FUNNY the short term memory we have about restaurants. Take Leeds and the meteoric rise of Michael O’Hare to Michelin stardom with The Man Behind the Curtain, which only launched in 2014. Most of the previous decade all the attention in that city had been on Anthony’s, first as a basement ‘molecular gastronomy’ destination with (unfulfilled) starry aspirations, then as an ambitious food hub project in Leeds’ Corn Exchange.
Out of the collapse Anthony Flinn’s empire emerged Doug Crampton, latterly Anthony’s head chef, to take on the same role at James Martin Manchester. Doug had worked for telegenic James and was tasked with running the restaurant space inside the 235 Casino. where Linen (remember that vaguely?) hadn’t worked.
Poison chalice? No. Despite having to access it through a garish gaming ambience, the Martin aura brings in the starry-eyed punters even if there’s the same chance of seeing him at the stove as Gordon Ramsay at any of his myriad enterprises.
Which brings us to Doug, nearly six years heading up the kitchen yet still overshadowed by the branding. His talent deserves to be celebrated because his serious contemporary cooking is the equal of most rival offerings in the city. Smoking, pickling, fermenting, sourcing, seasonality, foraged materials – a lot of boxes are ticked. The end product is food combinations that make sense on the plate with a surprise wow or two. Service is similarly adroit.
The presence of a specialist walk-in ‘meat market’, maturing cuts for 28 days, signals carnivorous as the way to go. There’s the hint of the souk too in the treatment given to an ox cheek starter (£8.95), a sweet parsnip puree the canvas for a potent blend of za’atar, pomegranate and preserved lemon, while the cheek itself is Wagyu in a black garlic glaze that surprisingly doesn’t overwhelm.
Asparagus couldn’t be more in season. Here it is served al dente with ‘cheese and pickle’ – melted Baron Bigod (this bloomy-rind Suffolk gem also features on their cheese board) and, a taste of Brittany, pink roscoff onion. The sweet crunch of malt crumbs, the pepperiness of nasturtium leaves complete the harmonious combo (£8.95).
Linen, as we recall (vaguely) boasted a big-hitting wine list. James Martin’s is altogether more modest but well matched with the food on offer (the bargain five course £30 tasting menu costs £47.50 with five paired wines; for £6 extra there’s a wine upgrade). We drank a £37 Peter and Peter German Pinot Noir. Light, fragrant and soft, quintessential Pfalz Pinot, it partnered both Herdwick lamb rump and Cumbrian rabbit perfectly.
For the former Lamb fat rosti and sweetbreads completed a frisky assembly with wild garlic and fermented turnip, but it was the rabbit that really revealed the Doug deftness.
I’d had a similar ballotine at another high end local establishment recently and it was psllid and dry. Not so here, thanks to an infusion of in-house black pudding. Add in a chimichurri and smoked sour cream and it was a truly bonny bunny for £22.50. Especially with a side of BBQ hispi (£3.50).
A slow cooked duck eggs with grilled grelots, hen of the woods and watercress veloute has sorely tempted us, too – earthy, veggie bliss.
Bliss too in a closing ‘chocolate and hazelnuts’ with warm cake, hazelnut praline ice cream, cocoa nib (£7). Lemon myrtle brulee was more divisive. Rhubarb sorbet, toasted brown sugar meringue and caramelised puff pastry were exemplary, but we couldn’t quite get our head around the slightly murky myrtle. Apparently Australian Aborigines use the strongly lemon-flavoured myrtle leaves to cook fish and in stews. Here it didn’t sing in the way the more familiar lemon verbena does. A tiny hiccup in a Casino venture where everyone’s a winner.
James Martin, Manchester 235, Great Northern, 2 Watson Street, Manchester M3 4LP. 0161 820 3072.
- This is a kitchen of many talents. Don’t miss our preview of ‘Casino chef of the year Grant now tackles Bake Off: The Professionals’.