Canto opens this week in Ancoats – the first Portuguese restaurant in Manchester city centre. Expectations are high.
The man behind the new venture is Simon Shaw of acclaimed King Street restaurant El Gato Negro, whilst the restaurant’s new head chef Carlos Gomes has an impressive CV, which includes stints at Japanese restaurant Koya and Michelin-starred Barrafina in London.
We went along to try out the new menu and to chat with Simon and Carlos about what diners can expect.
“Portuguese is an amazing cuisine that has not really been seen at its full potential here, and we’ve got a great guy that can do it,” says Simon.
“I met Carlos about 14 months ago. He was working at Barrafina, which was probably my favourite restaurant in London. I was delighted he would even contemplate coming to work for us.
“I asked him what his ambition was, and he said to open his own Portuguese restaurant. I first went to Lisbon 20 odd years ago and I fell in love with it. I’ve been to Porto and Lisbon a lot over the years.”
Simon is pleased with the location of the new restaurant as Ancoats is swiftly becoming a must-visit dining destination.
“I grew up in Hull, but coming to Manchester was always a big day out for me,” Simon says. “Probably 20 or 30 years ago I would never even have known Ancoats existed. But when I decided we were going to open El Gato Negro, I walked the city.
“Ancoats was one of the areas I came across. It was a completely different area then, but there were lots amazing buildings. It reminded me of when I moved to London in 1996, and Shoreditch was up-and-coming. I liked the industrial look of it, the grittiness. I thought it had something.
“I thought we should keep an eye on it and see what develops and what comes up. So it was on the radar three or four years ago. When we were approached about this site, I thought it was fantastic. At that point we didn’t have a clue what were going to do, but I knew I wanted to operate there in some guise.”
The new restaurant is spacious and relaxed, with an interior that pays homage to Portuguese tradition and culture with beautiful sea-blue tiled walls and bright open spaces.
Little touches of Portugal can be found throughout, with a feature wall made entirely from cork and imported from Alentejo in the south.
High ceilings, exposed wooden beams and distressed furniture provide a nod to the location’s past, and highlight the synergies between the industrial heritage of both Ancoats and Porto.
An open kitchen has bar stools inviting diners to pull up a seat and catch a glimpse of Carlos and his team at work, and the chefs are thrilled that Manchester will now get to experience authentic Portuguese cuisine.
The menu of small plates at Canto is traditional Portuguese with a twist. Quality ingredients are allowed to shine without being overshadowed by lots of complicated processes.
Our lunch starts with a zingy cocktail of white port with tonic, grapefruit and rosemary, followed by a platter of beautifully carved Portuguese Bísaro DOP ham, perfectly fatty, aged for 30 months and served with bread from local bakery Pollen.
A prawn turnover rather resembles a Findus crispy pancake but is infinitely better, light and full of flavour. A Portuguese staple, salt cod is made into crisp tempura with onions and a fragrant tomato broth.
Octopus lagareiro sees tender octopus served with roasted potatoes, garlic and pickled baby onions, while pork belly ‘Bairrada’ comes with a perfectly crisp skin, served with roasted peppers, baby artichokes and runner beans.
Chargrilled chicken and Savora mustard comes with punched potatoes and intensely savoury miso.
“Punched potatoes?” I ask Carlos. “Are they actually… punched?”
“We boil the potatoes in very salty water,” he says. “Then we punch them and add a lot of garlic and oil. We roast them until crispy on the outside.”
I ask him to confirm what he said, just in case I’ve had too many of the excellent Portuguese regional wines which make up the drinks menu.
“They are actually punched, with the chef’s hands.”
There are also, of course, pastéis de nata, the much-loved Portuguese custard tarts, the smooth creamy custard an appealing sunny yellow.
Canto is something new for Manchester, and it’s not prohibitively expensive, with tapas-sized plates (known as ‘petiscos’ in Portugal) and larger dishes designed for sharing ranging from £3 to around £10.50.
It deserves to do well in Ancoats, and the chefs hope the city will embrace Portuguese cuisine.
“It would have been dead easy to open another arm of El Gato Negro, but I thought we could do something more imaginative,” says Simon. “And one thing I was sure of was Carlos’ ability as a chef.”
It speaks volumes that five of the team from Barrafina have come here to work with Carlos, says Simon. And he also thinks that the head chef is a good fit for Ancoats.
“We always say that Carlos is a bit of a hipster, so he’s very happy to be in this neighbourhood,” Simon laughs. “He might have to grow his beard a bit longer, though.”
Canto opens in Cutting Room Square on Thursday 20th September, serving lunch and dinner six days a week and brunch at the weekends.