The Michelin guide in Manchester reads like an night-time astronomical report for their persistently dreary and overcast weather: No stars. It has a handful of recommendations for the city centre, though without us wishing to splash over a ton a head at Manchester House, we’re desperately short on options for a pre-gig Saturday lunch. We settle on El Gato Negro, a very popular Spanish restaurant housed in a townhouse on the nicer part of town. We are placed on to a corner table on the 1st floor, squeezing past the wine guzzling bigot who is happy to squeeze the staff a little too much and likes to share a view on Nazi Germany that would appeal to Trump fans. He singlehandedly ruined lunch until the food arrived and took over the baton.
The dishes we ate are much like the long list of my ex girlfriends; pretty but ultimately underwhelming. It is food that has had a boob job when a heart operation was required. Baby monkfish fillets look the part on a lipstick red salsa and caper dressing, but tastes of very little. Even the quenelle of tapenade on top is flat. We reach for the salt grinder – a move that we would become familiar with over a two hour lunch.
Considering nine dishes are ordered, the pace is awkward. Everything comes in ones, with large gaps between some. Morcilla scotch eggs come as three pert bosoms, nipples and all, straight out of Total Recall. The quails eggs are runny, the blood pudding mixture smooth but bland. The mushroom duxelle base tastes of nothing, as do dots of apple puree. It is a dish conceived on appearance, not flavour. Tomato bread suffers from being ordered two days after eating a brilliant one back home. It simply pales in comparison.
They do best when stripped back and unrefined. Padron peppers are occasionally fiery and always delicious because of (hurrah!) a liberal hand of sea salt. Same goes to a whole rack of pork ribs, slowly cooked and glazed in a sticky sherry glaze. We carve and gnaw to the bone. At thirteen pound it is the only time it feels like value. Onglet beef is in a puddle of a dark and heady sauce that we love but feels like a fifteen quid jaw workout thanks to some distinctly chewy meat.
Three vegetarian dishes highlight just how inconsistent lunch has been. Sweet potato is a victory of coherency, dressed in a mango and chilli yogurt dressing that simultaneously sharpens and soothes the root veg. The sauce with the patatas bravos is allegadly spiced, which may be the case if sugar were a spice, but were at least edible. Horror dish of the day is the one that I insist on because I liked the sound of it. In principal carrots, manchego, pesto and aubergine sound delicious together, had the latters purée not been watery and the carrots boiled to the point they are falling apart. They go unfinished.
Pricing here is keen with the bill hitting over £120 for the three of us and the portions on the small side. Afterwards we put my girlfriend’s mother on a train and watch The National play a perfect set of intelligent indie. It more than makes up for an incredibly lacklustre lunch. The food of Spain is one of vibrancy, colour and boldness – here it tries too hard to be stylish with very little reward. Not that my opinion counts for anything of course; on the afternoon we dine they are turning away customers. Obviously the people of Manchester see a very different restaurant to the one that I did.