Gordo revisits Living Ventures’ flagship restaurant to suss out the new team
Manchester House: designed as a top end restaurant, planned meticulously by the impeccable Living Ventures group. It was featured in 2014 BBC documentary Restaurant Wars, in which it was set against the revamped Midland Hotel restaurant, The French, which was reopening at the same time. Both had Michelin star-winning executive chefs, Aiden Byrne and Simon Rogan respectively, pitted against each other in a battle to see who would win the Michelin star for Manchester.
Gordo liked Manchester House for occasion dining; the theatre of walking out of the lift and being greeted by a couple of ladies who, in another time, could have been Bond girls.
It’s difficult when a good pal is showing off something he’s passionate about and you think it's going to be pants. It wasn’t.
Diners are lead along a short walkway, flanked either side by the patisserie and the open kitchen, full of a brigade quietly and confidently constructing culinary masterpieces. They are then decanted into a classy, light filled room; a mid-century Danish masterpiece with warmth.
The problem was that not all the culinary bits were masterpieces and that gravy served in a cow’s horn lost its charm after a bit.
Gordo left it alone for a year or so, apart from a brief civilian visit on Christmas eve with his pals, the Sharrocks and Rambo. It was a bad ‘un. The chef wasn’t ‘on the tools’, he had taken the day off. On Christmas Eve. Gordo’s grandfather, a butcher, would have cut his bollocks off.
It felt like the end of empire; a chef having given up. Howard, a lifelong observer of business spotted the ‘tell’ and predicted what would happen next; chef would be on his way. And so it was, a big shiny object arrived on the other side of the harbour and he jumped ship.
This left Nathaniel ‘Nat' Tofan, a tall, good looking Viking of a chef, previously the second in command, to step up to the plate.
Over the next few months the brigade got on with it. There were a lot of misfires. Nat was asked to do a press lunch to introduce his appointment as head chef. Too early, it turns out. It was awful.
Gordo kept quiet; chef Tofan, in the Fat One’s mind, needed some space and maybe he would blossom. Jeremy Roberts, gaffer of Living Ventures, is the man who made the decision to allow Nat the chance to show what he could do. It’s a good job this division of LV isn’t run by accountants. They would have closed it down.
Eight weeks ago, Gordo ate a lunch as Jeremy’s guest. As it went on, Gordo relaxed. It’s difficult when a good pal is showing off something he’s passionate about and you think it's going to be pants. It wasn’t.
Then, a few weeks later, Gordo did a walk-in on a hot Saturday lunchtime. Something had changed. Confidence was flowing again.
The menu looked similar, but the food wasn’t. Dish after dish arrived, opening their kimonos on Gordo’s tongue and making him smile. He was driving, so it was excellent chamomile tea by Tea Pigs for the Fat One.
Gordo chose the eight-course menu (£75), with a choice for the ‘main’ course of fish or ox cheek with ‘bread sauce’ gravy. He chose the ox. You can have twelve courses for £95. If you don’t want to blow that much on a meal, Nat also offers a lunch menu for an astonishing £24.50.
Bread and butter were good; the butter whipped, not normally a good thing, served with flakes of crispy chicken skin. Very good bread, too good actually. A foie gras mousse arrived as a thick disc, well flavoured. Gordo’s notes say ‘with eel’. Not sure about that now, it was sat on a crisp and eaten in two bites. The foie was tip top in texture, smooth and crisp, light creamy flavours, great start.
During that press launch chef got much criticism for the near-copy of Simon Rogan's ox with coal tar (turns out that was originally by Mark Birchall, Simon’s ex-head chef, now chef patron at Moor Hall, who admitted to nicking it from El Celler de Can Roca in Girona). Nat’s was nowhere near good enough. It was a strange one to even be on the playlist. This time, served in a taco, it has far more personality than before and benefits from Nat’s personality pushed into the mix.
A scallop came lightly cured and thickly sliced, just turning from translucent to white with lovely citrus-sweet notes from the sudachi ponzu and finger lime caviar, with pickled kohlrabi giving a touch of crunchy texture. Very, very good. It talks of a chef coming into his own.
Quail, billed as ‘an homage to the curry mile’ was cheeky, spicy, funky and great fun. The onion bhaji was enough to make a fat bastard happy for a week.
Notes for the following course, cauliflower and langoustine, read: ‘as good as the langoustine at Beaumanier’ - a 2-star Michelin in Provence where Fatty stayed for a couple of days in late May. The cauliflower needs a re-think; both flavour and texture bully the posh scampi.
A brilliantly British chunk of ox cheek cooked for years matched with bread sauce gravy didn’t disappoint. It was scattered with halves of tiny, sharp white onions working as ‘liveners’ and a blob of garlic cream in the middle.
Finishing with a class ‘lemon meringue’ pie, Gordo breathed a sigh of relief.
Nat and the team have, in this enthusiastic amateur’s mind, done it. They’ve pulled themselves together and are working it like the England team. Though, as with Southgate's boys, they’re not quite there yet (please don't ask if I am enjoying my lunch fourteen times. I’m liable to knock someone out on the seventh). But I'm convinced by this time next year this place will be back in the top two restaurants in Manchester.
It’s a blast, and they don’t need bouncers on the door obsessing over footwear.
A Gordo Go.
Manchester House, 18-22 Bridge Street, Spinningfields, Manchester M3 3BZ Tel: 0161 835 2557
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.
Bread and butter 8.5, Foie 8.5, Ox Taco 9, Scallops 10, Curry 9, Langoustine 8, Ox Cheek 9, Lemon pie 9, Coffee and petit fours 9.5
Great, but please stop asking if my meal is ok
A classy, light filled room