Sometimes when I mention I'm going to Artisan, people look at me with some suspicion. There is a general perception that this particular member of the Living Ventures stable is a bit, well, WAG-ish, or a bit big, or a bit loud, or a bit something. It must be doing something right though, as it's just celebrated its third birthday with a lavish party that coincided with the launch of the new summer menu - a menu that seems to have ironed out some of the little issues here with the food that people (including me) have noted previously - earlier menus have seemed a little too eclectic, a fact that has been reflected in some patchier dishes alongside some excellent ones on previous visits.
Well, between three of us we tried six dishes and found not a duff one amongst them. The new menu has a more cohesive feel about it, and perhaps a more traditional one too - there is nothing fancy here, just big hearty portions of things that we all wanted to eat. We started with a couple of nibbles that weren't strictly needed - the crispy kale (all about the health, as you know) was a triumph, and the spiced chickpeas, almonds and cashews were tasty although a tiny bit burnt in places. Next up, the starters - I was hungry, and had the chicken liver and rum pâté with golden raisins sealed with chia seeds (bear with me on this one), whilst my two friends were feeling more virtuous and shared the asparagus served with broccomole dip and radish, and the globe artichoke with herb vinaigrette. The pâté was perfection, thick and creamy with a good hit of booze, and whilst the addition of chia seeds all sounded a bit Hemsley and Hemsley, it did add some texture to the layer of butter - although presumably any health benefits were swallowed up by all the bad fats and calories elsewhere. The other two starters were bright and fresh and appealing - the broccomole (which I've been meaning to make at home for ages after seeing Nigella whip some up a while back) made an interesting change from the ubiquitous avocado, and the artichoke with its zingy dressing was one of the prettiest dishes we'd seen for a very long time.
On to the mains, and no-one was even pretending to be healthy anymore (although it is perfectly possible with the new menu). I had the seared tuna with spiced lentils, whilst elsewhere on the table we tried the confit duck leg with chickpea cassoulet and the 10oz ribeye steak with matchstick fries and roast garlic and herb sauce. The tuna was generous and the lentils well flavoured, and whilst the fish was fractionally more cooked than I would do it myself, this is definitely a dish I would order again. Likewise the confit duck - we thought this excellent value at £14, and enjoyed the spiciness of the cassoulet - and the ribeye, which was perfectly cooked and similarly good value at £17.50. Portions were hefty, and although we didn't need the side orders of moreishly salty matchstick fries and sweet potato fries with paprika salt, we wolfed them anyway. In fact, we wolfed the lot, and found very little to fault across the board.
Away from the relative quiet of the restaurant area (the room divisions really do help this enormous industrial space feel far more intimate than it would otherwise), the birthday party was in full swing. We tried some of David Beckham's Haig Club whisky from a stand manned by a gentleman nearly as charming as David himself (and probably more generous with the shots), and listened to some very good live music, and ran amok behind the bar at very cute little Artisan cafe bar downstairs, where we were allowed to make our choice of drink from the Signature Cocktail list (I made the Raspberry and Thyme Sour, to which I have now become addicted), and tried very hard to resist the pop-up Kiehl's counter. In other words, it was an excellent party, the sort that makes it hard to see why people might be suspicious of Artisan. Yes, the ladies' toilets are about as bling as is possible to be, but this is a vast sexy space - the sort that Manchester does best - filled with interesting artwork, lovely staff and now, it seems, a consistently desirable menu. Here's to the next three years, and to the tiny bottle of Haig that I found in my handbag the next day (now that's a party).
- Artisan is on Avenue North, 18-22 Bridge Street, Manchester M3 3BZ. We paid for the wine we had with dinner but not for the meal itself - I will happily return as a paying customer though.