WE always equate the Portuguese with a sense of adventure. All those 16th century mariners voyaging blindly into the Atlantic Ocean and beyond – Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Bartelomeo Dias. Each time we bite into a pastel de nata, that nation’s signature egg tart pastry dusted with cinnamon, it conjures up visions of the spice routes those intrepid explorers opened up.
So why couldn’t Mancs, especially in the foodie new frontier of Ancoats, be more adventurous and discover the joy of Portuguese cuisine. Canto, extending the Iberian reach of El Gato Negro, boasts a young chef Carlos Gomes, who made his name at Michelin-starred tapas heroes Barrafina but whose craft is rooted in the heritage of his native Porto.
One grumpy review by the Observer’s Jay Rayner aside, since opening in autumn 2018 it had garnered critical acclaim, yet here we are in the summer of 2018 and the new summer menu introduces itself as ‘Mediterranean tapas’. Shades of the late Per Tutti on Liverpool Road, covering a lot of bases vaguely, sounding a retreat from Portugal as a culinary identity because it didn’t pull in the punters. Sort of let’s not round the Magellan Straits, let’s dawdle in more familiar coastal shallows.
Which is such a shame because Manchester hasn’t had a Portuguese restaurant since Luso a decade ago (Rayner didn’t like that one either) and you would have backed co-owner Simon Shaw, with his stylish, eclectic take on Spanish tapas proper, to make the concept work. His magic touch means that follow-up Gatos to the King Street one are opening in Liverpool and Leeds.
So what of Canto Mark II? The wines remain defiantly Portuguese, succulently fruity, mineral and affordable, the pastel de nata (with barley ice cream) is still de rigueur to end the meal, and, of course, the signature octopus dish, lagareiro-style, which means liberally dousing it with olive oil after grilling or roasting. Canto’s is generously portioned and exceptional on its bed of new potatoes and baby onions with a substantial garlic presence (£10).
Sticking to the remnants of the Portuguese promise we’d ordered among the starters salt cod fritters with piquant tartare sauce, the kind of nibble you’d go for automatically on the seafront at Cascais or Vila Nova de MIlfontes. A quartet of cheese and spinach croquetas at the same £5 price was altogether gooier – benchmark Spanish test that Carlos has passed a thousand times.
Less satisfying was a new menu addition, aubergine, red pepper and tomato flatbread with caramelised onions (£5), where cutting into the bread was an ordeal and the toppings just felt Ottolenghi home snack. 18 months cured Ibérico ham shoulder (£10) was suitably unctuous but we should have ordered some Ancoats-sourced Pollen sourdough to accompany.
It was the four ‘mains’ (including Senhor Octopus) that really stamped the quality of this transformed Canto, highlighting some great sourcing and a delicate touch with both fish and meat. A summer menu newcomer, grilled sea bream fillet (£10) came with a basil and Manchego risotto, which sounded wrong but was just right.
The presence of burrata alongside risotto felt more Columbus than Magellan. We reassured ourself, too, that the Portuguese did sail as far as Japan, so we should be sympathetic to the teriyaki sauce on our lamb chops (£13.50). The lamb (strangely advertised as skewers on the new menu) was worth discovering in its own right.
Sensational even before an accompanying panoply of wild mushrooms kicked in.
Piquillo peppers, spinach, roasted potatoes added an equal richness to chargrilled beef fillet (£10) in a red wine sauce. Maybe a mite generic but this meal in the end was a celebration of intense flavours not blurring of national divides. Oh, yes, and that heavenly custard tart is still holding the fort.
Canto, Cutting Room Square, Blossom St, Manchester M4 5DH. 0161 870 5904.