FOOD & DRINK
MANCHESTER’S dining scene has changed almost beyond recognition over the last decade. Entirely new neighbourhoods have sprung up, and trends like the burger boom have come and gone, making way for a new wave of restaurants catering to a more health-conscious crowd.
Take FoodWell, which landed last year at New Bailey, the regeneration scheme where the nightlife of Spinningfields has begun to spill across the Irwell into Salford.
The health and fitness-focused restaurant promises an LA-inspired ‘mindful’ dining experience alongside a wellness studio hosting yoga and pilates.
A palm-shrouded terrace twinkling with fairy lights does its best to set the scene, but it feels a long way from California as the din from nearby construction sites clangs out into the damp and chilly January air.
Inside, every surface sprouts with more fake foliage and discreet, vaseshaped diffusers spurt mist into the air; the effect it creates is of an artificial butterfly house in a chain hotel lobby.
This is a place where the juice selection is as long as the cocktail list, where the menu has a section devoted to ‘detox bowls’ named things like ‘sooth’ (sic), ‘nurture’ and ‘cure’ - which is to say, I thought I’d loathe it.
First impressions don’t do much to persuade me otherwise. Our booking’s gone AWOL on arrival, and the hostess has to hand me a keyboard to type in my details again to claim its half price January offer.
Our waiter’s confused about which dishes aren’t available when we go to order, leading to a comically awkward interchange where we chant words like ‘power,’ ‘charge’ and ‘vitality’ back and forth at one another like we’re at some new age affirmation workshop.
Service continues in this manner: spacey, but sweet (“Free your soul,” he later laughs, suggesting we stay for yoga later).
And then the food arrives, and I stop rolling my eyes.
Meals here are stealthily healthy: no food groups are cut, no portions scrimped, no calories counted, no lectures given.
For every ‘detox bowl,’ there’s a burger, a curry, a pizzeta, a pasta dish - and not a spiralised courgette in sight.
A bowl of roasted aubergine (£7), richly spiced and stewed until sticky and dark, to be piled onto crisp shards of flatbread, has echoes of the version I used to order visit after visit at Heaton Moor’s brilliant Brassica Grill (now under new ownership as Black Olive Grill).
A side of crunchy tenderstem broccoli daubed with a spiky romesco and tumbled with smoked almonds (£5) remind me of another go-to order at Altrincham tapas bar Porta. Both familiar favourites are done justice here.
A buckwheat and bulgur grain bowl studded with sweet potato (‘Charge,’ £9 at full price) and drizzled with a miso and sesame dressing is a substantial, satisfying lunch, with colour and crunch from spears of tenderstem broccoli, pops of pomegranate and crushed peanuts.
A bowl built around za’atar roasted squash (‘Vitality,’ £9) doesn’t hit quite the same spot but is another colourful creation, combining chunky courgette, petals of roasted red onion, snappy green beans and hazelnuts with a sharp kimchi and umeboshi dressing.
A portion of halloumi popcorn (£7.50), crispy cubes drizzled with a honey and truffle dressing, are the unhealthiest thing on the table and, inevitably, the best.
A portion of cauli hot wings (£7) never arrive, but we don’t notice until it’s too late to protest, and we’re not billed for them. Dessert menus aren’t offered until a while after our plates are cleared, by which point we’ve already run out of time for lunch.
We make do with our coldpressed juices (£4.50) instead, a Sweet Green (apple, fennel, mint, spinach, aloe and lime, £4.50) made weak and watery by too much ice, and a dank, muddy-tasting Hydrant (beetroot, acai, lemon, ginger and coconut water) that my friend doesn’t bother finishing.
Perhaps the booze is better: by night, the restaurant comes alive as Firefly, a new late night offering of ‘Californian tapas,’ cocktails and DJs.
Launching the concept last year, owner Christian Coates said he wanted to offer ‘a balanced approach to wellness... to encourage people to nourish their bodies and souls during the day – but to feel free and let their hair down at night.’
For the most part, FoodWell is hitting that sweet spot nicely - and proving ‘wellness,’ whatever that is, needn’t come at the expense of eating well.