First, 9 Murray Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6HS (0161826 3008,
erst-mcr.co.uk). Plates £ 5- £ 12, wines from £ 20
A restaurant menu can be the sweetest kind of promise: we have these ingredients; we have ways to prepare them; what do you want? But they are not straightforward documents. Some menus get it so much wrong. There are those who quietly murder the English language. Things “lie” in “symphonies”; there are “trios” and “melange” and “mosaics” that make it sound less like dinner and more like an exaggerated Roman orgy. Other menus fail due to being too long. No cuisine can surely handle all these dishes or be fluent in the culinary languages of Mexico, Thailand, Korea, Goa and Dongbei?
Then there is the menu at Erst, located in the middle of the blocked red brick lanes of Ancoats, England’s first industrial suburb, not far from Manchester city center. Like the polished concrete floors and breezeblock walls, the menu is sparse for minimalism. I only count 10 salty items. One of them is a bowl of olives with pickled chili peppers. Two of them are bread-based. Another has a line through it. The mackerel apparently did not arrive. So nine dishes. Kind of. Because, as I say, one is olive and two are bread. Less the sweetest kind of promise and more of a shy whisper, perhaps. There is only one thing to do. We order the item.
The result, in its quiet, harmless way, is one of the best meals of the year so far; a range of moderately priced plates that provide low moans and delicate sighs of happiness. And it even allows for olives and chili to be bought in. It starts quietly with a couple of Carlingford stone oysters dressed in a precisely judged spoonful of mignonette, the simple cube of vinegar shallots with cracked black pepper. How very bracing.
Erst is a sibling of the small group of Trove bakeries that started in Levenshulme in 2011 and quickly gained a following for their way of sourdough. These baked chops become distinct in a substantial slice of still hot flatbread that is not flat at all. On the grill, it has dented and expanded, blistered and broken. It is smeared with freshly chopped tomato paste, grassy olive oil and a pinch of garlic. It’s the very best bet on the old Spanish frying pan. It manages to be crisp and soft, sour and soft at the same time. It’s the best £ 5 I’ve spent in a very long time. Next to that, we have ordered meaty Cantabrian anchovies floating on their olive oil pond, with a generous dusting of chili flakes. The anchovies find their way to the bread. We stop talking to each other, except to mumble, “This is bloody good, not true.” It is a statement, not a question, and is met with the answer: “A lot.”
We tell our servant that we want someone else. He reminds us that we have already ordered the second version, which comes brushed fat with garlic herb with a quenelle of white whipped lardo on the side. I spread it over the hot bread and watch it melt into the cracks. It drips toast, but as restarted by Hollywood. It’s George Clooney of garlic bread: elegant, sophisticated, but with substance that supports the shine and luster. See how good it is? It has forced me to write completely blattering, enthusiastic bollocks.
We have the thinnest slices of raw sea bass, hardened in a soured dressing stuffed with fermented chili and decorated with rings of cherry tomato. It is powerful and painfully fresh, as if it had only just been retrieved from the burn. Then top a coarse steak tartare with a greasy blob of the sauce, which is the key ingredient in vitello tonnato (mainly a mayonnaise flashed with tuna, anchovies and capers). It’s such a smart idea, I do not know why I have not come across it before. In vitello tonnato, the sauce greases slices of veal. Why can it not do the same with steak tartare? For scooping, there are shards of the crispiest cracker. Both of these plates cost £ 12. We end this order with a filling salad of finely chopped lamb hearts, pink in the eye, with salad, grilled green beans and what is billed as a green chili sauce. That attire is a bit of bullying – and that’s the best I can do with criticism.
Because, oh look, here come the fried potatoes. Seriously, look at them: baked potatoes, which have then been crushed with force until they are a root of cracks and edges and folds. Next, they have been deep-fried on purpose until golden brown from dry maple leaves in the fall. We break one bit after another. Somewhere in the middle there may be soft potato. For the most part, they are just the exciting business end of crispness right to the heart. With them is a wild garlic starter sauce. It’s worth £ 5 of glorious, crowd-pleasing fun.
This continues with the desserts, which on the barely filled piece of paper offer a little, but which on the plate deliver so much. There is a bay leaf panna cotta with nectarines. The structure is, like the very best clotted cream, perfect. The taste, just a hushabye of the bay, is spot on. And then there is a lemon sorbet, a pod of peel and juice and sugar served at the time when a scoop immediately melts to nothing on the tongue, leaving only the lightest fizz of happiness.
Erst describes itself as “a natural wine bar and restaurant”. Our waiter, one of the owners, has noted down my latest rant about the offer on Mangal 2. I tell him that my objection is not to low intervention wines per se. It’s too ugly, fuzzy wines that smell of wiped ass; those the truly dedicated natural wine fans seem to celebrate most eagerly. He acknowledges the point and refers us to a lovely crispy, dry Valdibella from Sicily for £ 30 who has no top notes of latrine.
Finally, he offers us a glass of dessert wine with low intervention. It is delicious, full of honey-toned tones, dried fruit and the deep Christmas string. What matters is not ideology, but whether the wine is good. And with that inside us, what at first seemed like a tight space of glass and stone, of metal and nerdiness, had instead become a place with soft edges, warm intentions and most importantly, great food. The eerily quiet promise of the small, sparse menu has been kept.
Every year in November and December, the charity StreetSmart raises money for charity and projects that fight homelessness by adding a single £ 1 (after service and VAT) to each table in participating restaurants. Last year, they raised a much-needed £ 180,000, but that was down from £ 760,000 the year before due to the decline in restaurant trade as a result of Covid. At the same time, the challenge of homelessness has increased, so they need the campaign in 2021 to be a big one. To find out more as a diner or, more importantly, to participate in the campaign as a restaurant, visit streetsmart.org.uk.
And it’s goodbye to the American vegan fast food chain By Chloe. A few weeks ago, it closed all four of its outposts in London. City Chloe was originally opened by chef Chloe Coscarelli in New York in 2015, and quickly became a huge success with cows down the street. It opened in London, its first venture outside the United States, in 2018.
And an opening. Breakfast Club, which still has queues down the street at the original Soho section for its line of solid comfort food and especially its full English, is set to open its 13th outpost. The new Chelmsford Breakfast Club will only be the third outside London after Brighton and Oxford. Bybreakfastclubcafes.com.
Email Jay at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ jayrayner1
Jay Rayner’s Chewing The Fat: Tasting Notes from a Greedy Life, is out now. Buy it for £ 4.99 at guardianbookshop.com