MAYBE it was the inner socialist raging inside ToM’s representative but he balked at the Millionaire’s Sandwich when it made its Manchester House debut during the unveiling of new exec chef Nat Tofan’s spring menu.
Nat’s mentor Aiden Byrne was now in place at potential rivals 20 Stories and the words ‘hard act to follow’ still hung in the air. But as with Adam Reid taking over from Simon Rogan at The French there has been a happy ending – in our case, a couple of months into the Tofan era, enjoying the best meal we have ever had at Living Ventures’ fine dining flagship. Manchester House looks in more than safe hands.
Even that still decadent Millionaire’s Sandwich had cleaned up its act after a preview when it felt sweet and unbalanced. Among a trio of appetisers before out three courses a la carte this salt-sprinkled finger butty of pistachio/matcha sponge housing foie gras mousse and sauternes jelly stood out.
Just pipping fellow snack a taco of coal oil-infused raw beef. Ironically, a distant cousin of a Simon Rogan signature dish back in those heady days of the rival establishments trying to establish Michelin credentials via a telly documentary. And failing.
Today Manchester House retains its gloss without the hyped up glitz. From its bargain lunches to the exhaustive eight and 12 course tasting menus it’s an impressively smooth operation. And that extends to the staff. After we expressed our enthusiasm for the bread our relaxed server Isabel told us its back story – the grandma of one of the chefs runs a bakery in Sardinia and he brought back some of her 85-year-old sourdough starter for them. Well, it beats: “We had that Rio Ferdinand in here the other night.”
Going a la carte caused immediate problems of what to choose. For this isa very attractive menu with none of the makeweight dishes, alas, you find over at 20 Stories with its confused agenda.
My companion’s starter echoed one of the 20 Stories’s success stories – a Byrne signature dish of roast pigeon, cherries, violet, mustard. At MH Tofan paired squab pigeon (£15) with pickled beetroot, fig and a damson condiment to intense sweet and sour effect; the tender rare squab the best pigeon either of us have ever eaten.
My roast langoustine with cauliflower (£15) was a gentler dish with cosseting almond milk suddenly subverted by the anise punch of lovage.
Halibut with braised leeks, cockles, truffles and artichoke was a bolder convocation of flavours (£29) but the bar was truly raised in a simpler assembly around some exemplary, tender pink Texel lamb (£28). Just baby onions, fondant potatoes, a hint of truffle, fried sweetbread.
Cote Rotie is not a fixture on most of the city’s wine lists. Certainly not a bottle with eight years of ageing costing just £85. In truth, the organic Clusel Roch was still a little stern on the palate, yet restrained and pure with that black pepper spice that comes with the Northern Rhone’s finest reds. With that lamb quite perfect.
It would have been masterful with cheese, but we had finished it by then, so it was dessert from a choice of just three, all at £8.
We regretted not ordering all three such was the brilliant focus of both my confit rhubarb and sheep yoghurt mousse and my companion’s bitter chocolate and cherries. Gingerbread and blood orange added their own texture and extra tartness to the rhubarb; with the rich, bitter chocolate parfait morello-like cherries came both pickled and as a a sorbet, blobs of whisky cream adding some sybaritic oomph.
What was evident throughout one of our most harmonious dining experiences of recent months was how much Nottingham-born Nat had taken on board from Aiden Byrne. Both at his side in the development kitchen before the launch and returning later as senior sous chef.
This spring menu, though, did not feel copyist, but the start of his own creative ascension. In a city of some startlingly good rising chefs from Adam French to Ben Mounsey at Grafene, from MIchael Clay at Elnecot to the (slightly older) Simon Wood at his eponymous restaurant, Nat Tofan can hold his own. It helps he has inherited a well-tuned brigade, but they are obviously along for the thrilling ride ahead with him.
Manchester House, 18-22 Bridge Street, Manchester, M3 3BZ 0161 835 2557.