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Monday, 17 August 2015

Great Chefs, Great Causes at Iberica, Spinningfields; or, an Excuse to Eat Great Food

Now, much as I love social media, it does sometimes lead to tidal waves of hype and hyperbole - particularly where new bar and restaurant openings are concerned. And much as I love tapas, my ridiculous appetite does sometimes lead to colossal restaurant bills as I order more and more pixie-sized dishes (often until physically restrained or under pain of death by overdraft). These two factors combined is the only possible explanation why I hadn't visited Iberica at Spinningfields until last week - I think I was worried it would disappoint me, that it couldn't possibly live up to all my expectations, that it would take a month's wages to fill me up and that it wouldn't be worth it.

Well, I'm a fool, and Iberica is a simply wonderful restaurant. We were invited in to eat from the Press Menu, which I know in many ways doesn't necessarily mirror the average experience, but all the dishes we had are available on the normal menu and in many ways it was a relief to have the food chosen for us - there are so many items here I would like to eat that I would have found it hard to know where to start. I would know exactly where to start next time - the Trio of Iberico Hams and a board of the Cecina (air-cured beef). Both of these were simply perfection - the beef was a revelation, managing to be sweet, smoky and salty all at the same time, and whilst the ham platter may seem expensive at £22, each of the three meats had such a completely different taste and texture from its brethren that I think the whole thing can be classed as a worthy educational experience. Served with a portion of toasted bread with tomato, this really was a stunning start to the meal.

Time for a soup course, and being Iberica this came in the form of Salmorejo (a thick gazpacho) with green apple & basil granita and sun blushed tomato. I loved this - it was cleansing and refreshing and full of softly rounded flavours (although I didn't taste the apple as much as I would have expected). This also looks a great value dish at £4. Milhojas de escalivada with smoked and roasted aubergine and red peppers was a suitably earthy dish - essentially a savoury millefeuille, this made for messy eating but repaid the effort. I'm never sure about a smear on a plate but as I made a far less attractive job of dismantling the dish I'm not really in a position to complain.

On to the fish dishes then, and the first of these was the only minor misfire of the evening. The Brandada (confit of cod) with olives and white grapes was simply too salty - the fish confit on its own was fine, but when its inherent brininess was coupled with a fierce saline olive paste the overall impression was of too much salt, with other components such as the grapes and tomatoes not coming through at all. We also felt the textures were a little too similar in this dish, with a morsel of toast providing the only contrast. The other two fish dishes were perfectly balanced, however; the fresh mackerel with orange and saffron escabeche offered beautifully cured fillets in a fresh yet rich sauce and the fresh hake with hollandaise sauce and lettuce water was a firm, lightly flaky piece of fish with the most refreshing accompaniment I can recall having for some time - lettuce water is somewhere between the kind of drink you want to quaff on a summer's day and the kind of sauce you want to run your finger round the plate for.

Next up were the unexpected highlight of the evening for me: Ibérica’s Serrano ham croquettes. Hot, sultry, crispy lozenges filled with molten cheese and salty ham, these should be sold in paper bags as takeaway for me to purchase every time I'm within a two mile radius. The other meat dishes were also exemplary - I wasn't too excited at the thought of the Ibérica burger with secreto pork loin and Piparra peppers (how good can a burger be?) but was forced to eat my words along with this slider-sized stunner and its mustardy dip. It must have been good as it held its own alongside one of the most revered dishes on the Iberica menu - the grilled Ibérico pork “pluma” in moruno marinade with baked aubergine. Pluma iberico is pork loin cut from the shoulder - it has more fat, and therefore more flavour, and Iberica have very sensibly not really messed with it other than to pop it in a sweet, smoky marinade that really brings out its texture and flavour. This is one of the dearer small dishes at £9.50, but bearing in mind there are only two of these per pig I think this actually seems pretty reasonable.

This signalled the end of the savoury dishes on the press menu, but we did make room for the dish of the week from the "Great Chefs, Great Causes" campaign. This is an exciting collaboration between Iberica and 14 of the world’s best Spanish, Portuguese and Latin-American chefs (as listed on the recently announced World’s 50 Best Restaurants) - essentially each chef is allowing Iberica to produce their signature dish for one week at a time until September 8th. This is a great idea, particularly as the profits from the sales of these special guest dishes will be shared equally amongst the chefs' chosen charities; the one we tried was the mango, beer & black pudding, signature tapa of Spanish great Juan Mari Arzak. Quite simply, I've never eaten anything like it - rich, rough, almost gritty black pudding daintily wrapped up in a slice of sweet, cooling mango, I frankly consider it a privilege to have been able to try it.

Desserts brought the meal to an end, with two to try: “Tocinillo de cielo” - egg yolk custard flan with cinnamon & lemon zest milk foam and salted caramel ice cream, and the chocolate mousse with herbs cress & red fruit salad, yoghurt, vanilla oil and cider gel. I'm not really a pudding person, and had feared that both of these sounded a little on the busy side with perhaps one component too many; the chefs, of course, know better, as both of these were an excellent balance of different tastes and elements. We didn't really explore the extensive drinks menu as we were brought the restaurant's choice of apéritif (a mug of Sangría Cava - lovely) along with a glass of white and then red wine; this is an impressive wine and cocktail list though, that surely merits a visit in its own right. Service was outstanding throughout the meal, and as we sat, warm and full, in the heated enclosed terrace whilst a typically Manchester storm raged outside, it was hard to think how the evening could have been much better. Iberica, you and I have a lot of catching up to do.

- Iberica is on The Avenue, Spinningfields, Manchester M3 3HF. The meal and drinks were complimentary, but although this would not have been a cheap meal it would have been worth every penny (and you could get away with eating a lot less than we did) - a friend went on Sunday having seen my photos and was similarly bowled over.

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