We get excited about a regional, seasonal, tour-de-force of fine-dining
JAMES Martin Manchester quietly unveiled a brand new a la carte menu last month. Having eaten there this week, we're wondering why they aren't shouting about it a little more loudly.
It's a reticence in-tune with the restaurant itself. Yes, there's a big name celebrity chef on the massive billboard outside, but this is not an ostentatious venue. It's tucked away inside a casino, high up in the Great Northern Warehouse, and feels set apart from the bustle and life of the city centre below. It's not somewhere you'd go in passing, unless you were passing between the blackjack table and the roulette wheel.
Perhaps it's the disadvantages of the location that makes its chefs work so hard to provide something pretty damn special once you're seated inside. There are few things more soulless than a dead-eyed gambler. And there are few restaurants in Manchester that can create food as soulful, beautiful, and full of life as this.
We were miles away from the woods of rural England up here, but they felt a lot closer when we were eating this.
We began with a veloute featuring little cubes of celeriac and a spongy-soft blue cheese pastry. The soup-like sauce was a marble swirl of green lovage oil, olive oil and creamy cheese. It was stunning – first to look at and then to taste.
After the French influences of the veloute, the grilled hake planted us firmly back in the UK with its scattering of hazelnuts, discs of Granny Smith apples and a crumb made with chives and Lincolnshire Poacher cheese. We were miles away from the woods of rural England up here, but they felt a lot closer when we were eating this.
The Herdwick lamb main had a similar effect, this time transporting us to the upland fells of the Lake District where these native sheep are bred. The only time we've seen Herdwick on a menu before was in a tea room at a Herdwick farm in Borrowdale, so it was great to see this meat making its mark in the big city.
The rump was cooked sous-vide, giving it a tenderness you wouldn't expect from such a hardy breed. It was accompanied by a tiny roasted lamb rib, plus a suet pudding filled with confit of lamb shoulder, heart and livers. Not a dish for the soft-hearted perhaps, but at least we know nothing was wasted. And the accompaniments did it justice: there was a wonderful wild garlic and mint pesto, a mint yoghurt sauce, and baby turnips young and tender enough to be served raw. It was an impressive dish, and the highlight of a meal packed with show-stoppers.
We also had the duck (Goosnargh of course) served with blood orange, baby carrot and kohlrabi kimchi. We loved the bold umami flavours of the meat and jus, the uplifting hit of the carrot and orange puree, and the sharp kimchi cutting through the two.
The tranche of turbot was a more subtly flavoured main – smooth and elegant with its sweet shallot puree, Morecambe Bay shrimps, roasted cauliflower and baby leeks. Baby veggies kept popping up in this meal. Slender, tender and intensely flavoured, they really were the taste of spring.
Now the puddings. If we saw 'tonka bean and vanilla burnt cream' on a menu, we'd probably keep reading until we got to a more chocolatey option. It turned out to be an unexpected delight. Cooked gently in water, it was silky smooth and delicately flavoured – ideal after all those big-hitting mains.
The Yorkshire rhubarb that accompanied it tasted like an entirely different species to the rhubarb our Grandma used to grow in her back garden in Scarborough. It was sweeter, more mellow, and a gorgeous pinky colour. The difference is down to it being 'forced' rhubarb which means it's grown in complete darkness and harvested by candlelight. (Not something Grandma would have faffed about with – but then she'd probably never tasted rhubarb as good as this.)
The second dessert was a blood orange tarte – a kind of crème brulee with a burnt sugar crust and a wobbly custard with just a hint of orange. It was accompanied by a luscious Valrhona chocolate ice cream, which delivered a cocoa lift and then some.
The head chef here is Doug Crampton and we'd just like to give him a virtual round of applause. He worked with James Martin to devise this superb collection of dishes and he delivered them flawlessly when we visited. The new menu has been in place over a month now and they've obviously got it well bedded-in. Go and experience it. It's spectacular.