Times are hard for restaurants. So, last week, when I was invited to the opening of a third Simon Shaw eating experience (he already owns El Gato Negro on King St and Canto in Ancoats), I was, like, ‘awesome’ and also ‘WTF?’. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to open one resto in Manchester is foolhardy, but to open three…
Habas Bar and Restaurant is situated on Brown Street in the city centre. It’s a listed building so you can’t just rip everything out and start again, which is one of the reasons that Shaw’s company has owned the place for four years and is only now opening the venue.
I’ll admit that they’ve done a nice job on the interior. There’s a lounge with lots of comfy soft furnishings and quirky objects d’art (the contents of Shaw’s attic, he says) and the restaurant area is large but not crowded with tables. The cuisine is from those parts of the Mediterranean that the other restaurants don’t reach. Mostly the Maghreb, Lebanon and Turkey.
I attended the press launch where we started with a mezze of hummus, labneh and baba ganoush with pickles and various breads and a hot sauce from the Yemen called zhug. The pastes were perfectly fine (it’s hard to make them extraordinary) but the breads were particularly good and the zhug zhinged.
Then came filo cigars, which were extraordinary. An eight-inch tube of filo pastry stuffed with feta, spinach and tomato, which is then deep-fried and served with a red pepper relish. You look at this thing and wonder at its ordinariness. Then you bite into it, and it works.
The prawn and crab fritters looked like falafel, so that was another surprise. They were rich and creamy, and can I have another six please? The chargrilled monkfish tail which followed nearly brought my dining companions and I to blows. It was served with a piquant and delicious tamarind and tomato sauce, which, as much as I loved it, did the fish no favours. My colleagues at the table disagreed. Vehemently. You see it’s not all fun and bonhomie at these bunfights.
There was that stalwart of the tapas bar, wilted spinach with toasted peanuts, and a bulgur salad with roasted cauliflower and pomegranate, which could have come straight out of a cookery column in The Guardian. Then, the chicken schnitzel. Schnitzel is a German word meaning ‘little slice’ and chicken schnitzel is a common dish in Israel and Turkey, while Lebanon, having once been a French colony, calls it an escalope. Either way, this bit of flattened chicken in breadcrumbs served with chilli and lime butter could have come from anywhere, my stomach didn’t care. It was nicely spicy and actually tasted of chicken, which is rare in this kind of cut.
As usual with Middle Eastern food the dessert menu was quite short. We were given a chocolate babka, a slice of brioche with chocolate running through it. I could eat it for breakfast every day and die early but happy. Other dishes on the menu included baklava, Turkish delight, a panna cotta and a fig tart.
We were privileged to have a wine pairing with the tasting menu, which featured a particularly good Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, unusual as it was more in the French style. At the end, we were served a Pedro Ximenez sherry, which was lighter than the ones you normally get, with lots of flavours running through it.
This would be a jolly nice place to spend an evening out with your squeeze, whether it’s a first date or an anniversary. It’s comfy, the food is good and reasonably priced. You’d get away with £35 a head plus wine, and there’s a £15 lunch deal that looks attractive. Oh, and the service is excellent.
So, what’s next for serial restaurateur Simon Shaw? Greece and the Balkans are under-represented in Manchester culinary circles. I’d love to sample his take on hünkar beğendi.