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Sunday, 29 June 2014

Summer Comes to Spinningfields: Sweltering Times at Manchester's Alchemist and Artisan

So, summer has hit Manchester once more, and I promise I'm really not one to complain about this. I am an absolute natural at sitting outside on a balmy evening, nursing (/necking) a glass of ice-cold Sauvignon Blanc and pretending to hold an intellectual conversation whilst secretly looking at boys in shorts from behind my sunglasses. The trouble is, Manchester still seems a little taken by surprise when summer turns up at around the same time every year; much as we like the idea, we're not always well-equipped to deal with temperatures hovering dangerously in the twenties - and nowhere was this more apparent than on a sultry night in Spinningfields last week.

First stop was The Alchemist for a Gin Master Class. Now, if you've ever been to the Spinningfields Alchemist, you'll know it's a bright, sunny sort of place with lots of windows...and therein lay the problem. The event itself was lovely, and at £15 offered good value with a welcome cocktail (I chose a Garden Martini - a really lovely combination of gin, elderflower, rose liqueur, lemon juice, sugar and lavender foam) and talks on two different gins, Haymans and Beefeater, plus lots of gin samples. Unfortunately, it was just too hot for comfort, and a number of people left halfway through - their loss, as not only did I discover that Beefeater gin is a lot nicer than I thought, but the air conditioning also kicked in around this point. Still, it was a lot of fun, and I will definitely look out for the next Alchemist Spirit School (particularly during less temperate times).

It was also very hot in Artisan, although when I look back over my choice of main course I am less inclined to complain. Of all the members of the Living Ventures stable, Artisan has had perhaps the most mixed reviews, including one particularly stinging one in a national newspaper - this is the second time I've eaten here though, and I like the atmosphere (although I don't think I'd brave it at a weekend, on a Wednesday night it has just the right level of business for my tastes), the friendliness of the staff, the cocktails and most of the food.

We started with a cocktail - my Quick Old Fashioned (Wild Turkey 81 stirred with a touch of gomme, bitters and garnished with an orange zest) was just the job, and certainly arrived nice and promptly. To soak up the considerable alcohol kick we also ordered some olives and a most satisfactory garlic and rosemary oil flatbread - the sort that's so crisp that shards of it fly across the table when divvied up by an incompetent like myself. Starters proper saw the only misfire - my Prawn Salad with Guacamole was fine as individual components (particularly the pleasingly creamy guac) but just didn't really work as a dish, with virtually no salad to counteract the richness of the avocado and the plump blandness of the prawns. The Houmous with sugar spiced nuts was a triumph though - we loved that the nuts came on the side and could be added to give some extra crunch, and the crisp flatbread (a close relative of the one we'd already eaten) added another element of textural contrast.

On to the mains then, and as it was a good thousand degrees in the restaurant by now, I quite obviously chose the Braised lamb shank with cannellini and butter beans (£16.95) from the Wood Oven menu. Despite its inherent winteriness it was delicious and I loved every mouthful - a nicely fatty shank, full of flavour, falling off the bone into a sea of garlicky, tomatoey, herby beans. Meanwhile, my vegetarian companion was finding it harder to choose a suitable option. Meat-free options are a little limited here, and whilst the wood fired pizza with mixed mushrooms, rosemary, thyme, mozzarella and truffle oil was fairly exemplary (almost up there with the hallowed Gusto pizza), he was starting to take on the look of a man who has eaten his own body weight in bread items and could do with a lie down. We had, of course, made matters worse for ourselves by ordering some entirely unnecessary but utterly irresistible crinkle cut chips as well.

I was the only one greedy enough for a dessert, and went for another dainty item - the salted caramel banana with gingerbread ice-cream at £4.50. This was just lovely, a warm banana swimming in caramel sauce with some cooling ice cream on the side; I would prefer it served without its skin, but purely because some precious caramel sauce adhered to it and I was too embarrassed to lick it off in the middle of a busy restaurant.

Overall then, a good night, and one that for me perfectly sums up our fair city. It might have been a hot, steamy night and I might have been wearing a floaty dress and sandals, but when you order a lamb shank and then catch the tram home there's really no doubting the fact you're definitely in Manchester.

- The Alchemist is at 3 Hardman Street, Manchester M3 3HF and Artisan is on Avenue North, 18-22 Bridge Street, Manchester M3 3BZ. We were invited as guests of the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our food or drink, but were asked only for our honest feedback.

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