Sophie Rahnema goes around the world in eightish plates
“Don’t be everywhere.”
“Don’t involve yourself with just anyone.”
“Never apologise for having high standards.”
This little bar and self-titled eatery on Bridge Street (opposite the far more ostentatious former Boujee Terrace, currently technicolour Carnival) seems hell-bent on keeping things "exclusive".
Life coaching and issues with spelling aside, I'm in. And my standards are unapologetically sky high. Thanks for the pep talk, Exclsve.
I picture the oysters sitting in the kitchen waiting for me to order them, singing a sad ditty like a scene from Disney’s Fantasia
Like it or not, we’re living in the renaissance of picky bits and small plates. It's impossible to walk through town without faceplanting a charcuterie board, but Exclsve has persevered with a menu that teams Lancashire hotpot, jerk chicken and beef bourguignon with caviar and buttered cider bok choi.
It seems impossible to connect the dots to create a cohesively themed meal but eventually, the waiter pries out of me the names of a slapdash collection of dishes that have nothing in common.
To nibble on, brioche loaf with honey butter and goat's butter sounds lush, but the poor lad soon trots back to tell us that the kitchen has sold out of that.
We glance around at the empty restaurant and I make a snap decision, “Do you fancy a few oysters instead?” No sooner do the words tumble from my mouth than the empty restaurant seems vast. I picture the oysters sitting in the kitchen waiting for me to order them, singing a sad ditty like a scene from Disney’s Fantasia.
The oysters (£9 for three) presented are milky-white in colour and my stomach grumbles at the thought. I decide to leave the mango and shallot salsa on the side and slurp one naked from its shell. Apprehension soon fades as I realise the little creature tastes fresh and briny. A lovely prelude in the end.
We all know the small plate drill by now. Dishes arrive when they’re ready, so a flurry of fish makes its way to us first. Pickled mackerel (£9), tuna sashimi (£9) and cod fritters (£8) all sit neatly in their bowls.
Total Instagram fodder with small dollops of caviar, retro balls of melon and dots of honey cream, each finished with its requisite micro-herbage.
Salt cod even promises a hit of anchovy mayonnaise. I don't detect the pungent funk of anchovy here but the underwater menu section is pleasant nonetheless.
A bowl of jerk chicken (£9) is pretty in pink draped in a bright fuschia pickled slaw. There’s no sign of the West Indies-style spice I’m promised. And while fresh mango might be an appropriate accompaniment, it doesn’t do an awful lot for its street cred.
Whack an extra scotch bonnet into the marinade and it could compete with the big boys, but these teeny tiny small plates are clearly not built for big flavours.
I've chosen tofu paneer (£8) from the "Plant" menu. Not usual bedfellows with sashimi and jerk, but we’re on a little adventure, and I’m so partial to Bundo’s paneer tikka that I can’t resist.
Tofu paneer, it turns out, is simple cubes of fried tofu, but this dish isn’t disappointing. The dhal is smooth and velvety and the ginger and cumin flavours are subtle, and I finish it off by running my finger around the edge of the bowl.
In between cruising the Caribbean and backpacking through India, we stop off at home for the classic flavours of pork belly and Bramley apple. I've tried a few slabs of pork belly recently. Some politely sliced with rendered fat and crispy crackling, some dense and chewy slathered in sticky sauce.
Exclsve's pork belly (£10) swims in a pool of cider that doesn't hold a candle to the smooth dhal of a few moments ago. there's nothing crispy and nothing sticky about this. This pork promised the world and gave me a wet weekend in Blackpool. It's a bit Brexit-y, to be honest.
We're still the only people sitting in this restaurant. After an hour and a half, not a soul has entered even for a drink. The bar is fully stocked, the kitchen is on standby and we can hear the staff comparing shifts from behind the bar. Even the promise of 25% off the food bill hasn't lured in the crowds (we only discovered this ourselves after asking for the bill).
Crema Catalana (£7) (oh yes, we're in Spain now) is a surprise hit of cinnamon and lovingly paired orange. This classic is just lovely. Wilted flowers not required.
My pal's vegan posh Jaffa cake (£7) is a polenta puck that needs the plant-based creme fraiche and fresh orange to keep it from drying out. Drench this in orange syrup and it would climb from fine to fantastic.
Excuse the Carrie Bradshaw-style pondering, but I can't help but wonder that Exclsve might be a little too exclsve. A bustling restaurant atmosphere would distract attention away from plain pork and slightly dull chicken.
As its website says about high standards, "People who really want to be in your life will rise up to meet them" and I'm not sure Exclsve is after anything serious.
Exclsve Bar & Eatery, 67 Bridge St, Manchester M3 3BQ
Follow Sophie on Instagram @sophieshahla
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship.
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.
Oysters 7, pickled mackerel 6, tuna sashimi 6, cod fritters 6, jerk chicken 6, tofu paneer 7, pork belly 5.5, crema catalana 7.5, posh jaffa cake 6
We had our waiter's undivided attention
Too exclsve for its own good