Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Get Fraiche










Last night, a bit of Wirral glamour came to Manchester in the shape of Marc Wilkinson and a selection of culinary toys including a smoke gun. It was the first Harvey Nichols guest-cheffery occasion that I can remember, and like a small-town theatre in summer, the bar and brasserie had gone dark in order to focus the collective mind on the matter in hand: 40 Mancunian covers, keen to taste Marc's food without trekking to Oxton for it.

As I breakfast contemplatively on the herby caramelised pecans boxed up for the ladies to take away after dinner, I can report that all went well. There was a jovial, slightly excitable atmosphere – by its nature, it's not often that the HN dining room is full of customers whose main interest is in the food – and Gemma Perry, Marc's right-hand girl, ran an unflustered service.

For £90 with plenty of matching wine (£65 for me, the poor non-boozer), we had a dinner that I'd rank, if I was the Hornby sort, somewhere in Per Se's slipstream but far above our recent sortie to Mr Underhill's in Ludlow, which has held a star for years, and probably over Purnell's, Juniper old and new and Simpsons as well. Highlights included the novelty of a dish of smoking olives with a plume that rose when the lid was lifted ("They taste," said Tim, "like they've just come out of a house fire"), and an extraordinarily tender loin of rabbit swapped in for the foie gras course in case baby H'n'H, now 34 weeks and kicking like a mentalist, was adversely affected by all that vitamin A. There was also a revelatory pairing of sweetly seared scallop – not pictured, that's another one of his scallop dishes – and fresh, clean pineapple puree.

Wilkinson does like to fiddle, but he gets the balance right, and the processes he puts ingredients through serve to clarify the flavours: my melon and almond soup came with little barrels of melon stuck with slivered almonds, like tiny fruit and nut angels, and the almonds themselves were ridiculously...almondy. The verjus drizzlings with a piece of seared sea bass and aubergine yoghurt shook the whole thing awake, although I will admit that I thought it was tamarind for a while, and I hadn't even had a drink.

Things slowed down marginally towards the end, and I decided that I would willingly have sacrificed one of the dessert courses in order to leave while I was still awake. Then Tim asked me whether I would have missed the chilled, fizzy grapes, the lemongrass pannacotta with the sour cherry foam, or the deconstructed Sachertorte with the shot glass of apricot sorbet and warm, mouth-filling chocolate moussey stuff. I didn't have an answer for that.

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