Sometimes, a particular venue makes itself such an indispensable part of your life that you find it hard to remember what you did before it ever existed. Such a place is The Whim Wham Cafe, which opened its gin-perfumed doors to the world just over 12 months ago and has been luring me back ever since on a shockingly regular basis; indeed, I have not only started using the nearby Oxford Road train station as my main transport hub of choice, but have also been known to deliberately misread my train time so that I might "kill some time" necking peerless gin cocktails whilst waiting for the next one.
The Whim Wham Cafe is about far more than just the gin though: it also prides itself on being an epicurean eatery of the highest order, with a focus on good-quality but good-value artisan produce, local wherever possible. Last night some of Manchester's bloggers got to try the new summer menu that launched earlier this week, and I can confirm that it is - if possible - even better than some of the dishes I've had here previously. We were lucky enough to try almost all the small and large plate options, but in dainty-sized portions (presumably to prevent any hapless bloggers actually suffering physical explosion), so the pictures you see here are of much smaller dishes than in actual real life.
First up, the Small Plates. Owner Alix doesn't appear really to believe in the concept of the "small" plate, more in the "generously-sized" and "even more generously-sized", but these are the closest things to starters on a Whim Wham style menu. The first two dishes are knockout - the Homemade Shire Egg (a quail egg all nicely wrapped up in a snug jacket fashioned from Cheshire rabbit, Lancashire black pudding and panko bread crumbs, served with mustard butter) and the Honey & Star Anise Glazed Pork Ribs. The latter had been on the go for twelve hours, a fact patently obvious both in the tenderness of the meat and the depth of flavour in the sweet, tangy sauce, and the egg was quite simply a revelation - even those at the table who claimed not to like black pudding found themselves won over by such a thrilling combination. I also very much liked the Potted Spiced Crab, which replaces the wonderful potted rabbit from the winter menu and is just as good, offering quite a kick with its notes of cayenne pepper and smoked paprika. My least favourite of the four was the Marinated Lamb Pieces, served with mint yoghurt and toast - the flavours were perfect, but the lamb just fractionally on the chewy side. I'm pretty sure that this might have been down to the pressures of serving a table of baying bloggers though - as a breed, I've noted that the food blogger likes to eat something at least every three minutes (if not, indeed, more frequently).
There are also some interesting new salads on the menu, two of which we tried last night. The Slow Poached Mackerel Salad, poached for three hours in an apple, horseradish and Worcester Sauce liquor, was a firm favourite of mine last summer, and whilst I do have to admit preferring last year's beetroot-heavy version, customer feedback on the new, lighter pomegranate accompaniment has apparently been really positive. Everyone was also pleasantly surprised by the vegetarian salad option: the Blueberry, Mint and Pickled Walnut Salad with Forest of Bowland Lancashire Cheese and Rocket was a hit with even the most committed carnivores at the table.
On to the Big Plates then, and despite my childish inability to hear this term without thinking about Alan Partridge and a Travelodge, these were all very good indeed. The Slow Roast Shoulder of Lamb served with braised summer vegetables, rosemary-crushed potatoes and a mint and caper sauce actually drew gasps of approbation from several people (myself included) - the lamb was as tender as you would expect from the slow roasting process, and the flavour was innovative and fresh, with the woodiness of the rosemary given a real lift by the lightness of the mint and capers. The Beetroot Bourgignon - beetroot slow cooked in red wine with Jerusalem artichokes and wild mushrooms - was redolent with the earthiness of the root vegetables (although I prefer not to speak of the effect that Jerusalem artichokes have on Mr Liz); I would have preferred a slightly softer texture in the accompanying braised lentils, but I think this is just a question of personal taste. Finally, a beautiful Smoked Haddock, Prawn and Leek Fishcake served with wilted chilli greens and a soft poached egg, and the second of the vegetarian dishes - a Wild Mushroom Cobbler. This last dish was the surprise of the night for me - I loved the mixture of wild mushrooms, spinach and roast baby plum tomatoes, topped with a dainty cheese scone and will probably order it again next time. I also plan to sit next to Keeley (the expert cocktail reviewer at 4 Manchester Women) at all blogger events from now on, as not only is she excellent company, she DOESN'T LIKE MUSHROOMS, and therefore donated her cobbler to me *helpful, clearing-up-leftovers face*.
In my opinion, The Whim Wham Cafe continues to go from strength to strength, and Alix and Jessie are to be applauded for sticking to their principles when it comes to offering up such interesting seasonal, locally inspired menus. Last night was a blogger perk and I did not have to pay for my food or wine, but my bank statements will bear the sad truth of exactly how much of my time and money I spend in here - and I really can't see this changing any time soon.
- The Whim Wham Cafe is at Arch 64, Whitworth Street West, Manchester M1 5WQ.