In Manchester's nascent trendy restaurant quarter, a large, comfortable and conveniently-located pan-Asian basement bar/restaurant, whose rag-bag charms include striking décor, very good sushi and a great mango soufflé.
ll Manchester restaurants are, spiritually, bars. In a city where the headline industry is football, it seems there’s simply no mileage in offering a straight-down-the-line central fine dining restaurant. Mancunian foodies have been beating themselves up about it for years, but it’s undeniable that this apparently thriving city-centre has – unlike, say, Birmingham – yet to show it can ever keep a top-end restaurant in business for more than a year or two.
We hear on the local grapevine that someone with deep pockets is contemplating having another go. Good luck to him. The area he’s apparently chosen – Spinningfields – didn’t exist a few years ago. It’s a big new office/retail development just beyond the former end-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it marker as which the once-celebrated department store Kendals (now 'House of Fraser') used to serve.
Rather as the City of London was expanded by Broadgate, however, Spinningfields is extending Manchester, and it is around the new frontier that all three of Manchester’s currently trendy restaurants closely cluster: San Carlo (a brash but fantastically successful traditional Italian), its offshoot Cicchetti (best for lunch) and the new Australasia we review today.
We’d intended to do the whole works foodwise, but that morning’s closure of the West Coast Mainline delayed our scheduled lunch visit till teatime. No matter. The place was still pleasantly busy. Whether these were late-lunchers, early high-tea-ers, or simply those who'd dropped in from shopping it was difficult to say.
The décor of this very large subterranean room has been described by one metropolitan reviewer as hairdresser-ish, so it must say much about us that we quite liked it. It’s a comfortable setting, with good lighting and a lot of – yes, rather ‘obvious’ – glamour. It seems like a post-industrial space – a clever but fraudulent conceit, as those characterful rafters are apparently made of polystyrene. Ah well.
On the food front, it was a rather odd late lunch we had – essentially sushi and a soufflé – but what we had on that cold afternoon was irreproachable on the quality front, and most attractively presented too. California rolls were a particular hit, and the house speciality mango soufflé is certainly not to be missed. And up here you actually get local – read friendly and engaging – waiting staff, which all adds to the colour.
Our local spy warned that we’d had the best, 'bookend' bits of the experience – the main courses, he said, didn’t quite measure up. Even in the grandest restaurants that is so often the case that we suspect that the criticism is well founded. But, hey, if you should find yourself in Manchester on a cold February afternoon, you really could do so very much worse than here.