Neil Sowerby finds a glimmer of light on the border
LOCATION, location? I’d never really given much thought to the architectural riches of the Chapel Street corridor until my lunch companion, who had walked down from Salford Crescent Station, got all enthusiastic about Salford Cathedral and the edifices, once home to the Royal Hospital and the Town Hall – and now to flats. We could see the latter from the snug warmth of the New Oxford pub, our meeting place before crossing Bexley Square to newly arrived Porta.
Some seriously good sourcing goes on at Porta
So tapas to tap into the potential custom from the apartments transforming the once arid reaches of the A6. It’s not easy being in the vanguard. A break-in the week Porta opened signalled to bold co-owners Ben and Joe Wright: you’re not in Chester and Altrincham now.
Take heart. Earlier pioneers Vero Moderno, in the Vimto Gardens block, is a culinary destination in its own right. They believed the developers’ mantra: “The combination of old and new will create a unique city high street with a quirky, creative feel that's perfect for young professionals and families alike.” Just make sure you have a good alarm system....
The building occupied by Porta is a beauty, too, sensitively adapted by the Wrights, showcasing the large, shapely windows and elaborate cornices.
This former bank has something in common with Jamie’s Italian and Flok – retaining a vault with an original safe in the basement. Here it houses a compact Spanish wine collection that ticks all the boxes. Two glasses of chilled Manzanilla, accompanied by a bowl of salted Valencian almonds and suddenly shafts of Spanish sunshine illuminated our mezzanine table. Outside it was still chucking it down.
As at the original Porta, tucked under Chester’s city walls and at number two opposite Altrincham Market House there’s an avoidance of stereotypical decor. The kind that screams Matador, Flamenco – lets Fandango to a Gipsy Kings soundtrack.
Downstairs is oddly pubby even. Though at the New Oxford you can’t sit at the bar and watch a chef stirring a large pan of spinach for tomorrow’s special. Only comment on Porta from a punter in the Oxford was: “I heard it’s a bit pricey”. Only by Greggs standards. The menu is certainly more affordable than El Gato Negro and Iberica in Manchester city centre.
The tomato bread (£3.95) is maybe not on a par with another rival, Lunya on Deansgate, but like them, some seriously good sourcing goes on at Porta. Not all Spanish imports – the bread is artisan baked in Altrincham. I’ve no idea which sea the prawns for our trio of croquetas de dia (£5.50) came from but, a world away from the gloopy stodge you often bite into, these offered the quintessence of prawniness (prawnery?)
Both charcuterie orders impressed too – melting Jamon Jabugo (£7.50) and, more of a revelation, our helping of air-dried beef cecina (£5.50), less cured than bresaola and all the better for it. It came with pickled chillies that hit it off perfectly with the Manzanilla, but it was our bottle of white Rioja that came into its own accompanying the dish of the lunchtime.
At the other Portas I’ve been wowed by a dish matching fried Monte Enebro goat cheese with honey and orange segments. In its absence we ordered Picos de Europa blue cheese with caramelised walnuts, sultanas and honey, a sensational, sweet, salty, and creamy combination for £5.75.
Not an easy dish to match with, but our biodynamic Sierra Cantabria Blanco’s unusual blend of Viura, Malvasia and Sauvignon Blanc worked perfectly. Sterling value at £33 a bottle. Like all the wine list it’s available by the glass, too. Among the Spanish beers they’ve also got on draught a rotating range from Track, up there with Manchester’s finest new wave breweries.
Walnuts in their pickled form featured in another Porta stalwart that makes you wonder what is the Spanish for ‘beyond earthy’? Fennel seed and chilli dressing add their own sensory overload to slow cooked ox cheek (£6.95).
The one dud in our nicely paced progression of small plates was that day’s special. An Oloroso reduction, pickled enoki mushrooms and caramelised onions couldn’t lift dull slices of the Catalan sausage botifarra (£7.95).
Spanish cheeses are way under-rated. There is dairy life beyond Manchego. The Picos is made from a mixture of cow’s and goat milk. Some 250 miles south an ancient and scruffy, breed of sheep called Churra provide the milk for the Zamorano hard cheese, matured for six months to develop a pale yellow, crumbly texture and nutty taste. Porta served it with the traditional slice of membrillo quince paste.
With a £5.95 glass of Garnacha-led Aldonia red Rioja it brought to a close a satisfying meal that was testimony to simple, confident cooking and canny shopping.
A recent visit to Bilbao opened my eyes to the inventive fervour applied to pintxos, the Basque tapas. Don’t go to Porta expecting such miniature culinary firecrackers, but do go. Upwardly mobile Chapel Street needs you.
Porta, Bexley Square, 216 Chapel Street, Salford, M3 5EQ.
Follow Neil Sowerby on Twitter @AntonEgo
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.
Tomato bread 7, blue cheese 9, croquetas 9, jamon iberico 8, beef cecina 8, ox cheek 8, botifarra 6, Zamarano cheese 8
Smart and soothing
Warm and knowledgeable