Real Junk Food Project Manchester, 85 Oxford Street, Manchester, M1 6EQ – Visit Now
Review by John Tatlock
A not-for-profit venture, that serves meals on “pay as you feel” basis, RJF opens from 8am to 3pm on weekdays, and also puts on occasional “Fine Dining” events, overseen by acclaimed chef Mary-Ellen McTague.
Coming down from the shop front entrance into the St James Building basement is something of a revelation; there’s none of the improvised, down-home aesthetic of their pop-ups. The dining room is strikingly sleek and modern, with tables arranged into rows for communal dining. The design is stunningly minimalist; the only notable adornment on the white walls being the mission statements “Transforming wasted food into beautiful dishes” and “Feed bellies not bins”.
“Transforming wasted food into beautiful dishes”
The staff were circumspect about precisely where the food originated from, saying simply that the project sourced the best food donations they could each day, and improvised the menus based on what they had. For normal daytime opening, this means a varied and broad menu, but tonight, the kitchen team had gone for a four-course set menu, all vegetarian, with vegan and gluten-free options available for each course.
The starter, a watercress, lemon cream, and roast tomato pesto was a surprisingly hearty and spicy winter warmer, but it was the first main, a roast potato cube served with saffron and quince, that truly impressed, with brilliantly balanced and contrasting flavours.
I remain convinced that sausages must contain at least some of the recommended five vegetables a day
Being about as far from a vegan as you could hope to be – I remain convinced that sausages must contain at least some of the recommended five vegetables a day – I approached the broccoli, smoked carrot and onion dish with some trepidation. Nothing has previously convinced me that broccoli is a food rather than a useful stand-in for trees when making a Lego logging cabin. But again, this was a surprisingly satisfying course, with the smoked carrot gloop more than making up for my slight resentment at having to chew on nature’s shaving brush (my companion assures me that the broccoli was a perfectly fine example of the form, for those who like such things).
The dessert, however, hammered this subjective gripe into complete irrelevance. I would eat a piece of broccoli the size of a giant redwood if it meant I could eat this piece of cheesecake again afterwards. Creamy and perfectly textured – soft, but substantial – served with chocolate sprinkles, sweetened strawberry and mango, it left me fully satisfied, but eager to return.
Real Junk Food confounded all my expectations
Real Junk Food confounded all my expectations. Despite being staffed mainly by volunteers, and the menu being put together on the hoof, there’s a professionalism and excellence throughout, from food, to service, to design, to comfort. That the project helps to bring high-quality healthy meals to people on low and unstable incomes right in the city centre makes it admirable and worthy. But even without counting that fact, it’s a fantastic addition to the city’s food scene, and if the kitchen remains this skilled and imaginative, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be around for years to come.