THE Internet does a brisk trade in Freemasons’ gavels. I’m spoilt for choice, whether I want a skull’s head curiosity concealing an arcane seal (eBay) or a solider number crafted from kiln-dried Minnesota walnut and engraved with a Masonic emblem (Amazon).
A la carte at the best places can be like this – you covet several dishes but can’t have them all. Unless you are Monty Python’s exploding Mr Creosote (there are fellow critics up to such gluttony). Faced with Masons’ Summer Menu we fancy the lot.
This properly thought through seasonal celebration, not just tokenism, is that attractive – from stuffed courgette flowers via Cornish sardines through to lavender sorbet. And all with an emphasis on British produce.
Forgive the gavels, then. Lavishly revamped Manchester Hall, former Freemasons citadel, has plenty of nods to its secretive past but as a posh events space suffers from a curious lack of real identity. So it’s good to find Masons, its in-house restaurant/bar, feeling so comfortable in its own skin.
When it opened last autumn a prime selling point was its Martini trolley wheeled to your table. What felt like a gimmick then now feel like an old friend (even though head bartender Jack Daniels – his real name – has moved on). We indulged AFTER our meal, so as to keep a clear head while ordering.
Unbefuddled then, to my surprise I went for chicken as a main. Just because there was broad beans and peas promised with it (oh and some unseasonable asparagus but never mind). The moist Goosnargh chicken breast (£14.50) came wrapped in rather fine pancetta and filled with an artichoke mousse. Masses of peas and double podded broad beans populated a ‘cassoulet’ broth.
Less successful was the fussy accompaniment to our other main, a herb-rolled, nicely rare rump of Cheshire lamb (£20) – stodgy white bean mash, whole roast cherry tomatoes with rosemary and parmesan ‘matchsticks’.
I had wondered, too about how a spiced strawberry chutney would pair with deep-fried, goat cheese stuffed courgette flowers (£7.50). Rather well, as it turned out.
Our other two shared starters were even better. Dukesmoor carpaccio beef fillet (£11) came with caramelised onions, shitake mushrooms, mushroom ketchup and parmesan shavings. Fine northern beef and rich umami flavours – lovely.
Our server insisted we sampled Masons’ playful miniature take on fish and chips – tempura battered whitebait, prawns and scallops with ‘posh mushy’ pea puree and courgette fries. Maybe an expensive starter for £9.50, but lots of fun.
The fierce sun outside stripping tarmac off the roads we went for a cellar-cool, gentle bottle of Fleurie to accompany all this with £12 a go Martinis, fuelled by Tanqueray 10 Gin, to come.
But first pud. Lavender has to be used sparingly in cooking; in the sorbet (£6) it was assertive but not in a bad way. Frozen berries and granola with it was quite weird, though. A chocolate marquise with double chocolate ice (£7) less so. A real crowd-pleaser. Like Masons has become. I’ll bang my gavel to that.
Masons, Manchester Hall, 36 Bridge Street, Manchester, M3 3BT. 0161 359 6952.