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Monday, 30 September 2013

Manchester House: Living Ventures Bring Aiden Byrne to Manchester Spinningfields

Now, in the six years I've been writing this blog, I've acquired something of a reputation for being pretty quick off the mark to get things written up and onto the site. Some kindly souls attribute this to a fierce sense of efficiency or - amongst the particularly naive - sheer professionalism, rather than the simple fact that if you eat as much as I do, you need to write it up virtually instantly before another ten meals or so cloud your memory. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that it is now nearly a week since I ate at Manchester House, the new Living Ventures showpiece which has set up shop in Manchester's Spinningfields with Aiden Byrne at the helm - the longest gap between eating and writing I can ever remember. So, after six days of pondering, this is what I made of it all.

First things first: from the outside, the venue doesn't look that promising - a nondescript office block perched on the edge of Spinningfields. We were greeted by two ladies in the foyer - the first of about a million (charming) staff we encountered during the course of the evening - and ushered into a lift that took us up to the twelfth floor bar. Here we each ordered a Smokey Old Fashioned - Woodford reserve bourbon with maple syrup and Jerry Thomas bitters, smoked with oak chips and served in its own mystical, smoke-filled bottle. The idea is, of course, to leave the bottle as long as possible for maximum smoky flavour; I managed roughly twelve seconds before I could resist no longer, but this was still one of the finest and most interesting Old Fashioneds I've ever had. The views from the bar are stunning, and on such a balmy night we took advantage of one of the lavishly appointed smoking rooms that line each outer wall of the bar: the roof was open and the leather seating far, far too the point it was almost an imposition to be told our table was ready and be taken back down to the second floor restaurant.

There have been one or two slightly negative comments that the restaurant is a bit "Living Ventures" - whatever that means - but we very much liked the open nature of the kitchen and indeed probably spent more time staring transfixed at Chef Byrne working than actually talking to each other. We ordered from the a la carte menu, but were first brought a complimentary pre-starter of pea butter served with brioche and a shot of chilled pea juice, a dish that has not pleased all of the food bloggers but which was exactly to my tastes. The butter was very rich but in a dainty enough portion to avoid being cloying, and the pea juice was a revelation - sweet and fresh, and probably something I can't easily recreate at home by whizzing up a bag of frozen legumes in my much-neglected salad spinner.

A very good start then, and a standard easily maintained by my starter - the already-famous dish of Squab pigeon with cherries, pistachio and violet mustard that Manchester Confidential so boldly declared their dish of the year at the recent press tasting. Nor was it hard to see why - the pigeon was moist and pink, and complemented by the rich pistachio cream and the sprinkling of dried cherry (which is actually applied at table by the gentleman who has just cooked the very dish for you), making the textures and flavours in this dish spot-on. And I'm sure you all know by now that one of the cherries turns out to be made of foie gras, which I'm delighted to now be able to class as one of my five-a-day. Meanwhile, across the table there was a pretty impressive smoke show going on with the Sea and Soil with Oxtail dish - a little garden housing a beetroot-infused oyster, a dinky doughnut filled with oxtail, and a dish of oxtail consommé. This was deemed not quite as exciting in terms of taste as the mighty pigeon dish, but was still excellent all the same.

For mains we went meaty, and shared the Belted Galloway Rib-eye steak and the fire-roasted lamb rack, pine stock and sheep’s cheese. The rib-eye was quite simply the best steak either of us had ever tasted and I can say no more about it than that, other than to offer the fairly low-brow comments that the portion was huge (as you would expect for £35) and the accompanying chips were delicious and caused some inelegant squabbling over their fair division. The lamb was served very simply, pink and pert on its own naked plate with just a trickle of jus, but with a dish of broth on the side in which I was excited to find a couple of lamb faggots and some balls of sheep's cheese. In fact, the mains were the very antithesis of the starters, in which a fair amount of culinary showing off was involved - these were deceptive in their simplicity, allowing the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the chef to take centre stage.

Finally, to dessert. The cheese selection was entirely personalised - we went for a combination of goat's and sheep's cheeses - and we also shared the Szechuan, lychee and rose dessert, which was helpfully brought in two separate dishes to accommodate my friend's need to avoid dairy. Once again, real thought had gone into combining flavours and textures here, although the need to divide up the dairy and non-dairy elements meant that the full dish would be far more impressive than you see here. We stopped for a pretentious, fan-girl type chat with Aiden on our way out and he couldn't have been more charming, telling us that the reason for the rib-eye's astonishing flavour and texture is due to the Big Green Egg on which he cooks them - I've been campaigning for one of these ever since I first saw them at The Artisan Meat Company in Mottram, and now I've got real evidence that I actually NEED one, just as soon as I can raise the thousand or so pounds they cost.

I do have a couple of negatives. Firstly, the tables are too big and the lighting too bright - whilst no-one wants to be cramped for room on a tiny table, when a table gets so wide you have to lean right across it to talk to your friend and get slightly dazzled by the lights hanging over your head, it does become problematic (and let's face it, also makes swiping other people's food from across the table far more difficult). The other issue is a more serious one: the cost. As should be pretty clear from what I've written above, I have no issues with the quality of the food here, but questions have been raised whether a meal at Manchester House is really worth it, with the tasting menu coming in at £95 per head before any drinks or service have been added. Two days after eating at Manchester House, I went to Mr Cooper's House & Garden, the more casual Rogan outpost at The Midland - and whilst I understand that the two operations are pitched at completely different levels and price points, the lamb dish I had there was in its own way just as enjoyable as the one I had at Manchester House and cost an awful lot less at £15. The verdict then? Yes, a really enjoyable night and a pleasure to be cooked for so attentively by such a great chef - but maybe save it for a special occasion.

- Manchester House is located in Tower 12, 18-22 Bridge Street, Spinningfields, Manchester, M3 3BZ; tel. 0161 835 2557. We paid for our own drinks (a very good Brazilian red at £39) but were not asked to pay for our food.

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