By Jo Cooksey
We all know how hard the last 15 months have been for the UK hospitality industry, so it was lovely to see a new opening in Manchester recently. From the El Gato Negro stable comes Habas, a modern Middle Eastern dining experience and bar, tucked away on Brown Street in the business quarter.
A Success Story
I first met Chef Patron, Simon Shaw, back in 2016 when the first city centre El Gato Negro was just about to open. It was a time when restaurants were popping up so fast it was like a game of Whack-A-Mole and I had a sense of foreboding that Manchester could not sustain so many eateries. However, listening to Simon’s vision, enthusiasm and plans for future growth, I thought ‘this chap is here to stay’. While many others have fallen by the wayside, the El Gato group has grown exponentially, with ELN branches in Leeds and Liverpool plus Canto in Ancoats and now Habas.
A Long Time in The Planning
At that same 2016 interview, Simon did extol his love of Middle Eastern food, so it is no surprise that he has now opened Habas. At the press launch earlier this month, he told us that he’d had the building for about four years and had been collecting interesting industrial salvage and decorative objects to dress it for far longer than that. It certainly looks the part.
The Grade II listed building that houses Habas, at 43a Brown Street, used to be occupied by Panama Hatty’s, so I knew that it was a basement venue. It is in fact, the former wine cellars of the Victorian gentlemen only, Manchester Club, that counted Winston Churchill amongst its members. A wine cellar might sound dingy, however, there are tall street level windows that flood light into the snug lounge area, that is furnished with big squishy sofas, smaller tables and lots of exposed brick. The rear eating section surrounds the open kitchen, is subtly lit and has a cosy, intimate feel. Habas can cater for tables for two right through to large parties too. There is also a 10-seat private dining room.
A Feast for Eyes and the Palate
The menu for the launch lunch was curated to showcase the best of what would be on offer to the public when the doors officially opened the following day. Middle Eastern cuisine must be right at the top of my food loves and one I regularly cook at home, so I was really looking forward to this menu sampling. Frankly, it was also lovely to get out of the house and break bread with other human beings.
We kicked off with a mezze platter including a lush, jewel coloured beetroot hummus, a creamy, whipped labneh, zingy, sour pickles and a selection of flatbreads. There was a house hummus, which while it tasted good, was too smooth in texture for me. I like mine a bit more rustic. One of my most precious food memories is of sitting cross legged on the floor in the Israeli desert thirty years ago, eating a rustic hummus and warm flatbreads, beneath the most incredible star laden sky I had ever seen. Every chickpea dip I have had since has had a lot to live up to.
The following dishes arrived as they were ready, which I love because it means a lot of plates on the table to graze from. There were beautifully crispy Filo Cigars, stuffed with feta, spinach and sun blush tomatoes accompanied by an amazing red pepper relish. Prawn and Crab Fritters with a lovely lime and coriander yoghurt dressing. Also, Monkfish Tail chargrilled to perfection in an incredible tomato and tamarind sauce, which I think Habas should bottle and sell. I’d buy a crate of it
The mains menu is split into Mezze, Seafood, Meat and Vegetable & Grains. From the latter section we sampled Bata Harra, (think Patatas Bravas with a dill sour cream instead of tomatoes), Wilted Spinach with toasted peanuts & chilli and a really, very tasty Bulger Wheat Salad with caramelized cauliflower & pomegranate. Plus, a rather fabulous Middle Eastern Raw Slaw with pomegranate molasses dressing.
The final mains dish was a bit of a curve ball considering the Middle Eastern theme. Or so I thought. We were served a Chicken Schnitzel with chilli & lime butter. However, after a little research I discovered that Schnitzel is a very popular dish across the Eastern Mediterranean. You learn something new every day. Anyway, this dish was one of the stars of the show. The breaded coating was still sizzling and crispy when it arrived at the table and the chicken within was so, so moist. One of those dishes that will have you drooling every time you think of it in the coming weeks.
Wine and Sweet Treats
The dessert served on the day was Chocolate babka ‘French Toast’ with coconut ice cream. Babka is a rich, sweet, braided bread that is popular in Israel and amongst European Jewish communities. I’m afraid I passed my babka to one of my table mates because I don’t like chocolate. Sorry Simon. My lunch mates hoovered it and I loved the coconut ice cream.
There was wine flight served with the meal that included a Mabis Biscardo Prosecco Rosé that frankly I wanted to bathe in and the incredible Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana ‘Triana’ Pedro Ximenez. This sherry wine would definitely accompany my last meal on earth. As the wine menu states, ‘A powerful and impressive wine with luscious raisin and treacle aromas, lots of prunes and figs in the mouth rounded off with an intense, warm, roasted nut finish.’ Heaven.
Will We Return?
Most certainly. As I ascended the cellar steps, blinking in the Manchester Summer sunlight I was already planning my next visit. As well as another visit to the Middle East that is long overdue,
We were gifted our food and drink, but thoughts and opinions are entirely our own.
Photos: © Habas– Do not reproduce without permission