Perhaps the most important feature aboard the Rolls Royce Phantom is the battery of cameras, invisible to the naked eye, that bristle from hidden places all around it and offer, via the iDrive onboard computer, several live feeds showing things going on outside your car which can’t be seen by simply looking out the window. The car is so very big, and the driver seated so very high, that it has blind spots other vehicles aren’t affected by. You can crane your neck to look down from the driver’s side window, but there remains a wedge-shaped zone in which hazards are quite invisible. These concealed cameras are the only way you’re going to see, say, a row of upwards-jutting flagstones at just the right height to gouge the Phantom’s paintwork if you’re not careful.
I do wish I’d discovered them sooner.
Big doesn’t have to mean inelegant, but this Phantom is a brute – a vast squared-off hulk with a ferocious aspect, and an interior of hearse-like darkness. It was necessary to slide back the sunroof (oddly, not automatic) to let some light into the interior, and, this being spring 2013 in the UK, for a different perspective on the snow falling on us. Even without that mishap right at the outset – meaning I drove with my teeth clenched hard for the rest of the four-hour journey from London to Manchester – the Phantom’s width means the driver is constantly eyeing lane divisions, possibly encroaching hedgerows, oncoming traffic, in a way that is not conducive to relaxation.
Fundamentally, a Phantom is less a car to drive than one in which to be driven
As well as showing feeds from external cameras, the BMW-derived iDrive works as a multi-function entertainment system: iPods and iPhones played easily through this, with track information and even cover artwork appearing up on a central screen; the sound is good and stereophonically immersive, the equal of a good home music system. Television channels can be screened when the car is at rest. The built-in satnav was less satisfactory: the route ahead is displayed clearly enough, but some of the auxiliary information usually available (a countdown until the next turn-off, or which direction that turn is in – very necessary when negotiating complex motorway junctions) is bafflingly absent – or perhaps buried deep in personalised settings it would have taken some effort to locate.
Fundamentally, a Phantom is less a car to drive than one in which to be driven. This is clear when you sit in the rear and discover that the doors hinge backward, making them near-impossible to close by yourself: you need either external assistance from your chauffeur, or elbows that bend backwards. (As if I needed unsettled any further, I learned that this style of door is known as a “suicide seat”). The back seats are comfortable, and the plush darkness seems designed to encourage you to take a nap and wake up at your destination refreshed. Otherwise, a walnut-wood tray table with built-in TV screen can be unfolded from the back of the front seats, solid as anything on a Business class flight.
We were on a Rolls Royce pilgrimage, taking the Phantom to check in at the spiritual home of Phantoms, Ghosts and Spectres: The Midland, the hotel where in 1904 Mr Rolls and Mr Royce first met. This is commemorated not just by a plaque over the hotel entrance, but by a terracotta bas relief of surpassing ugliness, depicting a Lowry-esque landscape from which zombie-like effigies of Charles Stewart Rolls and Frederick Henry Royce stare dead-eyed.
Far more enticing is the hotel’s restaurant, The French, which recently reopened as the newest outpost of superchef Simon Rogan’s restaurant empire (following L’Enclume in the Lake District and his two-year London “pop-up” Roganic). Rogan’s cooking is extraordinary – dish after wondrous dish of distinctive ingredients in perfectly balanced combinations. Silky dumplings flavoured, with impressive lightness of touch, with spring truffle are served in a wondrously intense artichoke broth the colour of ripe rhubarb; Rogan’s much-imitated coal oil here anoints a dish of raw ox, the result something like the best steak tartare in the world. Unusual herbs and “spring offerings”, most sourced from a farm in the Cumbrian village of Cartmel, put on the map by L’Enclume, appear in almost every dish: we ate ramsons, sunflower shoots, blewitt mushrooms, crow garlic. Among those featuring on the ten-course lunch menu we enjoyed were some herbs I’d never even heard of before: apple marigold, with a sweet cucumber-skin flavour; and meadowsweet, which appeared in the second of two knockout desserts, alongside pear, linseed, and a buttermilk ice.
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Diners familiar with Rogan’s restaurants will recognise familiar elements, both in the highly distinctive style of his cooking – clever things are done with egg yolks, and the Herdwick hogget is a regular fixture on many of his menus – and in the scene: here are the ceramic plates designed by Rogan himself, in conjunction with crockery makers Dudson. Unlike his other enterprises, however, which tend towards the minimal, keeping focus firmly on the food, The French is maximalist: there are art nouveau stylings, two asteroid-sized spherical chandeliers made up of hundreds of pendant crystals, and a carpet whose pattern strives to resemble not wooden flooring but a computer scan of wooden flooring. The contrast works, though: Rogan’s dishes may look modest, but each is a tiny showstopper, and the room’s enjoyably OTT stylings don’t ever work against the food being served.
It was a treat to lunch at The French in more ways than one. After perspiring over the wheel of the Phantom for the whole journey, I was relieved I could park the car and not worry about it for the rest of the stay. But there was one last issue. The Midland may have opened one of the most talked-about and important restaurants of the moment, and it may have become a fixture on the culinary map as never before, but one thing it doesn’t have is its own car park. Drivers – even those negotiating quarter of a million pounds’ worth of Rolls Royce around the place – are directed instead to one of central Manchester’s NCP car parks. I thought the hotel was joking when I heard. They weren’t.
The nearest car park, situated atop one of Manchester’s many multiplex cinema compounds, is accessed via three storeys’ worth of corkscrewed entrance ramp which I negotiated at funeral-cortege pace, ageing rapidly as I went, consumed with visions of misjudging a turn and wedging the car irretrievably into one of the ramp’s coils. The urge to simply abandon the Phantom there and then, rather than drive it back to London, was almost insuperable. This was a story that had enough twists and turns already. Fortunately for me, Rolls Royce, and the other customers of the NCP Great North car park that day, I accomplished the feat. I walked away from the mere three parking bays the car occupied, and didn’t look back.