Mark Garner finds oysters, pork and so much more to love at the New York Street restaurant
6 minute read
The best oysters I ever ate were guzzled standing up at one of the seafood bars in Les Halles de Lyon, Paul Bocuse, at 10:30 on a grim Thursday morning in 2019, with a glass of very cold, crisp not-quite-buttery white Burgundy, talking to a French trucker who had just dropped off pigs from the abattoir. Freddy was his name, and when he found out what I did for a living I thought he was going to ask me to marry him.
Higher Ground will be a strong contender for the best casual dining restaurant in the city. If not the UK
Freddy and I shared two dozen oysters, in lots of four, from six beds along the coastline of Brittany. Believe me, you won’t find another driver as knowledgeable as Freddy, nor so passionate regarding bi-valves. I was a bit worried about him driving the truck back to the yard but there you go. I’ve never enjoyed oysters nearly as much since then.
Until last week.
I was at the new restaurant Higher Ground. I found myself staring at eight Colchester’s (£5 each), four naked and four dotted, daintily, with ‘2019 fermented chilli’. Perfectly shucked, the attachment muscle expertly sliced, that half of the shell placed on the plate, the oysters then placed on the other half of the shell, which sat cushioned atop the first, the muscle stopping any sliding about nonsense.
I let one beauty slip onto my tongue. Fresh, slightly salty, no water seepage from being sat on defrosting ice (schoolboy error), no shards. These first two beauties pipped the Bretons in Lyon. The second pair, with the aged chilli; same perfection, with the well measured chilli dab that started the pair off singing Happy Birthday Mr President.
Good God Almighty, what a start to a meal. Higher Ground is opposite the Brutalist spiral ramp to the Mercure Hotel, its host building a sixties non-descript block where a corner ground floor unit has been turned into a restaurant. It’s not minimalist but mediumist, sort of minimal with warmth, splashed here and there with colour. The kitchen is open plan and very much part of the room, delivering the feeling that you’ve arrived at a house party on a cool day in Manhattan. Tables are over to the left, with mediumist chairs that were… maximist comfy.
The three owners, Joseph Otway, Daniel Craig Martin, and Richard Cossins need little introduction to the knowledgeable hipsters of Mancunia, but for the rest of us be aware that they own the unflawed Flawd in Ancoats, a wine bar that has had national critics swooning. They are food and drink royalty, very visible on the floor and in the kitchen with smiles wider than Jack Nicholson’s Joker but less intimidating.
They treat everyone as old and valued friends, even me. We were served by Anna, a standout professional. On the second occasion, a lady whose name I didn’t get was wearing with great panache a Lanvin, a late-fifties cutie short jacket. She could make the beardiest millennial as comfortable as the post pandemic sneaker-wearing property billionaire. Pure, understated class.
The Ivy this gaff ain’t. More Oglesby than Ingall.
Bread rolls arrive, top draw with butter described as ‘nearly cheese’ by Sophie: the fact the rolls weren’t sourdough gave me a little thrill. Wholewheat, flour from Fosters Mill. Warm, masculine nearly but not quite dense chewy flavour bombs perfectly happy to dance with many of the dishes that needed mopping up.
My White Negroni (£11) had arrived before all this started and needs a very honourable mention. It did its magic opening my palette, making way for a bottle of Hungarian Riesling by Benczi, 2020. Benczi has a small but important vineyard in the Badacsony region. It’s a low-intervention wine, and in this case, very successful. I enjoyed it, big, sassy, and bold, I’d love to put this in my cellar and come back to it in eight years’ time.
I visited twice to ensure the first visit wasn’t a fluke.
Celeriac salted blackcurrants and bay leaf (£8.50) didn’t work for me. Thinly sliced medallions of marinated raw root were crunchy, but I couldn’t get the bay leaf and it was under seasoned to my palette. Maybe it needed a double helping of the salted blackcurrant to make it sing. On the other hand, pigs head terrine (£10) was masterful. Deeply piggy, with notes of acorns and a woodland floor. Moist, fatty, and unctuous served correctly at room temperature so the seasoning this time round was bang on the money.
Pitchfork Cheddar tart (£10) who’s pastry shell I could have eaten naked (not me, the pastry) and gone away on a high was filled with whipped cheddar cheese and topped off with a finely grated pillow of the same. I want the chef responsible for this given a knighthood. Fuck Boris’s dad right off mate.
The hand rolled tagliatelle with Cornish brown crab (£18) was a perfect dish of its kind, more brown crab meat than white and rightly so. It must be made a regular, I’ll weep if it’s not on the menu next time I’m in.
Shetland mussels and smoked haddock chowder (£18.50) needs at least two of you on the job, the four of us on the first occasion sharing were happy enough, although I felt Ellie-Jo was being a bit cheeky nicking the last spoonful. The mussels were fat little sods just cooked and having slow sex with the smoked haddock, produced in a smoke house teetering on a cliff by the North Sea.
British ‘pangranetto’ lend texture and crunch to dishes that may otherwise be too one-dimensional, whilst, except for the celeriac dish, seasoning is done with balanced alacrity.
There is a lot of pork on this menu, and I’ve found out why. The kitchen takes much of its meat from the remarkable Jane Oglesby, wife of Bruntwood boss, Chris, who has a working farm in Cheshire producing rare breed porkers for eating. Jane’s acorn reared pig with grain and mustard porridge (£24) is an absolute umami blast. I need to eat that again.
Did I mention the Coal Roasted Brill (£24)? Excellent. I couldn’t believe how well the brown butter sauce was elevated by the red wine. Was that red wine vinegar? Nice and buttery but sharp and tangy. The brill itself wasn’t a skinny feller either. Meaty.
The puddings on my first visit delighted everyone, Yorkshire rhubarb, custard, caramelised croissant (£7) was an updated trifle of delightfulness. But the absolute star was the smelt and sea buckthorn tart with curd (£7.50). No, I wasn’t sure either. I must be dreaming, but I think I was told the sea buckthorn was foraged from inside the city. If the name hadn’t put me off, the Mancuniun foraging nearly did.
But not quite. It was a lemon tarte on toad. Trippy to the extreme, gorgeous, with a topping of perfect gooey, soft meringue. Someone needs to come up with a better title for the buckthorn.
Try a glass of the Passulata with this, an Italian mental case of wine weirdness. Here is how, the Vine Trail finishes its description: “Salt, sugar, umami, bitters, VA, ethanal, volcanic mineral stamp, complex medicinal aromatics – so much for the senses – a 'vino di meditazione' that also opens many doors with food. For drinking now to 2060”.
It’s a remarkable drink. Try it, you won’t get it elsewhere.
Cheeses, one as a dish; driftwood goat cheese, pear, lavash, (£10) and the plate of three (£13) easily satisfied the four of us and were, of course, outstanding.
Higher Ground will be a strong contender for the best casual dining restaurant in the city. If not the UK.
Higher Ground, Faulkner House, New York St, Manchester M1 4DY.
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Read another food review: Climat Restaurant, city centre, Manchester
Read about our favourite dishes: February 2023
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.
Oysters Natural 10, Oysters Chilli 10, Pigs Head 9.5, Bread and Butter 8.75, Chowder 9, Jane's Pork 10, Cheddar Tart 9.25, Celeriac 6.75, Tagliatelle 10, Potatoes 8, Pea Fritters 8.5, Driftwood 8.75, Cheese 9.5, Custard 8.5, Ice cream 7.75, Buckthorn10