As someone born in the 1970s, and brought up in the 1980s by a father with a heartfelt love of great British comedy, I understandably grew up with a pretty clear idea of what a hotel restaurant should be like: a plain, functional, beige sort of room, largely populated by confused German people and staffed by a small Spanish man (look, I was young - it took me a LONG TIME to accept that Andrew Sachs was not, in fact, of Mediterranean descent) and a tall, shouty man with a silly walk. My first actual visit to a hotel restaurant as a teenager, in the company of my parents and some of their friends, did nothing to dispel my illusions: the men were all wearing tweed jackets, and we were served melon balls, some of which were dropped into a man's lap by a nervous waiter with comic timing that even John Cleese would have envied.
It has therefore been one of the greatest discoveries of my adult life that, actually, hotel restaurants can be gloriously glamorous affairs, with talented chefs turning out memorable dishes and attractive young staff competently topping up your wine glass without spilling so much as a drop. And it turns out that Opus One, the on-site restaurant at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Manchester Hotel, is just such a place; situated in the Free Trade Hall just off Deansgate, I must have walked past it hundreds of times before, entirely ignorant of the treasures lurking behind its elegant facade. The occasion of our inaugural visit was to sample the new summer menu created by Head Chef Neil Armstrong: the restaurant, although busy at weekends, is currently relatively quiet during the early part of the week, and they are keen to spread the word that Opus One is a desirable destination in its own right.
And true to form, I pretty much desired everything on the commendably short menu. Here's what we had:
Appetiser: watermelon gazpacho with roof terrace mint. This arrived unbidden, a fresh burst of flavour in a dinky shot glass, crowned with mint grown in the restaurant's own roof terrace garden. I do like the idea that in the midst of the dirty, crowded city a brave gaggle of plants and herbs are gamely pushing their heads above the parapet (although to be fair, even I can grow mint - I think it's because the giant slugs who patrol my garden are not partial to it).
Starters: the starters are always my favourite section of any menu, and I was particularly impressed with the selection of interesting dishes available. In the end, I went with the hand dived scallops served with a broth of crab, sweet corn & scallions whilst Mr Liz chose the layered duck & foie gras pancake with crispy duck skin & stornaway Aioli. Neither of these was a cheap option (in fact, mine was comfortably the most expensive starter on the menu at £10.75), but this is clearly a place that believes in offering value for money through generous portion sizes. These were the largest scallops I'd ever had - three plump fellows cooked to perfection with a slight sticky crustiness on the outside and a melt-in-the-mouth texture on the inside, and the accompanying broth was a revelation: a deceptively dense soup packed with the rich, buttery flavour of a healthy amount of crab meat. Mr Liz was also beyond pleased with what could only be described as a wedge of pie made from pancakes, layered up with the gamey flavours of duck and foie gras and satisfying enough to make him regret the second bread roll he later admitted to secretly eating while I was in the loo. Both starters were extremely rich - this is not the place to go if you're on any kind of diet, and even I felt that the garlic mayonnaise served with the pancakes, delicious though it was, went a step overboard in adding another unctuous texture to what was already a highly luxurious dish.
Mains: the menu offers four meat, three fish and two vegetarian mains, and I could happily have eaten any one of them. My dish of choice was the Cheshire beef fillet served with Cumbria & ham fritter & potato puree cannelloni, whilst Mr Liz plumped for the barrel of Cheshire lamb gremolata with neck hot pot & Appleby’s rarebit fondant. My steak was excellent - a fat parcel of tender meat cooked perfectly pink as requested and served with some interesting accompaniments including a superlative mashed potato and a dinky little cannelloni (of which I could easily have eaten about thirty, not least because this would have removed the worry about whether the singular of "cannelloni" is indeed "cannelloni"). Mr Liz's main was perhaps even better, with the mini lamb hot pot proving the star of the show, its intense savoury flavours providing a welcome contrast to the comforting succulence of the sliced lamb alongside. There's a lot going on with both these dishes, but for us the variety on the plate was one of the strengths here, with every component thoughtfully chosen to complement the others...I could have eaten more mashed potato but then, to be fair, I can ALWAYS eat more mashed potato.
Desserts: obviously, I wouldn't normally have pudding, but such is my devotion to bringing you a thorough review that I bit the bullet and had a bit of everything. There are four desserts on the menu: Mr Liz, a proud Northerner through-and-through, chose the Taste of Manchester iced Vimto parfait, with Manchester Tart, warm Eccles Cakes, clotted cream & a Manchester Smoothie. That left three puddings vying jealously to be the chosen one; ever-mindful of equality for all, I asked nicely and was rewarded with an exciting hybrid, a kind of highlights package: the rhubarb fool and rhubarb crumble brulee from the Textures of Rhubarb dish (this is the one I would go for next time) along with Morgan’s Rum soaked baby pineapple and a marbled iced chocolate parfait served with a dinky skewer of flamed cognac marshmallows. And yes, I AM greedy, but you KNOW you would have also licked the plate clean if presented with such an embarrassment of riches. Mr Liz pronounced his dish a triumph, with the world's cutest Eccles Cake particularly tickling his fancy (and indeed providing me with much amusement as I watched a large man attempt to eat a cake the size of a pixie in a delicate manner).
Any downsides? Well, not with the food, no, which was uniformly excellent; nor with the service, which was relaxed, friendly and efficient. There is a slight whiff of the old-fashioned about Opus One though which is at odds with the high standards they have obviously set for themselves: the red lighting, for example, which you may have noticed has stained my normally immaculate photographic offerings a flattering shade of brothel. The presentation of my main was also a little 90s - I don't really care for food served on boards, and I won't even say what an esteemed friend calls the technique of presenting food in a smear (although the phrase she uses pairs "smear" with another word beginning with "s", no doubt for the pleasing sense of sibilance thus created). Similarly, my splendid scallops were presented marching across an expanse of slate towards a dolly-sized copper saucepan containing the broth; really, I like my food served on a PLATE, and the fact that the spoon provided was too big to get to the bottom of the pan meant I had to slurp the dregs in a most unladylike fashion when no-one was looking. These are minor quibbles though, and I will reserve judgement on the decor as the restaurant is closed for the next week for a refurb - apparently there are plans for a new cocktail and champagne bar. But don't worry - they promise that these two are staying; I'm hoping the handsome one on the right is going to buy me a drink next time. Opus One is a welcome discovery for me, and I will certainly be back.