Manchester and the north-west was known for music, fashion and clubbing, but not for its food and great restaurants. Until now, says chef Mary-Ellen McTague
If British food in general was the laughing stock of Europe 30 years ago, I dread to think how the north-west of England in particular was viewed. We had our Eccles cakes and Chorley cakes, and our Bury black pudding, but it’s not very sexy.
We’ve always done other stuff brilliantly in the north-west: art, music, fashion, design, clubbing, brawling … But we never quite got that combination of cool and quality right where food is concerned. But things have changed around here over the past couple of years, and we have a load of places to be proud of.
OK, you could argue that some of it is a northern interpretation of a London thang. The Venetian small plates at Cicchetti on the ground floor of House of Fraser in Manchester may have been inspired by Polpo. Almost Famous – whose Manchester gaff was sadly destroyed by fire, but which now has a new site on Liverpool’s Parr Street – may owe something to MeatLiquor. But the important thing is how well a concept is executed, and it is precisely this that is changing in the north-west.
There is little more cringeworthy than a trend badly replicated (remember the crimes committed against good taste in the name of “fusion”) but we are now seeing much more substance over style, and high-concept dining offered with real skill. What’s even more exciting is that, once a few places of real quality get going, it is catching: everyone works hard to keep up, and standards rise all over.
All the more reason to be happy that Manchester is now home to a Simon Rogan restaurant, the French at the Midland Hotel (three courses £29). His flagship Cartmel restaurant L’Enclume has been doing beautiful and innovative things with food for over a decade, and it is a delight to have a chef of his class in our city. So many people said a Michelin-starred restaurant couldn’t survive in Manchester. I am almost certain that Mr Rogan is about to prove them wrong.
Umezushi (sushi from £3, hot dishes £12) is a fabulous sushi joint under the railway arches near Victoria station. It is in such an unlikely location that on several occasions I have struggled to convince taxi drivers to take me there. The restaurant is tiny, with maybe 20 seats, so booking is advisable. I’ve been three times this year out of the, ooh, five or six times I’ve actually gone out. The sushi and sashimi are the freshest and best I’ve had in forever, the specials are always interesting (burdock root, crispy pig’s ear, sole pirate ship!) and the Japanese wine is excellent, as is the sake. Plus, it is the work of two plucky young things who sought to provide excellent food and drink while operating on a shoestring, and I applaud that.
Food shopping round these parts has been on the up for some time – we now have a few Waitroses, and a Booths at MediaCity. But the local markets are the best bet for interesting local produce. As well as permanent markets, there are regular farmers’ markets. Find them at localfoods.org.uk/local-food-directory.
I may be biased as it is my home town, but I think Bury Market is the best for food. A sign outside states that it is “World Famous”, which used to make us weep with laughter as schoolchildren. I mean, the hubris! It stank! That was the 1980s though; it really is very good nowadays. Check out the website intro. Turn it up loud.
We use Brian Iddon’s fruit and veg stall a fair bit, as much of the produce is grown on their farm up near the Fylde estuary, and the rest comes from their neighbours. The fish and game stands just behind Brian’s stall are also very good, and of course there are the black pudding stalls, cheesemongers and butchers.
Katsouris deli (23-25 Market Square), just around the corner from the main outdoor market, is a Bury institution and I know many that swear by its hot pork roll. Mr Katsouris himself is delightfully grumpy. If you are lucky, he might even tut at you for joining the wrong queue (it’s a confusing system, OK, Mr Katsouris? That’s why so many of us go in the wrong queue. It is not solely to piss you off. At least, it wasn’t the first couple of times …)
If my wallet, my restaurant and my children would allow, I’d make the hour’s trip to Fraiche (0151 652 2914, restaurantfraiche.com, three courses £35) in Birkenhead every week. Quite how Marc Wilkinson produces such exciting and exquisite food with no assistance, blows my mind. I have had meals there that easily match and may even out-do many two-Michelin-star establishments: every course is so well thought out, and then so well executed that … that … it makes me feel a bit angry inside. But mainly I love eating there and think Marc is an incredible talent. Due to its size (tiny restaurants seem to be a bit of a thing round here) and its popularity, it isn’t always easy to get a table at Fraiche, so book weeks or months in advance.
The Parker’s Arms at Newton-in-Bowland (01200 446236, parkersarms.co.uk) is well worth a trip. It takes just over an hour from Manchester, and the drive up through Lancashire is beautiful, if often a bit drizzly. The landscape gets more dramatic north of Clitheroe and there sometimes comes a point, as you are exactly in the middle of nowhere, when you lose mobile signal and the sat nav stops working. But that’s kind of exciting.
Perservere, and you will find the perfect country pub. Owner Stosie Madi is a fabulous cook, and a fabulous woman. She produces such great food because she is a real enthusiast, concentrating on finding exceptional produce and treating it real nice. Whatever the time of year, you’ll be offered the best produce from right on their doorstep (the lucky buggers have excellent farms and producers all around), cooked with love and care. The fires are nearly always lit, and the welcome is equally warm. You can’t really ask more from a country pub. Oh, and the wine list is top-notch, too.
Finally, Ramsbottom. I grew up near here and though once upon a time its pubs were mainly for fighting, that has now changed. The Shoulder of Mutton (mains from £11.96), the Hearth of the Ram (01706 828681, hearthoftheram.com, mains from £12.95) and the Eagle and Child (01706 55718, eagle-and-child.com, mains from £9.95) are all doing great stuff with local produce. There is also a decent chippy and an excellent south Indian restaurant, Sanminis .
And then there’s Ramsons (mains from £11.50) a place close to my heart as I spent two years prior to opening Aumbry working there. I really like its downstairs Hideaway restaurant. You get the same incredible Italian wine list as in the main restaurant, but the food is more rustic Italian: beautiful cured meats, cheeses and fresh pasta, as well as slow-roast meats and stews. It is a tiny, dimly lit, cellar-like room, perfect for those cold nights we have coming our way soon.
• Mary-Ellen McTague is chef and co-owner of Aumbry (0161-798 5841, aumbryrestaurant.co.uk) in Prestwich
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