A Game of Manchester Croquet20th Jun 2019
This weekend, Restaurants Of Manchester and our mates from Piccadilly's Alphabet Brewery Company caught up over dinks at Pep Guardiola and five Michelin Starred chef Paco Pérez's stunning King Street restaurant, Tast.
"Try these, and let me know what you think," said Filippo, the affable Head Sommellier and host of Michelin-dead cert Enxatena upstairs, passing us a plate of complimentary red pepper croquettes, or Croqueta de Pebrot Escalivat, to give them their proper Catalan name (normally £1.80 each + 10% Service).
Absolutely delicious, we enjoyed them so much, we decided to order their non-veggie equivalents; the roast chicken Croqueta de Pollastre Rostit (£1.80 + 10%) and Iberian ham Croqueta de Pernil Ibèric (£1.90 + 10%).
Delicate and fluffy, the generously meat filled large deep fried parcels had us craving more, which opened up the question, "does anybody else in town make croquetas this good?"
"Fancy a game of croquet?" I asked,
"Well, there are literally ten Spanish restaurants within barely a few metres from here. Why don't we go and find out?"
Agreeing that the excellent ham croquetas were the best of Tast's three offerings, if slightly a touch on the greasy side - followed closely by the chicken balls - we then headed just around the corner to fellow Catalan tapas bar, Lunya.
Opened inside the Barton Arcade in 2015 by lovely Wirral couple Elaine and Peter Kinsella, the independent, family-ran tapas bar and deli has become a favourite of ours over the years. Their sole Croquetas offering, which changes daily, was ham and cheese.
At £6.95 for five delicious balls (which works out as £1.39 each), they were cheaper but not as creamy as Tast's. Crispier and with more texture, the breadcrumbs added a distinctive taste, probably akin to French Toast. A tasty variation on what had become before.
Back on King Street, we tried to get a table at Simon Shaw's multi-award-winning Bib Gourmand Spanish-influenced El Gato Negro. In keeping with its reputation, sadly, all three floors were completely full but we managed to find a seat outside in the cold and huddled up underneath the electric heaters.
Ignoring issues with service - we were here to purely review croquetas - the experience was somewhat underwhelming, as had been the case during another recent visit too.
Whilst certainly the prettiest croquetas in Manchester, the Salt Cod Croquetas (four for £6.80 + 10% Service), were soft and could have been described as "posh fishcakes", had they been more generous with fish, than potato.
The Jamón Ibérico Croquetas (four for £6.50 + 10%), were very disappointing. Whilst again delicately cooked and pleasing on the eye (or Instagram feed), they too were lacking meat; this time in favour of an over generous serving of béchamel. Again, a case of all filler, no thriller! Worse still, one of them had been burnt badly, and an attempt to hide this, by serving scorch side down, only angered us further.
There was some redemption for El Gato though - if we were to push our croquet rules to the limit - in the form of an unexplained "on the house" serving of Morcilla Scotch Eggs (normally three for £9 + 10%), which showcased Shaw's celebrated cooking. From blackened croquetas to mouthfuls of Black Pudding, "The Black Cat's" miniature versions of Ben Holden's famous "Manchester Egg", were simply incredible and worth revisiting for alone.
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Next stop was the Canary Islands, and a Restaurants Of Manchester favourite, La Bandera; the absolutely brilliant authentic family ran Spanish restaurant hidden behind King Street, and once famously owned by George Best (in its former days, as Harper's).
Again, the place was packed and we had to join the wait for a table, with the queue backing up onto the street. Eventually, we took a seat at the bar, and ordered the three versions of the Croquetas del Dia (normally four for £6.50).
All three dishes were very generous in both size and filling, with the ham croquetas bettered by the cod - a revelation compared to what we had just eaten around the corner at El Gato.
La Bandera's signature Black Squid Croquetas were the highlight though. Although no longer as pretty as the days in which 2 Michelin Star former Executive Chef Josetxo Arrieta would decorate them with flowers, they came served with the squid bone impaled into one, standing up like a flag pole. Apparently, this spine is totally edible, however we struggled to digest it, and with visions of the Queen Mother (circa 1982), we opted to save space for more croquettes at the restaurant next door.
La Vina was equally packed, however the very friendly Spanish manageress cleared space for us in the bar area. It's incredible to think that 13 years have passed since this ever-popular tapas bar first opened its doors; the more upmarket sister of La Tasca, the once popular national chain that started just a few doors along on Deansgate in 1993 (and has now left its hometown altogether with the closure of their Trafford Centre branch last week).
Here, the croquetas were less delicate and a lot darker in colour, slightly burnt in places. Whilst the chicken Croquetas de Pollo (four for £5.00), were tasty and, at the equivalent of £1.25 each, the cheapest in town so far, the texture was a lot tougher than what had come before, as was the cured beef Croquetas de Cecina (four for £5.50), which offered us a different ingredient to what had come before.
The daily special, pork belly croquetas (three for £5.50), sat alongside El Gato's Scotch Eggs in testing the rules of our game of croquet. Larger than the standard croquetas, and probably better described as "Spanish schnitzel", they were basically a generous deep fried cut of pork, which was slighty dry despite some belly fat and the slice of apple on top. That said, like La Vina's other offerings, they were tasty nonetheless.
"What constitutes the definition of a croqueta in Spain?" we asked the excellent manageress,
"Oh, that would just be any kind of roll fried in breadcrumbs," came the explanation.
"So a Scotch Egg and a schnitzel would be a croqueta?"
"Yes, I suppose, if they are small parcel sized. I normally make chicken ones when I am at home."
"Bloody Hell", we thought, we better add KFC to the list of croquet hoops.
With eight restaurants in the group, it actually felt less like a chain than La Vina (who only have two branches). It was certainly quieter. One of their main marketing claims is "have we already mentioned we make amazing Croquetas de Jamón (ham croquettes)?" Well, actually, no they hadn't. Not that it would have made a difference, as we would have still come here to try them anyway.
But yes, as it transpires, they actually do make "amazing" croquetas. In fact, it could even be argued they are the best croquetas in Manchester.
Made to Nacho’s Grandmother’s recipe using Serano ham, they were slightly browned in parts but free from any grease. Noticeably delicate and as meaty and delicious as any we had tried earlier, they were incredible value at six for £6.50 + a London level service charge of 12.5% (making them by far the cheapest in town at £1.08 each).
Leaving Iberica not only impressed but pleasantly surprised, we crossed back over Deansgate to the busier, yet still relatively quiet, Tapeo & Wine - the authentic Spanish restaurant from undoubtedly the nicest man in football, Manchester United favourite, Juan Mata, and his family.
Taking our seat at the beautiful bar, we ordered their two croqueta options; of which the Croquetas de Jamón Ibérico were delightful (six for £8 + 10% service). Again, these were fantastic; delicately soft and packed with ham. You could say they were every bit as classy as the man himself, although I'm not sure United's no.8 has ever been compared to a deep fried ham and cheese parcel before, or at least not since Anderson vacated the shirt in 2014.
The beef and wild mushroom Croquetas de Temera y Setas (two for £3.50 + 10%) were less impressive on this occasion. Served absolutely piping hot, they were far too greasy. Although, on the flip side, it was a new flavour for us, and there was plenty of meat packed into their large square parcels - a new shape for us too.
"Do you think he will stay?" we asked the excellent barman, referring to Mata's long-running contract talks with United; rumours of him swapping Manchester's rain for Barcelona's sunshine given more credence by the fact his best friend and team mate, Ander Herrera, had already left on a free transfer. Incidentally, we had bumped into both players the last two times we were in Tapeo.
"I bloody hope so. For my job's sake and United's," came the reply.
"Do you not get any titbits from his Dad? Isn't he his agent too when he's not running this place?"
"I don't think they've made their mind up yet. Although I did place a £5 winning bet on Mourinho to be sacked after one interesting conversation."
As it transpired, Juan made his mind up just three days later, penning a new deal to stay at Old Trafford for at least another three years, which should please both United and tapas fans.
A brief diversion once more across Deansgate, down the little known Longworth Street, lead us to another footballer family-ran authentic Spanish tapas bar. The largely forgotten hidden gem, El Rincón de Rafa, was set up 25 years ago by Manchester City fan Rafael Cabrera-Vargas, who played for Stockport County in the 1960s and 70s.
Sadly, for us at least, the timeless restaurant was so busy there was no spare tables to be had. More importantly, the daily menu also lacked any croquetas - although we are told they normally sell chicken and ham, so will have to report back in the future on this one.
On the opposite side of Deansgate, another longstanding tapas institution, Evuna was also packed, so we had to wait until other customers had left. It gave us time to reflect on how beautiful a unit this bare brick walled wine merchant actually is. Like El Rincón, it had been so long since our last visit, it is easy to forget that amongst the competition from all the recent high profile fashionable swanky openings, some Manchester restaurants continue to thrive.
Seventeen years old this year, they have now grown to have three other sites, including Evuna Northern Quarter, itself six years old already(!!!) - which we missed out of our croquet game in favour of this original branch. We will add that to our next outing, as we have since learnt the menus are completely different, giving the chefs individual freedom.
Once seated, the friendly Valencian waitress brought us our final three croquetas of the night, which all came served with some much needed salad.
More rustic than the previous few offerings, the Serano ham croquetas (three for £5.95) were nice but a little bit too salty for our taste. At £1.98 each, they were also the most expensive in Manchester (apart from their Northern Quarter branch which charge a whopping £7.95 for three luxurious black footed Iberico ham croquetas), without touching the heights of those at a similar price point.
The other two options were both vegetarian; the chickpea Croquetas de Garbanzos (three for £5.25) were a spicy little number, reminiscent of a falafel - which technically is probably a croquette too - and the best of the lot, the Croquetas de Verduras (also three for £5.25), which were stuffed with healthy vegetables; the benefits of which are presumably lost somewhere along the way in the deep frying process.
With last orders about to be called, we'd missed the opportunity to visit Street on 1st, around the corner on First Street, for their Smoked Chicken & Sundried Tomato Croquettes (£6.50), whilst Porta Tapas in Salford would also have to be added to the "Croquetado List" (Croquetas del dia, three for £5.50), along with El Rincón and Sandinista (Croquetas De Jamon for £6), which we'd totally forgotten about, despite being to Lunya, just across the square. Fortunately, for our waistline, La Boca in the Northern Quarter doesn't sell croquetas however El Gato's Ancoats Portuguese sister, Canto, has a choice of Jamón and Mushroom croquetas (£5) on that side of town, as does brilliant Mexican diner El Capo (Salt Cod Croquettes, £6), and of course the aforementioned Evuna Northern Quarter.
Thinking it was the end of the game, we headed to Cask, just across the road from Evuna, to discuss the final results. As it transpires, the best tapas in town could arguably be found at the Castlefield bar. At just £1 their Croquetas de Gambas Rebozadas were packed with an incredible fishy punch and complemented the many Continental beers on offer.
Overall - with some more "hoops" of Manchester Croquet still to play (and let us know of any other venues we may have missed), the scoreboard so far, (based purely on the one plate of tapas we ordered) looks like this:
1) Cask ~ Croquetas de Gambas Rebozadas = £1 a packet
2) Iberica ~ Croquetas de Jamón Serano = £1.08 + 12.5% service
3) Tast ~ Croqueta de Pernil Ibèric = £1.90 + 10% service
4) Tast ~ Croqueta de Pollastre Rostit = £1.80 + 10%
5) El Gato Negro ~ Morcilla Scotch Eggs = £3.00 + 10% (a croqueta though?)
6) Tast ~ Croqueta de Pebrot Escalivat = £1.80 + 10%
7) Lunya ~ Croquetas of the day (Serano Ham & Cheese) = £1.39
8) Tapeo & Wine ~ Croquetas de Jamón Ibérico = £1.33 + 10%
9) La Bandera ~ Croquetas del Dia (Black Squid Croquetas) = £1.63
10) La Bandera ~ Croquetas del Dia (Cod Croquetas) = £1.63
11) La Bandera ~ Croquetas del Dia (Croquetas de Jamón Serano) = £1.63
12) Evuna Deansgate ~ Croquetas de Verduras = £1.75
13) Tapeo & Wine ~ Croquetas de Temera y Setas = £1.75 + 10%
14) Evuna Deansgate ~ Croquetas de Jamón Serano = £1.98
15) La Vina ~ Croquetas de Pollo = £1.25
16) La Vina ~ Croquetas de Cecina = £1.38
17) Evuna Deansgate ~ Croquetas de Garbanzos = £1.75
18) La Vina ~ Daily special (pork belly croquetas) = £1.83 (again, a croqueta?)
19) El Gato Negro ~ Salt Cod Croquetas = £1.70 + 10%
20) El Gato Negro ~ Jamón Ibérico Croquetas = £1.63 + 10%
TBA) Porta Tapas ~ Croquetas del Dia = £1.83
TBA) Sandinista ~ Croquetas De Jamon
TBA) El Rincón de Rafa ~ Chicken / Ham
TBA) Street on 1st ~ Smoked Chicken & Sundried Tomato Croquetas
TBA) El Capo ~ Salt Cod Croquettes
TBA) Evuna Northern Quarter ~ Croquetas de Jamón Ibérico = £2.65
TBA) Canto ~ Jamon / Mushroom
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