There are many fine places to dine in the U.K. Until recently, Manchester was not one of them.
I know: I used to work in this northern English city, whose reputation was built largely on its industry before a flowering of the music and party scene in the 1980s. It was grimy at that time, with more Northern Soul than Dover sole.
Food didn’t come into it, unless you count the Smiths’ song “Meat Is Murder.” The last Michelin star, for the French at the Midland Hotel, was in 1974. It’s good to be back.
How times have changed. Chef Aiden Byrne has opened Manchester House near the Midland Hotel, where Simon Rogan has taken over. Both chefs are cooking the kind of food that might attract stars, a fact celebrated in the TV series “Restaurant Wars.”
Manchester House has the look of a nightclub via Austin Powers. The top-floor lounge, with views of the city’s rooftops, features curving cream banquettes and orange lamp shades, plus private rooms where you might expect to spot footballers.
Byrne, 42, hails from the rival city of Liverpool, making him a “Scouser” in slang. He won a Michelin star aged 22 and is known in London for his years at the Dorchester Grill. Flamboyant dishes such as Chocolate and Peanut Butter Opera were a match for the camp faux-Scottish decor, whose tartan owed more to Jean-Paul Gaultier than Rob Roy.
“I thought I was going to come up against a load of resistance in Manchester -- a Scouser doing something that has notoriously not succeeded here: fine dining,” Byrne said in an interview in the restaurant, 10 floors below the lounge.
“When it comes to spending, a lot of people think there’s not much money up North. That’s not true at all. It’s just we’ve got to give them the environment to want to spend that money and to feel at ease to spend. So far, it’s been a great success.”
Lunch Is More Modest
On Saturday nights, the only option is a 95 pound ($159) 13-course tasting menu. (I called on June 10 to try for a Saturday-night booking for two: The first available table was on Nov. 1.) Byrne says the restaurant, which is part of the Living Ventures group, has revenue of 70,000 pounds to 80,000 pounds each five-day week it is open.
Lunch is a more modest affair, with a set menu at 27.50 pounds for three courses, plus a la carte.
A starter of pan-fried pheasant egg with Lyonnaise potatoes, caramelized onions and Jabugo ham was near-perfect in its simplicity. The main of Goosnargh duck breast, smoked foie gras and chicken-liver parfait on a sourdough crouton fried in duck fat, with port and Madeira-poached cherries and grape-violet mustard was a classic flavor combination, distinguished by the quality of its components and the assurance of its execution. Dessert of lychee and rose was boosted by Sichuan pepper.
’They Like Banter’
A la carte options include Sicilian red prawns, asparagus, blood-orange puree and rose-water dressing; Hay baked Norfolk quail, malt infused celeriac and liver parfait; breast and cutlet of Texel lamb, wild garlic and asparagus; and warm date sponge, parsnip panna cotta and carrot distillation.
Such a menu would work well in London, though it would cost more. So how does Manchester differ from London?
“Manchester diners expect to be served good food and to be able to have a good conversation with the person who’s serving them,” Byrne says. “They like banter and they like to build a relationship. What I found in London -- and maybe this was just because I was in Park Lane -- is that they wanted to be pampered and they almost looked down their noses at the servers.”
At Manchester House, the service style is friendly, with smiling waitresses dressed in jeans and waistcoats. It’s a match for London in efficiency. Byrne’s cooking reminds me of how impressed I was when I tasted it at the Dorchester in 2007.
’Wouldn’t Say No’
With his shaven head and his Liverpool accent, Byrne stood out among chefs with restaurants at luxury hotels in London. He’s now the father of daughters aged four and 11 and an eight-year-old boy. Might he consider a return to London?
“I’ve got a very young family and they’re my priority,” he says. “So my mind is very much on stabilizing what I’ve got at the moment, to create a very secure family background. And if an opportunity comes for me to go to London again and it fits everything else, I wouldn’t say no.”
I’ll take that as a yes. Aiden Byrne: London’s calling.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)