Erst, 9 Murray Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6HS (0161 826 3008,
erst-mcr.co.uk). Plates £ 5- £ 12, wines from £ 20
A restaurant menu can be the sweetest promise: we have those ingredients; we have the means to prepare them; what would you like? But these are not simple documents. Some menus are so wrong. There are those who are quietly killing the English language. Things are “nestled” in “symphonies”; there are ‘trios’, ‘mixes’ and ‘mosaics’ so it looks less like a dinner party and more like a supercharged Roman orgy. Other menus fail by being too long. Surely no kitchen can handle all of these dishes or be fluent in the culinary vernaculars of Mexico, Thailand, Korea, Goa, and Dongbei?
Then there is the menu at First, set among the red brick lanes of Ancoats, England’s first industrial suburb, not far from Manchester city center. Like the waxed concrete floors and concrete block walls, the menu is sparse to the point of minimalism. I only count 10 salty items. One of them is a bowl of olives with pickled peppers. Two of them are bread based. Another is crossed by a line. The mackerel didn’t arrive, apparently. So nine dishes. Type of. Because, like I said, one is olives and two is bread. Less the softer kind of promise and more of a shy whisper, maybe. There is only one thing to do. We order the lot.
The result, in its quiet and understated way, is one of the best meals of the year so far; a succession of inexpensive plates, which provoke weak moans and delicate sighs of happiness. And this even takes into account the fact that olives and peppers are bought. It starts quietly with a few Carlingford rock oysters dressed in a dollop of precisely judged mignonette, this simple diced shallots in vinegar with crushed black pepper. How very invigorating.
Erst is brother of the little group of Trove bakeries, which started in Levenshulme in 2011, and quickly drew an audience for their manners with the sourdough. These chops become apparent in a large disc of still warm flatbread that is not at all flat. On the grill, it bulged and widened, blistered and broken. It is spread with freshly chopped tomato pulp, herbaceous olive oil and a shank of garlic. This is the best version of that old Spanish pan con tomate. It manages to be crisp and soft, sour and chewy at the same time. This is the best £ 5 I have spent in a very long time. Beside, we ordered meaty anchovies from Cantabria, floating on their basin of olive oil, with a generous layer of chili flakes. Anchovies are found on the bread. We stop talking to each other, except to mumble, “That’s damn good, isn’t it.” It’s a statement, not a question, and the answer is, “Very. “
We tell our server that we would like another one. He reminds us that we have already ordered the other version, which is lavishly brushed with garlic and herb butter, accompanied by a quenelle of whipped lardo in bright white. I spread it out on the hot bread and watch it melt in the crevices. It’s dripping toast, but like rebooted by Hollywood. This is the George Clooney of garlic buns: elegant, sophisticated, but with substance underlying shine and shimmer. See how good it is? It forced me to type some enthusiastic and chatty bullshit.
We’ve got the thinnest slices of raw sea bass, dried in a tangy vinaigrette spiced with fermented chili and garnished with cherry tomato slices. He is vigorous and terribly cool as if he had just been picked up from the waves. Next, a raw steak tartare is topped with a big dollop of sauce which is the key ingredient in vitello tonnato (basically a mayonnaise with tuna, anchovies and capers). It’s such a smart idea that I don’t know why I haven’t encountered it before. In vitello tonnato, the sauce lubricates the veal slices. Why can’t he do the same job with a steak tartare? For pickup purposes, there are shards of the crispiest cracker. These two plates are £ 12. We end this sequence with a well-topped salad of thinly sliced lamb hearts, pink in the eye, with lettuce, grilled green beans and what is presented as a green chili sauce. This skin is a little intimidating – and it’s the best I can handle as a criticism.
Because, oh look, here are the fried potatoes. Seriously, look at them: baked potatoes that were then crushed with force until they were a mess of crevices, edges and creases. Then they were intentionally fried until they were the golden brown of dry fall maple leaves. We break up a little after the other. Somewhere in the middle there might be sweet potatoes. Most of the time, they’re just the exciting business end of the cool to the core. With them is a tartar sauce with wild garlic. It’s a £ 5 worth of glorious, crowd-pleasing fun.
This continues with the desserts which, on this barely populated piece of paper, offer little, but which on the plate deliver so much. There is a bay cotta panna cotta with nectarines. The texture, like the best curd cream, is perfect. The aroma, just a hint of berry, is perfect. And then there is a lemon sorbet, a bellows of zest and juice and sugar, served when a ball immediately melts to nothing on the tongue, leaving only the slightest sparkle of happiness.
Erst describes himself as “a natural wine bar and restaurant”. Our waiter, one of the owners, noted my recent rant about the Mangal 2 offer. I tell him my objection is not to low intervention wines per se. It’s for mean, cloudy wines that smell like an unwiped ass; those that truly devoted natural wine aficionados seem to celebrate most ardently. He recognizes the point and directs us to a nice crisp and dry Sicilian Valdibella for £ 30 that has no latrine top notes.
At the end, he offers us a glass of a low intervention dessert wine. It’s delicious, full of honeyed tones, dried fruits and the deep Christmas flavor. What matters is not ideology but whether the wine is good. And with that inside of us, what had at first seemed an austere space of glass and stone, metal and nerdness, had instead become a place with soft edges, warm intentions and, most importantly, delicious food. The eerily calm promise of this tiny, sparse menu has been kept.
Every year in November and December, the StreetSmart charity raises money for charities and homelessness projects by adding £ 1 (after service and VAT) to the bill for each table at participating restaurants. Last year they raised much-needed £ 180,000, but that was down from £ 760,000 the year before, due to the downturn in the restaurant business following Covid. At the same time, the roaming challenge has increased, so they need the 2021 campaign to be a big one. To learn more as a diner or, more importantly, to participate in the campaign as a restaurant, visit streetmart.org.uk.
And it’s goodbye to the American vegan fast food chain By Chloe. A few weeks ago, it closed its four London outposts. By Chloe was originally opened by chef Chloe Coscarelli in New York City in 2015, and quickly saw huge success with lineups on the street. It opened in London, its first business outside of the United States, in 2018.
And an opening. The Breakfast Club, which still has queues across the street at the original Soho branch for its range of solid comfort food and in particular, its full English, will open its 13th outpost. The new Chelmsford Breakfast Club will only be the third outside London after Brighton and Oxford. AT thebreakfastclubcafes.com.
Chewing The Fat by Jay Rayner: Tasting Notes of a Gourmet Life, is now available. Buy it for £ 4.99 at guardbookshop.com