THE FRENCH by Simon Rogan still has that certain je ne sais quoi. It opened to fanfares, flotillas, floats and fandango in Spring 2013, the annus mirabilis* of recent food and drink in the city.
I just don't see why aspirational food has to be delivered in such a hushed, library-like environment.
The excitement in the city was captured a year later by the BBC in the patronising and asinine three-part series Restaurant Wars, featuring as the other combatant Manchester House. This fantasy media war was fought over which would get a Michelin gong first.
Of course, we all know how the story ended.
Both went on to win a Michelin star, followed by a second, the music welled, the credits rolled and life was good. People danced in the streets from Openshaw to Urmston.
Except, of course, neither won Michelin stars and somehow the buzz faded as the relentless Manchester food and drink story marched on. Bookings are still strong, we hear, at both The French and Manchester House but flexibility has been introduced to the standard tasting menus.
The French, for instance, now offers a four course taster menu with matching wines thrown in for £50. Gordo keeps on saying this is similar to Le Gavroche's menu in someplace called London that I believe lies to the south, but frankly I have no idea what he's talking about.
The menu starts with bread and butter that doesn't appear on the menu. The buttermilk bread and beer bread are outstanding and the butter - the light almost whipped cream of a butter - so blissful that a really cheeky person could snaffle these then make their apologies and leave saving the £50. Touchy tastebuds would already have been flattered into submission.
If you do hang around then the first listed item is the Westcombe cheese, a very nutty canape-sized morsel on a bed of kale that tasted remarkably similar to Chinese sea weed. There were three people dining and we had one each. This seemed a little mean. Two would have been been better. Good this course but not massively interesting, more of a really upmarket pub snack.
Kale and able
The artifice and craft in the venison course in kohlrabi parcels with broth, herbs and cresses was very apparent. It must have taken yonks to make, but sadly the venison was unidentifiable and the flavours blurred. Only a good spooning of the broth came up trumps.
A bit grey
The next course was a beauty; hake, spiced chicken wings, roasted cauliflower, 'chicken cream' and buckwheat. It was almost a species of Coronation Chicken but with added fish.
As our dining companion Thom Hetherington said, "The ultimate TV luxury would be a bowl of these chicken wings watching the footy." I think he said the footy. It could have been a reference to some dark Scandi murder yarn - darkness and terror is all the rage in Glossop, Hetherington's home town, click here. He was right though, the spiced chicken wings are moreish in the extreme. The whole thing was pure genius.
Wings of joy
As was the poached pear and quince with biscuity flavours thrown in and a wonderful slap of butterscotch (see main picture). The latter had me wandering down cheerful cul-de-sacs of childhood memory when summers were warm and the only thing to worry about was whether I had enough glue to make my new Airfix Mosquito light bomber.
Opinion was divided on the Uncle Joe's Mintballs chocolates we had as an extra. Again, exquisite craft in their production, but for me there's something very 19th-century soap factory about the classic Uncle Joe's mintball flavour. This beat up the delicacy of the chocolate. Gordo and Hetherington loved them though. Weirdos.
So yes, The French by Simon Rogan retains je ne said quoi, the food from Adam Reid's kitchen always looks beautiful and the professionalism of the staff can be of the highest standard.
Meanwhile Kamila, the manager, is charm and grace personified. Felipe the sommelier was service-perfection too, matching the food to the wine, as part of the £50 deal, with skill and smiles.
But one young chap delivered the bread when the three of us were in full conversation and said, "Could I interrupt and tell you about these?" We nodded like typically polite Brits (I don't think Gordo was feeling well) but we should have said, "No, bugger off and wait for us to have a natural break in the conversation and then come back."
That problem can be addressed in a moment but where The French has more serious issues is in the hushed, library-like environment. This is something the sister-restaurant in The Midland, Mr Cooper's House and Garden, avoids.
I just don't see why aspirational food has to be delivered in such an environment. Michelin aspirations seem to suck any sense of theatre out of restaurants, aside from the drama found in the food and drink. Restaurant dining, as we've stated before on these pages, is a complete experience; food, drink, service and atmosphere - it is more than just food and drink.
I have felt this same quietude on every visit to Michelin-starred places in the country house hotels of Great Britain, if not in London-based Michelin restaurants. Perhaps most customers are suffering toxic shock from the prices (although not with this £50 menu) and have lost the power of speech, but what is clear is it can all seem forced, artificial. 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.
*I realise in the first two sentences I used a French and a Latin expression. I apologise. No more foreignisms pour moi, finito, caput.
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commerical relationship.
Food: 8/10 (bread 10, kale 7, venison 6, chicken and hake 9, pear and quince 8, mintball chocolates 7)
Service: 4.5/5 (half a point deducted for the intrusive waiter in a restaurant that craves a star)