MODERN British is hard to get right. But head chef and restaurant owner William Mills seems to have finally found his feet at The Rose Garden with his most confident cooking to date. A year on from an indifferent review by restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin in The Guardian there’s now less muddle through self-conscious complexity. The kitchen is on a roll.
Between us we’ve eaten here together many times, but this is the first I’ve come away meaning to return.
I’m dining with Gordo and he starts with the ‘3-way mackerel’ (£7.50 - main picture above). A Nordic-inspired rollmop comes with a portion of classic pâté and beetroot-cured fillet. With melba crisp on the side, it’s both skillful and restrained. Mackerel is an everyday fish, the kind of thing, Gordo says, that he’d “never in a million years order”. But tonight it’s the dude at the Christmas party who’s scrubbed up better than you expected – a bit like the Fat One.
The Rose Garden
The menu’s full of dishes like ‘Hake! The Herald Angels’ (£18.95) and, my favourite, ‘Deer oh Deer’ (£20.95). This melange of gamey slabs, wrapped in an almost crisp pancetta, is particularly good in that proper, smelly pâtéish way. I love it. Bambi’s friends are a choice bunch too; a slow-braised venison and blueberry pie and a little pan of Madeira-drunk blueberries on the side. Who knew blueberries could be so good? The sweetness has gone skywards and they taste winterishly fresh, like skinned grapes, or slow cooked onions, bringing out sweet notes in the meat.
Gordo’s pink-cored baby partridge (£17.95) is a light yet festive affair. Its gentle gamey-ness is made special with a butter-boiled potato and unctuous William pears. A dusting of grass-green sprout leaves smartens up the plate - and the potato’s slightly solid core is the only stumbling block. Impressive stuff.
Nothing’s perfect, of course, and examples of the faffy old cooking style linger. Gordo describes the dried lavender flowers on my brulee as “dead flies”. They’re dead weight at any rate; neither attractive nor edible. I’m not sure anything has ever benefited from the addition of lavender, to be honest, except footbaths.
Another hiccup is pesto in the ‘Bloody Mary’ (£6.95) tomato and goats cheese starter. Tethering the palate to memories of cheap Italian restaurants and their tri-colour salads, it’s just kind of dull. The vodka-tipped tomatoes could have done something gourmet for once, but the moment’s lost in a wash of basil. It’s one of those where it sounds great on the menu.
Bloody 'Bloody Mary'
Drinks are a return to form.
The only rum in the house is obscure and Guyanese – points for being on-trend - while my Rose Garden Bellini whispers its artisan liquor heritage. The wine is a brickish Rioja from 2001 (Lopez de Heredia ‘Vina Tondonia’ Reserva) which Gordo insists on introducing to our waiter as his “new thing”.
For obvious reasons, I can’t face telling him that the rest of us got into it in 1993. It’s far from the only option, though, and one of the most expensive at £65. Others to look out for include British varietals from the Gusbourne and Biddenden estates in Kent – I’ve had the white Ortega before (£31.95), and it’s a Riesling–style charmer.
The guy who does most of the cooking is co-owner William Mills himself. He grew up around here, going to school in Manchester before learning the ropes in places like Ostara (remember that flash in the pan? It’s now the Beagle) and the restaurant formerly known as Rhubarb. But he’s not an albatross, as all this came before setting up the Rose Garden, with his brother Joe Mill (assistant manager) and Dad, the architect George Mills, who’s also the hand behind the rather avant design of the restaurant (and the designer of the big white Siemens building round the corner on Princess Parkway).
In fact, a new bar and more seating were fitted in October this year taking the capacity to around 80. The predominant colour is milk bar white, with a few primary colours thrown in; a stripe of lawn green here, an orange stool there.
Through the round window
If Zaha Hadid did nurseries, she’d probably come up with something like this.
I think Gordo finds it less alluring than me. I’m of the Yo Sushi generation, so it just looks a bit 1990s to me. Gordo, on the other hand, winces and groans about the stools, complaining that they’re all “arse-splitters”.
But in the end, we agree that The Rose Garden seems to have it together. Between us we’ve eaten here together many times, but this is the first I’ve come away meaning to return. The cooking, for the most part, all grown up and service is razor sharp, plus for some reason – lighting perhaps, or soft rock music – it just feels warmer, and more whole. Time to celebrate this peculiarly British family affair.
Follow Ruth on Twitter @RuthAllan
ALL SCORED CONFIDENTIAL REVIEWS ARE IMPARTIAL.
The Rose Garden, 218 Burton Rd, Manchester, Lancashire M20 2LW
0161 478 0747
Food: 7/10 (mackerel 8, tomato 5, venison 9, partridge 7, brulee 6.5)
PLEASE NOTE: Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing, 14-15 worth a trip, 16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20, we get carried away