I am lunching in the only 2 Michelin star Chinese restaurant outside China – A. Wong, just down from London’s Victoria Station.  My 15-course dim sum-centric tasting menu, Touch Of The Heart, costs £175 and the sophisticated package includes five splendid matching wines. Curated by chef patron and Oxford-educated chemist and later social anthropologist Andrew Wong, this is no ordinary dumpling experience. 

The menu, based on Andrew’s extensive explorations, has this mission statement: “The world of Chinese cuisine is limitless and exciting, a journey of tasteful cultures and flavoursome histories, from Buddhist temple cuisines of the Tang Dynasty Silk Road and the lantern-lit teahouses of bustling Ming Dynasty Suzhou to the cocktail hour of Hong Kong and Shanghai’s jazz age. We are honoured to have you join us on this culinary journey, with a menu that celebrates Chinese food heritage, historical recipes, and kitchen crafts that evolved over 4000 years.”

I hope Fuchsia Dunlop approves. She too is a standard bearer. Her new book, Invitation To The Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food (Particular Books, £25) explores through 30 widely disparate dishes/food styles the extraordinary culinary universe of that vast nation. Not the dumbed down version of Cantonese cuisine that has been long peddled in the West. Now thankfully changing at the top end, if not in takeaways.

Invitation seems the logical progression from a series of cookbooks that have earned her an authoritative reputation, not least in China, commencing with the groundbreaking Sichuan Cookery (2001). Even Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, her 2008 memoir of how she trained as a chef in its capital, Chengdu, came with a recipe at the end of each chapter. Her latest doesn’t. Both evocative and encyclopaedic, part travelogue, part social history, it’s not a stoveside tome. Instead you are by proxy by the side of local food producers, chefs, gourmets and home cooks spread across a homeland of over 1.4 billion people. Ultimately you are worshipping at the shrine of Fuchsia’s foodie hero, one A Dai, proprietor of Dragon Well Manor in the city of Hangzhou, whose ‘cooking rooted in the local terroir’ mirrors that of forward-thinking chefs in the West.

Before reading it I knew something about Dongpo pork, named after an 11th century Song Dynasty poet and governor of that same Hanghzou, and about Pockmarked Mrs Chen’s mapo tofu from Fuchsia’s wellspring, Sichuan, but pomelo with shrimp eggs or the trophy dish of the mega-rich maverick even today – bear’s paw? Emperors had that rarity served with the tiny tongues of crucian carp fish. Like serving pangolin or shark’s fin, all very arcane subject matter, but the book’s mission is less about the exotic, more about dispelling the scariness of many regional specialities and explaining how more recognisable delicacies came about.

Take the procession of dim sum I’m enjoying from Andrew Wong’s buzzing kitchen. In Invitation Fuchsia devotes a couple of chapters to dim sum, dumplings, noodles and baos and they are among the most enchanting, firmly pinning down their Turkic Silk Road origins. ‘Transforming Dough  knife-scraped noodles/dao xoao mian’ and  ‘Kindling The Spirits: steamed soup dumplings/xialong bao’ trumpet the skills that put many non-Chinese chefs to shame. Well, that culinary triumphalism is a constant trope from stalwart Sinophile Fuchsia. Still I do get her point as midway through my steady Wongathon I’m actually purring.

Dim sum at 2 star Michelin level? Pull up a lunchtime stool

I’m perched at the end of a shiny green-tiled counter, marvelling at the sheer elan of the operation and the warmth of welcome not always apparent in either Michelin places or old school Chinatown. What was once a standard Cantonese, run by Andrew’s parents in one of Pimlico’s less fashionable streets, has been transformed over the last decade thanks to his ambitions.

While evening service centres around The Collections of China, a wide-ranging three hour banquet, this Touch Of The Heart tasting menu of smaller dishes is available only at lunch alongside an à la carte dim sum offering. The title springs from a translation of these between meals snacks – ‘dian xin’ in Mandarin – which first came into use during the Tang Dynasty.

Fuchsia writes: “In its literal meaning dim sum is ambiguous; the two characters which compose it can mean ‘dot’ or ‘press’ and ‘heart’ or ‘mind’, which is why some people translate it into English’ as ‘touch the heart’…

“Food scholar Wang Zihu suggests that the emergence of this new term for a kind of ‘edible pick-me-up’ reflected a whole new era in Chinese gastronomy, in which eating was increasingly seen not just in terms of sustenance, with pleasure a a secondary goal, but as something that could be done mainly for fun, as was the case with dainty snacks that were designed to appeal to the senses as much as fill the belly.”

Cut to me at 70 Wilton Road, SW1V 1DE on a Thursday lunchtime. So which components appealed to my senses most?

Chilled ‘smacked’ cucumber with trout roe, chilli and garlic vinegar was an appetiser before  a glorious trio of dumplings, dim sum and wontons served together. Pick of the bunch was an incredibly delicate Shanghai steamed pork dumpling with a sharp ginger infused broth, the quintessence of xiao long bao. Equally classic was an almost transparent shrimp dumpling, sweet chilli sauce, topped with a cloud of rice vinegar foam. Sturdier, with a more compact dough, was a pork and prawn dumpling crowned with pork crackling.

Perhaps the ‘rabbit and carrot glutinous puff’ proved less delicious than it sounded but its fellow puff, the ‘999 layered scallop puff’ with powerful XO oil was a convincing bite, ahead of a dish (main image) that was a genius level artful deconstruction. ‘Memories of Peking duck’ arrived in a swirling nest of feathers and straw, the classic thin pancake encasing duck and foie gras. It’s a two bite experience. Go left and the topping is caviar, right and it’s a shaving of truffle. 

Further stand-outs were a cheung fun, that Cantonese rice noodle sandwich, here matching an Isle of Mull seared scallop with honey-glazed Iberico pork, then ultra delicate  ‘bamboo pole’ noodles with king crab and spring onion oil (my server first showing me a video at table of the deft noodle-making process) and the main pudding, a fluffy steamed duck yolk custard bun that benefited from not being over-sweet.

Before that, though, a skillet arrived bearing the component parts of our Xian lamb burger – a dish at odds with the rest of the culinary parade, its inspiration the pork-free Muslim-centric north west vastness that is Xianjing province. The author mentions in passing “the plight of its Ugyhur people” that ”has been well documented in the international media” and that’s it. Food takes precedence over geopolitics.

Here at A.Wong the mix and match presence of sesame, coriander, chilli and pomegranate alongside the lamb pattie transported me along the Silk Road – the route west. What better way to conclude a remarkable pilgrimage through the world’s most diverse cuisine?Thank you, via your different routes, Andrew and Fuchsia.

Chewy, bouncy, slippery, crunchy? I settle for century-old eggs

The menu was a sublime procession of flavours, but none of it was challenging – the kind of macho Chinatown ‘take me off piste’ stuff that ‘old China hand’ critics such as Jay Rayner and Giles Coren occasionally indulge in… and Fuchsia Dunlop has grown to relish after her first tentative coming to terms with a nation of eaters that value food for mouthfeel as much as flavour. “They want chewy, bouncy, slippery and even crunchy ingredients which ‘feel beautiful’.”

Tripe I do, even slippery pig brains, but I gag on chicken feet or tendons. Still, broadening my horizons, I’m now a convert to century old eggs. My recent dish of the month for Manchester Confidential came from Noodle Alley in the city’s Chinatown. They were done Sichuanese style. Here’s what I wrote: “Smoked beers? I’d sampled a few at Smokefest, niche celebration at Torrside Brewing in New Mills, so what perils could a surfeit of Sichuan pepper hold for kippered me? Hence it was a ballast of ‘Burning Noodles’ all round at Ken and Wendy Chen’s Chinatown basement homage to her native province. This version of the classic dish featuring minced pork is not the tonsil-cauterising challenge you might encounter in the back alleys of Chengdu, but it is the most authentic manifestation ever to pop up in Faulkner Street. Numbing enough to need the quenching (unsmoked) neutrality of a Tsingtao lager or two.

“My foodie focus, though, was more left field. I am currently working my way through Invitation To A Banquet, Fuchsia Dunlop’s newly published introduction to Chinese cuisine, so I felt I had to order £6.80 small plates of Sichuan starch jelly with house chilli sauce and charred green chilli with century old eggs. The former was testimony to the Chinese love of texture, the latter proof that an ammoniac whiff doesn’t have to be off-putting. 

“The wedges of egg fanned around the plate, resembled on first glance, streaked dark green tomatoes. The Chinese see a pine pattern, so another name beyond the usual pidan issonghua dan, or pine-patterned egg. That look is the result of several weeks’ fermentation. Traditionally this consisted of pickling duck eggs in brine and then burying them in a mixture of coals, chalk, mud and alkaline clay. Result – they can last unrefrigerated for months but not long years. Bite through the gelatinous coating and the taste is uncompromisingly ripe. Think blue cheese on steroids. The impact at Noodle Alley certainly skittled any lingering ashtray beer tastes.”

We each have our own private Soho. For the long of tooth it may well be Paul Raymond’s Revue Bar and the nudge nudge of sleaze or Jeffrey Bernard regaling his reprobate chums slouched across lunchtimes that never ended. Perhaps Gaston Berlemont’s French House and Muriel Belcher’s Colony Club, L’Escargot with Elena Salvoni at the helm or Victor Sassie’s goose-fattened politico haunt, The Gay Hussar. So many ghosts. Even a near contemporary of mine, Alastair Little, whose eponymous restaurant brought a blast of fresh culinary air to Frith Street in the Eighties, is no more (my tribute).

Northern-based, I’ve only had the tiniest of bit parts in the pulsating Square Mile of Sin, much sanitised these days, of course. Maybe, on a flying visit, a café au lait and croissant at Maison Bertaux before stocking up on Italian essentials at I Camisa & Son (recently granted a two year stay of execution; its drab rival around the corner, Lina Stores, has now swollen to a glossy five-strong chain). For cocktails it still has to be tiny Bar Termini on Old Compton Street. And if we ate in in Soho it would inevitably be at Andrew Edmunds in Lexington Street, an 18th century townhouse that for four decades has combined being dog-friendly with offering a remarkably affordable fine wine list, well matched with the game it regularly serves. Alas, Andrew, too, died last year at 80, another key figure in ‘Old Soho’ departed.

There were occasionally more flamboyant experiences. A random invitation, by his biographer, to the funeral of Sebastian Horsley, the Last Dandy of Soho, where to a Marc Bolan soundtrack the horse-drawn hearse delivered his heroin-ravaged body to St James’s Piccadilly, Stephen Fry delivering the eulogy.

Another time I lingered into the early hours in the Groucho Club in the company of Lembit Öpik, Liberal Democrat MP, I’m A Celebrity contestant and Cheeky Girls squeeze, and one Ron Brand, dad of Russell (whatever happened to him?).

Quo Vadis – no wriggling out of Jeremy’s eel sandwich

The Groucho Club is a homage to the wittiest of the Marx Brothers, but it was the former home of a more seismic Marx  – Karl – that hosted us on a recent return to Soho. Once also a brothel, Quo Vadis in Dean Street is definitely ‘Old Soho’, launched as a restaurant in 1926, one year before L’Escargot (Camisa arrived two years later). It has enjoyed a resurgence over the last decade under the stewardship of the Hart Brothers, whose neighbouring Barrafina is definitely a standard bearer for the ‘New Soho’.

The Quo Vadis kitchen is in the hands of national treasure Jeremy Lee, whose Cooking Simply and Well, for One or Many (Fourth Estate, £30) has just won Best General Cookbook in the 2023 Guild of Food Writers Awards. I wrote about his championing of salsify here a year ago. That root vegetable wasn’t on the menu on the Monday evening we dined there, but his signature starter was – the smoked eel sandwich. I’ve tried to replicate at home several times, quite recently with in-house prepared eel from Upton Smokery in the Cotswolds, but the restaurant version was miffingly superior. At £14.50 a tranche it had to be.

Amazingly, it was pipped by the other starter we shared in the cosy, quirky dining room –the best terrine I’ve had in years. A quid cheaper, it was a master class in the charcutier’s art. Tender tiles of compressed chicken, grouted with a moist blend of ceps, savoy cabbage and bacon, accompanied by fresh figs. 

The scene was set. The extended, enhanced ground floor restaurant looked a treat, as did arguably London’s most beautiful paper menu. Alas, the mains didn’t match all  this level of excitement. A case of NOFOM? (never order fish on Mondays)? I’d like to think that wouldn’t apply to a place, whose rigorous standards are apparent from Jeremy’s gloriously written book, but my wife’s hake with clams dish (£32.50) was dull and over-beaned, while my skate with tartare sauce (£34.50) smelt too much of the pan and felt tired. And yes, I am allowing for skate being a fish actively benefiting from a few days’ ageing. Neither dish was done any flavours by a timid Rousette de Savoie Cru Frangy Domaine Lupin, which cost £50. Our jolly neighbours were knocking back their white, a Puligny Montrachet at thrice that price, and we were so jealous.

Ain’t no Mountain high enough?

So a certain disappointment at Dean Street’s old stager, made up for thrillingly by new arrival Mountain in Beak Street. I vaguely remember the corner site being occupied by a Byron Burgers, but there’s also a louche Soho legacy, naturally. From 1913 it was home to  Murray’s Cabaret Club; in the Fifties Ruth Ellis danced in the club before murdering her husband, in the Sixties hostess Christine Keeler met Stephen Ward here before embarking on the Profumo Affair. 

These days it would be a scandal not to make the pilgrimage to taste the latest manifestation of Tomos Parry’s genius. His Michelin-starred Brat in Shoreditch (former strip club premises, a theme developing) set the bar high for the ‘Welsh Wizard Who Cooks With Fire’. The restaurant name? His inspiration has always been the ‘mar y montaña’ cooking (sea and mountain inspired) along Basque and Catalan coasts. Tast Catala in Manchester nods to that same culinary philosophy through its Costa Blanca-based exec chef, Paco Pérez.

Big investment has gone into the two floors occupied by Mountain, each boasting a state of the art Gozeney wood-burning oven, losing some of the hipster vibe along the way, but the food offering has suffered no identity crisis on the evidence of our early evening walk-in. Tables are currently booked out for weeks after the metropolitan critics swooped with their ‘already a candidate for restaurant of the year’ snap judgements. 

They might well prove right. We just loved everything about the place as we perched at the counter and wanted to order all of the menu. With a train to catch we settled for half a dozen treats, small plates except for a spectacular loin of fallow deer on the bone (£40) – dark char giving way to perfect saignant flesh. Like some Game of Thrones hero emerging from battle. Alongside, a squad of Parry’s signature smoked potatoes, even better than their equivalent at Yorkshire’s legendary Moorcock at Norland.

The supporting cast was equally impressive. A plate of home-cured ex-dairy beef (£12.50, fanned out wafer thin (the meat slicer is as much in evidence here as at Brat’s Shoreditch rival Manteca), then substantial chunks of raw sobrasada (£6.50), doused in honey. on their own wood-fired bread, topped with squiggles of guindilla pepper. Apparently this spicy, spreadable sausage is sourced from an organic Mallorcan farmer called Luis Cirera. 

Such attention to detail is everywhere. Wines show a Noble Rot influence. Where else might you encounter that delicate North Italian white, Nosiola? At £8 a sizeable glass, it had been our welcome drink, to be followed by a 500ml carafe of a Portuguese bulk tinto that was remarkable, fruity value for £20. It handled the spice of the chorizo we ordered in envy of our neighbours on the counter because of the balloon-light flatbread they also got.

Returning another time then to dig deep into a no-compromise menu offering beef sweetbreads, tripe, turbot head and, for three or more to share (£90-£120), a whole lobster caldereta (one pot stew) that may prove to be the peak signature dish for Mountain. Aiming to scale it one day.

Finally, a satisfying foray into Fitzrovia

We were staying in the Treehouse Hotel in Langham Place, , which has a Mexican restaurant Madera on its 15th floor, where we sampled assorted seafood ceviches and organic, grass-fed carne asada served over hot lava stones. Alas, Madera won’t be accompanying Treehouse when it opens in Manchester next year; consolation, head chef at the main restaurant there will be the remarkable Mary-Ellen McTague (ex- Aumbry, Creameries and The Fat Duck). 

The London hotel is opposite the BBC and John Nash’s All Saints Church on the edge of Marylebone and Fitzrovia, both exceptional districts to dine out in these days. The latter is home to the Sicilian food of Norma on Charlotte Street, which I have previously reviewed.

This time 64 Goodge Street was our destination. In its few weeks of existence it has been garnering plaudits akin to Mountain for its retro French bistro looks and menu. A new venture by the Woodhead Restaurant Group, creators of The Quality Chop House, Portland and Clipstone, it’s a handsome fallback destination for those who can’t squeeze out an advance booking for equally francophile Bouchon Racine in Farringdon (read my review) I dined in the shadow of a dark oak armoire in the intimately lit bottle green interior. I half expected Inspector to Maigret to sidle in out of the Fitzrovia dusk.

The ‘Famous Belgian’ would certainly have relished my amuse bouche, a truffled Comté gougère and my hors d’oeuvre, a duo of snail, bacon and garlic bon bons – a cute, deep-fried take on classic escargots à l’ail.

Starters were a litany of Gallicness. What to choose from soupe au pistou; Morteau sausage, walnut and Morbier tourte (a homage to my beloved Jura); scallops, lentils and beurre blanc and a rabbit Niçoise. The latter won the day and there were enough olives, capers, tomatoes and basil to justify the substitution of blander bunny for the regulation tuna.

That dish cost £16. My main was £36. Like virtually everywhere of quality in London and other cities, even with modest wine, bills are now regularly topping £100 a head for three courses. No matter, if they get the details right From another well-judged wine list, a carafe of Austrian Blaufränkisch did the trick, its black fruits and whack of acidity a perfect match for the myrtille compote that underpinned squab pigeon two ways, breast seared, leg stuffed with Lyonnaise sausage. Perhaps a substantial addition of beetroot and chanterelles tipped the dish towards excess, but chef Stuart Andrew’s menu is built on richness. Comforting in discomforting times. Let me confess then. I wish, for therapy’s sake, I’d splashed out an extra £4 and gone for the lobster vol-au-vent with a cream/brandy infused sauce Américaine.

For 2023’s critical kitchen darlings the world appears to be their lobster.

The shortlisted nominees for the 2023 Manchester Food and Drink Festival Awards have been announced. The Awards are the most prestigious in the North West and celebrate the region’s outstanding hospitality talent, with winners to be revealed at the MFDF Gala Dinner on Monday, January 29, 2024. 

There are 114 exceptional venues, traders, places and people nominated across 18 categories celebrating a resurgent year for Greater Manchester’s hospitality industry. This year’s roll call takes in the whole breadth of talent flourishing in our region – from talented takeaways and superb street food vendors to Michelin-star dining and some of the newest and most exciting additions to the scene. 

The shortlisted nominations have been compiled by the MFDF Judging Panel, taking into account award submissions from the hospitality industry. The panel is made up of the region’s leading food and drink critics, writers, and experts. The awards are now open to public vote on the MFDF website. 

A ‘mystery shopping period’ will now commence alongside the public vote. During this period judges will visit nominated venues for an incognito dining visit, and will score venues based on their experiences. Then on Monday, November 20, 2023 the polls will be counted and combined with the judges’ scores, and the winner of each category will be chosen. 

The MFDF 23 Award Winners will be announced at the MFDF Gala Dinner & Awards at the New Century Hall (above) on Monday January 29, 2024, tickets for which can be purchased by emailing isabella@foodanddrinkfestival.com. Your hosts for the evening will once again be Matty White of Manchester’s Finest and Channel 4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch and BBC Radio Manchester’s Anna Jameson.

To vote please visit this LINK. The nominees are…

PLANT-BASED OFFERING OF THE YEAR

Bundobust

St James Building, 61-69 Oxford Street, Manchester, M1 6EQ

Lily’s Indian Vegetarian Cuisine

85 Oldham Road, Ashton-under-Lyne OL6 7DF

Bahn Ví

New Century Kitchen, 34 Hanover Street, Manchester M4 4AH

The Walled Gardens

Alness Road, Whalley Range, Manchester M16 8HW

Maray

14 Brazennose Street, Manchester M2 6LW

Speak in Code

7 Jackson’s Row, Manchester M2 5ND

Flawd Wine

9 Keepers Quay, Manchester M4 6GL

The Mekong Cat

47 Lower Hillgate, Stockport SK1 1JQ

TAKEAWAY OF THE YEAR

Fat Pat’s

88 Portland Street, Manchester M1 4GX

Ad Maoira

34 Copperas Street, Manchester M4 1BJ

Unagi Street Food & Sushi

10 Park Place, Cheetham Hill, Manchester M4 4EY

Ciaooo Garlic Bread

93-95 Shudehill, Manchester M4 4AN

Wright’s Fish and Chips

86 Cross Street, Manchester M2 4LA

Maida Grill House

38 Liverpool Street, Salford M5 4LT

Al Madina

76 Wilmslow Road, Manchester M14 5AL

Burgerism

18 West Ashton Street, Salford, M50 2XS

INDEPENDENT DRNKS PRODUCERS OF THE YEAR

Sureshot Brewing

4 Sheffield Street, Manchester M1 2ND

Stockport Gin

19B St Petersgate, Stockport SK1 1EB

Cloudwater Brew Co

7-8 Piccadilly Trading Estate, Manchester M1 2NP

Tarsier Spirit

Unit A5, Bankfield Trading Estate, Coronation Street, Stockport, England, SK5 7SE

Pod Pea Vodka

Irlam, Manchester

Manchester Union Brewery

96D North Western Street, Manchester M12 6JL

Squawk Brewing Co

Tonge Street, Manchester M12 6LY

Track

Unit 18, Piccadilly Trading Estate, Manchester M1 2NP

INDEPENDENT FOOD PRODUCER OF THE YEAR

Pollen

Cotton Field Wharf, 8 New Union Street, Manchester M4 6FQ

Great North Pie Co

Kampus, Aytoun Street, Manchester M1 3GL

La Chouquette

812A Wilmslow Road, Manchester M20 6UH

Gooey

Ducie Street Warehouse, Manchester, M1 2TP 

Yellowhammer

15 Lower Hillgate, Stockport SK1 1JQ

The Manchester Smoke House

123 Waterloo Road, Cheetham, Manchester M8 8BT

The Flat Baker

Unit 2, 23 Radium Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6AY

Companio Bakery

Unit 6, Flint Glass Wharf, 35 Radium Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6AD

FOODIE NEIGHBOURHOOD OF THE YEAR

Levenshulme

Stockport

Altrincham

Urmston

Prestwich

Monton

Sale

Stretford

COFFEE SHOP OF THE YEAR

Grapefruit Coffee 

2 School Road, Sale M33 7XY

Cafe Sanjuan

27 St Petersgate, Stockport SK1 1EB

Another Heart to Feed

10 Hilton Street, Manchester M1 1JF

Idle Hands Coffee

35 Dale Street, Manchester M1 2HF

Bold Street Coffee

53 Cross Street, Manchester M2 4JN

Smoak

105 Manchester Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9GA

Ancoats Coffee Co

9 Royal Mills, 17 Redhill Street, Manchester M4 5BA

Siop Shop

53 Tib Street, Manchester M4 1LS

FOOD TRADER OF THE YEAR

Baratxuri

Exhibition, St George’s House, 56 Peter Street, Manchester M2 3NQ

Chaat Cart

Society, 100 Barbirolli Square, Manchester M2 3BD

Triple B

24 Bury New Road, Prestwich, Manchester M25 0LD

Tawny Stores

Yellowhammer, 15 Lower Hillgate, Stockport SK1 1JQ

Little Sri Lanken

Reddish, Stockport

Pico’s Taco’s

Mackie Mayor, 1 Eagle Street, Manchester M4 5BU

Oh Mei Dumplings

Fat Pat’s

88 Portland Street, Manchester M1 4GX

AFFORDABLE EATS VENUE OF THE YEAR

Nila’s Burmese Kitchen

386 Third Avenue, Trafford Park, Stretford, Manchester M17 1JE

Great North Pie Co

Kampus, Aytoun Street, Manchester M1 3GL

Cafe Sanjuan

27 St Petersgate, Stockport SK1 1EB

Noodle Alley

Basement Level, 56A Faulkner Street, Manchester M1 4FH

Tokyo Ramen

55 Church Street, Manchester M4 1PD

Lily’s Deli

Unit 2C, Henry Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 5BA

House of Habesha

Central Bay, Unit 32, Quayside, Media City, Salford Quays, M50 3AG

Ornella’s Kitchen

10 Manchester Road, Denton, Manchester M34 3LE

FOOD AND DRINK RETAILER OF THE YEAR

Ad Hoc Wines

28 Edge Street, Manchester M4 1HN

Out of the Blue Fishmongers

484 Wilbraham Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9AS

Littlewoods Butcher

5 School Lane, Heaton Chapel, Stockport SK4 5DE

Wandering Palate

191 Monton Road, Eccles, Manchester M30 9PN

New Market Dairy

1 Central Way, Altrincham WA14 1SB

Petit Paris Deli

10 King Street, Manchester M2 6AG

Cork of the North

104 Heaton Moor Road, Stockport, SK4 4NZ

La Chouquette

812A Wilmslow Road, Manchester M20 6UH

POP UP OR PROJECT OF THE YEAR 

Our Place

Platt Fields Market Garden

Platt Fields Park, Platt Fields Market Garden, Fallowfield, Manchester M14 6LT

Tawny Stores

Yellowhammer, 15 Lower Hillgate, Stockport SK1 1JQ

SAMPA

Blossom Street Social, 51 Blossom Street, Manchester M4 6AJ

Little Sri Lankan

Reddish, Stockport

Suppher

Fare Share

Units E1-8, New Smithfield Market, Whitworth Street East, Openshaw, Manchester, M11 2WJ

Micky’s

Ply, 26 Lever Street, Manchester M1 1DW

PUB OR BEER BAR OF THE YEAR

The Marble Arch

73 Rochdale Road, Manchester M4 4HY

Track Brewery Taproom

Unit 18, Piccadilly Trading Estate, Manchester M1 2NP

The City Arms

46-48 Kennedy Street, Manchester M2 4BQ

Runaway Brewery Taproom

9-11 Astley Street, Stockport, SK4 1AW

Fox & Pine

18 Greaves Street, Oldham OL1 1AD

Reddish Ale

14 Broadstone Road, Reddish, Stockport SK5 7AE

Station Hop

815 Stockport Road, Levenshulme, Manchester M19 3BS

Heaton Hops

7 School Lane, Stockport SK4 5DE

BAR OF THE YEAR

The Jane Eyre

One Cutting Room Square, 14 Hood Street, Manchester M4 6WX

Blinker

64-72 Spring Gardens, Manchester M2 2BQ

Red Light

4-2 Little David Street, Manchester M1 3GL

Sterling Bar

4 Norfolk Street, Manchester M2 1DW

Hawksmoor

184 – 186 Deansgate, Manchester M3 3WD

Schofield’s Bar

3 Little Quay Street Sunlight House, Manchester M3 3JZ

10 Tib Lane

10 Tib Lane, Manchester M2 4JB

Flawd Wine

9 Keepers Quay, Manchester M4 6GL

NEIGHBOURHOOD VENUE OF THE YEAR

Restaurant Örme

218 Church Road, Urmston, Manchester M41 9DX

Stretford Canteen

118 Chester Road, Stretford, Manchester M32 9BH

OSMA

132 Bury New Road, Prestwich, M25 0AA

Ornella’s Kitchen

10 Manchester Road, Denton, Manchester M34 3LE

The Oystercatcher

123 Manchester Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9PG

Yellowhammer

15 Lower Hillgate, Stockport SK1 1JQ

Fold Bistro & Bottle Shop

7 Town Street, Marple Bridge, Stockport SK6 5AA

The Jane Eyre

60 Beech Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9EG

GREAT SERVICE AWARD

Hawksmoor

184-186 Deansgate, Manchester M3 3WD

Higher Ground

Faulkner House, New York Street, Manchester M1 4DY

Schofield’s Bar

Sunlight House, 3 Little Quay Street, Manchester M3 3JZ

Where The Light Gets In

7 Rostron Brow, Stockport SK1 1JY

Climat

8th Floor, Blackfriars House, Manchester M3 2JA

Wood Manchester

Jack Rosenthal Street, First Street, Manchester M15 4RA

Sterling Bar

4 Norfolk Street, Manchester M2 1DW

Tast Catala

20-22 King street, Manchester M2 6AG

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR

Climat

8th Floor, Blackfriars House, Manchester M3 2JA

Higher Ground

Faulkner House, New York Street, Manchester M1 4DY

Restaurant Örme

218 Church Road, Urmston, Manchester M41 9DX

Fold Bistro & Bottle Shop

7 Town Street, Marple Bridge, Stockport SK6 5AA

The Jane Eyre

60 Beech Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9EG

Madre

Minshull House, 47 Chorlton Street, Manchester M1 3FY

New Century Kitchen

34 Hanover Street, Manchester M4 4AH

Stretford Canteen

118 Chester Road, Stretford, Manchester M32 9BH

CHEF OF THE YEAR

Joseph Otway (Higher Ground)

Danielle Heron (OSMA)

Luke Richardson (Climat)

Julian Pizer (Another Hand)

Shaun Moffat (The Edinburgh Castle)

Patrick Withington (Erst)

Seri Nam (Flawd Wine)

Mike Shaw (MUSU)

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

Higher Ground

Faulkner House, New York Street, Manchester M1 4DY

Climat

8th Floor, Blackfriars House, Manchester M3 2JA

Another Hand

Unit F, 253 Deansgate, Manchester M3 4EN

10 Tib Lane

10 Tib Lane, Manchester M2 4JB

OSMA

132 Bury New Road, Pretwich, M25 0AA

Erst

9 Murray Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6HS

The Spärrows

16 Red Bank, Cheetham Hill, Manchester M4 4HF

mana

42 Blossom Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6BF

THE HOWARD AND RUTH AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT

Recognising people who have contributed something outstanding to the hospitality industry in Greater Manchester.

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.

Let us salute fair Salina and Slaithwaite. The former, a volcanic Aeolian island reached by hydrofoil from Sicily, the latter a moorland mill town on the main line between Manchester and Leeds. Each has offered creative refuge to master pizzaiolos, who’ve helped shape the culinary landscape of toppings on dough.

The cases of Giuseppe Mascoli and Jim Morgan provide a romantic backdrop to the big business that pizza has become. This relatively affordable treat that, post-pandemic, prospers while other High Street rivals go under. 

Proof of the desirability of UK pizzeria chains is the expansion of the original Neapolitan-inspired destinations created by Amalfi Coast raised Giuseppe and Huddersfield Town fan Jim. Only last month shareholders in Franco Manca and sister brand The Real Greek (70 and 27 outlets respectively) approved a £93.4m takeover by a Japanese noodle conglomerate. Giuseppe had long extricated himself from the brand he created – ‘best pizza in London’ – to live the good life on Salina, making wine on the island he fell ion love with while sourcing the perfect capers for his burgeoning restaurants.

Meanwhile, since being taken over by hospitality operator Mission Mars (of Albert’s Schloss fame) Rudy’s has opened 17 sites across Britain. The latest, its sixth in Manchester where it all started, incorporates a pizza academy to stretch the skills of staff. In truth, I’d rather learn the secrets of ‘the one true pizza’ at the elbow of Jim in his smart new venture, Anello, in a converted library in Yorkshire’s Slaithwaite (pronounced Slow-it).

It’s all a far cry from the sensation back in 2005 when Giuseppe, a former LSE lecturer, took pizza back to its Neapolitan roots in the Afro-Caribbean enclave that was Brixton Market. Queues snaked around the block to get a slice of the authentic action. The key? A sourdough foundation naturally leavened for 24 hours under the watchful eye of baker friend Bridget Hugo. Ditto 10 years later in the new foodie frontier of Ancoats when Jim’s research pilgrimages to the pizza cafes off the Spaccanapoli finally paid off for him and pioneer partner Kate Wilson. Their shoestring project was named after their pet dog Rudy. Franco Manca’s monicker was equally quirky. Giuseppe took over the original 1986 business from one Franco, honouring him in perpetuity. ‘Manca’ in Italian means missing.

So does the pair’s purist pizza legacy linger on?

Franco Manca

It’s so easy to yell ‘sell-out’ or ‘pale shadow’ as a treasured one-off becomes ostensibly more corporate. Franco Manca, with three outlets in Manchester, certainly talks the talk still, emphasising the scrupulous attention to sourcing, the long proving (ie rising) of the dough in-house each day, even focusing the brief wine list on organic production.

I’d not been to the King Street branch before one gusty, wet Manchester lunchtime at odds with the searing inferno of the ‘Old Country’ currently. The welcome was as warm as the decor. Prices, even of specials on the boards, were eminently reasonable, one of the great selling points in London. 

Contrast with L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele (self-proclaimed world’s best pizza) 60 metres away across the Cross Street tramlines. I’ve not been back since it made its grand entrance 18 months ago, but the experience was odd – service wobbly, setting eye-numbingly neon and prices high (even though the pizza quality was decent). Da Michele had become a global brand, from the humble yet Instagrammable original in Naples that had inspired Jim Morgan in his quest.  Still it may have learned its lesson. I’ve just checked the latest menu and the cost of a Margherita that was then £9.95 has now been reduced to a fiver.

What does strike you immediately at Franco Manca is the menu avoids the classic  pizza names – Margherita, Marinara, Cappriciosa and the like. Instead they are numbered 1 to 10. It mirrors an eclectic attitude to provenance. The Pivetti organic 00 flour may hail from near Bologna, tomatoes from Campania and Salina supplies benchmark capers, but the MSC certified tuna and the anchovies are sourced from Cantabria in Northern Spain, while the mozzarella still comes from Somerset. Why? Because Giuseppe (the opposite of sloppy in his thinking) persuaded his friend Albino Scalzitti to move there from the southern Italian Apennines to ensure a fresher supply line. Somerset’s native Ogleshield and Montgomery’s Cheddar also feature on the same shopping list, but no English wines. In the trademark tumblers Italy rules.

Giuseppe’s main legacy remains the sourdough starter. Acquired from a Naples bakery, its wild yeast-driven magic dates back to the 18th century. In contrast we were there to road test the very latest pizzas on the Franco Manca menu. Hearty starters of beef ragù al forno with mozzarella and aubergine parmigiana were buttresses against that traitor of a summer day outside, but the pizzas were the going to be the acid test. They actually do one with a ragù topping, which is as wrong as pineapple.

We both chose pizzas without any tomato involved. Mine (No.10 for £10.95) had an undertow of wild broccoli pesto. Cime di rapa? Friarelli? Or Calabrese? I should have asked. On top of this came mozzarella and grana padano cheese with a substantial crumbling of fennel sausage. The latter was rather lovely but my on a whim extra topping of nduja was a bad idea. The famed base had that billowing chewiness I expected and liked, but as the cheese cooled it all felt a touch congealed.

Pizza No.9 across the table was the true triumph of the visit. a glorious £11.25 worth. Mozzarella, fresh basil, wild mushrooms and burrata all given an earthy kick by a truffle pesto base. Big flavours but a herby Sicilian Syrah held its own beautifully. Overall a fine experience. Fingers crossed this admirable brand has fallen into safe hands.

Franco Manca, 37-43 King St, Manchester M2 7AT. There are also branches in the city in Piccadilly Gardens and at the Trafford Centre. Open every day.

Anello

Slaithwaite has always meant dough to me over the past few years. The town’s Handmade Bakery has been a key foodie pioneer as a townscape of industrial dereliction has transformed into one of those Sunday Times’ Coolest Places To Live. You can commute in either direction to Leeds or Manchester, albeit subject to the unfit for purpose vagaries of Transpennine Express. For Jim Morgan, whose dad had ties with Handmade, it was a case of coming home. On our visit Kate was absent – on childcare duties. Otherwise, it all felt like Rudy’s 2023. With new strings to their bow on the way. As well as acquiring a talented chef, Tom McManus, from the sadly missed Moorcock across the hills they have also taken that gastropub’s epic outside grill.

They are setting this up a mile and half down the A62 at their mates Zapato Brewery, who provide Anello’s crisp house table beer, Pinto de Pico. Tom was away on holiday in Greece when we dropped into what feels almost like an Ancoats out-rider. You can feel his influence on a range of small plates that complement the Marinaras and Margheritas emerging from the truly serious pizza oven. Cue picture of a lad wielding long paddle.

As you’d expect they source leaves and veg from a local plot and the organic flour is from Shipton Mill, but tomatoes and fior di latte mozzarella are imported from Campania. Arancini was splendid but an £11 dish of porchetta disappointed, not least because the broad beans hadn’t been double-podded.

The pizzas? Marvellous. Not least because of that slow-raised dough. More echt Neapolitan than Franco Manca’s, softer and more digestible. The toppings were more traditional but then Anello, like the original Rudy’s, doesn’t aim to re-invent  the wheel. Just replicate the perfection of Old Naples.

Their pizza oven was built for them in that turbulent city – by the Acunto family, who have a history of making pizza ovens stretching back 125 years. According to Jim: “Once fired up to 450C, the pizza takes just 60 seconds to cook. This intensity and speed of cooking creates a wonderful freshness to the pizza with enticing aromas, flavourful charring and a tenderness to the dough unusual with other types of pizza.” 

Agreed. So to all those renegade purveyors of Roman, New York, Detroit, Chicago  and, abomination, Hawaiian Pizza there’s a Neapolitan expression especially for you: “Vafanapoli! (ps it’s very rude).

Anello, 8 Britannia Road, Slaithwaite, Huddersfield HD7 5HG, 01484 841720, Open Wednesday to Sunday.

It’s a glorious sweep down through the North Yorks Moors from Whitby to Hovingham. En route 30 odd miles of heather heaven in high season with the pastoral lushness of the Howardian Hills at the end of it. I just wonder if the legendary Captain Cook ever made the journey? We always associate the adopted Whitbian with seaborne expeditions to the furthest corners of the globe. Did he know this Tyke hinterland of ruined abbeys and fine local produce?

He was certainly familiar with tetragonia, the spinach/sorrel like leaves now on my plate at Mýse in bonny Hovingham. Back in the 18th century he enlisted what the Antipodeans also call warrigal greens or New Zealand spinach to ward off scurvy among his crew on the Endeavour’s long voyages.

There’s little chance of me contracting this disease of vitamin C deficiency over the course of Josh Overington’s beautifully balanced 10 course tasting menu, among the highlights of which is the Herdwick lamb ‘main’, where three tetragronia leaves are draped over Herdwick lamb, fillet and belly, cooked over coals and served with an anchovy-umami rich garum sauce on a base of pearl barley, tiny cubes of lamb tongue and addictive garlic capers. The tetragonia is tangy, slightly chewy, grown specially for Josh by a local farmer.

Such a dish is typical of Josh’s spanking new project. At the end of last year, after a decade in York, he and his sommelier wife Victoria sold up their acclaimed Cochon Aveugle restaurant and wine bar Cave du Cochon. Their new home is a restaurant with rooms in the former Malt Shovel opposite that most eccentric of 18th century Palladian big houses, Hovingham Hall (clue: its architectural focus is the stable block).

The makeover of the premises has been stylishly managed. What was a village local is now the crucible for the French-influenced ‘Bistronomie’ food that once had critics swooning, despite the no choice menu being served blind (Cochon Aveugle = Blind Pig). The big difference in Hovingham is you get a printed menu.

According to Josh in a newspaper preview the food focus has also shifted. “This is our chance to create something more ambitious and a reflection on our incredible Yorkshire surroundings. I grew up here and it has been home to Victoria for 10 years, so we wanted to create a welcoming, homely spot, each dish a nod to dinners that my Yorkshire grandmother would cook for me, but elevated and refined.”

Maybe that’s a culinary leap of faith along with naming the destination Mýse, apparently the Anglo Saxon term for ‘eating at table’ (pronounced meez). The word does translate as ‘table’, but I’ve dusted off my old copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer (revised edition 1970) and got no further. My bluestocking spouse suggests it might even be a Latinate derivative similar to mesa. Surely there’s also a play on the French term mise en place (everything chopped and measured out before cooking in a professional kitchen. None of this bothers me over much. With food this sublime they could call it Beowulf’s Magic Mead Hall and I wouldn’t fall on my sword.

So what did I eat there that sun-dazzled July noon time?

A trio of snacks – a postage stamp sized tranche of smoked eel dusted with bilberry powder poised on a cup of eel and apple broth; on a wooden spoon delicate shards of razor clam given rare oomph by a tangle of salted rhubarb and lightly pickled elderflower; ox cheek fried in Yorkshire pudding batter with fermented cucumber. I‘m sure granny would have loved the latter without knowing it might rate as a beignet. I saved some of the seeded sourdough to mop the juices of the next-up Orkney scallop. The temptation was to keep on smearing it with the proffered Ampersand Dairy cultured butter and chicken drippings. The fat hand-dived mollusc was a classic Overington dish, baked in the shell with a sea urchin butter for a sweet salty kick. A crumble of bottarga-style crisped coral enhanced this further.

Josh told me the broth for my line-caught cod had been created by simmering in-season senshyu onions with water for three days. The pearly North Sea fish itself was poached in aged beef fat, senshyu and lemon verbena. Then followed that lamb – Herdwick not Swaledale as predicted, but the perfect taste of the North following Josh’s brief.

My fave pudding of a trio was ‘day old bread’, which meant soaking yesterday’s brioche in vanilla custard then caramelising the edges, so it superficially resembles a fat fish finger. It came with a trio of preserves for messy dipping, the best of which was a little raspberry and rose number but honourable mentions for goat’s milk caramel and a ‘hidden’ hazelnut crème fraîche main image – serving for two). 

Simpler was a plate of four strawberries ‘dipped in their own jam’ with a citrus marigoldice cream. Then came a petit four like tab of linseed caramel that called for coffee and a tempting local cheese offering that I declined.

I also restricted my wine intake to two glasses because I was driving. A vinho verde and a Greek xinomavro. Such a shame when the wine list is heavily weighted towards Keeling & Andrew’s remarkable ‘Noble Rot’ roster.

The obligatory tasting menu costs £80 at lunchtime (wine pairing £65pp); £110 in the evening (wine pairing £85pp).

Wheat field ramble, Tristram Shandy, Tommy Banks’ new boozer

Poppies line the Ebor Way out of Hovingham. If I keep to the dusty footpath for an hour and more I’ll be sure to reach Oswaldkirk, the sign says, but the sun is relentless over the fields of wheat and broad beans, so after a brisk stretch walking off lunch I retreat to my car and drive 10 miles east to Coxwold and Shandy Hall. Cock and Bull Story (2005) was Michael Winterbottom’s appropriately absurd attempt to film the unfilmable – Laurence Sterne’s anarchic, baggy 18th century novel, Tristram Shandy. The groundbreaking novelist’s home lies at the top of the sloping village. Now a museum, Grade 1 listed Shandy Hall is open to the public at weekends, the two acre grounds most days, but not today (‘private function’). Instead I take a table and a Harrogate Water at the Fauconberg Arms in the centre of the one-road hamlet. An umbrella shields me from the sun as I bask in the charm of a place that almost defines unspoilt.

It’s the base camp for my exploration of another pub transformed by an accomplished chef. Back in 2017 Tommy Banks and Josh Overington were part of a trio of chefs representing the North East in the BBC’s Great British Menu. Tommy now holds Michelin starts at Roots in York and his flagship Black Swan at Oldstead three miles down the road from Coxwold. 

En route to the Swan you’ll come upon Byland Abbey. A ruin under the care of English Heritage, it’s hardly in the same league as Rievaulx up the road, but that fellow casualty of the Dissolution of the Monasteries doesn’t have an idyllic pub garden opposite where I’ve been served the finest beef burger I’ve ever tasted outside Hawksmoor.

Yes, Tommy has taken over the Abbey Inn – where as a lad he washed pots – and its menu follows the sustainable tenets of his restaurants. The Dexter chuck brisket and short rib for the patty is from the Banks family farm. Topped with bacon and chicory jam, oozing cheese, tomato and cucumber pickle, it is accompanied by beef fat fries (less impressive). It will cost you £21 from the garden menu or inside, even now at the steep end for a burger, but it’s worth it. The menus here are very much posh pub, not dedicated restaurant. Once a farmhouse built by the monks, it has been a hostelry since 1853 and is staying that way. At 70, the Abbey Inn has double the covers of Mýse; each, though offers three luxury rooms to stay over. Hard to resist ordering the extra Timothy Taylors or Xinomavro red or two and crashing. This is a wonderful corner of England.

Restaurant Mýse, Main Street, Hovingham, York, YO62 4LF.

The Abbey Inn at Byland, York, YO61 4BD.

I relish a certain symmetry in my metropolitan dining out patterns. Take Bouchon Racine and BiBi. The former has just been named Best New Opening by the National Restaurant Awards and placed at no.5 in their prestigious top 50. I’d already visited it in Farringdon, driven there by word of mouth and a residual reverence for its previous incarnation in Knightsbridge.

Flash back to the 2022 NRAs and flying in at no.5 and as best newcomer, yes, BiBi, a very different beast from Henry Harris’s take on a classic French bistro. In a discreetly glamorous Mayfair setting chef patron Chet Sharma nods to his Indian heritage both in decor and what’s on the plate but applies culinary methods learned in the development kitchens of our own Michelin heavies L’Enclume, The Ledbury and Moor Hall. The latter’s Mark Birchall is a particular culinary inspiration. He also worked a stint at the Basque Country’s Mugaritz, a respectable 31st in the 2023 World’s Top 50 Restaurants list announced this week. 

No more lists I promise, just take on board that there is high-powered operator a couple of metres across the counter from me, assembling small plates in front of the sizzling sigree grill. The fish and meat that feel the heat are the best of British, the premium spices and other exotics sourced from across the Indian sub-continent. There’s a little map showing you locations on the back of the Chef’s Selection Menu.

At lunchtime there is an à la carte offering and a new four course set menu for £35, but that Chef’s Selection is the only evening option at £125 a head (an optional and top notch wine flight costs £75). The reasoning behind this no-choice direction, which pointedly avoids calling itself a ‘tasting menu’? Even though seven courses plus additional snacks sounds just that… with a certain welcome brevity.

“There’s some bad branding around the phrase ‘tasting menu’,” Chet Sharma tells Tony Naylor for a fascinating  Observer Food Monthly article that dropped just as I started to gather my thoughts for this appraisal of BiBi’s cuisine.

The piece goes on: “BiBi’s £125 dinner menu is expensive. But crazy as it may sound, says Sharma, it was introduced to provide value. In London, he argues, you can easily spend £70 or £80 a head on fairly average food, whereas BiBi’s food (“complex enough to sit alongside the most complex dishes in the country”) aims to provide far greater bang for your buck.

“BiBi’s chefs are not wasting hours of costly labour prepping ingredients that aren’t sold. They are focused on perfecting a streamlined number of dishes. This helps Sharma keep tight control of his fluctuating food costs, and enables him to flexibly gild dishes: ‘Let’s add morels to this dish, for example’, when prices allow.”

So did the BiBi food live up to its reputation?

Easily. The snacks signal the playful intent, so far removed from stuffier high end London Indians (BiBi’s owners JKS are also responsible for Trishna, Gymkhana and Brigadiers). Take the papad scrolls flavoured with pungent cave-aged Wookey Hole Cheddar to be dunked in the dankest of green chutneys – pure chlorophyll pesto. Or a single Louët-Feisser oyster (from Carlingford Lough, also, incidentally, favoured by Bouchon Racine) dressed with passion-fruit Jal Jeera, a kind of tart cumin-scented lemonade. 

In the second course proper there’s a similar culinary conceit, where an Orkney scallop sits ceviche like in its shell, loaded with a spiced up Nimbu Pani (lime soda, the Sub-Continent’s  favourite soft drink). In between there’s the punch of a BiBi ‘tartare’. The tenderest of Belted Galloway beef is studded with fermented Tellicherry peppercorns to create a ‘chaat’ of pepper fry. Street food elevated, as they say in the trade. 

Next up a is a Parsi special occasion classic called a macchi, where white fish fillets, often pomfret, are coated in a paste of ground coconut and sour mango, fresh coriander and mint, and steamed in banana leaves. In the Sharma version, with the emphasis on pickled green chillies, the fish is halibut and the result is hot and gorgeous.

Now that grill kicks in. It’s a £20 supplement for the Aged Swaledale Lamb Barra Kebab (main image). I couldn’t resist and it proved the dish of the evening (against a strong field). This traditional Mughli chop, charred and yet tender, comes encircled by spirals of a sensational Kashmiri doon chettin (walnut chutney), which is fiery but also in perfect balance.

Suddenly and surprisingly the counter in front of me fills up with a parade of dishes that signify ‘this is your main’. A pillowy roomali naan and a goodly helping of rice are there to mop up the juices from an ex-dairy goat Galouti Kebab and Sharmaji’s Lahori Chicken. Galouti means ‘melt in the mouth and this dish involving minced mutton or goat (interchangeable in North Indian cuisine) was created for a toothless old Nawab in Lucknow. The Lahori chicken has been marinated in yoghurt and spices before being barbecued. The whey collected from hanging the yoghurt combines with cashew to make a remarkable sauce alongside some wild garlic puree and a sharp cauliflower chutney.

Strained yoghurt is the base for the delicate shrikhand dessert featuring strawberry and meadowsweet. To conclude a kulfi ’lolly’, given an equally neat presentation to conclude a beguiling experience that redefines high end Indian restaurant food.

BiBi? A homage to Grandma with a contemporary cutting edge

You’ve been waiting for me to explain the name BiBi? There are echoes of some Sixties boutique there and isn’t there a Korean pop chanteuse with that moniker. Actually it’s an Urdu title roughly translating as ‘lady of the house’, often applied to grandmas and yes there are decorative touches honouring Chet’s own bibis – a wooden beaded curtain similar to the one in his grandma’s own kitchen, while Kashmiri Paisley motifs on walls and bar stools is inspired by her shawls. Antique mirrors and lamps add to the surprising homeliness in a tight 33-cover space.

All this is slightly at odds with the back story of Chef Chet. All that high end culinary discipleship that followed his physics doctorate at Oxford and an obvious commitment to sustainability that is very much of the moment. The kitchen grills with sustainable Holm Oak charcoal from the South Downs; the menu paper is compostable. You do sense though that at BiBi he has come ‘home’. And there is heart there. Utterly surprising and revelatory in the oligarch’s playground that most of Mayfair (and Knightsbridge) has become.

BiBi, 42 North Audley Street, Mayfair, London, W1K 6ZP. Vegetarian and pescatarian tasting menus are available.

A head for heights? Most certainly as long as I‘ve a cocktail in my hand or, better still, a series of small plates arriving against a panoramic backdrop. To satisfy my needs, every high rise development these days seems to come with a rooftop bar or restaurant. At the Manchester version of Soho House, due later this year, they are even throwing in a swimming pool eight storeys up below its bar and I note that the ubiquitous Gino D’Acampo has been getting in on the act over in Liverpool, opening an eponymous Sky Bar Terrace at the top of the INNSiDE by Meliá hotel.

It may be that city’s highest alfresco restaurant and bar, but at 270 ft it’s a mere molehill compared with the tallest viewpoint I’ve visited – Chicago’s Willis Tower, the Western Hemisphere’s third highest building at 1,730ft. One caveat, its Sky Deck with jutting-out glass Ledge is the same height (1,450ft) as the top of that old stager, New York’s Empire State.

Both dwarf our own Shard in London, which stands at a mere 1,020ft. One advantage is that the 72nd floor viewing gallery is partially open air, offering views of the pinnacle, as well as 360-degree views around the building. I’m still gob struck by how tiny Tower Bridge looked from 800ft above.

All of which brings us to Manchester’s 20 Stories, whose major selling point is its huge outdoor terrace and bar (with appropriate shelters for when the city’s weather lives up to its reputation). At 300ft, it’s a glamorous, stunning spot to take in the ever-changing skyline and cityscape (see main image). You can understand its appeal as a special place for a drink and a people watch. The wine list is arguably the best in town, but food quality has been variable with a constant change of head chefs since its inception in 2018. 

I dined there recently, road-testing their new five-course tasting menu, available Monday to Thursday, 5.30pm-8.pm. It started well with a vegan opener of broccoli steak with horseradish and lemon, but after that it didn’t live up to its £65 a head price. A better bet is to pick from the more casual Terrace Menu, perhaps mixing and matching tomato, basil and parmesan arancini, truffle fries and BBQ flat iron steak tacos with a tipple or two from their Aperol Cocktail Menu.

Black Friar, Salford – keeping it down to earth

Casual and al fresco is a good way to go in this sweltering summer and the maturing  ground-level garden of the re-born Black Friar is a choice spot, even if there is no view to speak of. Well, who would want to ogle the traffic hurtling down Trinity Way? By chance, it has chef connections with 20 Stories. Aiden Byrne, launch chef there, was scheduled to do the same for the Black Friar but pulled out around Pandemic time; his replacement Ben Chaplin came from… you guessed it. 

His 20 Stories fine dining pedigree was obvious when I first sat down to eat in the newly planted garden with its big fence two summers ago. A couple of dishes were over-elaborate for what was aimed as a gastropub. The menu has since settled down  from trying to balance all this with ‘pub classics’, maintaining high quality ingredients while  taking fewer risks.

It is good they are still making the most of their urban greenery, though when we went recently to sample their summer ‘Garden Menu’ gusty showers weren’t doing it any favours.This particular menu is served straight from the outdoor bars, so we benefited from its canopy and ski heaters. And a couple of goblets of holy Gavi to heal the soul. There’s a choice of three amply topped flatbreads, including an artichoke version for vegans, who can also dive into a Falafel Friar Bowl. Alongside the charcuterie and cheese platters sat our big extra temptation, definitely not plant-based: Honey-glazed Ham Hock with Welsh rarebit and pickled onions. The Black Friar is very generous with its pickles and, alas with a mountain of coleslaw that accompanied the hock. As a £17 sharing plate this was a meal in itself. We took the half-stripped bone home with us. Combined with yellow split peas and stock, it formed an un-seasonally  ballasting soup that lasted us all next day. As blazing sunshine reappeared.

Queen Bee with a red dot, signature vol au vents – it must be Climat

The other end of Blackftriars Street and Chris Laidler is showing off his stings on the rooftop terrace of Climat, now home to four hives and 40,000 bees, including a Queen, marked with a red dot. The wine-led restaurant’s founder and his exec chef Luke Richardson also brought back from Hampshire a further 50,000 bees that are now ensconced at their respective homes in Wrexham and Chester – all contributing honey to Climat and sister restaurant Covino in Chester, a place I also really love.

Chris tells me they expect the total of 90,000 bees will swell to 500,000 over the summer before reducing in size to weather the winter months. He’s resigned to the occupational hazards of bee-keeping – despite wearing the full gear to handle them. He’s more worried that there’ll be enough opportunities for his charges to pollinate in Manchester city centre, even though it’s leafier than you think.

And there is competition. Chris points across the road to the roof of the car park behind the brutalist former Ramada Renaissance, slowly being transformed into the Treehouse Hotel. Here Manchester Cathedral have installed a total of 10 hives in addition to the six already on the cathedral’s roof producing ‘Heavenly Honey’.

It’s amazing what your eye takes in from a great height. On the eighth floor of Blackfriars House, Climat actually benefits from not being up in the stratosphere. I prefer the more intimate nosiness of being level or slightly above rival rooftops, so you don’t miss intricate features. Seen from the outside terrace (well away from the swarms) or through floor-to -ceiling plate glass. Perhaps with a 500cl carafe of Bourgogne Aligoté at your elbow – ‘is that honey on the nose?’ – and a signature vol au vent while awaiting a small plates parade of what Luke dubs his ‘Parisian expat food’.

What links the sprightliest greenery in my vernal garden with a dish created in 1962 at a railroad halt at the head of the navigable Loire? L’oseille is what the French call sorrel and in the unassuming industrial town of Roanne two chefs created culinary magic by marrying this acidic, zesty herb to a salmon escalope.

I first read about it in 1978 in remarkable book called Great Chefs of France, essentially a handsomely illustrated roll call of all the figures who created ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’. Roanne-based Les Freres Troigros, Jean and Pierre, sounded the most fun. Asked to create a dish for Paul Bocuse’s Legion d’Honneur lunch for Giscard d’Estaing, they came up with Escalope de saumon  a l’oseille and the rest is history. I have been slavishly following the recipe for this delicate, almost Zen-like dish since 1980 when the brothers published their own cookbook, Nouvelle Cuisine, part of a series translated into English that included Cuisine Minceur by Michel Guerard, the only one of that groundbreaking kitchen generation still alive.

By 1968 the brothers had gained a third Michelin star for the restaurant, which it has held ever since, while morphing from the station’s Hotel Moderne, prospering from the Route Nationale 7 running past, via a more sophisticated makeover in 1976, to its current incarnation after a switch to a rural site in 2007. Jean died of a heart attack in 1983, Pierre in 2020 at the age of 92, the Troigros legacy long since consolidated in the hands of Pierre’s son Michel (and now a new generation). Influences on the menu in recent times have been Japanese, a logical extension of the pared down intensity of the original Nouvelle Cuisine movement.

Alas, I’ve never eaten in the restaurant proper. On a press trip to explore the wines of the Roannaise region a Troigros lunch was organised for us. A lovely prix fixe three courses yes, but it was in a spin-off down the street, the Cafe Epicerie Le Central. It cost just 23 euros, quarter of the price of a main at the big place, where the other day I struggled to find salmon with sorrel on the website menu.

My own sorrel crop has mostly been perennial. When one year it failed we were rescued by a cutting from the unlikeliest of sources, the Michelin-starred Mr Underhills in Ludlow. 

Chris Bradley was virtually a one-man band at the stove (hence a no choice five course menu) with his wife Judy front of house. Quite a team, both now retired, the building down by Dinham Weir sold on as a private house. 

The no choice dinner we had in the garden was utterly memorable with salmon and sorrel as a starter. Which led to our lament about our own lost herb. Not only did Judy come up with a replacement from her own garden, she even volunteered Chris to drive us back to our hotel in the absence of Ludlow taxis. Now that was Michelin star service. Here’s my take on the original Troisgros recipe…

Salmon in a creamy sorrel sauce – a dish that has stood the test of time

Ingredients

1kg fresh middle cut of salmon, skinned; 80g fresh sorrel leaves; 2 shallots;  500ml fish fumet; 4tbsp dry white wine; 2tbsp Noilly Prat; 400ml double cream; 40g butter; juice of ½ lemon; salt and freshly ground pepper; small amount of arachide or other light oil.

Method

Divide the salmon into four fillets and put them between two sheets of lightly oiled wax paper and flatten the fish evenly, using a mallet. Remove the stems from the sorrel by stripping the central veins from each leaf.

To prepare the fish sauce put the fish fumet, white wine, Noilly Prat and shallots into a saucepan and cook over high heat until a near glaze is reached. Add the cream and reduce until the sauce is slightly thickened. Add the sorrel for around 20 seconds while stirring. Then incorporate the butter off the heat.  Before serving add a few drops of lemon juice

To cook the fillets, sprinkle salt and pepper on the least presentable side. Heat up the oil (or use a non-stick pan), then add the salmon with the seasoned side down for 25 seconds. then turn to the second side for another 25 seconds. The salmon should be undercooked since it will continue to cook after plating. Add the sorrel sauce, enlivened with a squeeze of lemon, to each warmed plate then add the salmon. Voilà!

Poretti, Moretti, Peroni? As if they were concocted on a Scrabble board (big score for Mezzogiorno, but I digress), all those big Italian beer brand names sort of morph into one generic light lager. That’s what they taste like to me. Still, on a (let’s pray) sunny August Bank Holiday Weekend in Manchester’s Cathedral Gardens they hit the spot to accompany pizza slices, arancini, even gelato. Yes, Festa Italiana (August 25-27) is back for its sixth outing. With, you guessed it, sponsors Poretti offering a new upfront attraction.

Equally refreshing is the presence of newer blood at the demo counters. Yes, there will be returning veterans such as Jamie Oliver mentor and UK brand ambassador for Parmigiano Reggiano Gennaro Contaldo and Giancarlo Caldesi (Return to Tuscany, Saturday Kitchen, Sunday Brunch), alongside Festa founder Maurizio Cecco. But they will be joined by rising stars such as Great British Bake Off 2021 winner Giuseppe Dell’Anno and Masterchef UK 2021 quarter-finalist/ICG Cooking Competition Award winner Sofia Gallo. Another huge Festa fave is pastaia Carmela Sereno Hayes offering pasta classes for all ages.

The line-up has been announced in a week when Maurizio has also been celebrating the first birthday of the latest outpost of his Manchester empire, Salvi’s, set among the four colossal towers of Deansgate Square. Prosecco and Poretti (naturally) flowed freely at the big party in this sleek, buzzing restaurant.

Festa Italiana offers an alternative immersion in all things authentic Italian and gastronomic . Think al fresco meets dolce vita in the shadow of the National Football Museum and the Corn Exchange. Street food and workshops aplenty. Music is also very much part of this very family-friendly, free-to enter festival. Want to sing along to That’s Amore? Or Tu Vuo’ Fa L’Americano?At the live music stage your chance will come. Possibly fuelled by ample sips of Poretti…

The Birrificio Angelo Poretti will be pouring at its ‘iconic Piazza’, pairing its beer with food at a sit-down dining spot. This ‘Grande Tavole’ experience is a ticketed event on Saturday 26th with the area open to all on Sunday 27th.