There's an Irving Berlin song that goes by the name They Were All Out Of Step But Jim. I've been humming it like a mantra because of The French, goggling at column after column of praise for the place: normally caustic critics wiping away tears of gratification and the blogosphere in even more of a freebie-fuelled froth than usual. Because I just don't get it.
- The French
- Midland Hotel, Peter Street,
- M60 2DS
- 0161-236 3333
- Open lunch Weds-Sat noon-1.30pm (last orders), dinner Tues-Sat 6.30-9.30pm (last orders). Three-course set meal £29, six-course £55, 10-course £79, all plus drinks and service.
Value for money5/10
The standout dish for many is "ox in coal oil". Of all the things I don't get about The French, I don't get this the most. Coal oil – oil in which hot charcoal has been steeped – is something of a recurring theme for the chef behind this landmark new Manchester restaurant, Simon Rogan of Great British Menu and two-Michelin-starred L'Enclume fame. He's drenched mackerel in it previously, and scallops. (Me, curious about taste profiles: "What is the difference between ox and cow?" Server: "Ox is bigger and has horns.")
So we have raw beef in an almost Korean yukhoe style, chopped, fat-free, with tiny spheres of kohlrabi, toasted pumpkin seeds and sunflower shoots. But everything is reduced to texture, because all I can taste is that oil. It's all I can taste next morning, too. Unlike barbecuing, where smoke enhances, this meat has given up the ghost and let the oil dance a demented caper all over it. It's clammy and cold. Everyone, but everyone, loves this dish.
We have the full 10 courses, at £79. Well, you feel you must. We have spongey boiled sole on to which is poured an onion broth so powerful and jammy, it gums the lips together. Sole is a delicate fish; it doesn't stand a snowball's. There are the inevitable "jokes": pickled mussels whose shells are edible – pastry stained with squid ink – and twigs made of seaweed. I hazard these are more fun to dream up than they are to eat. Goat's cheese with a beetroot mousse is served at a disturbing blood temperature, and a claggy chore to wade through. Although I do love its apple marigold; they've apparently imported L'Enclume's plot-to-table philosophy by installing polytunnels on the grand Edwardian hotel's roof. A dish called "late spring offerings" is a gorgeous, supremely fresh riot of living flavours – petals, shoots, roots, alliums – and beautiful to look at. There's more. A lot more. But apart from those prepubescent veg and magnificent bread, much of it has a pre-plated quality. I don't love any of it.
I'm so distressed at not falling for this handsome room – an uneasy cocktail of grand hotel, modern Scandi and Vegas bling – that I resort to checking Tripadvisor, that chat room for shills, for validation. But the only people complaining there are the fossils, the kind who chunter things like, "The lady wife and I like it when we return from powder room to find our serviettes folded into the shape of a swan."
Worn out after almost four hours of foofery, of dish expositions as foams congeal and collapse on our plates, we beg for the bill. This causes consternation: I've never before been pursued out of a restaurant by a panicked server wailing, "You haven't had your sarsparilla!"
So voilà: everyone loves The French but me. Maybe it's because there's an unwritten restaurant critic rule to be nicer to places outside London, or the pitchforks come out. Or, for punters, that weird psychological aberration that kicks in after you spend scary loot: "I've just dropped nearly 300 quid. It must be good!"
I haven't been to L'Enclume (apart from via Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's glorious The Trip: "The consistency is a bit like snot." "Like Ray Winston's coughed it up"), so I must take everyone's word for its marvellousness. And, despite its mean little room, I was wowed by Rogan's recently closed "two-year pop-up" in London, Roganic, but a lot of that was down to the vaguely loony talent of then chef Ben Spalding. Messrs Michelin are probably hurtling towards The French as we speak. Everyone's out of step but me.
• The French Midland Hotel, Peter Street, Manchester, 0161-236 3333. Open lunch Weds-Sat noon-1.30pm (last orders), dinner Tues-Sat 6.30-9.30pm (last orders). Three-course set meal £29, six-course £55, 10-course £79, all plus drinks and service.
Value for money 5/10
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