Kelly Bishop narrowly avoids a tongue splinter at this tapas pop up
We’re living in a liminal space for restaurant service. Contactless table-ordering apps that infiltrated restaurants during the pandemic have stuck around in some like spinach in the teeth. Sometimes I value their ease - especially to avoid a jostling bar queue. A visit to the bungalow on stilts restaurant where Ramsbottom favourite Levanter is currently popping up at Kampus reminded me of the downside.
Gooey in the middle, expertly seasoned, confidently simple.
The space is cool, light and modern with distressed, pastel paint, bright art prints and throw cushions on bench seating. A unique restaurant in a box elevated over the almost Jumanji-esque gardens of Kampus where a varied collection of quality food and drink venues has been curated here (with more to come). It’s become one of my favourite parts of the city to eat and drink.
After a really welcoming hello, twice (it’s walk-ins only so I’d popped in earlier to check I could get a table), service is barely there. I’m asked to seat myself and then promptly forgotten about. It's left for me to deduce from the QR code in the corner of the table that I must order my food via an app. Are these apps now the self-service checkouts of the restaurant world? Shudder.
Outside is heaving - heatwave warnings don’t stop the great British public from boiling their own heads in a beer garden - but we want a restaurant. Only the odd plate sails down the stairs and apart from us, there is only one other couple dining up here. But even on one of the hottest days of the year, nobody offers to bring water to the table.
The lack of restaurant-style service is more disappointing because the fleeting contact we do have from members of staff is as warm as the weather outdoors. One charming lad drops off a round of drinks from the pop-up Cloudwater van downstairs along with a sartorial compliment that makes my 40-something OH feel considerably less middle-aged. But like getting a first taste of something for free from a dealer, we’re left craving.
I’d be interested to know if hospitality staff prefer the apps or yearn for that social interaction with customers too. Having worked in restaurants for decades, I know the general public can be vile. But I also remember those friendly interactions with the nice customers being a big part of what made the job enjoyable.
Then the food arrives and it’s on paper plates. A sachet of wooden cutlery triggers ice lolly stick tongue splinter flashbacks. Look, I get that this is a pop-up with an outdoor element but if I’m dining indoors and paying restaurant prices, surely it shouldn’t be with disposable cutlery and crockery like a Love of Huns patio party. I start looking around for some fake grass.
This is all the more frustrating because the food is fantastic.
It’s widely agreed that the test of a good chef is in an omelette. A Spanish tortilla offers that same kind of yardstick. So many are so bad, especially in sub-standard tapas places; potato so undercooked you might require an emergency dentist, eggs so overcooked they adopt the texture of long-term rental sofa stuffing. Levanter’s tortilla (£5), of course, is bob on. Gooey in the middle, expertly seasoned, confidently simple. It’s served with garlicky, tomato-sopped sourdough from the underrated Holy Grain - a bold move with Pollen just across the way. It takes me right back to the blue-tiled Victor Montes in Bilbao.
One of the few veggie dishes on the menu, garbanzos con espinacas (£5.50) budges Oscar Isaac out of the way to become my new crush. Onion and garlic softened until sweet and buttery, cumin seeds that burst with musky flavour, just wilted spinach and a runny fried egg all bring joy to the frazzle-edged chickpeas.
We swerve patatas bravas for spuds in the cooler format of a Russian salad (£6), one of my all-time favourites and this one’s up there with the best, though as usual, I’d like a flake or two more of tuna.
Next comes the meaty wave. Pinchos morunos (£8.50) waft in like Jonathan Van Ness on a breeze of smoked paprika. These bronzed pork skewers lounge on more sourdough dripping garlicky juices into its crevices. Both Moorish and moreish. We’re a tad less enamoured by pollo in pepitora chicken thighs in a gritty almond and white wine sauce (£9.50) which lacks that thwack of flavour and isn't as photo-ready either.
Small plates and tapas places vary so much that seven dishes between two people is often required - at least if you have an appetite like mine. Not so here. The final wave of seafaring dishes have us floundering. First a faultless execution of gambas pil pil (£8.50) demonstrating the whole generational gamut of sweet prawns from a cravatted crevette, to meaty tigers, to teeny shrimps. Smother pretty much anything with garlic, chilli and butter and you're in there with me. Make it seafoody and I’m ready to meet your mother. Me and that crevette are now happily married, you’ll be pleased to hear.
Pescado frito (£9.50) featuring all your favourite foamy friends (squid, prawns, hunks of white fish and whole whitebait) crisped up in tempura-light batter is the ideal nibble with a few drinks but nearly sends us into a sailor’s grave at the end of the meal. There are no puds available, thank god.
We leave with a cheery thank you from two staff members we wish we’d had a touch more interaction with. This place should be heaving on a Saturday, it worries me that it isn’t because it’s a great addition to Kampus. Is it just that not enough people know about it?
Let’s hope it becomes more permanent than pop-up, gets some crockery and loses the app that almost made me lose my appetite.
Levanter @ Kampus, Aytoun St, Manchester M1 3GL
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.
Tortilla 9.5, Russian salad 8, Garbanzos 9.5, Gambas 9.5, Pinchos pork 7.5, Pollo in pepitora 6.5, Pescado frito 8.5
The staff were delightful, but barely there
I visited on a quiet night but the space and the area in general are buzzing