Kelly Bishop finds shelter and sustenance at this Red Bank bolthole
The best restaurants feel like a haven. An escape from the whirling chaos of work and home stresses. A respite from the noise and stench of the city. A refuge.
It’s a blustery October evening when we visit The Spärrows in its relatively new home at Red Bank. Its owners clearly have a penchant for hard-to-find hideaways. The original Spärrows location near Umezushi was notable for its inconspicuousness and the new one it's migrated to is just as elusive - not least because Google Maps sends you to a bench in the middle of The Green Quarter.
It’s perfectly cooked to the bite. A delicately crafted plate of love.
What you’re looking for is a brutal railway arch of mostly black bricks with a heavy, matt black door set into it. The telltale signs you’ve found it are a perspex sign, barely readable from over the road, and a few tables and chairs on the pavement outside. “Ring the doorbell” a note on the door instructs. Almost immediately it opens to reveal an airy, Swiss birdhouse of a space, dome-roofed and bathed in golden light. At once both cluttered and calm with ice-cream tones and natural wood features, vintage bric-a-brac and art thoughtfully dotted around. Wall shelves are stacked with wine, sake and huge jars of fermenting pickles and what looks like sloe gin. A young woman greets us like friends and chats briefly with us before showing us to our table.
A charming photocopied paper menu brings out my FOMO. There are pasta, dumplings, meat and cheese specials, cured meat and cheese boards, halfway down the menu is a soup of the day (with chanterelles, heart emoji). Our nervous but adorable waiter explains every dish in detail, recommending appropriate side dishes and so on. It might be the most comprehensive rundown of a menu I’ve ever been given but doesn’t make deciding any easier. Like Freddie, I want it all.
The folks on the next table have come over from Wigan and both order spätzle, The Spärrows signature dish. These pasta strands native to the mountainous bits of mainland Europe (Austria and Switzerland, North Italy) look like thick, irregular snips of unravelled wool. They're served in shallow bowls, generously sauced almost soupy in appearance. It looks great but we decide to go slightly off-piste on this occasion.
'Tis the season of the squash and a dessert-sweet puree of butternut is today’s ravioli filling (£13.50) - though it looks more like tortellini to me. That sweetness is balanced by a generous snowfall of parmesan, garlicky sage butter and a sprinkling of breadcrumbs. It’s perfectly cooked to the bite. A delicately crafted plate of love.
A Tyrolese goulash (£16) is not as hefty a portion as we’d expected given the waiter suggested it served two. It doesn’t come with much by way of carbs, just a smattering of chopped up spätzle but that’s fine by us - fewer carbs means we can fit more food in. A sublime, autumnal, cockle-warming stew. Slow-cooked hunks of beef wallowing in its own rich, meaty juices with a cluster of bright pickles on the side. If you needed it, the great breeze blocks of homemade focaccia we see floating past would mop up that gravy a treat.
Who doesn't love a good dumpling? I’m a big fan of pierogi but Russian pelmeni (£9) are new to me so of course, I want to try them. Smaller than their Polish cousins, this tumble of baby flying saucers are filled with a pork and beef mixture that somehow manages to be super light and are served with a pot of soured cream. They're soused in even more butter swirled with softened garlic and sprinkled with crispy fried breadcrumbs. There's a vegan option too if you need it.
Lately, I’ve been craving panna cotta, one of my all-time favourite desserts. The Sparrows version (£5) is outstanding. Quivering and just set, the milky dome is speckled with vanilla seeds and topped with tender shreds of marmaladey orange (and maybe grapefruit) scented with an Earl Grey waft of Georgian bergamot. I want to cry, it's that good.
A Swiss cheeseboard (£13.50) features a cast of alpine stars: fruity gruyere, sharp Jersey blue, ripe, peach-rinded Tomme (my personal favourite) and buttery bergblumenkäse with hay flowers in its rind. It’s served with a high-end cracker box selection, some biscotti-esque, fruity melba toast and ripe fig. There’s also a pot of delicate elderflower jelly - something I have never had with a cheeseboard before but will be demanding everywhere I go from now on.
As we sit in the incongruously warm and cosy railway arch dining room on a chilly Wednesday it fills with happy diners and the self-conscious echo of our hushed conversation abates. A team of three front of house staff - including co-owner, Kasia Hitchcock - flutter around tending to everything with barely a whiff of the staffing crisis fuelled panic which pervades many other hospitality venues at the moment. We sip great value wine from Croatia and Macedonia and feel ourselves soften as if the chefs are gently sauteeing us too in butter. Comfortable and reluctant to exit into the frosty evening, we outstay the usual two-hour slot by ten minutes or so but at no point feel rushed to leave. This haven from life's mayhem is well worth flying north for.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I’ve built a little birdhouse in my soul for The Spärrows.
The Spärrows 16 Red Bank, Cheetham Hill, Manchester M4 4HF
Follow Kelly Bishop on Twitter and Instagram @Keliseating
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.
Ravioli 9.5, pelmeni 8, goulash 8.5, panna cotta 10, cheese board 8.5
Even the nervous fledgling staff fly that extra mile
I could happily nest here all winter