Friday 18 April 2014

#RestaurantWars: The Battle for Manchester

For those that haven’t seen or heard of it, ‘Restaurant Wars: The Battle for Manchester’ is a BBC2 (8pm Mondays) behind-the-scenes documentary series which aired its first episode last Monday.

The programme’s main protagonists are Two Michelin starred chef Simon Rogan and former starred chef Aiden Byrne.

Filming follows these Culinary Commanders as they rally their troops and fire food at their targets throughout the planning and opening stages of the ‘battling’ The French and Manchester House.

The French by Simon Rogan: historic setting 

Making a brief background appearance on the show at the opening night of The French and having eaten at Manchester House during opening week, I visited both restaurants once again this week to see how ‘the battle is developing’… yarbles did I!

The French at The Midland: new life from Simon Rogan 

I visited both restaurants because I’m on half term and wanted somewhere good to eat in the city.

Manchester House: open kitchen and army of chefs

It would be all too easy, tiresome and predictable to continue prattling on giving you tedious war puns; talk about how each chef may or may not have been portrayed and edited differently from their usual day to day personalities and comment on the use of the phrase ‘funk button’ by one of Manchester House’s ‘branding gurus’…

Manchester House - turning up the funk buttons

Instead, I’ll share with you the best thing about these restaurants opening in Manchester… the food!

Dinner at The French by Simon Rogan:

Rye, mackerel, lovage – a crisp rye cracker topped with mackerel tartare, lovage emulsion, salt ‘n’ vinegar powder and mustard cresses.

Baked potato with cheese – an 'innocent' looking baked potato filled with rich, creamy cheese centre and set into malt; simple sounding, yet incredibly tasty.

Celeriac and apple – the most striking of the canapés, what looks like a large pearl set in the oyster shell is actually a celeriac cream coated in an beautifully iridescent layer, decorated with sea herbs, apple puree and a ‘sea water’ gelée. 

Trotter, ham fat cream, sage – my favourite of the canapés, unctuous pieces of pig’s trotter encased in a crisp crumb with shredded crispy sage leaves and indulgent ham fat cream.

Quails eggs in brassica, kale, leeks, mustard – a classic Rogan inspired dish, technical elements but pure at heart.

Breads: Buttermilk brioche, French stick and Manchester Ale – all breads were good… the buttermilk brioche was outstanding.

Swede dumplings, duck yolk sauce, onion, nasturtium – lazy writing I know, but see the quails egg comment.

Ox in coal oil with pumpkin seed, kohlrabi and sunflower – on Thursday I ate at L’Enclume where they serve the similarly presented but completely different ‘venison tartare’. Both are exceptional dishes but I’d like it noted for the record that, after much deliberation, I prefer The French’s ox… I’m keen to taste what Simon Rogan’s Fera at Claridge’s version will taste like.

Caramelised cabbage, scallops, coastal herbs, smoked roes – this dish is one that has remained on the menu for quite some time; a perfect marriage of flavours – the sweet cabbage and scallops with caramelisation for added flavour and texture; smokiness of the roes; salty grassy notes from the sea herbs all caressed in light frothy scallop sauce. 

Roasted hake with seeded breadcrumbs, roasted cauliflower and crispy elvers – a piece of hake which had been given just the right number of seconds cooking to whiten its flesh but leave it silky; texture coming from the seeded crumb and crispy elvers. Elvers from Glass Eels were once popular on menus (probably around the time of The French’s heyday) but dwindling numbers pushed their price up to beyond that of caviar… hugely increased populations over the last couple of years have once again made them sustainable and viable for restaurants.  

Reg’s guinea hen, bacon fat potatoes, turnips, hen of the woods and rosemary – perfectly cooked, excellent quality meat served with rich, indulgent potatoes, discs of and grated salt baked turnip, butter fried hen of the woods mushrooms and a classically prepared sauce where you can taste the bones and hours of work.

Forced Yorkshire rhubarb, crab apples, Douglas fir oats, yoghurt ice cream – I love rhubarb but that crab apple jelly really is something special.

Sass ‘n’ Soda – the usual end to another great meal at The French.

Meanwhile, across the city… Lunch at Manchester House:

Parmesan and onion brioche – the dinky brioche is very good and I liked the creamy espuma topping on the onion consommé but it would be interesting to know if the ‘consommé’ is made in the tried and tested classical way or with some fancy pants distillation machine from charred onions as the main thrust of ‘flavour’ seemed to come from smoke and charred onion powder as opposed to onion. 

Duck confit, watercress and turnip – this is a dish that I very much enjoyed; with the rich duck confit and smooth watercress purée there was a hint of Armagnac in there and a spark of acidity from a tiny dice of pickled turnip. Delightful.

Red pepper, rose and nasturtium – another enjoyable canapé; the tempura batter on the nasturtium flower was perfectly crisp. Also good, although appearing in numerous technical forms, the flavour of red pepper remained relatively pure. I particularly enjoyed the burst of caper that came from a spherification (but the question remains, would an actual caper have delivered the same?)

Salt cod mouse with almonds and broccoli – a mousse, delicate in flavour with a light airy texture buoyed by the crunch of nuts, crumb and brassicas; despite this being what owner Tim Bacon would call a ‘feminine dish’, it was the one I enjoyed the most.

Breast of duck, baby figs and smoked foie gras – a simple dish of classic flavours enhanced by a pan d’épice crumb. 

Braised lamb breast, wild garlic, lamb fillet tartare and young leek – a visually stunning dish; the braised lamb breast with its rich sticky glaze was delicious and I enjoyed the wild garlic powder and the citrus burst from the purple oxalis. The element that did not work for me was the leek cannelloni in which the subtlety of the lamb fillet tartare and diced sweetbreads was lost under the weight of the charred powdered coating.

Iced malt parfait, whiskey, dark chocolate sorbet – I’ve always found the desserts at Manchester House to be very good and this was no exception. The flavours chocolate flavours were strong without being too bitter and were well balanced with the whiskey and malt. One slight tweak I feel could be made to perfect the dish is to use less soil / crumb as the final couple of mouthfuls were somewhat ‘gravelly’.   

Macarons – the lemon one is my favourite every time.    

Whatever ‘Restaurant Wars: The Battle for Manchestergoes on to show in the next two episodes and whether Michelin decide to play ball and award either or both places a star… one thing is for sure, the food offerings in Manchester have greatly improved since Simon Rogan and Aiden Byrne came to town.


  1. Should the author acknowledge, in posts that critique his food, that he is a friend of Simon Rogan? Discuss.

    1. I'm no more a friend of Simon Rogan than I am Aiden Byrne's... Met them both a few times in their restaurants, at food events and socially. So if you are trying to imply I favour Simon's food over Alien because I am a friend, you massively mistaken. I even went to Aiden's 4Oth birthday party! I have Aiden's mobile number in my phone... Not Simon's. Feel free to continue with your discussion.

  2. I think it's fair to characterise your relationship with Mr Rogan as a friendship, however much you'd like to downplay it. (Weren't you out with him for a burger or suchlike a few posts back?) Your friendship with Mr Byrne is new information. I think there's a difference between a blogger being friendly with a restaurateur and socialising with them outside of their business, as seems to be the case here. It's for you to decide if such disclosure is warranted - after all, it's your own personal blog and not a leader in The Times. So I'll reframe the question: should the author acknowledge, when critiquing their food, that he is a friend of the chef/owner?

    1. Sure they 'should'? But I still wound't say we are friends though. Simon doesn't even follow me on twitter.

      I'm still not certain of your implications though? Has Simon got 2 michelin stars because he is friends with all the Michelin inspectors? And a 10/10 in the Good Food Guide coz he is friends with folk there? And 5 rosettes because of bis buddies at AA? He must be a pretty friendly chap!

      If I was more positive about Simon's food than Aiden's it's because Rogan's food is more like the style of food I enjoy - personalities, friendships and alike does not come into it.

  3. I don't follow your point about the guides. It's entirely to be expected that chefs will, to a greater or lesser extent, develop relationships with regular customers and other professionals within (broadly) their industry. However, if the editor of the GFG attends a chef's private family function, or a Michelin inspector "makes it rain" at Blue Rhino with the brigade after a visit, then I think questions would legitimately be asked about a potential conflict of interest.

    My particular worldview is that when a blogger is a friend of a restaurateur (as opposed to, say, being friendly) it fundamentally affects the nature of their review. Almost every blogger is eager to deny this, choosing instead to confidently assert their lack of bias and defend their integrity. Fair enough, but this is a delusion, albeit honestly held. It seems to me a fair option is to the let the reader decide for herself, and she can only do this with appropriate disclosure. A simple acknowledgement would suffice - "another visit to my friend Adolf's gaff".

    Your opinions are certainly better informed than most, and I very much appreciate your blog. However, if you claim immunity from the conscious or subconscious effects of ordinary human nature then you're kidding yourself.

  4. Hanzi - putting it simply, get a life. If you are trying to create some form of further "bloggergate" you are being childish at best.

    Anyone who has seen the number of blogs HH has done on Rogans food over the years knows he loves his food due to the product itself and not bribed friendship. If this was not the case I'm not sure he would spend quite so much of his (primary school) salary in such a way.

    Also, if ever you were to dine at a Rogan gaff (which by the sounds of it you haven't) you too would gush about his food. The man is a genius and in all likelihood will be the first ever double 3* chef from the UK.

    Now go back to putting chips on your shoulders, probably at your local Toby carvery and leave Claridge's et al to those of us with taste and yes, friends...


  5. I thought the programme this evening was really balanced. I have eaten at Simon Rogans place and am due to visit Manchester House in a couple of weeks (super excited) As a true Mancunian I was very disappointed not to have seen #Aumbry up there with the Manchester successes. Just from watching the programme and knowing Tim Bacon's style and that 'type' of Manchester scene, I am hoping I won't feel too out of place. Great work coming out of Manchester

  6. Reynard. Thanks for putting some common sense into this thread. Hoss's blog is by far and away the most objective un-biased food blog out there. His criticisms are fair and generally very accurate, all you need to see is Aiden's reaction to his blog to see how well respected Hoss is.

  7. Reminds me of a character in the Viz comics ..... Mr Logic. Normally he got severely beaten or killed in every issue.


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