The first time I ate Mary-Ellen McTague‘s food I was not long back in the North and nursing a bad break-up as well as a conscious uncoupling from my long-term London job. It’s safe to say I was in need of sustenance for both body and soul. I found it at Aumbry, McTague’s erstwhile and widely acclaimed Prestwich eatery. In that compact and bijou converted cottage, just a stone’s throw from where I grew up, I discovered culinary nirvana in the town where I used to do the weekly big shop with me mum. I still can’t believe that Michelin saw fit to overlook Aumbry when dishing out its coveted stars.
McTague’s newish restaurant in south Manchester’s Chorlton is a far cry from Aumbry’s country-style chic and painted wooden floorboards. In this former creamery, the, er, Creameries is all polished concrete, stroke-me wooden tables and hanging planters, the latter of which are no doubt available on nearby Beech Road, a street that (allegedly) sells more copies of The Guardian than anywhere else in the country. I love it.
This stripped-back decor still manages to be all sorts of come-hither; just the right side of coquettish while deftly maintaining its urban street smarts. It’s the kind of place that, if it was a person, would be the charming Jeff Goldblum mashed up with musician Nick Drake with a soupçon of Liam Gallagher before he became a bit shit.
I’m here with another Northern Soul-er, Andy Murray (no, not the Scottish tennis guy although he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake), to review The Creameries‘ festive menu. I’m driving so, guttingly, have to forego the wine flight but I do manage a few sips of some of the alcohol on offer, including the introductory glass of Lemoss Prosecco, a tipple made in a traditional way including an unfiltered bottling which results in its cloudy appearance. It tickles my tongue to the extent that I silently curse the bald fact of my Fiesta on a neighbouring road. Damn you Beyoncé (what, you don’t name your cars after female singers?).
But before I’m too drunk in love with the aperitif, a ramekin of lime pickle straw potatoes makes an appearance and I’m quickly lost in the wonderment of these itty-bitty bits of flavour. They are closely followed by Old Winchester gougères or, as my dad would say, cheese puffs, as well as pickles. Mmm, pickles. The word doesn’t do justice to the wee bowl sat invitingly between me and not-Andy Murray. It reminds me of the Korean staple, Kimchi. Although, if I’m being honest, I’m a sucker for Morrisons’ pickled onions and Branston eaten straight from the jar. There is also the I-can’t-believe-this-butter-is-this-good accompanied by sourdough bread which, with varying degrees of success, I attempt not to hoof in a manner unbecoming to a serious food critic.
Then come the split pea chips with mushroom ketchup, courtesy of manager Kim. I’ll admit, I wanted to pooh-pooh this course. In a Peter Kay-stylee (“Garlic bread? Garlic bread? Garlic? Bread?”), I was poised to lament the absence of proper chips and ketchup. I’d have eaten my words if my mouth hadn’t been full of the most inexplicable chippy goodness. It doesn’t hurt that the dish resembles a game of Jenga that I could feasibly win.
In a flashback to Aumbry’s superlative home-smoked mackerel with roast celeriac, pickled beets and mustard cream, the next course substituted celeriac for teeny balls of rye. It was like greeting an old friend. Similarly, the roast cauliflower cheese soup sprinkled with cauliflower ash transported me to Aumbry’s frolicsome potato and wild garlic soup. Silence enveloped our table. Computer says no…but, lordy, how does she do that? This was to become a common refrain.
I suppose it should come as no surprise that a chef who worked with Heston Blumenthal and has numerous other strings to her gastronomic bow should produce such delectable dishes. Maybe it’s because we don’t expect to find cooking of this quality on a busy road in a Manchester suburb? More shame us. By the time not-a-Wimbledon-winner-Andy’s roast Lyme Park venison is served, we are avowed Creameries’ acolytes. But perhaps most impressive is the pitch-perfect cooking of the cavolo nero, a variety of kale (the leaves presented like a glove that could be slipped on to combat the cold winter weather). For me, however, this course sounded the sole bum note in an otherwise astonishing meal. Maybe it’s because I’m of that Northern ilk who prefers pies with minimal pastry and maximum filling (the latter ideally slathering all over the plate) but the celeriac and fermented shiitake butter pie was all outside and little inside.
Nevertheless, the subsequent Christmas Pudding (which I usually give a wide berth) with brandy sauce clouded my minor misgiving much in the same way that a photo of Tom Cruise circa 1986 (obvs not now given his uncanny resemblance to Sandi Toksvig) diverts my brain from pretty much, oh, anything. As McTague explains to us, she substitutes breadcrumbs for flour, the result being a light and airy pud which, according to my notes means that she has either ‘solved’ Christmas Pudding or ‘so loves’ Christmas Pudding. My handwriting isn’t what it was.
Before we depart (me to a drive of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Andy to what I can only assume is a non-tennis-related activity), there’s Mrs Beeton’s mincemeat pie and a toasted hazelnut semifreddo to sneak in under the ‘no I’m full I really couldn’t’ radar. But the most memorable part of this parting course is the shot-sized hot buttered rum. “This is what Harry Potter’s Butterbeer must taste like,” I say in wonderment to Andy-definitely-and-absolutely-not-the-Scottish-tennis-player. He concurs. And with that we depart The Three Broomsticks, um, The Creameries, feeling like we’ve tasted magic.
Photos by Helen Nugent and Robert Hamilton. Main image courtesy of The Creameries.
For booking, prices and more information about The Creameries, click here.