In the wake of this January’s Noto Peninsula earthquake, which resulted in 245 deaths, I purchased Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s Food Artisans of Japan. Partly because all royalties were pledged to the relief fund (the chapter on Hokoriku: Noto Peninsula is the second largest in the book) and because I had been captivated by a previous book of hers on Japanese preservation traditions, a recent Christmas gift from my brother.

Domiciled in a 90 year-old farmhouse in rural Saitama with her organic farmer husband since 1988, this indomitable Californian has written a string of remarkable books charting Japan’s food culture and championing its artisanal ingredients. 

What struck me about Food Artisans was not just the stories of diehard producers sharing their secrets of true miso, shoyu, soba noodles, tofu, air-dried fish, umeboshi, sake, chef’s knives and much more, but the seven chefs she chose to profile. Their straddling of boundaries, sometimes applying modern techniques to age-old traditions, gave the book a contemporary resonance. The backdrop is one of ancient traditions diluted, short cuts taken even in the heartland of Japanese cuisine, yet their new wave artisanship gives hope.

Cut to a muggy May evening on Bridge Street, Manchester as we enter Musu, similar hope in our hearts. Walk 10 minutes in any direction and you’ll be served, for a substantial outlay, takes on sushi and sashimi only a small step up from the supermarket chill cabinet.

Musu is different. The name means “infinite possibilities”. Its kitchen has a kinship with those of Shinobu Namae or Takayoshi Shiozawa – Hachisu heroes not averse to French or Italian influences  from our global melting pot. 

Mike Shaw is definitely a less exotic sounding chef – you can take the lad out of Saddleworth etc – but he too has outstanding technique that has enable him to combine his classical European technique, forged under the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Raymond Blanc and Richard Neat, with a new-found devotion to Japanese ‘haute cuisine’, inspired by the finest possible raw ingredients. I heartily recommend attending one of the whole bluefin butchery events at the restaurant.

It’s all about such ingredients treated reverentially but with some flexibility. The closest you’ll get to a near authentic Japanese experience at Musu is to book the Omakase. In my review of this for Manchester Confidential. A Dialogue of Discovery I describe it as “where connoisseurs of sushi and sashimi go ‘off piste’, leaving their bespoke menu up to a chef they are eyeball to eyeball with across an entire meal. He’ll be a shokunin (master artisan) and you are in his nimble hands as he slivers raw seafood or moulds nigiri in a masterclass of tactile dexterity.”

What I did learn from Omakase and tuna dismemberment was the three core cuts of the bluefin (and allowing none of the rest to go to waste). Akami (lean) chutoro (medium fatty) and otoro (fatty) are the holy trinity. 

Two of the cuts, akami and otoro, featured in the new look ‘Land of the Rising Sun by Michael Shaw’ tasting menu for spring – described as “a personal culinary journey through the heart of Japan, where each dish I present is a testament to the inspiration drawn from four distinct cooking styles: Edomae, Izakaya, Teppan and Kaiseki”. Check out the Musu website for full background on that culinary quartet. Inspiration is the word. Shaw is riffing on Japanese food, not just replicating.

You can choose between five, eight and 12 courses. We explored the latter, which costs £150 a head, the wine matches a further £95. Head sommelier Ivan Milchev provided us with small tastes of what goes on that list. Some brilliant matches there. Stand-outs included a red berry-fest of a PetNat from Austria’s Burgenland (partnering a snack of Cornish crab mousse with melon and togarashi), a fragrant and fruity medium-dry Rose d’Anjou surprisingly good with cod cheeks and lardo, a steak-friendly Mencia red from Northern Spain and my favourite. a lighter red Marzemino from the  shores of Lake Garda that took on yakitori brilliantly

Among the sashimi it’s good to contrast five day aged hamachi (Japanese amberjack) cured six hours in kombu with Cornish salmon six days aged, cured in salt. Each has its own character – the hamachi sour and slightly fatty in a beguiling way, the salmon less tangy, subtler. A trio of nigiri is delicately enhanced by citrus, lime zest for the sea bream, blood orange and umebushi for the Cornish turbot, while the otoro has a lick of wasabi (the proper stuff)…

Land of the Rising Sun – a journey beyond Japan

The Musu operation is among the slickest in Manchester. Just as there’s no stinting on the quality of raw materials, so the staff are tightly drilled about what they are offering. Still I can’t resist teasing our server about a ‘misfire’ on the pass. One course, of A5 Wagyu. has taken a while coming. Reason? A malfunctioning smoke gun refusing to apply the necessary finish inside the dish’s cloche.

When it arrives the intricately marbled steak is a smoke-tinged, melting delight. Burnt onion cream and crispy kale on brioche gives it an East meets West feel. Ditto with a later combo of 34 day aged beef and Wye valley asparagus with an array of miso caramel, lovage emulsion, whipped miso hollandaise/ bordelaise sauce. It’s a main that’s a long way from Kyoto.  

It’s the parade of more intimate dishes that float my boat. A tartare of red carabinero prawn with apple gel and oscietra in a butter dashi; a yakitori of umeboshi-glazed duck meatball; further duck with foie gras in a fried gyoza companied by salsify cooked in sake (and paired with sake); and my habitual Musu go-to, a chawanmushi that follows the Wagyu. This time this foaming savoury custard contains a substantial morel, peas and wild garlic.

To conclude a Yuzu sake of pineapple and mango with a red shiso sorbet is merely a palate cleanser before Shaw’s signature pudding. Guardian critic captured its rare beauty: “A salted white chocolate loveliness that was somewhere between a mousse, a ganache and a panna cotta, and also featured hints of almond and a scattering of something crumbly and sablé-esque.”

Classic European patisserie to end the sunniest of culinary journeys. Sayonara, Chef Shaw. 

Hoppiest days of the year? Definitely harvest time in Yakima, USA. Confession: I’d been pronouncing it ‘Yah-KEE-mah’ all this time, when it should be ‘YACK-i-maw’. Unfamiliar with Yakima? The name does crop up on craft beer cans, the contents of which increasingly rely on its prime product, hops. Oh, and it’s a lovely laid-back place to hang out in – preferably with a beer or two.

Yet it’s not a monoculture this super fertile agricultural valley in Washington State, irrigated by the Yakima River. It abounds in fruit, in particular apples, and its grapes produce some of America’s most thrilling wines, but there’s no escaping the hop in all its varieties – Cascade, Chinook, Centennial and the rest, now globally familiar. Some 75 per cent of US hops are grown hereabouts in ideally suited volcanic soil.

So it seemed a good idea while passing through the region to drop in on the American Hop Museum in the township of Toppenish, whose major claim to fame is the 70 hand-painted murals, of recent origin, evoking its Wild West past. They are more vivid than the museum, which is as dry as last year’s hop pellets. Still this project of local pride, assembling the rusty machinery and fading pictures of yore, sets the scene for the hopfest to come.

Of all the stop-offs on our San Francisco to Seattle road trip this wasn’t the most obviously touristic and yet we found it fascinating from the moment post-museum when we lunched in a pizza place where a dab of Cascade hoppiness joins tomato and mozzarella as the prime toppings, nibbles are called hoppetisers and the merchandise includes hop-branded babygros. 

Hop Town Wood Fired Pizza, was our recommended lunch stop. It used to be a street food operation before taking over the folksy tasting room of the former Piety Winery, Donald Wapato Road (there’s now a second branch down the road in Sunnyside). 

A house IPA, naturally, accompanied our $12 Porky Pine Prosciutto nine-incher, where pesto, parmesan, pecorino, prosciutto, pine nuts (all the Ps), tomato, hops and a balsamic reduction smothered the charred, springy crust.  

We also shared a Hey! Elote!, a spicy corn dip  with chicken broth, lime, cholula hot sauce, salty cotija cheese and cilantro (coriander). Testimony to the Hispanic presence in hop country. A third of the population in Yakima, at home in its sunny desert climate, is Hispanic. It’s an area full of tacos trucks and shacks. Locals’ pick? Tacos Los Primos 2 at 404 N 4th St in the city proper. If you’re adventurous go for the tripe filling.

Generations of Mexican hop harvest pickers are celebrated in liquid form by Yakima’s brewing trailblazers Bale Breaker. Each year, cocking a snook at Trump and his Border Wall bigotry, they are a major player in Sesiones del Migrante, a series of beers brewed in collaboration with Mexican and American breweries. Co-founder Meggan Quinn poured us the latest, a Mango IPA that defines ‘tropical’, in the brewery’s garden, sheltered by tall bines, for this is a working hop farm (its 1,000 acres have even even suppled the likes of BrewDog in the UK). 

The operation’s roots run deep. Megann’s great-grandparents planted the first nine rows of hops on the family farm back in 1932, a year before the end of Prohibition. Just a decade ago she, her husband and siblings persuaded initially sceptical parents a custom-built brewery on site might just work and it has. The beer are so popular across the Pacific North-West they don’t need to export. Topcutter IPA and Field 41 pale ale are their flagship beers.

What astonished us about one of the world’s premier hop-growing regions was the lack until recently of local breweries tapping into the resource… or speciality beer bars. That’s all changing fast on the back of Bale Breaker’s impetus. One of their brewers, former wildlife biologist Chris Baum, and four buddies set up their own brewing operation, Varietal with the premise of wild yeasts, sours, fruit beers and barrel-ageing – the fun, cutting edge stuff.

Check out the Hop Country Beer Trail or sniff around the taprooms of the Old North Yakima Historic District, where the closure of the Northern Pacific Railroad once hit the town hard. Now, as in so many other similar places, this is where the cool fight back begins. Highly recommended is Single Hill with its attractive taproom and terrace, serving the like of Cerveza blonde ale or or Island Reverie, a benchmark guava and passionfruit sour.    

Cider, or what they call hard cider, is a refreshing alternative to beer. The custom-built Tieton Cider Works on the edge of town offers sampling tours. With apples and other fruit sourced from the family’s own organic orchards it’s a clean tasting product, a world away from our own trad scrumpy; we loved the smoked pumpkin cider.

The best restaurant in town is Crafted on North 1st Street. Dan Koommoo is in the kitchen and his wife Mollie front of house. The couple chose Yakima because Mollie’s family is from these parts; Thai-born Dan is a James Beard-nominated Cordon Bleu chef with a glittering cv. Together they have created a casual contemporary dining space, from oysters to cocktails a total delight.

Sunday mornings are for mooching around town. We kicked off with excellent coffee and double fudge brownies at the Essencia Artisan Bakery, a short walk from the historic Capitol Theater. Rebuilt after a fire in 1975, it allegedly hosts the ghost of Shorty McCall, a technician during the 1930s, who hanged himself there after an ill-fated love affair. 

Dating back to 1912, the Sports Center – so-called because of a hunting theme not because it’s a place to play basketball – is equally haunted with staff reporting eerie chills and the sound of clinking glassware. All this dates back to the days when it was a brothel with Mafia connections.

Our Downtown Yakima lodging, the Hotel Maison has a more benign but equally striking history. Six storeys high, it was built in 1911 during the boom times by prosperous Freemasons as their club. Crowning glory was the hugely ornate Masonic ceremonial temple on the top floor, designed to replicate the throne room of King Solomon’s Temple. Long mothballed, it has survived the building’s conversion to a hotel, 

Elsewhere the comfortable hotel’s decor playfully celebrates its Masonic past and, of course, the pre-eminence of the hop. On our Saturday night there we sipped complimentary Tieton cider and watched the weekly ‘paseo’ of vintage automobiles, all adding to the period charm of the place.

The best place to sample Washington wine Downtown is the Gilbert Cellars, showcasing the family’s wines such as Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon. It saves having to trek out to their vineyard tasting room, but when in wine country it would be wrong not to sample in the wineries, all within easy reach of Yakima town.

I’d recommend the folksy Owen Roe Winery, an organically farmed estate whose reds are particularly impressive, the nearby Treveri Cellars, (tours for $50) sparkling wine specialists run by a German winemaker, whose top bottles have been served at White House receptions. 

Still the hop remains king hereabouts. A quintessential time to visit Yakima (fly into Seattle two and a half hours’ drive away) is autumn when the valley hosts its annual Fresh Hop Festival. This year’s date is October 5. A unique array of beers made with newly harvested ‘green’ hops showcases the individual character of each variety. Now that’s not to be sniffed at!

Bank holiday weekend and I’m motoring towards Scarborough. Mist wreathes Sutton Bank as I tackle the hairpin ascent. In drizzly Helmsley the tea rooms are doing a roaring trade and I’m consigned to the overspill long stay. This is journey’s end. No seaside scrum for me. A five minute walk across the Market Square, Pignut awaits.

Context here. This forage-centric restaurant is named after conopodium majus, a commoner than you’d imagine umbellifer, its delicate fronds confirming it’s a wild cousin to the carrot. Uproot it in spring and there’s the tiny edible tuber. Pigs love to guzzle it, hence the name. Alternative monikers include hog nut, earth nut and kipper nut. Trim off the outer skin and taste. Hazelnut? Definitely a hint of sweet chestnut apparently. Need to know more? Check out this video report from the pignut front line. 

Inside the eponymous restaurant I am not confronted by this forest gift, but there will prove to be a preponderance of late season wild garlic across the £95 eight course tasting menu I have chosen. Also figuring: sweet cicely, cow parsley and hogweed. All demonstrate the ethos behind this debut project from chef Tom Heywood and sommelier partner Laurissa Cook. Rows of ferments, pickles and oils are the sustainable bedrock of an operation rooted in the terroir. Ditto the commitment to local suppliers, proudly listed. This access to amazing raw materials played a big part in why the couple decamped from York, where they worked  together at the now departed Rattle Owl.

As it nears its first birthday I’m surprised how under the radar Pignut has been despite early Michelin recognition. Not quite on the level of Mýse eight miles to the south in Hovingham, which has been fast-tracked to an actual star inside its first year of opening. But then its chef/patron and fellow York escapee Josh Overington has a high national profile from his Cochon Aveugle tenure.

What both restaurants share, apart from open kitchens and stylishly stripped down interiors (Pignut has just six tables plus a cosy upstairs lounge), is a significant attention to their wine list. In Mýse’s case it is curated by Keeling & Andrew, the Noble Rot duo; Pignut’s is more eclectic, making the £65 seven 100ml glass wine pairing an act of global serendipity. Laurissa kindly let me have a truncated version since I had to drive home later via switchback Sutton Bank again, then the A1(M) and M62. I missed out on a Pedro Ximenez collab between Envínate and Bodegas Alvear in Montilla, a Polish Cabernet Sauvignon and, ‘local’ incarnate, Jacky Boy, an imperial stout from Helmsley Brewery 60 metres away. I’m sure the latter would have been perfect with course four, the house soda bread with whipped Fountains Gold Cheddar butter. The matches I did try (of each more soon) all worked brilliantly with Laurissa a font of information at my shoulder.

So what were the stand-out dishes – and wines – of this leisurely lunch?

After snacks built around wastage from other courses (think asparagus peelings in the chicken broth, lamb belly, heart and liver in a mini-faggot) came an exquisite salt-aged beef tartare given crunch by a soda bread crumb, accompanied by a chilled blend of Piemontese grape trio Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo – from Geyserville in California. 

To cope with the Goan spiced, Hodgson’s Crab, another wine at the natural end of the spectrum, a tropical Gewürztraminer from Slovakia. This went even better with a further sourcing from Hartlepool fishmonger Hodgson, which supplies over 20 Michelin star restaurants. This was a pearly tranche of wild brill which Tom had stuffed with a duxelle. After steaming it arrived topped with a smoked mussel under a torched lettuce leaf in an intense mussel and chive broth.

If that was subtle craftsmanship the final dish, a Moorside mushroom mousse, was the bravado barnstormer. Sourced from Luke Joseph at nearby Fadmoor, oyster mushroom and lion’s mane are made into a parfait that is then glazed with dark chocolate, topped with a coffee tuile and served with a mushroom ice cream. What could match this earthy pudding  adventure? I succumbed to the recommended Alcyone, an aromatised Tannat red from Uruguay, the bottle adorned with an image of that goddess of the sea, moon and tranquillity. Apparently the base wine was aged for several years in French oak and suffused with various herbs. Hints of chocolate, vanilla and mint reminded me of a Barolo chinato, a dessert wine with a similar savoury edge. A very clever match.

This dizzying climax to the tasting menu ‘encouraged’ me to enjoy a prolonged, post-prandial mooch around pretty, pantiled Helmsley, including its Walled Garden in the shadow of the ruined castle. Its community-focused five acres dedicated to horticultural therapy also supply herbs and flowers to Pignut. Naturally.  I hope all this kind of involvement earns them a place in the Good Food Guide’s 100 Best Local Restaurants, currently being assembled. A front-runner is Bavette near Leeds (review here), which makes up my trio of favourite new northern restaurant openings over the past 12 months.

Pignut’s menus alone, artfully adapting to the seasons, make them well worthy of inclusion. And back to that wine offering. I made my glass of Canadian Cabernet Franc stretch to include the Thornton-le Dale lamb course (maybe a heavy hand with shawarma spicing here) and Angus beef fillet from the Castle Howard estate with beef-fat baked asparagus and a pesto of wild garlic that felt relatively conventional.

My one regret from the visit? Perhaps I should have splashed out on an extra glass – of Belgian Chardonnay. No, me neither. But I foolishly balked at £16 for a 175cl glass. After it aroused my curiosity on arrival attentive Laurissa had poured me a generous taster. Could easily be mistaken for a top-end Macon. When I return to this charming spot, as inevitably I shall, staying overnight in the town, I may well order a bottle of the same. Maybe pignuts will be on the menu.

Pignut, 12 Bridge St, Helmsley, York YO62 5DX. Eight course tasting menu £95 (wine pairing £65), four courses £55 (£30).

I’ve been taking flak for concentrating too much on reviewing new restaurants in London. In redressing the balance I have broken an unwritten rule – never go in too early. Let the paint dry, the initial glitches get fixed.  Apologies then for my haste to this Northern trio – Bavette, neighbourhood bistro in Horsforth near Leeds, ‘veteran’, open all of three weeks; The Lamb of Tartary dining pub in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, just a handful of days in; and Eight at Gazegill, organic farm restaurant in the lee of Pendle Hill, that officially opened only this weekend gone. Each brings something special to their respective patch, each is helmed by a chef with an inspiring cv, each is bravely tackling the harsher hospitality environment outside the capital.

Bavette – echoes of the legendary Racine

I’ll start in this same order with Bavette, which has hit the ground running. The top end of Town Street in Horsforth has more than its share of ‘To Let’ signs; down towards The Green business looks healthier. Nowhere, though, has near the élan of this bistro arriviste, set up by a Leeds lad, back from London success, and his French husband. Sandy Jarvis is the chef and Clèment Cousin, front of house and sommelier. Their is a smart fit-out with the open kitchen set well back. 

What takes my eye is the bookshelves that divide the space. I like a chef who wears his influences on his sleeve (or rather dust jacket). There is Le Pigeon, a cookbook celebrating chef Gabriel Rucker’s Portland Oregon take on classic French food. To prove it can be done well beyond La Belle Patrie, though a dinner I had there on a 2017 West Coast road trip didn’t live up to the recipes I’d cooked from at home. A large illustrated tome devoted to Pâté en Croûte nudges me into believing the Gallic torch might burn brighter this blustery lunchtime a 20 minute bus ride from Leeds centre.

So, of course, I ordered the Venison and Pork Pâté en Croûte (£12.50) along with another quintessentially French starter, a Seafood Bisque (£11). The former was a juicy morass of tangled meat flakes in a taut pastry casing, the icing on the croûte a savoury Earl Grey jelly; the latter came with a pimento-spiked rouille and dinky croutons and was a deep dip into pure poissonnerie. Earlier, nibbles had been a quartet of croquettes (£6) oozing with molten Comté. My accompanying glass of white, like much of the list, comes from natural  specialists, Wayward Wines of Chapel Allerton, so the crisp 100% Saugvignon Mikaël Bouges La Pemte de Chavigny was an old friend. Clèment Cousin’s family are iconic minimum intervention winemakersin the Loire and there’s a sub-section of half a dozen ‘family specials’ bottles.

The Bavette partners met while working at Covent Garden’s groundbreaking Terroirs natural wine bar, now closed. Sandy’s route there was not typical of the hospitality trade. After studying chemistry at university  in Manchester he enrolled at Leith’s cookery school in London, where he was inspire by a guest speaker, also a personal hero of mine – Henry Harris of Racine. With his cooking diploma but no cv to speak of, he persuaded Harris to take him on at the Knightsbridge bistro that was more authentique than most such establishments across La Manche. It’s a decade since the original Racine shut, less than a year since Harris joyously revived it as Bouchon Racine above a Farringdon pub. When I, unaware of the past link, tell Sandy, now 39, it was the best of its kind since my Bouchon blow-out in May he is more than delighted. You sense, after carving out an impressive London career (Brawn, Culpepper), this a dream realised of doing the French bistro food he likes best in a place of his own.

Catching up on my research later, I discover a pork chop would be his desert island main. Arguably mine too now after sampling his Pork Chop à la Grenobloise (£20) – a pretty fan of sweet fatted tenderness, dressed with capers, parsley and lemon, accompanied by a potato puree as smooth as Joël Robuchon’s classic version. I feel almost a traitor to veer off to a a glass of Italian red. Crucella is from the Campania, a blend of Merlot, Freisa and Sangiovese offering soft tannins and a beguiling lick of liquorice.

The mains choices inevitably also feature a bavette steak with shallots and, a source of next table plate envy, sea bream with a vin jaune sauce, buttered leeks and fondant potato. Among the puddings is another Sandy desert island must – a Paris-Brest, created in 1910 to honour a bike race between the French capital and the Breton port. It is designed to resemble a bike wheel, with its ring of pâte à choux, or cream puff dough, split horizontally and filled with a praline mousseline. So French. Maybe next time. I have no regrets about finishing with a with old stager crème brûlée with Yorkshire rhubarb. My digestif? A quince liqueur from the Gaillac region. Santé, Bavette.

The Lamb of Tartary – legend in the past, maybe in the making

I love heavy curtains over an entrance. Historically they were to keep out off-street draughts. As at the aforementioned Racine. They are in situ too at The Edinburgh Castle, which has this year debuted in the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list at no.24 under the stewardship of Shaun Moffat (ex-Manteca, Berber & Q in London), who has just scooped Chef of the Year at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival. Now some spectacular drapes garland the way into what was Castle stablemate Cottonopolis, re-invented  as The Lamb of Tartary. Exec chef Shaun has been charged with putting his own food stamp in place of a tired formula of NQ bar with bee motifs, Czech tank beer and Asian-inspired dishes.

Already it looks jazzier, the fabric wow mirrored in the booth furnishings in what is otherwise quite a pastelly re-furb. When I test the all-day food offering very early on it definitely shares much of the Edinburgh Castle nose-to-tail, respond-to what’s-on-the market ethos Shaun made much of in a down to earth 2022 interview with me. The dishes bely the poncy pub moniker, which namechecks the legend of a lamb that manages to be both a true animal and a living plant. Vegans look away now. The belief was that cotton plant Agnus scythicus of Central Asia fed sheep that grazed around it via a kind of umbilical cord. When all accessible foliage was gone, both plant and sheep died.

So, yes, I do order the Texel cross lamb saddle chop, sourced not from Tartary but near Knutsford. Costing £32, it’s part of the grill menu. Ideally I’d have preferred the lamb fat crisper but that’s a minor cavil. A pubbier use of the lamb is in a Scotch egg but, early days, that isn’t quite ready for the pass on our visit. A surprising triumph from the grill is fleshy salt-baked celeriac (£15). Glorious. From Pollybell Farm for all you source nerds, it is served with Polyspore mushrooms and bitter leaves. And naturally I add a side of triple-cooked chips because a Shaun’s kitchen does them so well.

The rest of our lunch consists of small plates that seem well placed as superior drinks ballast, for the aim is for an all-day dining pub – in contrast with so many ‘gastropubs’ that are clearly restaurants in disguise. There’s proper, funky brown crab meat in a crumpet for £8, a Belted Galloway steak tartare (£12) that comes with quality potato crisps, home-cured sea trout in a heady caper mayo with Pollen sourdough (£12) plus another impressive veggie plate, plunging purple sprouting and burrata into a chlorophyll rich sauce (£9). And to start it all off there had been Achill oysters from Ireland given Shaun;s trademark rhubarb mignonette dressing (main image).

Puddings were still a work in progress they weren’t even on a printed menu. There’s a dense concoction of chocolate and cherries and a quieter pannacotta, smothered in forced rhubarb compote that I marginally preferred. As at The Edinburgh Castle the wine list is well priced but not very adventurous and there are couple of cask pumps (go for the Buxton Brewery). Would I pop in for a casual beer. Probably not, with Pelican Bar across the road and Port Street a two minute walk. For food? I can’t wait to return.

Eight at Gazegill – I remember when this was all fields…

Well it still is, almost. I’m cheating here. Canapes and Bolney fizz at a aunch party can’t generate a review, but I’m so keen to plug this daring, remote eco venture I’ve already previewed towards the end of its seven gestation. It is on an award-winning organic farm with zero miles access to all their livestock and produce. Ian O’Reilly and Emma Robinson are custodians of 250 acres of unspoiled  farmland, with hay meadows and more than 50 species of wild flower and herbs, that has been in her family for 500 years. Last year Gazegill won Countryside Alliance Rural Oscar for Best ‘Local’ Food & Drink Retailer in the UK. Now the next step.

The new, ultra-sustainable restaurant building wouldn’t look out of place in a vineyard in the Napa Valley, but this is the Ribble Valley. The plan is for Eight to join all those other places that have turned it into a major foodie destination. To make their intentions clear they have hired Doug Crampton, who learnt his craft at the legendary Anthony’s in his native Leeds and ran James Martin’s Manchester restaurant for nearly a decade.

It’s called Eight because it’s an octagonal, 100-cover oak structure with large Pendle-ready picture windows, the whole space powered using stored solar energy generated on-site by a wind turbine and solar voltaics. The open kitchen boasts a wood-fired oven, central both  to a casual daytime dining operation and to tasting menus Fridays and Saturday evenings. Spring arriving, the outside terrace can host a further 60 folk.

The evening we arrive for the launch it is very un-springlike but the welcome is warm and generous. A harbinger of good times ahead came in the shape of a simple chipolata. Made with Gazegill’s own nitrite-free organic pork, it is flavoured with wild garlic from the fields we are looking across at. The farm employs its own regular forager. The glaze on this delicious bite is made with honey from their own bees. 

Suburbs, cutting edge city quarter, unspoilt countryside… the seeds of some great northern eating places have been sown.

Remember Fleet Foxes, Seattle-based purveyors of glorious indie folk harmonies? Eventually they broke up…  like the waves against the pine-fringed shores of Mykonos. The Greek island gave its name to one enigmatic b-side, offering “a vision of a gentle coast/and a sun to maybe dissipate/shadows of the mess you made”.

Its echoes oddly haunt a shimmering Mykonos-influenced lunch in the very different surroundings of on-the-up, post-industrial Manchester. The ‘wine dark’ Irwell flows nearby with Factory International aka Aviva Studios on its banks, making its eye-wateringly expensive cultural statement. Soho House, come spring, is set to provide a playground for the well-heeled colonisers of the former Granadaland. Shall we all sport something Chanel for the opening?

Shiny new £7m Fenix is, of course, feeding off this vibe. If you thought, Tattu, debut restaurant of brothers Adam and Drew Jones, sprinkled gold dust on the dining scene, this new project is pure platinum – a dreamy homage to the destination that has become the ‘Cycladean Ibiza’. Curvy, sea cave surfaces, an ‘olive tree’ naturally and lighting that glows like an Aegean sunset. The bar is dark and moody, the upstairs restaurant, in contrast, boasts “ash-toned driftwood dining chairs paired with decadent marble tables and refined tableware.”

There is no Zorba, Demis or Nana soundtracking our visit. Less bouzouki, more ambient beats. Whatever, I’m not paying much heed. The quality of the small plates arriving grabs me. Starring roles for taramasalata, octopus, lamb and the fluffiest of pitas, all taken to a level way beyond the vacation tavernas of Shirley Valentine (filmed on Mykonos).

I haven’t quite expected this, having sniffed at the presence of Cantonese spiced ribs, wagyu, ceviches and Andean antichucos on the menu (thankfully no Nobu-esque black cod). Then again Tattu never set out to be totally ‘authentic’ Chinese. 

Let me quote the Fenix ‘story’. Every restaurant has to have one these days.“In Greek mythology, the Phoenix represents triumph over adversity, cyclical regeneration and rebirth. Only one of these rare creatures can exist at a time, and each lives for 500 years. As that lifecycle ends, a nest is built and set on fire. From those flames new life arises, and the process continues. Fenix was born into uncertain and challenging times, and its character is its destiny — breathing fresh energy into a Manchester dining scene when it’s most needed.”

Key players in all this are the two chefs they have hired with strong Mykonos links. Executive Head Chef, Ippokratis Anagnostelis and Head Chef, Zisis Giannouras worked together at the high end Kenshō Ornos suites hotel on the island. Anagnostelis’s CV reads like a roll call of Greece’s finest dining spots, including the Michelin-starred Hytran in Athens, putting a contemporary spin on traditional dishes. The influences are obvious at Fenix, but it feels more relaxed than most destination restaurants with service especially impressive just a week in.

So which dishes did I particularly like?

(Once I‘ve decided to pass on the Wagyu Stifado (£85), one dish that has made it over from Kenshō. A treatment where striploin is glazed with wagyu jus, then served with braised onions, spices and cumin potato emulsion, seemed a deconstruction too far.)

Sea bass off the robato, to share (£95)

For a tenner more, a dish that isn’t strictly traditional but feels heart-stoppingly Hellenic – the boned fish stuffed with spinach and shiitake is served with a lemon-yuzu dressing. Oh, and it looks amazing.

Athenian Tartare with Caviar (£19)

No apologies for hitting a bass note again so soon. Fenix offers it ceviche style with a South American dressing of tiger’s milk, avocado, kiwi fruit and jalapeño, but this fresh treatment serving it with saffron, citrus and Ossetra caviar surpasses it.  

Grilled Octopus (£18)

Can’t resist tender cephalod and this comes with an earthy split pea cream and parsley vinaigrette that’s so powerful.

Orzo with langoustine and feta (£32)

A glorious take on a risotto with the rice-like pasta suffused with a rich bisque cut through with the sharp cheese

Broken Down Tart’ (£14.95)

Meat at last. I presume the presentation is an affectionate homage to the Greek taverna tradition of plate smashing (somewhat suppressed nowadays by health and safety issues). This is basically slow-cooked lamb shank and parsnip cream baked tarte tatin style in delicate pastry.

All this came off the a  la carte, which can soon add up, but there is a variety of set menus, including an attractive lunch deal for £31.50. The wine list is a well-balanced, global offering, straying off, as you’d expect into some mega-expensive ‘trophy’ choices. I’m a huge fan of Greek wines and there is representation from quality operators such as Gaia, Thymiopoulos and the late great Haridimos Hatzidakis, who put Santorini on the map as a cult wine spot.

There’s also an inevitable cocktail project, celebrating the four elements that shape the mythical Greek Isles; Water, Earth, Air and Fire. One example: ‘Whirlpool Fizz’ inspired by Charybdis the sea monster that sucked ships to their doom, combining gin with “a silky backbone of stone fruit and tonic”. Down in one then.

Fenix, The Goods Yard Building, Goods Yard Street, Manchester M3 3BG. 0161 646 0231.

  • I was a lunch guest of Fenix’s owners, the Permanently Unique restaurant group. My main image is of Wagyu Stifado.

Playing catch-up with my Books of the Year recommendations. Late to the party. Every weekend supplement has already been swamped with the buggers. Alas, there has been less evidence than usual of my fave tips – highbrow critics seeking to impress with the likes of “the great belle lettrist Attila Kosztolányi’s magnum opus, many years in the making, has finally seen the light of day. Read in the original Hungarian, it’s a triumph – let’s hope for a translation soon.”
You’ll find my choices less smarmy, I hope. The list is not, as you’d expect, dominated by food books. For research purposes, I have mostly been delving into scholarly old favourites or making practical use of the jus-stained kitchen recipe faithfuls. Blame the lockdown time on my hands for certain continuing reading obsessions – German history and our own 17th century registers of recusants and Roundheads.
Let’s start then with two magisterial examples of the former, published in 2023…

Beyond The Wall by Katja Hoyer (Penguin £26) and In Search of Berlin by John Kampfner (Atlantic £22)

The first account puts a human face on the DDR, taking it beyond the received wisdom of Stasiland, Trabants and steroid-pumped athletes. Hoyer, a British-based historian, is herself an ‘Ostie’, but she was only four years old when the Berlin Wall came down, transforming a country that epitomised the Cold War. In the re-united Germany three decades on reviews have been mixed, but I found it convincing and revelatory. An equally provocative exploration of the reunited state was Kampfner’s best-selling Why Germans Do It Better. Now the former Telegraph foreign correspondent, who reported on the epic events of 1989, puts today’s restored capital in the context of a thousand years of often troubled history. Riveting for an old Berlin hand like myself.

The Secret Hours by Mick Herron (Baskerville £22)

Divided Berlin was, of course, the backdrop for the Cold War spy genre, notably in the works of John Le Carré and Len Deighton. Herron, touted as Le Carré’s natural heir but very much his own man as the laureate of a deadbeat alternative espionage, is best known for his Slow Hours novel sequence, the third of which is currently being screened by Apple TV with Gary Oldman playing grubby anti-hero Jackson Lamb. The Secret Hours is a standalone title but Herron can’t resist giving (an unnamed) Lamb a key walk-on part in a tale that revolves around skulduggery in today’s security circles and an operation to find a Stasi murderer in 1990s Berlin which goes wrong. Intricately plotted surprises come in from the cold.

The Lock-up by John Banville (Hutchinson £22) and Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry (Faber £18.99)

The Irish penchant for fiction is as vibrant as ever with Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song recently scooping the Booker Prize. My own bookish bucket list for Christmas, though, is headed by The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright, the greatest Irish-based female writer (sorry Sally Rooney). No apologies, though, for recommending two genre-straddling novels by male veterans that have delighted me. The garlanded ‘literary’ novels of old school man of letters Banville have always left me slightly cold, but I am besotted with his increasing dips into crime fiction, featuring an odd couple with their own demons (naturally) – pathologist Dr. Quirke and Detective Inspector St John Strafford. The latest tracks back to 1950s Dublin where young history scholar Rosa Jacobs is found dead in her car. The investigation takes in the Italian mountaintops of Italy, the front lines of World War II Bavaria and deepest rural Ireland.

Barry’s novel also features a cop, retired to a castle in the Dublin coastal suburbs but with skeletons in the cupboard just waiting to be rattled as his past dealings are investigated by former colleagues. It’s dreamlike, almost gothic, packed with red herrings and unreliable narrators. Grim, melancholy, I loved it.

The Blazing World by Jonathan Healey (Bloomsbury £30)

Historical fiction may have peaked with the great Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (my own favourite still Iain Pears’ An Instance at the Fingerpost) but it’s in good hands with the likes of Robert Harris, whose Act of Oblivion (2022), featuring the 17th century pursuit across the New World of two Roundhead regicides, offered contemporary resonances. I read it alongside Anna Keay’s magisterial account of the decade after Charles I’s execution, The Restless Republic. What a blessing then the arrival of a complementary yet contrasting “New History of a Revolutionary Century”. It is a vivid, witty account of certain key characters, who exemplify a divisive age. The title comes from the extravagant aristocrat/polymath Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle, who, after the Restoration, imagined an alternative “Blazing World” of order and tranquillity in contrast to the “malicious detractions” and “homebred insurrection” through which she had lived. My next period read? Likely to be September’s Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish by Francesca Peacock.

Invitation to a Banquet by Fuchsia Dunlop (Particular £25) and Stuffed by Pen Vogler (Atlantic £22)

Let’s stay scholarly as we finally stray into food and drink territory with two books I have already reviewed at length. The first explores the vast complexity of Chinese cuisine, combining historical research and contemporary travelogue; the second, as I summed up, is “a surprisingly political survey of feast and famine with a particular emphasis on the damage wrought on subsistence by 300 years of Enclosures forcing 6.8 million acres of communal land into private ownership. The book title is not just about a full stomach, it’s also about being shafted.” So food adulteration in Victorian times is on a ley line to toxic ultra-processed foods in ours. Plus ça change

Flavour Thesaurus 2 by Nikki Segnit (Bloomsbury £20) and Mother Tongue by Gurdeep Loyal (4th estate £26)

Segnit’s book is the sequel to her eye-opening debut The Flavour Thesaurus, which became an instant classic when it was published 13 years ago. There had never been anything quite like it before, this playful exploration of ingredient matches springing from a flavour wheel of her own random devising. A reference book born out of erudite research that was equally at home by the bedside or on the kitchen table. More of the same, yes, but the  new flavours are predominantly plant-based. From zeitgeist-led vegan, from kale to cashew, pomegranate to pistachio, seaweed to tamarind, but eggs and cheese forced their toothsome way in, too.

A la Segnit, I like to be surprised and Gurdeep Loyal’s colourful cookbook lives up to its fusion manifesto declaring: “Food is a living form of culture that evolves: its boundaries are fluid, blurred, porous and dynamic… authenticity is an unending reel of culinary snapshots, an evolving spectrum that captures many transformative moments along flavourful journeys in generations of kitchens.”

Before Mrs Beeton – Elizabeth Raffald, England’s Most Influential Housekeeper by Dr Neil Buttery (Pen and Sword Books, £20)

Fanny Craddock was a Fifties/Sixties celeb chef in black and white telly world. If the box had been invented in the late 18th century I’m sure Manchester-based Elizabeth Raffald would have had her own show, such was her dynamism. Food historian Buttery charts the dizzying career that culminated in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1786). Why she even gave away the recipe for her invention for the Eccles Cake and there are strong claims that Mrs Beeton “adapted” many of her recipes.

The New French Wine by Jon Bonné (£112) mention Andrew Jefford and natural wine and Noma 2 – Vegetable-Forest-Ocean by Rene Redzepi, Mette Søberg and Junichi Takahashi (Artisan £60)

Two door-stoppers that were published first abroad last year and seeped in to the UK. I first encountered Bonné a decade ago when his New California Wine was a valuable companion on an epic vineyard-led road trip of the state. Since when he has moved to France and compiled this deluxe definitive compendium of the country’s wine makers at a time of profound change. I still treasure Andrew Jefford’s The New France but, published in 2002, it is now ‘Old France’, superseded by this remarkable celebration of a unique wine culture.

The groundbreaking cultural phenomenon that is Noma is reinventing itself as a food laboratory (shades or restaurant rival El Bulli). The gorgeous Noma 2, a hymn to foraging, fermentation and a wacky food aesthetic, may read like a swansong but I’ll take it as a launchpad (though it’s very weighty for lift-off).

Manchester’s Best Beer Pubs and Bars by Matthew Curtis (CAMRA Books, £16.99 pb) and A Beautiful Pint: One man’s search for the perfect pint of Guinness by Ian Ryan (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

Two much slimmer volumes that have a practical purpose in guiding you to the authors’ recommended watering holes. Matthew Curtis, author of the refreshing Modern British Beer upped sticks from London to live in Stockport. Result is a CAMRA beer guide like no other, encompassing craft bars, restaurants and taprooms as well as the traditional pubs. The list of ‘special’ starred establishments is spot on, as is this incomer’s research for a potted history of the scene. 

If that’s a perfect stocking-filler for the hophead in your life, it has a dark rival in Cork exile Ryan’s more niche print follow-up to his notorious Shit London Guinness Instagram and Twitter accounts. The writing is no on a par with Curtis’s but the passion shines through, along with some technical stuff I’d never given thought to. Best of all is his Guinness outlets to visit section. Without it I would never have strayed into the beyond marvellous Cock Tavern on Phoenix Road, just a stroll from Euston Station, where Sheila from Sligo served me the best Guinness I’ve ever had in the UK – at an amazing £4.50 a pint.

Steeple Chasing by Peter Ross (Headline £22) and The Wasteland: Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis (Penguin £12.99 pb)

There are few books I re-read in a year but Steeple Chasing has been one of them. It’s the Glasgow-based feature writer’s follow-up to A Tomb With A View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards and is even more fascinating. Which is saying something. Elegiac, yes but more… The melancholy element is inevitable, if not as pervasive as in its predecessor despite the pandemic hovering over the journeys. On first reading I pinned it down as a neo-WG Sebaldian quest for meaning among Britain’s steeples and bell towers, but with its own special radiance, especially when he explores the sacred territory of Suffolk. 

I inevitably re-read TS Eliot’s great poem in response to Matthew Hollis’s excavation of the post First World War milieu it grew out of – like “lilacs out of the dead land”. So much personal unhappiness fertilised his creation, trimmed into shape for publication by ‘ll Miglior Fabbro’ (the better craftsman), Ezra Pound. Let us salute both of them, “looking into the heart of light, the silence.”

What a vintage innings. Kate Goodman opened Reserve Wines just months before her brother Mark was appointed Lancashire Cricket Club captain (and there have been seven since). That was 20 years ago this autumn and the one-time BBC Food and Drink Programme grape guru has never looked back. Think of her as the presiding angel over the progress of Manchester (suburbs and all) towards its current status as a serious wine-celebrating destination.

Reserve’s personal 20th celebrations are only just beginning and they will stretch out across Kate’s innovative empire – the Burton Road mothership, outlets at the NQ’s Mackie Mayor, Altrincham Market and Picturedrome Macclesfield food halls plus Bents Garden & Home, Daresbury. Kate is second left in this Alty celebration.

There are two more projects on the way. When we catch up – alas not over a bottle of our beloved Côte-Rôtie – she is coy about these. Just as she won’t spill the beans on which stuffy, old school Manchester merchants intimidated her enough to go away and start up her own business in 2003. The route forward was not scowling your way through a phalanx of dusty racks but sharing your enthusiasm via fun YouTube takes. These days she popu;ates Twitter too with her pithy bottle tips.

Those obvious presentation skills earned her a slot on Food and Drink alongside the likes of Michel Roux nearly a decade ago. But it has been the day job that has consolidated the passion for wine seeded by impressionable years spent in France after a European Studies degree at Hull.

“But surely these days you don’t sell the same amount of French wine as when you opened Reserve… the world has moved on?” I ask her. It’s a meant as a tease for her Reserve buyer, Frenchman Nic Rezzouk. Kate is diplomatic.

“Ah, French wine. It is sometimes about identity. Recently we were chatting with a colleague working his way to a Master of Wine qualification. He told us how difficult it was to blind taste between Old and New World wines. The styles were so similar it was often hard to differentiate.”

But then with the New World there has been a backlash since those heady 2003 days. “When we started the shelves were full of big fruit explosive wines from Australia, Barossa Valley Shiraz and the like. Tastes have evolved; nowadays there’s a trend to lower alcohol, more elegant styles. South African, Australia wines are often fresher in style.”

One constant across he two decades of Reserve has been punters’ perennial devotion to Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, followed more recently by the easily pronounceable (and let’s admit it, consistently fruity) Argentine Malbec. What of the third in the wine shelf ‘holy trinity’? “We were discussing it the other day. When we opened we didn’t stock one bottle of Prosecco. Amazing to think back now.”

So what else do we have now we didn’t have back then? “Well, natural wine has only become a big thing over the last decade. And orange wine. Reserve has always attracted curious customers, looking for something different, seeking different layers of story about the folk who make the wine. Sustainability and methods of making wine are important to our customers too.”

English wine? “Making big strides all the time. Sparklers and now still wines. I can recall one of our suppliers in the early days, he brought in a bottle from a new client, Nyetimber. It was the first English wine I’d tasted.  It was really good then and it’s gone from strength to strength, as has the rest of our native industry. Reds were a challenge, but they are starting to blossom. I recently tasted a Bacchus (our aromatic white rival to Sauvignon) and it was so lovely. English wine is still quite niche but it has a bright future and I‘m proud to promote it at Reserve. At Mackie and Alty our basic sparkler by the glass is an Italian, but the next bubbly up is Gusborne from Kent. Gorgeous.”

In the press releasee founder Kate calls Reserve’s 20th anniversary “a monumental milestone – it has always been more than just a shop; it’s a community of wine enthusiasts where everyone is welcome.”

That local wine community extends beyond the one business, mind. “We are not alone in being passionate about giving people options that can guide them on their wine journey,” she tells me. “The evolution of the Manchester scene is remarkable – great people, a vibrant market, more and more tastings coming to us, impressive restaurant  wine lists everywhere. 20 years has seen a huge step up.”

Reserve’s 20th anniversary celebrations

There’s so much going on, kicking off with a private birthday celebration for loyal customers at Reserve Wines, Didsbury on Thursday, February 9, the Winter Wine Fair at Didsbury Sports Ground, with over 100 wines and spirits to taste, the following Thursday, and on Friday, November 17 a 20th anniversary tasting event, exploring Reserve Didsbury’s best-sellers. Check availability via this link.

Plus there are vinous prizes to be won via their social media channels. And with Christmas in mind there’s a variety of drop-in tastings across all the venues.

Time for turkey – Kate’s Christmas tried and tested wine tips

Don’t miss Reserve’s ‘Premium Red Wine Duo’, showcasing the Bodegas Palacio Glorioso Reserva Rioja (£17.50 from Spain – smooth and rich with aromas of ripe red fruits, vanilla and spices alongside the Amie Rouge Carignan (£15) from Southern France, a juicy and fruity wine with pure notes of blackberry, plum and pepper.

What is the Greek for to over-enthuse? I caught up with Jamie Oliver on the box the other night. Primarily because his new Channel 4 series on Mediterranean food kicked off in Thessaloniki, a city I developed a deep love for after a random visit.  Out of it arose an obsession with the country’s flagship red variety, Xinomavro, whose spiritual home is 75 miles north in mountainous Naoussa.

Greece’s second city got 10 minutes of Oliver attention before he heeded the pukka siren call of the Islands and was ferried south. There was no name check of the wine that accompanied the seafront fish platter Jamie gushed over. It may well have been the high profile white equivalent of Xin – Assyrtiko. 

Aldi put it on the supermarket map with a £6.99 version, described by one critic as “like Chablis with super powers”. A snip from a high altitude, sustainable single vineyard, this mainland version ticked lots of boxes – herbaceous, floral, citrussy, a hint of pepper, supple – without ever attaining the saline minerality and complexity, at a premium price, associated with examples from the volcanic vineyards of Santorini, that dazzlingly white holiday haven.

(Those Santorini selling points may soon be in short supply or hiked up in price – the difficult 2023 harvest is likely to yield only 30 per cent of the normal output).

At a Wines of Greece tasting in Manchester, the day after Jamie’s telly Odyssey, there was a plethora (word of Ancient Greek origin) of Assyrtikos from assorted regions, influenced by widely differing terroirs, but remarkably few Xinomavros. There were some 90 wines to sample at Blossom Street Social in Ancoats, so maybe I had been distracted by the whites – Malaqousia, Savatiano, Kydonitsa and the like. Among the reds, though, the stand-out grape turned out to be Agiorgitiko, which is Greece’s most widely planted red varietal. Its origins, though, are in the deep south of the the Peloponnese.

Its nickname is apparently ‘Blood of Hercules’. It doesn’t take a Herculean effort to appreciate its qualities. It reeks of mountain herbs and tastes of blackberry and cherry, usually with some oak spice involved. A beautiful expression on the day was the Nemea Grande Cuvee 2019 (£29.40) from Domaine Skouras, established almost 40 years ago by the redoubtable, Dijon-trained George of that ilk. 

Matching it stride for stride, from young tyro and Nemea neighbour Evengelia Palivou, was Palivou Estate Nemea 2020. It has years ahead of it but already it is a rich expression of cherry, chocolate and vanilla flavours. She and her sister Vassiliki have taken over the running of the 40 acres or organically farmed vineyards. They and the rest of a new, more open generation are the reason Greek wine is suddenly on a surge. Promoting indigenous grapes, rather than pandering to ‘international’ varietals.

A lovely Palivou mission statement of this was on the table. La Vie en Rose is made from 100 per cent Moschofilero. A colleague detected Turkish delight on the nose; I loved the lemon and pear flavours unusual in a pink.

My third and final winery tip from the tasting is Estate Argyros, the largest vineyard owner on Santorini with more than 120 hectares of ungrafted vines up to 200 years in age. It’s now in the hands of fourth generation family winemaker Matthew Argyros and the trio of wines created from his new 2015 winery demonstrated the voluptuousness Assyrtiko can attain.

Expect to pay £50 for the Cuvee Monsignori, 14.5 per cent but beautifully balance packed with flavours of preserved lemons and wild herbs. At twice that price, offering a unique tatse of old Santorini, Assyrtiko combines with fellow native varietals Athiri and Aidani for the heavenly, honeyed Vin Santo Late Release 2002. Sourced from 200-year-old vineyards and aged for at least16 years, it’s very special.

Fenix on the rise in Manchester

Leaving aside perennial reservations about rough taverna retsina, Hellenic wine’s profile has been hindered by the absence of top end Greek restaurants. That will be remedied soon in Manchester by the arrival of Fenix. It’s a complete change of tack from the brothers behind the Modern Chinese fusion brand Tattu.

Fenix’s wine list offers a global roll call of crowd pleasers but the Greek element is shrewdly chosen from some of the country’s highest profile wineries – Thymiopoulos, Gaia, Hatzidakis, Alpha and that aforementioned Skouras Grande Cuvee (it will cost you £67, not a dramatic mark-up). More approachably priced are a series of blends from the Cretan winery Karavitakis, championing that island’s indigenous grape varieties such as Vilana, Vidiano, Kotsifali  Mandilari and Liatiko.

Apostolos Thymiopoulos (above) is the king of Xinomavro in all its styles and an ambassador for all the new wave Greek winemakers. His own wines are widely available (try the entry level ‘Jeunes Vignes’ Xinomavro), An equally charismatic figure was Haridimos Hatzidakis, his life cut short aged just 50 in 2017. Born in Crete, he is credited with putting Santorini wine on the world map after replanting a vineyard abandoned after a 1956 earthquake and releasing his first bottles in 1999. Century-old indigenous vines from volcanic terroir, organic farming and minimal intervention in the winery. Result: Assyrtikos with a challenging saline minerality that I loved from my first sip. Noble Rot’s Shrine to the Vine online shop stocks the family’s single vineyard wines. Start with the Nykteri 2020.

The above is wagyu steak on sourdough toast. Charred thick slices, smeared with mustard mayo, scattered with radish discs, IPA pickled gherkins and those tiny capers that explode on your tongue. The wagyu? Marinated in (making a welcome return to the limelight) coal oil. I was expecting an ashtray element from the coal oil marinade, but, no, the flavour was all subtle mesquite. It’s a kind of delicious homage to Simon Rogan’s signature dish at The French a decade ago. The one that has Times critic Giles Coren swooning: “I tell you what, I would walk to Manchester barefoot in the rain for one more mouthful of the chopped raw ribeye of ox in coal oil.”

Did the wagyu on toast  make up for the absence of Squid Bolognese on my return to Fold in Marple Bridge near Stockport? Most definitely. That ‘deconstruction’ was touted as their signature dish back at their March launch, but it has obviously not stood the test of time as the menu has evolved. Maybe it had vague roots in the great Pierre Koffmann’s fishy riff on spag bol, but here ribbons of squid mimicking pasta in a rich ragu with garlic bread didn’t quite hit the mark. Still there’s langoustine scampi fries (in a scampi fry crumb) with lobster aioli and chip shop croquettes to champion Fold’s playful nostalgic takes on  snacks and classic dishes.

All this and my vote wasn’t enough to leapfrog this smart addition to Marple Bridge into the Good Food Guide’s 100 Best Local Restaurants 2023 list.In that particular bunfight a place called Tallow in Kent was national number one. And I’ve no quibble with Manchester’s rather lovely The Spärrows scooping the top North West award with Fold just missing the 100 Best cut. Still I did feel that various city centre establishments that squeezed it out didn’t qualify as ‘local’.

Sean Finnegan’s self-styled Bistro and Bottle Shop on Town Street certainly does. It attracts the morning coffee crowd as much as the wine aficionado seeking a leftfield bottle.

Certainly you can snack on a roster of small plates or make a special evening occasion of it. Just five minutes (steep) walk to Marple Station and it’s a rapid 20 minutes to Piccadilly. Though if you make the trek, as I did for this second time, you’ll find yourself jostling with a seriously local clientele. That’s my definition of neighbourhood. Fold’s exec chef Ryan Stafford actually hails from Marple, but the culinary palette he works from is the opposite of parochial. This former Masterchef finalist is often back in London for his lucrative day job as a private chef (for world leaders, rock stars and folk with expansive yachts). That means that head chef Craig Sherrington (Great British Menu) has the dominant say in the upcoming autumn menu. 

I hope he keeps those croquettes, in particular. On the outside they could be any old fried object on a corporate menu. Bite into them and they are a delicate thing of wonder, a chippie madeleine (sic) moment when shards of monkfish, a Champagne chip shop curry sauce, smashed peas and malt vinegar dust cohere. 

There are so many joys among the cold plates and snacks, but don’t ignore the hot plates. Maybe £21 for Exmoor caviar on baked jersey royals with mashed potatoes brings a touch of Paris’s Kaspia Caviar to Marple Bridge but I’d recommend instead a generous helping of salt marsh lamb with a classic summer accompaniment of peas, beans, gem lettuce and tarragon (£22) or ‘China Town’, a sensational salt n’ pepper sea bass dish (£24).

All this and a terrific drinks selection from craft beer to natural wine and beyond. That wagyu on toast found its perfect match in Thistledown She’s Electric, an organic old bush vine Grenache from South Australia’s McLaren Vale. A Fold plus that sets it apart from many other casual small plate rivals is that bottle shop wine list.

For the record, this is my Best Local Restaurant (even though it’s trek away from my locality).

Fold Bistro and Bottle Shop, 14-16 Town St, Marple Bridge, Stockport SK6 5AA.

Intimidated? Not easily. Yet there have been occasions. I recall a stay in a Mayfair apartment with our own private butler. “Order me a cab for Loftus Road.” An eyebrow-raised response: “Might that be the soccer stadium? Will sir be requiring a scarf and rattle?” Thankfully, in the midst of the away support, you are enveloped in a communal support system. Buoyed by some Blackburn Rovers umbilical cord. There’s not quite the same safety net when you are dining solo in the capital.

The legendary Henry Harris couldn’t be happier chalking up a new era for Racine

I tell myself I’ve alway found it a test of a restaurant how they handle a ‘Gourmet No Mates’. Maybe they’ll mistake me for a Michelin inspector and either up their game… or piss in my potage. But that’s all just fanciful. For my lone foray to Fallow in the autumn I was ushered to the chef’s table counter, as requested, and soon discovered I wasn’t alone in being alone. Next door, from Japan, was a fellow seeker after the sustainable culinary holy grail at London’s hottest restaurant. Just off Haymarket, it was bustling front of house and in the open kitchen right before me. To be on the safe side I ingratiated myself with the Irish sommelier by ordering a palate-cleansing pint of Guinness. Among the occupied throng I felt welcome and the whole food experience was worth the risk. 

Reassured, last month I struck out with a hat-trick of solo efforts in Farringdon, Soho and Shoreditch respectively – Bouchon Racine, reincarnation of Henry Harris’s legendary Parisian-style bistro in Knightsbridge; wine-led Noble Rot on the site of the old Gay Hussar; and Manteca, hippest of Italian nose-to-tail newcomers, ironically replacing a Pizza Express. The space almost became Rambutan, who’ve just opened near Borough Market, but that’s a whole different story. Rambutan

Manteca

Let’s start with the latter, heaving on a Sunday evening, where it was again my choice to bag a counter. My luck was in as they sat me next to the salumi slicer. Hypnotic. A bigger deal than you might imagine; they cure their charcuterie in-house. A couple my age, bearing no tats or facial hair, urged me to tuck into the Saddleback coppa and, at a hefty sounding £10, it was remarkably sweet and creamy after its sojourn in the basement hanging cabinet.

The sommelier this time was from the Southern Med via Leeds. His buttonholing me about was I from those parts (Yorkshire) put me at my ease, as did the red I ordered – a Dolcetto from AJ Vajra, a Piedmont winemaking family I know well. Light and fragrant, belying its deep purple hue, it was a a perfect companion for every morsel, from some pillowy focaccia through to the heartiest of pasta mains, fazzoletti with duck ragù and duck fat pangrattato (£15, I resisted the £10 winter truffle supplement). The wine list a a real thing of beauty, ranging from the reasonably priced rustic to stellar Tuscan royalty. Authentic credentials? 20 varieties of amaro. Cynar, Fernet Branca  knew, but Madame Milu, Ferro Chiva Baliva and Ramazzotti? Maybe another time.

Yes, you’d be right in assuming no Italian presence in the ownership or probably the kitchen brigade (though it was hard to make them out in the frantic blur of the open kitchen). The restaurant is a collab between Smokestak barbecue king David Carter and Chris Leach, once of another carnivorous joint, Pitt Cue. Both huge Italophiles, obviously.

Before the duo beached up in Shoredith Manteca had been a start-up project at 10 Heddon Street, then a standalone restaurant in Soho. But it is here among the bare, plastered walls it truly seems to have found its mojo. Dining on my tod, I obviously went for small plates, tempted though I was by a wood-fired whole John Dory or a Creedy Carver duck.

My healthy greens were puntarella alla romana, its bitter leaves given a gladiator’s thrust by anchovy and chilli (£8). Pig’s head fritti (£8) next, their over-the top spice hit down to a dollop of pilacca. The chilli heat was subtler in a slick portion of line caught pollock crudo (£12), blood orange giving it a Sicilian feel.

My £15 fazzoletti with ragù was slightly less in your snout than what became a Manteca signature dish when Shaun Moffat (now at the Edinburgh Castle, Ancoats) was chef there – a pig skin ragù topped with parmesan and served with a dipping chunk of the same skin crisped. Manteca comes from the Spanish word for pork fat or lard.  excpect you guessed something like that.

Manteca, 49-51 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3PT (020 7033 6642).

Noble Rot

You wait five years for a second Noble Rot restaurant to bob up and before you can find a gap to book your solitary table at the Soho version they’ve opened a third one – in Shepherd Market, Mayfair. I was hoping to make up for a disappointing experience, just before the Pandemic, in the original Lamb’s Conduit Street Rot, where the food didn’t match up to the wine or the atmosphere of the unreconstructed 1701 townhouse. I’d been buying the Noble Rot wine magazine, out of which it sprang in 2015, and still do, on occasion buying wine from its allied Shrine to Vine operation. The sophomore Soho site is, in contrast, an irregular old haunt of mine as The Gay Hussar. Not that I frequented it in the way that generations of Labour politicos and journalists did. Not for me the scheming cabals, who used the upstairs dining room as their canteen; I just enjoyed the goose-fat and goulasch, the veal stuffed cabbage and  sour cherry strudels of this very Hungarian restaurant, run by Victor Sassie for 34 years from 1953 until his death. General manager John Wrobel and others kept this time warp going until 2018. What is wonderful is how the rescuing Noble Rot team, whose backers included restaurant reviewing doyenne Marina O’Loughlin, have kept so much of the Georgian interior and atmosphere – albeit with a very different food and wine offering. 

Be gone Bull’s Blood and all who go sloshed on it. This being Noble Rot, there’s a comprehensive modern list, offering numerous leftfield wines by the glass. I indulged in a Pittnauer Blaufränkisch from Austria’s Burgenland after a palate refresher of classic Kernel table beer, offering remarkable flavour at just 3.5% ABV. Oh, and a glass of minerally biodynamic Crozes Hermitage Blanc from the brilliant Laurent Habrad in-between. 

Thankfully my three course supper was spot on this time. A risotto of palourde clams (£14) offered a sensory overload trinity of flavours – vermouth, fennel and bottarga. It followed by a generous confit duck leg with a classic accompaniment of cavolo nero, lentils and a sauce of Agen prunes and red wine. The £30 price a slight ouch factor. Prunes featured again with hazelnut in a biscuit for a dense wodge of chocolate mousse.

Modern British cuisine beautifully executed and a warm welcome to match. Who needs company? The narrow downstairs dining room accommodated a fellow solo diner, a family with young kids and, shades of the past, in the corner behind me, a couple plotting the political demise of a rival. Cue approval from the Martin Rowson caricatures of past habitués upstairs.

The feelgood aspect was clinched by The Green Scarf Factor. I was already on the Elizabeth Line when I got a text saying I’d left it. They’d stash it away for me. Next day when I dropped by to collect it couldn’t be found and I was in a train rush. Not to worry. When we locate it we’ll post it on to you, they said. And they did.

Noble Rot, 2 Greek St, London W1D 4NB. 020 7183 8190.

Bouchon Racine

Not just the French tragedian Jean famed for his alexandrines, Racine was also a much-loved bistro across from Brompton Oratory in Knightsbridge. The name translates as root and the roots of chef/patron Henry Harris’s culinary inspiration were definitely ‘à travers la Manche’. Alas that quartier beyond Harrods was already being colonised with oligarchs whose tastes ran more to property than French bistro classics and Racine shut in 2015, leaving so many memories. 

It was my perennial London bolthole. My wife Theresa and I even took a Paris-based copain there to shame him with this paradigm of ‘petits restaurants’. My dear late dining amie Sarah Hughes would fit in confession at the Oratory before boozy lunch. Even eating there on my own was a perfect comfort zone. Push through the front door’s heavy draught proof drape and you felt cosseted. A glass of Beaujolais at your elbow, a choice of Le Figaro or the Times proffered, while you awaited the likes of oysters, rillettes, rabbit with mustard and creamed spinach and a Valrhona chocolate pot.

All of which dishes, eight years on, I revisited in the upstairs dining room of the Three Compasses, Cowcross Street, opposite Farringdon Station. With Monsieur Harris himself, in front of the Bouchon Racine’s chalked menu board, beaming at the effrontery of reconvening when his fan base had nigh on given up on a permanent return. 

That fanbase was very much in evidence one Tuesday lunchtime. Mostly middle-aged trenchermen on the ample side with a long afternoon’s commitment to exploring the wine list. Service was informally impeccable and the simple dining room more Montmartre than you’d expect from a faded old London tavern. 

Whisper it, too, the food may be even better than of yore. My oysters were Carlingford’s finest – plump Louet Feissers au naturel, six for £22 – the Rillettes (£11) from Ibiaima pork, sourced from the French Basque country. Then so much tender flesh on the Lapin à la Moutarde (£23), cloaked in smoked bacon, its silkiest of sauces given extra succulence by my swamping the plate with an £8.50 side of spinach creamed with foie gras. Check out the menu board for all the treats I had to resist. No pudding I had told myself but, of course, the tiny two tone pot au chocolate (£8) with my double espresso was de rigueur – as they used to say in Knightsbridge. 

The origin of the word bouchon for such a bistro comes from Lyon. They were originally inns for silk workers and the name apparently derives not from corks, as you might imagine, but from a 16th century expression for a bundle of twisted straw. This featured in signs to designate the restaurants. In Farringdon steer your course via the Three Compasses. A solo voyage? You won’t feel marooned.

Bouchon Racine, 66 Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6BP (020 7253 3368).