“There are more things in Heaven and Earth Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Hamlet. The older I get the more I think, “Hamlet, how right you were.”
Take Portuguese food, for instance. Fifteen years ago I went to Lisbon with my squeeze and it was difficult to find anything interesting apart from salt cod, rice cakes and those delicious little custard tarts ‘pastels de nata’ which, thankfully, are ubiquitous now in the UK, although generally badly done.
The squeeze was going through a vegan phase at the time and she survived the whole week on lettuce and grated carrot, the acme of Portuguese vegan cuisine. This was odd given the Portuguese brought the chilli and the tomato to India, along with carne de vinha d’alhos, a pickle of pork, garlic and wine eaten on board ship which the Goans transformed to the fabulous vindaloo, a sour garlic and pork dish* that has nothing to do with Friday night after the pub.
So when I was invited to the launch of Canto, a new Portuguese restaurant next to Rudy’s in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, I wondered what on earth we would eat. As it turned out, there are more things in Portuguese cuisine than either of us had dreamt of, Horatio. It helps that Canto’s owner is Simon Shaw who also owns El Gato Negro, the excellent tapas bar in King St, and that head chef Carlos Gomes and four of his team come from the fabled, Michelin-starred Barrafina in Soho. This boded well.
I was not disappointed. The venue is a large room with full height windows (not as post-industrial chic as Rudy’s), tiles on the bar and also on the wall behind. Where El Gato has a certain cosiness, this is more open and will no doubt be buzzing when full.
We were treated to a tasting menu of the chef’s choice, kicking off with the Portuguese equivalent of jamon Iberico, 30-month cured ham from the bisaro pig which grazes wild on acorns like the Iberian pata negra, and tastes very similar. That nutty umami flavour and firm texture go well with the sourdough from Pollen, of course, and a whipped butter. I ate lots of that.
The prawn turnover was less successful, lacking prawn I thought, but the cod and onion tempura in a tomato broth was a perfect combination of acid and fat. Octopus lagareiro was a big purple tentacle on a griddled potato, described on the menu as roasted, but not really. There was less to this than met the eye; the octopus was well-cooked but not particularly interesting. On the other hand, the pork belly braised in Bairrada wine, which made a dark syrupy sauce, was utterly scrummy. More, please.
Apart from the pork, the outstanding dishes were the puddings and the cheese. We were given two ice creams made from toasted barley and sour cherry, and two sorbets, quince and fig, all of which were remarkable on the palate. There was a proper pastel de nata, probably the best one I’ve ever eaten, and some delicious cheese, particularly a serra da estrella, a raw sheep’s milk cheese which I have never had before.
In the cellar they have a good selection of Portuguese reds and whites, including a sparkling red which is not like Lambrusco at all, being somewhat drier, and a delectable 2017 Dao. But the stars were the Moscatels and the Reserva Madeiras.
Canto is small plate territory, and will most likely cost about £50 per person with wine if you eat like I do – but you could do it for a lot less. It also takes reservations, so if you’re planning to go to Hope Mill Theatre which is just up the road, it would be a good place to eat, before or after.
* The best pork vindaloo recipe in the world, Mrs Balbir Singh’s Indian Cookery, was first published here in 1961 and is now desperately in need of a reprint it’s on page 71. You can find the book on Abe and I can’t recommend it enough as she really knew her stuff. She was India’s first TV chef. I’ve been using her book for almost 50 years, and people kill to eat my curry, don’t they Horatio?