I made my booking shortly after the North West heat of GBM aired, where chef-owner of Aumbry Mary-Ellen McTague had reached the judges' chamber with some genuinely smart cooking leaving me intrigued as to what I would encounter in the restaurant; it also left me worried that I would be unable to get a reservation!
But with reservation secured, a couple of days later I got a call saying that on the evening of my booking, a special Nyetimber event was taking place and did I still want the table? Always happy to support English wine, the answer was a firm yes, but with a set menu designed to pair with English sparkling, it is clearly a slightly different Aumbry experience compared with a regular service.
We start with some canapes including black peas in a cone, something my local tour guide and dining companion for the evening Hungry Hoss tells me is a local specialty. He tells me too, and I believe it, that the black peas that we're enjoying at Aumbry are a far classier affair than the usual version, which are traditionally served on bonfire night. We also have a black pudding scotch egg which is an Aumbry signature dish and with a still runny quail's egg inside, it's a precise and enjoyable start.
Then it's downstairs for the main menu, a four course affair with the running order: crab, scallop, rabbit and apple tart. Clearly, pairing with Nyetimber, there's no heavy red meats on the menu, and if you are interested in the drinks we enjoyed with these dishes, the running order was Rose 2008, Classic Cuvée 2005, Blanc de Blanc 2003 and Demi-sec NV.
When the menu is served, the food is nicely done and I enjoy every dish. The crab to start is served with cucumber jelly and crab bisque, and there's a lovely freshness to it, while the cucumber jelly is perfect balanced in its intensity, appropriate in the supporting role. The scallop is served with a Granny Smith cubes and a purée, a smoked bacon and lemon thyme foam, together with some crackling, the cooking is again lovely. But here's the thing...
... so there's good cooking, clear flavours and nice balance on the plate, but these are also popular, tried and tested combinations served, well, everywhere. As they might ask in GBM, 'did you take enough risks?'. To me, the answer was no. Of course, that's not necessarily wrong, and as a restaurant a few miles out from the city centre, it can easily be argued that it is principally a neighbourhood venue and that being too creative (to please the occasional passing and annoying food blogger) simply doesn't sit well with the local client base. It might also be the case that on a special Nyetimber menu, I didn't get the full Aumbry experience.
A brief chat with Mary-Ellen at the end confirms that she's as lovely in real life and she comes across on TV and indeed, the whole restaurant has a friendly vibe to it. On GBM, she proved that she was both extremely capable and very creative. My night at Aumbry saw a great deal of the former but a little less of the latter. On future visits to Manchester, I can certainly envisage returning to Aumbry, but what I would love to see most is Mary-Ellen unleashed. Under those circumstances, Aumbry could easily become a national destination restaurant, but maybe that's a risk too far.
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