Restaurant review - Jem & I, Didsbury
PUBLISHED: 00:01 11 November 2014
Cheshire Life’s restaurant reviewer was tempted to return to one of his old favourites...
Back in the mists of time - a quarter of a century ago to be precise (where on earth did that go?) - it was in my gift to name the Chef of the Year for the first ever Manchester Food and Drink Festival awards.
Unhesitatingly I chose Jem O’Sullivan, a young talent who was making a name for himself at the best restaurant in the city at that time. He had been head-hunted from Patrick Hannity’s legendary Lime Tree in West Didsbury to lead the brigade at the Lincoln, just off Albert Square, launched by the local betting millionaire Fred ‘BetFred’ Done. The Lincoln’s modern European cuisine pre-dated the legion of chain operated imitators that flooded into Manchester city centre but its light burned bright for a relatively short time.
O’Sullivan left and moved back to Didsbury to open his own restaurant and not that long afterwards, the Lincoln closed and the site has, for the last 20 years or so, been occupied by the celebrities’ favourite Chinese restaurant, Wing’s. The cutely named Jem & I - a clever pun on the O’Sullivan family’s newly arrived twins - opened in former bank premises in School Lane and the chef quickly got back into the groove, doing what he had been doing so successfully at the Lincoln, but on a smaller and less glitzy scale. The big chain operators piled into Didsbury too, but Jem & I, still a delightful, understated and proudly independent neighbourhood restaurant, has seen them come and quite a few of them go.
When we arrived mid-evening, the restaurant was busy with ‘early bird’ diners taking advantage of the popular fixed-price three course menu, so we repaired to the small contemporary bar with its fine range of beers, black leather banquette and high-chair seating, modern pendant lighting and colourful examples of local photo-artist Neil Roland’s work, whose eye for overlooked detail in everyday scenes is striking. Led past the open kitchen in which we spy the chef-patron beavering away, to the neat, intimate dining room with its list of blackboard specials, we finalise our preferences.
Mrs K began with Spanish-style squid with chistora sausages (cold-smoked chorizo), green padron peppers, garlic and olive oil (£6.95), a totally delicious collation of authentic tapas ingredients dancing a fine colourful culinary flamenco. The squid was beautifully tender and the accompaniments delivered alluring smoky spice flavours. My starter echoed the taste of southern Italy rather than Spain, combining chicken livers with pumpkin arancini, baby red chard and a rich marsala sauce (£6.25) in a marvellously rustic, flavoursome dish.
I did, however, continue the Iberian theme for my main course, choosing from the blackboard list Spanish-style hake with chorizo, tomatoes, patatas bravas and a smear of creamy, garlic-y aioli (£15.95). There’s no cuisine in the world makes better use of this sorely underrated fish - merluza to the Basques who catch much of it - than Spain’s and O’Sullivan’s interpretation was superb. The fish, white, fresh and creamy of texture, was perfect with the subtle paprika smokiness of the oil from the chorizo and the patatas bravas would have satisfied any Spanish inquisition. Opposite, Mrs K opted for an outstanding duck dish comprising breast of Gressingham duck with a confit leg hash, balsamic roasted beet, seasoned cabbage, crispy bacon and rich Port jus (£16.95), again rejoicing in its robust but harmonised flavours.
We rounded off by sharing a splendidly indulgent warm chocolate, orange and hazelnut brownie with brandy syrup and perfect pistachio ice-cream (£5.75). From an expertly assembled wine list we drank a bottle of South African chenin blanc that offered generous green apple fruit and a touch of honey for a modest £17.95.
In my book, consistency should never play second fiddle to fashion. Here’s to the next 25 years.
Jem & I, 1c School Lane, Didsbury, Manchester M20 6RD. Tel: 0161 445 3996. www.jemandirestaurant.co.uK