The Flowers of Cottonopolis

February 22nd, 2015

All this talk of dead pigeons reminds me of one of the early scenes of the seminal film 24 Hour Party People, in which a young Shaun Ryder makes a load of them explode during one of the film’s earliest scenes. The screenplay was written by the genius writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, whose work I love, and he lives near me: in fact, I serendipitously saw him cycling home earlier today.

TFHPP tells part of the life story of another genius, in my eyes at least, Antony H Wilson. He famously once said of Manchester that ‘they do things differently there’ and, having lived in its arch rival down the M62 for nearly half my lifetime now, I’d have to agree.

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Funnily enough, I met Tony Wilson a couple of times. Spoke to him on the phone, had his mobile number until his untimely death. He had arranged for the Granada News cameras to come to a culture party we were planning for the night of the Capital of Culture announcement, should Liverpool have lost the bid.

I was never sure if he was doing it out of love, or to poke fun at the Scousers, either way it never materialised, and the rest – as they say – is history. But, whilst Liverpool has transformed itself as a tourist destination thanks to 2008, both as shopping and sten do central as well as football trip de rigour, Manchester’s rise has been doubly dramatic, and continues apace, not just due to the BBC’s decamp to the Salford Quays… Manchester itself was never (strangely) seen as a capital of Culture, but suffered the shock of a bomb then benefitted from the continued dominance of the Red Devils plus a hugely successful Commonwealth Games: a knock on effect being the arrival of Sheikh Mansour, meaning that large parts of the city I used to take day trips to as a teenager for the likes of Afflecks’ Palace, is almost unrecognisable today.

Part of my love for the city grew from its past, especially as a indie kid teenager, and when asked if there is a particular time period I’d have liked to live through, it would probably be Manchester between 1975 and 1990, which is laughable really as it’d probably have been a very grim existence and I might not even have survived, but the roses-tinted glasses of the music scene at the time, suggest otherwise, and I like to cling to the romantic idea of being a contemporary of Wilson.

Fast forward to today, and I recently read a good article about the changing face of Manchester’s night out, and how Oxford Road & Deansgate Locks are now for the students, the Northern Quarter & Canal Street for the Twenties, and Deansgate & Spinningfields for the thirtysomethings.

Having frequented all three as an outsider, I can see how this is the case, but the funny thing is that so many of my peers and colleagues refuse to acknowledge Manchester as a ‘good night out’ (Mark Radcliffe also said ‘it’s a place where people think the tables are for dancing on’) or even a ‘grand day out’, choosing instead to put down its architecture, nightlife and culture when compared to Merseyside, and so are ignorant of the plethora of highlights on offer to the visitor to Cottonopolis.

Getting the train into the city, the huge projects of apartment blocks, tram routes and new developments underline the ever-increasing growth of and buzz around the place and show that such parochialism is idiotic and largely based on football rivalries that themselves are outdated given the divides between the cities on and off the pitch.

All of this leads us nicely into the fact that it was an absolute joy, honour, privilege and every other superlative possible to experience one of the best dining experiences of our lives this week, in Manchester, and all devised by a Scouser.

So here we are: our Mersey Paradise. Both Liverpool and Manchester and other parts of the North west are thriving in terms of food, as documented by the rather excellent ( and beautifully illustrated) Bitten magazine which I’d recommend you all try to get a copy of (in Manchester, where it is more freely available apparently but also several venues on Merseyside)

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If our Anthony was telling this story, he’d start with the money. It always comes down to money, he says, so you might as well start there.

I’ll go back to Frank Cottrell Boyce’s equally wonderful feelgood film, Millions and yes, what I am going to describe, was also an expensive meal but the location, welcome, service and above all food, made it more than worth it in our opinion. But more of that in good time.

The day should have started with a lovely couple of aperitifs at The Botanist on Deansgate, made by a passionate barman called Stallone who was devising a new cocktail of Jasmine flowers and Pineapple with gin.

However, we had walked in too early, and had to kill time so went into Kendals and I had a KIMBO espresso to remind me of Naples.

Back we went and the day eventually started with a lovely couple of aperitifs at The Botanist on Deansgate, made by a passionate barman called Stallone who was devising a new cocktail of Jasmine flowers and Pineapple with gin.

The lampshades there are pretty special.

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This idea of botany and appreciating flora came through in our conversation, the beautiful renovation of a previously uber modern urban chic bar / grill we had frequented on a date seven years ago, and also the unusual gin he recommended plus the Kilner jars of herbs on the bar. A great start to the day and we hadn’t realised, the bar was part of the same group of businesses as our next destination.

We were immediately made to feel very welcome, despite the Scouse accents, and were immediately impressed with the design and attention to detail not just in the décor and the attentive service. It was particularly nice to see the chef and the CEO in conversation at a table nearby, though a little disappointing that clearly the reputation or recent BBC documentary, and perhaps the prices, had attracted some fellow diners who were more bothered about being seen or being on their phone and only ate half of their main course, Aiden Byrne’s famous beef creation for Great British Menu which was instead enjoyed immensely by our friends who coincidentally ate at the same restaurant in the evening.

We, meanwhile, opted for the six course tasting menu with flight of wine because in our other most memorable restaurant visits, this seemed the best way of getting a flavour (literally) of the place. The last time we had been able to enjoy such an opportunity was a year ago at L’enclume in Cartmel, which you can read about here, but if we are honest, we had already eaten three times at Aiden’s other restaurant so were confident (read about one visit here) that our high expectations would be met or exceeded and, already, the service by our attentive waiter Ross had helped surpass that lunch we had in the Lakes.

This was our table.

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Ross was a fascinating, painfully cool guy, with a clear passion for his job as well as his semi-pro career as a footballer, he described in length his enjoyment of his job and stood there in his hip outfit of jeans, waistcoat and knitted tie (my usual attire) we both felt a little envious of someone who spent their days serving millionaires and his own footballing heroes: an even more so, well Lisa at least, who said she got ‘waiter envy’ if she saw him attending to another table given how special we were made to feel.

BREAD

A beautiful combination of goats milk whipped butter and brioche with a delicate turnip cream in a separate jar and some chestnut shavings along the way, things got off to a great start.

BEGINNING

Manchester. We do things differently here.

No starters today, no.

Instead, a beginning: entitled Crisp scallop and suckling pig with seaweed salad, and consisting of a beautifully hole punched plate (£270 each, Ross later explained: as an ex kitchen porter, I winced) containing dry ice, seaweed, the trotter was delightful and a wakame mousse THE GREATEST SCALLOP EVER TASTED and some trotter with a lot more besides, all atop a beautiful scallop shell. The theatrical nature of the dish, of course, added weight to proceedings but seriously, this was an incredible start.

As if the links to Morrissey weren’t obvious enough, the first wine of our evening was perfectly suited, setting a scene that would continue for five further courses. The Charming Gruner-Veltiner went perfect with the seascape on our (expensive) plates and everything was alright in the world.

The next dish was a real show-stopper. Cured duck, foie gras mousse, celeriac and pennywort as described on the menu, is only half the story: it was served in a petri dish on a cross section of a tree, the colours were one thing, the taste another: and the wine, a German Pinot Noir I had heard mentioned on BBC Food & Drink only a week earlier and searched for (to no avail) made the duck tongues and the tiny cubes of turnip taste ten times better.

We were bursting into heaven.

MIDDLE

What the world was waiting for.

The onions and the beignets in the first main course (Monkfish tail, white onions, anchovies and wild garlic) were the highlights, we agreed. The sweet sweet little onion cakes with the powerful anchovies, then meaty fish and incredible Jabugo, one of the ingredients from an earlier signature dish of Aiden’s I had enjoyed years previous (then) plus the accompanying Alsatian white were a perfect mid meal light dish and the palate was being tantalised to epic proportions.

The sensations evoke what I’d assume those clubbers, documented so beautifully by Kevin Cummins, might have gone through on Whitworth Street, but it’d be easy to reference drug culture and the Hacienda at this point and I don’t want to detract from our experience.

However, euphoria is actually the closest thing we could suggest when describing the second main dish, with the succulent Longhorn beef sirloin and cheek, new season truffle potato soup served as pink as the most perfect steak I could remember eating, but that paled into nothing compared to the accompaniment of truffle & thyme mash and a thick slice of rich truffle which embodied the whole decadence of the meal so far. The little side bowl of a truffle foam, with a delightful beef cheek, was almost too much at this point, and every sip of the Chateau Cru Bourgeois made it all a bit too much at this point.

END

So the idea of floral beauty and the flowers of Manchester, came through in the first dessert, an offering so sublime in appearance and taste that it summarised not just the meal but the day too, which will come clearer later.

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This offering of Beetroot, Hibiscus, Rhubarb and Greek yoghurt was just stunning, visually and in taste, and refreshingly refreshing for the palate which wasn’t used to this excessive assault on the senses. I had vowed not to be one of those customers who photograph their meals today, a habit I’d stated I would give up for Lent actually, but that just wasn’t possible at this point.

There were also two drinks left and I’m starting to appreciate dessert wines a bit, they have an unusual sweetness and consistency and this was no different, a French Sauternes which augmented the taste even further.

Our lunch was nearly at an end. The final dessert also made use of a vegetable more commonly found in a salad, with carefully sliced fennel accompanying orange (sauce, fresh, semi-hydrated),
a wonderful walnut ice cream and the most delightful little spheres of pear. An Italian Soave was perfect for the biscotti-like wafer dissecting the plate of Walnut ice cream, pear, orange and fennel and a quick note on the straightforward, no fuss, names of the dishes summed up nicely the approach of the minimalist, wysiwyg ethos of this wondrous place.

All that was left was a brandy from the extensive drinks menu, I opted against the £350 Louis VIII version and settled for Courvoisier and Lise had what she deemed the greatest cappuccino she had ever tasted too. Then, a mysterious little wooden box, which we opened and found to be filled with the most attractive little macarons.

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Too perfect to eat.

Well, not quite: we had four and saved two for B so that she too could savour a taste of this memorable Mancunian feast for herself.

She quite liked them.

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But, after all the superlatives I have lavished on the previous two thousand words, in reality, the best was yet to come: we were lucky enough to then have a long conversation with Aiden about our experience, the place itself, his old teachers and tutors and how ‘growing up’ (having kids!) changes your perspectives on things and makes you savour these moments more than you imagined possible before.

Ultimately, the bill arrived and it became officially the most expensive meal I’ve ever had and also by far the best.

Which really should be the end of the story, but isn’t quite.

SECOND COMING / I AM THE RESURRECTION

After a couple more drinks in The Grinch, visits to various cool shops, marvelling at the street market stalls and architecture (despite what some would have you believe) we ventured to another ‘project’ of the same company, The Alchemist, to meet with said friends who were about to enjoy a visit to MH themselves. Hugely impressed by the decadent lavish menus, theatrical drinks production and a variety of intricate apparatus and serving accompaniments (many of which, I’m sure, get stolen) we shared a Fool’s Gold from a soda siphen, sipped a Negroni from a bespoke hip flask, sucked rose petal G&Ts from a milk bottle and for Lise, a colour changing cocktail that should have been a potion from a horror movie but actually tasted nearly as good as everything that had gone before.

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The train home was calling and we passed on the baton to our friends. You can read all about their experience here… it really is an excellently written piece, but doesn’t mention their own chance meeting with someone else who has made a successful journey from Merseyside to Manchester.

The brilliant Bitten magazine highlights the emergence of some incredible food and drink venues, projects, people in this part of the world. Hopefully, more and more of us can enjoy each other’s company in them, and the love can spread.

#4 Beach Comber, 1 September 1944 (Brighton-Le-Sands)

February 17th, 2015

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#3 Tyke, 2 December 1943 (Waterloo)

February 17th, 2015

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#2 Winkie, 2 December 1943 (Lancaster)

February 17th, 2015

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#1 White Vision, 2 December 1943 (Huyton with Roby)

February 17th, 2015

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