The first grilled item we experienced on our trip to Manchester was ourselves (15 minutes at approx 35°C). "Sorry, the windows don't work," announced the driver of our elderly cab, as we trundled out of Piccadilly station on a broiling afternoon. It rapidly emerged that the scally at the wheel had only the vaguest idea of our destination in the city centre. "First time in 11 years that I've not known an address round here." He peered at a bust-up A-Z while we fried in a traffic jam. "I'll knock yez a bit off." This turned out to be 50p.
A more pleasing form of transportation followed our release from the mobile oven. Seated in one of the bright yellow, semi-circular banquettes of La Bandera, my first bite into a squid croquette whizzed me to San Sebastian, spiritual home of the Basque tapas known as pintxo.
Resembling big grey gobstoppers, our four croquettes revealed an interior of gleaming black purée. Studded with squid and so very sweet, they were miniature masterpieces. The same went for the pan con tomate, boat-shaped toasts topped with a purée of perfectly ripe tomato, de-skinned and de-pipped, with salt crystals and a hefty punch of garlic. "Just heavenly," said my wife.
Such simple finesse is the work of Basque maestro Josetxo Arrieta. The "x" is a giveaway that he comes from a region that, going by restaurant ratings, has the best food in the world. Arrieta worked at two three-star restaurants in San Sebastian before being lured north for the opening of La Bandera (Spanish for "flag") last December. "The owners are from the Canaries," explained the manager, Mauricio. Hence, perhaps, the bright-yellow banquettes. "They'd been here 10 years and were missing Spanish food in Manchester." Seating 40, the restaurant was half-full on a sunny Friday lunchtime. "We'll be packed tonight and tomorrow," said Mauricio. The high Spanish content of the current Man U squad will scarcely diminish its popularity.
Our next dish involved a move to Spain's north-west for the Galician favourite of octopus with potatoes. Arrieta's rendition produced some of the most luscious and tender cephalopod I've ever eaten. Paprika-dusted tentacles cut in to large and small chunks were piled on four rounds of boiled potatoes. The double row of suckers indicated that the octopus, like most of the ingredients at La Bandera, was imported from warmer latitudes. My own attempts with English octopus (one row of suckers) are India rubber by comparison. I could have happily consumed the expatriate mollusc four times over. Maybe five.
We returned to Catalonia for slow-cooked Iberian pig cheeks in Pedro Ximenez sauce, which were fall-apart tender and imbued with sherry richness. A vegetable dish of tomato, aubergine, asparagus, courgette, onion and two slices from a large porcini was simply grilled, but with great delicacy, drawing out the sugar in the vegetables without a hint of burning. My wife was in ecstasies: "I love them." Then it was back to Galicia for clams and king prawns in a salsa verde broth, whose excessive salinity was the one false step of the meal. (It should be said that Señor Arrieta was on holiday at the time of our visit.)
A Mediterranean salad costing a mere £5.95 was an impressive statement of Arrieta's skills. Salad leaves and lightly grilled strips of del piquillo peppers were cleverly woven into a tight little nest topped with tuna flakes and slices of red shallot, which were endowed with the restaurant's trademark sweetness. We never made it to the main courses, though neighbours to the left had a huge lobster-and-rice dish, while six large plates of cod and prawns were delivered to the right.
If it were up to me, La Bandera would simply stick to pintxos. I recall numerous excellent dishes in a stand-up pintxos joint in San Sebastian, called La Cuchara de San Telmo, that would satisfy the traditional Mancunian taste for viscera. A city that once boasted a 146-strong chain of tripe shops called UCP (United Cattle Products) in its environs would surely lap up such Basque treats as tripe in tomato sauce, crisp pigs' ears with balsamic vinegar, beef cheek, crisp cod cheeks with celeriac, roast trotters in a zingy chimichurri sauce…
Doubtless the owners and chef at La Bandera know their audience, but their pintxos are so good, it seems a shame not to cater for the growing appetite for smaller, more adventurous dishes. Nieves Barragan Mohacho, the acclaimed head chef of Barrafina, in London, serves nothing but pintxos – and the chain has just opened its third branch. After seven pintxos, we just managed to resist a finale of crema catalana, and were perfectly fuelled for a quick tour of Manchester's excellent art gallery, and then back to the station. This time we walked.
2 Ridgefield, Manchester M2 6EQ (0161 833 9019). Around £30 per person, before drnks and serviceReuse content