IN a week when fine dining bastion The French unveils a casual small plate lunch menu for midweek it’s hard not to detect a debt to the groove pioneered by Volta. The eclectic but perfectly formed tapas-style template at the West Didsbury bar/bistro was inspired by the global wanderings of co-owners Luke Cowdrey and Justin Crawford in their night job as the Unabombers DJ duo.
It won Volta the approval of everyone, from national critics unenthused by the city’s fine dining aspirations to Sunday brunchers seduced by a Dexter beef roast in laid-back surroundings. The since departed Alex Shaw was named Chef of the Year in the 2015 Manchester Food and Drink Awards and Volta won Casual Restaurant of the Year this time around.
So how do you repeat that formula in a completely different setting with corporate masters, who haven’t hesitated, post £25m refurb, to rename the landmark Palace Hotel The Principal, leaving only this newly created bar/restaurant complex as a homage to the original Refuge Assurance Building.
Inside this dazzling tilefest, featuring a public bar, 130-cover dining space, winter garden and ‘play den’, a close cousin of Volta’s menu is on offer. Service is now well-honed and swift but that bring problems of its own – order too many small plates and they inevitably arrive all at once. We paced ourself, ordering two or three dishes at a time, to avoid the cooling on the plate, meat jostling with fish, general congestion not aiding digestion.
It seemed to work. An excellently paced experience marred only by over-familiarity with dishes after soft launches and launches – and Volta. I’m happy with the if it ain’t broke don’t fix it approach, but I do hope the menu, once settled, delivers more surprises – a raft of specials perhaps?
The original promise of prep in the kitchens, finishing touches at a pass in the dining room, seems to have been abandoned. So eating at Refuge lacks the pzazz of drinking there in the bar.
Minor niggles perhaps. Our meal started excitingly with the best Padron peppers in town, superior to any from our Armada of tapas joints. These were fire-roasted with Maldon salt, big, vibrant green with a salt tingle that demanded swift downing of a can of Vocation’s powerful, hoppy Life and Death IPA. This coped admirably, too with a tangy oyster, also from the wood-fired oven – an impulse add-on at £3.
For the same price as the peppers, £4.50, our second nibble was a handsome blanket of flatbread with a dip of Mutabal (or Baba Ghanoush to the Berber inside of me) – smoked aubergine and tahini in toothsome tandem. Aubergine reappeared in a savoury Volta stalwart of crispy aubergine with molasses and feta (£6.50)
We stayed in Ottolenghi territory for further dishes now rustled up at home for Levantine-influenced dinner parties. Except I can’t make my crispy lamb shawarma so fibrous, my harissa so fiery yet subtle. You get a rather big small plate of this for £8. I regret not ordering further flatbread for it. It had been served, more appropriately, in a pouch of the stuff at previous Refuge bashes.
Our ordering malfunction in that slow-cooked ox cheek with egg and sriracha (£9.50) strayed into similar chilli-rich/carnivore territory. There was heat too, of a coarser curried kind, in the earthy black daal that partnered and almost smothered a gorgeously flaky tranche of hake (£9).
It was a relief to fork up a cooling mouthful of thinly sliced fennel, pear and radish in a light dressing of sherry vinegar, olive oil and dill (main picture). Unassertive in itself (and again a lot of it for £7) it married perfectly with a wild bass ceviche with coconut and fruit (£9), a version that, in itself, a visiting Peruvian might have felt was over-mellow with the citrus.
By now I had strayed into wine territory but was unimpressed with the by the glass white offering, so reverted to the pick of the craft keg from the bar pumps, Beavertown’s Gamma Ray (£5.60 a pint).
My companion finally found a satisfying red to accompany her cheese selection (£12) in a glass of plummy-dense Malbec Carla Chiaro Reserve, good value at £5.80 a glass. They do wines by the half bottle carafe, which is a good idea. Just overhaul the rather dull list please.
The hugely welcoming Refuge already feels like it has been around forever, which is a compliment. Now the food and drink offering has to take wing beyond Volta and find a new electricity of its own.