Attracted by a frenzy of residential development, Ancoats, an inner suburb of central Manchester, is home to a fast-multiplying cluster of restaurants keen to serve the young professionals now living locally.
Around emerging hub Cutting Room Square, this savvy clientele has some particularly interesting options: Neapolitan pizza aces Rudy’s, southern Italian specialists Sugo Pasta, feted bakery-café Trove and soon Mana (run by Noma alumni Simon Martin). This being Manchester, do not be surprised if Ancoats is soon renamed as the Gastronomic Quarter.
Canto, a spin-off from chef Simon Shaw’s Spanish restaurant El Gato Negro, is similarly distinctive. Its modern Portuguese cooking is fresh for Manchester and head chef Carlos Gomes is a recruitment coup. Prior to moving to El Gato Negro in 2017, the Porto-born, 31-year-old was head chef at the Michelin-starred Dean Street Barrafina, from where he has recruited Canto’s sous and junior sous. He also worked at Soho Japanese restaurant Koya.
Having met Shaw through a friend (at Taberna do Mercado, fittingly), Gomes decided to leave London to achieve a better work-life balance for his young family. Shaw is confident he will take the responsibility of running Canto in his stride. “Carlos has a quiet confidence about him and an attention to detail that’s hard to find,” he says. “The man’s a genius.”
Bearded, bespectacled Gomes certainly exudes calm self-possession. Better still, his menu of petiscos (Portuguese tapas/small plates) and larger dishes, has a gutsy feel that should transfer well to northern England.
“The coast is lighter with lots of fresh fish, but northern Portuguese food is heavier, especially in the farming interior,” he explains. For all the slick presentation and contemporary flourishes at Canto, Gomes is not afraid of fat, carbs and salty, intensely savoury flavours; Canto’s beef and pork sandwiches (Portugal’s iconic prego and bifana); potatoes in quivering miso hollandaise; and his suckling pig turnover (think: a five-star Findus Crispy Pancake), will speak to Manchester’s soul.
Simultaneously, foodies will coo over the fine Portuguese produce: sweet chestnut-fed, air-dried Bísaro ham, Madeiran caco (a sweet potato-based sourdough bread), and São Jorge cheese. Dishes such as salt cod and onion tempura in tomato broth – its simple flavours brilliantly clear and precise – or octopus served over garlic purée with tiny pickled onions add further (challenging) layers of interest.
The entirely Portuguese wine list may seem brave, but Gomes trusts that restaurant manager Kelly Warner, an internal promotion from El Gato Negro, will be able to sell this to less adventurous guests. Britain’s relative ignorance of Portuguese food has been addressed on the menu, which clearly translates most dishes while retaining some Portuguese terminology.
In a similar way, the styling of this single-level, open-plan space fluidly reconciles its dual heritage. Its hip, boxy, bare concrete look is overlaid with Portuguese touches, such as a wall of Alentejo cork, blue azulejo tiles, and others illustrating scenes from Manchester and Porto (both rainy, northern post-industrial cities).
Gomes is predicting a £25 spend per head, more if people splash out on decent wine (Canto’s compact list nonetheless tops out at £49 a bottle). Those modest figures are indicative of how – weekend brunch, takeaway menu soon – Gomes wants Canto to be a neighbourhood restaurant. That will not be easy. Manchester is not London.
Eating out is not an everyday activity, yet. But Canto’s 110 covers, including bar-counter service at the open kitchen, were designed with flexibility in mind. “They’ll be tables for walk-ins, 100%,” says Gomes. “I’d be upset if I couldn’t get into a restaurant in my neighbourhood because it’s all booked out.”
Footfall is building quickly, but will the eventual resident population sustain this many venues? Will office workers use them at lunch (Canto will be dinner only, initially)? Is Great Ancoats Street, a busy road that separates the area from the Northern Quarter, a psychic barrier for Mancunians? Time will tell, but Canto feels cleverly pitched to succeed regardless.
Fairbairn Building, Henry Street, Manchester
On the menu
30 months-cured Bísaro DOP ham £10
Suckling pig turnover £3.50
Salt cod and onion tempura
with tomato broth £5
Batatas a murro (punched potatoes and miso) £4.50
Beef steak prego on caco bread £9.50
Octopus lagareiro, roasted potatoes, garlic, pickled baby onions £10
Clams Bulhão Pato, white wine, olive oil, coriander £11
Polenta, spinach, poached egg, São Jorge cheese £5.50
Pastel de nata £3.50