After such a fine start, Jonathan Schofield is frustrated by this new vegan restaurant.
It’s the very devil of a word for a restaurant; it’s a millstone and an opportunity. That word is consistency, and whether it’s fine dining or a transport caff, if you want to gain a reputation you need to gather it in.
That’s why the last of three visits to Folk & Soul was frustrating. This is the new place occupying the former Odd bar site on Thomas Street in the Northern Quarter. Led by the affable jazz musician Matt Nickson, the exterior and interior looks the part for what it is, namely a vegan restaurant and bar.
The chef had changed, apparently, so we were back to sackcloth and ashes
The only odd note in the old Odd are the large light box images of ruined modern buildings. By artist Dan Dubowitz, these are excellent in themselves, and while I like them, some might think they jar with the theme. I see them much like those Dutch still lifes, you know, those seventeenth century images full of fecund fruit but always with an apple or some such in the corner going rotten as a reminder of mortality, of the physical corruption that awaits us all. No, really, I don’t like to over think things.
Or perhaps one could interpret these images of broken buildings being colonised by plants as a metaphor for the growth and growth of veganism. Veganism is breaking out from the allotment and becoming the darling of the chattering classes and dedicated followers of food fashions.
The rise and rise of environmental concerns, the continued obsession with health and all its fads, celebrity endorsement and more access to vegan food - which is actually interesting to eat - has driven the change in mood. The fact the Second Floor Restaurant at Harvey Nichols now has a special vegan menu illustrates the breakout.
Mind you, just because more people are talking about veganism that doesn’t mean it’s exactly gone mainstream. The food I had at Folk & Soul on the first two visits might have made it do so. That was spectacular stuff.
The Thai sweetcorn fritters (£5.50) were so colourful you had to put on sunglasses. They were complex and rich too, with lemongrass and ginger served with a mango and chilli salsa and a mango and coriander dressing, the latter performing its usual job in lifting the dish a level. Little flowers boosted the good looks.
Artichoke satay hearts (£6.50) were almost as good, marinated in a satay sauce and then arriving on a bean sprout slaw with artichoke crisps. Another star was the cauliflower skordalia (£6.50), which translated as roast cauliflower puree, roast heritage tomatoes, capers and thyme focaccia.
The tempura vegetables (£5.50) were excellent, juicy and crunchy. The only lower note was the deep-fried cauliflower popcorn and spiced gravy (£6.50), which was only effective as a filler.
Of course, it is still early days, but consistency is how restaurants succeed
I recommended Folk & Soul to all and sundry on the basis of these first two visits, along with the fact you can get high-quality vegan beers, wines and cocktails. Maybe, I thought, sophisticated vegan cuisine has finally hit the city centre, and as an omnivore I liked the extra choice that gave me.
Shift forwards in time two weeks and things were different. The verve had gone from the cooking and the creativity too. The chef had changed, apparently, so we were back to sackcloth and ashes, worthy but dull vegan food.
The tempura vegetables were 70% there, the cauliflower popcorn was stodgier, a pea risotto was clumsy, lacked seasoning and couldn’t be finished. There was another dish, cauliflower on cauliflower with tomatoes, which I only recall because I have a photograph of it.
Folk & Soul needs to return to its previous standards of presentation and flavours. It was truly excellent. This is why consistency matters, especially if you set the standard so high. Consistency is how restaurants succeed.
Of course, it is still early days for Folk & Soul and Matt Nickson. They still seem to be experimenting, but I really would advise them to stop thinking of a menu for breakfast, one for bunch, another for this and another for that. Just get a menu going of twelve items and then get them right again and again and again. Nickson needs to tweak the service as well, make it a tad less casual.
Nickson’s first name forms half of the title of Matt & Phred’s jazz club on Tib Street, although his personal connection has long been severed. He’s a fine musician and live music is going to be a feature of Folk & Soul. Let’s hope the kitchen can return to the harmony of those first visits rather than the cacophony of the last.
Folk and Soul, 32 Thomas Street, Manchester, M4 1ER
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.
First two visits 8/10, last visit 4/10
Pleasant, funky vibe
Happy but needs to focus