There’s much to savour at Thomas

01 May 2010 | By neil in food & drink

(As previously published on the Taste of Manchester website)

Thomas's restaurant Manchester interiorThomas and not a mutton chop or a waistcoat in sight. It doesn’t seem right.

Indeed, it’s momentarily disconcerting to find the Northern Quarter namesake of the Cross Street chophouse shorn of Victorian clutter.

The absence of the deferential Mr says it all. This place is not going to be offering artery-hardening fare to gents in pinstripes or packing in ale-seeking heritage tourists out for a night on the cracked tiles. It’s casual drinking and dining for the suitless set.

Co-owners Rybka-Goldsmith, Goldsmith-Rybka and Astill may sound like a firm of solicitors but Nicky, Yvonne and Paul have been round the NQ block (indeed it seems sometimes they run most of the block) and they know their audience. The blank grey and glass frontage with no sign above and only a hint of Thomas’s branding etched on the window, is unremittingly cool. Like NoHo Bar over in Stevenson Square, if it trumpets its industrial chic then the trumpet is courtesy of Miles Davis on minimalist mute.

In truth, it’s rather easy just to walk straight past and be tempted by tea at Teacup (definitely what it says on the label, alas!) or Ginger Beer at the new Marble. Yet Thomas’s, by its name, aims to be the epicentre of the Thomas Street drag, providing quality casual dining in competition with the long-established Northern Quarter Restaurant and Bar.

Architecturally it’s bold, but you have to venture inside to discover that. A lot’s been spent. Perhaps the increasingly shabby state of Nicky and Yvonne’s original boho venture a few doors away, the Bay Horse, was due to them saving up their pennies for this. Business partner Paul Astill (Cord around the corner is another shared venture) designed the space. He’s nothing if not eclectic. Apotheca, also incestuously along the road, shows one facet of his talents, the blingy dungeon that is the Inner Circle on Deansgate another, while the Horse and Jockey down in Chorlton is a delightfully different renovation.

At Thomas he has taken a three-storey former rag-trade premises, taken out the middle floor and inserted a soaring glass extra frontage behind the existing one. As a self-confessed claustrophobe, I loved its clean lines. I prefer downstairs, with its well-spaced tables, to upstairs but since the sun was cracking the Thomas Street flags outside we took a (sheltered) table in the space between frontages.

Like Bay Horse and Cord its beer range is unambitious. Odd (changing cask) or Walrus (with its eclectic bottles) are a better bet. But Thomas’s wine list has its treats, particularly the Errazuriz Wild Ferment Chardonnay (£23.50 a bottle, £7.90 a glass). If that sounds a bit steep for a glass, note that all glasses come as large (250ml), which is bad news for unit watchers. I wasn’t watching my units. The first sun for a while filtering through a goldfish bowl of creamy Chilean white was a true welcome to the wild ferment of spring. The Wild Ferment of the wine title refers to the natural wild yeasts used in its production before some judicious French oak ageing.

Its smoky intensity and pineapple notes rather overwhelmed slightly bland smoked haddock and salmon fishcakes (£5.50) when I first dropped in on the restaurant. Ham hock terrine (25p cheaper) had been off then, but on this re-visit matched surprisingly well with the big chardonnay despite the sweet-sour acidity of fresh piccalilli and beetroot. At the team’s previous venture Soup Kitchen (NQ canteen with Saturday night candle-lit blow-outs), chef Gareth Phillips’ cheffing pedigree, from working under Simon Rimmer and Michelin-starred Atul Kutcher, often seemed to be going to waste. Now it’s time to up his game.

The fibrously fabulous ham hock terrine shows his deft touch with pork products but my melting main of Crisp Belly of Pork (£9.95) surpassed it. Wonderful crackling, sharp mustard sauce on parsnip mash were accompanied neatly by the sweet fruit of Banda Azul rioja (£5.90), recommended by a front of house fellow who prefers to be known as Spanish (honest, perhaps he has shares in the vineyard). On the first visit service was, at the kindest, dreamy. This time, under the Spanish Inquisition, staff were alert and engaged.

Halibut is a fish that’s so easy to cook dry. For £13.50 chef Phillips gets it just juicy while partnering it with clams and, a slightly unassertive sauce aside, it works well. Another fish dish, the pan-fried mackerel starter (£4.95), was less successful, a touch overcooked and hard, avocado cream and coriander salsa doing nothing for it. The pudding range sticks to simplicity; a selection of Cheshire Farm Dairy Ice Creams, vanilla creme brulee, chocolate brownie, a cheesecake of the day – all under a fiver – or a board of three local cheeses. I chose the creme brulee and wasn’t disappointed; the cheesecake of the day, Grand Marnier, was a shy little dish, in contrast.

Thomas, then? Casual dining, yes. Sloppy dining, no. As yet not wildly ambitious, and the drinking market is obviously important, but the food is already good enough to make this a foodie destination. Which must be a good thing for the NQ in its ongoing struggle to avoid being the Deansgate Lock of the Noughties.

Thomas Restaurant and Bar
49-51 Thomas Street
Manchester
M4 1NA
0161 839 7033
www.thomasrestaurant.co.uk

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