If there’s one thing I’d like to echo from Giles Coren’s mixed-to-positive review of Aumbry in the Times the other week – and believe me, there are few things of his I would ever want to echo – it’s that their treacle tart is awesome.
On my first visit in February I was relatively underwhelmed by the puddings and wondered whether the kitchen lacked passion for the sweeter parts of the menu. But second time round I ate this mini-masterpiece: a skilfully-made pie with tart lemon jelly and a deep frothy warming cup of Earl Grey cream tea on the side. It more than proved me wrong.
It was the balance that was so exceptional. I’ve had better desserts this year* but I can’t think of any that was so well-conceived. The marriage of flavours was wonderful and all my dining companions agreed. My dad claimed it was the best sweet he’s ever had.
The other big highlight from the six-course tasting menu was the potato and wild garlic soup, which swung bag after bag of flavour at my grateful tastebuds. When you get soup of this quality, it makes you want to question why higher-end restaurants don’t do it more often. Done right it can be such a beautiful thing; here, with a glass of chardonnay on the side, it was.
Head chef Mary-Ellen wasn’t in the kitchen this evening but there appeared to be no adverse effect on the food being produced – certainly there were none of the technical errors Coren wrote about. I wanted more from the slow-cooked wood pigeon dish, which seemed to lack the usual Aumbry wit and needed another element to lift it, but the cooking was faultless. I was particularly impressed by the accompanying chicory, a bitter leaf which has murdered many a game bird in its time but was held firmly in check through careful braising.
Here’s the menu with pictures. My dad and I also shared a cheeseboard at the end.
TASTING MENU ǀ SIX COURSES
Home Smoked Mackerel
Poached rhubarb & mustard cream
Potato & Wild Garlic Soup
English truffle oil
Cumbrian Wood Pigeon
Braised chicory, grilled grelot & lemon balm
Celery granita & grapefruit sherbet
Lemon jelly & Earl Grey cream
After February’s meal I declared Aumbry to be the best restaurant in the county. Eating there four months on with my family in toe, there was nothing to make me want to rescind that statement.
Admittedly, I wasn’t quite as thrilled by the experience this time round. Greater familiarity with the menu (I’d hoped for more change between the two visits), staff who kept dropping things (spilling a glass of wine all over our table was probably the worst of the half dozen or so slip ups) and a random diner who kept looking at me like she wanted to stab me in the face all helped to dampen the magic.
*These superior desserts would be the ones I had at The Square and The Ledbury, so it’s not really a fair fight. If there’s a pudding better than Aumbry’s treacle tart in Greater Manchester right now, I’d love to know about it.
I love writing scathing reviews. There’s nothing more fun than donning the hat of mean and being a complete and utter bastard.
I’m much better suited to making negative comments than positive ones, or at least that’s how I feel. I certainly know far more insults than compliments. There’s just a pleasure to be had from constructing phrases of harsh ridicule that isn’t there when writing praise. I think I’m better at it, and when I have bad things to say, I reckon my posts are more interesting.
So do forgive me if I bore you to death while recounting my meal at Aumbry, which last week gave me the best meal I’ve ever had in Greater Manchester.
It’s the little things and how well they’re done that make Aumbry such a good restaurant. The tiny dining room – a converted domestic lounge which looks to seat 28 but felt nicely full with half that number on my visit – is a wonderful place to eat. Quaintly adorned and warmly lit, it’s cosy and intimate and has a lot of character. The open kitchen at the back provides a refreshingly un-showy focal point.
The team of waiters is small too – and magnificent. I can imagine it’s very difficult to get the balance right in a place like this, where high-end food demands rigid formality but the dining room calls out for casual friendliness. Each of the two staff members walked this fine line with aplomb, proving extremely efficient, charming and knowledgeable as they flawlessly tended to our table.
The small things done well theme continued into the food, where a focus on the little details gave everything a lift.* The bread wasn’t particularly special but the bread course was. Two types of butter including a wonderful brown nut variety were served in one pretty little pot; joyous beef dripping – the bread accompaniment of all bread accompaniments – was served in another.
In the nine-course tasting menu, it was the little things that outshone everything else. The Scotch eggs were excellent but it was the ketchup that made the dish, a luscious red sauce that had me raking at the plate to scoop up every drop. A hexagonally-cut mushroom, an ingredient so often an afterthought, was immaculate too. On a plate of turbot – my favourite fish – the itty-bitty frogs’ legs stole the show. On the cheese board, it was the beetroot and rhubarb condiments that stood out and sparkled.
Given the passion the kitchen clearly has for the fiddly bits, it’s perhaps not surprising that the first two dishes were the most successful. The most diminutive, refined and delicate of the lot, each of the morsels they encompassed was delicious individually; combined they truly excelled.
Home-smoked mackerel with poached rhubarb and mustard cream was my favourite, an absolutely dazzling dish from the top end of the 1-Michelin-star spectrum. But the home-cured ham with Derbyshire oatcake and potted cheddar that preceded it was every bit as good. My wife’s dish of the night – the Scotch egg – completed a very strong first act.
I didn’t feel the middle part of the meal quite reached the same heights, but there was still plenty to adore. The hogget was beautiful; the pearl barley and braised shoulder served under it inspired. I’ve already mentioned the frogs’ legs, but the smoked eel pudding was just as big a delight.
I did have a couple of quibbles, however. The cauliflower and oat groat porage wasn’t really to my taste,** and it felt a bit like porage overload given its similarity in texture to the hogget’s pearl barley accompaniment. There was a lapse in the precision cooking in this section as well. In fairness, it was the only blip during the whole meal, but it was not an insignificant one: the turbot was overdone.
The final act started with an attractively presented cheese board – six different varieties of cheese, three different condiments, two different ports, one big dose of heaven. This was followed by two very capable, if slightly uninteresting, desserts. Each was well-made, but I felt they lacked a bit of the imagination so prevalent among the other seven courses. Still good, mind!
The full menu (£60) with matching wine (£38) is below. All of the wine pairings worked well and I’d highly recommend it if you have the nine-course tasting menu.
Home Cured Inglewhite Ham
Potted cheddar & Derbyshire oatcakes
Prosecco di Valdobbiadene 2009
Home Smoked Mackerel
Poached rhubarb & mustard cream
Chablis ‘Le Grand Bois’, Domaine Grande Chaume 2008
Bury Black Pudding Scotch Egg
Mushroom relish & tomato ketchup
Morgon Les Charmes 2009
Cauliflower & Oat Groat Porage (v)
White onion purée & cauliflower cheese beignet
Lapostolle Chardonnay Cuvée Alexandre 2009
Roast Wild Turbot
Smoked eel pudding, frog’s leg, parsley root & verjuice
Picpoul de Pinet, Languedoc 2010
Slow Cooked Herdwick Hogget
Pearl barley, braised Shoulder, smoked shallot, crispy lamb belly, Madeira jelly
Crozes Hermitage, Etienne Pochon 2009
British & Irish Cheeses
Rene Mure Gewurztraminer Late Harvest 2006 & Krohn Colheita Port 1978
Celery granita & grapefruit sherbet
Chateau Jolys Jurancon 2008
Beetroot & Chocolate Cakes
Heaton Park honey, hazelnut, caraway & bee pollen
Jean Bousquet Malbec, Dulce Naturale 2007
Overall I had a fabulous meal at Aumbry. It wasn’t just the best I’ve had in Greater Manchester, it’s the best I’ve had in Greater Manchester by a long, long way. The couple we got talking to at the table next to ours seemed to be having a similar experience, breaking out the superlatives for every dish. There were just so many high points and nothing much in the way of a low. The four of us agreed that places this good don’t really exist around here.
I want to give a special mention to how well the kitchen catered for my wife’s dairy allergy. I’ve complained in the past about expensive restaurants promising it won’t be a problem and then doing a terrible job of it, and it’s always a big fear when we splash out on a meal. But Aumbry were outstanding; as accommodating as any place we’ve ever been. Discussing it afterwards we decided they were probably as good in this area as Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, and better even than The Waterside Inn (both three-Michelin-starred restaurants, in case you didn’t know). A specially-made dairy-free chocolate petit four was the icing on the cake.
I’ve already convinced my family to give Aumbry a try – we’re planning to head back to celebrate my dad’s birthday in May. But if you live in Greater Manchester, you really need to try it too. I’m pretty sure it’s the finest restaurant in the county. And I doubt you’ll be disappointed.***
Dining Room: 3.5/5
Overall score: 69/100 (Excellent – must try for locals)
Note: I returned to Aumbry in June 2012 and took some pictures of the experience. You can read that review here.
*I forgot to mention the pre-meal nibbles: a couple of decent gougères and some seriously addictive crisps.
**I’m not saying the cauliflower dish was bad, just not up my street. I don’t particularly like cauliflower, nor am I that into foods that have a grainy consistency. Interestingly, when I discussed the meal with my sis-in-law’s fella, who’d eaten at Aumbry a few weeks earlier, this was the dish he really raved about. Different strokes…
***In case anybody is wondering where the food pictures are, I didn’t bother to take any. I was enjoying myself so much I didn’t remember my camera until after the bread, following which I decided snapping away would probably detract from the experience. Certainly, it would’ve been distracting, and I’d rather have a great meal distraction-free than a blog post full of pretty pics.
I’ve spent the last two and a half years of my life relentlessly saving money. I squirreled away every penny I could, firstly to buy a house and then to pay for a wedding.
For some people the saving experience can be a positive one. It proves they’ve got the willpower to keep their spending in line; it makes them feel good about how sensible they are.
I’m not one of those people. I wanted to shoot myself in the face.
Going out to restaurants is one of my favourite things to do in the entire world. Dozens of the best evenings of my life have been spent in nice restaurants with good food, company and conversation. When everything is on song, it’s a near peerless way to spend a couple of hours.
But for the last 30 months – big gourmet honeymoon aside – I’ve had to put this part of my life on hold. And it’s been excruciating. I’d get excited about big new openings and places that had picked up rave reviews and then have to stop myself from getting carried away because I knew I couldn’t go.
Since the self-imposed restaurant ban came in to force, several highly-regarded restaurants have opened AND closed. I feel genuine pain at the thought that I never had the chance to try them.
Fortunately now, as a finally married homeowner, I no longer have to live this way. For the next few months at least, the saving shackles are off and I’m going to dive back into Manchester’s restaurant scene head first to find out what I’ve been missing.*
Here are the five restaurants at the top of my hitlist. If I can get to at least four before the year’s out, I’ll be a happy man.**
Anybody know anyone who has been to these? Are there any restaurants that I’m missing?
Stanley Street, Salford, M3 5EJ
0161 832 4080
I’ve been wanting to go ever since seeing chef Robert Owen Brown’s highly informative and piss-myself funny presentation on game birds at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival (MFDF) a while back. Handing out dead birds at the end to anybody who fancied one sealed the deal. This is my kind of chef.
2 Church Lane, Prestwich, Manchester M25 1AJ
0161 798 5841
This came to my attention when it was named Best Restaurant at last year’s MFDF and I spent hours trying to figure out why the hell anybody would open a nice restaurant in Prestwich. I’m still puzzled by that, but the menu looks great. I love that they’ve got the confidence to stick just 12 dishes on there. Classy.
The Lowry Hotel, 50 Dearmans Place, Chapel Wharf, Manchester, M3 5LH
0161 827 4041
You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m drawn to expensive things and this is pretty much as expensive as you’ll get in Manchester, with a typical starter over £10 and a lot of the mains in the mid-£20 range. Reviews are good and it’s got a few accolades, but I really just want to see if it can live up to its price tag.
36 John Dalton Street, Manchester, M2 6LE
0161 839 9907
From what I’ve read about the place and what I can see on the menu, the chef’s got a lot of ambition, which is rare in Manchester. Whether he’s trying too hard and attempting stuff that is beyond him remains to be seen, but I do like a tryer, so I want to give him a chance. Plus, Vertigo’s an awesome film. How can you say no to Hitchcock?
Malmaison, Piccadilly, Manchester, M1 1LZ
0161 278 1000
Two words: Josper Grill. Smoak’s desperate need to be cool, as demonstrated by its vomit-inducing website and we’re-too-hip-to-spell-properly name, makes me want to self-harm. But if it can deliver a top notch steak, as its equipment and menu suggest, all will be forgiven.
*If I’m totally honest, it wasn’t quite as bad as I’ve been making out. Thanks to very generous relatives and the odd lapse, I’ve been able to eat at all these generally well-thought-of places in the last two years. Some of them (mostly the ones which weren’t crushing disappointments) more than once:
The French Restaurant
Michael Caines @ Abode
No.4 Dine & Wine
Sam’s Chop House