IT’S a hostage to fortune lauding a young chef to the skies. A reviewing colleague of a certain girth (and nobody’s fool) gave an unprecedented score to a new restaurant based upon its young chef – three days later this itinerant Kiwi had vanished into the proverbial ether.
Our own expectations for another ambitious kitchen tyro, Curtis Stewart at Quill, suffered a slower death as any chance of seeing his talents flower in the city disappeared when the place shut within months.
Lessons learnt and hoping not to jinx the boy, welcome to Manchester Ben Mounsey, new head chef at Grafene. The real deal on the mere evidence of a couple of meals there? Hope we’re right.
Like Quill, this is a smart city centre operation straddling the division between casual fine dining and destination bar. Initial culinary direction when it launched in summer 2016 came from the owners’ established Peak District hotel. It felt a touch muddled; a year ago a new chef stepped in at the same time as a major front of house reshuffle.
What has been required from the start is a certain identity to make Grafene stand out in a febrile food and drink scene. While 28-year-old Ben is settling in all eyes are across town at 20 Stories, where the London-based operators hired safe pair of hands Aiden Byrne as chef director.
As a very young chef Aiden was associated with Michelin-starred establishments; there’s Michelin stardust too in the CV of 28-year-old Ben, recently in Singapore but most significantly as sous chef for three years under Marc Wilkinson at Fraiche on the Wirral.
It’s easy to see the influence of this obsessive master, creativity and technique in abundance even when not every ingredient is hitting it off.
My favourite dish on both occasions was one of the simplest – an £11 starter of crab, both the white meat fresh and the brown devilled in an intense bisque with barley the ballast, curls of radish giving edge.
A cepe consommé with truffle and shimeji (£9) would have better served as an amuse cup, while a perfectly judged little lamb loin, prettily partnered with nasturtiums, beets and baby spinach in a puddle of verjus, felt somehow like a main in embryo.
Both our mains proper were forthright statement of intent dishes. One put black peas and salted celeriac centre stage with haunch of venison, malted vinegar aiding the conceit (£26).
I’ve had a sequence of torched fish variants of late, notably mackerel at Australasia, and I admit I didn’t see it working with monkfish, but it was triumph in a slightly smoky ensemble of kale, baby turnip, linseed and potted shrimp (£24).
I like the fact that there are only six starters and six mains (with a grill offering, too) but also that more attention is paid to dessert that at many recent star-ups. Seriously gorgeous the passion fruit ganache (£12, main pixture) while, equivalent to the black pea riff with the venison, I loved Ben’s treatment of our North West stalwart, the Eccles Cake, teaming it with a savoury Lancashire Bomb ice cream, with butter, yoghurt currants and a tea syrup £11).
So much promise, so much achievement, too. That’s why it’s a rare five star review. We've gone and done it. So no excuses now, Grafene and Ben.
Grafene, 55 King Street, Manchester, M2 4LQ. 0161 696 9700.