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The French Restaurant, Midland

Andrew Biswell has a tremendously expensive meal but enjoys the dainty old world frills

Published on August 11th 2008.


The French Restaurant, Midland

I am as fond of eating as the next man (perhaps slightly more so), but if it is a question of eating out I'm picky.

Most restaurants leave me with a sense of disappointment, along with a nagging suspicion that I could have knocked together something better in my own kitchen. Even so, it was impossible to refuse an invitation to taste the opulent delights of The French at the Midland Hotel.

This retro palace of gastronomy, which first opened its doors in 1903, has a well-earned reputation for continuity and refusing to move with the times. That makes perfect sense if you happen to agree that the times are rapidly moving down the plughole and towards the septic tank.

In an age largely characterized by change for the sake of change, often undertaken for the sole purpose of upsetting those of us who preferred things as they were, this retro palace of gastronomy, which first opened its doors in 1903, has a well-earned reputation for continuity and refusing to move with the times. That makes perfect sense if you happen to agree that the times are rapidly moving down the plughole and towards the septic tank. Yet such heroic resistance to the pernicious innovations of the modern world arrives, as you might expect, bearing a price tag.

We were shown to our table by a cheerful fellow called Bruno, who has been maitre d’ at The French for 37 years. The décor and furnishings, designed by the architect Charles Trubshaw, do a good job of evoking the grandeur of Paris during the reign of Napoleon III.

The vast domed ceilings are adorned by two enormous crystal chandeliers, suspended above handsome paintings of Gallic courtesans discreetly advertising their wares. Somewhere offstage, an invisible pianist provides an unobtrusive soundtrack for well-dressed upmarket dining. You could be forgiven for thinking that you had wandered onto the set of a costume drama, or, as visitors have often said, into the first-class lounge of the Titanic. The atmosphere is pleasingly theatrical.

Judging from their appearance, many of our fellow diners were captains of industry, bon vivants, courting couples, moneyed weekend city-breakers, or birthday celebrants (although a couple of tone-lowering television producers had also, mysteriously, been allowed in). The dining-room is large but uncluttered, seating around fifty people. By nine-thirty on Saturday evening there were almost no empty tables. Weekend reservations are essential.

One of the attractions of the French is the attentiveness of the waiting staff, who are willing to provide exactly the right degree of solicitousness without seeming to intrude. A man in white gloves offered us the choice of no fewer than fourteen different kinds of bread, some of them home-made. My companion consulted the wine list and selected a well-chilled and splendid oaky 2004 Meursault Laboure Roi (“ripe fruits with notes of honey and hazelnuts”). At £40, this was representative of the middle range of the extensive wine list, which was highly commended by Manchester writer, the late Anthony Burgess, a regular visitor to the Midland back in the 1980s.

I am told that, until a few years ago, the menu (which is downloadable from the Midland Hotel’s website) was presented exclusively in French. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that the available dishes are described in English these days, but surely this diminishes the grandeur of eating here. We ordered the woodland mushroom tortellini (£12.95) with chicken and black truffles, along with the smoked haddock risotto (£8.95) with poached egg. The trio of tortellini was very good indeed: zippy and woody, accompanied by spinach. The risotto was flavoursome and well balanced, with plenty of haddock.

After these treats, the main courses were slightly less satisfying, but not disappointing. I ordered Scottish salmon (£21.95) with crab tortellini and green vegetables. If the salmon steak lacked excitement, this was compensated by the varied accompaniment of courgettes, broad beans, cabbage, peas and leeks, which arrived in a foam of shellfish.

My companion (who had spent the day guzzling trashy food on a Virgin West Coast train) went for the Cornish sea bass (£25.95) with chorizo risotto and leeks. The fish was fine, but the vegetables seemed slightly sparse: there were only three pieces of leek and a lone tomato. The chorizo represented an interesting mixture of flavours, but my friend wasn’t at all sure that he would recommend it. (I notice, by the way, that there is no sausage risotto in my copy of Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking. Is this evidence of pernicious innovation at the French?) In retrospect, we wished that we had ordered the spectacular Chateaubriand beef (£59.95 for two), which is flame-cooked at your table. We salivated heavily as we watched other people tucking in.

And so, after a decent interval, to the desserts (all £7.95). The best of these was the vanilla brulée with Garibaldis, which my friend described as “a huge lake of brulée”. The biscuits were satisfyingly doughy. I had the rhubarb and ginger cheesecake with tasty rhubarb compote and ice cream, presented in a thin cable of spun sugar. This was complemented by a 2003 Loupiac dessert wine, tasting of syrupy late-harvested grapes.

The two of us ate and drank lavishly for £138. Was it worth it? Yes, if you enjoy an old-world atmosphere and a lofty sense of occasion. We were well looked after and fussed over after by excellent staff, and neither of us left the table hungry. I would certainly consider going back if I had something to celebrate. Take your mother, partner, spouse or anyone else on whom you are trying to make a good impression. But whatever else you do, dismiss any thoughts you might have of arriving under-dressed.

Andrew Biswell is the author of The Real Life of Anthony Burgess (Picador, 2005) and has written for the Guardian and the Scotsman.

Rating: 17/20
Breakdown: 8/10 Food
5/5 Service
4/5 Ambience
Address: The French
Midland Hotel
Peter Street
Manchester
M60 2DS
0161 236 3333

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

AnonymousAugust 11th 2008.

Phil Taylor - people who suggest that it would be better if the French wasn't still 'pickled in 1903' obviously don't get the French. This is one of the few restaurants in Manchester that absolutely requires reservations at the weekend. So why should something different be done with the space. It may not be everyone's preferred style but it's the last restaurant of it's kind in Manchester. Marlene Dietrich has eaten there, the Beatles were turned away. With a history like that, and if it's still full to the rafters at the weekend there's no need to change.Let's not forget that Stock has had to reinvent itself because for a while it went down the plughole.By the way, the current owners of the Midland have done a first rate job of restoring the place.

nathanphotoAugust 11th 2008.

Yep Phil Taylor does know his onions, forgive the pun that man has probably been in more kitchens and restaurants than most of the people on here, he's a living legend. Just think that the photography should be an accurate representation of the food rather than just a picture and it's the photographer not the camera. just like it's the chef and not the ingredients (oh no what have l started)

ScepticalAugust 11th 2008.

Olivia Henry - do you work in The Midland's Marketing Department by any chance?

AvoAugust 11th 2008.

Surely if the review is meant to be a covert one, the use of a professional SLR to take pictures of the food might draw the unwanted attentions of the waiting staff / other diners. I for one think the photos adequately depict the quality of the food.

AnonymousAugust 11th 2008.

...by the way, it is LOUPIAC not LOUPLAC...

scoteeeAugust 11th 2008.

Simon, Frankie and Benny's is just off the bottom of King Street!

AnonymousAugust 11th 2008.

Dear Editorial, Might I suggest a new approach to your food photography. It has to be said, the photos on the site usually do make the food look pretty rank. Doesn't do the food justice - I've eaten at The French, and the presentation of the food they serve is fantastic! Is it necessary to photograph the food at all? If so, maybe it's time to invest in a better camera.

French FanAugust 11th 2008.

As probably their best customer it's my duty to concur with the revue. The greatest test in a restaurant is the consistancy in the food and service year in and year out, and it delivers every time. I once held a private party on a Saturday night for over 40 people and it was just as good as it could be.The venue will always have people who are willing to knock the place but then those persons will knock most places to try for a freebie.Take it from me if you want a fine night out for a celebration or just an evening then this is the place.Incidently the Mon-Thur gastronomique is only £29 for 2 courses or £35 for 3.

French FanAugust 11th 2008.

Hi GordoThe petal and I would look forward to that, free Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday. French closed for summer vacation 'till 27th. August.We love the River Room please bring your black card !!!!

DavenjonAugust 11th 2008.

The Midland French has been consistantly outstanding for the 25 years I've been dining there. Keep trying the trendy, noisy restaurants only to be disapointed, often treated like sheep, shouting to be heard, and indifferent service. This dining experience is something special. Incidentlally, they used to have a great 'dicount card' for £120 which gave you an overnight stay, one meal free, use of the gym, and other perks. It brought the cost of the meal down to something you would pay in any ordinary restaurant, so worth every penny. I do hope they replace it with something similar?

AnonymousAugust 11th 2008.

this food looks rank! no chance i'm eating here

fizzohAugust 11th 2008.

I quite like the look of that salmon as it happens.

French Fan's FanAugust 11th 2008.

Stephen, it's time you and i had dinner! I shall be calling. Gordo.

JonathanAugust 11th 2008.

Nathan, you're right. Although I am partial to a close up view of fish skin, who isn't?

AlfonzoAugust 11th 2008.

Simon would you prefer that the waiter had dirty fingernails and loaf of mighty white with Spar's own margerine? Its meant to be a decedant dining experience..

Olivia HenryAugust 11th 2008.

From Tuesday to Thursday the Gastronomique Menu at The French is only £35 for three courses. Great value for this standard of restaurant, which has moved with the times in the kitchen.

judeiosaAugust 11th 2008.

I was here a few weeks ago. The photos don't do this place justice. It's a wonderfully impressive restraunt with wonderful food and service.

ChickAugust 11th 2008.

Anon. Sorry, one of the 'few' restaurants in Manchester that requires reservations at the weekend? I think you'll find there's plenty. The French is like Arkle in Chester - great food but as Phil says, pickled in time - move on please. BTW, Phil Tayor most certainly knows what he's talking about when it comes to taking photos of food

Cynthia ChapterAugust 11th 2008.

Simon I think the part of the sentence you need to pay attention to is the bit which says, 'Help, I need a psychiatrist, because I look to hard into the itsy-bitsy detail of the bloody obvious.'

Guy with the tieAugust 11th 2008.

Glad you enjoyed the evening as much as all the other diners did !!

Simon TurnerAugust 11th 2008.

Alfonzo says..“ Simon would you prefer that the waiter had dirty fingernails and loaf of mighty white with Spar's own margerine? Its meant to be a decedant dining experience.. ” Why is that the only alternative? I've been to great restaurants round the world and the white glove thing has never impressed me. And since when has home-made bread been decedent (or even 'decadent')? I appreciate good bread, mate, but if I was given 14 choices I'd think someone was trying a bit too hard. And Scoteee says..“ Simon, Frankie and Benny's is just off the bottom of King Street!” Never been, never will.

AlfonzoAugust 11th 2008.

Simon a a point well made, excuse my typo, I was referring to the white gloves more than the bread and the pomposity of the whole affair as being decadent and over the top.. Is it not meant to parody itself to some degree?

AnonymousAugust 11th 2008.

35 squid to dine in a legend....priceless

Phil TaylorAugust 11th 2008.

Er, it's not a 'Professional SLR' that makes good food pictures. It's knowing about light, texture and a gazillion other things. I've taken food pictures for publication with a digital compact in the past.Perhaps the best way is to do like other publications do, and return to photograph a couple of dishes prepped up for photos.However, I agree with Nathan, the puréed Barbie in a spring could look better.Personally, I think they could do more with that room, rather than keep it pickled in 1903. Look at what Stock has done with an equally vast space?There's something of a vintage, period feel about the place. If you found Mr Creosote waiting for his 'Waffer Thin Mint' it wouldn't surprise me.

EditorialAugust 11th 2008.

Dear Anonymous...now changed. Thanks.

NathanPhotoAugust 11th 2008.

It sounds beautiful but my god those pictures would be enough to put anyone off !

Simon TurnerAugust 11th 2008.

"A man in white gloves offered us the choice of no fewer than fourteen different kinds of bread, some of them home-made" - which bit of this sentence is supposed to entice me there? Being served by a waiter in white gloves? Having far more bread choices than any sensible human ever needs? Or the fact that "some" of the bread was made in someone's home (was it?) and some in a bread-making factory. Wow.

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