Some restaurants have the ability to retain a fond corner of your food-loving heart, even when you've not been there for a while. Such a restaurant is Room, housed in the imperious old Reform Club building at the top of Manchester's King Street - this was once a regular haunt for me, before my head was turned by the fancy new upstarts popping up in other parts of the city. And, to be honest, a couple of recent comments from fellow foodies on Twitter had suggested that maybe this dear old friend was not quite the place it was, and no longer hitting the dizzy food heights to which it once aspired.
Well, the new menu launches on August 14th, and judging by the tasting evening I attended on Tuesday to introduce some of the new dishes, Room's reputation is in safe hands. New chef James Wallis has kept with the Room tradition of taking familiar old classics and updating them with a modern twist, resulting in dishes that manage to be both comforting and interesting, as seen in the selection that follows. Do bear in mind that these were taster dishes and therefore might not exactly resemble what you'll get from the 14th (in a good way - yours will probably be BIGGER).
Starters: we were lucky enough to try three of the new starters: Pork & Apple (pig’s head with apple & vanilla puree, served with crispy ear), Gazpacho, and Rollmop herring served with beetroot & vodka pickle, horseradish, dill and candied walnuts. Of these three, the standout dish was the Gazpacho - much to my surprise, as I would never normally select a soup in a restaurant. Perhaps I just don't think of soup as a real food, or I associate it with the painfully healthy versions I make at home when the mud-encrusted specimens at the very bottom of the smug middle-class vegetable box begin to look at me accusingly. This, though, was perfect - sweet, tangy, well-seasoned; I would definitely order this again. The herring was within a whisker of being a knock-out dish, offering a stunning combination that just needed a little more kick (or, to use the technical gastro-terminology, "oomph") - my fellow diners and I agreed that a little more acidity in the fish and a bit more horseradish in the sauce would take this dish to a new dimension. The pressed pig's head was suitably tasty and the crispy ears were delicious (although I only got one piece, and wasn't quick enough to swipe any more from Mr Liz's plate); the sweetness of the puree also worked well with the salty chewiness of the pig. So far, so good.
Main: only one main was presented for our delectation, and on paper it looked a little wintery - a Lamb Hotpot dish consisting of braised shoulder hot pot, sweetbreads and sliced loin, served with confit potatoes, peas, and carrots in cumin. When it showed up, though, this was my favourite dish of the night - I know it's pretty commonplace in restaurants these days, but I still can't quite shake the childish pleasure of being served different cuts of the same animal all on one plate, feeling somehow that I'm getting several dinners for the price of one. Here, the elements all worked perfectly together - the freshness of the vegetables against the pinkly tender loin, the deliciously chewy sweetbreads and the intensely savoury flavour of the braised shoulder. Recommended.
Desserts: I'm not really a pudding person, but the experts at the table (including a pastry chef) proclaimed the duo of proferred desserts a real triumph and a high point of the meal. One enormous slate carried a strawberries and cream Eton Mess, paired with Chocolate & Milk – marquise, hazelnut, milk puree and ice cream, the former in particular showing Room at its wittiest and most creative, with its basil and strawberry quenelle and impossibly cute meringue batons. The chocolate marquise was a little on the rich side for me, but the fact that the aforementioned renowned pastry chef on my right polished off mine as well as her own speaks volumes of the quality here.
So, Room, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I abandoned you, with your beautiful staircase, your airy, high-ceilinged restaurant with its giant red lampshades (which, incidentally, was pretty much full on a Tuesday night) and your enticing half-price Champagne sale that runs till the end of September. Now I've rediscovered, you might just never get rid of me again...
- Room is at 81 King Street, Manchester, M2 4AH; tel +44(0)161 839 2005.