Comptoir Libanais Manchester aims to make Lebanese food more widely known. Nestled between war-torn Syria and tumultuous Israel, Lebanon could be forgiven for producing depressed cuisine: Comptoir Libanais Manchester’s environment was anything but. Dizzying splashes of vibrant colour with the frenetic fusing of glossy tiles, kitsch prints and miles of merchandise, created a spotlessly clean, immersive dining area. The restaurant’s interior seemed to have been designed by Elton John and Andy Warhol’s love child – not a look I associated with the Near East.
Continuing the colourful theme, Comptoir Libanais’ zingy ‘Toufaha’ (apple, mint, ginger) and ‘Roomana’ (pomegranate, orange blossom) juices were the most refreshing entity my throat had encountered – a revelation. I now no longer regard non-alcoholic drinks the domain of the devout, prepubescent or recovering alcoholics only.
Starters provided mouth-watering salty, golden, succulent halloumi – God’s consolation prize to vegetarians. The accompanying robust tomatoes, vigorous dressing and flavourful olives whisked me away from Spinningfields to the Mediterranean. The simple Baba Ghanuj granted me authentically smokey bread, lifted with bursts of exotic pomegranate.
Regarding mains, a generous hunk of hot lamb was tender, satisfying with well-formed rice. The dish was properly slow-cooked, flavourful, zealously salty but ultimately one dimensional in taste, texture and presentation. Meanwhile, the falafel & fattoush salad was attractively arranged, with pleasingly contrasting colours and shapes. The falafel was skilfully formed, with befittingly crispy out edges and bready, soft centres. The dish provided a glorious balance of sweetness and acidity, and the fresh herbs worked wonders – a rare example of a salad that didn’t need a side of chips to make it delicious.
Comptoir Libanais Manchester produced food as genuine as the charming servers’ smiles – a novelty for chain restaurants. Give it a go.
El Gato Negro – The Black Cat – an Edgar Allan Poe tale and a charming tapas restaurant halfway up Manchester’s upmarket King Street. Tapas, at least in England, I often find is predictable and inauthentic. Not here. El Gato Negro provided a welcome contrast with intriguing plates and a casual service style where ordering little and often was the order of the day. The tapas dishes were prepared in quick succession, and staff were never far away in an intimate dining room.
Stuff didn’t take long to arrive. I didn’t trust the Guindilla Peppers and eyed them up suspiciously – where they going to melt my mind or tickle my tongue? Neither. They tasted curiously of Pickled Onion Monster Munch, which was no bad thing, oddly endearing if anything. Its cousin Mr Padron Pepper – unheard of to me three years ago, now everywhere – were fresh, flavourful and rightly generous on the rock salt. I suggest the 2017 Award For Most Awesome Sounding Dish is given to ‘Gin Cured Salmon w/ Truffle Honey on Toast’. which tasted as good as it sounded. Although expensive, this little bundle of joy was well-balanced, somehow harmonious and unique to at least Manchester.
The ‘Bikini’ was disappointingly not a swimsuit model but a rather pedestrian, small, ham and cheese toasty – fine but I didn’t see what the big deal was about. Manchester seems to have become the Mecca of sweet potato fries. Spice addiction, homelessness and sweet potato fries have had the same rocketing trajectory in the city. I remember being blown away by amazing sweet potato fries in Odd Bar NQ ten years ago, now I eat them with every other meal. I sense every Manchester restaurant feels obliged to serve them for fear of a being petrol-bombed. For the record, sweet potato fries at El Gato Negro provided a depth of flavour they had no right to have, with an ingeniously composed mango and chilli dressing.
This restaurant wants to sell you charcuterie, but the surprise star of the show was an ostentatiously elongated carrot. I’ve documented carrot inducing out-of-body experience levels of flavour before at Dinner By Heston and El Gato Negro’s offering was a delicious close second against Heston’s two Michelin stars. El Gato Negro’s equally elongated description of: ‘Chargrilled heritage carrots, aubergine purée, miso, walnut pesto and Manchego’, was an umami-filled revelation. I had something of a carrot based spiritual awakening. My root chakra was dancing. In Medieval times black cats were often regarded as demons, one walking passed was seen blocking your entrance to heaven. All this carrot-induced pagan mysticism began to all make sense, or maybe I’d had too much wine.
The savoury shenanigans were far from outdone by a beautifully presented sharing dessert with bells and whistles on. This ensemble of Spanish and European fancies was technically well-crafted but equally impressive on the palate. The perfect Barbie-pink macaroon was fought over and the ice-cream was as good as you’ll find anywhere. Those clever Spaniards nicked the best parts of French and Italian patisserie and created something quite special.
Service at El Gato Negro Manchester was organised, expressive but not overbearing. Genuinely friendly, irksomely handsome, tattooed Spaniards with broad smiles, open body language, speaking a hundred words a minute – I liked them a lot.
My only minor gripe from the well-oiled kitchen was most of the pescetarian dishes arrived together at the end, rather than interspersed through the procession. Perhaps the idea that not everyone is there to enjoy the good looking Catalonian chorizo and Iberico ham is a misnomer. That said, the menu well looked after vegetarians and pescetarians too.
The restaurant must be doing something right, as it is one of only few in the entire Greater Manchester area to receive Michelin’s Bib Gourmand. As helpful as ever, the guide enlightens readers with this stunning food insight: “Appealing tapas dishes include meats from the Josper grill“. Thanks for that.
Regarding value, these culinary dopamine hits came at a cost; but, El Gato Negro Tapas’ urban cool environment and numerous memorable flavours made it certainly worth it.