JONATHAN Gold, the legendary Los Angeles Times food critic who died this year, never reviewed a restaurant on one visit alone. In City of Gold, the documentary that charted his groundbreaking championing of street food and ethnic cuisine in the city of the angels, he said four or five was the norm before going into print, 17 visits his record.
Would ToM had the time or the resources to match his epic troughing (and resultant girth alas). A review stands or falls mostly by a single booking. A second chance is rare after a problematic dinner, but Allotment on Lloyd Street was granted one. Mainly because its chef/patron Matthew Nutter was Manchester Food and Drink Awards 2017 chef of the year at his original Stockport vegan restaurant and we couldn’t believe how service and food had nosedived in his new city centre base on Lloyd Street.
We had to ask Matthew. The reason given was not unusual in contemporary Manchester when the competition for competent chefs and servers is fierce. There aren’t enough to go around and vegan specialism makes it even harder to attract candidates. Launch staff had simply not been up to the task or had swiftly vanished. We just hit the night when it seemed like it was last man and lass standing.
So we’ll draw a veil over visit number one, but did redemption come on our return when the main man, unlike the first time, was in the kitchen cooking a 10 course plant-based tasting menu for us and caveat: there was no cloak of anonymity on the critic’s part?
Service was certainly far better than the first time, a canny Irish newcomer called Ross now settled in front of house. The food, although accomplished, showed the strain of lifting vegan dishes into the ‘fine dining sphere’. Allotment has won many plaudits for its culinary reinventions, but there didn’t seem to be a quantum leap from early days in Stockport, though the folksy fit-out is definitely a step-up.
Still it’s hard to find a chef anywhere applying such ingenious techniques to veg, pulses and nuts (though the vegan cheeses remain faux facsimiles we can’t get our head around).
A 10 course tasting menu – oddly only available 12pm-5pm – costs £65 a head, value when compared with Adam Reid at The French (£90 for nine courses) or restaurantMCR (£90 for 12 courses) though, of course, their raw materials, dairy, meat and fish, cost more.
Those places also offer more of a sense of theatre to a progression of dishes. The Allotment tasting menu took over two hours – a soundtrack of Joni Mitchell and Fleet Foxes smoothing the longueurs – but alternatively there is also a seven courses for £48 taster plus a changing three course menu for £30 a head, which we had on that first visit.
Pick of our 10 courses included tempura-style enoki mushrooms with Merlot pickled shallots, then a beautiful combo (our main image) of cranberry and red wine parfait with dried fruit chutney, red vein sorrel, sweet potato crisps, beetroot swirls and meringue crumble and sweet potato crisps and, an old favourite, confit aubergine with spiralised celeriac ‘spaghetti’ and a smoked ‘cream’.
The challenge is always to replicate the savoury flavours that come from searing meat and rich stocks, hence fried tofu, roasted coffee and chocolate and smoked ‘cheese’, which came across as, let’s say, challenging or creating a vegan ice cream without it coming out grainy – like the texture of that squash pie. The almond milk-based vanilla and parsnip ice cream worked well thanks to a new plant-based stabiliser.
Every tasting menu has a closet ‘main’. Here it was cauliflower, brined, smoked and pan-fried in an orange reduction that sparked a sudden craving for meat. In a changing world where a landmark tribunal last week pondered whether ‘ethical veganism’ (as opposed to ‘dietary veganism’, mind) might be considered a religion is this a sin?
Allotment on Lloyd Street, 18-22 Lloyd St, Manchester M2 5WA. 0161 478 1331. Mon-Tue 12pm-10pm, signature bar menu only (last orders 8pm); Wed-Sat 12pm-10pm, taster menus 12noon-3pm, three course and signature bar menu 12pm-8pm; Sun 12pm-8pm, taster menu 12pm-3pm, three course and signature bar menu 12pm-8pm.