Michael Deacon reviews Grafene, Manchester: 'The venison I just found a bit, erm, Orwellian' 

Grafene Manchester
This week, Michael Deacon tires of the industrial age Credit: Mark Whitfield

Grafene 55 King Street Manchester M2 4LQ
Contact: 0161 696 9700 grafene.co.uk
Price: Three courses for two: About £70 without alcohol

This business of having exposed piping all over your restaurant ceiling. I still don’t get it. Is it popular with the public? Are there people who get a kick from eating somewhere that looks like the Chemical Plant Zone stage from Sonic the Hedgehog 2? Do lovers find it romantic, gazing dreamily into each other’s eyes four foot below a sewage pipe? Did Pope Julius II look up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and say, 'Not bad, Signor Michelangelo, but to be honest I think it would have looked better with a whacking great aluminium air duct in the middle’?

Rarely have I had the pleasure of having quite so much naked plumbing suspended above my head

I don’t know. I suppose people must like it, because the whole exposed-piping thing has been around for quite a while. Still, I expect it’ll die out soon enough, and then it’ll be on to the next hot trend. Maybe exposed floors. No carpet, no tiles, in fact not even any floorboards – just a set of narrow joists. Diners and waiters have to hop from one joist to the next, and if they miss their footing, they tumble into the crawl space and get nibbled by rats.

Or maybe exposed food. The waiter just brings you a plate covered in your dish’s ingredients, and you have to assemble it yourself. Pile of flour, cup of milk, mound of sugar,  couple of raw eggs. Or if you order a steak, they lead a live cow to your table and hand you a carving knife. Feels so authentic, doesn’t it? So earthy. Really makes you think again about our relationship with food, and farming, and the whole process of food preparation. Goodness, this cow’s a bit lively. Mind you, at least that proves it’s fresh.

The caramel panna cotta was so beautifully light that it almost floated off into the exposed piping

For now, though, restaurants continue to open with exposed piping all over their ceilings. Among them is this week’s, Grafene in Manchester, and let me tell you: rarely have I had the pleasure of having quite so much naked plumbing suspended above my head. Pipes and vents and ducts and tubes and shafts and Lord knows what. If I looked straight up  I could pretend I was sitting inside a giant industrial washing machine.

Otherwise, though: perfectly nice-looking restaurant. A little stark for some tastes, maybe, and the lighting was extremely low, but I could at least see that it was all very modern and shiny and swish. It’s a British-with-a-twist type of place, clearly aimed at a youngish, urban, moneyed, reasonably fashionable-but-relaxed-about-it kind of crowd. The metropolitan elite, as I believe we call them these days. (I gather that after Brexit the Government plans to make membership of the metropolitan elite a treasonable offence, so if Grafene sounds like your kind of joint, visit now while you still can.)

Milk-chocolate brûlée, blood-orange sorbet and cocoa-nib crumble, which 'tasted like a Chocolate Orange crossed with a cheeseboard' Credit: Mark Whitfield

You’ll be pleased to hear that as well as specialising in overhead waste disposal, Grafene also serves food. For my starter I ordered the pigeon breast, haggis, cep, red-wine butter and apricot. If that sounds like a weird combo, I can tell you that it damn well tasted like it. But it wasn’t so much that which bothered me, as the haggis. I love haggis, and this was not haggis. I refuse to recognise it as haggis. It tasted like broken biscuit. If word about this scandalous slur on haggis’s good name finds its way north of the border, the next independence referendum will be a walkover.

My friend, meanwhile, started with the wild turbot. 'Bland,’ she said, 'except for a weird hint of aniseed.’

Her main, on the other hand, she adored. It was the double-baked cheese soufflé with pickled autumn vegetables, and she was besotted with it. Beautiful, fresh, rich and distinctive, she said – 'loads better than your average vegetarian option’. (I know, I know: she started with the fish. She’s one of those people who eat fish and yet call themselves vegetarian. I don’t know what she thinks a turbot is. Maybe an unusual type of shallot.)

Double-baked cheese soufflé with seasonal pickled vegetables Credit: Mark Whitfield

Anyway, I tried the soufflé too, and she was right, it was terrific. I definitely preferred it to my own main, which was the venison, bubble and squeak, garlic and sweetcorn ketchup. I enjoyed the bubble and squeak, so light and melty, but the venison I just found a bit… Orwellian. As in, the kind of thing that for some reason I can imagine George Orwell misting  up about. Thick, manly, no-nonsense, old-fashioned, patriotic British meat, brown as your boots and twice as chewy, a kind of oral endurance test, stiff upper lip, mustn’t grumble, your grandfather died for this, you know.

Pigeon breast, haggis, cep, red-wine butter and apricot Credit: Mark Whitfield

All right, it’s venison, so Orwell would probably have called it a revolting emblem of English ruling-class oppression, and it was presented in a distinctly fancy-dan way, but he’d have loved the taste and texture. As a namby-pamby 21st-century fop, I wasn’t so into it.

Great puddings, though. My friend had the crème brûlée and blood-orange sorbet, which she said tasted like a Chocolate Orange crossed with a cheeseboard. I had the caramel panna cotta, which was so beautifully light that it almost floated off into the exposed plumbing.

On the whole, then: up and down. But the soufflé and puddings are well worth a go. Ultimately, I suppose, it all boils down to your tolerance for hipsterish ceilings. Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling…