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Browns restaurant review

Jonathan Schofield on food that doesn't match the architecture

Written by . Published on March 15th 2011.

Browns restaurant review

THE BUILDING Browns occupies is a slap of Baroque bombast from 1902.

Built as a private bank it’s the British Empire’s glory days all of a piece: pompous, powerful, over-the-top, totally confident.

Now removed from the stilted operations of frusty old fashioned banking, it makes for a grand brasserie and bar, filled with green marble, mahogany, plaster and mosaic.

The best dish was that old favourite of scallops and chorizo, a tight little number of concentrated flavours and great presentation. The worst was the veal schnitzel which consisted of lumps of leather getting their heads kicked in by bitter salad leaves.

The architect, Charles Heathcote, was a specialist in big and the bold. He also designed the Lloyds Bank down the road on King Street, the Eagle Star building on Cross Street, and the old warehouses which currently host both Abode Hotel and the Malmaison.

He’d probably be pleased that so many of his works have become dining places. Look at his biog and he seems like a good old-fashioned bon viveur, a man comfortable with the fruits of a wealthy turn-of-the-century life.

This makes it doubly a shame that the food in Browns doesn’t match up to the architecture.

Over two visits I’ve sampled lots of dishes with friends, readers and, at least one real philosopher.

With the latter the conversation veered to how ‘rationalists claim there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience’. I don’t think we were talking about food reviewing, but it sort of fits with some writing I know, especially reviews bought by the advertiser in certain magazines and glossies. Let's re-iterate again for readers: if the review is scored, then advertiser or no, Confidential says it as we find.

Anyway here’s a list of what I’ve tried (or some of it) as quoted from the Browns menu.

Deep breath here, long winded descriptions these.

'Oxfordshire smoked Barbary duck, Stilton and watercress salad with walnut, spiced pear, and a Japanese yuzu dressing (£6.45); pan seared black pearl scallops on a bed of pea and mascarpone puree, in chorizo and chilli butter sauce (£8.45); wild boar & chorizo burger served in brioche, with chilli and lime mayonnaise (£12.45); trio of grilled fish(£12.95), salmon fillet marinated and baked in soy sauce with shitake and button mushrooms served on pak choi (£13.25), veal schnitzel with Parmesan, herb and panko breadcrumbs, served with mixed leaf, tomato and cucumber salad (£13.95); cheese board (£6.45); cherry Eaton Mess (£5.25).

Goodly scallops

The best dish was that old favourite of scallops and chorizo, a tight little number of concentrated flavours and great presentation. The worst was the veal schnitzel which consisted of lumps of leather getting their heads kicked in by bitter salad leaves.

The rest has been average. Browns, with the main courses especially, is delivering decent pub food with aspirations to be restaurant food. Filling yes, finesse no. All the nice words in the dish descriptions fail to carry through to the finished article. It’s clumsy stuff.

The Barbary duck starter, for instance, resembled nothing more than slices of duck tossed on to a vast mountain of salad which Sherpa Tensing would have found troubling. The potato under the trio of fish was a dry mass of deadening material that added substance but not quality.

Chewy fish dish with potato death

Browns is, it must be remembered, a Mitchell and Butler (M&B) owned business.

This is a company that owns the Sizzling Pub Company (where food is served on hot skillets – eh?), Harvester Inns, O’Neills and All Bar One and so on. Look at the brands and M&B mostly stands for Mediocre and Bland. The food, even in Browns, their posh concept, will be largely based on centrally made policy decisions.

You get the feeling here if the kitchen were allowed to take total control, turn down the number of ingredients, sharpen the rest up, refine the presentation, then the place would work better.

Veal schnitzel with left bias

Of course to object to M&B’s popularist nature might sound snobbish, but for some reason you expect more. Maybe it’s the decor that fools you. The food doesn’t in any way chime with the pretension and grandeur of the building that hosts it. It’s doing too much and too little. Browns in its choice of hearty British food should take as its measure Grill on the Alley on Ridgefield.

Still I’ll be back.

I’ll be back for the drinks (the lovely Amarone della Valpolicella 05/06 (£39) was a 15% joy), and the sense of Edwardian Empire scale.

Also for the service.

We had a charming waitress. The trio of fish included one I'd never heard of, Mahi Mahi. I asked her what type of fish this was; meaning what did it taste like, was it white, oily and so forth?

She went away to find out. Having subsequently looked Mahi Mahi up, I wish she’d come back and said: “Actually it’s a big ugly fucker, looks like it swam into a runaway train and survived.”

Instead she told us it was a white fish from the Pacific. Quite correct too. Nice lady. But now it's time to let the food loose.

Breakdown:6/10 food
4/5 service
5/5 ambience (actually that’s for the architecture, but it is a real pleasure to sit and survey the details)
Address:Browns Bar & Brasserie Manchester
1 York Street
M2 2AW
0871 230 5526

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

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30 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

J E SibberingMarch 8th 2011.

At first glance the 'Duck on mountain of Rocket' looked to me like a dead mouse and some slimy stuff, on mountain of rocket.

It still does, unfortunately.

MolluscMarch 8th 2011.

Looks more like a slug to me. Or the man of Allo Allo's moustache

blondieMarch 8th 2011.

I went to Browns in Leeds recently and it was equally underwhelming. Packed to the rafters but poor food choice (not sure if the menus are the same) and questionable quality. The service was also shockingly slow.

thetowerofpowerMarch 8th 2011.

I've enjoyed the food a few times, but I put the emphasis on enjoyed, rather than been excited or enthused by. Sad, I suppose, but Browns *is* a chain and it feels like it. Worse, for me at least, was the cocktail service. I had high hopes but the menu is bland and the service lacklustre verging on incompetent - no disservice to the bar staff, they clearly haven't been properly trained.

bigearsMarch 8th 2011.

how can something so rubbish get 15/20?? the food looks disgusting and rushed out of the kitchen! Looks like the kitchen brigade are very very sloppy and standards have slipped (already!!). Looks like people are finally realising this isn't going to be the super restaurant everyone thought/hoped it would be.

Jonathan Schofield - editorMarch 8th 2011.

Bigears, read the criteria for marking below the scores of the review. It scored highly for service and ambience, that's why the score is 15, under the 'worth a trip' category - for the stunning building if nothing else.

AlfonzMarch 8th 2011.

Jonathan it probably has the worst service in the City!!! It took us an hour to get our breakfast last weekend .. the loose tea in the pot was filled half the pot and was undrinkable - Most people I have spoken too have had similar experiences .. It's not the staffs fault either they are lovely and have to spend half their lives apologising, poor lambs ... Its just very badly run!!!!

GedMarch 8th 2011.

However good the building is, most people eat for the food! Worth a visit to the bar if you want to admire the architecture but when I went to eat there the service was painfully slow and the food ordinary. Only someone with a very good expense account will look beyond these factors to admire the surroundings.

bigearsMarch 8th 2011.

jonathan - what about Rosso then? that got either 5/5 or 1/5 depending on what kind of atmosphere you like, nothing mentioned about the decor or building and it is very similar to Browns, just alot lighter! Service is a big part of the dining experience but not when the food is that poor you cannot justify paying £13 for a main.

CassandraMarch 8th 2011.

I think Jonathan actually wrote that the food was poor and marked accordingly.

bigearsMarch 8th 2011.

i'm not saying he didnt mark the food accordingly, i just dont understand how u can score a restaurant on the building when it says ambience?! how about the chinese buffet restaurant in the printworks - thats got a nive view of printworks, or oyster bar? lovely victorian building but food a shambles?! would that still get 5/5 then?

Rupert the BearMarch 8th 2011.

Honestly Bigears you've been in such a strop since you left Toytown

Matthew HMarch 8th 2011.

It's better than Athenaeum used to be. . . . except perhaps in the early to mid 90's when there was a DJ and you could have a good old chemically enhanced rave up. Perhaps they should forget about the food and get some banging techno on?

ADMarch 8th 2011.

please add the confit duck on chorizo cassulet to the list of bland disapointing mains.

bigearsMarch 8th 2011.

Dont think there could be anything worse than Athenaeum!

AnonymousMarch 8th 2011.

Not been in yet but is it a franchise or a branch... if the formaer it will soon habe a lingering death if the reviewers are right, if the latter it will depend on the meaness of the company and the size of the whip of the area manager as with deadbait ..not my Chez Gerard and Loch Funny

NoodleDavidMarch 8th 2011.

On one level the transition from Athenaeum to Browns symbolises how Manchester has moved on from the days I arrived here in 97 - I am sure many have stories pre then. The thought of having posh tea in more formal surroundings, but not in a hotel and a change (but not a replacement) to the funky tea houses (e.g Oaklahoma) is appealing and good for Manchester. I agree with the review in that the food is forgettable. When I went it was not bad, just forgettable. Which for the price is wrong and a damn shame for Manchester, because it is a lovely building. I might nip in again for a cuppa and a posh tea cake, but that's about it.

PeterMarch 8th 2011.

Had some good meals in Browns around the country. Looked forward to the Manchester branch and went last Saturday. What a let down. Yes, great interior but the food and service were distinctly average. Perfunctory service with fixed cold smiles to go with the cold food. Lets face it - its yet another chain. Go for a drink and marvel at the scenery but don't bother with the food.

AlwaysHungryMarch 8th 2011.

The wife and I went in for a drink and a few nibbles at lunchtime on Saturday and I can echo Mr Schofield's view of the service and other peoples view of the food. We had 3 tapas size dishes (chicken and chorizo skewers, prawns in a buttered tomato sauce and deep fried squid)which were all very good, but none of them made me want to tell everyone about it. The lovely waitress was really helpful and game just the right amount of attention as not to be over-bearing. I think this is going to be a good stop off place for a Saturday afternoon shopping with your good lady (or Man!)

MDPMarch 8th 2011.

Take on board, all the comments from all. but stuck between Rooms and Rosso it will always be the 3rd cousin. It fills the venue card on a night out, great chilled mood I thought, to many Long Island T's to rate the food.

Play-it-cool-TrigMarch 9th 2011.

I thought it resembled a throw back to the late 80's yuppie bar when I popped in for after work drinks last thursday. Full of fat suits quaffing cheap champagne for all to see!!! didnt even stay for a drink.

user90950March 9th 2011.

Had lunch on Saturday, great service, and very good cocktails! Marco runs a good ship there and is a fantastic host.

AlfonzoMarch 9th 2011.

User90950 you either are Marco or he's paying you!

Cocktail FairyMarch 9th 2011.

I popped in here on Saturday night with some friends for 'one drink'. I remember the Athenaeum with affection from the afore mentioned mid 90s when I was a club kid. The place hasn't changed that much and is still beautiful in a way that demands an audience. I can't speak for the food (we'd already eaten at Harvey Nics) but the signature cocktails were both delicious and a bargain at £3.95 a pop. The service wasn't the speediest but tell me where it is when you're in a cocktail bar in Manchester. The people behind the bar were friendly enough and worked incredibly hard the whole time we were there. I think it speaks volumes that we ended up staying for four drinks in the end and have all vowed to go again. I hope some of the other feedback here helps Browns to provide an experience that the setting deserves... I think it could be great.

SM01March 9th 2011.

I went to Browns for lunch on Saturday. It was a first time visit, and I won't be returning.

Not only was the food cold and bland. It took an age to arrive. None of the food we received was served as it stated in the Menu, and the waitress didn't appear to have the slightest idea what was going on.

The table behind us actually left without having a main course as they had been waiting for almost an hour.

Poor food, poor service but a beautiful building.

Lou4March 9th 2011.

I went to Browns on one of their preview nights, and also enjoyed (but wasn't delighted by) the scallops with chorizo and pea puree. I'd definitely suggest avoiding the fish pie though - there were two or three small pieces of fish, and about seven squid rings in it. Squid pie is not nice...

LJMarch 9th 2011.

I visited Browns with my Mum and a friend in it's first week of opening - 40 minutes to receive our cocktails, cold scallop starters, soup with a skin on and main courses that were less than luke warm. With 2 complaints to the host - we were told we would not be expected to pay for our main courses .. but it stands to question: with only an average number of diners in the restaurant, and at least 1 member of waiting staff per table, why was it so hard to provide acceptable service?

Won't be re-visiting, and will not be recommending to others in the future.

Brian CMarch 12th 2011.

Cant comment on the food apart from the scones (which were ok) but a great pot of tea. A useful venue for a quick daytime meet up in peace and pleasing surroundings. They should note that the Short Order Cook shouldnt put food in his mouth in full view of the customers.

Gill TwistMay 12th 2011.

Went to Browns for food for the last time last night, have now been let down twice by awful service (they always seem to be short staffed) and mediocre food. We arrived and had to wait 15 minutes before anyone came to take a drink order from us, we then ordered our food after another 20 minute wait then after another 10 minutes I was told that the Smoked beef was no longer available, and could I pick something else. Our starters arrived remarkably quickly and where OK apart from the blob of what looked very much like shop bought marmalade to accompany the Liver parfait. Our main courses arrived and I was confused by the 2 mounds of mash potato slopped on my plate until I realised these where meant to be Crab, Crayfish and coriander fishcakes and I had been served pale insipid chewy mashed potato the waitress was nice enough to change it for ma and I did enjoy the lobster croquettes even if I did struggle to find the lobster in them, my friends meatball main was also very chewy and bland and luke warm...I do have to say the waitress who served us was very apologetic and obviously had to many customers to deal with.....

I will not be dining in Browns again, however I can't complain about the drinks and cocktails which I will continue to enjoy

Nikki JacksonJuly 19th 2011.

Tried Browns for the first time last night and won't be rushing back. In a nutshell, the food was bland and uninteresting. My chicken breast with tallegio and basil oil was overcooked and dry and my fella's wild boar and chorizo burger has the consistency of a processed pattie from a slightly dodgy burger van. He reckoned he'd eaten better burgers at a rugby match.
I'd like to say the venue and decor made up for the lacklustre food but on a dim, rainy Manchester evening The Management made the decision to dim the restaurant lights to such a degree it was difficult to see what what was on our plates, never mind admire the oppulent surroundings. On reflection, the lights may have been dimmed to detract from the poorly presented food.

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