BEING flexitarian doesn't mean I'm going to forsake the recommended rump of lamb. After all, I‘ve not taken the holier than thou Veganuary ‘pledge’, merely played the role of fellow traveller in cooking an assortment of Asian plant-based dishes at home (and enjoyed immensely Harvey Nichols’ new Vegan Menu.
A day on and I’m struggling to locate a vegan option on the a la carte at Masons, hence I go for the rump of lamb. The restaurant is on the ground floor of the former Freemasons Hall, now a lavish event destination. True to the Masonic tradition, it’s menu is reluctant to yield up its secrets. Just a brief mention of the prime player in each dish while sides for each main are included in the price and so are also a surprise.
You have to wait until ‘Gressingham duck breast’ or the aforementioned young sheep’s backside arrives to discover how Chef has treated them. Fortunately Chef is rather good. We remember Nathan Wightman from his days at Ramsbottom’s Shoulder of Mutton. As there, the emphasis is on quality sourcing and keeping things (comparatively) simple. So a safe pair of hands and all a bit dull? Definitely not.
Martinis are incontrovertibly vegan, so we summon Masons’ bespoke Martini Trolley and discuss high octane options with head barman Jack Daniels (we know, but it was his birth name and judging by his skills, was born under a good star). Tanqueray gin for both us and then we diverge into the ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ camps. It makes a jolly start.
On a pre-launch look around I’d felt the dining room’s green art deco with hints of Masonic symbolism a bit contrived but, settled in, it works. Does the ‘mystery’ food? Mostly.
Both starters, Scottish scallops and ham hock and mustard terrine (£11.95 and £7.95 respectively) come with deep-fried partners, the former with tempura-like purses of black pudding and samphire, the latter with a deep-fried crumbed egg and wings of tuile.
So far, quality gastropubbish, but mains raised the game. In particular my lamb, sensationally tender and intense in flavour, true value at £15.95. OK, Middle Eastern/North African spicing, fruit, grilled aubergine, mint yoghurt – there’s a lot of it about but not handed with this aplomb. It’s served on a comforting base of crushed potato, shallot, coriander and spring onion, a kind of Levantine champ.
The same generosity was applied to my partner’s ‘duck breast’ (£20.95) with its cute ‘bed’ of peach chutney and parsnip three ways (baby, puree and crisps) plus, deep-fryer out again, a samosa of duck leg, green peas and a pool of balanced jus.
We followed with an assiette of puddings (main picture) plus a separate ‘cappuccino’ creme brûlée. Do you agree this splattered platter of lemon posset, brioche butter pudding, sticky toffee, fruit, ice cream and sauce looks like a murder scene? Good value at £8.
After the Martinis and before JD pressed us – with little resistance – to try his special Negronis we each drank a a glass of Peacock Ridge wild fermented Chardonnay (£8.35, £23.50 for a bottle) then most of a bottle of Pra Morandina Valpolicella Ripasso (£55), lushly morello cherryish with clove hints, a substantial but elegant red made for the duck and lamb dishes.
Ambitious Manchester House still feels in its infancy. Basque-inspired Pintura is not coming in now (apparently Honest Burger will replace it) but Mumbai-inspired cafe/restaurant Dishoom is, while we await the £3m Pan-Asian Fable some time later in the year. For the moment the Masons is doing a characterful job of being the only restaurant in the historic pile. And that martini trolley is genius.
Masons, Manchester Hall, 36 Bridge Street, Manchester, M3 3BT. 0161 359 6952.