Jonathan Schofield assesses what difference it makes in terms of the city
That was a long wait, 40 years. Manchester can have starry nights again. And Manchester writers can have all Mana of fun with a Michelin-starred restaurant in their Mana.
It’s mana from heaven, which is spooky. Did chef proprietor Simon Martin have a premonition when he named his Ancoats establishment? After all, mana is an old spelling of manna, which the Big Man upstairs gave to the Isrealities to munch following their exodus from Egypt and their exile in the wilderness. And guess what, that exile also lasted 40 years. Weird.
So does it matter that Manchester has a Michelin star? Yes, it does.
No-one has ever said to me: “I only came to Manchester for the food,” some now will
Forty years is too long though. Here at Manchester Confidential we’ve become inured to the hysteria of the city not getting an award, others have been overboard about it. The weeping and wailing has occasionally been embarrassing. As a city we pretend to think we’re not needy, that we haven’t got a Scouser-like thin skin, sensitive to any perceived insult, but over Michelin stars we betrayed ourselves.
The whole fandango went so far as to cause the creation of a silly couple of programmes in 2014 called Restaurant Wars: The Battle for Manchester. In these, Aiden Byrne at Manchester House tussled with Simon Rogan of The French at The Midland to see who might be first to win a Michelin star. Predictably, neither did, and you couldn't blame Michelin if they deliberately decided against either with such flagrant jockeying.
Confidential didn’t take it so seriously, as evidenced by this one word article in 2017 and this ejection of the Michelin Man from the building in 2018. In some respects we might have got that last part right.
Michelin can seem outdated, particularly its boring regimen of sticking to an old fashioned ‘cordon bleu’ definition of cooking that means most starred Michelin restaurants are interchangeable. Amidst the apparent variety there is a stultifying similarity. And lots of foam. There are very few UK Michelin starred restaurants from non-European food traditions.
Meanwhile there are loads of country house hotel restaurants which have Michelin stars where the atmosphere is more frigid than Captain Scott’s tent. I’ve been to several of these and they’re usually full of comfortable bourgeoisie scarcely talking to each other. All you can hear is the clink of cutlery on crockery. The waiting staff are usually stiff as pokers. Suddenly, The Smiths' line seems apt, 'Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head'.
Some years ago in a well-known Lakeland restaurant, we were put on a table in the bay window looking out across Windermere to the Scafell mountain range. There was a bird table on the immaculate lawn. Hanging off a sack of nuts was a blue tit. Suddenly a magpie came down and speared the blue tit through the back of the neck, exactly at the same time as the restaurant manager delivered our salt-marsh lamb. We all witnessed the murder.
Then the obsequious restaurant manager, in a tortured voice, said: "I am so very very sorry, that is terrible, is there anything I can do?" Amused, by him apologising for nature, red in tooth and claw, I said, "Yes, bring that bird back to life immediately." There was not a flicker of a smile, no thawing of the servile ice. He reminded me of the waiter in French cartoon Belleville Rendezvous, who can bend double in each direction.
For me it exemplified the problem with many Michelin establishments. They often fail as restaurants because, while the food might be exceptional, that alone is not what makes a restaurant trip rewarding. You also need efficient but warm and knowledgeable service, and good atmosphere, that almost indescribable feeling of comfort with a bit of buzz about it.
Another problem during Manchester's long wait has been the opaque way Michelin judge restaurants and their apparent inconsistency. If Mana gained a star then it's odd that Adam Reid at The French and Paco Perez at Enxaneta on the top floor of Tast didn't get one. For many food writers, who've eaten at all three, there is little qualitative difference. On the surface the standards and techniques of food preparation are all equally high. So why the one and not the other two? There is no Supreme Court with Michelin inspectors, no working out of their mysterious rationale.
Yet, despite these caveats and gripes, it is very welcome that Manchester has gained a Michelin starred restaurant. Non-capital European cities are all part of a game of tourism vying for that weekend break trade, with so many of them accessible through cheap flights.
Having great food and drink choice is part of the attraction of travel. For Mancs to be able to nod and say "yeah we've got a Michelin starred restaurant" ticks a box that wasn't ticked before. Selling conferences and exhibitions to organisations and institutions will be a little easier. True, they were hardly lighting bonfires and celebrating with fireworks in Collyhurst and Gorton at the news but for high-end, high-value tourism, the award is a boost, adding to the prestige of Manchester as a destination. It's a complement to the news earlier this month that Manchester is the second most visited city, after, a long way after, London, overtaking Edinburgh.
For Simon Martin and his team at Mana, the star, is a reward for the meticulous attention to detail and range of flavours they bring customers. Mana deserves its accolade and should reap the rewards.
There are people who collect Michelin starred restaurants with the same determination as trainspotters standing at platform ends with notebooks. So while I can genuinely say that in 23 years of being a tour guide for this city no-one has said to me: “I only came to Manchester for the food,” some now will.
That means more money into the city economy and more opportunity to show off other superb food and drink establishments. Who knows, next year we may even get another Michelin star for The French and Enxaneta?
At the very least, let's hope we don't have another 40-year wait.