Oak Street Café, 17 Oak Street, Manchester, M4 5JD – Visit Now
The Manchester Craft & Design Centre eatery is well worth seeking out.
The word “craft” can (aptly) be made to mean two different things. What’s striking is that the act of creating something by hand is, by definition, an honest one and thus at odds with the word’s more deceptive sense. A crafted item is also the most personal of objects: it lacks the uniformity involved in manufacturing. The people behind Manchester Craft & Design Centre’s Oak Street Café are quick to draw a parallel between the food they serve and the place they serve it in – their motto reads: “Buy handmade, eat homemade”.
It’s apt, then, that this Northern Quarter eatery not only makes a point of tailoring its menu to different individual needs (this is the place to head for vegan and wheat-free snacks), but also emphasises its ability to cater to orders on spec – so if you do happen to have an obscure dietary requirement, or if nothing on the list quite takes your fancy, Oak Street will make something to suit. Chef Liz Kime can be seen performing cooking’s curious magic through a large hatch behind the café’s till, which is just one of the ways that Oak Street keeps its edible creativity open, rather than crafty.
You’ve as much chance of working out how to make the yam & coconut curry as you would making a Fabergé egg
Yet a good meal does involve a kind of alchemy – at least for those of a less culinary bent. To eat Oak Street’s deliciously crispy pizza is to have the “how did they do that?” reaction of partisan to artist. Unless you’re terribly well versed with the inside of a kitchen, you’ve about as much chance of working out how Kine’s (closely guarded) yam and coconut curry recipe came about as knowing how to make a Fabergé egg. Plus, you’d struggle to keep up: extra impressive is how often the Oak Street menu changes. Though the café features a staple range of soups, sandwiches, quiche and pizzas, as well as frittatas, salads, stews and tarts, the list of specials is extensive and changes daily.
Oak Street sources produce locally, so there’s no mystery there – in fact, there’s a happy echo of the Craft Centre’s history as retail fish market for the area. Trading ceased in 1973, but two original booths remain on the ground floor, right next to the café’s canopy. The recent addition of an awning above a café that sits at the foot of a two-storey, Victorian (and fairly chilly) glass atrium was a savvy move: it now keeps customers warm in winter – in fact, we suggest you relax, forget about trying to figure out what’s going on in the kitchen and sip instead on Oak Street’s wine (the dinky 125ml glasses mean you can indulge on a lunch hour without risking getting tipsy).
Oak Street Café does, however, offer the kind of craftsmanship that first timers have to seek out. With no shop front to speak of, all that draws attention to its existence is a small sandwich board propped up at the front of the Craft Centre. And while John Ryan’s Northern Quarter Taster Tours have gone some way to making the spot better known, by and large their moreish homemade cakes (the three, yes three types we tried were all excellent) have stayed off the radar – much like oft-overlooked public art piece, Mr Smith’s Dream by ceramicist Liz Scrine. Set into the bricks on the Copperas Street side of the centre, this glass panel reveals a miniature staircase disappearing on a spiral into the building. It’s a lovely, intriguing work of art and, like the café beyond the wall it sits in, well worth seeking out.