Eating Out: I hardly recognised you

NICO CENTRAL: Mount Street, Manchester M60 2DS. Tel: 0161 236 6488. Open every day from noon to 2.30pm and from 5.30pm to 11pm. Set price a la carte price menu, pounds 19 for two courses, pounds 24 for three. Se t three- course lunch, pounds 12.50 with coffee. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
THERE was a time when I knew Manchester fairly well. For four years I studied at UMIST or the Tech as it was known, not to be confused with the University which was judged firmly as a completely different and separate entity.

One of the great advantages of UMIST was the location of the campus right in the heart of the city, within a couple of minutes walk of the train station. The short stretch between us and the station was marked by a desolate patch of wasteland with shabby tumbledown buildings. I lived in the opposite direction, a 15 minute walk through the often foul-smelling rubber factory, past a lone shop, and through a graffiti-scrawled underpass that gave me severe heebie-jeebies in the dark. Eventually, we would make it to our place which was actually a rather snug and cosy little home in one of the many blocks of council flats in Hulme, a district with one of the least enviable reputations in the city.

I haven't been back to Manchester for some time - and certainly not since the terrible bombing of the city centre two years ago. I hardly recognised the place. Driving in from the airport, I suddenly realised that the pleasant, green area we were crossing must be Hulme, my old stamping ground. The flats have all been demolished, and an elegant footbridge spans the road, where once the living daylights were scared out of me by the underpass.

The startling and thrilling regeneration taking place in the city centre is even more astonishing. The same marvellous, solid Victorian buildings, to be sure, but miraculously cleaned, and gleaming in the bright sunshine which greeted us. The scruffy old canal towpaths that I used to stroll along quite alone, have been transformed out of recognition and are now lined with smart cafes with packed outdoor tables.

I remarked to one Mancunian that this seems to be a city that has fallen in love with itself after almost a century of sliding downhill. "Yes," he replied, with a wry smile "that bomb was one of the best things that has ever happened here." There is certainly, to an outsider, at any rate, something of the phoenix rising from the ashes.

The food scene has been lagging behind the general upsurge, which is precisely what brought Clive Fretwell, erstwhile of Le Manoir au Quat' Saisons, storming up here. It looked like the perfect city in which to launch his solo career, out of the shadow of Raymond Blanc. Fretwell has ensconced himself in the grand and revamped Midland Hotel, under the name of another famous chef, Nico Ladenis. Ladenis sold the Nico Central and Simply Nico chain two years ago and now acts as a consultant.

However, when one scans the menu at Nico Central in Manchester, it does not appear that this is the food of the eponymous chef. Dishes like aubergine cannelloni with quinoa and butternut squash are a dead give-away.

The restaurant dining-room is lofty and has square mirrored pillars, primrose yellow walls and the Art Deco interior that is the signature of all six Nico Centrals.

Service is conducted by staff with all the forthright humour and charm, polished but unmistakable, that helped to make my brief stay in Manchester so enjoyable. Tiredness after a long day gave way quickly to conviviality, aided considerably by the first tastes of the compressed terrine of goats cheese, barely seared tuna fillet, and lightly cooked artichoke, flecked with red pepper. An unexpected combination that stood its ground unexpectedly well. Curiosity had pushed us to order the walnut poichiche and tomato gateau, a tottering tower of sweet sour onion marmalade and large leaves of tomato, interspersed with curious little cakes made of chickpea flour. Golden-tan chickpea flour gives a strange, bouncy but sturdy texture, and nutty flavour that retains something of the raw legume. To call the cakes intriguing may sound like a cop-out, but I really couldn't decide whether I liked them or not, but kept going back for more, nonetheless.

Being a sucker for scallops I extravagantly insisted on one of the chef's specialities, which came with a pounds 4 supplement to the basic pounds 24 set price for three courses. The generous helping of roast Scottish scallops was marred by reck-less salting of the crisp, light tempura batter that encased their corals, along with a helping of green beans, courgettes and peppers. My travelling companion's puff pastry tartlet of tomatoes with mozzarella, over a dark layer of tapenade looked rather similar to a recipe of mine. I based mine on a Michel Guerard recipe, and so have countless other cooks and chefs, so I welcomed it as a relative of a familiar and much-loved friend.

What I really wanted to know right through the first two courses, was what the fruit in the "Raspberry Conversation" was chatting about. Unfortunately, by the time we came to order pudding, they'd said all they had to say, and were off. A hot chocolate fondant proved less garrulous, but no less absorbing with its molten puddle of chocolate (like eating a spoonful of powdered chocolate in dense liquid form). The creme brulee was massive and very eggy, with the requisite brittle crust and mandatory speckling of vanilla seeds to prove that it had been made with genuine vanilla pods.

We reeled back out into the balmy night air, regretting our frailty. Tonight, surely, was a night to go in search of cafe life, and the famous Mancunian clubbing scene, but age and over-indulgence were against us. Not that I've ever was much of a one for the clubs, even in the prime of my long abandoned student revels.