Restaurants are winning awards all the time these days. Or being voted best something by someone. It’s a bit exhausting and makes genuine achievements easier to pass over. Awards fatigue, it’s probably called. For example, this week Higher Ground, on the edge of Chinatown, was named in the top 50 restaurants in the whole of the UK. This wasn’t based on random data like social media hashtags, online reviews and number of mentions on Twitter, randomly crunched together by a random online betting company, but the National Restaurant Awards annual top 100. It only opened in February, and already it’s leap-frogged Mana, the only restaurant in Manchester to have a Michelin star hanging by the front door, and the first place to land one in the city for decades. It’s a massive achievement, and one that could well be the first of many.
Because by the evidence of a visit this week, this modern British bistro is probably the best restaurant in the city right now. And it’s not just the food – let’s note a few other things it’s getting right first.
With glass wrapped around two sides of the room, the place is brilliantly light and thoughtfully designed. At the back, there’s the impressive wine selection on display, racked up in its own room and overseen by Higher Ground’s wine expert Daniel Craig Martin.
You can choose a glass for seven or eight quid, or a bottle for a few hundred, and there will be no snooty judgement over the former or fawning over the latter. You can either sit at a table, or choose a communal spot either at the bar – recommended, so that you can watch the processes chef Joe Otway and his team are using to bring your dinner together – or on high sharing tables.
Even the playlist – curated by front of house man Richard Cossins – is impeccable. The three met while working at the Michelin-starred Blue Hill at Stone Barns, just outside New York, and now have CVs littered with stars and stints in Copenhagen (Martin also worked at the legendary three Michelin star Noma), increasingly an essential rite of passage for serious food folk.
Thanks to this impressive pedigree, everything about the place works properly and this is before you’ve even had a plate placed in front of you (nb the crockery is very smart too).
Dishes here are to be shared, starting at £5 and heading to £34 on Wednesday night’s menu this week, though they can change daily. Much of this is dictated by what comes out of the ground at Cinderwood, the restaurant’s own piece of land in Nantwich, where it grows its own produce, and is now in a state of absolute abundance.
Vegetables can be out of the soil and onto your plate within hours. Like in the summer vegetable stew (£16), which comes with a fist full of plump Shetland mussels. Each vegetable is cooked differently, some crisp and crunchy, like the yellow beans and sugar snaps, while the carrots are perfectly soft, but not too soft.
The broth it all comes in tastes of the sea, thanks to the mussel stock. It looks like a simple dish, but you know it’s not. There are broad beans in here too, echoed in the broad beans on toast (£7.50).
That’s two fingers of toasted (or is it fried?) focaccia, with broad beans and lovage heaped on top. While broad beans are undeniably a faff – de-podding then boiling then skinning, one by sodding one – they’re always, always worth it in the end. This dish too is everything about summer on a plate.
Asparagus with burnt garlic mayonnaise and a boiled egg (£10) has also been executed perfectly, the spears still bright green and stiff. They’ve been shown a hot bath, then dunked in ice like Wim Hof. The mayonnaise has a coffee-like edge to it.
A dish of little gem (£8.50) with a dressing made from Garstang blue cheese from Lancashire and burnt onions is a revelation. A lettuce dish rarely steals the show, but this one did, with crispy dried leeks and blackened, almost sooty streaks of dark burnt leek on top. It’s their take on a classic steakhouse wedge salad, and I’d go back for that on its own time and time again.
I see the double mutton chop (£34) going into the charcoal oven after only the first couple of dishes come out (I’ll say again, it really is worth sitting at the bar). It then spends as long out of the oven as it did in it, resting in the warmth, and being pressed by attentive chefs every now and then. It’s ready when it’s ready.
When it finally is, it’s then carved off the bone and served up with a salad of watercress dressed with sharp, salted yoghurt to cut through the fat. It’s a piece of meat with age. Experience. Some might call it chewy. I’d call it distinguished.
This sheep – from Yorkshire, but having spent its last few months eating grass in Cheshire to fatten up – had worked to be here, so I don’t mind in the least doing a bit of work to eat it, given what it returns in flavour, which is generous and complex. Fillet is boring anyway (though there’s a small piece of fillet on the back of this chop, and it’s not boring).
The mash with smoky charcoal butter (£5.50) is made from marfona potato, and has as much butter as potato. Enough said there. If you disagree with that level of butter, we might find that we disagree on a lot of other things too.
Every dish that arrived came with a feeling of relief and satisfaction. ‘Yes, I’m in the right place’. ‘Yes, everything’s going to be alright’. ‘Yes, broad beans are the best vegetable.’
The owners also have another place on Islington Marina, called Flawd. It too is excellent. But Higher Ground is flawless.
Higher Ground, Faulkner House, New York St, Manchester M1 4DY