Over the last few years, there has been something of a trend (often, it has to be said, most clearly voiced by London-centric food writers) for criticising the Manchester restaurant scene. Not only do we have no Michelin stars, we also apparently lack anywhere even half decent to eat, no doubt leaving Southerners to imagine an ugly scene in which hollow-cheeked Mancunians queue wanly outside Greggs in order to fight over the last crumbs of a pasty or two, before stopping for a pint and some black pudding flavoured crisps on the way home.
I have a different issue with Manchester restaurants: I think they are just too good. Bearing in mind that there are only seven days in each week (and I am expected to spend a worrying proportion of at least five of these engaged in gainful employment) and only one size of jeans in the drawer, this leads to some difficult decisions over where to eat on a night out; decisions not helped when you discover ANOTHER restaurant turning out really classy food that you were previously unaware of. For me, the restaurant revelation of the week has been the 101 Brasserie, attached to the McDonald Townhouse Hotel on Portland Street; as a Manchester resident, hotels in the city centre barely even register with me, and Portland Street tends to be somewhere I hurry along, head down, lest I accidentally make eye contact with a Yates' Wine Lodge.
All that is set to change, however, with the discovery of this little gem on the corner of Princess Street. 101 Brasserie is a small, muted affair, tastefully (too tastefully?) decorated in the subdued colours and style that so many hotels go for in the hope of appealing to all tastes. What the environs lack in oomph though, the food delivers in spades: good, strong, gutsy flavours with a traditional slant to the dishes in terms of ingredients and presentation. Take Mr Liz's starter, for example (I did in fact try very hard to take it, but he defended it in staunch manner by building a wall of condiments around it and emitting an occasional growl) - his Free Range Eggs Benedict was a sturdy yet elegant dish generously piled with flavoursome crispy bacon and thick, creamy Hollandaise: it would make an excellent lunch dish if you're ever passing during the day. My Slow Cooked Yorkshire Duck Leg was a small pile of tender, gamey meat flaked and served with shallots and a touch of orange, and was a delight from first mouthful to last - it wasn't quite as generously portioned as the Eggs Benedict, but the staff were MOST forthcoming with a basket of excellent bread with which to mop up any last remaining morsels.
These starters were, for us, the highlight of the meal, but quality remained impressive with our mains. An Autumnal nip in the air meant that there was one clear choice on the menu for me: Highland Venison served with red cabbage, dumplings, sweet potato and juniper. The meat was tender, juicy and pink, and went well with the sweetness of the cabbage and the potato; my only (minor) grumble was that I would have liked a little more cabbage. However, a side order of buttered samphire more than made up for this small shortcoming - there was so much of it I even permitted Mr Liz an exploratory foray, although he was altogether distracted by his own side of proper, fluffy-on-the-inside, golden-crunchy-on-the-outside chips. These he scoffed alongside a 21 Day Matured Scottish Ribeye Steak, perfectly cooked and packed with flavour. We did find ourselves wondering whether the chef couldn't perhaps use some ingredients from closer to home; this may of course be out of his hands as part of a hotel chain, but it's a shame nevertheless, particularly as the standards of cooking are so high.
Pretty full by now, we had planned to share one dessert but ended up with two - I really fancied the Peanut Butter Parfait, whilst the staff all recommended the Warm Layer Cake with caramel parfait and poached pear. We enjoyed the cake - a dainty square of moist sponge alongside soft, sticky fruit - but preferred the peanut butter parfait: there's something about that combination of salty and sweet that does it for me every time (insert your own double entendre here if you must - personally the desserts were too classy for that if you ask me).
Service was cheery, friendly and enthusiastic - the staff are clearly proud of the food they are serving up, and are happy to discuss any of the menu items. Rather than follow the same dishes offered by the other McDonald hotels, at 101 Brasserie the chef has chosen to design his own menu, and this little streak of individuality shows: true, there is nothing here that would change the face of gastronomy, but there ARE plenty of things I would like to eat, over and over again. And that, to me, is worth a DOZEN of your Michelin stars.
- We were invited to try the brasserie and were not asked to pay for our meal. However, we were under no obligation to be nice, and our server was not aware that we were there to review. And we will definitely go again - value is good for city centre with starters around the £6.50 mark and mains all under £20.