TIMES food critic Giles Coren lamented the other week how his role meant he never went back to any restaurant he loved. Novelty is all in the review game. More so for a national scribe who has the whole country to cover (though Coren is rarely spotted beyond London and the Cotswolds).
Despite a current lively food and drink scene in Manchester we aren’t blessed with a constant parade of high profile openings. So that was my excuse to return to Grafene after only reviewing it in March. Then new chef Ben Mounsey’s talent shone throughout his first menu, both a la carte and his lunchtime/early evening British tapas offering.
It was evident he had absorbed much from three years spent as sous chef at Marc Wilkinson’s perennially Michelin-starred Fraiche on the Wirral but had his own rapidky developing style, given its full head at the King Street restaurant.
I described dishes such as monkfish in a smoky ensemble of kale, baby turnip, linseed and potted shrimp and his decision to put black peas and salted celeriac centre stage with haunch of venison as “a forthright statement of intent”.
Neither remains three months on as 28-year-old Ben responds to the changing seasons and the available raw materials in a series of deceptively complex new dishes – the mark of a master in the making. I‘d recommend, as we did, paying £50 a head for three courses with bread (and what bread – tiny loaves with imaginative butters, naturally) and surprises. There are also two tasting menus five courses (£55) and seven courses (£70) available to pre-order.
An amuse bouche was a familiar conceit – a cube of hot-smoked salmon in a hollandaise sauce on a squid ink mini-bagel accompanied by a scroll of dried salmon skin.
Then came the menu newcomers, more consistent yet still as dazzling as on our previous serious visit. A large, seared scallop in dashi broth with avocado, tomato and red pepper was fun fusion; ham hock terrine a playful conceit with celeriac as a foam cap on a blend of hock and egg with crackling on the side.
Black garlic is an on-trend ingredient I’ve noticed before at Grafene. It features in an earthy duck combo with roast asparagus and fennel (main picture). More daring is a fellow main of brill (superb), octopus and oyster with peas and caper, served with surprisingly glorious clay-baked potatoes.
Puddings, a strong point, featured my favourite herb lemon verbena as a subtle enhancement of strawberry, fresh and as both snow and tuile and a complex pineapple combo with caramel. Like all that came before, Grafene, after a mis-start or two, is now operating at a completely different level.
Grafene, 55 King Street, Manchester, M2 4LQ. 0161 696 9700.