It had been almost exactly two years since my last trip to Mana in Manchester, the second of two very enjoyable visits in 2019. Praise has continued to arrive from almost every avenue since then, but perhaps the most significant award received (amongst a host of others) was a precious Michelin Star at the end of 2019, as I'd predicted. Having had to cancel a booking in 2020 due to the Big C, I was very much looking forward to finally making my long awaited return as I visited with my wife for lunch on a gloriously sunny August Saturday.
I'd received an automated reminder email a few days before our visit which told us to arrive "at the exact time stated on your reservation confirmation" which is a first for me (in terms of being commanded to arrive at the exact reservation time), but we did just that. The welcome on arrival by the restaurant manager was warm and professional and we were shown to our table in the small lounge area. I still like the feel of the restaurant; it's by no means huge but there's a nice feeling of space and the open kitchen was in full swing as we took our seats.
There have been a few notable changes since my last visit in 2019; of course the famous red plaque from our favourite tyre munching inspectors now adorns the wall by the front door (as well as the precious star logo appearing in a few other places), but that's not all that's different. Booking is now a pay-up-front in full via Tock affair, not that I have a problem with that, and one really positive change is the full tasting menu is now available at lunch, which was probably my main gripe with my previous visit. In fact the lunch menu has been dispensed with completely so it's now just one menu for lunch and dinner. The restaurant also now has an experienced Head Sommelier (ciao Pasquale) looking after the wine needs of the diners, a position which didn't seem present on my previous visits, although I believe a couple of other sommeliers have been and gone since I last came.
The wine and drinks list is suitably comprehensive including a great range of non-alcoholic options; I was happy enough with a decent hibiscus and gin cocktail to start, whilst my wife enjoyed three of the non-alcoholic cocktails (I think there were six or seven available on the drinks menu, far more than my previous visit) during the meal. Naturally, I opted for the matching wine flight; the staff made a point of telling me that although there were seventeen courses on the menu, there are only seven wines on the wine flight, which is understandable and not really a huge issue for me, although it does always feel slightly unnatural with tasting menus when you're forced to make a glass of wine last more than one course.
Lunch began in the lounge area with a warm turnip tea, maybe not a great dish for a seasonal summer menu but it was very pleasant. The little onion, apple and black truffle bite that followed was delicious, as was the beef tartare that came next, served in a delicate little tube with smoked eel, again it was a one bite affair and the flavours were absolutely delicious. It was around this point that we were shown to our table in the main dining area to continue our meal.
Chef Patron Simon Martin then strolled over to our table to explain why so much of the menu is seafood based (basically, Britain is an island) which I actually thought was a nice touch and really added to the experience. First up was an oyster served in its shell, the advice from the chef who served it being to pick it up and down it in one; easier said than done for this one but they had handily provided a little spoon also. It was nice if not particularly exciting, although the accompanying wasabi certainly packed a memorable punch.
The following dish of three small slices of scallop was absolutely stunning though; the broth in particular had a superb depth of flavour and I'd say it was one of the best scallop based tasting menu dishes I've ever eaten. The great flavours continued with the langoustine tails served on burning spruce, something that was on the menu last time I visited and is now a bit of a signature of the restaurant. Again, it was a delicious little bite.
This was followed by a very tasty mussel served in its shell with garlic, with the chef who delivered this course telling us to rotate the shell as it was served and again, eat it in one mouthful. I really enjoyed the flavours of this one but my wife wasn't such a fan. We both loved the delicate potato tube containing the rest of the langoustine (head and claw) from earlier; it was delicious and indeed the restaurant manager remarked when clearing our plates that it's her favourite dish on the menu.
Next came a little bit of anticipation as one of the waiting staff carefully slid everything on the opposite end of the table to one side, before a crab, custard and caviar dish was delivered. Simon Martin came over personally and mixed the accompanying sauce in front of us, which again was a really interesting addition to the experience. The dish itself was delicious and one of my favourites from the meal; Simon told us after it was the first service the dish had been on the menu which I was really surprised about given how accomplished it was as a dish, and how faultlessly it was delivered.
The next frozen tomato dish was pleasant if not spectacular (and the bottom of my tomato dollop was a little too frozen in truth), but the sourdough bread with cultured butter that followed was as good a slice of bread and butter I can recall, very tasty indeed. Smoked sea trout came next, complete with reduced cucumber juice. The chef delivering this course gave a rather big build up to the amount of effort that goes into reducing the cucumber juice, but although the fish was very tasty, the cucumber juice dollop was a little bit lacklustre in truth.
Last of the savoury courses was a slice of Dexter ribeye beef, served with dehydrated scallops and beeswax and accompanied by a soft taco like bite containing more beef (short rib) and Tunworth cheese. This as a whole was another excellent course that ate very well, and I did wonder after this if perhaps the menu might have benefited from one extra meat dish. Yes, Britain is an island, but there's a heck of a lot of tasty animals wandering around on this island too.
There's no option of a cheese course here so after a perfect little pause, it was straight into the closing dessert section of the menu. First up was the fig leaf ice cream, complete with fermented honey and marigold. This was a delicious plate and my wife and I both very much enjoyed this one. The next dessert however was nowhere near the same level; a single little (intentionally) still hot doughnut containing whisky custard. Whilst the doughnut was perfectly well made, the custard lacked any of the flavour I was longing for, and was a bit of a wash out in truth. The final dessert of baked apples, brown butter and oregano though was another very tasty bite and a fitting end to what had been on the whole a very impressive meal. We did take coffee also which was interesting too; I went for something from Jamaica for £10 (sorry, I'm not a coffee expert). At that price I was expecting some spectacular petit fours, but unfortunately, although many things I've mentioned in my past reviews have improved since my previous visits, it seems this restaurant is not for turning when it comes to offering any kind of p4 experience.
The wine flight was good if not exceptional, with some interesting wines; all the wines were poured at the table also which is always good to see, and the detail confidently delivered. The price was £110 for the seven glasses; the retail price for the seven full bottles on the flight is around £155, so perhaps there's room there to add a glass of something a bit more extravagant into the mix. Service throughout in general was excellent, all the staff were great (including the various chefs delivering the food) and perfectly attentive. So often as a non-drinker, my wife is forgotten about in restaurants and has to try and flag someone down to get another drink, but not here. The only minor niggle was the card machine failing to work when we paid our bill, but the restaurant manager was very apologetic and you can't really blame the restaurant for that.
As well as the service being excellent, the menu pacing was virtually flawless also. So often with tasting menus that's difficult to achieve and you're left with long pauses between certain courses, but not here, the courses were delivered with outstandingly regimented timing. And so, with excellent service and (generally) great food, you'd think I'd be itching to get back as soon as possible, right?
Well unfortunately, as much I enjoyed my afternoon, I don't think I'll be heading back here in the near future. The huge elephant in the room for me is the price of the meal. I've eaten a lot of tasting menus in my time and paid a lot of money out of my own pockets for the privilege (I appreciate it can be hard to relate a real cost if you're not paying for the meal yourself or it's just a business expense), but this was by some distance the most expensive 1* meal I've ever had in the UK. At just shy of £550, and bearing in mind my wife doesn't drink, it just felt like far too much and was about £200 more than when I had dinner with a friend here (like this time, it was the tasting menu plus the wine flight for me) in 2019.
A lot was made on our arrival of there being seventeen courses and there's obviously a huge amount of work that goes into creating and serving the dishes, but the majority of those courses I'd class as one bite nibbles on a typical tasting menu. The most complete dish of the meal (the beef) was actually listed as two courses on the menu; if both parts are served at the same time, can you really claim it's two courses?
Of course, Mana is far from the only restaurant to have increased prices significantly post-lockdown, interestingly the biggest increases I've seen are at restaurants north of London, with some places I've eaten at previously having more than doubled the price of their tasting menus since 2019. I only wish the average UK salary had doubled since 2019 also (or just mine at least). Like many, I know people working in hospitality and I get how hard COVID has been, but I'm really fearful if this kind of pricing is here to stay. The tasting menu price at Mana is actually increasing further to £185 from November, albeit the "discretionary" service charge is being removed so my meal this time would have been around the same cost. Is £300 per person the "new normal" for a 1* tasting menu with wine flight? I really hope not.
Admittedly, I suppose the fact I'm from Manchester originally makes me take this particular meal slightly more personally too. I consider myself a working class guy and Manchester a working class city; the Ancoats area in particular has a foundation of grit and industrial heritage (albeit it's had a lot of recent regeneration). Whilst it's fantastic to have a restaurant of the standard of Mana in the city, it just feels to me like the new pricing has taken the restaurant from "accessible to anyone for a special occasion" to "accessible only to the uber-rich"; it's Manchester not Monaco after all.
But look, I've always said if a restaurant is fully booked for every service, you can't argue with the pricing. Will Mana continue to be packed into 2022 with the next menu price increase and once the post-COVID boom has subsided? I honestly don't know. One thing that would certainly help is a second star from our favourite tyre munching inspectors, which is certainly not out of the question based on my meal. Failing that, they may just have to send one of the team on the next series of Great British Menu.
Regardless, I'll say again that overall this was an excellent meal with great food and great service, and I wish Simon and the team huge success going forwards. Despite my tightness, such was the quality of the experience that it's inevitable I'll be heading back again at some point in the future. I'll just (unfortunately) have to spend a fair bit of time saving up first.
|Ratings||Michelin Guide||AA Guide||Good Food Guide|
|At time of review||5|