From reindeer moss to herring bones and lamb fat crumpets, it's been another year full of great food
We asked our team of food and drink writers to cast their minds back, check their notes, scroll through iCloud and identify the stains on their lapels, in order to come up with a mini round up of the best thing they ate over 2018.
A pattern emerged, but so did a few random shouts - illustrating just how diverse the range of food available across our region is. There were lots of nods for places already acknowledged by Michelin and The Good Food Guide (either by worthy mentions or elusive stars); Moorcock Inn, Where The Light Gets In, Moor Hall and L'Enclume etc.
As you'd expect, shiny new places left their mark too, such as the Noma-esque Mana and modern Portuguese restaurant Canto in Ancoats. But among these perhaps more obvious choices, there were some unexpected dishes that surprised and delighted. Some were part of a community project, others trundled past via conveyor belt and there was a lot of fantastic traditional comfort food.
For me it was the year of M People, moving on up. Not just Mark Birchall’s ultra-honed Moor Hall adding a second Michelin star in record time. No, it was more the thrusting young tyros who made it such an exciting 2018. Moorcock and Mana; one up in Pennine territory, the other in uber-hip, post industrial Ancoats, thrilled in equal measure. Magnificent with mangalitza (Hungarian rare breed pork) or moss (reindeer) respectively, they were the Gilets Jaunes of culinary radicalism against the dark forces of bland corporate colonisation – ie. much of Manchester city centre with honourable indie exceptions.
Mana chef Simon Martin unleashed his fish-centric winter tasting menu, vanquishing all the Instagram trolling that he was a mere copyist of his Noma mentor, Rene Redzepi. Fake stews! He and his young team voyaged from Nordic into New English, sublime in their soaring Sawmill Court setting with its near religious aura on proceedings. Dishes such as raw oyster tucked taco-style into a cabbage leaf with fudge miso, chicken fat, chicken garum, English wasabi and pine salt… or barbecued brassica seasoned with a paste made from dehydrated scallops and beeswax. Stations of the cross on a fourteen-course culinary calvary that will cost you £105 a head. Worth it, trust me.
Meanwhile, the tasting menu at the rustic but refined Moorcock Inn, Norland, run by young Michelin escapees Alasdair and Aimee, preached a similar contemporary gospel of foraging and fermentation, but was just £35 for seven often amazing courses. The non-bookable, daily changing bar menu is a treat in its own right - deep-fried herring bones resembling a fossil shape in ammonite, their home-cured charcuterie, and the rare breed meats off the leviathan barbecue. A recent special of five hour-smoked treacle-cured trout head might divide opinion, but be brave. The Lord deliver us from any more smashed avocado on sourdough.
This year I’ve discovered some new-to-me ingredients like reindeer moss at Mana and cactus and corn smut at Mexican hidden gem El Taquero. Most of my serious eating was done in the latter half of the year though - the first half was spent in diet damage limitation so my job as ‘professional eater’ doesn’t end up killing me.
One of the things I enjoyed the most was channa batura from Indian Tiffin Room on First Street; a chickpea curry with puffed up bread I could happily eat every damn day. I went in to meet the chef, watched how he made it, and wrote every ingredient down – I even filmed it all, but for some reason I still can’t make it at home as well as chef Sel does.
Being on the judging panel for the Manchester Food and Drink Awards helped me to revisit a few places I might not have been to for a while. Adam Reid at The French thoroughly deserved both awards for Best Restaurant and Premium Fine Dining Venue 2018. That lad does not stand still – and neither does the excellent front of house team. I particularly loved ‘tea & toast’ with dripping, tongue and peas, and tater ‘ash with mushroom catsup, and the special Pollen bread and butter. Never mind Manchester’s fractious relationship with Michelin; even if the restaurant was on the moon, I am convinced it should have a Michelin star by now.
There’s a tie for my pudding of the year. It’s between the caramel tart next door at Mr Coopers and the pudim abade de priscos at Ancoat’s modern Portuguese restaurant, Canto – both as sweet and silky as a Geisha working a millionaire’s convention.
The best thing I've eaten this year? Easy: Marks and Spencer's Chocolate Sandwich Fingers. All 578 of them. Though not in a restaurant, they get annoyed if you bring your own biccies.
I loved the creamed potato and Lancashire cheese pie from the Parkers Arms up in the aptly named Trough of Bowland (apt because we're drawn to Stosie Madi's cooking like pigs to a trough - snort grunt snort). A proper whopper it was, rich and creamy in a buttery, crunchy pastry case, it had our table legs quivering like a coked-up racehorse.
And my oh my how could I forget those lamb fat crumpets at L'Enclume. Jesus wept. Actually, if Jesus wept onto a crumpet it still wouldn't top these. Outstanding they were, and so simple too. Diddy homemade crumpets, squidgy with lamb fat. Pop one in your mouth and know happiness.
To finish? Has to be the sourdough ice cream from Where The Light Gets In. We'd taken the piss, at first. They'd been pumping away at their ancient, wooden, hand-cranked ice cream maker for a good twenty minutes. We even offered to have a whip around the restaurant to buy them a new electric one from Argos. "Just you wait," said chef Sam Buckley. Surely it couldn’t be worth all this effort? It was. It really was. Made from leftover sourdough (about as WTLGI as it gets) the texture was unbelievable, the flavour a revelation. “I told you,” he said, as we begged for seconds.
So there you have it, my favourite dishes of 2018: biscuits, pie, crumpets and ice cream... I might have to sack myself.
The black pudding at Trove startled Gordo. It was triangular in shape. It looked luscious. He wrote, earlier in the year: “This had been made on the premises, just about the very last thing Gordo expected in Ancoats, an area riddled with beards and dungarees. Real chunks of pork fat, lush blood filler; the whole giving iodine and violet flavour along with ace mouth-feel. This was very special.”
Looking back across a year of eating at no less than five two-star Michelin restaurants and two three-stars, no dish in any of them managed to tell Gordo a story. Oh yes, some of them made him weep, some laugh, and one got him very annoyed; but it was that black pudding in Ancoats that made Gordo believe in something.
The something is of course his beloved Manchester. Because Gordo knows the care that is needed to make black pudding. And not just any black pudding, but the best he has eaten for 30 years. Which includes boudin noir with fried apples in Normandy and morcilla in Madrid (and Asturias, with, again, fried apples. Take note Trove).
The care that this one ingredient shows is of people who are going to teach taking care to other young people in the region. These small independents will be the strong base from which Manchester will grow to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming decade.
The Confidentials' 100 Best Restaurants launched this year – and, as the editor of the guide, I got to enjoy some ridiculously good food in the name of research. First up was gingerbread ice cream at Moor Hall. The restaurant is second in our guide and the fact that chef Mark Birchall also secured a second Michelin star this year came as no surprise to anyone (including Birchall). A visit to L’Enclume - number one in our guide and Birchall’s former employer - was another smash hit. Simon Rogan’s ‘lamb fat crumpets’ are actually a side dish and I’m counting down the days to when I can eat these handmade titbits again.
Where the Light Gets In (number 9 on the list) also deserves a special mention. The Stockport restaurant’s chef, Sam Buckley, is genuinely curious about flavour, and his commitment to ethical sourcing is extraordinary. A typical dish is poached oyster with borage. This walks a delicate line between cooked and raw, over and under flavoured and illustrates how Buckley’s bravery in the kitchen can pay off. Manchester’s tiny, upmarket Japanese restaurant, Umezushi (number 16) is still great too. I went in August and sushi with waving bonito flakes, and a mixed seafood bowl were lessons in salty magic.
And I’ll be revisiting Chorlton’s new seafood grill Oystercatcher as soon as possible. They opened to huge acclaim in the summer and offer a simple menu of grilled seafood with fresh sauces and pestos.
The dish that best represents 2018 for me is the lemon tart from multi-award-winning Moor Hall’s more casual offshoot, The Barn. Never mind that it combines the best of butter and sunlight, with its perfectly sweet-sharp filling and divinely crisp pate sucre crust. It epitomises simplicity, respect for the classics and, last but not least, a relatively reasonable price.
These qualities were all present and correct in some of my other contenders for top spot, breakfast at Dishoom, or a half roast chicken from Nationale 7 to tear apart with your bare hands, but it was a fabulous tour of the romantic Moor Hall kitchen garden (well, romantic to herb nerds like me) soaked in gorgeous sunshine beforehand that swung this as my most memorable dish of 2018.
I also have to mention my favourite non-restaurant meal of the year – a delicious plate of dumplings and sides from the fantastic women of Heart & Parcel, that was good in both the sense of being the product of a fantastic initiative that helps migrant women learn English and also just so damn tasty. The cookbook comes out in 2019.
This has been an immensely enjoyable dining year in Manchester. I’ve loved the rice dish in Tast on King Street, the dish where you squeeze the brains out of luxury prawns, spreading the goo across the food. Fine atmosphere upstairs in Tast too, with knowledgeable staff and plenty of legroom. The food from Paco Perez is always of the highest standards. The grilled squid with tomato and onion sauce and spring onion tempura is a cracker at Canto in burgeoning Ancoats. Carlos Gomes, the chef, seems to know what he’s doing within a handsome space incorporating a vigorous use of tiles to give an Iberian kick to the venue.
Biggest fun by far has been with several visits to OnePlus on Charles Street, with its stock pots and a conveyor belt of food edging past. You drop the food in the stock and cook away. I have enjoyed the slightly odd looking bamboo stick filled with reconstituted prawn and covered in fish eggs. I’ve also adored the many and varied types of fungus and, not for everyone this, but the best tripe in the city. Alan, the host, is a real gent.
A welcome late arrival has been Mamucium, where at Hotel Indigo chef Andrew Green has created the best reading British menu of the year. The beef with suet, the hotpot, the hash (main image) are marvels. After the closure of Rabbit in the Moon, Mamucium is a real booster for this lively end of town.