For a city of its size and importance, Manchester is notoriously short of great restaurants. On a recent trip to the city's biennial arts festival, I was looking for somewhere new and interesting to eat. The list my team of researchers drew up – OK, that I drew up after an hour on Google – looked pretty much the same as the last time I'd visited, albeit littered with the corpses of the fallen.
So I consulted a couple of local critics for suggestions. (Being a restaurant critic in Manchester must be a bit like being an opera critic on Canvey Island; you've got all the theoretical knowledge, you just don't get a chance to show it off too often.) Turns out the best restaurants in Manchester aren't actually in Manchester at all. One of them, Ramsons, is in Ramsbottom, ten miles to the north. The other, Damson, is in Heaton Moor, about five miles to the south, which I would have described as a suburb of Manchester, if I didn't fear reprisals from the militant wing of the Stockport Independence Army.
And so it came to pass that I left the city, with its vibrant festival venues crowded with operas and plays and happenings, and found myself on a nondescript suburban arterial road lined with DVD stores and chip shops and a pub offering a credit-crunch lunch deal for £1.50.
Damson's curtained shopfront doesn't stand out in this humdrum setting, although the all-weather sofas of its smoking terrace are a definite cut above. But behind those billowing, musliny curtains lies a discreetly luxe little bistro which instantly enfolds you in an atmosphere of promised pleasure. Plum velvet drapes and devoré velvet bucket chairs whisper opulence and comfort and the far wall is lined with bottles of wine; so far, so fancy. But the unclothed tables and exposed ducting on the ceiling are reassuringly unpretentious, and stop the place from feeling too girly.
This, after all, is the latest production from the team responsible for Manchester's manliest, meatiest eating houses – Mr Thompson's Chop House and Sam's Chop House – well-loved favourites both, but not exactly venues for the ladies who lunch.
The owner Steve Pilling and chef-partner Simon Stanley have left those successful chop houses in other hands, and moved on to create a very different eating experience; the perfect local restaurant.
Damson, which opened in April, is a place any one of us would kill to have on our local high street. Everything about it works wonderfully well; the stylish, understated room, the friendly, well-informed young staff and best of all, the menu full of things you really want to eat, from baked sea-bass with ragu of squid and tomato to sirloin steak and "real chips".
After years at the Chop Houses, head chef Simon Stanley is obviously enjoying getting in touch with his feminine side. There's a lightness and some playfulness to his cooking, anchored by rock-solid technique. Take my starter, a rich crab and parsley risotto whose dark depths were topped by a surf-like froth of foamed bisque, and in a cheeky seaside reference, a skewer of deep-fried cockles, finished with salt and vinegar.
More simply composed, but just as good, was a main course of slow-cooked belly pork, the fat well-rendered under a crisp carapace of golden crackling; with it, a slick of perfectly smooth, buttery mash and the palest green apple purée.
My lunch date, the local food critic who had recommended Damson, was enjoying the rare luxury of a non-working lunch, and had nothing critical to say about his starter, sliced wood pigeon breast laid on a thin cross-section of cooked beetroot, with a warm, chutney-like tangle of pickled red onions and candied walnuts. His main course, which partnered chicken breast with gnocchi and wild mushrooms, was heady with the unmistakeable musk of truffle oil; perfectly good, but we agreed that it was more of an autumn dish.
Apparently unruffled by the presence of two critics (my companion was well-known to him, and my own cover eventually blown), owner Steve Pilling was a relaxed host, warm and attentive without going over the top. His recommendation that we pair our shared dessert – a superior rice pudding, lapped by butterscotch sauce – with a glass of velvety Pedro Ximenez Fernando de Castilla sherry, was inspired.
The wine list is obviously a labour of love, wide-ranging and mainly priced at under £30 a bottle. Unable to give it the shakedown it obviously deserves, we sampled from the unusually generous selection of wines by the glass, including a superior Rioja, Valenciso Reserva 2002 – at £12.50 for 250ml. With the lush murmur of Joan as Policewoman swelling from the sound system, and that final, seductive sherry, I could easily see how lunch could stretch into dinner at a place like Damson.
But we had a festival to get back to. Our bill came to £76, with the food accounting for £45 of that. Which, considering the high production values on offer here, was well worth the price of admission.
Damson, 113 Heaton Moor Road, Stockport (0161 432 4666)
Around £35 a head with wine (set lunch £12 for two courses/£15 for three)
Side Orders: Manchester marvels
Michael Caines' cuisine is slick – the grazing menu costs £12 for three courses and includes salad of wild duck with celeriac chips.
107 Piccadilly (0161 200 5678)
Manchester's best Thai serves super-fresh well- priced dishes such as prawn with tamarind sauce, topped with deep-fried shallot (£12).
Chapel Walks (0161 832 8342)
Peter Booth's relationship with local suppliers is illustrated by the fact that his meat is supplied by award-winning Mettrick's.
265 Upper Brook Street (0161 276 0911)