Reviews: Marina O'Loughlin is poleaxed by Manchester's District while Grace Dent is comforted by the Barn at Moor Hall

29 June 2021
Reviews: Marina O'Loughlin is poleaxed by Manchester's District while Grace Dent is comforted by the Barn at Moor Hall

Marina O'Loughlin of The Sunday Times doesn't find a single missed step at District in Manchester

There's the tedious social media tone of voice, all sweary and macho: "Smoking the f* out of some salt-aged Goosnargh duck". Look at us, all butch and uncompromising, they're saying, with our open grills and massive blowtorches and our shiny black placemats that look like switched-off iPads. Look at us setting the edgy agenda. It makes me weary before I even step over the threshold.

And then the first small dish arrives and I'm poleaxed, startled into cartoonish gawping. "raw wild bass nam jim | purple yam | thai basil". I don't think I've ever drunk nam jim – a lime and chilli fish-sauce mix usually used as a dipping sauce or condiment – like broth before. But this is so perfectly balanced and thrilling, it's slurpable. There are blobs of vivid green emulsion, liquoricey from the Thai basil, and tendrils of crisped purple yam. Astonishingly, this potential sensory overload doesn't drown out the sweet freshness of the fish – as an opening salvo it's jaw-dropping. And sets the tone for a remarkable meal.

The style is deceptively throwaway, flip – belying the care and attention to detail. A duo of "Not tacos", one crisp and inky with purple corn, one a floppy little pancake, come with fillings that have taken a lot of work.

There's not a single missed step, not an off-note or moment of tedium. Smokily tender pork "coppa", a hard-to-access cut that's more usually cured; here it's grilled and dressed with tamarind jeaw, another tongue-startling condiment. This has a side dish of shaved kohlrabi with peanuts and candied tomatoes, like a designer som tam. That smoked-to-f* Goosnargh duck is a belter, juicy meat on slices of apple aubergine grilled till almost frazzled, the lot in a pool of coral-coloured "phat phet jus", a peppery, clear red curry sauce.

District isn't classically Thai – or even "future Bangkok", as the copy puts it, which could mean pretty much anything, up to and including robot servers. The food lives firmly in the Thai canon of flavours, sauces, preparations, but the performance is entirely their own.

Price: £110 for two, including 10% service charge

The Guardian's Grace Dent is comforted by the high standards at the Barn at Moor Hall in Aughton, Lancashire

The Barn is a lavishly converted outhouse a few dozen footsteps from Moor Hall, a double-Michelin-star-garlanded restaurant run by chef Mark Birchall. The Barn, you could say, is Moor Hall's more relaxed little sister who lives next door. It's a place to eat confit this, pickled that and emulsions of whatever, yet in more laid-back surroundings.

I started with celeriac poached until soft in brown butter and served in a celeriac broth strewn with pickled apple and walnuts. Charles ate gloriously rich 60-day-aged shorthorn beef with cured egg yolk, tarragon and crispy potato.

For mains, we shared Cornish turbot with an unforgettable warm roe tartare, Sladesdown guinea fowl with pickled leeks and morels and, my favourite, a stuffed, roasted Jerusalem artichoke with hen of the woods, white asparagus and pickled pears.

I've heard that the evening menu at the Barn is a little fancier than the lunchtime offering, but I fail to see how they can push the boat out any farther. Although the restaurant world is precarious right now, it is comforting to know that at places such as the Barn and Moor Hall, the car park is full, the standards are high, the staff are world-class and the till seems to be ringing. Life may never be the same again, but at least there are some delightful, morale-lifting spaces where things came back bigger and bolder and better.

Price: about £50 a head à la carte; £25 for the three-course set menu, plus drinks and service

Jimi Famurewa of the London Evening Standard finds Akoko to be one of the more "blazingly dynamic" restaurants in London

It could have been Accra or Lagos by way of a New Nordic spot in Copenhagen, or a dream sequence from the minds of second-generation Black Brits who want their jollof alongside a thoughtful, low-intervention wine programme. But it wasn't. It was Akoko, entrepreneur Aji Akokomi's long-stewing, contemporary West African restaurant in Fitzrovia. And it is (though I am perhaps culturally biased) one of the more vital, distinctive and blazingly dynamic new restaurants in the city.

Akokomi and his team – who have evolved the tasting menu from a pair of seven-dish affairs into a range of more varied feasts, topping out with a 10-courser at £95 – seem surer of what they want to achieve, more confident and expressive in their plating.

This pattern begins with the palate-jolting, introductory courses. Smoked fish and tomato tart – a fine-drawn miniature of shattering, beetroot-infused pastry, fermented kombu and an intense sort of oceanic custard – brings an almost hallucinatory rip of musky intensity. Crackle-crusted, mildly ferrous loaves of warm stout bread come with a high-gloss chicken yassa butter, packing a shudderingly effective, profoundly savoury twang. And ox cheek bofrot is quite the livener: a dark, putty-like orb of deep-fried dough, dusted with brick-red scotch bonnet powder and generously crammed with spiced shreds of luscious meat.

Price: around £200 for a meal for two, plus drinks

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