SQUID Ink is Ancoats’ first upmarket restaurant and the concept is refreshingly simple. It’s (mostly) modern European food served to a small number of customers in a bright, uncluttered space. There is enough imagery on the walls to make it feel comfortable and Squid Ink exudes the kind of calm minimalism I usually associate with expensive hotels.
Reading the menu again, it strikes me as either a work of genius or a right mess
The restaurant is located on the main road and a zen-like atmosphere is the last thing you’d expect with all the cars whizzing by. Yet as the last rays of the day beam, I feel a sense of peace. Ancoats is on the brink of becoming the new Northern Quarter, and a glass of biodynamic Viognier (Viento Aliseo, Spain, £17) or house rose (Pierre Chainier, France, £17) complement the area’s wide-screen vistas.
Blending graffiti with glass-clad monoliths, Manchester is the picture of modernity from here - and the price tag is a treat. Five courses at Squid Ink will set you back just £25, while three cost just £15 (Tue-Thu only). On our visit these include grilled peaches with mozzarella, mint and sweet fermented garlic, charred chicken with green curry sauce and saffron rice and citrus cheesecake with ginger syrup, lemon curd and berries. Reading the menu again, it strikes me as either a work of genius or a right mess. Yet the meal itself is neither; just a little underwhelming in parts.
Moments that stick in the mind are where the kitchen’s green BBQ egg works its magic. Blackened peaches, for example, take the place of tomatoes in a twist on panzanella, and a jerk-ish chicken main is excellent. Corn-fed breast is served under blackened skin with a reduction of coconut green curry. It’s Jamaican-Thai perhaps; two cuisines I’d never imagined could work together, and yet they do. Dessert is good too: there’s a hearty apple crumble, bathed in almond custard, while the almost sugar-free cheesecake is stunning: creamy, rich and intense, paired with a slick of homemade lemon curd, and a smattering of blueberries. This is what I’d call good dinner party food.
The restaurant has been open under a month and, with two visits in the bag, I’ve noticed a few changes. The portions, for example, have shrunk (although still not quite enough) and white and rose wines are now served chilled. The list is a little predictable for my liking – Listening Station Malbec and Cono Sur are two wines/winemakers I’ve seen enough of – but the aforementioned bottles will keep wine fans happy. Service has stepped up and is now brilliantly on the ball. What’s not particularly different on visit two is the menu (barring two dishes) - although the menu has changed this week.
Confidential’s Deanna Thomas interviewed chef-patron Anthony Barnes a few weeks ago (read the interview here) and he explained his ambition with Squid Ink is to serve world food, at affordable prices. The interior is another aspect of the master plan, and it’s undeniably great.
The only stumbling block is flavour – and not quite enough of it. The butternut squash veloute (main image), for example, has hints of lemongrass and coconut but tastes watery, as does the nine-hour, slow-cooked-then-pan-fried pork cheek. In my oven, fats and proteins typically break down and turn to delicious goo over a long, slow bake. Yet the cheek retains a turgid, testicular shape (sous vide, perhaps) and bounces back against the fork in an unappetising way. The toasted hazelnuts with maple crust on the pork cheek is a fun idea but doesn’t work; it’s more granola meets meat than a finished dish. Nasturtium flowers, meanwhile, look great but offer nothing to the palate. There’s a moment of textural misfire too; the toasted seeds smattered across the top of the veloute are largely inedible husk-like fragments that I remove carefully from the side of my mouth like bones.
There’s no denying that Ancoats is on a roll - and there's a real will for Squid Ink to work. Community spirits are high. The restaurant’s neighbour is Japanese tea and sweet house, Chaology, with whom Barnes is teaming up on a forthcoming ‘Japancoats’ meal at both venues. Around the corner is Ancoat’s (and the city's) new hotspot, Rudy’s Pizza, while the guys behind the former NQ institution Superstore have set up a brilliant new cornershop concept here called Ancoats General Store that’s been designed by local agency, Instruct.
My feeling is that Squid Ink could go either way. There are moments of quality and moments where it doesn’t quite come together. It is, however, remarkably good value and one of my favourite restaurant interiors in the city. As for what happens next? Well that’s anyone’s guess.
Squid Ink, 67 Great Ancoats St, Manchester M4 5AB. Tel: 0161 236 7258
Food: 6/10 (veloute 5, pig cheek 4, grilled peach 8, chicken 8, cheesecake 7)