There are times when I like to tell myself that I could’ve been a chef. If I’m in a nice restaurant and I’m drunk enough, I’ll probably tell you too.
I believe I’ve got the passion it takes. I’m almost certain I’ve got the work ethic. My tastebuds aren’t too shabby either and I’m not devoid of cooking skill.
My excuse is that I came to food too late, when I was too comfortable. I think I could’ve got into it aged 18 with nothing to lose, but I didn’t love food back then. These days, the enthusiasm’s there, but I’m much too happy with where I am and what I have.
There’s not a chance in hell I’d give up my ordinary life for the crazy one of being a chef.
As I sat in Manchester city centre’s newest French restaurant 63 Degrees, I counted my blessings that I’m not in the restaurant business. From 12pm-1pm on a Tuesday lunchtime, I was the only customer in a place that seats 37. By the time I left at 1.30pm, only four other people had walked through the door. One appeared to be selling something; another was looking for a job.
The waiter assured me that the place is starting to take off. It has been open for less than two weeks, he stressed, and they’re fully booked this Saturday. Other nights of the week haven’t been too bad either – they’ve been getting about 25 customers per evening, around two-thirds capacity.
Still, while it takes time and you can’t expect instant success, it has got to suck being so quiet at lunch. When I first set up this blog and I was getting three hits a day, it was depressing. And it’s not like this is my livelihood.
So I spent my entire time at 63 Degrees rooting for the place. I wanted it to deliver a really great meal so I could sing its praises and encourage people to go.
It certainly got off to a good start. A first course of baked egg with salmon was just what the doctor ordered for a brisk autumn afternoon. The rich, unctuous yolk chased the chill away like a big cosy jumper; tiny pillows of Scottish salmon provided the perfect foil with texture and salt.
I’ve not had an egg dish as good as this for about three years,* and I do love these poultry periods.
Unfortunately, the meal slid downhill from there. My main of 63° chicken breast, morel mushroom sauce and gratin dauphinois had the potential to be outstanding, but fell a long way short. There was nothing wrong with the cooking of it – the sauce was wonderful, the chicken was lovely and moist with a nice crispy skin, and I couldn’t fault the gratin.
But there were three big problems:
1) The chicken wasn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter how carefully you cook it, chicken is the dullest meat in the world unless you’ve got one of real quality. And this was far from a top notch chook.
2) There was way too much dairy. I took one glance at the entirely beige plate of food and thought: “I don’t know what that’s going to look like once it’s passed through my digestive system, but I bet Gillian McKeith won’t like it.” The morel sauce was enough; why cheesy creamed potatoes were needed as well, I have no idea.
3) The plate was cold. That wonderful morel sauce died an icky death in just a few minutes as it quickly cooled.
It was a real shame**, but not as big a shame as dessert. I’d had a very decent crème brûlée at The Lime Tree a few days earlier and was interested to see how this one compared. It definitely won on appearances. Set tight in the middle of a wide-rimmed dish, it was very pretty to look at, and it was a little bit thrilling when the maitre d’ set the sugar on fire to create the hard caramel layer on top.
Just a pity it didn’t really work. Only the middle section turned into a crisp; the sugar around the edges remained untouched by the flames. And I should stress I’m using ‘crisp’ in the loosest of terms – when I plunged my spoon through it, it bent more than broke.
But it was beneath the surface where the main issues lay. The cream was too warm and had a gelatinous texture, almost like a panna cotta. It also seemed to have contracted jaundice – not the most appealing look for a pudding, it must be said. There was some passion fruit at the bottom, but it was overwhelmed by the rest of the flavours. I could barely taste it.
Without an ounce of exaggeration, I’ve honestly had better burnt cream from the supermarket.
Overall, I enjoyed my lunch at 63 Degrees. I found the staff to be friendly and charming, the 2009 bottle*** of pinot noir from Bourgogne went down nicely and it was all reasonably priced. The menu is definitely an interesting one and a welcome addition to the Manchester dining scene.
However, while there is clearly some skill in the kitchen and the chef seems to have a few good ideas, I can’t in good conscience recommend the place based on this meal. There were just too many faults.
63 Degrees has the potential to be a real winner, but it’s got a long way to go yet.
Dining Room: 3/5
Overall score: 44/100 (OK)
*Since Grado’s baked duck egg with morcilla and truffle cream, which benefitted from my love of black pudding, and the fact it was thrown in as an extra course, compliments of the house.
**Honestly, I’d go back and pay £10 more for this dish if it was made with a high-end piece of chicken, featured a few more morels and had something simple like green beans instead of the gratin. It could be sublime.
***Yes, I had a whole bottle to myself. It was my birthday. I’m allowed.
Out of all the places, people and events that have led me down the path to rabid foodiedom in the last few years, the sadly defunct Paul Heathcote venture Grado is probably the most significant.
It was the place where I fell in love with mushrooms and learned just how breathtaking a good wine can be. It was where I first discovered the joy of scallops a la plancha, and poached duck eggs, and rabbit braised in Rioja. It opened my eyes to exciting Spanish versions of some of my favourite foods – the ‘morcilla’ black pudding; the ‘crema catalana’ crème brûlée.
(It was also the restaurant where I began to stop caring so much about price and my wallet started to hate me.)*
So it was somewhat fitting that just a few weeks before it closed its doors and transformed into the far less interesting Living Ventures property The Grill on New York Street, Grado gave me the first opportunity to tick an item off my list of Foods To Taste Before I Die.It was local restaurant critic Paul Ogden (in a piece for CityLife) who turned me on to Joselito Gran Reserva Ham. Describing it in a review, he managed to make it sound so magical to me I could imagine it was cut from one of Harry Potter’s legs and dry-cured by Merlin inside the Ark of the Covenant – with help from sous chef Mary Poppins.
This “precious”, “magnificent” piece of pig, with its “awesome” depth of flavour capable of evoking thoughts of high-end wine, was simply irresistible. It was one of the first things I put down on The List and I was thrilled to see it on offer as I wandered over to the Grado stand at the Manchester Food & Drink Festival (MFDF) in October last year.
I love the MFDF and, as per usual, I was enjoying a very nice day out at it. I’d watched some chef presentations in one of the tents, I’d sampled a bunch of freebies and I’d just finished my second jar of Robinsons Old Tom.
Even that rare beast, a blazing Manchester sun, had made an appearance in the sky.
All that was needed to cap off a glorious afternoon was a potentially mindblowing eating experience. And there was Grado, ever reliable and exciting Grado, to deliver it. Nothing could go wrong.
But then it did.
Because unfortunately, this landmark moment, this defining chapter of my budding food odyssey (I’m going wildly over the top here, but humour me), failed to materialise.
I managed to buy the ham; that bit went OK. It cost me £10 for something like 30g.
(It felt like rather a lot of money for not very much ham, but when you buy a slice of Harry Potter, that’s what you expect.)
I went back to my seat (that bit also went OK) and I raised the polystyrene dish up to my nose so I could give the two-inch, wafer thin slices of pretty, red flesh a good sniff.**
(This bit turned out to be a bit pointless – you get a better aroma from a pack of supermarket Parma ham.)
And then I put a slither of the Gran Joselito in my mouth and opened up a whole world of disappointment.
I’d expected a taste bang, I got a whimper. This fine wine I’d been promised turned out to be watered down. The depth I’d been told about was nothing but a paddling pool.
Don’t get me wrong, it was nice – far better even than any ham I’d had before. And the flavours Mr Ogden promised (“the texture in turns firm and melty, the taste salty and sweet, then slightly bitter and all the time there is a nuttiness from the acorns”) were all there.
They were just muted. Not subtle, but flat. Pleasant, yet enormously meh.
Now, it might be my palate simply isn’t refined enough for what’s meant to be the world’s best jamón. Or it might be I killed it with the free shot of whisky, the free shot of Benedictine (*shudders*) and the magnificent but very strong dark ale I’d drunk beforehand.
(At the very least, I’m sure it didn’t help.)
Maybe this type of ham just isn’t to my taste.
What I am sure of is that it was a crap way to kick off The List. Sure, my expectations were probably way too high/misguided and I could’ve given my tastebuds a better chance of appreciating it. But it was still a big letdown and left me worrying whether any of the stuff I’d jotted down would live up to the hype.
Verdict: Not recommended
NEXT UP: Steak tartare
*I could go on and on about how much I loved that restaurant and the impact it had on me, but those are words probably best left for a separate post. I found a copy of one its menus on the internet the other week and it made me sad to think that these great dishes are no longer being produced in Manchester. It’s a real shame.
**My wife thinks it’s weird that I give my food a good smell before I eat it. She doesn’t know what she’s missing.