A SERIOUS makeover. You know the phrase. Well, the dining room at The French has had a light-hearted one. Not a frivolous transformation, mind. The food that Adam Reid is serving us at lunchtime has certainly lightened up since the days of his departed mentor Simon Rogan but it’s still serious fine dining, just more playfully done with a smart open prep counter, so you can observe a sous-chef inflating one of Reid’s fabled blown-sugar Golden Empire apples.
The walls of the Grade II listed mausoleum of yore (the ghosts of flunkeys Sisyphus-like still pushing bread trolleys around for all eternity) have actually darkened until they are the one sexy shade of grey. The hue you’d associate with coal-oil, which used to bathe the rib-eye of ox that was a Rogan signature dish. The one that critic Giles Coren said he’d walk to Manchester barefoot in the rain for.
Well, Giles, keep your socks on. It’s gone. Search the six course, nine course tasting menus in vain. Maybe it’s symbolic: the smiling Court of the Golden Apple now reigns. Just as the arrival of a restaurant soundtrack makes its own chill-out statement.
The great wit Sydney Smith’s best line was “My idea of heaven is eating paté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.” Well mine now is slowly savouring caramelised parsnip, mushrooms and horseradish cream (main picture) to the sound of Otis Redding’s ‘Dock of the Bay’.
Going with the sonic flow, we clock that our £5 small plate of fried broccoli, cheese and truffle is backdropped by ‘Here There and Everywhere’. Not apt. This dish was as focused as it gets. It reinvents broccoli for me. Just like The Beatles re-invented pop.
I’d even have enjoyed it if the threatened acoustic version of The Courteeners’ 'Not Nineteen Forever’ had blasted out of the speakers. It didn’t, but it proved that Reid’s Fab Four-dominated tracklist isn’t totally impeccable.
But on the evidence of his lunch offering, his cooking is pretty close. Difficult second album, post Rogan? No, Reid rocks. He has also cleverly thought through the new more casual approach, aimed at making a gastronomic temple more accessible.
To that end front of house staff are now allowed to decide their own dress code and general manager Kamila looks particularly fetching. Table cloths I’m not so sure about. Light grey, they cling to the tables in a napery compromise. They’ve kept the controversial wood-look carpet; it now craftily matches the veneer in the solid oaken prep table.
Meanwhile, the two colossal rainbow crystal chandeliers still descend like some alien spacecraft demanding “Bring me your rib-eye of ox, earthlings”.
The most daring move is the small plates at lunchtimes. Special occasion slap-ups filling Saturday nights are all very well, but isn’t it great if regulars can pop in midweek lunch and not feel they have to go the whole hog?
Most expensive dish on the new small plates menu – only available Wednesdays and Thursdays from 12pm-1.30pm – is £12 for a larger plate of red mullet, shrimp and tomato sauce, burnt gem lettuce. It’s an exquisite, intense mingling of sea and garden, but for the same money you could sit at the counter, chat to the staff and order a trio of the aforementioned broccoli, umami-rich cod’s roe dip with squid ink wafers and raw scallop, pickled spruce tip.
The latter dish, served on a bed of pebbles, is the only one teetering on mishit, lime-cured until it tastes claggy and the spruce tip seems not that essential.
Among the trio of £8 to £9 ‘smaller dishes’ on offer the parsnip is the star but the crisp chicken skin strewn saffron pasta in turnip butter pushes it close. An inspired marriage of sweet flavours, yin to the yang of the earthy bitter meets smoke whack of eel, hazelnut, chicory and artichoke.
There’s a similar intensity to a ‘larger dish’ of salt-aged duck, beetroot and acidic cherry sauce. Beside it celeriac and cabbage somehow falls short, despite the freshness of leeks and tarragon in the composition.
Some equally exquisite wines, mostly whites, have accompanied this parade of dishes. Sommelier Filippo Zito remains from the Rogan regime along with key suppliers such as Buon Vino, the natural and biodynamic specialists up in Settle. The two reds we taste are both from there – Castagnara Il Pratello, a biodynamic Pinot Nero from Italy's Emilia Romagna region, mature, earthy and warming, and Aurea Pittacum, a smooth oaked Mencia from Bierzo in north west Spain
To check out afters we are back at the counter, perched on a stool. It reminds me very much of sitting at the dessert bar at Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social in Mayfair.
I’m sure, though, his cinnamon sugared doughnuts aren’t a patch on Adam’s, which we dunk in pink rhubarb and malt ice cream before tackling the obligatory orb of Golden Empire, at £15 the most expensive dish here and a decadent deconstruction of apple crumble and custard.
Would it be beyond decadent, though, at 1.25pm on a Tuesday lunchtime to slope into The French order just a Golden Empire and a slug of Bambule Verdicchio Passito, all toffee apple and honey in a glass? Who needs a nine course tasting menu?
Adam Reid at The French, The Midland Hotel, Peter Street, Manchester, M60 2DS. 0161 236 3333. http://www.the-french.co.uk