In Manhattan, restaurateurs and chefs maddened by the blitzkrieg of bloggers' flashbulbs are starting to ban diners from taking photographs of their meals. In Manchester, where new Manhattan-inspired mega-restaurant Neighbourhood has just opened, photography seems to be positively encouraged. Dressed-up gal-pals are merrily snapping away at each other, and even the staff are at it; you've got to love a chef who proudly captures a hamburger on his BlackBerry before letting it leave the pass.
There's an appealing swagger to this city-centre newcomer. A feeling that they're doing something a little bit different, and doing it well. Pimped-up American comfort food may already be all the rage in London – sliders, mac and cheese, Southern-fried chicken and the like. Now, with the opening of Neighbourhood in the shiny new Spinningfields development, the craze has spread north.
Here are wagyu sliders, lobster tacos, fried oysters, buttermilk-coated chicken wings, grilled stone bass and pot-roast chicken thighs. Here are broiled steaks, pasta and pizzette. Here is a 'raw bar'. Only the cocktail list, which offers a range of Wag-pleasing curiosities, including the Belle Epoque Blazer (it involves a bottle of vintage Champagne, Martell XO cognac and flambéed summer fruits, and costs £325 for four people) gives a clue that we're not in east London or on the Lower East Side.
Neighbourhood's scarily young owner, James Hitchen, still only 30, already operates another newish restaurant, Southern Eleven, also in Spinningfields. For this supersized, 200-seat new venture, he claims to have taken his inspiration from New York's Meatpacking district, although I bet he's also checked out the various London variations on the same theme, from Spuntino and Mishkin's to Hawksmoor.
In a timber-clad glass cube, Neighbourhood's designers have rather brilliantly evoked a weathered old warehouse reinvented as groovy nightspot. Rarely can so much effort have been spent on creating a light-industrial warehouse vibe in a brand-new building surrounded by actual old warehouses. Still, the fit-out feels expensive and seductive, particularly in the central area near the bar, where beautiful low-hanging light fittings in subtle jewel-hued glass hang over teal banquettes and mirrored tables.
I'd accidentally booked online in my own name, but by luck discovered the perfect ruse for not being rumbled as a critic. I took the beautiful Countdown maths whizz Rachel Riley as my guest, and no one so much as glanced at me. Forget anonymous – I was effectively invisible. "They're very attentive, aren't they?" Rachel observed, as a stream of eager waiters came over to check we (she) had everything we (she) needed. Their outfits – black trousers, white shirts and red bow ties – may be a bit more TGI Fridays than urban hipster, but we loved our sweet waiter, who recommended the 'porn star Martini', and successfully masked his disappointment when it was me, rather than Rachel, who ordered it.
After the fun of my cocktail, a peachy froth accessorised with a shot of Prosecco, came a novelty breakfast-inspired starter – 'shrimp, crackle and pop'. An earthy lobster bisque is poured into a bowl containing tiger prawns, crushed prawn crackers, rice crispies and popping candy. Odd, but good. Wagyu slider (£4) was fine, the mini-burger soft and sweet in its glazed bun, but slightly buried in spicy goop reminiscent of McDonald's special sauce. Tuna tartare in hard-shell tacos also struggled against the clamour of coriander, red onion and guacamole, and needed more robust spicing.
With steaks at the heart of the menu, I felt I should order one, and asked the waiter which cut he'd recommend. In a rare example of downselling, he suggested the cheapest – and least familiar – the Flat Iron, an underused shoulder cut. He was right; the neat rectangle of firm, but not tough, beef was full of flavour, and at £14 for 12oz, better than many at twice the price. A side order of skin-on fries was hand-cut, always a good sign in a place of this size.
Rachel's 'baked lobster mac and cheese' was a housebrick-sized thing, topped with a watery poached egg. The brownish macaroni in which the lobster nuggets swam had the slippery quality of the Heinz tinned variety. Whatever it was meant to be like, it can't have been this. Desserts also didn't taste as great as they sounded. The 'box of doughnuts' – small doughnut balls, a heap of marshmallow and a grudging spoonful of chocolate sauce – was more meagre than its billing.
Despite a couple of dud choices, the food is much better than it needs to be at what is obviously a party place, with its loud music and huge booths. Glamorous, fun, lovely staff, good food – and very photogenic. Like my guest, Neighbourhood really adds up.
Neighbourhood, North Avenue, Spinningfields, Manchester (0161 832 6334). Around £35 per head before wine and service.
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 10 per cent discretionary and gets split between the staff. Any tips go to the individual waiter'
Side orders: Manchester united
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