A conversation with Anthony Barnes
Northern Quarter. Two words I have written a thousand times. At its end is Great Ancoats Street. Across this gaping chasm of a road lies Ancoats. Accept, it is not such a huge divide. Why does Ancoats then not share the NQ’s footfall? Why this fear of crossing the road? It was an illuminating conversation with a man named Anthony Barnes, the chef owner of Squid Ink that gave me some understanding as to the why. He went on to explain what Ancoats used to be, and ultimately what it could become.
He actually grew up in Ancoats. He remembers it as a place that, if you weren’t local, you just didn’t go. Kids would hurl abuse and sling stones at outsiders. I had to ask was he one of those kids? He laughed, and said he was probably off reading a book somewhere. Now Anthony is a David, hurling stones at the Goliath of American comfort food that currently rules the Northern Quarter, consuming all food outlets with a banal wave of similarity.
He is part of an unofficial collective of restaurants, Japanese tea shops and boutique corner stores that are breathing unprecedented cultural life into not just Ancoats, but Manchester as a whole. The thing that struck me the most about Anthony was that he had never worked as a chef in a restaurant kitchen before, he has always been front of house. But after he described it as one part of the journey that lead him to create Squid Ink, it completely made sense. Much has been made of fusion or hybrid cuisines, but what of hybridised roles within restaurant? Anthony is first and foremost a host. He knows how to create an atmosphere, one of sterilisation intermingled with the work of local artists showing on his walls. The attention to detail on the custom carved cutlery boxes that adorn the naked wooden tables does not go unnoticed and creates a clean, clear platform upon which he presents his food. And the presentation is something in itself, there is no menu, just him and his description of the plate of food in front of you.
There are probably restaurants that operate like this in the London’s of the world, but not in Manchester, and especially not at £25 for four courses of proper cooking.
It is a menu that changes every month with accordance to the whimsy and availability of produce for the chef. You get the impression he wakes up in the middle of the night with the unexplainable impulse to put elderberries somewhere on his menu. It is also influenced by his travels, that Wednesday evening Mr Billy Baldwin and I were eating Scandinavian. Copenhagen evidently holds a special place in the heart of Anthony. He served a smorgasbord of rye bread and cultured butter, topped with apples, walnut, and blue cheese. Then came gravlax, a gently cooked salmon accompanied by beetroot and dill. If Copenhagen has a place in Anthony’s heart, Anthony’s pork belly has a place in mine, the product of five days labour, a generous portion enhanced by the presence of a deeply rich caramelised apple sauce.
The pudding was called Kladkaka, something I’d never heard of and the waiter couldn’t pronounce. None of that particularly matters, but I didn’t fall in love with the brownie-esque traditional Swedish dessert.
I thought his starter simple but clean, the fish course increasing the drive of the menu before arriving at its zenith the pork, before being let down by the dessert.
What I write about this menu may be entirely superfluous, for what I ate there may not be on the menu when you eat there. I implore you to try Squid Ink, because what he does in cooking by himself and employing no other chefs, is drive the price down of a kind of food that a student would not normally be able to buy.
It has a pretty serious wine list as well, try the rosé.