The Pen and Pencil looks, on the face of it, like your typical hipster-ish Northern Quarter bar. The aesthetic is comprised of lots of natural wood and open metal structuring, there are magazine pullouts plastered all over the toilets, and your cutlery is served in Brooklyn Summer Ale cardboard six packs. So far, nothing we’ve not seen before, if I’m being brutally honest.
But don’t underestimate this little diamond in the rough — its food menu will absolutely blow you away. Since its inception in 2015, it seems to have evolved from a comfort food emporium, to somewhere that also offers classics with a quality twist. Its growth has been exemplary; I have no qualms in saying that the meal I had there was one of the best I’ve ever had in Manchester (and I consider myself to be well versed in food joints in our beloved city).
To celebrate National Vegetarian Week, I tried a selection of their new vegan and veggie options. One worry when you start opting for meat-free options when dining out, is that everything is going to be same-old same-old, and you’ll perpetually be lumped with a classic mushroom burger or daal. Either that or halloumi EVERYTHING.
And you’d be forgiven for having the same trepidations here — the new vegan mains include lentil stew, chickpea curry and beetroot falafel. At first, you’ll think “if I’ve had one falafel, I’ve had them all”.
You couldn’t be more wrong. You receive three huge, deep purple falafels in the portion, all drizzled with tahini and served with charred lettuce and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds. When you bite into it, you immediately can taste garlic, which pairs beautifully with the earthy flavours of the chunky beetroot. This is then balanced by a kick of sweetness from the pomegranate, making it an absolute joy to eat.
I then moved on to the chickpea curry. This is a staple midweek meal that I lived on during my first and second years of university (incidentally when I was also trying out being a vegetarian). Made with coconut milk, it’s one of the easiest, cheapest and most filling meals you can make as a student. However, it can get quite repetitive and boring, so again, I was worried.
And again, I ate my words. The Pen and Pencil’s twist on a classic had an intense citrusy kick — it was like a Thai green curry with lemon instead of lime. The flavours were so incredibly unexpected, and the chickpeas were cooked to perfection. I would go back there for this dish alone, even though it’s something that dupes of can be easily made at home.
It also paired very well with my cocktail, ‘Mexican Queens’. The menu describes it as “a fragrant experience of Mexico with Ocho Blanco Tequila, thyme liqueur, green chartreuse, sugar and lemon”. The sweetness of it ensured the thyme wasn’t overpowering, and, to me, tasted like a botanist’s favourite margarita. Definitely one for the summer months to come!
I also tried one of their new veggie sides. I desperately wanted to try their Cajun baked okra, but unfortunately they had run out (a popular choice it seems), so opted for the deep fried lotus root instead. They were essentially like flower-crisps, served with an extremely moreish vegetable dip. They were crunchy and delicious, but at £4.50, I think I would’ve wanted a bigger portion of them.
This was actually a running theme throughout the menu — if you’re on a student budget, you may not find it easy to become a regular (although their burgers and brunch looked fairly reasonable). However, I would highly recommend it for celebrating special occasions in a more relaxed setting than your classic Australisia et al.
In the space of an hour, my perception of this place changed entirely. From a bar I occasionally haunted with friends before a gig, it became a hidden gem of exquisite food, one that I won’t easily forget. I will be back again VERY soon.