The Creameries, 406 Wilbraham Road, Chorlton, Manchester M21 0SD (0161 312 8328). Three-course lunch £18; five-course dinner £35; wines from £20
This one must start at the end: with a treacle tart that tastes of all the good things, including attention to detail and a determined eagerness to please. The tart case is thin and crisp and dark; just the right amounts of brown sugar, butter and flour have been introduced to each other and have then decided to shack up together. It’s a virtuous platform for the filling. Unlike some treacle tarts, which you know will sit so heavily in your stomach they appear to have claimed squatter’s rights, this one is light and almost fluffy. There is a burst of citrus in there, pointed up by a separate bowl of lemon jelly. Next to that is a jug of warm, frothy cream, flavoured with Earl Grey tea. Both of those, however crowd-pleasing, are here only to stand in the service of the tart. As I fork it away, I mutter sagely to my companion that it is a treacle tart made by someone who has made an awful lot of them.
I’m not wrong. That person is Mary-Ellen McTague. She made her name at the Aumbry in Prestwich before eventually opening the Creameries on a shopping parade here in the Manchester suburb of Chorlton in 2018. Originally, it was a retail bakery, which also served a few other things to nibble on. McTague stepped away for a while and only returned in September. Now there is a tight £18, three-course menu at lunchtime with a couple of choices at each stage, and a five-course menu in the evenings at £35. Both change regularly. “The lunch menu sometimes changes during service if we run out of something, or if something else comes in,” she tells me.
I ask McTague when she first made that treacle tart. She tells me it would have been in 2004, when she was first with Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck, where she worked for many years. The Creameries looks so damn casual, as if there could be little to see here beyond a well-frothed cappuccino. The space is big on hard surfaces: polished concrete floors, gunmetal-grey painted walls, softened by foliage allowed to grow hither and yon from hanging baskets. There are sturdy wooden tables and benches that, in busy times, you will be required to share. Those menus are scratched up on blackboards, the better to change them at speed.
It’s the reverse of one of those flash outfits that does the restaurant equivalent of kissing a bicep in the mirror, through over-engineered glassware and menus that are so embossed you can feel the letters under your fingertips. The Creameries will never bang on about taking you on a journey. McTague doesn’t want to take you anywhere except to your happy place. None of that, however, should obscure the vast amounts of technique involved here. Split peas are cooked down to a soft, savoury purée that is allowed to cool then cut into chips and deep fried. They arrive stacked as if for a game of Jenga you’ll never play, alongside a long, thick teardrop of a hugely savoury mushroom ketchup. There’s also a tiny bowl of what used to be called chipsticks: matchstick-thin crisps, seasoned with lime pickle that has been dehydrated and ground down to a powder. They are powerfully salty, but that doesn’t stop us finishing them, until the sides of our tongues are vibrating.
They do, of course, still make bread here. It’s the best of sourdoughs. There is both a nutty scoop of brown butter and another of butter churned up with a sauerkraut liquor to become a big old dollop of boisterous tang. You may wonder about a person who stands staring at a lump of butter and thinks: “What this really needs is some of the liquor from that sauerkraut over there.” Instinctively, I like that person.
There are only two choices at each course, so we have the entire menu. Two meaty pieces of their own lightly smoked mackerel have been seared and then served up with both a purée of pickled beetroot and a mustard cream. There are crunchy black pebbles of fried rye bread for texture. A thick cauliflower soup is swirled through with a Killeen cheese sauce. Bobbing in the middle is a cheese beignet. It’s cauliflower cheese in soup form. Across the top is sprinkled a little cumin salt.
Meat makes only rare appearances. In this case it is a savoury deep pastry tart case filled with a glossy parsnip purée and then laid with pink pieces of partridge and pheasant to make what she calls a game pie. There is a heap of buttered kale on the side. Some people will look at pictures of this and complain about its compact size. They will make jokes about needing a burger on the way home that are so damn funny your sides will require suturing. As ever, I insist you take a look at me, take in the full 360 degrees of this adult male with shoulders so broad they’re in different time zones, and recognise that if I’m not complaining about portion size, you shouldn’t either. Eat three courses here and you will not go hungry.
The other main is buttery, seared chunks of cabbice cabbage, on a big mess of more long-cooked split peas. Through it are tiny cubes of malt vinegar jelly made with a gelling agent that doesn’t melt in the heat, a clever Fat Duck trick if ever I saw one. These mushy peas are made to sing by the interlaced bursts of acidity. Around the plate are what the menu describes as “smoked pickled fried potatoes”. Someone has, obligingly, chucked salt and vinegar all over your chips.
We finish with that joyous treacle tart and a fudgy, flourless chocolate cake, topped with cream, flavoured with the aniseed flourish of fennel. There’s almond brittle scattered here and there. Alternatively, we could have had a cheese plate. McTague likes her cheese. There is an intriguing list of wines to go with it. I have things to do later so I don’t drink, which means two of us are presented with a ludicrous bill for a three-course lunch of just £46, service optional. They have a zero-waste policy. They wear their commitments to sustainability like badges of authenticity. But then we are in Chorlton, where these things are taken seriously. Bravo, and so on. What you really need to know, however, is this: you get all that, as well as seriously good, thoughtful food from someone who knows exactly what they’re doing.
Elsewhere in Manchester Bistrotheque at Cultureplex, an offspring of the London restaurant of the same name, is proving to be a thoroughly reliable late-night dinner option. The dining area is an offshoot of the huge, handsome, wood and red brick warehouse conversion. A recent meal there started with very good duck rillettes followed by cod with chilli, garlic and sage and a Swaledale rump steak with café de Paris butter (bistrotheque.com/cultureplex).
A book to add to the want list for 2020: Vegan Japaneasy from former MasterChef winner and Japanese food expert Tim Anderson. It’s a sequel to Japaneasy, which demystified the country’s repertoire, and taps into its rich history of plant-based cookery. The volume is published by Hardie Grant Books on 5 March, price £22.
In the runup to Christmas, the Café Rouge group has launched an afternoon tea themed around Raymond Briggs’ classic book The Snowman. The menu, available until January 5, includes croque monsieur with pigs in blankets, scones dusted with icing sugar ‘snow’, and a white chocolate mousse topped with a ‘snowball’. It costs £29.95 for two. How they deal with the existential angst of the titular snowman dying at the end of the story – he melts away to nothing – is not clear (caferouge.com).