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Sunday, 8 September 2013

Artisan, Spinningfields: Sensational Scallops and a Girl Made Almost ENTIRELY of Salt

Now, for someone who likes to go out a fair bit, I'm surprisingly poor at coping with crowds. Too many people in one place make me anxious - too much noise, too much pushing, too much queueing at the bar followed by too much possibility of your drink getting spilled...the potential ramifications are little short of devastating. So when I went to the launch party at Artisan a couple of months ago, there was no review because I didn't stay - I simply took one look at the 26 million people already there and decided it wasn't for me, and went home and drank tea instead.

By all accounts it was a pretty good do though, so it seemed only fair to go back and have another look, perhaps at a time when half of Manchester wasn't also there. And actually, even early doors on a plain old Thursday evening it is pretty busy - the little bit of empty space I've photographed here is the only section of the massive 12,000 square foot loft-style venue that isn't buzzing when we arrive, and even this is populated by the time we leave. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the design here - we like the 20ft bar (obviously), the art work on the walls, the openness of the kitchen area (from which bursts of flames can be seen from time to time), and our booth with its giant pendulum light that makes me feel a little like a poker-playing dog. This is a giant space that has been carefully carved into more intimate seating areas, and I like it far more than I thought I would.

More importantly, we also like the food. We start with some very good olives, just to soak up our pre-dinner drinks: I go for The Artisan signature cocktail, a fruity number made with Green Mark vodka, Aperol, pomegranate, mint and apple juice - it is lovely, although even better is the Smokey Lynchburg with Jack Daniel’s, Cointreau, fresh lemon juice, hickory smoke flavouring and a splash of coke (thereby entirely vindicating my behaviour the night I mixed some fancy whisky or other with coke at my friend Matt's house, although he has never totally forgiven me). Then on to the starters. I am most partial to a scallop, and tend to order them as my default starter of choice - I do the same here, although I am not entirely convinced I like the sound of them served with curry butter and cauliflower. I am of course completely wrong, and am forced to eat my words along with every last smear of what turns out to be a simply perfect combination - plump, coral-on scallops, dainty cauliflower florets, smooth cauliflower puree and, best of all, a slightly salty, slightly sweet, slightly spicy curry oil that I have to wipe up with my finger just to make sure I don't waste a single scrap. I love this, and will return just to encounter it again.

Across the table, though, something a little different is happening. Whilst I eat my posh scallops, Mr Liz has spotted a word he knows and loves and gone for the slice of cheese and onion pie with Piccalilli dressing. There are two issues with this: firstly, it's more of a quiche than a pie, and secondly, it's a little on the rustic side - it really is a slice of pie/quiche, on a plate, with some salad. It is, incidentally, absolutely delicious, just not really demonstrating the same level of creativity shown by my scallop winner, and it strikes me that the menu is perhaps a little unsure about what it wants to be. Apparently there is a bit of a revamp on the horizon following early feedback, so perhaps the menu will have a slightly clearer direction when Mark Two appears (but please keep the scallops, PLEASE KEEP THE SCALLOPS).

For my main, I have the salt baked whole sea bass, seen here being expertly extracted from its rocky environs by a young lady SO skilled she is even managing to smile while she forages. The fish is delicious, perfectly cooked and subtly flavoured from the rosemary within and the salt jacket without. Equally good is the 12oz rib eye steak on the bone, with a satisfyingly chewy texture (in a good way, rather than in a like-eating-a-tyre way) and the additional flavour that comes from the presence of the bone. However, these come in at £17.95 and £18.95 respectively: absolutely fine until you start adding on the side dishes, which push the cost up considerably. We have the crinkle cut chips (minus the crinkles, because apparently the crinkle chef isn't in), the salt baked new potatoes, a peppercorn sauce, and a little pan of spring greens - all excellent, but with the greens alone coming in at £3.75 it's worth keeping an eye on what your meal is actually costing you. Lots of restaurants do this, so I'm not specifically griping at Artisan in particular but more having a general moan - and yes, we were there as guests of Manchester Confidential and didn't have to pay this time, but I think the point still stands.

By this time, the lights have dimmed (as you can tell by the slight murkiness of this picture) and we have a DJ playing some frankly superb music of the type enjoyed by old people like myself. I eat a lovely salted caramel baked banana with salted caramel ice cream (yes - I fear I may have been approximately 90% salt by the time I finish eating) - you see it here in front of a very sexy Champagne jelly - whilst listening to Lullaby by The Cure and feeling really very pleased with life indeed. Remember that rusticity from earlier though? It's back, in the form of a whopping great sturdy ice cream wafer served alongside the dainty jelly, and puts me in mind a little of the pairing up of Mark Benton and Kristina Rihanoff on Strictly last night.

These are quite small gripes though. Food and service is very good throughout, and there is a great atomosphere - nice to see the lovely Anthea doing such a sterling job here as manager after getting to know her when she ran Gusto in Didsbury. Some muttering has gone on in a few quarters about Living Ventures' continuing colonisation of Manchester - and Spinningfields in particular - but with Manchester House finally opening next week, that domination looks set to continue. And actually, I don't mind a bit.

- Artisan is on Avenue North, 18-22 Bridge Street, Manchester M3 3BZ.

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