Eating Out: Simply Heathcotes - Up north and mad fer it
SIMPLY HEATHCOTES Jacksons Row, Manchester M2 5WD. Tel: 0161 835 3536. Open Mon-Sat 11.45am-2.30pm and 6-11pm. Sundays 11.45am-9pm. Set lunch, two courses pounds 10.50, three courses pounds 12.50. Average a la carte price, pounds 25. Major credit cards accepted
The Mancunian trip was a combined mission: not just to pretend I was in my early twenties, actually knew something about the club scene, and was just as relaxed on the streets of Manchester as Wotton-under-Edge, but also to check out the new restaurant of a chef I have long admired.
My companion for this adventure was Tom, who would gladly trade in his public-school education, his inheritance of charm, manners and a modest amount of cash, and an artistic temperament that leans more towards furniture design than rock guitar for the opportunity to be Noel Gallagher for a day. As it is, all he has been able to do to date is buy the oversized anorak. He, too, had never been to Manchester, and was dead excited about it. The day before we went, he kept calling me up to say things like, "We must find out if the Hass has reopened since the drugs bust", and "Are we going to Madchester, or what?" By the time we got on the train at Euston, I think he thought he really was Noel. Or at least Terry Christian.
But before we could receive our diploma of Mancunian street cred, we had some serious eating to do. Simply Heathcotes is the third outlet for a talent honed in a small country restaurant in the pretty Lancashire village of Longridge. Heathcotes, as this original flagship is called, now has two Michelin stars. Here in Manchester, Paul Heathcote has thunk big. When you walk up the stairs into the space that used to house the city's registry of births and deaths, it feels gloriously roofy and roomy. Two adjacent walls at the bar end of the space are lemon yellow and pillar-box red, and the ceiling above them is purple. But at the dining-room end everything turns to white. Tom admired the super-modern chairs in moulded plastic ("obviously Italian"), and I admired the decision to make almost all the tables round, and not too small, or too close together.
Paul Heathcote has always been a flag-waver, almost militantly so, for the traditional products of his native Lancashire. The result is that the menu includes several descriptions that almost sound like a joke at his own expense - roasted salmon with black pudding, malt vinegar and chips, or baked lobster with Lancashire cheese and truffled new potatoes - until you realise they are appealing combinations which make good gastronomic sense. His salmon acknowledges the classic Portuguese combination of fish with pork products; the lobster dish is a legitimate variation on the thermidor.
To start, I went for a dish which promised to be full to bursting with northern muscle. The pressed Lancashire terrine of black pudding, ham and Cumberland sausage came in a mighty generous slab and proved a ready answer to any plate of fancy foreign charcuterie. The pleasingly soft and oaty texture of the black pudding went nicely with the salty ham, and the home-made piccalilli gave the essential sweet- and-sour relief demanded by such a porky platter.
Tom's starter could hardly have been more different - or less local. Called "chilled clear tomato juice" it appeared to be just that, although quite how you clarify tomato juice is a secret, I imagine, shared only by Heathcote and his henchmen. A sip revealed that the natural juice was bolstered by some kind of infusion of sun-dried tomatoes, which I thought made the whole thing too sweet. Tom wanted to add a slug of vodka and drink it over ice through a straw. It might not have been a bad idea. Overall verdict: "interesting".
It may seem absurd to complain that a fish is too fresh, and indeed given how often the fish options on menus are based on sub-standard raw materials, it's a complaint I would like to be able to make more often. But the skate is a curious customer which is actually at its best two or even three days after being taken out of the water. By this time the taste is still fresh but developed, and the texture has mellowed from a tooth-resistant rubberiness to finely grained flakes that melt in the mouth. I couldn't fault the way my main course, described as tartare of pan-fried skate, was cooked - it had a nice light crust of seasoned flour flavoured with herbs - but it was definitely, to my taste, too fresh. Anyone who ordered it the following day probably had a great treat.
Since I wasn't going a bundle on my skate I showed considerable, and not entirely welcome, interest in Tom's main course: roast medallions of local suckling pig. It was milkily tender and full of flavour, each medallion bound in a nice rind of slightly sticky crackling. Roast beetroots and carrots provided the sugar that should always be somewhere on the plate with roast pork. Further compelling evidence that Heathcote knows just what to do with a pig.
All the puddings sounded delicious, but I couldn't not have something called deep-fried banana custard, especially with the added promise of caramel ice-cream. The crispy batter balls had a velvety, curdy filling that could have been a mite more banana-y, but was otherwise divine.
Tom can't remember what he had for pudding, and neither can I. By that stage we were both getting excited about phase two of the evening. On a tip from our waiter, we went to a place called the Boardwalk, which on Friday nights runs a club called Yellow, playing Seventies funk and soul. It was packed, a riot in fact, and I think we acquitted ourselves pretty well on the dance floor. We even got talking to three local girls, who teased us about our "London accents". Not bad, considering what they might have teased us about. Oh, and our Terry was there, too. Cool, eh?
"I fookin' loov Madchester, me!" said Tom, as he slumped into bed at four in the morning.
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