The only time I’ve ever been to The Midland Hotel was when I was 13 years old, for my cousin’s bar mitzvah party. I have to confess that even as a bright-eyed teenager nothing about the hotel struck me as remarkable, or as one of Manchester’s hidden gems. Certainly not the food. So when I heard that the two-Michelin starred chef Simon Rogan had, years later, decided to open The French restaurant in the very same Midland Hotel I was intrigued.
Fortunately for me the lovely restaurant PR people at The French kindly invited me to try out the six-course taster menu. Having eaten at L’Enclume, Simon Rogan’s two-star Michelin restaurant in Cumbria I wondered whether his latest venture in Manchester could possibly live up to expectation. Keen to make my visit a family affair once more, I decided to take my brother Darren (who’s a bit of a food snob) with me.
Walking through the hotel lobby we were pointed in the direction of the restaurant. Huge chandeliers hung from ceiling and despite the grandeur of the dining room, (the carpet made to look like a wooden floor did make me laugh) the atmosphere was relaxed. Staff were incredibly knowledgeable about the food, many of them having been transferred to The French from L’Enclume. And, as with Simon’s other restaurants, the focus is very much on sourcing local, seasonal produce.
Before the main event we were treated to a selection of ‘snacks’ – veggie for me and meaty for Darren. These included BBQ radish with truffle and pineapple weed and deep fried sage leaf with garlic cream and onion ash. But the star dish for me, nothing short of genius, was a butternut squash pebble. The crisp, soft texture was similar to that of a macaroon. It fizzed under my tongue to release a light, creamy yoghurt filling. It was sublime. I took a bite and offered it to Darren to try. But I couldn’t resist another mouthful, which sadly for him, meant I’d pretty much polished it off. Begrudgingly he declined the crumbs. I didn’t feel too sorry for him though as he was treated to homemade black pudding with cumberland gel, garnished with lycée and a seaweed rice cracker with horseradish cream, crispy chicken skin, garnished with wood sorrel and dressed crab – unleashing a wave of flavours on his taste buds.
Then, on to dinner. The choice is between a six or ten course taster menu (we had the later) which we had with matching wines. What I loved about the menu at The French is the effort to ensure both vegetarians and meat eaters have as near to the same experience as possible, which as a veggie I appreciated. As a huge beetroot fan my first course was one of my favourites. Little cubes of soft, sweet beetroot were enveloped in a beetroot mousse with salty walnut crumbs and walnut pieces thrown in for texture and bite. Then I was hit with the revelation of a smooth goat’s cheese mousse hiding at the bottom underneath.
I was also pleasantly surprised by a dish comprising of a medley of courgette (I stifled a giggle when our waiter announced it was not just courgette, but courgette cooked three ways as there was also tempura courgettes and courgette purée). Along with swede, it’s one of the few vegetables I go out of my way to avoid but fortunately the thick almost custardy egg yolk provided a rich sauce to counter the usual blandness of the courgettes.
Each dish on the menu hit the right note. The components alone wouldn’t be anything special but thanks to Simon’s magic they were the perfect balance of textures and flavours. Some restaurants I’ve been to (think Nuno Mendes’ Viajante in East London) have disappointed, trying too hard to be inventive, without pulling it off. This Manchester gem on the other hand managed to delight at every turn.
I never thought I’d hear that a salad would be the star dish for my caveman brother. But of course this wasn’t any old salad. No less than 31 elements went into the late summer offerings salad, including candied beetroot, crispy chestnut, BBQ chard leaves, borage leaves, nasturtium leaves and flowers. All ensuring that no mouthful was the same. Other standout dishes for him were seared scallop served with caramelised cabbage and seared roe that he likened to a fishy crème brûlée.
Desserts was equally as impressive. Sour cherries with hazelnut crunch and goat’s cheese ice cream were an inspired twist on the classic crumble. The coldness of the ice cream meant it didn’t taste too cheesy, offsetting the super sweetness of the rest of the dish. A sarsparilla dish had a deep blackcurrant flavour, again taking me back to my childhood as it reminded me of strong Vimto. Often when you’re a kid you exaggerate events, building them up in your mind so that year’s later if you return to the same place they can be a bit of a let down. Thankfully for us The French had the opposite affect, with Simon Rogan transforming The Midland Hotel into one of Manchester’s hidden gems.