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Damson (An Accidental Review)

Jonathan Schofield visits a Food and Drink Festival nominee for the first time

Written by . Published on July 25th 2011.


Damson (An Accidental Review)

IT HAD BEEN one of those mad busy Saturdays.

But a good restaurant takes more than a good chef. A good restaurant is all about its leadership. 

Coaching the Manchester Confidential-sponsored Oswald Road footy team in the morning, then into town to drop off the keys for the afternoon’s Haunted Underworld tours (click here) plus a quick visit to the Arndale to get a brainrotting computer game for one of my lads.

This was a reward for doing well at school. I’d suggested maybe a book, possibly Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (unabridged). He’d decided on Infamous 2 for the PS3, where 'the beast has destroyed Empire City'.

Ogglers
The city centre was buzzing, full of summer shoppers and energy. In Albert Square, the Jazz Festival was gearing up, while outside Manchester Central some girls were gearing down. These ladies were promoting something half-heartedly and half-nakedly, while being ogled by lads – here’s a blurred picture taken from a car (this was taken as a documentary image of course, I wasn’t staring at the girls, honest).

None of this self-indulgent cataloguing of my day has much to do with a food review, but it sort of revved me up for a meal out.

Sunshine, people out and about, why stay in? The activity on the streets made me want to join in.

We like to be surrounded by other humans. Dining in restaurants with family or friends is the same as getting round the fire in a tribal tent, chewing on a carcass, and mulling over the day and telling stories. It’s a timeless part of being human, happily with far better sanitation in 2011. People who don’t eat out, miss out. 

So I decided on an accidental food review. One I hadn’t planned. My target was one of the Manchester Food and Drink Festival’s nominees I’d passed but never ventured inside: Damson, in Heaton Moor. God knows why, since everybody goes on about it, particularly the Greatest Living Rochdalian, Andrew Nutter.

A couple of hours later we were there. Damson is smart enough on the outside but inside is where the treasure lies. This begins with the warm welcome from co-owner Steve Pilling (click here for news of Steve’s city centre ambitions) and wife Alison. That aside a quick look round the restaurant and a short study of the menu confirms what most people report. There's an immediate whiff of a business that’s absolutely clear about what it wants to offer.

It's clever too. For instance, the decor is intimate with a degree of pzazz to give the regulars a little sassy glamour. It says: “yeah, this may be an old shop unit but you can peacock yourself up for a proper night out”.

We’d only popped in for an hour to sample a main course or two. We ended up staying nearly three. 

The food experience began with a couple of platters of bread, baked by a some hearty artisan of dough operating from the outhouse of a terrace in High Lane – I think that’s what Pilling said. The bread was textured and heated, simple white or whole grain; mini-loaves with butter all salted and lovely.

The starter star was the spring green vegetable and herb risotto with chervil cream (£6.95), the eating of which was like walking through an English country garden in a dream sequence. It was a Merchant Ivory movie set in a Home Counties mansion in 1911. In rice-form.

It was wholesome and joyful at the same moment set off by that sharp and tangy chervil cream. Risotto can be a byword for dreariness; not this one.

Another starter, the roasted scallops (£9.95), was almost as good.

The main of grilled flat steak with Dauphinoise potatoes, Portobello mushroom, roasted shallot, bacon and parsley (£17.95) was another triumph: big ingredients working together with subtlety. The yielding delight of the steak was bolstered by the fat sliced mushroom and an equally sturdy shallot. But a word for the Dauphinoise potatoes. These possessed the correct slatternly floppiness in the spud texture but combined with an almost elegant cream and garlic. They were the finest dauphinoise I’ve had in years.

Last Day At School 015

The wild sea trout was a shade off in terms of appeal for our collective tastes. A clever take on a salad nicoise minus the tuna and anchovy plus a cracking slab of trout, it came with a runny egg rather than a boiled one. This provided a diverting flood of eggy interest but was intrusively fluid, getting all over the place, muscling in on the other elements of the dish. 

We also had sides of macaroni cheese, aka, ramekins of delight. Macaroni cheese usually makes me think of terrible slop-laden school dinners. Like the dauphinoise pots the Damson preparation was perfect. Banished are those childhood fears.

Then the pudding of caremelised pain perdu, roasted pear, honeycomb, Earl Grey jelly, honey and yoghurt ice cream (£6.95). This was the type of dessert that might cause a lunatic with a ridiculously sweet-tooth to spin on a hand-brake turn and ram raid the Damson facade. That honeycomb was swoon. 

Last Day At School 019A glass of a 1998 Marchisi de Gresy (£89.95 per bottle, although there's a great choice of wines down into the £20s) was a Stately Home of taste, richly appointed, a product of very careful craftsmanship. 

Ah, the restaurants of suburbia.

In two weeks I’ve had two of my most enjoyable meals of the year in semi-detached land, firstly at The Rose Garden in West Didsbury (click here) and now at Damson.

Something else struck me in the latter. It was that we make too much of chefs. Of course there are the superstars and the media will focus on these, even elevating average ones as long as they look good on screen or have a 'mad' personality.

But a good restaurant takes more than a good chef. A good restaurant is all about leadership. At Damson, ownership is split between Steve Pilling and chef Simon Stanley. It needs both of them to achieve what they have in Heaton Moor.

The separation of chef from manager with each in control of their own areas but working to an agreed set of values is crucial. Thus the role of manager - scarcely recognised on TV programmes - in helping direct the chef is fully as important as the work in the kitchen. It's no coincidence that two of Confidential’s favourite restaurants are Damson and Ramsons - on the other side of Greater Manchester with Chris Johnson and Naz in control. Both demonstrate the point perfectly. 

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here @JonathSchofield

Damson

113 Heaton Moor Road, Heaton Moor
SK4 4HY, 0161 432 4666

Rating: 17.5/20
Food: 8.5/10
Service: 5/5
Ambience: 4/5

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

Wall-EJuly 25th 2011.

Is the Rose garden as good as damson then?

JamesJuly 25th 2011.

Yep. It is.

AnonymousJuly 26th 2011.

Scallops in July?
I always thought there should be an 'R' in the month but they seem to be on menus everywhere at the moment.

James SpencerJuly 28th 2011.

The wine mark up was 30%....suburban.... re scallops it makes you think anon ???

Jonathan SchofieldAugust 2nd 2011.

I wouldn't let it put you off Anon. The food was excellent while the scoring system for these hygiene issues needs tightening to concentrate on the big issues. I'll be back soon. As for scallops, mussels and so forth, farming of the beasts and the shrinking of the globe through those aeroplane thingies has rather removed the relevance of the 'r' in the month rule.

AnonymousAugust 4th 2011.

Want to justify your "concentrate on the big issues" comment Jonathan? Are you familiar with the details of the case?

B CarneySeptember 22nd 2011.

Just got the Festival 15 promo through for 3 restaurants Damson being one of them. I've never been to any of them even though I'm from the northwest but checked them all out on the 'Scores on the Doors' Food standards agency. Damson got a 0 rating! Does anyone know anything about this? I look at surveys and statistics with an open mind generally however a 0 rating is pretty bad. I was looking forward to trying it out. They're also up for a food award I think at the Food Awards Night. Link to ratings. ratings.food.gov.uk/EstablishmentDetails.aspx…

AnonymousSeptember 22nd 2011.

You can request the individual reports for each place from the town hall, under the FOI Act. Or Google the story as it appeared in the MEN

yawn!yawn!yawn!September 24th 2011.

wow mr anonymous you really do have a bee in your bonnet don't you...i have seen the high standard of hygiene that damson continuely maintains...think you should actually read the report before passing judgement...bitter rival by any chance

IzzySeptember 28th 2011.

I think Mr. Anonymous has a point. Dropping one or two points for the reason given by the restaurant owner is perhaps understandable. But to receive a zero rating suggests something is seriously amiss. If a high standard of hygiene is continuously maintained, a zero rating makes no sense at all

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