You're not short of interesting lunch options in Manchester these days which is a good job bearing in mind the fanny-on we had before settling on a venue for this one. Aiden Byrne's Manchester House was the first choice, but we left it too late. No table for us. The Aumbry in Prestwich seemed a solid back-up suggestion and I was looking forward to seeing how much of Mary-Ellen McTague's fun-looking cooking from GBM would make it onto the lunch menu. Not to be; I got a call a week ahead saying they were closing the place for a refurb. And so finally to the rather fancy city-centre Midland Hotel, and Simon Rogan's Mr Cooper's House and Gardens.
Having spent years focusing on L'Enclume in Cartmel, Rogan has gone into full overdrive over the last couple years, opening the star-chasing The French, just across the lobby at The Midland, as well as another couple of places in Cartmel and, having popped down his London-based pop-up Roganic, has hit the capital hard, right in The Claridge's. He obviously has a thing for sticking trees in the middle of his dining rooms; there's a petrified tree in Fera and, likewise, a rather more animate one here, all the better to create the titular garden feel.
We took a pew in the nice, but quite hotelly-feeling bar, and had a drink. I'd sunk plenty of booze the previous night, so I tried a non-alcoholic cocktail. I'll tell you what, it was really nice. I think it was called a Victorian Slipper. Emboldened by finding the flower to be edible, I had a nibble on the "dehydrated lime wheel": error, but only if you don't like chewing on potpourri (do people still have potpourri, or was that just in the 90's?). A nearby table was going all out, having a pretty cool-looking punch poured from an even cooler-looking absinthe fountain, into teacups. I mentally cursed both their financial clout, and the throb of my own hangover.
We ordered some blue cheese puffs with a celery and chilli gel-type dip while waiting. These were a back-to-front quaver like creation; tasting spookily of precisely nil on gob-impact, before developing a strong funk of cheesy aftertaste.
Through into the garden-themed restaurant and I reckon I hit jackpot with my starter. A rich mussel chowder sported fine molluscs that had been coaxed into tasting quite shockingly musselly. Something clever had been done to a central tangle of leeks - either raw, or very lightly cooked they had been sliced preposterously thin - which left them pleasingly crunchy. Bone marrow croutons are never unwelcome. Good stuff.
Kasia's spinach and water chestnut wontons were nice enough - crisp wonton, good spinach flavour - but, being thumbnail-sized and not exactly abundant, more of a canape than a starter I thought.
First impressions were that I'd scored another menu victory when my duck rocked up. It was an ample wodge of fowl with interesting looking accoutrements. Bit of a shame then that the whole dish eventually lapsed into an overly sweet fug, punctuated only by the puckering tang of that green - sorrel? - puree. The duck lacked crispy skin and appeared to have been sous-vided to a shade closer to grey than to pink. It was just ok, which is by definition a bit disappointing at a Rogan joint. No idea what the white sputum on top was meant to taste of.
Kasia's rib steak with potato cake was better. The spud thing, laced with truffle, was a powerful joy, calories spent well, and reminded me of something not dissimilar at House of Tides recently. The steak itself was well enough cooked and had almost suspicious levels of beefiness going on. I'm sure they don't use the same knorr-how as MPW, rubbing their meat with stock-cube, but it almost tasted like it. If the flavour of this beast was naturally derived, I dof my cap to all concerned.
Being greedy bastards, we ordered two portions of deep fried pickles. These were flat-out poor. Some of the cornichons-type (wrong!) pickles had taken leave of their batter jackets, and there was a pool of grease at the bottom of the bowl. Sigh. I'm yet to see anyone batter a pickle anything like as well like MeatLiquor.
Elsewhere on the table, both a salmon and an aubergine main were declared to be somewhere on the not bad-quite nice spectrum. It's a moderate slur on the food we'd had that we ended up doing without pud, although the portions on some of the mains were absolute whoppers, and it tasted to me like the kitchen weren't shy with the denser dairy products when putting them together.
I enjoyed lunch, although the company get more credit for that than the food. I'm being picky, but I'd heard great things about the victuals on offer here, and when you're spending £30 odd quid on a couple of courses and a booze-free beverage and the name of probably the chef of the moment is attached to a place, I'm expecting... I don't know, just a bit more than this. Service was spot on; friendly and economical.
Maybe we just got a slightly off day, but next time we're in Manc it'll be either the full blow-out at The French, a shot of Manchester House, or - here's a weird idea!- somewhere that hasn't been on the tele at all.
Mr Cooper's House and Garden, The Midland Hotel, Peter St, Manchester, M60 2DS
0161 932 4128