Lucy Tomlinson visits a charming new neighbourhood gaff quietly serving up solid Moroccan staples
I saw a post on Facebook the other day reminiscing about the glories of youth that went something like this: “when I were nobbut a lad you could buy a packet of woodbines, a bag o scraps and your bus fare home for a ha’penny and you left your door unlocked too!” (judging by the age of the poster these halcyon days must have been the mid-eighties). In the same vein, when I were nobbut a lass, Chorlton was not a restaurateur’s dream and you could walk down the street without tripping over a pop-up gin bar or vegan butchers. In fact, I remember one of the first reviews I ever wrote was of Tom Toms, which like many restaurants around that time lasted a few months and then fell victim to the 'curse of Chorlton'.
It’s different these days of course, with the curse well and truly lifted. In fact, it’s hard to keep up with all the new openings. A case in point is Le Tagine, which hadn’t appeared on my radar until I was researching food distribution patterns in the South Manchester area... ok I was looking for something from Deliveroo.
Nestled quietly in the strip of restaurants which quite possibly has a trendy name but I will always think of as 'opposite the bus station' (when I were nobbut a lass etc…), Le Tagine has been quietly serving up Moroccan staples at very reasonable prices for about six months now.
The namesake dish, the tagine, is the jewel in the Moroccan cookery crown, a stew that takes its name from the heavy earthenware pot in which it is slowly cooked, traditionally over an open fire. I can’t vouch for any open fires but the tagines at least were definitely gems, but more of that later.
We started with a plate of mezze (£9.95) and a salad (£6.50). The salad was a pretty robust affair, composed of grilled halluomi, falafel, hummus, tomatoes and onion that would be a creditable but not remarkable lunch on its own (on a side note, the falafel were outstanding).
Falafel and hummus made a reappearance in the mezze platter, accompanied by some zalouk, which is aubergine and tomato stewed down to a chutney-like texture and is gently sweet, and shalata barbar (or beetroot salad). This was all topped off with some fairly ordinary calamari.
The dajaaj (chicken, £7.95) tagine was the classic Moroccan combination of chicken, preserved lemons and green olives with just a hint of saffron. Preserved lemons are packed in salt and bring a sweet-sour taste of briny sunshine, while the acid tenderises the meat and punches up the flavour.
The dajaaj has the option to be served boneless but I recommend it on the bone. Though it’s a controversial opinion in these parts, as a part-time carnivore one of life’s pleasure’s is taking a succulent piece of chicken and stripping it down to the bone (using hands is absolutely necessary); teasing away each morsel of brown flesh until you are left with a latticework of fragile bone.
The same is true of the Lahm (lamb, £9.95) tagine, which was slow-cooked with prunes and fork tender. The prunes melted into a honey and spices sauce with a rich, Christmas-cake flavour, soaked up by a side of couscous or bread, for a deeply satisfying dish and a good value one too.
So here is the issue with Le Tagine – it doesn’t serve alcohol. It’s a no-alcohol restaurant, as in none served, no BYOB, nothing. Dry as a dead dingo. Apparently the owner is firmly against consuming intoxicants with food as it masks the flavours. Of course I think there is some significant debate to be had here but I do admire someone sticking to their principles however much it might impact their profits, for I fear it shall. That particular strip along Barlow Moor Road is highly competitive and other restaurants in the area that don’t serve alcohol – Jasmine and Amma’s Canteen spring to mind - do allow customers to bring their own bottles.
Which is not to say there aren’t successful dry restaurants in Manchester, or that Chorlton is a suburb of incorrigible dipsomaniacs (perish the thought). So while I agree to respectfully disagree with the idea that alcoholic drinks mask the flavours (the lamb tagine was crying out for nifty Rioja) I also do, shock, eat out without drinking from time to time too. In lieu of the Rioja I tried two of the house mocktails (£3.75 each) – the Marrakech Rouge and the Cherry Blast, both of which tasted like melted ice-pops. Not exactly flavour-enhancing but fun. They also do hot Vimto which as far as I’m concerned should be piped into homes as part of the Winter Fuel Allowance.
Luckily, Le Tagine is at least hedging its bets by providing breakfast/lunch options as well. The pancakes looked good though we were too stuffed to try any. Instead we shared a banoffee shake (£3.50) which while not exactly reaching the heights of the crazed buckets of glittery froth topped with half a packet of custard creams you find around town these days, was pretty tasty. There are also burgers and chips on the menu and small but decent kids’ menu.
But what stood out beyond any of that for me was the excellent service. The manager was friendly, efficient and offered ways of tweaking the menu to suit us better, which, while unnecessary, was nice to know. So, while the curse of Chorlton is lifted (at least for a while) its food economy is still pretty ruthless. I hope Le Tagine survives, and even thrives.
Le Tagine, 362 Barlow Moor Rd, Manchester M21 8AZ. Tel: 0161 860 6777.
(mezze 6, salad 5, dajaj tagine 8, lahm tagine 8 , shake 5)
pleasant but quiet