I do try very hard not to be the sort of person who judges a book by its cover. Like many others, though, I must confess to often making fairly instant decisions about whether a bar or restaurant is "my sort of place" - these are often pretty arbitrary, but in a city offering so many options there really is such a thing as too much choice. The nice thing about blogging is that you're sometimes invited to a place you wouldn't normally go and you find that actually, you like it - and such a place is Urban Cookhouse. I would probably never have got round to eating here, based on a flimsy combination of never really going out in this part of town (Princess Street) and not being quite certain about their Twitter bio, which pitches them as "styled on a New York loft" and as being a "downtown restaurant, bar & lounge" - despite being slap-bang in the middle of Manchester.
Actually though, we went on Sunday and it was pretty good. It's a nice space they've got here, up on the first floor in a converted shipping warehouse with lots of natural light and an open kitchen - we did feel that some of the smaller tables were positioned a little bit close together, but as the couple sitting next to us didn't actually speak to each other more than about twice during the course of the meal it didn't turn out to be too much of a problem. The menu is a wide-ranging one, positioning itself as serving "eclectic fusion dishes" but encompassing some more traditional options as well - I could happily have ordered pretty much anything from it, but we agreed instantly that the Crispy Cod Cheeks starter with Asian slaw and chilli and lime jam was a must. This was an immensely satisfying dish - three hefty cod cheeks battered and served with a nice tangy salad, although if I'm being very picky I'd have liked the batter a bit crispier and a little less red onion in my slaw. Alongside this we shared the much daintier Scallops served with black pudding crumble and a pea puree and foam - a classic dish, well executed. Our only quibble here was that the black pudding slightly overpowered the delicate flavour of the scallops - it's admirable to provide three scallops for under £8 at city centre prices, but I think the dish might work better with two larger, meatier scallops that could stand up to the earthiness of the black pudding with a little more defiance.
The mains provided an absolute stand-out dish that sounded a winner the moment we read its description - Sea Bream with coconut rice, tom yum sauce, lime foam and a crab spring roll. This was a perfectly put-together combination of textures and flavours, with the softness of the fish, the stickiness of the rice and the crispness of the spring roll complementing each other beautifully. The sauce was subtle and delicate rather than overpoweringly spicy, and the lime foam provided another layer of freshness to the flavours of the dish rather than just being the annoying frippery that foams are sometimes guilty of. My cannon and neck of lamb served with carrot and swede fondants, Boulangere potatoes and a port wine jus couldn't quite live up to the perfection of the fishy joy across the table (for alas, the sea bream was not *technically* mine) but was very enjoyable nonetheless, offering two very different textures and flavours in the meat and the very best roast carrots I have ever tasted.
On to desserts then, and the one I wanted (the Caramel Trio) wasn't available. This was a shame, as that left only two other sweet options or a cheese course for afters - something of a restricted choice. What they lacked in choice, they made up for in size - the Chocolate Torte with vanilla bean ice-cream, pistachio crumb and red pepper taffy was roughly the size of the National Deficit, perhaps something to do with it being towards the end of service on a Sunday night but a little overfacing all the same. Still, it was proclaimed suitably dense and heady, and it was only with some regret that some of it was left uneaten. My Carrot & Orange Cake with lemon meringue panna cotta was an interesting and inventive dish - I'd have preferred a little more filling sandwiching my two dainty circles of cake together, but the cake itself was moist with a good flavour, and the little cubes of lemony panna cotta were a revelation. None of mine was sent back to the kitchen.
Drinkswise, there isn't anything lagery on draft, so my date drank Budvar whilst I toyed elegantly with a couple of bucket-sized glasses of decent Tempranillo. Service was prompt and friendly, and the restaurant had a nice buzz about it - largely due to there being a Living Social deal running, but encouraging for a Sunday night all the same. All in all, we were pleasantly surprised by Urban Cookhouse - we were invited in to review the food and were therefore not asked to pay for our meal, but despite a few very minor shortcomings in the meal (that probably reflect the fact that the place hasn't long been open), we were impressed. There are plenty more things I want to try on the menu - but on my first return visit I will be asking for a table for one so that I can order that sea bream and not share it with a soul.
- Urban Cookhouse is at 54 Princess Street, Manchester M1 6HS; tel. 0161 235 8768