1761 NEEDS TO FIND ITS OWN IDENTITY
NO NEED FOR GRATING MANC REFERENCES WHEN FOOD SPEAKS FOR ITSELF...
AS restaurant openings go, 1761 didn’t get off to the most auspicious start. Ill-judged plans to fill a fishtank with stingrays in its basement Bollinger bar, Lily’s, provoked a backlash from animal lovers who branded it a ‘cruel gimmick’, forcing owners to abandon the idea.
It’s not the only thing about the ostentatious £1m fit-out of the former Avalanche unit, near the town hall, that feels misguided.
Blingy chandeliers, gaudy flock wallpaper and heavy, draped red curtains sit completely at odds with the simple but superb cookery coming out of the kitchen.
Supposedly inspired by Manchester’s industrial past - 1761 is the year the Bridgewater Canal was completed - there are the usual, grating cultural nods, too.
The doorhandles are giant bees and there are cocktails with cringey names like Hacienda, Our Kid and The Beekeeper (with honey in, naturally).
There’s no such fuss or frippery when it comes to the food, thankfully. Head chef Oliver Walker’s modern British menu is essentially good, honest pub grub, executed faultlessly.
A salt cod Scotch egg starter (£7.50) borrows cleverly from Spanish croquetas, with a crisp crumb and fluffy bacalao and potato filling clinging around jammy-yolked eggs.
For £6, the terrine could easily feed one for lunch. The tightly-packed puck of shredded ham hock comes with three generous chunks of sourdough, sweet onion chutney and rocket to send it on its way. A pile of bacon salt lends it all some smoky oomph.
Mains are reasonably priced, mostly around £12 to £13. At the top end of the scale, the spring lamb rump is worth every penny of its £19.50 price tag, seared, seasoned and rested to perfection, with a sharp chorizo, butterbean and tomato stew slicing through the richness.
Braised pork belly (£16) comes in a sizeable slab of melting meat and slowly rendered down fat, crowned with a crackling puff and a crispy black pudding bon bon. A sweet cider jus and slivers of celeriac balance the big, bold flavours.
The meat in both dishes is top drawer and treated with respect by a chef who clearly cares.
Desserts more than match up. A rhubarb and apple crumble (£6.50) is elegantly presented in a stack of stewed fruit with a vivid swirl of pink. A pool of ginger custard adds a whisper of warmth, but it needs more oaty topping.
The Manchester tart (£6.50) is outstanding, a playful take on the classic bake, with a fruity Vimto jam and banana custard topped with toasted coconut in a snappy shortcrust pastry.
It’s the sort of food you’d be thrilled to find in a cosy country pub, or a smart city centre brasserie. The glitz and faux grandeur of this setting does it a disservice.
1761 needs to shake off the confusion of what it actually is.
Is it a £1m champagne bar or is it a solid British restaurant? Is it going up against San Carlo or Sam’s Chophouse?
Too much of it feels like an assumed version of what Manchester wants, from an operator who hasn’t dealt here before. Owner Phil Healey may have grown up in Belle Vue, but his current stomping ground of Glossop, where he runs the Victoria Lounge, is very different territory.
The heavily applied Manchester identity seems to act as a cover for a venue with little sense of self. Who wants a Hacienda when you can just have a killer Old Fashioned?
Hopefully, 1761 will find its place – and its audience – but at the minute it just shoots in too many different directions.
What the city needs now are restaurants that will define its future rather than constantly hark back to the past.
At the heart of it all, though, is some truly excellent cooking. Good enough to give the Bollinger the back seat. Emily Heward