The late comedy genius Bob Monkhouse used to do a wonderful line about people's insistence on asking him to tell them a joke just because he was a comedian. "I don't really mind," Bob would say, "but they wouldn't do it to any other profession. I mean, If I said I was a gynaecologist, would they ask me to have a look at the wife?"
I feel for Bob. As a restaurant blogger - some would even say 'food writer' - I'm frequently asked "What's your favourite restaurant?" or increasingly, "Who's your favourite chef?" with the expectation that I'll have an immediate and definitive answer. Which I don't.
The first one isn't too tricky; I have several favourite restaurants depending on my mood so I'll just pick whichever one I'm feeling most favourably disposed towards at the time. But the second one always stumps me, because I'm not really into chefs. I'm aware of them, sure, and could name a few (and a few I fancy - I'm looking lustily at you, Tom Oldroyd), but I don't really have favourites. I'm much more interested in restaurateurs, the characters behind the places I love to eat in - the Richard Carings, Henry Dimblebys and Russell Normans of the world - than in the men and women putting the food on my plate.
That could all change however on the strength of the absolutely flawless game feast I recently enjoyed at Manson on Fulham Road, prepared by their newly-arrived head chef Alan Stewart. Those of you who care about such things will no doubt be impressed to know that Alan's CV includes stints at Chez Bruce - consistently voted one of London's favourite restaurants in every poll that allows Joe Public a say, and very near the top of my 'must-go' list - and the swishy Launceston Place. All I care about is the fact that he's responsible for one of the best and most memorable meals I've had in many years.
Manson - named after one of its owners rather than an insane killer or shock rocker, although he may be both - opened in 2010 as a Modern European restaurant with a fancy chef and fancier menu and by all accounts was very well-received. Rather too well, in fact; the place got swamped, despite its off-the-beaten-track location, service couldn't cope, and the owners found themselves attempting to run a fine dining destination when all they'd wanted to create was a better-than-the-competition local bistro.
Alan Stewart's appointment marks a change of culinary tack; the menu is now as solidly British as our host for the evening, co-owner Mark Dyer, a former Welsh Guardsman and equerry to Princes William and Harry, who shot the game that Alan then transformed into a feast fit for a (future) king. We started with a silky, rich venison tartare, the meat hung for ten days before being hand chopped, mixed with shallots and meticulously-precise dice of beetroot and seasoned with salt and juniper pepper, Stewart's ingenious blend of dried juniper berries and black peppercorns. A slick of celeriac purée and shaved Kentish cobnuts - hazelnuts' fashionable brother - added earthiness and crunch.
Next came partridge, served as a terrine of braised leg and breast with an additional leg perched on top. The use of honey, both in the braising liquid used to cook the game and in the vinaigrette used to dress the finished dish, brought an unexpected sweetness that made this a lighter course than its description might suggest. This was a clever act of balancing, it would transpire, because in contrast the main course that followed - Yorkshire grouse with damsons and savoy cabbage - was as big, butch and robust as they come.
After the disappointment of the timid 'beginner's bird' I'd been served the night before at Bread Street Kitchen I was ready for some proper, unapologetic, bloody, stinking-to-high-heaven grouse and boy oh boy was this it. A fat breast, cooked very pink, and pungent leg came atop a slab of home-made seeded treacle bread smeared with a pâté made from the bird's offal; damsons from Norfolk, both pickled and as jam, and a grouse sauce pulled it all together. I absolutely loved it, so much so that Alan let me take home what was left of the treacle loaf at the end of the night.
We finished with a beautiful Braeburn apple tarte tatin with clove ice cream; I wasn't a huge fan of the ice cream, a taste for cloves being one I've never really acquired, but I could see that the flavours worked together. The tarte itself was stunning, a perfect balance of sweet and sharp, soft and crisp, and expunged all memories of the abomination I'd endured a few weeks ago at La Brasserie.
To rinse this all down, sommelier Mickey Narea had picked some choice bottles from Manson's thoughtfully put-together and keenly priced list. With the venison we enjoyed a dry red fruit-rich Yering Pinot Noir 2008 before moving on to a full-bodied spicy 2008 Limousin Reserva, Marques de Riscal Rioja with the partridge. My favourite was the peppery, earthy 2004 St Emilion, Chateau Vieille Tour from Bordeaux chosen to go with the grouse; grown-up food needs a grown-up wine and this was certainly it. A refreshing sticky Coteaux de Layon disappeared along with the tarte tatin.
Not a restaurant I would, if I'm honest, necessarily have rushed to visit had I not been invited along for this special feast, Manson is now a restaurant that I'm eager to get back to and warmly recommend. The room's cosily neo-rustic, the staff seem to be very happy to work there and in Mark Dyer - or Marko, or Ginge; like all men of his class he has various nicknames - it has a patron as charming and gregarious as any of my restaurateur idols.
But the real star of the show is, of course, the chef. Alan Stewart's approach to cooking - British, seasonal and ultra-local (most of his veg are grown on Manson's own allotment nearby, they smoke their own bacon, bake their own bread and churn their own butter) - is right-on and right-now, and the food coming out of his kitchen is truly exceptional. The next time I'm asked, as I surely will be, to name my favourite chef, I'm happy to say I'll have an answer.
Manson, 676 Fulham Road, London SW6 5SA Tel: 020 7384 5959 http://www.mansonrestaurant.co.uk