At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is about nothing more than a phantasmagoric society populated by lunatics. A dreamworld stuffed with oddities. But look a little closer and you’ll soon discover that all is not as it seems.
The same can be said of Scottish-Italian chef Nico Simone’s newest six-course tasting menu, which takes its inspiration from A Mad Tea Party, the seventh chapter of Alice. It flips the script on modern dining expectations.
At the time Carroll was writing, following rules and minding your manners were of the utmost importance. And for the Victorians, nothing had more rules than eating.
Books such as Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society were widely read, imparting such useful advice as “you cannot use your knife, or fork, or teeth too quietly” and “ladies should never dine with their gloves on – unless their hands are not fit to be seen.”
Ten years before Alice was published, Carroll created his own satirical dining guide Hints for Etiquette; Or, Dining Out Made Easy in which he poked fun at the many do’s and don’ts of Victorian dining. And this continues in Wonderland.
Like Carroll’s beloved tale, Nico’s menu plays with appearance and reality and breaks all the rules in the process – starting with an edible menu. We think the author would’ve approved.
The first course takes us to Alice’s arrival at the bottom of the well. Embracing the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland, what looks like a plate of little cakes land on the table. So far, so normal.
In actual fact, they’re parmesan and truffle empire biscuits, topped with white kappa (tapioca) and a smidge of quince. They look so convincingly sweet, the savoury reality is rather baffling.
Called Eat Me Drink Me, the course comes accompanied by a strong, hot mushroom consomme served in a glass teapot. It’s a challenging start to the menu, in the best way. Our interest is piqued.
Next is Chester Cat Copy Cat. Here we’re presented with a ball of chicken liver parfait encased in orange jelly, disguising itself as a piece of fruit. Slicing it open reveals the creamy pink spread inside, another fun bit of food theatre.
It’s joined on the plate by a hearty dollop of spiced chutney, toasted sourdough and a few slices of apple.
This is followed by Steak Tartare? – and again it’s not what you might expect. There’s no beef, for one. Instead, we’re faced with a combination of goats cheese pannacotta, green olive tapenade, tomato tartare and yoghurt yolk. Curiouser and curiouser.
For such a tiny plate, there are some big, rich flavours here. Whilst it’s no replacement for the real thing, it does a remarkably good job of looking like something it’s not.
Moving on to the fourth course, Checkmate, sole sits on cauliflower rice, joined by a black garlic emulsion and fragrant lemon verbena foam. Thematically, we’re underwhelmed, but flavour-wise this actually turns out to be our favourite dish of the night.
By contrast, we barely touch course number five – Off With His Head. Served with an obligatory pig’s head croquette, of course, our pork fillet is so tough it dances round the plate as we attempt to cut a slice. Sadly, the spiced prunes prove equally hard work.
Fortunately ,the Queen of Hearts pudding, a white chocolate mousse with red velvet cake, raspberries and pecan brittle, offers a lift.
Appearing on the plate as a glistening red heart surrounded by berries and micro herbs, cutting it open reveals layers of cream and dark sponge within. The herbs are fiddly and get stuck in our teeth, but overall it’s quite pleasant.
Whilst as a whole the menu feels like it could do with some finessing (something we’re told the chefs aren’t afraid to do during each menu’s six-week run), it’s definitely good fun.
They’ve certainly been ambitious, but serious fine dining this is not. It’s more like a tasting menu on training wheels with some interesting quirks to be found on the way.
It’s priced at six courses for £29, with wine pairing an additional £26.
All is certainly not as it seems. You have been warned.
Six by Nico, 60 Spring Gardens, Manchester M2 2BQ