I always have the very best of intentions for Saturday mornings. Nominally, they are ear-marked for "general household duties": cleaning the bathroom, perhaps, or changing the bed sheets. What of course inevitably happens is that - like, I suspect, most of the population of Britain - I end up eating lots of toast and watching Saturday Kitchen in my pyjamas.
The popularity of said show amongst people who are meant to be elsewhere cleaning bathrooms goes some way to explaining the high level of interest in Saturday Kitchen's genial host James Martin coming to Manchester and taking over the old Linen restaurant within the 235 Casino. Now, I very much liked Linen, and always felt it was criminally underpopulated - perhaps as a result of people not knowing of its existence as a standalone restaurant not requiring casino membership. However, anyone who uses as much cream and butter in his cooking as James Martin immediately has my attention, and although the demands on his time mean he is not often at the Manchester restaurant, I was still pretty excited to see what delights the six course taster menu would bring.
What it actually brought was a mixed bag. From the six courses served up, I felt three were outstanding, one was good, one had good elements but was off-balance in its combination of ingredients, and one was almost inedible (I say almost - this is me we're talking about, after all). Here's what we had:
1. Cauliflower and truffle veloute, toasted rice. This arrived almost as soon as we'd sat down, and made a very pleasant - if uneventful - starter. The soup was perhaps a little overwhipped for my taste - I prefer a little more substance - but the flavours came through clearly and the accompanying basket of bread was generous.
2. 45 degree confit salmon, Yorkshire forced rhubarb, pickled mooli. Now, this one sounded pretty good - and it looked beautiful when it arrived at the table. The salmon was perfectly cooked - moist and slightly oily, just as it should be. However, this dish was wildly off-balance - the rhubarb added little to the salmon, and the pickled mooli was not sharp enough to cut through the rich sweetness of the dish. Even more ill-advisedly, the dainty white blobs you see here forming a circle around my salmon Stonehenge are vanilla mayonnaise - overly sweet, very cloying, and totally mismatched with the salmon. A shame.
3. Smoked cod cheeks, braised short rib, red wine tartare dressing. Another exciting-sounding combination - I am particularly fond of cod cheeks and was excited to see them on the menu. Unfortunately they were overcooked to the point of rubberiness, and virtually inedible due to their saltiness (and in fact my friend, being less greedy than me, did actually give up on theirs). When the waitress (who was otherwise charming) asked about our meal, we mentioned the saltiness - to which she cheerfully replied that people often said that, and that the short rib was very salty. It seems a little strange, then, to keep offering this combination in the face of such feedback - another disappointment.
4. Herdwick lamb, roasted rump, slow cooked belly, Jerusalem artichoke. This needed to be good - and it really was. Each lamb component was beautifully cooked, and was complemented by the rich, nutty pearl barley risotto on which the whole dish was balanced; I'm also a sucker for Jerusalem artichokes, and very much enjoyed them here both roasted and pureed. One small criticism was the lack of green vegetables thus far - I'm not saying I was expecting a trough of sprouts and cabbage (although I'll never say no), but so far the only bit of green we'd witnessed was a little samphire atop the cod cheeks - and even I know that when a vegetable is battered and deep-fried, it doesn't really count.
5. Yellison goat's curd, beetroot, anise poached pear. Whilst the previous course was excellent, this was simply extraordinary - one of the best combination of ingredients I have ever eaten. Beetroot has a natural, earthy sweetness, and serving it up with tangy goat's curd, soft spicy pears and a smattering of salty peanuts was nothing short of inspired. If I had a Michelin star in my handbag (I don't), I would pin it upon this dish in a heartbeat.
6. Dark chocolate, sable, yoghurt sorbet, pistachio. I'm not normally a fan of dark chocolate desserts, often finding them too heavy, rich and cloying. However, this dish was a perfect example of foods that flatter each other (vanilla mayonnaise please take note), with the sharp tang of the yoghurt sorbet and the earthy nuttiness of the pistachio balancing out the dish and eliminating any potential for clagginess. I ate all of this with pleasure, something I rarely say about chocolate puddings.
All in all then, a mixed performance. When it was good it was really outstanding, but I can't help thinking that diners visiting a restaurant bearing the name of such a well-known chef will expect greater levels of consistency. That said, I would go again, particularly as the six course taster menu is available throughout January at a very reasonable £30 per head, which includes a drink as well. The staff are lovely, the wine list is well-chosen and reasonably priced (we had the Boomerang Shiraz, which was excellent value at £21 a bottle), and the restaurant had a very healthy buzz about it on a filthy wet Sunday night. Oh, and we were lucky enough to go as guests of the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our meal - it's just a pity I "re-invested" it all at the Blackjack table on my way out...
- James Martin Manchester is at Manchester235, Great Northern, 2 Watson Street, Manchester M3 4LP; T: 0161 828 0345; E: firstname.lastname@example.org