SETTLE down. That’s what critics should let a restaurant do before any forensic examination. All that soft launch shenanigans put to bed, the PR stunts shuffled off, the inevitable menu tweaks (lose that broccoli quiche) accomplished and then in you go.
20 Stories makes it rather difficult, though. The stampede to the bar is still of febrile Black Friday proportions. Mancs are apparently prepared to pay whatever it takes for a glass-in-hand panorama of their cityscape, so lovely after dark.
That central round bar that separates ‘fine dining’ from ‘grill kitchen’ immediately perturbs us on arrival. The hubbub, the jostle, the scrabble for scant bar stools is all a bit messy. Given the outlay, the 300 covers, we didn’t expect an intimate experience. Still there can be an exhilaration about en masse dining; a classic Parisian brasserie like La Coupole handles it with aplomb, its experienced serving staff drilled like a regiment. 20 Stories isn’t like this.
Well-meaning doesn’t cut the mustard at this level of expectation, price and noise pollution. Four nights before at a modestly-financed indie cocktail bar/restaurant in Leeds we’d been bowled over by supremely accomplished service and playful, daring food, not always getting it right, but we were glad they tried.
20 Stories, in contrast, didn’t feel an entirely happy ship as if it’s straining to be too many things all at once. It was a struggle to handle their initial decision to segregate the Grill Menu from a Main Menu that contains signature dishes Chef Director Aiden Byrne brings with him from high end Manchester House. Alongside are cottage pie and burgers at half the price.
This latter fanfare for the common man doesn't tally with a wine list whose prices get as stratospheric as the setting; the affordable bottles in the mid-£20 range look just token. We drank a £78 bottle of Adelsheim 2013, a favourite Oregon Pinot Noir with some mellowing bottle age and oodles of silky fruit.
We would have consumed it in record time if we hadn’t put hands over our glasses to halt incessant topping up. Not uncommon practice but here just part of a corporate lack of warmth, not the fault of callow staff, who were all just a little flustered.
The food? A curate’s egg. Not a dish, a comment. Our starters were very different beasts. On my recommendation my wife had the roast pigeon, cherries, violet, mustard (£13.50). It was always a go-to dish at Manchester House and its gamey meets fruity charms have made the 300 metre transition between kitchens well.
My slice of game pie felt like I’d wandered into a picnic, the hand-raised crust a bit limp for my taste, the filling bland, hardly enlivened by a blob of prune and quince chutney.
Its very presence (at £9) sums up a certain confusion. You shouldn’t hire a chef of Aiden Byrne’s terrific quality and hang this kind of brief on him. It’s like shoving Frankie Dettori on a middling show pony.
Sticking with equine analogies, a plain main of Herdwick lamb loin was of Shetland proportions, three tiny collops tangled with a trio of potato gnocchi and some girolles. The Byrne at 20 Stories pledge was ‘no tasting menus’, so why serve a tasting menu portion for £25?
My poached John Dory, with lobster, chicken and white asparagus (£26) again was very Byrne. A well-judged savoury balance but here it failed to excite. We needed the two sides, buttery mash for £3 and wilted spinach (£3.50), the latter a desultory layer of greens uncannily like a few leaves from a supermarket bag given a swift steam. At Hawksmoor you’d pay a couple of quid more and get double the portion, either stir-fried with lemon and garlic or pureed unctuously with cream, nutmeg and anchovy.
Both our puddings, £6 apiece, followed the pattern of well-executed but not ‘aaaaah, yesss” naughtily pleasurable. My wife liked the chocolate fondant but felt it fell short of the best in town, at Elnecot in Ancoats, while my yoghurt parfait was delicate and subtle, lifted by candied salt and pistachios, marred by rhubarb that was nearly raw.
Throughout dinner we acutely felt the all too calculating Grim Accountant Reaper at our shoulder. The aforementioned Hawksmoor’s arrival from London has never felt like colonisation. This does, where D&D London’s whole oligarchic, swanky fit-out and exploitation of the 19th floor panorama comes at the expense of real engagement.
The shiny new towers bristling everywhere across that panorama, replicating the Downtown of name-any-American city, are exciting and numbing at the same time. Very like 20 Stories. I’m consoled by the unprecedented amount of indie groundbreakers also springing up at mere ground level across Manchester. They have very different stories to tell.
20 Stories, No 1 Spinningfields, 1 Hardman Square, Spinningfields, Manchester, M3 3EB. 0161 204 3333.