‘Failure of management’: Canto. Photograph: Shaw & Shaw for the Observer
A few weeks ago my Guardian colleague Grace Dent wondered whether the pantomime of a lousy restaurant experience she’d had while reviewing in Berkshire was some kind of hidden camera gag set up by me. There were times during my meal at Canto in Manchester when I wondered whether she’d set the whole thing up as some kind of grudge match. Then again, I suspect even she couldn’t be faffed to stage something this tiresome.
In a well-run restaurant you should be able to look up from your table and work out exactly who is in charge
The announcement by the person on reception that we couldn’t go to our table until our allotted time, despite so many of them being unoccupied, was, I suppose, reasonable. The refusal by the bar to put our pre-drinks on our dinner bill – and no, she couldn’t just take a note for later, computer says no – was less so. There was the waiter who really couldn’t tell us what the Portuguese word on the blackboard advertising the halibut special meant. And no, he had absolutely no idea where the salt-aged beef was from. Nor was he minded to ask.
He was replaced by another waiter, who also didn’t know what the word meant but he could tell us that, anyway, that special wasn’t available so it didn’t really matter. Happily, he could tell us where the beef came from (sort of – somewhere around Blackpool) but he wasn’t quite up to pouring the wine. It went everywhere until I took over. And on it went, albeit in a cheerful, friendly manner.
People get upset when I point out service failings like this. They think it’s unfair to pick on the front of house. I agree, because I really don’t blame them. It’s not their fault. It’s a failure of training which means, in turn, that it’s a failure of management. Not that I can tell you who that was. In a well-run restaurant you should be able to look up from your table and in about 90 seconds work out exactly who is in charge. At no point during our meal at Canto did I ever spot them. Muted chaos reigned.
My hope, for I always travel hopefully, was that the food would make up for the sins of service. The real surprise is that it did not. Canto is the second Manchester restaurant from the team behind El Gato Negro. For many years chef Simon Shaw’s Spanish place was a serious schlep away from almost everybody save its nearest neighbours, at Ripponden in the valleys of West Yorkshire. I made the trip to the old converted pub and adored the cooking: there were the spinach and mushroom croquettas, the seared scallops with chickpea purée and chorizo, the monkfish with crisped pancetta, the Syrian lentils heavy with cumin. A couple of years ago they moved the restaurant into Manchester. I didn’t review again, but I was relieved to see that it got approval from others. A transfer like that is never simple.
Now they have opened this restaurant inside a huge red brick lump of a building in Ancoats, which is what estate agents call “up and coming”. The idea is to celebrate the rustic cooking of the other part of the Iberian Peninsula, courtesy of Portuguese head chef Carlos Gomes. There is no denying the beauty of the makeover. It’s a mixture of artful manmade materials, chunky wooden beams and Portuguese-style tiling, sensitively deployed. There is an open kitchen full of intense bearded chaps crashing pans about, and a short but purposeful wine list which takes you on a tour of the country’s good stuff.
It’s just a shame that the meal which emerged from all this was such a bizarre mess: by turns ill-managed, ill-thought-out and overpriced. It begins with a plate of 30-month-old Bísaro ham which, at a tenner for a small plate, is clearly meant to be compared to the spendy Iberico stuff from over the border. I’ll happily make a comparison: it’s nowhere near as good. The flavour is one note, the fat marbling distinctly lacking. What’s more, it hasn’t so much been hand-sliced as hacked from the bone in an act of violence, as if to vent frustration after a hard day at the office.
Dark lozenges of braised pig’s cheek, with chestnuts and a Jerusalem artichoke purée, are a slab of autumn on a plate
Naturally, this being a small-plates restaurant, the dishes arrive in the order they are ready, which may not be the order in which you want to eat them. The first cooked thing to turn up is a small bowl of slippery roasted red peppers, hot but raw green beans and kale with a bitterness from overly punchy olive oil. It’s quite clearly a side dish looking for something to accompany. That arrives 10 minutes later: it’s called a “prawn turnover” and is a Findus Crispy Pancake tribute act. There’s a place for those; I’m just not convinced it’s here.
Far better are dark lozenges of braised pig’s cheek, with chestnuts and a Jerusalem artichoke purée. It’s a slab of autumn on a plate. The next two leave us muttering: “Is that it?” Clams turn up in a thick, garlicky broth. It’s nicely prepared but for £11, it’s on the “Are you having a laugh?” side of meagreness. Worse is the chargrilled chicken, with Savora mustard sauce. For £8.50 you get half a poussin, wrenched from the nursery. It’s such a shameless punt at poor value that I’m really not minded to tell you whether it’s any good or not.
We prefer thick pieces of seared pork belly in a creamy sauce heavy with cracked black pepper. But then comes another let-down. Promise me roasted new potatoes and that’s what I’ll expect: a tuber that’s been for a long hot bath in bubbling fat. Save for a couple of scorch marks these had the texture of something that’s been steamed. Also, they came in a miso sauce. I know Portugal gifted tempura to Japan, but I’m not sure how much came back the other way. It’s a random outbreak of fusion in a menu that otherwise beats its chest over its commitment to the finer details of the Portuguese tradition.
If you come for anything, make it dessert. A pastry-free almond torte is a beautiful, sticky toffee-like thing. It comes with an encouraging scoop of tangy mascarpone. They also make their own rather brilliant custard tarts, which we have with a scoop of their sour cherry ice cream. This is a weirdly welcome sour taste at the end of a meal full of unwelcome ones. And outside, a thick Manchester rain begins to fall.
Much closer to (my) home inside the covered market known as Brixton Village is Beijing street food café Mamalan. They offer a menu of dumpling and noodle dishes. I’ve become utterly addicted to their crispy chicken wings with chili oil. London is overrun with wing options – the Sichuan wings at Chik’n on Baker Street also deserve an honourable mention – but these are the best ().
Investor Luke Johnson, who recently had to put together a personal £20m package of loans to rescue Patisserie Valerie from closure, is facing another challenge. The sale of the 40-strong Gail’s Bakery group, which Johnson is also a major investor in, has been delayed, probably until after Brexit.
Another sign of just how competitive the market for good cooks has become: Paul Kitching’s Edinburgh restaurant 21212 has moved to a four-day working week. The brigade will stay on the same wages, but he hopes the change will ‘fuel their creative flair’, in a move which will doubtless improve work life balance ().
by Jay Rayner is published by Guardian Faber at £5. Order a copy for £4.30 at guardianbookshop.com
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