We chat to chef proprietor Michael Clay over some dishes from the new menu
It’s hard to imagine now but five years ago, Ancoats was still largely a tangle of derelict warehouses and empty cobbled streets.
Some of the slightly less decrepit warehouses housed a jumble of music rehearsal spaces, art studios and community-minded ventures. It always buzzed with creativity, but the inhabitants of its then scant handful of apartment buildings had to Frogger it over the big road to the NQ for any hope of a decent feed or a glass of wine.
The only reason we survived really was from local regulars
Boy, did it develop quickly.
Ancoats’ reputation now as by far the trendiest eating and drinking neighbourhood in Manchester (with some of the highest house prices) is in part down to a few brave souls who dared to open restaurants and bars in this “up and coming” area way back when it was a considerable risk to do so.
Elnecot was one of those first restaurants to open on Cutting Room Square along with near-neighbours Seven Bro7hers, Rudy’s and a handful more that didn’t go the distance. You would never have dared to imagine that a Michelin star would be twinkling there just a few short years later.
I’m chatting with Elnecot’s chef-proprietor Michael Clay over lunch at the restaurant. He’s invited me to come and try some of his new dishes and I have selflessly accepted his offer. I remember Elnecot opening and have always been a fan but looking back, it was forward-thinking in more ways than one.
Ancoats: the early years
Prior to opening the restaurant in Ancoats, Michael had been living it up with his own gaff in the coffee shop capital of the world Melbourne Australia after a stint of travelling had culminated in him settling in NZ before venturing over to Oz. He came back to the UK due to a family emergency with no plans to open another restaurant.
“I wanted to open a food truck. I got talked into [opening Elnecot] by a mate of mine.”
Michael recalls a visit to check out the Ancoats unit. He stopped for coffee at a (now closed) nearby coffee shop beforehand: “I asked for a flat white and they gave me this huge bowl [of coffee] and it was just, like, Nescafe.” He laughs, “I was like, oh god, what have we done?”
Introducing natural wine
Elnecot, which means “lonely cottages” and is reputedly the first recorded name for Ancoats turns five in September 2022. With most restaurants closing within the first two years, Michael hopes they are over the risky period. He admits they nearly did close after just four months.
“It was tough. We were doing these small plates and getting nice little bits in - not even four years ago really the food scene here in Manchester was - a bit naff.
“We were doing natural wine before anyone really knew what it was,” recalls Michael “Our house wine was this beautiful Catarratto. It's unfiltered and sometimes it'd be almost like milk and sometimes it'd be completely clear. You'd come over and explain and [the customer would] be looking at you like -” he pulls a sceptical face. “Everyone knows about natural wines now, but at the time -"
“The only reason we survived really was from local regulars. Especially that first year because nobody was coming here because it was Elnecot or because they'd heard about us - nobody had. You were only coming here if you happened to know. It was people in Ancoats who still come in now who kept us just about ticking over."
And then, just a couple of years in, the pandemic swept in like a grubby tornado - and the hospitality industry continues to batten down the hatches almost two years after the first lockdown. Elnecot, like many, survived by offering take out food. Specifically, its hugely popular Sunday roasts.
“All hail the Sunday roast,” says Michael, “Since lockdown, there are just so many more people here. We hung in there and,” he adds humbly, “We’ve got a fairly ok reputation. It's nice that it's a community, which is what we were hoping for. The other place we looked at was Chapel Street. I think we'd have died if it was there.”
Michael does have a little grumble that the big restaurant reviewers aren’t calling, "They’ve done mana, Erst - but we’re still waiting". Near neighbour Canto has a place in the Michelin Guide as well as a new entry for its owner Simon Shaw's Habas - accolades abound in Ancoats and Elnecot deserves more of them. But Confidentials' restaurant reviewer, Neil Sowerby, was a fan from the off. He reviewed Elnecot in 2017 just a month or so after it opened calling it "Arguably the city's best new arrival"
A new menu from Elnecot
From the early days of disco cabbage and Manchester eggs, the food at Elnecot has evolved over the four years, becoming braver and sturdier with Michael’s travels across South East Asia very apparent. He’s a chef that likes to have fun with his dishes, splicing Mexico with the Midlands in a dish he calls “Staffordshire tacos”. It’s the same principle as tacos, slow-cooked meat (veal in the case of the ones we try), salsas, cheese - but the “tacos” are actually mini Staffordshire oatcakes and the cheese is Owd Yonner sourced from the perennial dairy dealer the Crafty Cheese Man.
There’s a juicy Mangalitza pork kofta on a skewer drizzled with a Japanese-influenced lobster mayo and Indonesian ketchup manis with a pot of vivid green Thai nam jim on the side. A clash of cultures that nevertheless delights the tastebuds.
A more European dish of beignets are made with more Crafty Cheese Man fare, Connage cheese from Scotland - “It’s not often a cheese stops me in my tracks,” says Michael, “We put this it on anything that stays still long enough.”
But my favourite has a humble root veg as its star. The Jerusalem artichoke (more like fart-ichoke, amiright?) is my all-time favourite veg and its presence will always sway me to order any dish. Elnecot’s version has it front and centre, crisped in a way I never knew was possible and topped with a charcoal cream the colour of a Marks and Sparks cashmere scarf - no hint of grey from the charcoal as it’s painstakingly filtered through oil and blended with creme fraiche.
If you’ve not been to Elnecot yet, or not been in a while, you should head over and check out the new menu.
But Elnecot isn’t all Michael has up his sleeve. Fans of the brilliant Society with its mind-boggling array of craft ales courtesy of Hebden Bridge’s Vocation Brewery may be familiar with Michael’s contribution to Manchester’s strong pizza game. At Society’s pizza pop up Dokes, you’ll find thin and crispy, wood-fired pizzas topped with the kinds of ingredients you might find on the menu at Elnecot. Think Bath chaps (smoked pig cheeks), charred broccoli, Wiltshire truffle and more of that Owd Yonner and Connage cheese.
Dokes is opening a standalone site in Prestwich in 2022 that will no doubt fit in well alongside the North Manchester town’s ever-growing collection of modern dining options. OSMA, All The Shapes, Paloma, The Goods In, Triple B - the list goes on, sit happily alongside long-standing Lebanese, Turkish and Asian restaurants.
Watch out Prestwich, your house prices are about to go up.
Elnecot Cutting Room Square, 41 Blossom St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6AJ
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