Nick reviews Pep Guardiola's new venture, bringing Catalan cuisine to the north of England. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
The city of Manchester has always been divided in two when it comes to football: those who support United, the Reds, and those who support City, the Blues.
As a Red for the past 50 years, life has been good, probably too good. Then came the stirrings of ambition from the other side, 'the noisy neighbours' in Sir Alex Ferguson's memorable phrase, and the balance began to shift.
This shift was propelled even further in the Blues' favour with the appointment of Pep Guardiola as City's manager. A Catalan who had a very successful career as a player and manager in his native Barcelona, he has brought to the Blues the attacking verve that has hitherto been the Reds' prerogative.
And as a Catalan, Guardiola obviously has a love of good Catalan food and wine – as his latest foray reveals. He has teamed up with several individuals including Paco Pérez, the highly talented chef from Miramar overlooking the Mediterranean in Llançà that I wrote about so enthusiastically in June, to open Tast on the pedestrianised King Street in the centre of Manchester.
I can vouch for Guardiola's love of Catalan food because on the night I ate there, there he was at the next table with his wife and a couple of friends. He was spotted by the United-supporting wife of my old City-supporting friend, whose household, she explained as we all ate together, is a nightmare whenever these two teams play each other.
It is easy to see what first attracted Guardiola and friends to open Tast here. The building has long been a restaurant. It is close to the expensive shops that attract footballers and their wives. And it is also close to Spinningfields, the recent development of shops, restaurants and hotels that lies just on the other side of Deansgate.
And it is also easy to see how the layout of this building appealed to those with an intimate knowledge of the bars and restaurants of Barcelona. There is outside seating; the ground floor would adapt itself well to a tapas bar; and up a steep flight of stairs there would be room for a more formal restaurant as well a space for private events. And yet, something is not quite right.
This has nothing to do with the food, the wine or the welcome at Tast. It is a more structural problem in my opinion.
Lunch on the ground floor, where I sat close to the very visible chefs, revealed part of the issue.
Here the chefs produce some of the dishes but not all. I could watch my dish of a fried duck egg topped with baby squid, soufflé potatoes and capers being made in front of me, with instructions from the chef to mix all the ingredients together. But a 'tastet', Catalan for a small taste of food, of octopus topped with romesco sauce and oloroso sherry came from the kitchen upstairs.
The upstairs menu is the same as downstairs but with the addition of several dishes that are prepared in the upstairs kitchen. This room has a more elegant feel to it rather than the bare white of the ground floor. The cooking area is encased in red (perhaps a strange choice of colour in the circumstances); the lighting is far more subtle and comforting; and overall the food is more accomplished, including several dishes that are this kitchen's speciality.
In particular we enjoyed two immensely. The first, from their rice section, was a dish listed as 'arros de bosc', a dish of a thin layer of Spanish rice cooked on an equally thin cast iron plate topped with wild mushrooms, several slices of steak and small padrón peppers. This was followed by a precisely cooked piece of turbot, cooked on their charcoal grill and served with asparagus. With a glass each of Mas Doix, Les Crestes 2016 Priorat and of Martín Faixò, Perafita 2011 Empordà, chicken and red pepper croquets, tuna and a guinea fowl 'tastet', as well as an excellent interpretation of a crema Catalan, my bill for three came to £145.
The problem became obvious as we descended the stairs after dinner into what was a very quiet ground floor. Nothing is quite as disconcerting for a customer on leaving what has been a busy restaurant to have to walk through a space that has a quiet, slightly forlorn feel about it.
And that is how we felt, walking out past tables laid up with unused cutlery, glassware and napkins and past a reception area that was at the time unmanned. The ground floor had felt similarly underwhelming during our lunch when only four men stood around drinking beer before heading upstairs for their lunch.
The ground floor at Tast needs an identity, a role, or perhaps even an individual who can bring the bar to life. If it were to be a tapas bar, as there would be in Barcelona, then the front counter would be full of small portions of tempting food that the kitchen had just prepared. Colourful and resonating warmth as well as a sense of welcome, this could be the missing factor – because at the moment this space seriously lacks atmosphere.
And that is crucial. As you have proved with your football team, Pep, excite the fans and they will come.
Tast 20–22 King Street, Manchester M2 6AG; tel +44 (0)161 806 0547