I was prepared to be disappointed by Manchester restaurant, Neighbourhood. As a New Yorker living in Manchester, it seemed kind of like my solemn duty to be irked by a new restaurant here, in Spinningfields, that so aggressively marketed the fact that it was inspired by the restaurants of my former home. I tutted at the blurry Twitter photos of the over-the-top bar installation. I shook my head knowingly over the menu, with its unintentionally funny misspellings and obnoxiously-named cocktails (Oppulentini, anyone?).
Before going in for dinner I paced around the exterior in the dark, noting with grim satisfaction the prints of muscular men in boxer shorts lounging at colourful locations in Manhattan, the turquoise pleather booths and checked linoleum of the lower section clearly inspired by NYC diners and just as clearly having about as much in common with them as a knish does with a water vole.
Inside, the music was ear-punishingly loud for 7:30 on a Wednesday night, but the décor was louder. A cacophony of faux wood panelling, wire mesh boxes, mirrored tabletops and ostentatious lighting; trying to do about seven things at once and failing on all counts. The overall effect is like walking into that blurry moment round about 4am where the fun ends and the hangover begins. It’s a warehouse of a place that feels like it hasn’t decided if it wants to be a nightclub or a restaurant, so has tried to split the difference and hope everyone’s too buzzed to notice. Just the kind of place I most dislike.
I’m almost sorry to tell you, then, that the food was very good. You’d think I’d learn from experience. But liked what I ate. What can I say? We Americans are a territorial bunch when it comes to food). Shrimp, crackle and pop – a trendy-sounding starter ordered with a resigned mumble – was heavenly and strange. Gigantic crispy shrimp lolled in a bath of rich lobster bisque, topped with a dusting of popping candy that weirdly, unexpectedly, worked. Miniature lobster tacos were pleasing mouthfuls, the hot lobster backed up by a vegetal smear of sauce. Chicken thighs pot roasted with herbs, bacon, and sourdough was full-bodied and intense, a salad crunchy and expertly dressed. Lobster Macaroni and Cheese was prevented from reaching its ideal expression as the epitome of luxurious comfort food by a thin, milky sauce, but the kitchen sure didn’t skimp on the lobster.
The evidence of smarts in the kitchen extended to dessert. A creditable apple and blueberry crumble was served up with thoughtful touches (thyme sugar and milk ice cream) and a dessert of doughnuts, marshmallows and warm chocolate dipping sauce was tasty kids’ food for grown-ups, ticking off yet another restaurant trend. There’s a lot of that around the Neighbourhood: jazzed-up American junk food. Cutesy, snacksy meals that come with things to dip or things to poke or popping candy. Cocktails that come with a themed junk-food sidekick.
In theory, I know I should dislike this stuff. It’s gimmicky and it is food with serious limitations, which is part of the reason there’s a backlash brewing against the dirrrty burgers we all queued for in 2012. But there’s a reason that people want to eat this kind of food: it tastes good, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. They know what they’re doing in the kitchen here. Our dinner wasn’t a blow-the-doors-off food epiphany, but the kind of solidly good meal that sends you into the night with a sense of well-being. Or maybe that was the Oppulentini (kidding!).
It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it could do well among the many people in this part of town who like a little extra crackle and pop with their jumbo shrimp. And if someone’s casting about for ideas on where to have the next leaving do dinner/girls night out/birthday meal, tell them you know just the place. Ridiculous décor, pulsating music, laughable cocktails, and – most importantly of all – good food.