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Cafe Jem & I, Didsbury, Reviewed

Deanna Thomas takes the long view but wants some catch-up

Written by . Published on February 24th 2014.

Cafe Jem & I, Didsbury, Reviewed

TO APPRECIATE any cultural shift, it’s important to know what went on beforehand.

The food is safe. They’re not hugely active on Twitter, still put sprigs of flat leaf parsley and mint on dishes and proudly display awards the chef got back in 1999.

Let me whisk you back in time to Manchester’s restaurant scene at the turn of the century before we got Roganised. Aiden Byrne was working the stoves down in London and Oliver Peyton’s Mash and Air proved to be about a decade before its time.

All eyes were on a brand new restaurant in a previously underutilised space in Lincoln Square. The Lincoln was the trendy new place to be seen with its huge glass windows and Modern British menu. Heading up the kitchen was a bright young local, Jem O’Sullivan who was causing a stir as the one to watch.



Eventually, Jem and his missus opened their own restaurant ‘Jem & I’ in Didsbury village. Exciting things were expected, rave reviews were issued (including ones from Gordo) and they were consistently recognised by the Michelin Guide.

Jem & I was the only restaurant in Manchester to be awarded a Bib Gourmand between 2003-2006, which lists venues offering value for money and a high level of culinary skill. Then, nothing much happened.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s one hell of an achievement for any restaurant to celebrate its 10 year anniversary and they were busy enough to extend in 2006 but no-one seems to be talking about Jem & I much. Apart from their own website, nothing new comes up in a Google search and no restaurant collecting bloggers have gone near it.



The first signs were not great when I phoned on Friday afternoon for a table during Sunday lunchtime. Being asked what time I would like to dine, rather than being told, illustrated it wasn’t busy. I’ll have to give them the benefit of the doubt as the waitress told me it was ‘unusually quiet’ and assured me when I asked that it had been rammed the week before.

The menu lists box ticking bistro favourites such as chicken liver parfait (£4.95) and seared scallops (£7.95) with dishes that most people wouldn’t really struggle to knock up at home such as king prawns in garlic butter (£6.95). The soup of the day was asparagus (£4.95), perhaps the day in question was a sun kissed one in May rather than present day February.

That led me to choose the one starter that would illustrate some kind of discernible skill, beetroot falafels with tzatziki, rocket and feta (£4.95). These were light and the most gorgeous pink colour, but the magic was the hidden feta inside keeping them moist and tangy. My husband stifled a guffaw as I enthusiastically invited him to “smell my dill” but I was just digging the dressing.

Beetroot FalafelBeetroot falafel

The other starter we chose was frito misto – brie, mozzarella and courgette fritters with dipping sauces (£4.95), main picture above. This was as golden and crisp as you’d want deep fried cheese to be, but the accompanying dips were misjudged. Mayonnaise is just mayonnaise and the red onion jam was so sweet it could have gone unnoticed by a veteran WI judging a Victoria sponge.

Mains were a bit more exciting and suitably designed to offer all you’d expect at lunchtime on a Sunday. We ordered roast sirloin of beef with Yorkshire pudding and fresh horseradish (a reasonable £13.95). The beef was perfectly cooked but lacking in taste. We’d have been happy to pay a quid extra for a better hung beast. The saucer sized Yorkshire pudding was impressive but a little dry so was helped along by decent gravy.

Roast Beef

Roast Beef

I ordered pheasant breast and leg with coq au vin sauce which was a generous portion for £9.95. The legs were tender and the right side of gamey but the breast was tough enough to put up some resistance. The sauce was a good amalgamation of gamey juices, smoky bacon, mushrooms and caramelised shallots.

Both main courses were piping hot and accompanied by a sharing dish of vegetables including a chunky and smooth carrot puree, shredded Savoy, green beans and deliciously cheesy cauliflower cheese.

Pleasant Pheasant

Pleasant pheasant

The wine list is a real pleasure to read and great value for money per bottle. I decided upon a Lancashire blush cider (it’s pale so the blush comes from them charging £4.90 per bottle) which washed the pheasant down perfectly and our waitress recommended a glass of easy going Malbec (£4.95) with the beef.

Blush Cider

Blush cider

There wasn’t much lime in my unseasonal raspberry and lime crème brulee (£3.95) but it came with a raspberry sorbet so sparkly, fresh and sherbetty it could moonlight as a children’s entertainer on happy pills. Apple and pear crumble with custard was not pretty and I couldn’t get any less run of the mill description out of my husband than “nice” - a word that stabs the heart of any chef with culinary ambition.

Crumble Bumble

Crumble Bumble

This brings me back to my initial concern.

Jem O’Sullivan is clearly a skilled chef; he understands flavour and technique, has collated a steady following of regulars and his restaurant is listed in various eminent publications. But his food is safe. They’re not hugely active on Twitter, still put sprigs of flat leaf parsley and mint on dishes and proudly display awards he got back in 1999.

Now Manchester has upped its game on the dining front, I hope that Jem realises it’s 2014, takes a risk and delivers on his undoubted potential.

Now is the time.

You can follow Deanna Thomas on Twitter @deannathomas 


Jem & I, 1C School Lane, Didsbury M20 6RD. 0161 445 3996

Rating: 14/20 (remember venues are rated against the best examples of their type - see yellow box below)

Food: 7/10 (frito misto 7.5, falafel 8, pheasant  8, beef 7, brulee 6, crumble 6)
Service: 4/5  
Ambience: 3/5 

PLEASE NOTE: Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20, we get carried away.


Vegetables (Like your minimalist dish descriptions this time, Deanna. Ed)

Brulee And Super SorbetBrulee and super sorbet

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30 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousFebruary 24th 2014.

It's not "potential" if it's already a success. I've been there time and time again, and having been in and around the restaurant business for nearly 20 years I think I know a thing or two about a good restaurant. The review harks back to the snide cynical types of reviews that were around in the 90's.

Henry VFebruary 24th 2014.

Can't say I agree with you there anon, Jem is in danger of being overtaken, the menu is early 'noughties. Having said that, I have never had a bad meal, but really feel Jem needs to stretch himself. It has been a bit quiet on my three visits last year.

Simon TurnerFebruary 24th 2014.

I live close, there's a lot more competition locally than 15 years ago. I can't be the only local diner who translates the lack of sparkle about Jem & I as coasting. Being around for a while doesn't necessarily put you at the back of the queue; compare with the Lime Tree, as busy as ever.

1 Response: Reply To This...
FoodieFebruary 24th 2014.

Agree, number 4 restaurant next door is fantastic too

AnonymousFebruary 24th 2014.

There are many many restaurants in Manchester are in less interesting, less tasty, less value for money plates of food. All I want from a meal is to know for sure that it tastes good, not moan that it's dated, let's bin all the antiques and knock down the Historical buildings of Manchester and replace with the soulless mundanity of the latest gadgets and gizmos and bland rectanglulaire high rise buildings, lets bin Christmas, that's had its day. Old is good. Tradition is good. Jem osulivans food is good. Try France. Try Italy. 90% of the food is traditional and the majority of all the food is excellent. Seasoning, flavour balance and cooking degree is the only important factor of good food. And I stress important

FoodieFebruary 24th 2014.

1990s on the phone : they want their deep fried cheese recipe back

FoodieFebruary 24th 2014.

The brûlée is hidden under the mint leaf

Gavin HarrisonFebruary 25th 2014.

I am off to Jem & I on Friday for my Birthday, having been twice previously and I have to say the Fillet Steak is one of the best I have had!! Looking forward to Friday!!

Simon MendelsonFebruary 25th 2014.

Went there with friends a while ago. Was not impressed. Ended up with fish & chips as I could not find anything else of any interest & that was over prised for what you got. Not been back & have no intention of going back. Pity really for the heart of Didsbury they have little or no imagination but they know how to charge. Any business is hard to make a buck. There are so many better restaurants offering attractive food & prices to match. The owner of this place needs to wake up asap

AnonymousFebruary 25th 2014.

I feel that Jem is getting somewhat vilified here for doing a pretty good job over the years. We went a few weeks back and had a really nice lunch at amazing value. Pan Fried Liver with cassoulet and chicken and chorizo stew were packed with flavour and meat and I think were around £6 0r £7. Agree with the article in some aspects, like dated rosettes and some safe dishes, but Jem has a clear talent which would be a loss to Didsbury’s dining scene should he give up. Along with No.4 and 156 on Burton Road, he more than holds his own skill wise but yeah, maybe a little more creativity and tweaking, rather than reinvention may be a good thing. I'd go back again no problem. Seems it's in vogue to reprimand rather than praise...

4 Responses: Reply To This...
Deanna ThomasFebruary 25th 2014.

Your comments mirror the review perfectly. 'really nice lunch', 'amazing value', 'dated rosettes', 'safe dishes', 'clear talent', 'a little more creativity'. Can't see any vilification or reprimand though.

James DillonFebruary 25th 2014.

I think the article is pretty fair Deanna, I'm making reference more to the comments from both Simons and Foodie. I can't agree with Simon Turners ' there's a lot more competition locally than 15 years ago ' with the likes of Nido ( Closed ) Cibo, Expo and Didsbury Lounge the more recent newcomers to the village offering nothing more than mundane, Jem & I has little to aspire to. Rose & Lime over West way are excellent, but I'd not categorise these with Jem & I. I just hope Jem takes on board the review and comments and gives us reason to discuss his restaurant and food for a further 10 years…

Deanna ThomasFebruary 25th 2014.

me too James :-)

Simon TurnerFebruary 25th 2014.

James, I was thinking of Gusto, Rose Garden particularly. I'm not sure why you wouldn't categorise the Rose Garden or the Lime Tree with Jem & I. Why not?

Jane JacksonFebruary 25th 2014.

£6 express lunch is the best quality/value in Manchester that I know, you even get lovely glasses, flowers and tablecloths as well as excellent house wine. What's not to like?

1 Response: Reply To This...
ImaJenFebruary 26th 2014.

I definitely agree. Always recommending the express lunch to friends and family. In fact the last time we popped in for lunch, they didn't have a single table available. Seemed very busy indeed. Excellent food, good sized portions and fantastic value. This is one of my mid-week treats in Didsbury and I really hope they continue the express lunch concept for many years to come. Excellent wine also!

Simon TurnerFebruary 25th 2014.

The (West) Didsbury restaurant that's hardest to fathom is Azzurro. Family run, started well (was it 8, 9 years ago?), accent on fresh ingredients, and they just seemed to lose interest, opening times vary, not very pro-active, same set menu in the window year in and year out. Anyone been there recently?

1 Response: Reply To This...
Wall-EFebruary 25th 2014.

Still go. Great steak night on Fridays. Lovely fish too. They only open friday and Saturday now though which is a waste. Lucky they can afford that.

AnonymousFebruary 25th 2014.

Love Jem & I, dine there often and food & service is fab :)

1 Response: Reply To This...
FoodieFebruary 25th 2014.


FoodieFebruary 27th 2014.


Andy WhitfieldFebruary 27th 2014.

Bit of a harsh review, esp. the pointless "twitter" comment. Everytime I have been I have been impressed but do agree it needs something "new" injecting. Like one comment says No. 4. is a good alternative.

AnonymousMarch 11th 2014.

This was our fav place a few years ago, but we always went for an early bird. Our first sat night was a complete disaster. We waited ages to be seated then had to eat in the bar. Starters were fine, we ordered wine, but when the mains came there was so much salt in the sauce I had to send it back. It came this time with sauce in a jug, but still full of salt. I had to complain I just couldn't eat it. The waitress came back & told me that the kitchen was closing so I couldn't have a main. £50 later 2 starters & a bottle of wine & had to go to the chippy on the way home. Sorry but that did it for me. Alberts every time!

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