Apparently the French invented restaurants. Now before you gasp in disbelief, obviously they didn’t invent eating or paying for ready-made meals, but restaurants are essentially theirs and for that we ought to give them a ‘merci’ bow.
By dint of name choice, the owners of Montpellier’s restaurant took the lead by opening this hidden gem, which offers the only French style bistro menu in the Northern Quarter in Manchester. Inspired by a visit to the southern French city Montpellier, its menu makes the average Frenchman feel a swell of national pride for having given Manchester the ‘croque monsieur’ (or madame), and ‘beef bourguignon’, for example.
Neatly tucked away on Back Turner Street – a cosy street in the Northern Quarter – this bar/restaurant isn’t just a room that sells food and drink with a seat to consume it and gulp it. Montpellier’s is a feeling, a series of assumptions and expectations. Restaurants – in conception at least – grew out of that French idea that smart and pretentious people may socialise, flirt and preen their reputations in public. So they took their dining rooms into the street, with dress codes and reservations of course. Montpellier’s, unlike all things French evoke, is warm, welcoming, comfortable and non-pretentious.
The staff’s warmness strikes a chord with the tagline of TV series Cheers – ‘Where everybody knows your name’ – as a smiley waiter’s friendly welcome, “You must be from TNT”, mirrored the whole ambience of the room. The decor: standard brick-work, akin to all trendy bars and eateries, inconspicuously adds a hint of class without the snootiness.
“We’ve got a set menu lined up for you, I hope that’s alright?” The waiter informs TNT, who go along with the unusual plan. After all, surprises are the very sizzles of fine dining.
First-up was the a wooden platter of large green olives lightly garnished with oil and strips of red peppers, rocket leaf salad, paté, halved Merguez and Toulouse sausages, melted blue cheese dip and a basket of white bread rolls with two small jars of chutney – one sweet, the other spicy. Far too much for a starter, which I suppose is the point since two people were sharing it. The highlights in this were the sausages: a little salty but perfect when combined with the olives and salad. The dish succeeded in providing a medley of textures that accompanied the explosion of varied Parisian flavours without the Parisian prices.
Midway through our starter, the music took a leap from a series of relaxing melodies to a couple of slightly uncomfortable rock tracks which wildly rippled the atmosphere. Perhaps a soundtrack that matches the unperturbed ambience of the restaurant would be a wise suggestion to note.
Within an hour of our being seated, the room was filled with a rumour of murmuring diners; an organic soundtrack to the background indie tracks.
For the main dish, first was a super-rich beef bourguignon, served with French-seasoned beans and dauphinoise potatoes. Mine was a lightly-oiled slow-roasted duck leg with a portion of red wine sauce with the same sides as the aforementioned dish. An intolerance to beef within both of us left the bourguignon untouched, with only a few prods from the fork to check the potatoes for hardness. Needless to say, had the waiter asked us what we couldn’t eat, this wouldn’t have happened. A vegetarian option would have been welcomed and, dare I say, avoided unnecessary wastage.
Beef, I’ve learnt, is the global reward of status and success, blood and muscle. Cows consume the world, and the rich eat cows. How fitting that I should use beef as the simple divisor; an exclamation of social and economic triumph. Montpellier’s adhere not to the same parable since, according the waiter, “the beef bourguignon is a favourite” amongst its mixture of clientele.
The duck thigh, tender and moist, was a winner, whilst the well-cooked dauphinoise potatoes complimented the meat.
Drinks provided comprised a glass of Bordeaux red wine Montcabrier, an Alhambra 1925 bottle of beer plus a raspberry and orange mocktail on ice with a slice of lime and another of orange. The wine got as much as a sip, whilst the beer – although my dining partner isn’t ‘a beer person’, she said – is the “best beer I’ve ever tasted”. As far as mocktails go, this one was above average, with a balanced combination of tangy and sweet flavour.
Walking past the untouched bourguignon, the waiter inquired, “Is everything ok?”, to which the bottom-lip-contorting and head-shaking from the TNT member opposite me prompts the waiter’s graciousness. Service at Montpellier’s, I hasten to add in case my editor forgets, is a straight 5 stars. The waiter then gets the chef to whip up some chicken breast strips glazed in white wine tarragon sauce with kale and grapes, accompanied by the staple dauphinoise potatoes and green beans. Unlike the beef dish, not only did this chicken smell and look good, it had an exquisitely rich creamy taste.
Although we had had our fill, we couldn’t leave just yet having been sat for a 3-course meal. In came the dessert; a thin-base ginger cake topped with lemon curd beside a scoop of vanilla ice cream and wild berries [raspberries, strawberries and blueberries]. On sweet dishes, Montpellier’s aren’t the extravagant type; this dish falls into the ‘I-could-make-this-at-home’ category, which should not distract from its pleasant zesty and refreshing taste.
It seems as though, in Montpellier’s, TNT removed the ‘nt’ from ‘don’t’ to leave them as ‘do’. My dining partner said, “I don’t like cream but I do love the creamy chicken dish. I don’t like beer but I do love their Alhambra beer. I didn’t think I’d be coming back, but I do want to come back.”
Mont-Poly-Do’s would be a far better name for the place I think. Mont; since most things French have that name. Poly meaning many. Do’s for the change in feelings. I think I’m onto something here.