Olivia Potts finally tries a menu of simple indulgence at Ancoats' most talked-about restaurant
Everyone and their wife has been to Erst. Even my sister, who lives in Nottingham, has been to Erst. Everyone, that is, except me. That’s what having a baby does for your social life.
My expectations are high. Erst has become a totem for Manchester’s culinary evolution: a small, independent restaurant serving unpretentious modern food and natural wines. No elaborate tasting menu. No espresso martinis or £500 bottles of champagne. It’s the kind of place everyone who loves food wills to do well.
Erst continues to be a restaurant Manchester can be not just proud of, but smug about
And it’s clear on this slightly drizzly Thursday lunchtime that it’s doing a good job of attracting all sorts. There’s a couple of trendy-looking young couples, two sets of older diners, some parents with a very young baby meeting friends, and a couple of guys propping up the bar, engaging in an informal wine tasting.
Erst’s menu is all seasonal small plates. I do not, as a rule, love small plates. (I know, I know: this opinion is so mainstream that Adrian Chiles has surely spun it out into an 800 word column for the Guardian.) Perhaps it is the compact nature of its menu, but Erst manages to avoid the normal small-plate pitfalls. Each one is generous enough that you can actually share it, and affordable enough that you don’t feel you have skimp. At the end, I feel like I’ve had a meal, rather than a collection of crockery.
The cocktail list is tight and bold, filled with short, punchy, very strong cocktails. My kind of cocktail list. I start with a hanky panky – gin, sweet vermouth, Fernet-Branca – which, in its perfect balance and deft handling of bolshy flavours, sets the tone for the food. Giardiniera – Italian pickled veg, dressed with olive oil, dried herbs and chilli flakes – is an ideal accompaniment, sparky and enlivening.
The Erst flatbread is a mainstay of the menu, and an Instagram favourite, but the dressings change regularly. Today, there is one with beef fat and urfa chilli. Hot from the grill, a fat pillow of dough tattooed on the griddle, slathered with beef fat, dusted with chilli and little cubes of fermented onion; it’s smoky, salty, savoury, and truly excellent. I watch the table to my left carefully and politely divide the flatbread between them before less politely tearing mine with my hands and eating the whole thing, beef fat dripping down my wrists.
Next is beetroot with an ajo blanco sauce and green chilli. The beetroot is taut, and strikingly vivid against the pale sauce. The ajo blanco, made from blitzed bread, almonds and garlic, sings rather than shouts, the garlic creeping up on you instead of clobbering you round the head. You could argue that the ajo blanco is a little tricky to eat as a sauce – it’s usually served as a cold soup – but happily, flatbread in hand, I find a satisfactory solution.
The meal is not pitch perfect: the sea bream crudo, for instance, is a bum note. It is as pretty as a picture, the fish obscured by perfectly placed discs of pink-ringed radish and supremed segments of blood orange. The antidote to grey February painted onto a plate in big bold sweeps of cheering colour. But its flavour has none of that vibrancy: it lacks salt and acidity, and the beautiful fish is muted.
The service is friendly and never pushy. When I ask about the difference between two orange wines, the answer is genuinely helpful to a natural wine amateur like me (and the chosen wine is fantastic, zesty and aromatic). It is, perhaps, a little too laid back: the bream is followed by a long wait for the next dish, long enough that I start to wonder if it’s been forgotten.
Thankfully, that dish is worth waiting for. Thinly-sliced, blushing beef, edged with just the right amount of butter yellow fat, is draped across the plate like fabric. On top are wafer-thin coins of raw celeriac and leaves of Castelfranco chicory, the supermodel of the endive world, all swathed in a creamy horseradish sauce. The beef is surprisingly delicate, impossibly tender, and a little sweet, making the bitter chicory, nutty celeriac and kneecapping horseradish perfect bedfellows.
Pudding is panna cotta with Pedro Ximinez-soaked prunes. The dark, sticky, toffee-soft prunes sit in little umber puddles. The panna cotta is bright white and pristine, without even a freckle of vanilla. It’s extraordinarily rich and dense, like set clotted cream. It doesn’t actually feel like panna cotta – not that it’s overset, it’s just all indulgence and no wobble. Is it worth a semantic quibble? Probably not. It’s delicious.
In some ways, Erst makes life easy for itself. Many dishes are so pared back – Cobble Lane charcuterie; Cantalabrian anchovies – that it’s hard to go wrong. But that in itself is smart. Small interventions – a perfectly balanced sauce; the right amount of pickle; a huff of garlic – are generally perfectly judged. I have little doubt that my slightly wan crudo is an aberration. Almost four years after opening, Erst continues to be a restaurant Manchester can be not just proud of, but smug about. Most places don’t have it anywhere near this good.
Erst 9 Murray St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6HS
About the writer
Olivia won the Fortnum and Mason Debut Food Book of the Year in 2020, as well as Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the year. She also writes Spectator Life's Vintage Chef column for The Spectator magazine. She has two books in print, A Half Baked Idea and Butter: A Celebration.
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Giardiniera 8, Flatbread 10, Beetroot 8, Sea bream crudo 5, Roast beef 8, Panna cotta with PX prunes 8
Gently paced and unpressured – sometimes delightfully so, sometimes to its own detriment.
What at first glance looks grey and functional is in fact warm, comfortable and welcoming.