Monday, 26 May 2008

A taste of Manchester's food scene


Historically, articles about eating out in Northern England written by London-based journalists have fallen into two categories. The first portrays it as grim up north and a decade behind London in culinary terms; while the second claims that no one eats out anyway for that would be an expensive diversion from the serious business of getting glammed up for a night of high-octane drinking.

It’s true you won’t find a Michelin starred establishment in Manchester city centre – the nearest was Juniper in Altrincham until that closed down last month. But according to Alison Seagrave, head chef at the Second Floor restaurant and brasserie at Harvey Nichols, in Exchange Square, there’s ample Michelin-star standard food to be had, some of it at sub-capital prices.

“Foodwise, Manchester used to be years behind London but we’ve caught up lately in terms of choice and reliable local suppliers. To win a star you have to set that as a goal. It’s judged on many different criteria from the service to the cooking and some of our dishes are Michelin star in all but name,” says Seagrave.

In her restaurant, the slow cooked fillet of Cheshire beef Rossini and the playful sweetshop inspired desserts explain why Seagrave was chosen as Chef of the Year at the 2007 Manchester Food and Drink Festival awards.

“Beef fillet always sells well, even if you serve it with weird ingredients,” she says. “But then so does our corned beef hash served with a fried egg and brown sauce. It’s comfort food basically.” Food to be scoffed not scoffed at.

On the brasserie menu at seven quid a pop is a mini hotpot served in a souffle dish and accompanied by finely shredded pickled red cabbage. It looks good and tastes even better.
“I’ll often have one of these for my tea,” says Seagrave.

She rates the new Michael Caines restaurant that opened at the ABode Manchester hotel on Piccadilly in March and the River Restaurant at the Lowry hotel in Salford – now under a new chef - in the same stellar category as her own restaurant.

Caines, who already holds two stars for his flagship Gidleigh Park in Devon, is on a mission to bring a Michelin star to Manchester. His contemporary British menu (best-end of Herdwick lamb and honey-roast Goosnargh duckling) features international touches (the slow poached sea bass comes with a Thai puree and lemongrass foam) and is keen on the best regional ingredients. A clever lunchtime grazing concept allows diners to taste three mini dishes from the a la carte menu for under a tenner.

According to Manchester’s most-read food and drink blogger Sarah Hartley (http://blogs.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/food/) the city doesn’t have big destination restaurants like London, partly because there’s not a sizeable over-50s spend at the weekend. The “Silver diners” prefer to eat out in the neighbourhood restaurants in leafy West Didsbury and Chorlton or further afield in Cheshire and Lancashire.

For more casual dining in town Sam’s Chophouse is a perennial favourite with its cosy basement glow and Great British seasonal menu.

For feel-good refuelling between shops and sights Love Saves the Day, a deli beneath a railway arch at the south end of Deansgate, lives up to the expectations of its flashing neon “sexy food” sign out front. On the menu are home-cooked meatballs, lamb shanks, salads, its own pickles and beer – a North West Fine Food winner last year – plus monthly tastings including, in May, artisan honey and vegetarian black pudding.

Local lunchtime institution Shlurp! is tucked away beneath an office block just off Albert Square. From a tiny canteen, its walls garlanded with awards and glowing reviews, it serves soups from gazpacho to thick mushy pea and lamb kofta with mint raita – Manchester in a bowl. And how’s this for a sandwich of the day? Fresh sardines roasted in garlic and olive oil.

Another lunchtime classic is This ‘n’ That on Soap Street in the trendy Northern Quarter whose “rice and three” (curries) is part of the local furniture as testified by its cult-like Facebook group. Fans swear it’s the best food for under a fiver in Britain.

The garish, student-crawling Curry Mile is part of Manchester’s culinary fabric but a bit of a lottery. Hartley recommends the Punjab for its interesting range of vegetarian dishes and its low-style old-school ambience. In Chinatown she opts for Red Chilli over Yang Sing for the adventurous Cantonese dishes on the a la carte menu.

Finally, for a pre-dinner drink take the exclusive lift to the 23rd floor of the Hilton at Deansgate. The lanky Beetham Tower that houses the hotel has its fair share of opponents but the views from the Cloud 23 bar are unparalleled and the cocktails pretty good. Try an Ena Sparkles as you seek out Coronation Street below.

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