
The sauces are great and not brewed up in a CPU (central processing unit) in a shed on Rainhill industrial estate. Béarnaise is £2.50 and bone marrow and shallots (lush) £4.
The desserts. The duck egg custard tart and roasted plums (£6.50) had a very soggy bottom. The filling was ordinary. Go have the one at Hispi and compare. You’ll get it. The pecan praline and pear choux bun (£6.50), however, was a fine winner, whilst the tarte tatin, for two, was only slightly behind the ones that Gordo has had at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Nutters. At £13, it was a genuine bargain. Mind you chef, if you’re trying to match Little Chef's vanilla ice cream, you’ve got that bang on.
The wine is very good, if a little young in places, but very London. Some great French stuff. A Gruaud Larose 2001 is drinking really well, but at £375, it’s suffering from an eye-watering mark-up policy. On the back of this tasting, Gordo has just ordered a case from his wine merchant, Berry Brothers and Rudd, at £75 a bottle. The English sparkling wine Nyetimber is your best bet for a champagne-like experience, at around £65. It drinks, in Gordo’s experience, better than Moet.
All in all, from the food perspective, this is a game of two halves. Chef Aiden Byrne, a previous winner of a Michelin star, seems to be showing his weakness now with fine dining, but his strengths with strong, chop-house style grill menus. His pub over in Lymm is brilliant and one of this writer’s favourite civilian experiences. If he’s going to persist in having a fine-dining area, he needs to visit The Ledbury and anywhere in Lyon to re-calibrate. If not, concentrate on a Guinea Grill style experience.
Though this place is going to be busy whatever happens. But let’s send the tourists away saying the food was as good as the view, eh, Des?
20 Stories, Spinningfields 1 Hardman Square, Manchester M3 3EB. Tel: 0161 204 3333.
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Food: 5/10 (Scallops 4, Pigeon 4, Foie gras 7, Clam Tart 1, Leeks 5, Bread 9, Butter 1, Turbot 5, Lamb 6, Duck 6, Chocolate 8, Manchester Tart 4, Toasted Marshmallow, 3, Yoghurt 5)
Ambience: 4.5/5 - spectacular setting
Service: 5/5 - pros
Food: 8/10 (Gougere 7, Cruditees 7, Olives 8, Onion Tarte 7, Cured Salmon 8, Wing Rib 9.5, Fillet 9, Tarte 8.5, Choux 8.5, Custard 6)
Ambience: 4.5/5 - again, spectacular
Service: 5/5 - they're stars