As a Manchester based foodie, theres nothing I love more than the announcement of a new local restaurant with high expectations. So, when I heard that 2015 Masterchef winner Simon Wood was opening his first restaurant ‘Wood Manchester‘ within the First Street development, I booked a table for the opening weekend immediately! The restaurant website describes it’s concept as ‘unintimidating high end dining’ and a place where you can enjoy ‘modern interpretations on traditional flavours’, so my expectations were set.
On arrival, the restaurant was bustling – as I’d expect for their first Saturday night. The restaurant is one large space, with a partitioned bar area nearer the entrance. A mezzanine floor is home to a private dining area for intimate events. The interior has taken inspiration from the executive chefs name – wood panels on the bar, wooden tables, wooden floor. The turquoise booth seating gives a pop of colour to brighten the place. The entire room is focussed around an open kitchen; the pass the only divider of the chefs (there were many!) and the seated customers. This gave the restaurant an electric-type buzz and energy, which lasted throughout the evening.
After two glasses of prosecco in the bar area (not cheap at £7 a pop), we were taken to our table, in an enviable position at the corner of the kitchen pass. This meant we were able to watch the food being prepared and plated, even overhear the chefs conversation if we wanted! I enjoyed this – it gives the restaurant a great energetic buzz.
The view from my seat
Without really looking at the menu, we ordered – two blind tasting menus with paired wines. As you may have seen from other posts of mine (1 / 2 / 3), I do like a tasting menu, so it seemed the obvious choice! I understand the menu can change daily, so you can expect that it will reflect seasonal produce as well as the chefs whims.
In addition to the optional paired wines, there was a choice of paired drinks too. We decided to stick with wine as I’m not sure I’d have been able to walk out of there after eight cocktails!
Our server was attentive and also doubled as the sommelier for the evening. He gave us a short intro to each wine and the region it was from. Top marks here for educating the staff – I don’t think theres a need for a dedicated sommelier in this kind of establishment (one which describes itself as ‘unintimidating’), once the wine pairing has been decided. It was nice to have the same server throughout the evening rather than multiple people visiting our table for each course.
Firstly, two rolls of bread were bought to the table, along with butter topped with crispy chicken skin. Sounded and looked divine, but unfortunately we were off to a bad start… the rolls had such a hard crispy exterior we both struggled to get into them with our knives! I pondered briefly whether these too had been made ‘on brand’ and cooked until they mimicked wood, but alas it seems not. Once we broke into them, there was a small soft interior to each roll, though I can’t say they were enjoyable as they were so difficult to eat! We later saw rolls being sent back and the waitress knocking on one to show the chef how hard it was – perhaps we should have sent them back too, but I do hate complaining so early in a meal.
The only way was up
The first course was a pea and mint ‘salad’ with mozzarella. The ‘salad’ was more like a panna cotta consistency, a small sprig on top the only indication it may be a salad. The flavours were good and the dish a refreshing start to the meal. I’d almost consider this a palate cleanser given the chilled temperature it was served at. We’d recovered somewhat from the bread. Onwards and upwards.
We got pretty excited whilst waiting for the next course, as we heard the chef call our table away and ask for two pork belly. We’re both big pork belly fans and were pleased with what was presented to us. Served with sage and onion puree and a lovely chardonnay, the pork belly had good flavour and all the layers of goodness you’d expect – a crispy top section, melt in the mouth fat and finally scrumptious meat. The traditionally flavoured accompaniments worked well too. Quite a comforting, homely-flavoured dish.
Next, the server told us as he poured the wine, was the seafood course. Cod, it turned out, served with shredded leek and fennel. I found it odd this was the only seafood on the menu – my husband is not the biggest seafood lover and is usually met with all sorts of crustaceans and fish when we fine dine. I was starting to think that the menu was rather tame. For me the stand out items on this dish were the accompaniments, even the small pieces of onion added greatly. The flavours worked tremendously well and complimented the cod. But, the cod wasn’t as ‘melt in the mouth’ as I’d expect from a restaurant describing themselves as ‘high end dining’.
Cod with shredded leek and fennel
The next course returned to vegetarian. A tasty and pretty course of white, green and purple cauliflower served with a cheese sauce (I forget what cheese – a problem of having no menu). I really enjoyed this course, though it didn’t seem particularly impressive. Yes there was cauliflower flavour, thats what happens when you cook 3 cauliflowers, but I think it could be replicated at home without too much effort (I imagine sourcing green and purple cauliflower would be the hardest part).
White, green and purple cauliflower with a cheese sauce
Again, we heard the chef call away our table, this time for duck. My eyes lit up – my absolute favourite! We regularly eat duck at home and I like it pink with crispy skin. Thus I was a little disappointed when the duck we were served was cooked through. Not only that, it wasn’t tender either – possibly left to rest too long. The pinot noir served with the duck was the highlight of the course for me.
On to dessert and an ice cream dish, served with crumble and Japanese citrus fruit (possibly yuzu?) gel. For me this was the winning course. Comforting and buttery crumble, refreshing and uplifting gel with creamy ice cream. Fantastic. This dish was supposed to be served with an espresso martini. However, I can’t stand the taste of coffee (yes, I know, weird right!?). So our server very kindly switched mine for a vanilla and citrus martini. Oh my gosh – amazing! The zingyness of the citrus with the smoothness of the vanilla worked as well as it does in lemon-vanilla cheesecake! It also worked well with the food. Possibly a new favourite drink of mine.
Finally, the last course. Called ‘citrus tutti fruity’, we were served a (rather large) lemon posset with yuzu gel, hazelnut crisps (at least I think so, we had no menu to go off and weren’t told what they were) meringues and flowers. This was served with perhaps the best dessert wine I’ve ever tasted. Usually I can’t stand the stuff, but this dessert wine went down a treat. It was a large portion and finished off the meal well.
Citrus tutti fruity
Overall, our meal at Wood was a mixed bag. We got off to a bad start with the bread and in my opinion, the tasting menu lacked adventure and flair. But, the restaurant does say they ‘aim to offer modern interpretations on traditional flavours focusing on simplicity & purity.’ I think they succeed in doing that. Maybe they’re playing it safe while they establish themselves?
The starting two and last two courses were solid, but I was let down by the unimaginative section in the middle of ‘cod – cauliflower – duck’. If you’re using such day-to-day basic ingredients and accompanying flavours, at a restaurant billing themselves as high end, then the dishes have to be done to the best standard. For me, they could each have been done better.
I’d recommend Wood Manchester if you’re wanting to try your first blind tasting menu. Sometimes the adventurousness of ingredients you’ve never heard of can become overwhelming, but that isn’t likely to happen here.
At £65 for seven courses and £35 for the paired wine/drink flight, I don’t consider it overpriced. Its also in a great, up and coming area of Manchester city centre, so you can easily make a night of it without having to go far. First Street is home to some great places for a drink: The Laundrette, the Gas Works and the liquor store,not forgetting the cute cafe-bar at HOME.
If you are local to Manchester don’t forget about Manchester Food and Drink Festival which starts on 28th September! Theres lots of exiting events and stalls over the festival, so be sure to plan ahead and check it out.