It was 2009 when the Cap’n and I last visited Manchester. He, a man with Mancunian roots, warned me about the weather, the people, the food and the architecture. But I’ve always had a soft spot for the place – it was where I first saw David Bowie in 2002 – and so, as part of a Grand Tour of the North (try it, it’s more fun than it sounds), we headed up there. It wasn’t a bad weekend, but it wasn’t a terribly exciting one either. The city lacked interesting restaurants and pubs, the hotel we stayed at was identikit five star comfort mk 2 (and full of actors from Hollyoaks) and the overall feeling was that, for somewhere often calling itself Britain’s second city, it could do with a much-needed spruce-up.
Fast forward six years, and that renaissance has now occurred. The city now boasts world-class galleries and museums, an array of restaurants to rival the capital, craft beer bars with enviably clued-up patrons and owners, and a feel of progress and affluence. Yet there’s still a quirkiness and offbeat charm to it that reminds one that this is the city that spawned the Smiths and the Stone Roses; how else could one explain a new square next to our hotel being called Tony Wilson Place, after the hapless Factory Records boss so memorably played by Steve Coogan in 24 Hour Party People?
The hotel, incidentally, was the new Innside, the first British outpost of an upmarket Spanish chain that caters to a business and leisure market. Although it’s not the last word in luxury, its sleekly minimalist rooms (including half open-plan bathrooms) and floor-to-ceiling Manchester views are impressively priced at a more than reasonable £99 a night. Just try and avoid the breakfast DJ who comes to torment the unsuspecting on Thursdays and Fridays. The location of the hotel, next to the new HOME arts centre, is also a big advantage; it is but a hop and skip from the Deansgate area, which has been the focus of much of the regeneration in the city, and where many of the new restaurants are located.
The first ones that we tried, both of which have opened in the past few months, were a pair of London favourites opening their first branches outside the city for the first time, Hawksmoor and Iberica. Everyone who’s a carnivorous type (so probably not Morrissey) knows that Hawksmoor is the steakhouse for aficionados, and the outpost here is every bit as top-notch as the City and Knightsbridge incarnations, whether you’re after the superlative cocktails, awe-inspiring steaks (the kilogram Porterhouse that we shared is a thing of beauty and wonder that the Lake Poets would have written odes to, had they been living at this hour) and an appropriately comfortable and clubbable atmosphere, which makes spending a few hours here, glass of red in hand, one of the most pleasant ways to spend an evening imaginable.
Iberica, meanwhile, has a slightly different approach. Conceived on a grand scale in the brand new Spinningfields development, it offers a range of tapas that alternate between the pleasant, the stunning and the slightly peculiar. In the first category are the confit of cod and the ham croquettes, while in the second are stunning, unmissable Iberica pork loin burgers (which rival even the mighty ones at the Opera Tavern) and a tasting of jamon, which, matched with a very fine Tinto wine, left both the Cap’n and I ecstatic. In the last category is the fresh hake, which is probably best avoided unless you’re a real fan of fish. Service is endlessly pleasant and friendly and we fought a losing battle to stop our glasses being constantly replenished in true hospitable style.
There are other new openings as well, of which the ambitious Tattu is perhaps the most notable. Conceived on a grand scale as a Chinese restaurant to rival the Hakkasans and Yauatchas, it comes extremely close to matching their ambition but doesn’t quite rank up there with the Michelin starred-likes of HKK. This is partially due to enthusiastic but slightly sloppy service (cocktails took far too long to arrive; our friendly waitress can’t quite manage to convince us that having half the dim sum menu has run out is a testament to the excellence of the dishes, given that we can’t eat any of them), and partially due to the feel that the hugely ambitious room, complete with blossom tree as its centrepiece, dominates the food. Yet nevertheless it’s still vastly superior to most of its competitors and, given the frequently disappointing fare to be found over in nearby Chinatown, something of a must-visit for culinarily ambitious visitors. The highlight, by miles, was the Cap’n’s Chilean sea bass, which uses black beans and chilli bean to create something remarkable. And it gets extra points for having English wine on its menu, an extremely versatile match that is an extremely apt one here.
We don’t spend our entire few days in the city eating and drinking, naturally. There’s the ever-excellent Manchester art gallery to explore, the revamped John Rylands library to indulge bibliophile fantasies, the Whitworth to examine a fascinating range of contemporary art at and the forbidding-sounding ‘Museum of Science and Industry’ to get a sense of the city’s heroic past, both in the Industrial Revolution and, more recently, in its estimable contributions to Britain’s post-war recovery. Perhaps there should be a new section dedicated to Manchester’s hugely impressive 2015 renaissance; after years in which it seemed that the city hadn’t kept up with trends, it has finally exploded into modernity.
And when it comes to the marriage of old and new, we had saved the best until last. Simon Rogan of L’Enclume fame is one of Britain’s most thrilling chefs – a Northern Blumenthal, if you will – and The French represents another winning achievement by him. Set within its own splendidly opulent room inside the Midland hotel, the menus are predominantly tasting selections (aside from a decent-value 3-course lunch that’s only served mid-week) that change all the time according to inclination and ingredient availability, but Rogan’s enquiring mind (as translated by his head chef Adam Reid) means that there’s a near-endless supply of delectable dishes. The ox tartare in coal oil is something of a revelation – it might sound revolting but it’s utterly delicious – and a selection of cheeses skilfully reinterpreted as tasting menu dishes are a welcome late meal highlight. But to be honest everything here – staff, food, wine – is pretty flawless, and it’s a wonder why on earth it doesn’t have a Michelin star. Hopefully they will see sense later this year.
At last, our time was up, and Manchester Piccadilly and the journey back to London beckoned once more. As we headed towards the train, the Cap’n had a wistful expression on his face. ‘It’s all better now. The food, the architecture, even the people…it’s just so much more pleasant.’ I could have sworn he was disappointed.
Then we felt a drop of rain, and his face brightened. ‘Some things never change.’
Innside Manchester is part of the Melia hotel group. For more information, visit www.melia.com. Further information on the restaurants Nancy and the Cap’n visited can be found at www.the-hawksmoor.com, www.ibericarestaurants.com, www.tattu.co.uk and www.the-french.com.
For more information about Manchester and its renaissance, visit www.manchestersfinest.com.