Manson opened in late 2009 and is owned by the team behind the Sands End gastropub. On this site, at the less fashionable end of the Fulham Road, they are setting the culinary ambition level rather higher, and engaged Gemma Tuley, who trained briefly at Guy Savoy in Paris and more recently has worked for Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, and (probably in a smaller typeface on her CV) at the ill-fated Foxtrot Oscar. The name of the restaurant may seem a curious choice (what do you first think of when you think of the name “Manson”? Ah…) but it had to be switched from the original Balthazar. That is a much better name but is also one of the more famous bistros of New York and, more to the point, had already been registered by another company in the UK. The moral: check when registering a company name; the small legal fee will be a lot cheaper than the consequences of getting it wrong. Still I think a more appealing name could have been found (at least they rejected the alternatives Shipman, Sutcliffe and West).
The dining room has a simple but pleasant feel, with wooden floor, brown upholstery and no tablecloths. There are a few oddly shaped banquettes in amongst the regular tables. The menu is British and sticks to familiar territory before a detour into madness when it gets to desserts (of which more anon). Starters are £5 - £8, mains £12 - £17 (crucially with vegetables included; no sneaky £3.50 extras here) and desserts at £6. The wine list majors on France but has some other options too. Chateau Talbot 2006 was £60 for a wine you can buy in the shops for around £30 or so, Amalaya Malbec Colomé 2008 was £23.90 for a wine that costs about £8, and Planeta Chardonnay 2007 was £45 compared to a retail price of around £18.
I was pleased to see that bread was made from scratch, with two choices tonight. I enjoyed an onion brioche, while a whole grain roll seemed a little drier than ideal (14/20 average). We started with an amuse-bouche of potato soup with truffle. This was served in a glass jar that made it quite hard to get at, and the soup itself was a little watery, though the hint of truffle flavour was welcome; it was served with a garlic straw bread stick that was unfortunately rock hard (12/20).
Goat curd with grilled pear and deep fried baby artichoke was an unusual combination, but the pear was a decent foil for the goat cheese; I am not quite sure about the combination of all three flavours together (12/20). I preferred fillet of mackerel with green olive crust, served with an enjoyable onion and sardine sauce, presented attractively on a slate (14/20).
Papardelle pasta with wild mushrooms and chestnuts had decent texture, but seemed rather under-seasoned (12/20). I was steered by the waiter to rump of lamb with home-made pastille (essentially a samosa) and a chick pea sauce, garnished with chick peas. The lamb was nicely pink, though the resting time was a bit long since it was not quite hot by the time it arrived with me. While I applaud the kitchen making the filo pastry of the pastille, it was sadly rather hard and flaky, but I liked the chick pea accompaniment (13/20).
Up until now the menu had been on solid ground, with a few interesting twists but quite appealing. However the dessert menu read as though someone had spent too much time buried in a Ferran Adria cookbook. I tried the sanest sounding option, a pressed apple on home-made puff pastry with vanilla ice cream and pear sorbet. I avoided such delights as Jerusalem artichoke cheesecake with peanut butter, and warm rice pudding with tea granite and prunes; I never want to spend time in a confined space with the person who came up with these ideas. The apple dessert was enjoyable, the puff pastry well-made, having correct texture, the apple flavour good; the vanilla ice cream could have had a bit more vanilla flavour, but was fine (14/20). Coffee was decent (13/20).
Service was very good, our waiter genuinely enthusiastic and attentive. Overall I feel this is a kitchen with more potential than it really showed tonight. There is definitely some inventiveness (which could be usefully reeled back in when it comes to the dessert section) and the dishes are interesting. I very much liked that they are making things from scratch, but a few minor technical things dragged down the overall experience for me. Prices seem quite fair.