NO-ONE has ever visited Lisbon without trekking up to the Belém district to tackle the Pastéis de Belém. They’ve been baking these egg tart pastries dusted with cinnamon at the atmospheric Antiga Confeitaria de Belém since 1837 after the monks at the neighbouring Mosteiro dos Jerónimos handed over the secret recipe.
After scoffing a ton of these in the cafe we smuggled some more into the sunlit, honey-stoned Gothic cloisters for a proper Portuguese picnic. Didn’t want to spill any crumbs on Vasco da Gama’s tomb.
You’ll find these tarts, commonly known as pastéis de nata, everywhere in Portugal including Porto, home town of Canto exec chef Carlos Gomes.
It’s a nice touch in Ancoats – short on sunlit Gothic cloisters – that this self-styled ‘Modern Portuguese’ neighbourhood restaurant will do you tart takeaways. We’d advise booking a table and saving them for dessert after ordering a series of small plates that’s a masterclass in showing how this national cuisine differs from the lauded likes of its Iberian big brother.
Carlos knows Spain’s small plate culture inside out. Simon Shaw, chef/patron at El Gato Negro in King Street, headhunted him from award-winning Barrafina in London – he ran the kitchen at the original in Soho and brought members of the kitchen team north with him. Now they are turning out petiscos, basically the Portuguese equivalent of tapas but marginally larger.
And how good are Canto’s pastéis de nata? Quite sumptuously gooey with a whiff of spice and the flakiest of pastry, they made a fine end to a meal with a glass of Nierpoort Tawny Port (£3.80). Each tart costs £2.50, with toasted barley a quid extra. Go for it.
You could even start your meal with a glass of White Port with rosemary and tonic, Porto style but with an all-Portuguese wine list this good, strong on by-the-glass, why bother?
For our quartet of fish dishes we ordered large glasses of Vinha de Malhada Branca from vineyards near Lisbon and Quinta dos Roques, Colheita in the Dao region. The first was citrussy with a thirst-quenching slash of acidity, the second fleshier with a saline minerality that was perfect salt cod fritters (£5) with tangy tartare sauce.
Poached cod (£9) was overcooked slightly but its very Portuguese peppers, sultana and pine nut dressing was attractive.
Bring on the cephalods, the Atlantic coast ‘go to’ seafood. Grilled squid in a tomato and onion sauce with spring onion ‘tempura’ (£9.50) was tender and juicy, a lacy net of squid ink crisp a neat touch, but it was outshone by £10 worth of octopus tentacle in the lagareiro style.
A lagareiro is an olive press owner and, yes, this treatment, often accorded to salt cod, is lavish with the olive oil, soaked up by new potatoes. There was lots of garlic and pickled onions here, too, and evidence of coriander, a herb not appreciated by their Spanish neighbours, in a dish to warm the cockles (or should that be clams) of Vasco da Gama.
Actually the absence of clams was our one regret about Carlos’s revamped fish section, in which croquettes, cod and squid were all debuting.
Another new dish was probably the stand-out, giving substance to the workaday (in the best possible sense) ambitions of the menu. Shaw and Gomes want folk to pop in and treat the place as their local diner, not as a special occasion destination.
Step forward the chargrilled pork chop, so Ancoats it could be wearing overalls, except these days maybe the creatives of these parts might only be wearing them ironically. OK at £15 a shot it is the most expensive dish on the menu but with its stomach-lining white beans, pancetta and musky chouriço it’s a winner.
Braised pig’s cheeks, chervil root puree and kale (£10) are equally sturdy stuff, demanding a dip into the red wines. The Douro has long transcended its role supplying grapes for the Port houses down river in Porto. Folias de Baco Uivo 2014 (£9.90 a glass) is made by an Oregon-trained winemaker on those vertiginous slopes and it is a densely fruity yet slightly stern blend. Delicious.
By now, looking around, we were appreciating the attention to Portuguese detail around Canto, though the eye-catching pillar mosaics are made using industrial glass and tools from Ancoats by our own Mark Kennedy, who crafted the Black Cat mosaic in El Gato Negro. The bread too is from on their doorstep, Pollen’s sourdough, served with a smoky butter.
It’s a big dining room, nudging 100 covers with the focus very much on the open kitchen. decorated in traditional blue and white azulejo tiles. On a previous visit Carlos Gomes himself was in the house (not this time) with his loyal team providing terrific theatre. Up to 10 folk can perch on the counter there for a ‘chef’s table close-up’.
A veggie menu newcomer, roasted celeriac (£5.50), is less dramatic and its watercress sauce and crispy seaweed accompaniment don’t strike me as very Portuguese.
Ditto our other pudding (yes a further debutant) of moist carrot cake (also £5.50) with white chocolate, a walnut tuile and lime mousse. Lots going on but rather dull. Now you could never say that about those custard tarts. We were sorely tempted to snaffle a bath to munch later in Cutting Room Square.
Canto, Cutting Room Square, Blossom St, Manchester M4 5DH. 0161 870 5904. Tue-Wed 4pm-11pm (last kitchen order 9.30pm);Thu 4pm-11pm (lko 10pm); Fri 4pm-12am (lko 10pm); Sat 12pm-12am (lko 10pm); Sun 12pm-11pm (lko 9.30pm). Before 6pm Tue-Sun get three selected dishes for £15).
Main image by Joby Canto.