IT is some time in the early Noughties. We are staying at the Metropolitan Hotel in Mayfair. The Armani-clad staff are beyond snooty cool. We dine in its restaurant, Nobu, where Boris Becker notoriously had a quickie with a waitress in a broom cupboard. No sign when we there of Bonking Boris tucking into Nobu Matsuhisa’s groundbreaking Japanese-Peruvian cuisine but, rubbernecking around this celeb haunt, we thought we spotted George Clooney and entourage with platters of wagyu beef and black cod with miso. We settled for sashimi and sushi, the chosen fodder of supermodels and tried not to feel, well, like black cod out of water.
Nobu is still in situ in Park Lane and various glitzy outposts across the globe. In much the same way that Harry Ramsden’s chippie has transcended its original home in Guiseley West Yorkshire – beef dripping in the deep fat fryer, cloth-capped coach parties in the car park – to open franchises all over. Cross fertilisation happens; one of the Nobu cookbooks has a recipe for fish and chips using black cod. No relation to our own Atlantic staple but tasty in its own way. Now a cliche.
Which brings us neatly to the Ivy Manchester, which opened three weeks ago with black cod in miso (above) and wagyu beef a couple of ways. You’d never find then on the menu in the Ivy Mark One. A bit nouveau, eh? For the North though, it’s a gourmet HS2. At 530 covers this latest outlet for the 30-strong Ivy Collection being rolled out across the land by permatanned millionaire Richard Caring, is a ‘megalopolis’ of a dining complex appealing to our sense of festive season novelty.
Caring bought the Ivy, Caprice and Sheeky’s metropolitan stable a few years back and has been playing fast and loose with the Ivy name ever since with a roster of Cafe Caprices also in the pipeline apparently. Manchester, colourful, loud and jolly with some nods to the Covent Garden original’s Art Deco design, is a far cry from that smug haven in London’s theatreland.
Never been there, but somewhere in a cupboard (not big enough for Boris’s libido) I have a copy of the late AA Gill’s book about this old school celeb magnet with atmospheric images, canny insights into how a restaurant works and recipes, so you can recreate at home its cosseting butter chicken masala, lobster thermidor or posh shepherd’s pie
That shepherd’s pie is on the Manchester menu at £13.95 compared with £19.50 in London. Both are based on slow-braised lamb shoulder; the Covent Garden has a Sussex hard cheese called Mayfield melted over its mash topping, we get Wookey Hole Cheddar. The whole vast Brasserie menu looked a bit Wookey to me, shades of every other chain that’s invaded, so instead we booked into Ivy Asia on the second floor where the wagyu roam and the black cod spawn.
Advance publicity trumpeted its Asian-inspired menu as bringing something new to Manchester’s table. Not so. You’ll find similar dishes at nearby Australasia and Tattu (glam destinations that may both haemorrhage trade to the Ivy) plus, in the rather excellent Cottonopolis in the NQ. Doomed Sakana, now a Peaky Blinders homage joint, also had an unsuccessful go.
The Ivy’s take on the love children of Boris’s Nobu, is no disaster. Some dishes are enjoyable. It just all feels corporate template with ersatz stardust scattered over it. Yes, we did sidestep the raw scallop oscietra, caviar and gold leaf. For the same price, £18, we decided to tackle the five tiny discs of melting, marbled seared wagyu in the inevitable ponzu truffle dressing. A tartare too far. A similarly portioned and citrussy seasoned yellowfin tuna tataki cost £8.50 and was lovely.
Truffle and soy turned up again as condiments for a flabby set of fried chicken gyoza (£7.95). Crispy duck bao with hoisin and five spice (£8.50) was much more savoury but loses out to the more contemporary filled buns (Korean-style steak with kimchi gochujang mayo, or mackerel with fennel and green sriracha) at NQ new arrival Cocktail Ramen Beer + Bun.
There is a sharing plate mantra going on. Gyoza and buns arrived at the same time as our fish mains, which meant the Thai-style sea bass (£13.95) had curled up and dried before we got round to eating it. Our fault in wrong prioritisation but still it was a very wan Thai –
the advertised coriander, lime and chilli flavours underpowered.
Black cod with miso had all the right sticky, lovely flakiness but at £29.95 it wasn’t superior to its £10 cheaper rival with its delightful ginger soubise accompaniment at First Street bar School for Scandal.
Among the desserts the warm mango and yuzu doughnuts with coconut dipping sauce (£7.50) were infantile and yet compulsive. Thanks for the recommendation to our Greek server Elena; service was well-drilled and attentive throughout. White chocolate sphere with passion fruit, meringue, yuzu foam and caramel sauce (£8.95) was as sweet and self-adoring (in a tasty way) as the selfie crowd having a blast around us.
The music is loud, the Ivy Asia floor a psychedelic fantasia in green (our main picture), the whole experience ultimately a bit wearing. Like a Christmas party that goes on too long. Ultimately, it all seems not really about the food but a kind of capitalist compulsion to ‘give good party’.
Richard Caring has been involved in the expansion of brands such as Strada, Cote, Bill’s and now the Ivy empire. Recent interviews have him proposing Harry’s Dolce Vitas, more Sexy Fishes and those Caprice Cafes.
Now 70, he first made his fortune out of cajoling the Hong Kong rag trade towards higher end retail and maybe Asian food has always been his passion alongside property development and serial eaterie opening? Who knows?
Or maybe Ivy Asia is down to utilising head chef Steve Scoular’s fascination with Pan-Asian cuisine that has seen it slowly filtering into the flagship Ivy menus. Steve worked the cruise ships for several years, presumably investigating the markets and kitchens of each port they docked in.
Ivy Manchester is a titanic operation, more likely to sink rivals in the glam stakes than go under itself, and Ivy Asia is a well-run place to party in with decent food that feels somehow second hand, selling us short. A bit Broken Britain.
The Ivy, Spinningfields, The Pavilion, Byrom Street, Spinningfields, Manchester. M3 3HG. 0161 5033222.