November 5, 2009 § 2 Comments
Tim and I finally made it to Michael Caines Restaurant at ABode on a wet and windy Wednesday night in early November.
First, a little background on the Abode concept (sorry I can’t keep up the tricksy capitalisation any longer). Abode is a small chain of boutique city centre hotels each with a Michael Caines restaurant attached. Looking at the website, they aim to attract a hip and trendy crowd, but looking round at the lobby the real clientele is somewhat older, more portly but no doubt more monied. The man with the money behind the concept is one Andrew Brownsword, an entrepreneur with a taste for discreet self-publicity, hence the AB in ABode and the sponsoring of Brownsword Hall in Poundbury, Prince Charles’ model village. Yes, Brownsword is numbered amongst Prince Charles’ best mates.
Brownsword has featured regularly in the Sunday Times Rich List for a decade or so. He made his money in greetings cards and Forever Friends teddy bears, businesses which he sold to Hallmark Cards in the early 90s reputedly for some £190 million. He used the money to establish a hotel business and is also majority owner of Bath Rugby Club.
Brownsword and Caines met after a lunch at Exeter’s Royal Clarence Hotel in 2003 where Caines was executive chef. Brownsword enjoyed his meal so much that, in a Victor Kiam moment, he bought not just the restaurant but the hotel as well and the Abode concept was born. There are now Abode hotels in Glasgow, Canterbury, Chelsea and Chester as well as Manchester and Exeter.
Enough of background and onto the dinner experience. We descended from the hotel lobby into the basement where you will find the champagne bar and restaurant. Manchester is famous for being the centre of cotton industry in the nineteenth century and the building where Abode is now situated is very evidently a former cotton warehouse. It has been sympathetically converted, keeping the roomy expanse of space you associate with a warehouse and making a feature of the sturdy cast iron columns which support the roof. Clever use of translucent glass panels breaks up the room and gives its various spaces an intimate feel within the large basement area.
The comedy French maître d’ (is he for real?) whisked away my bags of early Christmas shopping and seated us in the champagne bar, a space adjoining the the main dining area with plenty of scope for people watching. The basement is softly lit, lots of dark wood, brown and orange and a Paul Smith striped carpet. There are black and white photos of rock stars on the walls and napery is limited to generously sized white napkins. The problem any basement encounters is that there is no natural light. On a cold and wet evening in late autumn this didn’t matter at all but I probably wouldn’t come here for lunch for that reason despite the remarkably good value £12 “grazing” menu lunch offer.
The cocktail list is impressive, naming the Head Mixologist as one Adrian Vipond. I liked the sound of the wittily named Lady Macbeth (blended Scotch plus various red fruit liqueurs shaken over ice) but Tim and I both plumped for a flute of the house champagne. This was acceptable but I wasn’t blown away by it. Being bone dry, it would have been good in one of the various Champagne cocktails on offer. I’d love to come back and try a cocktail sometime – the only downer was the rather damp smell lingering in this corner which resulted from a leaking skylight. Our fellow drinkers didn’t seem to notice that the sofa they were perched on was damp from dripping rainwater. I think they’d had a few…
After a little difficulty identifying the right member of staff – there were lots of staff in the dining room but working apparently to strict lines of demarcation- we succeeded in getting hold of menus. The first decision you have to make is whether to go with the grazing menu, multi-course tasting menu or standard à la carte selection. Prices didn’t look too unreasonable – for instance the tasting menu is a headline £65 per head (sorry I failed to make a note of whether this included VAT and service). Our hostess patiently explained how the grazing menu worked: these are small portions of stand-alone dishes which function either as starter or main. You order as many or as few as you like in whatever order takes your fancy. In effect it’s a design-your-own tasting menu.
Unsure of portion sizes and how the grazing concept would work in practice we decided to dip a toe in the water and choose 2 grazing dishes each as a starter followed by an à la carte main. My choices were (i) crab cannelloni with pink grapefruit jelly and lemon thyme foam, and (ii) tuna tartare with pickled beetroot and turnip, wasabi mayonnaise and sweet raisin vinaigrette. Both dishes were pretty as a picture as you can see below and modishly served on a square glass plate and slate tile respectively.
Head chef Ian Matfin clearly knows what he is doing. The flavour combinations were logical, classic even but presented in a new way and both dishes showcased high levels of skill in the kitchen. After tasting these two dishes, I wish I’d gone for the full grazing option rather than a single main.
My main course was roast mallard with jus (known in my kitchen as gravy) celeriac mash and winter berries (these were cranberries and blueberries I think). The mallard was cooked to an accurate medium rare as requested and was pink and juicy. It came unexpectedly with a tiny jug of bread sauce which, given the presence of celeriac mash, was not entirely necessary, nor is it a classic roast duck accompaniment. My only gripe (a perennial one) was that we had to order a selection of vegetables and potatoes to accompany the our main courses. These were dinkily served in a lidded white china sugar bowl but were nevertheless the same old boring boiled broccoli, cauliflower and carrot.
We chose a bottle of Gigondas to accompany our meal which appeared ostentatiously in the separate Fine Wine section of the menu. Why the wine list couldn’t simply be presented by region with wines listed in price order rather than by grape type I don’t know. This leads to weird anomalies such as Châteauneuf du Pape being grouped with Beaujolais under “Red wines – other”. Given the excellence and variety of the grazing dishes it would have been good to see more wines offered by the glass too – crab cannelloni and Gigondas is definitely not a match made in heaven.
We were offered the pudding menu with lots of interesting sounding choices. I chose the pumpkin crème brûlée with chocolate ice cream. It sounded weird and it was. Frankly it was a bit yucky. Like pumpkin pie filling but without the benefit of pumpkin spice. An obsession with inventiveness had clearly clouded the chef’s judgement here. Never mind, the espresso which came next was just right.
I’d love to come again and would try the full-blown grazing option skipping the pudding next time.