If there was an award for most improved restaurant in Manchester at the upcoming Food and Drink Festival gongs, Grafene would be right up there. The casual, fine dining venue opened its doors for the first time last July and got plenty of things right from day one, but there was room for improvement. However, after last week trying all they have to offer from their new a la carte menu, I'd say the place is now beginning to truly fulfil its potential. Continue in this vain and they'll be pretty hard to ignore when award season comes round next year.
With their enticing new summer menu now available they invited us down to eat our way through the whole lot. Bear in mind some of these dishes are the taster menu sizes rather than the full whack you'd get from the main menu, we might be a bit greedy here at Finest but 18 courses had to mean cutting the odd corner here and there...
Poor presentation is certainly a criticism I've not heard levelled at Grafene, and their good form continued throughout this showing with some properly stunning arrangements. None more so than our first either- a sea trout, grapefruit, cucumber and fennel dish which married delicate flavoured fish with charred bitter citrus and fresh vibrant salad. Dehydrated crisp structures were a theme throughout the meal and they added nice texture here.
Beetroot was used widely in a number of dishes when this restaurant first opened, and Grafene was criticised for that. One of the most impressive things about this menu is the lack of repetition though, it's difficult to think of many places that you could wade through the whole menu and find as little reuse of concepts and ingredients. This cool refreshing starter was nicely balanced, with sweet baby beetroot in whole and gazpacho form set against rich goat's curd, with a nibble of hazelnut here and there.
The beef tartare probably won out over our other starters for me, the addition of egg and black bean didn't distract too much from those beautiful tight little cubes of rare tender meat, only adding further umami. A simple but pretty salad of heritage carrots sat upright vying for attention but didn't catch much from me in all honesty, there were much more exciting things on offer.
Scallop with bacon and peas was perhaps a good measure of where this restaurant has improved itself, a classic combination of flavours that rests on the balance and seasoning being executed perfectly, and it was. The seafood seared golden to allow it the opportunity to stand up against salty pink chunks of gammon – then the freshest little peas to finish.
Speaking of classic dishes given a good showing, I'd like to see a chicken and sweetcorn soup as well turned out as this. Crystal clear but punchy consomme surrounding blackened sections of corn and moist chicken.
On to the mains we began with rare pork, which must be well judged but I felt the seasoning was a touch light on this dish. Black pudding brought it together although I felt like this one missed a trick somehow, close but not quite there. Halibut needs just a soft hand with seasoning and spice to bring it to life and the fish was well respected, skin lightly crisped and served with more crisp skin of chicken, light sauce and shavings of cauliflower.
If the vegetarian starter of carrot was a bit out-done by its carnivorous competition then ricotta and lemon gnocchi made a better fist creating a bit of food envy for meat eaters. The lightest, creamy, cheesy scoops were artfully laid with sauted courgette in a perfect celebration of summer.
One dish that certainly left me wishing for a full portion was the lamb, I was quite distraught having to share that lovely little bit of meat. Crunchy croquettes went some way to satiating my greed though, I think this was probably the pick of the mains for me.
Then again the summer bouillabaisse with bisque broth and a plethora of fruit de mer was quite magnificent itself, and generous in its proportions too. Sweetcorn encased in folded, freshly made al dente pasta was another good example of well-thought-out rather than after-thought veggie food and well worth a try whether avoiding meat or otherwise.
There was something quite sinister about the dark chocolate dessert, it almost looked like some sort of Tim Burton creation with set sugary wings reaching up over mousse and cherry sorbet. More down to earth, the blueberry parfait somehow had the flavour of the forest floor with sweet nutty pecan and fragrant baby basil leaves. A genuinely quite interesting combination of flavours that was perhaps the pick of the dessert bunch for its quirkiness.
I can't help feeling that strawberrys and cream puds never really impress that much more than a bowl of strawberries and cream might, or with meringue added to make a mess. That said it takes a brave man to leave them out of a summer menu, and these were perfectly refreshing and pert. The with coconut and mango brought a distinctly tropical vibe to proceedings, I personally felt the puffed rice didn't quite work, but the sweetness of the fruit and creamy crunch of cocunut was a lovely combination.
Our raspberry delice was a bit well set for my liking, a touch too far down the scale towards jelly if that makes sense, and I'm not too much of a white chocolate fan either so not one for me that dessert. Finally rhubarb won the day, as it so often does, a deconstructed crumble with iced custard was really fantastic, best in show.
Fair play to Grafene for inviting us to eat all they've got to offer, I reckon it's a pretty ballsy move to be quite honest, and betrays a real confidence in what is being created in the kitchen. There's more than enough in there to make up a good few visits over these summer months so the real question is, when are you going to go to Grafene first?
Grafene, 6, 55 King St, Manchester M2 4LQ
0161 696 9700