When chef Simon Wood first opened his eponymous restaurant in Manchester – his first proper restaurant business after winning MasterChef in 2015 – it quickly became known for its sprawling, multi-course tasting menus, stacked with painstaking processes and chef-ey flourishes.
However enthusiastic a home cook he was before meeting John Torode and Gregg Wallace, that was an impressive leap.
More than five years on – Wood opened on Jack Rosenthal Street in 2017 – the latter two things are very much still in evidence. He still makes his own sausages by hand, for example, and breaks down whole beasts so that only the squeal/moo/bleat remains unused.
But now he’s gone a la carte, doing away with the tasting menus and instead has developed a more casual dining experience. You can choose large plates, small plates, mix and match flavours as you wish, but it’s all got a thread.
“The dishes talk to each other,” he says. Not literally, of course, before you start edging for the door, though hospitality is a tremendously stressful business and you could forgive the odd flight into surrealism due to extreme tiredness.
“So, for example, if you went with the bone in rib (of beef), or the short rib as your larger plate, you could then pair it with the pork fat potatoes, or the Pommes Anna and the [peas, lettuce and sea vegetables].
“Then technically you’re having like a meat and two veg dinner, right? Though obviously, it’s a bit more than that.”
It is indeed, as he says, a bit more than meat and two veg. Finest was given a full exploration of the new menu last week.
And while choosing plates here and there might seem casual, this is still serious eating with serious cooking going on behind it, though with some of the fun regional flourishes he’s become known for.
For example, because he’s born and bred in Oldham, there’s a rag pudding. Well, his take on one at least. In the days of his grandma, who was a frequent rag pudding maker, the suet would have been steamed in anything that came to hand, from a tea towel or cheesecloth to a pillow case (now there’s casual dining for you).
“It’s an Oldham staple,” he says. “Bury and Rochdale think they’ve got a say in it, but they haven’t.”
Simon’s rag pudding, however, isn’t steamed – he deep fries the suet, the braised beef melting inside with the peppery scent of blue pepe nasturtium.
You can add truffle if you wish, something unlikely to have been found in the rag puddings he knew growing up, particularly the ones steamed in a pillow case.
It’s a pretty stunning piece of work. And so are the sweetbreads, which are glazed to a glossy shine and served with crispy chicken skin showered on top like scraps at the chippy.
With the offal and the complex butchery – more of that shortly – you might think the menu skews meat, but a piece of Cornish mackerel was stiff-off-the-boat fresh, cured and served with a ‘chilli crack’, a colourful and wildly savoury mess balanced on top of the fillets.
The monkfish on the ‘big plates’ menu too, roasted on the bone with Chinese XO sauce, is just as accomplished, cooked just-so over ‘fire and flame’.
The star turn, however, was the Castleshaw lamb sausage. “If we’re going to kill an animal, I’m going to utilise all of it,” he says. “This dish, it’s got a whole story.”
It has. The lamb is from Castleshaw, just beyond Oldham, and it’s all used to make the type of coiled sausage you’d dream of seeing stuffed into a warm muffin the morning after the night before.
The shoulder offers up the filling, spiked with classic mint, the intestines form the sausage skin, the lamb breast is cured to make lamb bacon, which is fried and showered on top, and the kidneys feature in the sauce, which is best mopped up with the Pommes Anna, fashioned from layers upon layers of buttered potato. It’s a death row chip.
For pudding, there’s literally a box of delights. A bowl of soft-serve ice cream arrives with a wooden box, partitioned and heaped with ‘Woodie’s goodies’, sweet shop standards from sweet fudge to posh gummies, with strawberry sauce licked on top like from the ice cream van.
A bit more grown up was the caramel and koji (fermented rice), a perfectly sweet tart with a slight background acidity like a cheesecake.
Nostalgia can be annoying on some menus. Vimto reductions feel like a tiring nod and a wink, a bad joke told loudly. The nostalgia that appears occasionally here is simply for great dishes and food memories that perhaps we’ve lost. They’re echoes of the past gently revived and sympathetically rethought.
And they’re all the better for that.
Wood, Jack Rosenthal St, Manchester M15 4RA