The launch of a new restaurant, headed by a Michelin-starred chef, is big news in any town. Aiden Bryne, who picked up his star in his early twenties, has just opened a restaurant in Manchester city centre which sets out to provide a very classy dining experience.
It's situated in the Spinningfields area, which is the newest part of the city to have been fancied up, and now features shiny new towers, wide walkways dotted with designer boutiques and a sprinkling of art galleries and restaurants. Manchester House is far from obvious at street level, and perhaps that's the way the owners want it. Announce yourself to the receptionist on the ground floor of Tower 12 and you'll be spirited up to the lounge at level 12 for a drink before you dine. Floor to ceiling glass means a panoramic view of the city but a slightly chilly atmosphere if you happen to visit when it's raining. And let's face it, this is Manchester - it rains a lot.
Byrne's opening menu is not for the squeamish - foie gras, snails, frogs legs and lambs tongues are enough to make many diners nervous. As a vegetarian, even setting foot in the place was almost taboo - foie gras is pretty unforgivable, and the open kitchen was far from entertaining as far as I was concerned.
But Byrne has wrong-footed us. Alongside his a la carte menu, six-course lunch taster menu and 14-course evening taster menus are completely unexpected vegetarian equivalents, including a 14-course vegetarian taster menu - a thing so rare as to be practically non-existent.
I asked Bryne why he's taking the trouble to provide equal billing for vegetarian food. He told me that about ten per cent of customers order at least one vegetarian course and confessed that although in his younger days he was pretty dismissive towards vegetarians ('Give them the mushroom risotto'), he has now 'grown up'. And that means thinking less about his own ego and more about providing hospitality - to all the customers.
One member of staff also told me that some customers find the meaty menu rather scary, and are rather relieved to be offered the vegetarian alternative.
Taster menus are about showcasing the chef's talent with a series of delectable morsels, artistically presented. Byrne describes it as 'going on a journey' - certainly the six-course vegetarian menu I experienced was quite an event. Each course had a style of its own and the plates, bowls, slates and wooden boards bearing the food were all designed specifically for the restaurant. Flavours and textures were suitably varied, and some nice seasonal veg were in evidence. Byrne has a forager on staff and also takes boxes of produce from local smallholders, so the menu is flexible depending on what comes through the door. We started with a warming onion broth with a crumbly onion bread and a scoop of soft, smooth roasted onion butter which I will be trying to replicate at home. A tasty cobnut risotto was topped with a tasty and unusual smoked apple puree, heritage baby carrots were accompanied by spherified olive paste and the finale was a chocolate fondant topped with a macaron and encased in a giant chocolate-ice bubble. It was all good fun and suitably satisfying to both the eye and the palate, although for me, the truffle oil made rather too many appearances. Never liked the stuff, and it lingers.
The menu feels a little short on protein - although I didn't go away hungry, my initial impression was that the dishes were vegetable-centric, and that some more pulses, cheese, tofu or tempeh would have been welcome. Byrne describes a creative process that involves marrying flavours, and explains that classic vegetable combinations work with or without meat, but I think his creations would benefit from the addition of some alternative sources of protein, and perhaps there is some scope for exploring ways to bring beans and lentils to the fine dining table.
Vegetarians dining in 'mixed company' will need a steady nerve, although there's a lot to be said for taking meat-eaters to a restaurant where vegetarians aren't treated like second-class citizens. I applaud Bryne's willingness to respect vegetarians, and I hope the vegetarian menus attract enough support to make them a permanent feature at Manchester House. But even a 14-course vegetarian showcase couldn't quite divert me from my personal disquiet over the non-vegetarian food on offer. It was interesting, but it didn't feel right, and I doubt I will go back.