Manchester is not getting the northern leg of HS2, thanks to Rishi Sunak, but it has got a new branch of Sexy Fish. This is a restaurant well-known in Mayfair for its truffle, lobster and miso black cod; for its bougie clientele; for once disallowing the pop star Jess Glynne entry because she was wearing a hooded sweatshirt. I think she had to go to Amazonico, a rainforest-themed fixture also on Berkeley Square, instead.
Owner Richard Caring’s foray into the north of England is quite a statement. Ten years ago, Sexy Fish probably wouldn’t have worked in Manchester – the other two branches are in London and Miami – but today it is likely to do well. Manchester’s food scene is rocking. There is space for exceptional independents – Erst, The Sparrows, Higher Ground among them – and lively big hitters such as Hawksmoor, Dishoom and Albert’s Schloss. The latter, an Alpine-themed Manchester original serving big lagers and quality hotdogs, is soon to open a branch in the West End of London. For a northern concept to travel south is notable, and most in the industry think it will be a success.
I admire Manchester’s vibe. It is less disquieting than parts of London and it is far easier to get around. There is also a distinct lack of pretence; it is more likely to invite risible behaviour. Not so long ago, I went to an authentic family-run Greek restaurant that served good souvlaki and generous salads and which inspired most of those dining inside and on the then-warm terrace to jump up and dance before waiters broke plates all over the wine-flecked floor. Such fun. Everybody was laughing.
And then there is a hotel named “The Alan”. Why is it called The Alan? I don’t know, and the owner wouldn’t tell me when I asked him. But that’s what it’s called. You turn up and the receptionist says, “Welcome to The Alan”. When you depart, smiling staff bid you adieu with, “We hope you enjoyed your stay at The Alan.” I do wish I knew who Alan was.
Its restaurant is more serious. And it’s another of Manchester’s new blossoming venues, this time serving a pared-back menu that represents a modern European branch of cooking. This is another quite vague reference point: often it is used lazily and brazenly by paint-by-numbers restaurants without a narrative. Those where chefs think plonking down a burrata and covering it in pesto will be enough. I’m the last to require a narrative, but it is also a fact that dining rooms without one need at least some tangible identity. People demand more than chicken and chorizo skewers these days. For the most part.
And what is modern European? It is probably the noisiest food of Britain, a mishmash of flavours and textures borrowed from the continent; mostly Mediterranean in all its glory, landing on every coast. There will be Middle Eastern influences despite the fact the Middle East isn’t Europe at all.
Small plates, like in Spain? Yes. The Alan’s head chef, James Hulme, serves dishes such as Devon crab on Bavarian röstis; goat’s cheese pudding with bacon jam; and butterbean hummus with flatbreads and blood orange. It is inventive, charming and resourceful food. And it’s affordable. The “Alan-fried guinea hen” with tomatoes and Old Bay seasoning is £9.
Here are Hulme’s confit potatoes. The best of Britain elevated by French technique.
1kg of good chipping potatoes (King Edward/Maris Piper)
200g aged beef fat
50g picked thyme leaves
5 whole sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
5 black peppercorns
1 star anise
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Place the beef fat in a pan with the sprigs of thyme, bay leaves, black peppercorns & star anise. Gently heat and allow to melt. Pass through a fine sieve and keep warm.
Thinly slice the potatoes, roughly 1mm thick (it is worth investing in a mandolin if you don’t have one). Mix with the beef fat, thyme leaves, salt and white pepper.
Layer very neatly into a tray lined with greaseproof paper. Cook for 40 mins at 190C.
Remove from the oven and check the potatoes are cooked by piercing with a knife. You want very little resistance.
Place another sheet of greaseproof paper on top and a tray that fits in the one you have taken from the oven. Place a heavy weight on top and press for 24hrs in the fridge.
Remove, cut into thick rectangles and deep fry at 180C until golden. Season with sea salt and serve with dips.