When you think about the Altrincham success story Blanchflower, the first thing that springs to mind is brunch. Following last year’s opening in Sale, Blanchflower now has a hat trick with Little Blanchflower which recently opened in the Old Creameries site in Chorlton. With this new site, Phil Howells who runs this family business with his partner Claire, wants to show there is so much more to what they do.
It’s kind of poetic that Little Blanchflower has ended up in the old Creameries spot. Creameries partner Sophie Yeoman worked with Phil for a year at Caffeine & Co in Longford Park when she decided on baking as a career change. Longford’s manager Chris was also the first baker at the Creameries which began life as a bakery by day and a restaurant helmed by Mary Ellen McTague by night. It’s that same spirit that Little Blanchflower is bringing to the space.
That The Creameries didn’t work out, Phil admits, is a worry for Little Blanchflower.
“It’s a tricky location,” he says, “The last unit in Chorlton, past the Metrolink. If you go any further, you’re in Whalley Range. There’s not that much passing trade. We want to make it a destination and a space which works for the local community but also has high enough ambitions food-wise to make it a food destination [for people travelling in] too.”
“I was chatting to one of our customers the other day and he was saying how much he would like somewhere in Chorlton that does that [neighbourhood restaurant] thing with a bit of ambition,” he continues, “I’m not saying The Oystercatcher doesn’t, but he was saying he goes into town almost all the time to eat and I thought, actually, yes. I live in Altrincham and I drive past Sale, past Chorlton to go to town to eat the majority of the time. I would say I have one restaurant to go to in Altrincham (apart from Sud which is always booked up) and that’s Porta. In town, I go to Another Hand quite a bit. That’s probably my favourite at the moment. We’ve been to Climat, Higher Ground, we go to Hawksmoor for celebration dinners. I’m amazed that someone hasn’t opened a restaurant with a bit more ambition in Altrincham.”
How is Phil going to bring that ambition to Little Blanchflower in Chorlton?
‘Modern’ is the word he is hanging his apron on. He says he already thinks the Blanchflower in Sale and Altrincham are ahead of the competition and he doesn’t like to impose limits on what can be done with a menu aimed largely at a lunchtime crowd.
“We’re bakers, fundamentally,” he says, “We started baking sourdough in 2013 before almost anyone else did in this city. We proudly tag ‘everything made in house’ on the menu. But when we started Little Blanchflower we wanted to do something that had craft but was different in the evening.
“It had to work logistically because we have quite a big brunch trade on a Saturday. We decided that pasta ticked all the boxes. It’s having a bit of a moment. I think there are interesting things being done with fresh pasta in the UK. It’s not just us doing something which is completely bananas. People like pasta and we felt it would give us an opportunity to give Little Blanchflower an identity which was different to the other Blanchflowers.”
Creative evolution is important to Phil. There are no plans for “just rolling out Blanchflowers” ad infinitum. They want to keep things fresh and Little Blanchflower was a great opportunity to experiment. The menu, he is keen to point out, isn’t ‘nonna’s recipes’.
“We’re not Italian. I love [Sud] but we don’t have any Italian heritage. We’re not doing something that’s reverential to location or family. That gives us the freedom to explore. Of course, we’re making Italian shapes. We’re respecting that culture to a point but we’re not trying to culturally appropriate. We still make a ragu, and a pasta in brodo (broth) but we’re trying to bring that heritage together with our imagination and our craft production.”
Indeed. The pasta dishes we try are playful, taking inspiration from many different cuisines. Take the sweetcorn agnolotti, little pasta parcels filled with pureed sweetcorn with sautéed king prawns and blackened sweetcorn all dressed in a chilli butter (as everything on earth should be). A sweet and salty hit that someone says ‘tastes like bonfire night’.
A limited pasta menu is on at lunchtime but on Friday and Saturday evenings you can get the full dinner experience with around six different pasta options as well as starters and desserts. We went as a table of four and shared everything on the menu. It changes every month so there is always a reason to go back and try something new.
Cured cod ceviche is dotted with pieces of pink grapefruit and dressed in a vermouth and shallot dressing. It’s finished with hazelnuts and the kind of vivid green oil that you see drizzled all over the city centre’s fancier dining menus. The whole table loves the freshness of this dish – even our ceviche first timer.
Another hit is a plate of courgette fritti, spiralised courgette made into shoestring fries and served with a vampire banishing garlic aioli. The ultimate snack with a glass of Sicilian Catarratto on tap. Yes, they do wine on tap here. These would go down well with a beer too.
There isn’t a bum note in the symphony of six pasta dishes. Lamb ragu with pappadelle is a clear winner but at the other end of the scale, a light as air chicken broth with shavings of green and yellow courgettes accompanied by tortelli stuffed with mascarpone and pancetta is an absolute delight. It’s unusual too, in a world of pasta that can often be heavily sauced. A simple dish of bucatini in a sun dried tomato, mint and basil sauce with roasted pistachios is another winner.
What we love as a table of four, is the variety of shapes and styles of pasta, we get to try big chunky occhi and feather light ricotta gnudi. I would highly recommend taking enough people to order everything and some things twice. It’s much more fun than powering through one bowl of pasta on your own and giving side eye to people who ordered the fantastic looking dish you were in two minds about.
The wine list is short and sweet with a heavy lean towards the natural end of the spectrum. Another sign that the city centre has had an influence here.
There are shades of Blanchflower’s bakery roots on the dessert menu but things are on the lighter side – ideal after all that pasta. The heaviest but still light as a feather is a lemon thyme scented almond cake served with apricots and whisky cream. Absolutely my kind of dessert. A coffee creme diplomat has all the flavours of a Black Forest gateau in an airier, mousse-like format with added crunch from hazelnuts. A caramelised white chocolate pot is the richest in its almost dulce de leche quality. Freshness here comes from a scattering of jewel bright raspberries.
While all Blanchflowers have different head chefs with different identities, Phil says the branches will all do the ‘greatest hits’: sweetcorn fritters, chicken sandwich, and breakfast in all its forms. The chefs get a chance to play with lunch specials.
Formerly at four rosette restaurants, Jeff Green at the Altrincham Blanchflower uses that experience to bring fine dining flourishes to the menu. Tom McMaster who is head chef at Sale has more of an award-winning French bistro background. The Little Blanchflower kitchen team is made up of serious players too. Charles Lynott, formerly of Hispi is head chef and sous chef Will has come over from Climat. The team is overseen by Group Exec Chef, Jayne Brady, who Phil says, “Without whom, none of this would have been possible.”
“Blanchflower fundamentally is a cafe,” says Phil, “But we don’t tend to use that word. When you say you’re a cafe, people tend to think you’re Pret A Manger or Gail’s. But one of the things that’s really important for Blanchflower is that people use cafes a lot more than they use restaurants.
“I only go to my favourite restaurants six or seven times a year. Some people go to Blanchflower six times a week. I would like that to happen with Little Blanchflower. People feel like they can drop in and get a wine and a couple of little bits to eat. Just sit on [their] own and watch the football on the phone for half an hour, or go with a group of six and spend 300 quid and have a great night. I really like that flexibility.
“We’ve always wanted Blanchflower in all its different guises to be good enough to be successful anywhere: Melbourne, Brooklyn, Sydney, wherever,” he says, “The standards that we set and what we ask for from the kitchen team are high. When it exceeds our lofty expectations, I‘d like everyone to come and try and work out where it fits in the grand scheme of Manchester food and drink.”
The whole world loves a dough, leavened or unleavened, thickly or thinly rolled and filled with something delicious, whether that’s fresh pasta or its close cousin the dumpling, or even an empanada or a Caribbean patty. It’s the perfect blank canvas and when you use this as a basis for creativity and craft, things can get really exciting.
The name Blanchflower comes from Danny Blanchflower, captain of Spurs in the early 60s. Phil describes him as “a philosopher and thinker about the inherent beauty of sport and the desire to create beauty for the sake of it, especially as an alternative to crude methodology”. Blanchflower famously talked about doing things for glory with style and flourish, rather than just aiming to win. It’s this philosophy that Phil says weaves into everything he does. Little Blanchflower certainly has style and flourish. Glory is surely on the way.
The full pasta menu is only available Friday and Saturday evenings at Little Blanchflower.