Lucy Tomlinson isn't feeling the Scandi in this NQ newcomer - but it will do the job
If you package up the nice/unthreatening bits of 2018 (not that there are too many) it would look something like Fika, one of the Northern Quarter’s latest openings, with Instagram-friendly interiors of saturated pastels, cosy booths and an open fire.
Perhaps the only thing that wasn’t 100% of the now when I visited was the aural menu of late-90s RnB bangers, though I’ve since been informed that Faith Evans and Ja Rule are the youngsters’ party tunes of choice, in an ironic sort of fashion.
The whole dish looked like an explosion in a retirement home
Situated in the building that used to host Bakerie, Fika is brainchild of the team behind Northern Quarter bars Guilty by Association and Lost in Tokyo, as well as cocktail bar Vesper.
While those sister establishments are very definitely weighted towards the latter part of the food and drink equation, Fika is the first of siblings to attempt to make serious inroads on the food.
However laidback, the Northern Quarter bar scene is still a huge part of Fika’s DNA (Guilty and Lost in Tokyo are only a few metres down the road after all). There are bouncers on the door, for instance, which should have tipped me off to the fact that the fellow bopping away behind a table in the doorway was not in fact the host but the DJ. Of course I only figured it out after I had told him we had a reservation for 8pm. He had zero inclination to lead us to our table but luckily we were rescued from further embarrassment by some lovely staff.
The name Fika refers to the Swedish custom of a daytime coffee and cake break, and though coffee and cake are available in the day, food-wise it is not otherwise particularly Scandinavian-inspired.
My starter of pan-fried pigeon with black pudding, blue cheese bonbons, tomato and rocket (£7.50) didn’t exactly scream Nordic. The pigeon was a tad rubbery but the rich meaty-cheesy bonbons more than compensated.
Across the table a starter of pulled chicken with Moroccan spices, yoghurt and coriander flatbread, tzatziki and pomegranate seeds (£7) was also not bringing social progressiveness or flatpack furniture to mind, which is not to say it wasn’t popular. The verdict? “Like a posh kebab”. High praise (seriously).
As for the mains, the hake (£16) with samphire, chestnut mushrooms, dashi cream and smoked sausage was an Irish-inspired take, which, contrary to fish’s reputation as the lighter alternative to red meat, goes for all-out winter heartiness. Underneath its heavy blanket of rich cream sauce spiked with fish stock, salty marine vegetable and tender autumnal mushrooms, I could detect a light cotton-woolliness to the hake, but with so much else going on it was hard to get too riled about it.
Not that I could be so forgiving of the celeriac (£14) served with beetroot, fig, orange couscous and harissa, the only vegan dish on the menu. My first thought was “why do I do this to myself?” The whole dish looked like an explosion in a retirement home, in sunset tones of orange, peach and burgundy. Not that any old dears would have much luck with the celeriac. It was advertised on the menu as salt-baked, which should mean cooking in a salt crust until tender. Instead it was as tough as a folded-up cardboard box, with the burn marks to indicate it had been chargrilled instead of salt-baked.
It’s a shame because if the celeriac itself had been good I could have got over the one-note, slightly metallic harissa flavouring, the peach-coloured couscous (why?), the way-too-jazzy orange, the admittedly perfectly good fig. Poor vegans, they do still get the raw end of the deal, even in 2018.
Despite my antipathy towards the celeriac, which was more about the execution than the concept, I was otherwise convinced that the person devising these menus has quite a subtle culinary take – apart from the mandatory pizzas and the steak – as conceptually the mains are interesting and understated. I doubt that same person was behind the dessert list, which was a basic crowd pleaser. We had the apple strudel (£6). It was fine.
If Guilty By Association et al are raucous nights out, then Fika is more of a grown-up cosy dinner party with good friends, albeit the kind that might get slightly out of control towards the end of the evening, when one too many gins have been consumed and Destiny’s Child comes on the playlist. Never mind, there is always an Uber and an apologetic text message the next day.
Fika, 22 Lever Street, Northern Quarter, M1 1FN
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential 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.
pigeon 5, pulled chicken 7, hake 6, celeriac 3, strudel 5
Both our servers were a dream
The Saturday night bar-hopping crowd may hamper the chilled vibe