Olivia Potts finds the best food hall for food in Manchester
Exhibition shouldn’t really work as a concept. Three independent kitchens, cooking three different cuisines and menus, brought together in one restaurant, under one team of service staff, and one bar. It sounds a little chaotic, like a food hall with pretensions, but Exhibition somehow manages to pull it off, and deliver a cohesive restaurant experience, with uniformly great food and service.
At first glance, it does look a bit like any other food hall: a big, open dining space is surrounded by the three different kitchens, tables arranged almost-trestle-like in the centre of the room. It’s housed in the old YMCA building on Peter Street. This building is from 1911 but the original Manchester YMCA on a different site was the second oldest YMCA in the world.
The menus retain their individual character, while coming together harmoniously under the high ceilings
Exhibition features classic Manchester industrial chic, with soaring ceilings, back-to-brick walls, and thick, concrete columns. But smart lighting, a swish bar, and booth seating around the edge soften the experience, as does a well-curated cocktail and wine list. The warm, personable front of house team, too, play a big part in bringing the potentially disparate elements of the space and kitchens together.
There’s Baratxuri, a basque fire cookery restaurant, that made its name and gained a loyal following in Ramsbottom, which serves a host of pintxos as well as a handful of larger dishes (half Galician octopus, whole Txuleton steaks). And Osma – their name a mash-up of Oslo and Manchester – serving Scandi small plates, with other premises in Prestwich. Replacing the original third arm of Exhibition, Sao Paulo, is Onda, a fresh pasta bar; Onda is the only restaurant here making their debut through Exhibition, but it very much stands up to the others.
It’s a magpie menu: glittering jewels everywhere, catching your eye. Whittling down the choices to a sensible amount of food is the most uncomfortable part of the dining experience. Classic and traditional dishes – tortilla from Baratxuri, fritti and burrata from Onda – rub shoulders with bolder, more unusual choices, like lamb empanada with black garlic and boquerones, and cauliflower karaage with strawberry and jalapeño.
All three kitchens lean into a majority small plate menu, with snacks and sharing dishes. Perhaps it’s the fact that small, sharing dishes lend themselves to a slightly fragmented dining experience, but despite picking and choosing between the three menus, nothing feels at odds or jarring. In fact, if you didn’t know the concept, and averted your eyes from the separate kitchens, you’d be hard pressed to know that you weren’t eating at a single restaurant.
Cabecero (Baratxuri) – cured pork shoulder – is served with a little pot of salted, toasted corn. It is heavily marbled, gleaming, and the bright white fat turning orange at the edges from the paprika cure. Softer than Iberico ham, in bigger, floppier slabs, it’s almost too easy to eat; salty, crunchy, luscious bar snacks given the Basque treatment.
I love the crispy new potatoes with brown butter hollandaise (Osma). It’s the kind of bowl that makes you wish for privacy, and resent the convivial concept of ‘sharing dishes.’ Slightly smashed to increase surface area for crisping, the potatoes are softer, more yielding than roasties or chips, and the hollandaise pooling at the bottom of the bowl is the right, compulsive side of salty.
The beef tartare (Osma) is excellent: toasted pumpkin seeds, dots of kohlrabi purée and blue cheese provide a smart interplay of textures, and bring acidity, richness, and gut-punching savouriness, without overshadowing the beef fillet. It’s a clever dish, but not clever-clever: you just enjoy eating it, vaguely aware that it’s a particularly good example of the genre.
The grilled cod from Baraxturi is well executed, with tangles of samphire, a host of clams and a pil pil sauce so bright it is almost chartreuse. The cod is perfect, with a crisp, properly blackened skin, and firm, meaty flesh that cleaves into fat flakes.
But my favourite is the unassuming, beige sausage campanelle from Onda. Pale crumbled sausage, soft alliums, a gentle hit of fennel, a flurry of lemon zest, and a blur of black pepper, all bound in a winey, silky sauce slip-sliding over frilly, flamenco-skirt pasta. Three times I set the dish to one side, sure that I’m sated. Three times I pick my fork up and go back for more. It is a delight.
The pudding list is slim but assertive: tiramisu from Onda, Basque cheesecake from Baratxuri and a lemon posset from Osma. It would be wrong to call the burnt Basque cheesecake a bum note: it’s rich and complex from the caramelised top, and the accompanying boozy golden sultanas are so thoroughly soaked in Pedro Ximinez that they leave telltale umber footprints in their wake. But it’s a little sandy, and a touch sweeter than its namesake. It didn’t stop me making my way through more than my fair share of the slice we shared – it just wasn’t quite as flawless as the savoury dishes that preceded it.
Exhibition might be prosaic in concept: bringing different restaurants, different kitchens and teams into one space is probably a very sensible way of sharing risk in a difficult time for hospitality. But the result is poetry. The menus retain their individual character, while coming together harmoniously under the high ceilings, clever bar list, and smooth service. Even before we’ve paid the bill I’m mentally rolodexing to work out when I can come back.
Exhibition, St George's House, 56 Peter St, Manchester M2 3NQ
Editor's note: In the evening Exhibition turns up the music very loud, as this article in December last year pointed out. The article looked at several restaurants not just Exhibition.
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.
Crispy potatoes with hollandaise 8.5 Beef tartare 8 Cabecero 8 Cod and calms 8 Sausage Campanelle 9 Burnt basque cheesecake 5.5