Mash and Air is a name which seemed very well to sum up the contents of our stomachs when we visited two days after Christmas. The multi-floored set-up: bar, casual pizza/pasta diner, and posh restaurant at the top, is housed in a former textile mill on the banks of a canal. It's on the edge of an area known as Manchester's "gay village" in a landscape so urban, industrial and satanic-looking, as to be practically LS Lowry.
We entered through plate-glass doors, to be ushered by a girl in a sheepskin coat and woolly hat into a big white grey warehousy space, then whisked up in a lift to the top floor, and Air, where there were handsome George Michael-style serving men sporting dark grey suits and intricately kempt facial hair. It is a beautifully designed space. The floor and walls, both the same pale white-grey seem to merge into each other. There are delicate metal beams, halogen downlighters, chairs in the style of arched girders, a bar at one end and a sunken seating area beside floor-to-ceiling windows. Startlingly, in the centre, was a glass, apricot-lit cylinder housing all manner of pipes, thermometers and large metal containers, which my brother described as "the illuminated beer producing department" as if no fashionable restaurant in the North would be without one. This micro-brewery, it turned out, was the origin of the "mash" bit of the name, mash being something to do with the beer making process. We were offered a range of repulsive- sounding but subtle-tasting fruit beers which had a pleasantly hip air of the alco-pop about them.
Although the restaurant had only been opened a week it was filling up nicely with a clientele, who seemed more dressed up, and studiedly stylish than their London equivalents. A foursome with the girls in lip gloss and sleeveless dresses, a cheery guy with dreadlocks, two gorgeous blonde career girls at the next table in platform shoes and Seventies blouses who over-excited my brother, and many boys who looked like Liam Gallagher or Jarvis Cocker. The only fly in the ointment was the background music - a protracted drum solo. "I don't like music like this to dine to," my mum declared grandly.
Chef Jason Atherton was formerly sous chef under Stephen Terry at Coast. Whereas the Mash restaurant downstairs serves grills, pasta and delicious pizza, Air offers classy, eclectic, Modern British cuisine, marked by its inventiveness: pan-fried foie gras with quince jam and roast chestnut puree; rump of lamb with winter chard canneloni of succotash and mustard oil.
The wine list made it clear that there was no shortage of brass among the former satanic mills with the "house selection" ranging from pounds 11.50 for a South African Chardonnay to pounds 175 for a Magnum of Louis Roederer Cristal 1989. A further six-page list shows a good spread with an emphasis on French Bordeaux and burgundies, from which we selected a scrumptious 1995 JJ Vincent Chateau de Fuisse St Veran at pounds 21.50.
"This is much better than sitting at home, because there's no turkey left, really," said mum, tucking into a starter of roasted sea scallops with a girolle cassoulet which she thought tasted superb. I was pilloried for having chosen soup to start since, as mum pointed out, the trouble with soup is that every mouthful tastes exactly the same. It was, however, a gorgeous top-rate soup - of butternut squash and pumpkin with sage - with so many nicely judged bits of flavouring in each spoonful as to make you hardly notice the repetition.
My brother's goat's cheese with oven baked tomatoes, far from the dainty crottin he'd been imagining, turned out to be a great slab of rich heavy uncooked cheese. "It's like a cheese and tomato sandwich without the bread," was his verdict, "It's very nice, but there's a lot of it."
At Christmas however, you can get to the point where stuffed to the gills has no meaning any more and you can carry on eating until you burst like Oscar Wilde. But by the time the main courses arrived, artistically arranged in the centre of the plate - in the way you can take for granted until you go to a restaurant trying for this effect and failing - we were raring to go again. The main courses were all perfectly cooked and interestingly and tastily accompanied. Chicken breast was moist and succulent, with parsnip chips and mushrooms and thyme sauce, salmon came with baby spinach and a fruity red wine sauce which gave it a perfect zizz. Our only quibble was with the size of the pounds 1.50 mashed potato portion - one small spoonful and an enormous amount of air.
At this point, my brother nipped to the loo and returned very amused to report that everything was lime green except for the loo roll and a man had emerged from a cubicle camouflaged by a suit in an identical shade of lurid green.
We pressed on, as a finale, to share a sensational baked chocolate pudding which we ate in awed and reverential silence. It was baked almost to crispiness on top, and in the middle was so soft, melting and almost eggy as to remind one of a bowl of cake mix. The bill for three came to pounds 115 including coffee, service and an extra glass of wine, which seemed better value than you'd get in London. We all agreed that Mash and Air was a terrific haunt and deserved to be a fantastic success. As we drove back over the Pennines in the thick of a blizzard we comforted ourselves with the thought that, should we become stuck in the snow, our bodies could have lived off our fat quite comfortably till the spring and by then we'd be cool enough to bloody well eat out anywhere.Reuse content