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Manchester Art Gallery Cafe Reviewed

Rahki Sinha and the case of the washed up salmon

Published on March 1st 2012.

Manchester Art Gallery Cafe Reviewed

MANCHESTER Art Gallery boasts a superb collection of works by renowned artists, but the catering at the Gallery Café could do with taking inspiration from the art with which it shares a home. Fine art does not equate anywhere near fine dining here. 

The sighs resulting from the prospect of an afternoon indulgence following the hard work of art appreciation sounded like the bells you get on shop doors that announce a customer’s arrival. 

In stark contrast to the rave reviews that Peter Booth’s café at The Whitworth Art Gallery acquires, the eaterie here is lacklustre, dulled by the dead hand of a corporate catering company, in this case Millburns. 

Hot food specials are served from noon until 2.30pm and perhaps if you dine exactly at midday when they’re fresh out of the kitchen, they’re not too bad. 

But herein lies the problem - the specials aren’t made to order, instead they come up from the kitchen in big dishes and sit on a hot plate, under lights, until a customer chooses one. 

After even half an hour the heat sucks the moisture out of the food. If trade is slow or customers arrive at the end of the hot food period, then there are problems. 

My salmon with tomato salsa (£8.95) was dehydrated rather than delicious. To let salmon lie like this is plain silly, it's bound to curl and harden. Same for the potatoes, either my knife was blunt or they were so overcooked (and lukewarm) that when I tried to make an incision the knife went back and forth without breaking the skin. The salsa had that hard and tacky consistency of age. 

Perhaps the café needs to rethink their ‘specials’ system, and not let the food sit for so long. In principle the three dishes (they always have one meat, one fish and one veggie option) sounded like they would be appetising and value for money if executed well.  But dried up belly pork with caramelised apple (£7.95), a mushroom and lemon pasta (£6.95) and my salmon with tomato salsa, don’t cut it.

There's a stark lack of originality in these choices as well, this is a 'specials' selection by numbers.

Of course other dishes might work better, but a reviewer can’t sample them all. Maybe the sausage and mash (£7.95), fish and chips (£8.95), and the Manchester brunch with Bury black pudding, smoked mackerel or mushroom (£5.95), the daily soups, sandwiches and salads would be delicate of touch, show finesse. Maybe. Although lack of care in one area can show a lack of care in another. 

Meanwhile the café space itself is a big bland space that needs more life introduced onto its pale walls. This is a gallery after all, you’d think it could be more exciting. Maybe it should go Jackson Pollock to add some kind of character. It almost seems shy of asserting its arty location. With all the creativity nearby it would be nice to have a space that wows. I bet the staff canteen in the IKEA factory looks like this. 

Plain and colourlessPlain and colourless

Apparently it was different once upon a time.

The present 'feel' of the place is at odds with the way the editor tells me the catering was perceived a couple of decades ago. Then, for a while, the Gallery Café was, along with the Cornerhouse, the place of choice for Manchester’s culture club. It appears that only the latter retains such appeal. 

This is not to say the place doesn’t do a good job of catering for a cross section of society, there’s disabled access, food for kids, veggie stuff, and a good tea and coffee selection. 

And there were two successful elements to the visit. 

Number one, the staff were very helpful during a busy afternoon.

Number two, the homemade cakes looked excellent, and the homemade scones were excellent.

Every few minutes an audible ‘ooh’ resonated as customers of a certain age walked in and saw the display of sweet treats. The sighs resulting from the prospect of an afternoon indulgence following the hard work of art appreciation sounded like the bells you get on shop doors that announce a customer’s arrival. 

'Ooh' scones'Ooh' scones

Between the café and the shop, there's also another foodie room that makes for a very pleasant place to read or relax with a coffee. Or maybe enjoy a local beer rather than one from distant climes, a benefit derived from a Confidential campaign, click here.

In short, the Gallery Café is a nowhere place at present. This is a shame as we are in the Golden Age of the Coffee-shop and the Tea-room.

Everywhere across the city tea-rooms are cropping up with remarkable, almost South Sea Bubble type, frequency. Those in the know will probably take time out in one of these rather than in the institutionalised atmosphere of Manchester Art Gallery. It would only take a little more attention to detail to switch that around.


Manchester Art Gallery Café, Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3JL 

Rating: 12.5/20
Food: 6/10
Service: 3.5/5
Ambience: 3/5

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.

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Kate FarmeryMarch 8th 2012.

We at Manchester Art Gallery are really sorry you didn't enjoy your meal more. We're taking a look at both the dishes we serve and the length of time our specials are left out. We're also investigating what we can do to brighten the space.

We're glad you enjoyed the service our staff provide, however and thank you for your kind comments about the cake displays (which staff too find hard to resist). And I can definitely recommend the fish and chips...

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