The French, The Midland Hotel, Peter Street, Manchester, M20 2DS – Visit Now
The French has gone through a revolution in recent months. Late last year, chef-restaurateur Simon Rogan left his five-year contract early, leaving the restaurant in the hands of his second-in-command, Adam Reid. This led to much hand-wringing throughout the city’s food scene – will the food be as good? Will Manchester’s most highly regarded restaurant still cut it? That’s a lot of pressure on one man’s shoulders.
Before remaking the menu, Reid’s first changes were cosmetic. Previous visitors will know that as magnificent as the room is, it had a somewhat austere atmosphere-stifling feel. Now, the lighting is warmer and the layout of the room tweaked for a more laid-back feel, with a not-too-loud soundtrack of classic rock and Manchester indie bubbling along in the background. It could be said that Rogan had simply attempted to recreate his Lake District restaurant, L’Enclume, whereas now The French feels much more part of Manchester, with all the youth, vibrancy and warmth that goes with it.
Following an aperitif, the first of the six-course lunchtime tasting menu arrives – squid ink crackers with a dipping mousse made from nut oil, cod roe and smoked paprika. (This isn’t listed on the menu, and if we include breads and chocolates, that makes for no less than nine courses – talk about bang for your buck.) Squid ink is everywhere in Manchester lately, and while it doesn’t always work, when it does, it’s fantastic. These pitch black puffy snacks fizz and crackle in the tangy dip, curiously bringing back memories of prawn cocktail crisps. Imagine a bag of KP Skips, revamped to cost £10 a bag.
The first course proper, the pork trotter, is an enhanced version of one of Rogan & Co’s most memorable ‘snacks’. It’s a stocky cube, coated in bubbly pork belly cracker, holding a bevy of tiny pork cubes cooked in dark caramel soy. There’s a dollop of pickled onion pureé that isn’t really required, the trotter holds its own without needing a sauce.
Next up, a truly odd-looking dish. A spindly floret of purple-stem broccoli deep-fried in nut oil so it looks almost furry, slouching in a blob of creamy Tunworth cheese, surrounded by a rim of neon green chive oil and scattered with black truffle shavings. In lesser hands this could be an over-elaborate mess, but here it’s a perfectly-matched collection of countryside flavours and one of the day’s most decadent dishes. Our host says this is often described as a “posh quaver”, which makes me wonder if Adam has been raiding his old school lunchbox for ideas (I’m eagerly awaiting his take on Monster Munch).
A heart attack-inducing beef onion butter covered with ox tongue shavings
The steak course is far from a heavy slab of meat. It’s an enchanting bowl full of small spheres of near-raw meat, crunchy celeriac and tiny nasturtium flowers, resting in a gently tangy mushroom sauce. This is quickly followed by two kinds of bread: a wonderfully chewy sourdough and a deep brown Manchester ale bread. The latter comes with a heart attack-inducing beef onion butter covered with ox tongue shavings, and a pot of beef broth for dipping.
After this heavy indulgence, the Cornish cod brings light relief. The circle of fish is impossibly soft and supple, slipping down like a high quality oyster. Miniature brown shrimp pepper the dish, along with blobs of pea pureé and white and green asparagus. We’re told that the dish also contains ‘asparagus custard’ but fear not, this isn’t weird and wonderful Heston-style wizardry, simply a thick asparagus-infused buttery sauce. The whole plate is a smart contrast to the previous few courses, full of gentle seaside flavours and bright colours.
The salt aged duck comes in three distinct parts. First, a pink slice of duck with crispy skin and a light coating of cherry sauce. Second, a bundle of salty, crunchy kale. And third, a copper pan containing a thick chunky ragu, bundling together sunflower seeds, bacon and beetroot. Individually, each section makes a fine mouthful, but together the result is an other-worldly combination of flavours and textures, different each time.
It’s the Kinder Egg of desserts, captivating and endlessly amusing
The dessert is fascinating. Billed as a ‘kalamansi’, a citrus fruit similar to a lime and a tangerine, it actually looks more like a 3D-rendered apple – bright green with a couple of oddly-shaped leaves. It’s almost a shame to disturb it. After removing the leaves – which are actually green-tinted white chocolate – the fruit cracks open like an egg, revealing a fluffy white sorbet and tangy yellow yolk that delivers a sit-up-straight citrus kick to the brain. It’s the Kinder Egg of desserts, captivating and endlessly amusing.
But that isn’t all. The final flourish is a tray containing two small chocolates, one smooth and one dusty truffle, resting artfully on a bed of what I assume to be chunks of crushed up chocolate, but that I soon discover to be dessicated coconut shell. Take it from me, dessicated coconut shell is not edible. Far from it. The chocolates, however? Rich and smooth, a fitting way to complete this childhood-inspired king’s banquet of a meal.
Adam knows what makes Manchester tick, making things less fussy, more relaxed and gloriously silly
So, the million dollar question: is Adam Reid at The French better than Simon Rogan at The French? Well, the food is as stunning as ever but the overall experience tips the balance in the new boy’s favour. Adam has a better grasp on what makes Manchester tick, making things less fussy, more relaxed, and, at times, gloriously silly. But will this new makeover convince the Michelin star inspectors to drop their weird beef against Manchester and give The French back the star it clearly deserves? Don’t bank on it. We prefer Goodyear, anyway.
Photographs by Ian Jones