James Martin is a celebrity chef everybody’s heard of. Whether it’s his ten year stint on Saturday Kitchen, presenting This Morning or Junior Bake Off, TV adverts for Asda, not to mention his own line of nearly twenty cookery books, he’s a regular household name. His name has pulling power. Maybe that’s why he replaced his predecessor, Linen, at the back of the Manchester235 casino in the glorious Grade II listed Great Northern Warehouse in 2013.
This is my first visit to the restaurant. I’ve avoided casinos since my short-lived career as a croupier way back when I dealt dice in The Sportsman and saw all that money going down the pan.
Thankfully, this isn’t tacky Las Vegas, with its neon-filled malls and nouveau riche bling, where restaurants in casinos offer cheap, subsidised food to keep you gambling.
You may have to walk through the gaming floor to get to James Martin, but once you arrive you enter a different world.
With its crisp linen, vintage-style fabrics, soft lighting, and even a separate chef’s table with private dining for up to 10 guests, it’s a destination in itself.
The staff are the kind you’d expect to find in some of the finest venues in the city – very professional, knowledgeable, not overly imposing, but there when you need them.
The restaurant opens at 5pm, with a la carte and five course tasting menus (£30/ £47.50 with matching wines) available daily. There is also an eight course tasting menu (£75) that features courses from the main a la carte, giving you a chance to tour the menu but at much better value (priced individually the courses range from £7 to £20) – which is what we did today.
Yorkshire Wagyu Tartare with cured egg yolk and pickles was a particularly good example of what I often feel is overpriced beef with a fancy name. James hails from a farm on Yorkshire so you’d expect he’d have a decent supplier there, and his wagyu’s well worth the price. It’s cubed, fleshy, and rich – a real treat with the runny yolk.
Spring Leek and Wild Garlic Veloute is a creamy decadent thick soup, served with Berkswell gougeres – mini dainty choux pastries filled with the strong parmesan-like ewe’s milk cheese, if you aren’t sure what they are. Gorgeous little mouthfuls.
This tasting menu has a good flow already and with each course you discover little gems. On this next course, the Brown Butter Poached Hake with Artichoke, the tempura cockles are a revelation and the star on the plate, despite the hake itself being faultless. And it’s served with monk’s beard, another new one on me, a little green vegetable similar to samphire but a bit less salty.
The first three savoury dishes are a taste of what’s to come in terms of quality product and technique. Maple-Glazed Smoked Pork Belly that’s been soaking for a whole week; a bouillabaisse style dish of Red Mullet with mussels and smoked cod roe; and Herdwick Lamb Rump with some seriously good smoked Roscoff onions and stocky boulangere potatoes. There wasn’t one we didn’t rate and the odds are looking good for a full house.
Our server chose the wine to go with all these different dishes perfectly – a particularly good white, the crisp and dry South African Semillon (£34 bottle) from Franschhoek and a soft and smooth Peter & Peter Pinot Noir (£8.50 175ml or £33 bottle), a light bodied and elegant red.
James might not be cooking tonight but he puts in regular appearances throughout the year, hosting special events and cooking a selection of courses for his guests. As a former pastry chef, the desserts should be winners.
The Lemon Curd Parfait is sophisticated with its yoghurt and olive sorbet, aerated white chocolate, and matcha green tea. But it’s the Milk Chocolate and Hazelnut Mille Feuille that wins our hearts with that Jivara milk chocolate sorbet. It’s 40% cacao and exceptionally smooth, creamy and light. We’ve never tasted anything like it. What a way to go.
James Martin’s name and pulling power may be the main attraction for first time visitors to his restaurant, but it’s the food and the service that will keep them coming back.
And punters in the casino should count themselves lucky they aren’t playing against the odds. Well, not with their food anyway.