Jonathan Schofield still adores the place but feels the menu needs balance
I RECENTLY gatecrashed Confidential's flashmob review of Adam Reid at The French. In the formally demure Midland Hotel venue Deanna Thomas, Gordo and David Blake with photographer Georgie were turning the air blue with innuendo, smut and giddy delight at the change in food, style and mood. The sainted Simon Rogan had fled, Adam Reid was in charge.
Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit was playing in the background followed by the Smiths' Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now. These rebellious bowel-blasts of eighties and nineties angst were subtlely muted so - weirdly - they didn't interfere with the innuendo, smut and giddy delight. Indeed, they added to the occasion.
At bloody last I thought, all that country house hotel stuffiness has been blown away. On my last review of The French in 2015 I wrote, 'I want fine dining to learn joy not carry an atmosphere of reverance. I'm just here for a meal with good company, not a religious experience.'
That's why under Rogan's tenure I always preferred Mr Cooper's House and Garden. The food and service were excellent and the decor was mad and amusing. It was relaxed too.
After dining at Mr Cooper's last week I can say that under chef Rob Taylor all, more or less, is as it should be. The decor, progressing as it does from the 'house' (drawing room and study) to the 'garden' (pergola and trellises) front to rear is as mad as ever. The staff are amiable and efficient which is just fine by me.
If there were a problem it was the starters were so outstanding they put the mains to the sword and cast a shadow over the pudding.
Nine out of tens all round for the Jerusalem artichoke soup with Winchester cheese (set lunch menu, 3 course, £20, pictured above), the venison tartare and confit egg yolk (£12.50, above) and the charred mackerel with horseradish veloute (£8). All three dishes displayed an admirable balancing of flavour.
I wanted three cheers for the way the smoky cheese conducted a perfect jig with that dusky artichoke flavour and then slow-danced to perfection with the trompete mushroom. The dish was so earthy you could have ploughed it. I adored how my venison was sweetened by the egg, then put in its place by yet more artichoke and by a cardomom oil that was powerful without being a bully. Meanwhile the gorgeous looks of the charred mackerel belied its inner toughness and came in a liquid mix of great subtlety with kicks of horseradish, leeks, apple and beetroot.
Sourdough and whipped butter (£3.50) with all this was top notch too.
The mains were lesser in punch and subtlety. Listen, they were good just not as balanced and nuanced.
The plaice fillet (£18) and the sea bream (set lunch menu, 3 course, £20, pictured below) summed this up. While the backing acts of fennel, potatoes, aubergine and so on plus, apparently, miso bread in the former and the mussels, spuds and saffron in the latter pleaded for attention, the flesh of the fish in both dishes faded to incoherence. This can always be a problem with white fish but here their flavours were crowded out by undoubtedly artful but overwhelming companions.
The lamb rump was better (£20.50); substantial and filling but with flair. There were good combinations of rugged flavours with gentler elements. The flesh itself was outstanding. The turnips were unexpected but welcome and the cracked wheat a good soak-up for the gravy.
With the puds, the pick was the best looking: rosemary brulee (£8, below) with rhubarb, bits of meringue and orange. Marvellously over the top this one with big bursts of rosemary. My entertaining looking blackcurrant jelly (£7.50) and gingerbread with sweet cheese ice cream and apple in a glass was cunningly contrived but so very bitter to taste that really it shouldn't have been on a dessert menu. The vanilla rice pudding (set lunch menu, 3 course, £20) with mango, passion fruit and hazelnut would have been fine but woah!.. that mango was so dominant it shook a fist at the other flavours.
I don't want to give the impression Mr Cooper's doesn't provide a grand experience, because it does. However, with the items we ate there was an imbalance. The starters were so exceptional they put the rest of the meal in the shade, particularly the fish mains. Greater care needs to be taken there.
The bill can add up too, so if going for the first time then the set lunch is a great intro into Mr Cooper's. Fishy and mango doubts aside I'll certainly be back for the food. Also for the drinks. The bar provides excellent wines, spirits and cocktails and is one of my favourite post-work boltholes.
What is comforting is that after all the fandango surrounding Michelin-starred Simon Rogan's arrival into the Midland Hotel in 2013, his fairly swift departure has not meant a decline in standards. Indeed in The French, the whole experience has been enhanced, while Mr Cooper's remains consistent. The Midland Hotel, the grand old dame of Manchester accommodation, is still leading the other hotels in food and drink provision.
Mr Cooper's House and Garden, The Midland Hotel, Peter Street, City centre, M60 2DS. Tel: 0161 236 3333
bread 7.5, venison 9, mackerel 9, artichoke soup 9, place fillet 7, lamb rump 8, seabream 7, brulee 8, blackcurrant jelly 7, rice pudding and mango 7)
Mad and amusing