Shroom at the top: what happens when you take a vegetarian to one of Manchester's top chicken spots?

Thom Hetherington and Deepa Parekh cluck over oyster mushroom kabobs at The Firehouse.

By Thom Hetherington | Last updated 12 April 2024

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In the cut-throat world of Hollywood, movie pitches must be brief, and it helps to reference existing successes so your concept is simple to grasp and any risks seem diminished. Famously, Charlie Fink’s pitch to Disney executives for The Lion King was, “Think Bambi, but in Africa.” Imagine then, being the genius who allegedly described The Firehouse as being like “Nando’s, dragged through Hawksmoor.”

But let’s go back a step, because The Firehouse is primarily about the old hospitality adage of doing one thing and doing it well. Think fish and chip shops, fresh pasta restaurants, not to mention specialised street food traders. Sure, such ‘single dish’ operations may have a few bells and whistles – a pickled egg on the counter of that chippy for example – but fundamentally they know what they’re doing, and you know what you’re getting.

It’s an attractive model, not least in these tough times, necessitating less equipment, reduced back of house space, lower staff costs, and minimal wastage. Add that to the current trend for ‘premiumisation’ – basically, taking much-loved comfort food and elevating it to a gourmet product, as happened with BBQ, burgers and pizza – and diners get a meal of indulgent luxury at a more affordable price point than a traditional three courser, whilst the operator has decent margins baked in.

And whilst the first wave of chicken premiumisation was all about deep-fried sandwiches – think Mama Schnitzel and Firebird Hope – the market has now evolved. Bébé Bob in Soho do fancy nuggets and fries with a crisp side salad as a set lunch; The Empire Café in Leeds has gone big on rotisserie chickens, dripping their schmaltz onto roasting potatoes below; but in Manchester it was The Firehouse who led the charge in next-gen chuck-luxe.

The USP of The Firehouse is beautifully brined birds, seasoned and roast over a coal-fired Robata grill, their moist flesh begging to be torn apart and lovingly swaddled in folds of floppy, blistered flatbreads. Served as a leg, breast, or half bird, it comes with lemon, cut side blackened, and a choice of punchy sauces. It’s the most primal and compelling of offers, making your synapses reel like a fruit machine, pleasure receptors flashing and dinging.

But The Firehouse have artfully diversified that offer without diluting their values, which is a good job as, like bringing a tomato knife to a gun fight, I’m bringing a vegetarian as my plus one to what is effectively a pimped-up chicken gaff. The veggie in question is Deepa Parekh, who I first met when she launched Circle Club, the members’ club for creatives, back in 2001. She has since launched 7Star Football Concierge and latterly her Thinking Deepa podcast, interviewing global stars including Usain Bolt.

So whilst I had that chicken, Deepa got the (VE) equivalent which comprised a daisy-chain of oyster mushrooms, marinated in agave syrup, tamari and more before being run-through with a wooden skewer, then pressed, grilled, basted with peri-peri, and finished over flame until crispy but yielding. Laid out like a sacrifice to the fungi gods on a retro zig-zag of mojo verde, they were deeply flavoured and satisfyingly chewy.

If a committed carnivore arrived at The Firehouse to find the chickens had made a run for it, Aardman Animation style, they should stay for this dish alone.

Those heavenly flatbreads were also ideal for trowelling up sides of creamy hummus with harissa and dukkha, as well as a rough-hewn beetroot borani, earthy as a ploughed field and pinging with goats’ cheese, smoked almonds and dill. A remoulade slaw featured both celeriac and fennel, the sauce sharpened with yoghurt. As this point the action around our table resembled Whac-A-Mole, with both Deepa and I speed-dabbing at the various plates with what remained of the flatbreads.

And because one form of carb simply isn’t enough for two energetic entrepreneurs, we also ordered the roast fingerling – not a word to leave to an unforgiving autocorrect – potatoes. These arrived hidden beneath a blizzard of parmesan and a sprinkle of snipped chives, bound together with truffle mayo. Lightly crushed before the final lick of heat, their sweetly crisped edges cocooned fudgy interiors, and they were scientifically impossible to stop eating.

All this soul-gladdening feast, which ended with a decent STP and de rigueur soft serve, is delivered in a Brooklyn-esque, post-industrial unit, previously an old tyre and brakes depot. Black and yellow safety markings still dress a space which is now lofty and light, with a sweeping back bar at right angles to the kitchen hatch, a spine of banquettes running down the room, and a huge external terrace. The latter sensibly al fresco in ambience, rather than actual exposure to the Mancunian elements.

And the service, courtesy of Bella who looked after our section, perfectly matched the relaxed but on point setting, as she judged the mood and read the table with an easy-breezy aptitude and sparky chat. Along with the snappy food delivery and a nicely crafted soundtrack this is a restaurant which somehow, despite the harshness of its concrete floors and bare factory lighting, seems to emit a vibe of happy hospitality.

I can’t claim to have discovered The Firehouse, any more than an Elizabethan explorer ‘discovered’ an already heavily populated continent. Come on a weekend night and the place goes high theatre, with a catwalk of performers and thumping DJ sets. Come on a Sunday afternoon and they do what is one of the best roast dinners in town. This diversification all feels on-brand, and helps ensure the place is frequently packed out, every day and in every which way.

But I do think it still flies under the radar of serious food geeks, and I think this needs to be put right. Let me say for the record, The Firehouse is for the gastronome, not just for the ‘gram.

Firehouse’s owners Joel Wilkinson, Adelaide Winter and Dan Mullen, are woven into the history of Manchester’s hospitality scene, from Trof to Schloss, Ramona to Diecast. Along with Andy Windsor on marketing, Andy Marshall on Ops and Will Taplin as Exec. Chef there is a thread of institutional knowledge here which is as reassuring as a campfire, and you simply want to bask in its glow.

In simple terms they are a well-seasoned team who know exactly what they’re doing. They’re doing Nando’s dragged through Hawksmoor.

Thom Hetherington and Deepa Parekh ate at The Firehouse, 40 Swan Street, Manchester. M4 5JG

Petit Fours

  • NRB, the hospitality trade show, triumphantly took over Manchester back in mid-March with the industry descending on the city en masse. And that, along with the focus on well-honed restaurants in the review above, reminded me of when I interviewed Soho House’s founder, Nick Jones, for the NRB Debate. His first venture in hospitality, ‘Over The Top’, was similarly high concept – you picked one protein and then your sauce to go… well, you get it. At the end of our interview, we did a pop quiz based on whether other eccentric hospitality concepts were real or fictional: Piccadilly’s Hugo Mash, where every dish was based around mashed potato; Bed on Canal Street, where you ate and drank on huge, black-sheeted mattresses; a short-lived Home Alone-themed bar in Liverpool complete with swinging paint cans et al. He called every one wrong, as they all actually existed.
  • I note that The Firehouse claims to be in Ancoats, when it is actually in New Cross, the historical area around the Oldham Road/Swan Street junction which runs across to Rochdale Road. I get it’s an easier sell to reference somewhere everybody already knows, but New Cross itself now contains Firehouse, Ramona, Onda, Sammy’s Bar and the historic Bar Fringe, as well as a smattering of new hotels and bags of potential. Over time I hope it once again becomes a name and destination in its own right.
  • In March I spoke at both the Institute of Hospitality conference in Leeds, and the Restaurant Magazine R200 conference in Manchester. Take homes? That Manchester’s attractiveness to national and international brands continues unabated, but that equally the city’s indies are in rude health and more bullish than ever.  On a not unrelated note, those operators coming to Manchester proclaimed a disbelief for how welcoming, supportive, and collaborative the local industry was, which is surely the best illustration yet of that indigenous Mancunian confidence. Maybe we do do things differently after all.
  • Every operator was keen to open their new sites for Easter, and at least three just about managed it. I enjoyed an excellent recent press lunch at Maya – turbot and lobster and a good wine list! – that opened to the public on Chorlton Street over Easter weekend. Also freshly launched is Medlock Canteen at Deansgate Square, which I’m excited to try, not least because it’s also going big on gourmet chicken, with a full rotisserie and the obligatory drawer full of sizzling spuds beneath. And Chorlton’s Double Zero, which aficionados consider the best pizza in Manchester, will also open in the heart of the Square Half Mile just before the holidays. But for me, the gastronomic tent-pole event of the year is still Tom Barnes’ incoming Skof, which will be monumental both for the Noma district and indeed for the entire city. I feel its potential impact isn’t yet fully appreciated, and although it may be a little further away I’m literally planning my diary around its opening, and so should you.