Kelly Bishop delights in ‘mad professor’ experimental Spanish cuisine
A Harpurhey club owned by a problematic comedian. Cheap ciggies bought from the bus station kiosk on my way to college. Brexit. The word Embassy doesn’t conjure up the most positive images in my head.
But on a wet Tuesday evening, overdue a natter with a good friend, I thought I’d get past the name and give The Embassy a shot. I’m glad I did.
Think names spelt with more exes than Tracey Emin has made art about
Just a few minutes walk from Hale train station, down the road from one of the more glamorous-looking Pizza Expresses, The Embassy’s shop-front facade belies its architecturally striking interior. A peaked, skylight-punctuated roof recalls the TV home makeover programmes I gorged on during lockdown. It fills the space with light, enhanced by black-painted steel beams. The walls are the colour of raw concrete and might be brutalist-cold but for some glitzy splashes of gold and warm lighting. My mate looks gorgeous on the backdrop.
It’s not too quiet for a Tuesday night but not packed. Locals chatter as at least six or seven tables are looked after by just one woman - with a young lad on running duties. It turns out the woman is one of four owners. Head chef Gustavo Marin is Andalusian and has some impressive credentials on his 20-year CV. He's worked with decorated chefs such as Martin Berasategui, Joan Roca and Eneko Atxa. The latter presides over the three Michelin star Azurmendi near Bilbao where I had one of the most mind-boggling culinary experiences of my life back in 2019.
Is it three-star cooking? No. It would be five times the price and far less accessible if it were - and you’d at least be led around a greenhouse full of edible bark first. But there are echoes of that mad-professor cackling. We are hysterical as we try “tomatoes canvas” (£8.20) with its blobs of anchovy toffee (more like very soft fudge). If Willy Wonka opened a sweetshop under the sea, you’d find jars of this stuff on the shelves. It’s pretty on the plate without trying too hard and a damn near perfect dish.
On the menu, smaller dishes are labelled appetisers, salads, croquettes and “a la carte” and bigger ones “sabores” and “rices”. Is this tapas? No. It’s Spanish, largely Basque food - think names spelt with more exes than Tracey Emin has made art about - designed to share. The small plates are far bigger than tapas but the idea is to order several. One big and four small, comes the Vorderman-esque suggestion. We share a zingy bottle of Albarino too.
Black rice (£18) is our big plate of choice. It looks like a scene from Button Moon reimagined by Noel Fielding. An iron dish filled with the blackest of lumpy swamps decked out with blobs of moon-cheese coloured yuzu alioli with tiny corals of fried baby squid poking out. Get stuck in and you’ll extract txipirones (squid) and little prawns all Dyloned as velvet black as my teenage wardrobe. Sounds a bit weird? It’s brilliant.
A meaty tentacle of roasted octopus (£14.50) looks space age too. It’s served on a “vanilla parmentier” which turns out to be a sort of 80/20 parmesan and potato doily, sprinkled with finely diced veggies somewhere between salad and salsa. We’re given the option of spicy or not, we choose spicy and - well, it’s not. Nevertheless, it’s another cracking dish.
Salsify with blue cream (£8.50) lets the side down a bit. I had been dreaming of a sensational baked version of this lesser-spotted root cooked by Quo Vadis chef Jeremy Lee at the short-lived Bistrotheque a couple of years back. The Embassy's version is spiralised into a vegetable tagliatelle and dressed in a velvety but under-seasoned creamy sauce. A low-carb-onara, if you will. Dr Atkins would approve but it’s a bit rich for me. A glutinous, terracotta-coloured smoked egg yolk on top is pretty special though.
Crispy croquettes (£9.95) two ways: filled with stewed oxtail or wild mushrooms are perfectly executed. I’m enthusing less about them but perhaps only because the other dishes are so much fun. I’d skip them next time for more of the inventive stuff.
A baked cheesecake (£5.50) is Basque-style, blackened with no biscuit base but far smoother and less eggy than any I have had over there, like a just-set custard. More surprising is a glass of lightly smoked olive oil yoghurt (£6.50) with sweet, cinnamony compote made from - tomatoes. Fresh, inventive and bloody good but we have to lie the glass on its side to get all the gubbins out of the bottom.
Looking back over the menu now, I’m kicking myself at some of the things I didn’t order. I’m intrigued by the Asian influences sneaking into the largely Basque menu: Takoyaki prawns, kimchi wings, teriyaki artichokes and that aforementioned yuzu alioli. I’d love to find out where that particular odd coupling comes from. The Spanish aren’t exactly renowned for experimenting with flavours outside of their own cultural remit.
Is The Embassy like anywhere else in Greater Manchester? The closest I can get is Tast meets Baratxuri. Both firm favourites but a reductive comparison nonetheless. The Embassy is something very special not just for Hale, but for Greater Manchester. The food is indulgent, generous and at times bewildering - and it’s not even a bit reminiscent of Phoenix Nights inside.
The Embassy 106-108 Ashley Rd, Hale, Altrincham WA14 2UN
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.
tomatoes canvas 10, black rice 9, salsify 6.5, croquettes 8, octopus 8.5, cheesecake 8, yoghurt 9.5
I wish I'd had more time to chat to the owner about the place as she whirlwinded around but we were never left wanting
Beautiful, calm decor, un-intrusive music, really should be filled with people