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City Cafe review

Jonathan Schofield is delighted by buttery lamb but names no names at Piccadilly

Written by . Published on August 17th 2010.

City Cafe review

“Hello, may I take your name?” asked a waiter brusquely.

“We’ve just wandered in, all we want is a table.”

“I’ll have to take your name?”

“You don’t need it.”

“But,” said the young waiter with the identity obsession, “I need to have a name to put in the book.”

“Well, I’m not giving it, we’re not staying here and putting the meal on a room, I didn’t book ahead, so you don’t need it. We just want dinner. Take us to a table will you fella or we may have to leave?”

It was meat so lovingly prepared that it repaid the tender compliment and melted like fleshy butter in the mouth of the diner. The herb crust danced along with it, and there was a proper layer of fat too, to complete the flavour.

It was about to get ugly at City Cafe in City Inn. Just then, another member of staff noting the combustible nature of the exchange intervened and led us off.

Perhaps the incident says something of 2010’s manifold contradictions.

Government agencies, banks trying to sell you stuff, MPs jumping on the bandwagon and media commentators are forever going on about protecting your identity - blah, blah, blah. They’re amongst that modern tribe of quaking jelly-fish half-people that would have us locking ourselves in our own homes for fear of all the horrors in the world. At their worst these people are like medieval witch-finder generals finding sin and suspicious behaviour everywhere.

Yet at the same time there’s a contradictory desire among government and businesses to ‘data capture’ - to grab a piece of you. Official agencies while warning you of identity theft go galloping off to gather your details. I just wish they’d be bloody open about it and if people say no, leave it.

The lad at the lectern might not have been data capturing but it felt like he was with his tone, it felt intrusive, out of place, especially on a pleasant evening with two people who merely wanted to be fed. He should have known when to back off – the management need a word.

The naming incident was a shame, the only negative in the whole City Inn experience. After that it was hard to fault the service as it settled down into chatty efficiency. And the food was extremely good.

I’ve been to City Inn several times since it opened and mainly its provided decent enough food nothing more. Fairly recent chef Phil Green and established pastry chef Mandy Whittaker seem to have given it a major boost. I recall a preoccupation with Scottish foods last time (that's where City Inn originated): the team now seem freed from that constricting regional tyranny. There was a cleverness and delicacy on this visit absent on previous ones and also playfulness.

The main of herb-crusted lamb (£14.95) was exceptional. It was meat so lovingly prepared that it repaid the tender compliment and melted like fleshy butter in the mouth of the diner. The herb crust danced along with it, and there was a proper layer of fat too, to complete the flavour.

But along with the lamb on this dish arrived a minty piece of delicate and crafty lamb cannelloni, a wash of creamy carrot puree and a strong basil-inflected gravy. Have a go at this dish if you get chance.

A starter of pea veloute, aka posh pea soup, with haddock (£5.50) was fun and lovely too. The bowl came with fish and peas sat at the bottom in liquid-free isolation. Then the waiter poured the soupy bit, the veloute – which is French for velvety – over the top. The feather light stock thickened with a roux was absolutely delicious, and made the fresh peas and the haddock meat shine. It was a subtle, gentle and fulfilling little intro into the meal.

My dining companion’s starter of roast wood pigeon and onion tart (£6.95) and main of seafood paella (£13.95) were both good as well. The pigeon, tart, quail’s egg and cured bacon was a minor epic of a starter. The seafood paella with trout, chorizo, mussels and crispy salt and pepper squid provided an interesting array of well-handled components. But paella is communal food, almost street grub, and all snobbed-up like this it seemed a bit of a curiosity on the otherwise showy menu.

The shared pudding of raspberry Eton Mess with raspberry vacherin (£5.50) was as finely engineered as the other food. Put together with imagination and bursting with controlled sweetness it was perfect for the season and lush in the way all such desserts should be. It looked an absolute picture too. The quality was emphasised by a glass of fine orange Muscat wine (£5).

The Maverick Twin Shiraz (£31.50) was a splendid red accompaniment to the principal part of the meal, all fruits, bit peppery too, and with real depth of flavour.

As for the decor in the City Cafe, the evening lighting has been dimmed so the stark white paint job makes it less a place for open-heart surgery and more one for dining. It could still do with more vivid artworks to lift the torpor of the too tasteful pale tones.

But dwelling over that Muscat dessert wine it struck me that there’s a whole thing going on with hotel restaurants at the moment. Time was a decade or so ago, I’d never think of going to a hotel restaurant in the city. Apart from the French at the Midland it was all carvery nonsense or sort of motorway service station food with a heap of bollocks sub-silver service thrown in.

At the Ramada Piccadilly they’re still stuck in the old groove (click here for Flic Everett’s hilarious review earlier in the year).But certain restaurants with rooms attached are now setting the agenda. Clearly national or international chains can afford the investment better than restaurant-only independents. Given that chefs are all nutters with their own ideas this allows individuality to thrive backed up by substantial resource.

River Restaurant at The Lowry, Podium at The Hilton, MC at Abode are all worthy of recommendation. City Inn’s City Cafe has joined this company. It’s a real cracker.

Next time though I’ll go prepared with a name in case the moniker man is there. I’m going to call myself Baron Kevin Van Der Kneejerk III and insist on being called Worshipful Baron. I might even dress the part and drop a monocle in my veloute and tell them to clean it up for me. That'll make them remember the name.

Rating: 15/20
Breakdown: 8.5/10 food
3.5/5 service
3/5 ambience
Address: City Cafe
City Inn
One Piccadilly Place
1 Auburn Street
M1 3DG
0161 242 1020

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: Gordo gets carried away

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

Leigh ScottAugust 16th 2010.

Why didn't you just say Garner and save us all 2 minutes?!

AnonymousAugust 16th 2010.

Or Schofield even.....

Jonathan Schofield - editorAugust 16th 2010.

It's the principle of the thing...they simply didn't need to know. Good food though. But yea Scoteee maybe I should have said Gordo.

Richard Hector-JonesAugust 16th 2010.

I notice that the starter has been served in a stupid shaped bowl and on a square dish.

Can I log this a pet hate however veloute-y the soup.

NortherngeezerAugust 16th 2010.

Well its enough to wet my appetite, i'll book, so he'll have my name, but if he wants me inside leg measurement, i'm taking me own tape.

Richard Hector-JonesAugust 16th 2010.

One last question... this anonymity thing is all well and good but surely whipping out a camera and taking a picture of a bowl of soup gives away at least your profession if not your name.

Unless of course there are soup spotters out there.

Anon tooAugust 16th 2010.

You'd be surprised. I've often sat in restaurants and watched people photograph their food. Bloggers, spotters and people keen to broadcast their sandwich choice on Twitter I suppose.

NortherngeezerAugust 16th 2010.

Akin to watching naked ladies on a webcam................not that i've done either you understand!!!!.

GordoAugust 16th 2010.

Maybe the lad just wanted to be polite Jonathan and call you by his name. Good to see City Inn getting a good rep, good new team in there.

gjhAugust 17th 2010.

Do Mancon sell on any of the information they collect from heroes etc?

AnonymousAugust 17th 2010.

No NG you got it wrong... you take the inside leg measurement... after all its just opposite Canal Street

Joey ButtafuukoAugust 17th 2010.

Never understood why people get so prissy over such meaningless gripes. Just give the lad a break, maybe he was just following the procedure that he's been asked to follow by his employers. Why the righteous stance all the time on such things?

GordoAugust 17th 2010.

GJH, no, we don't. Full Stop. why the question?

Speak as you find.August 17th 2010.

I went to a lunchtime wedding reception here recently and the staff were then and as in the previous times i've eaten here really great. Food good too.
If someone asks for my name I always respond with Mr. Mind Your Own Business.

GJHAugust 18th 2010.

Gordo - Just asking, it's a reasonable question innit? Particularly given Mr Schofields completely justified aversion to mining personal info.

NortherngeezerAugust 18th 2010.

Gordo - Why the paranoia all of a sudden?, you could have closed your reply after 'Full Stop'.

NortherngeezerSeptember 5th 2010.

Did 'the deal' here last night and really couldnt fault it.
The service was exemplary, 10/10 for all the staff who couldnt have been more hospitable, but then again, i'd booked Ed.
Gave my name, and that was the end of it, they didnt want my inside leg measurement after all.
Nice touch, the pre-dinner cocktail, Moscow Mule & Mojito prepared perfectly.
The food was ok, 8/10, a mention in despatches for the pigeon tart and the pork dumpling, with the lamb cannelloni the star of the show, be nice on its own as a dish that one.
The baked custard didnt work, left a coating in ones mouth that was hard to shift. A passable house Chardonney complemented everything. I'd definatley go again and quite fancy the 'all u can eat' Sunday lunch.

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