WITH apologies to the Stone Roses, this is the resurrection, this is the light, this is a Rabbit in the Moon that shines like never before. Out of this world? It’s finally getting there.
Relaunches can be signs of desperation. Not here in Michael O’Hare’s revamped restaurant at the top of Urbis, where the Dark Lord of Hip Hop soundtracks and un-thought through Space Asian culinary conceits has been vanquished, replaced by an invigorating focus.
OK, The National and Radiohead may not be on everyone's musical bucketlist for a fresh brightness but it makes me feel at home. It also helps that an effulgent spring seems to have arrived at last when we dine on the sixth floor, once the cocktail section but now devoted to dining, not a shaker or muddler left, though that curious glassed-in bar remains, for all the world like a ticket office.
There are only a few tables up here, but the advantage over the restaurant floor below is you can see out properly from your table unconstrained by those architect-driven opaque bars that restrict views through the floor to ceiling windows.
And what a panorama you get. Not the shock and awe vistas from the Beetham Tower or 20 Stories (Is that Jodrell Bank over there? Or the sea?). No, this view peeps intimately over the Corn Exchange’s glass cupola and the beehive-populated roof of the Cathedral, both in stark antithesis to all the thrusting cranes beyond Chapel Street.
And then we forget about all this brightness because the food starts to arrive. In place of the former 15 course evening tasting menu that lasted almost as long as a Mars shuttle mission, there is a snappier eight courser that delivers much more.
Whereas once you were greeted with the two digit salute of a pair of Crispy Rabbit Ears (above) – prawn crackers moulded to look like lengthy lapin lugholes, planted in ‘inedible dust’ – now you say hi to a white china spaceman on your table, who invites to to partake of a Ridgeview Sparkling Rose or a Blanc de Noir champagne (actually it’s our amiable server Ellie who does the honours but hey, we're lost in space).
With the bubbly the quartet of appetisers set the tone and standard for the meal ahead. Hard to pick a favourite. Bao buns are always described as pillows. Well, ours were metaphorically pure goose down, encasing smoked eel, avocado purée and oyster sauce and stamped with a rabbit image. Lobster bites on a spoon brought more umami, then Porthilly oysters delivered their estuary kick with pickled ginger and a wasabi pearl.
First course proper brought another bun, toasted brioche this time, as base for a tartare of langoustine with sweet jamon iberico fat, perfectly paired with a small tumbler of intense beef stock. Such a fine combination.
Next up a similar surf and turf slant with XO sauce bonding two juicy king scallops and succulent gnarled duck tongues. In a brief flashback to ‘baby Rabbit days’ maybe the XO should have been used more sparingly.
Fish and meat liaisons also in the two stand-out dishes. First an oyster sauce emulsion accompanying a glorious soy and ginger glazed pork cheek pied with charcoal ‘cinders’. This resembled a coalyard, while its successor, pink fillet of beef drenched in black bean sauce on a butterflied salt and pepper prawn, was very O’Hare in playful reinvention of a Chinese classic and in its startling presentation (below), where a tiny quail egg yolk sat like a small sun.
All artistry on a plate in both flavours and presentation. If that besplattered platter was pure Jackson Pollock then the Rabbit In The Moon’s new wool carpet is akin to Marc Chagall stained glass. I ought to hate it (I never really bought into The French’s Axminster aping oaken boards), but I don’t. It’s as upbeat as the now flawless service.
The wine list has been transformed. Lots more by the glass than before. Lean but far-ranging, there’s even a wine from China. In the Rabbit’s old incarnation there were too few reds. That’s all changed. We chose a Norman Hardie Pinot Noir (£68) from Canada’s Niagara region. Biodynamic, unfiltered, minimum sulphites, pale in hue, pure cherryish fruit. Ellie suggests we took it lightly chilled and that helps it work across the menu.
She also comes up with a sweet sake for the puddings that complemented them perfectly. First a palate cleanser of an aloe vera and lime granita with a fragrant lychee sorbet, so good the spaceman demanded his cosmic tithe (above). Ditto with a white chocolate mousse with mango, passionfruit and a white chocolate tuile on top – followed by petits fours, including a peppercorn eclair and a matcha tea flavoured rolled crepe.
It was all a wonderful reintroduction to restaurant space that holds so many memories. Two days prior to its opening as Le Mont in 2002 the chef and his manager were left stranded in France after our photoshoot visit to the Bollinger cellars in Ay (I was lucky enough to make the plane home during a baggage handlers' dispute; yhey had to hire a car to drive back to Manchester – it’s a long story).
In 2008 when it had become The Modern I sought refuge for two hours in its cocktail list for my own safety as 150,000 ticketless Glasgow Rangers fans rampaged through Cathedral Gardens and beyond. Since then £30m Urbis has gone from being some vague ‘museum of the modern city’ to the hugely populist National Football Museum.
I’m glad there’s still room up ints striking ‘prow’ for such an adventurous restaurant. This piece was meant to be a first encounter with the new tasting menu but the whole experience was so impressive (after frustrating encounters with a couple of over-hyped newcomers recently) that this has become a main review. With five stars. The Full Moon has risen. Make your own landing soon.
Rabbit In The Moon, Urbis Building, Corporation Street, Manchester, M4 3BG. 0161 804 8560. Open Wed-Sat, lunch £45 and dinner £70, excluding drinks. Booking required via Therabbitinthemoon.tocktix.com. The images here are mostly my own. They felt more immediate on the night, but do check out the professional beauties we used in our ToM preview.