23 February 2013
Forget pop-up restaurants; they are like so last week. As for permanent joints based on the street food van-based original; I mean pleaze. That was literally Wednesday’s craze. No, the hippest thang now is the squatting restaurant. Not crouching down, but taking over a daytime place in the evening and doing something totally different.
Manze’s Eel, Pie and Mash (not to be confused with Manze’s Pie and Mash, or possibly even Manze’s Eel Pie and Mash) has been on Chapel Market for over a century, but opens only for lunch. So a group of chef-types with grand ideas and bags of energy has taken over the evening session, Wednesday through Saturday. And jolly well they are doing too.
Of course it helps if you offer corkage free BYO (or BYOB, as they quaintly put it. Presumably to distinguish it from BYOF), but this alone wouldn’t make it a great place to go. What does, is a combination of well thought out, well executed food, cheery service and of course that corkage free BYOB policy.
The place looks lovely: white tiles that have lined the walls for a hundred or so years (not recently applied by some floppy haired interior designer); booths with high-backed, church-like pews with incredibly narrow seats and a marble table top that is too narrow and just too far away. Maybe eel, pie and mash eaters have a different shape to the rest of us: no bums, but large stomachs. That would explain the rather uncomfortable eating position.
In other words, the place is a throwback to a different time. A Pathé newsreel, black and white London, with cheeky chappies in flat caps, tugging their forelocks, eating jellied eel and having a knees-up round the old Joanna. For all I know, that is absolutely what it is like at lunchtime. In the evening, it is full of a different crowd. Not full exactly, but nicely occupied. By a younger, hipper, cooler crowd. And us.
The menu is short and changes regularly, but focuses on game and fish. The group of six of us managed to try every dish. Of the starters, the smoked salmon was found to be a bit too strong on the beetroot cure, the Cornish crab (the claw meat only) was a lovely bite, with some lime and cherry tomato mayonnaise, but the standout was the venison. From the Highlands, pan fried with a parma ham risotto and a few wild mushrooms.
Mains too were good: a whole crab with garlic butter and a pair of nutcrackers to crush the claws. A finger-licking dish of the highest order. More fish came in the form of a crisp-skinned fillet of sea bass atop olive oil mash. The final main, and another gamey dish, was a thoroughly pink breast of wild duck on another mash; this one spring onioned. All very well done indeed.
Should you want to see the team that has created this ensemble, it is a simple matter of heading to the loo: through some health and safety defying trick, the loos are out past the open space that passes as the kitchen.
I have no idea whether the squatting restaurant idea will take off (TOWIE did for goodness sake, and that is just wrong), but the focus on fresh ingredients, excellent cooking and BYO deserves to do well whatever the format.