Simon Wood’s passion for cooking started as an eight-year-old boy, when he won a competition to be whatever he wanted for the day. He chose to be a chef. Thirty years later, his dream came true when the former data manager won TV cookery show MasterChef in 2015, marking the start of a blossoming culinary career.
Wood Manchester, based in the growing First Street development, is the first restaurant from Simon, though not the last. He recently announced that in spring 2019 Wood Chester will open as part of the new Hotel Indigo on Grosvenor Park Road, part of the InterContinental Hotel Group.
Wood Manchester is spacious and welcoming, with 96 covers as well as a chef’s table and a private dining room. The chic bar serves a selection of serious snacks – padron peppers, pork belly bites – alongside bespoke cocktails.
The menus offer various dining options, from lunch and early evening set menus (from £22.50 for two courses), to a seven-course tasting menu, via an a la carte offering which includes some of the MasterChef dishes which made Simon Wood famous.
I tried the tasting menu, which offers a “magical mystery tour” through Simon’s favourite seasonal ingredients. It’s priced at £65 at dinner, or £45 for five courses during the day, with a matching wine flight available from £25.
There’s no menu, so you have no idea what you’ll be served until it arrives, but staff check in advance about any allergies or dietary requirements.
It’s a tempting proposition but you’ll be amply rewarded if you’re prepared to take a chance and put your trust in the chef.
Warm, fluffy, rosemary-scented bread rolls with soft, whipped salted butter whet the appetite for the procession of dishes to come.
First, Simon’s playful take on fish and chips – a cracker of crispy cod skin topped with wasabi mayonnaise, pea purée and sharp capers and gherkins, punctuated by little salt and vinegar potato puffs. It matched neatly with the citrus, grapefruit and fennel notes of the paired Furmint wine.
Next came a precise yet comforting bowl of Thai tom kha soup, a coconut spiced broth packed with mushrooms and topped with charred baby corn and coriander oil. The paired Chilean Gewurztraminer matched beautifully, aromatic and floral with notes of lychee and orange blossom.
A modern take on steak tartare saw tender fillet soaked in a smoky coal oil made from the Josper oven, with capers, gherkins and horseradish and a creamy emulsion made with Cornish Yarg cheese. The spicy plum and fig notes of a New Zealand Pinot Noir made a handsome match. Then came an elegantly plated cured mackerel fillet served with English goats curd, fresh orange, watercress and earthy beetroot, paired with an Albariño from north west Spain.
A plate of pink beef fillet, slow-braised cheek and mushrooms was the best yet, a robust, earthy dish enhanced by burnt onion purée, beetroot and a glossy Madeira sauce as well as an unashamedly pungent hit of truffle. It’s one of Simon’s favourite dishes and it’s easy to see why. An old school, full-bodied Italian red with a hint of pepper spice on the finish paired perfectly.
Next came not one but two desserts. First up Simon’s MasterChef-winning tutti frutti, a delicate lemon posset dotted with mini meringues, fresh grapefruit, and grapefruit and lemon gel. Light, creamy and citrussy, and matched with a sweet Sauternes with notes of marmalade and tropical fruit, this was well worth saving room for.
Finally came an amalgamation of peach melba and raspberry pavlova, with a fragrant basil sorbet. The accompanying red dessert wine, an Italian Valpolicalla with notes of honeyed figs, tasted like Christmas in a glass.
Wood Manchester has mastered the fusion of precise, elegant and skilful dishes served in a relaxed, accessible environment. There’s no starched stuffiness here. Service is friendly, knowledgeable and confident without ever being intrusive.
It’s no wonder the place is busy, and no surprise to see the model being rolled out with a second restaurant. The Wood brand looks to go from strength to strength.
When he won the show in 2015, Simon was praised by MasterChef judge John Torode for taking something something ordinary and making it special. With Wood Manchester, he has done it again.