I think it takes real balls to open up a serious restaurant on West Didsbury’s Burton Road. There are few, if any, places in Manchester that offer such fierce competition. Dozens of eateries lie in the vicinity, including several of the city’s most successful and revered.
Directly across the road from The Rose Garden sits Rhubarb, “the only restaurant in West Didsbury to be recommended in the Michelin guide”.* Around the corner is the granddaddy of the local dining scene, The Lime Tree, which has been picking up awards for decades.
But if such competition has had an adverse effect on The Rose Garden, you’d never be able to tell. With a menu and dining room that ooze confidence, it was completely full when we arrived for our 9pm booking on a Saturday night and it was still buzzing when we left almost two hours later.
A friendly waitress seated us at a small but serviceable table by the door. First impressions were far better than I expected them to be. Pictures of the restaurant online made it look like this bleak, dystopian nightmare of a place – snowblind-inducing white walls with cold splashes of modern art. But packed to the rafters with people it was warm and intimate; a lovely space to be.
There were a lot of good options on the menu, so it took us a while to make up our minds. My wife drank a gin and tonic whilst perusing while I got straight on with the wine, a perfectly acceptable Vina Cobos Malbec Felino 2010.
It took about 30 minutes for our starters to arrive but mine, I felt, was worth the wait. The well-cooked glazed pigeon breast was in perfect harmony with the crisp salad, sweet popcorn-esque toasted walnuts and tart orange vinaigrette served alongside it, and it all went down very nicely. It wasn’t the most exciting of dishes, but definitely a very pleasant way to start the meal.
(‘Pick the walnut shards out of the tooth cavity’ was a fun game for my tongue to play between courses.)
While I was eating that, my wife had a black pudding and venison scotch egg, which would’ve been great had it not been let down by a couple of things: a disappointingly overdone egg yolk and far too much black pepper. The combination of flavours was good, with the chutney particularly outstanding, but it wasn’t executed as well as it could’ve been.
For mains we both ordered two-way beef – a 4oz fillet with braised shin, fidget pie and roast tomatoes. This wasn’t as ugly as the below picture suggests and definitely didn’t merit my wife’s suggestion that someone had “shit on the plate”, but it wasn’t going to win any prizes for presentation. What could win prizes, however, was the absolutely incredible shin of beef, which brought up memories of all the best stews I’ve had in my life and showed them two fingers. The chef’s heavy-handedness with black pepper aside, this was about as good as warm, homely comfort food can get.
A little too good, if I’m honest, for the fillet steak. This wasn’t a bad chunk of meat by any means and it was well-cooked, but it was easily outshone by its rustic partner. The contrast was interesting for a bit, but I think I’d rather have done without it. The superb fidget pie and tomatoes were accompaniment enough.
Each of us had a different tart for pudding: an orange and pistachio tart with blackberry compote and clotted cream pour moi and a Bakewell tart for the missus. Both were pretty solid efforts and I don’t have much to say about either, other than I’d happily eat them again. Dessert wine options weren’t particularly strong, but there’s worse things that can happen.
Service was charming and efficient, and the whole evening was very satisfying; that I went home afterwards and cracked open the Hennessy XO says volumes about what a good time we had. My only real complaint about what was otherwise an excellent meal is that the prices (£7 starters, £20 mains, £6 desserts) seemed one or two pounds higher than they should’ve been. But given how packed the place was, the locals are clearly happy to pay this much.
And for a meal this good, so am I.
Dining Room: 3/5
Overall score: 49/100 (Good)
*I don’t rate Rhubarb at all, having had a very poor lunch there a couple of years back. But a lot of people do seem to like it.
As you’d expect given the incredible foodie year I’ve had, I’ve eaten some truly sublime things in 2011. Here I run down the best dishes I’ve eaten overall, and the best dishes I’ve eaten in my home city of Manchester, during the last 12 months.
TOP 10 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (OVERALL)
- Warm Raspberry Soufflé [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]
Out of everything I’ve eaten this year, this is the one I find myself day-dreaming about the most. My mouth moistens, my memory goes back to a perfect summer’s evening and I want more than anything to be sat in the dining room of The Waterside Inn, gazing out over a moonlit river and eating this faultless raspberry soufflé.
I’ve had many more profound eating experiences during 2011; revelations that changed my whole outlook on food. But this relatively simple dessert handily beat each of them in the most important category of all – taste.
I had often wondered what the fuss is with soufflés; this featherlight version, with the texture of a celestial cloud and the intense flavour of fresh English raspberries (aided by a tart raspberry coulis), explained it better than words ever could. A symphony of pleasures from the moment it arrived on the table to the last spoonful, no dish has ever given me greater joy – and I think it might be a long time before another gives as much again.
2. Roast Foie Gras, Isle of Skye Sorrel, Gooseberry & Cardamom [Hibiscus, London – July]
3. Fillet of Beef Rossini, Crunchy Cos Lettuce, “Sacristain” Potatoes [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]
4. Seared Scallop, Pea Purée, Toasted Coconut and Morteau Sausage Emulsion [Hibiscus, London – July]
Done correctly, scallops can be remarkable little morsels – jewels of the sea – but I had no idea how good they could be until I had this dish, with a big, fat, hand-dived specimen at its centre. The accompaniments were impressively made and the whole dish was beautifully presented and cooked, but it was Mother Nature who made it sing through the creation of this exquisite central ingredient. So fresh and so sweet, it almost makes me scared to order scallops again in case they’re just not this good.
(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number ten on this list, here, via Nordic Nibbler. I think I might’ve actually been there on the same night as him as I had the first four dishes he had, as well as the same amuse bouche, pre-dessert and first dessert course.)
5. Roasted Challandais Duck with a Lemon and Thyme Jus, Potato and Garlic Mousseline [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]
The Waterside Inn is all about the duck. They float down the Thames as you sit out on the terrace, pictures of them adorn the walls and menus, and the smell of them roasting permeates every inch of the restaurant (delightful when you’re waiting for your food, not so delightful when you wake up hungover in the morning).
I believe it hasn’t been off the menu since it opened well over three decades ago and I found out just why when I had the chance to try it: it’s a total classic. I loved the theatre of the whole duck being presented at the table then carved in front of us. I also loved the little puff pastry duck served alongside it. But, as you’d expect, the dish was really all about the duck itself, which was stunning.
It was supremely old-fashioned, and it looked it, but this is my sort of food. If I ate at The Waterside Inn ten more times, I don’t think there’d be a single occasion where I wouldn’t order the duck.
(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number nine on this list, here, via Food-E-Matters.)
6. Porterhouse & Bone In Rib-Eye Steaks (150-day Corn Fed USDA Angus Beef), Hand Cut Chips [Goodman Mayfair, London – August]
7. Baba like in Monte-Carlo [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]
8. Macerated English Raspberries, Fine Puff Pastry Layers, Lime and Yoghurt Custard, White Chocolate Shards [Northcote Manor, Langho – August]
9. Terrine of Foie Gras with Lightly Peppered Rabbit Fillets and Glazed with a Sauternes Wine Jelly, Salad of Chinese Cabbage Leaves and a Violet Mustard-Flavoured Brioche Toast [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]
10. Tartare of King Crab, Sweetcorn, Meadow Sweet & Smoke Kipper Consommé, Sea Herbs [Hibiscus, London – July]
This dish was my intro to two-star Michelin cooking and I could immediately see the difference between it and everything I’d had before at one-star level. “The Red Guide inspectors aren’t completely clueless,” I thought. It was an unusual dish, absolutely nothing like anything I’ve ever had before or since, but it was such an awesome way to start a meal. A fascinating exploration of different tastes and textures, it was a real treat for the senses, and one I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
TOP 5 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (MANCHESTER)
1. Bone In Sirloin (Belted Galloway), Bone Marrow, Mushroom, Chips [Smoak, City Centre – October]
2. Rib-Eye Steak, Chips, Humitas, Baby Gem salad, Tender Stem Broccoli and Peppercorn Sauce [Gaucho, City Centre – July]
Gaucho might not do the best steak in town anymore, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t still do a bloody good job. Had an excellent meal there on my stag do, the highlight of which was a main course featuring humitas (a paste of sweetcorn, onions and goat’s cheese, boiled in a corn husk). I’ve never been a big fan of sweetcorn, but these were a revelation – a wonderful sweet accompaniment to the perfectly-cooked beef.
3. Eccles Cakes with Double Cream [The Mark Addy, Salford – November]
When I got married earlier in the year, I had an Eccles cake mountain instead of a traditional wedding cake (below). It looked good, it tasted good; the guys from Slattery’s in Whitefield did a great job. But when I tasted the Eccles cakes at The Mark Addy a few months later, my first thought was: “Why the hell didn’t we get these guys to do our Eccles cakes instead?” Absolutely gorgeous and, as I said in the comments here, the best I’ve ever had.
4. Pigeon, Bury Black Pudding, Belly Pork, Apple [The Lime Tree, West Didsbury – November]
5. Chicken with Garlic [Kyotoya, Withington – November]
The last time I went to the Manchester institution that is The Lime Tree in West Didsbury, I missed Noel’s House Party. Needless to say, it was a while ago.
The only things I remember about that meal are a beautiful beef carpaccio – my first experience of blue meat, and probably still the best – and a very cramped dining room.
Despite a smart facelift at some point during the last dozen years, the latter hasn’t changed much. My wife, who is only 5ft tall, managed to clatter a menu off the table adjacent to ours while taking off her coat, much to the bemusement of the man trying to read it.
If you’ve got a penchant for swinging cats while you eat, this is not the place for you.
The dining tables are also on the small side, presumably so you don’t risk giving neighbouring diners a faceful of bottom when you go to sit down. Ours was overcrowded before the menus were placed upon it. Once a bottle of wine and a jug of water joined the affray and food started to be doled out, it bordered on pure chaos.
But these proved to be only mild distractions in the grand scheme of things. As soon as a friendly member of staff had furnished me with an appealing menu and wine list, and the warm atmosphere had begun to charm, all was forgiven. Before I’d tasted a morsel, I was already thinking it would be a nice restaurant to visit with family or friends. It’s that sort of place.
Fortunately, the food did little to stop me thinking that a future trip would be a good idea.
My starter of pigeon, black pudding, belly pork and apple was excellent.* When I reviewed Jem&I in East Didsbury a few months ago, I said some of its starters reminded me of the dishes that get rejected from the first round of MasterChef. But The Lime Tree gave me a dish straight out of the final; one that would be vomit-inducingly gushed over by John and Gregg.
It was beautiful to look at. The bright pink of the sliced pigeon breast against the black of the pudding and the dark green of a spinach bed was a treat for the eyes, and it tasted as good as it looked. Each element was of quality and precisely cooked; the combination of flavours difficult to fault. The only slight issue was that the belly pork lacked crispy skin. It was one decent bit of crackling away from that irritating tension music and Gregg saying: “The winner of MasterChef 2011 is…”
Annoyingly, my main didn’t come close to the same standard, and I mostly blame myself. Unable to decide what to order, my wife suggested I ignore the other items on the menu and get a steak instead. Stupidly, I listened and broke my golden rule. Never order a steak in a restaurant that doesn’t specialise in steak.
The chips were perfectly fine and I had no quarrel with the mushrooms. It was also a nice healthy size, which isn’t always the case. But the T-bone itself was just sad. There was some flavour there; I could tell it was a good bit of meat. However, it had been cooked at too low a temperature and for too long. The outside was a pallid grey colour; the inside ranged from medium to medium-well (nothing like the medium-rare I’d requested). A good pepper sauce might’ve saved it, but this was probably the most disappointing part of the plate. Almost sickly in its creaminess, it lacked any degree of peppery bite.
Across the table my wife was enjoying some very pleasant duck in a nicely balanced orange and Cointreau sauce. The accompanying buttered veg was spot on. Trying it confirmed to me that I’d ordered badly and that my mediocre course was simply my mistake. It’s worth stressing, however, that this mistake cost £25!**
The meal got back on track with pudding. Crème brûlée – one of my all-time favourites – was done very well: the cream the right temperature; the glazed sugar the right thickness. Kirsch-soaked cherries, a decent sable biscuit and a few blobs of sauce on the side added a little bit extra. It was a satisfying way to round off the evening.
Given that my main was so weak, this probably sounds a little strange, but I strongly recommend The Lime Tree, certainly if you live in this end of south Manchester. Prices are comparable to the likes of Jem&I and No.4 Dine and Wine, but barring the one slip, the food was of a much higher standard, the ambiance was vastly superior and the wine list was a cut above.
I’ve often found with local restaurants, once they’ve been around for a few years and they’re established enough that their customer base is assured, they’ll rest on their laurels a bit, treading out the same tired dishes over and over again. It’s to the credit of The Lime Tree that well over two decades since it first opened its doors, there is little sign of this being the case.
For my money, it’s the best restaurant in Didsbury, east or west.
Just stay away from the steak.
Dining Room: 3.5/5
Overall score: 51/100 (Good)
*Interestingly, while I’ve been warned plenty of times over years that the dish I’ve ordered ‘may contain shot’, this pigeon was the first time I’ve ever come across some. One tiny little ball bearing, which I was tempted to keep, until I dropped it on the floor and promptly lost it.
**£25 could buy you a steak at Smoak. Think it through.
I’ve wanted to eat steak tartare ever since Mr Bean did this:
Why it took me 17 years to get around to it is down solely to the fact that no restaurant I went to until I turned 25 actually served it.
It wasn’t a particularly big deal. I still managed to satisfy my desire for blue meat – a carpaccio at Didsbury’s The Lime Tree during my teenage years was particularly memorable. But lingering at the back of my mind was always that need to try the tartared beef that Rowan Atkinson tried so hard to hide.
(Hehehe – he put it down his pants!)
That’s why, despite being told that steak tartare is generally very bland because it’s made from beef fillet and is often served too cold, it made it on to The List.
And finally – after a lifetime of waiting – three months ago at a meal out for my dad’s birthday, I got the bugger.
The Second Floor Restaurant at Harvey Nichols came highly recommended by a foodie friend of mine who once worked in the shop. It has a very pretty dining room with great views over Manchester and while you’re stood up waiting to be seated because there’s no space at the crowded bar, you can stare longingly at a £4,000 bottle of Château Pétrus 1982.*
But easily the most remarkable thing about it (because it’s a good restaurant but it’s not that good) is that it does steak tartare, which is as rare** in Manchester as a fat scally who understands that a pair of tights is not singlehandedly an adequate substitute for trousers.
If I’m honest, every starter on the menu at the Second Floor sounded better than this patty of chopped raw beef, with ginger and a langoustine. That’s not to say the steak tartare was unappealing, it was just less so than all the alternatives.
(And eating with four other people, I had the opportunity to taste a lot of the alternatives and they were all pretty damn good.)
Still, I was going to order it and nothing was going to stop me – not even the waitress explaining that there’d been a problem with the supplier and they didn’t have any langoustines in.
I was thinking earlier today about how to describe the dish; what I could compare it to in order that those who’ve never had it before can get an idea of what it’s like. It probably says a lot that the first thing that popped into my head was ‘tinned tuna’.
Steak tartare is more robust in its chewiness than John West and, needless to say, it’s much less fishy. But it’s not – at least not in the version I had at this restaurant – any more spectacular, in looks taste or texture.
It’s a total one-note food. One forkful was OK, after that I was bored. I spent most of my time eating it looking around enviously at what everyone else was having and thinking I’d made a mistake.
For a split second, I even considered hiding some in a woman’s handbag.
The thought didn’t cross my mind because I was eating some disgusting monstrosity that I wanted to throw away. It wasn’t that bad. I was simply looking for something that might help liven it up a bit. Something to stop it from being so dull.
It turned out everything I’d heard about steak tartare was true. Aside from a slight metallic taste that you get with cold, uncooked beef, it was flavourless. If you took 1,000 people, gave them all a chewy steak to eat, went around a few hours later with a toothpick to remove the bits of meat stuck in their teeth, assembled them together to make a burger and then stuck it in the fridge for a night, I doubt it’d be too dissimilar.
In short, it was another item off The List that turned out to be a colossal disappointment. I’m just glad that this time I wasn’t paying for it.
Verdict: Strong recommendation to avoid
NEXT UP: Duck foie gras
*1982 was a pretty amazing year for a lot of France’s top wine producers, including the legendary Château Pétrus. While I know I’ll never be able to afford to try wines from all the top estates (and I’ll almost certainly never have a vintage as good as the 1982), it is my ambition to sample a couple of bottles one day. Thus, The List includes the goal of tasting at least one First-Growth Bordeaux (Châteaux Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion or Mouton Rothschild) and at least one other prestige wine (Château Pétrus, Romanée-Conti, Château Cheval-Blanc etc).
I won’t start talking about Champagne or sweet wine or we’ll be here all day.
**Pun not really intended