The Food of Love: Best Place for a First Date
In which we put our Food and Drink ed's romantic prowess to the test and ask him to relive that fateful night of four years ago – this time in the more salubrious surrounds of Mr Cooper's House & Garden, one of your faves in Best Place for a First Date
The first date with my girlfriend of four years was at the now defunct Casa Tapas in East Didsbury. Don't ask me why: it was a spontaneous joint decision, rather than a calculated attempt to impress on my part. One too many drinks and the blue neon lights of the sign were, like a flytrap, too enticing for our addled minds. And, like a flytrap, they led only to misery and regret. Well, only where the food was concerned.
So what if, just what if, we could relive our first date at somewhere a little more refined? Somewhere our lovely voters had chosen as one of the best date spots? Well, that's just what we did – at Mr Cooper's House & Garden in Manchester, the more affordable, less formal partner to Simon Rogan's The French.
First thought: hotel restaurant for a first date? Bit presumptuous maybe. Sending out the wrong signals perhaps. Or simply 'wink wink,' according to a note I typed in my phone. (Though ordering oysters as a starter could be classed as an even more subtle come-on. Oops.)
Second thought: I'm not very good at role-playing. I try to go for the "so have you been here before?" line but that only elicits laughter... because we have. (At least my penchant for terrible jokes hasn't diminished over the years.) We quickly slip into familiar subjects: work, the Manchester food scene, and why my other half seems permanently attached to her phone. Not all that different to the real first date, then, bar the omnipresent iPhone. The main topic, however, is a sweet but hilariously uptight waiter who we are convinced might really be a cyborg. We contemplate prodding him with a fork to see if he flinches. He looks genuinely scared when the paper plane from my cocktail gets blown off its glass en route to the table.
Anyway, we finally get around to the subject of why Mr Cooper's is such a good place for a date. Is it the price point? It's just expensive enough to suggest you're making an effort but not so much so that you'll be left smarting if you fork out for the whole meal. Or the menu? The food is interesting enough to be a conversation-starter but not so avant-garde as to deter fussy eaters. Or the waiting-on? The service is actually pretty seamless and friendly, particularly when the head server is involved, allowing for few distractions if you're becoming engrossed in one another (where's that room key?).
The place is almost uniquely full of couples too, which at least corroborates the voting – and tables are a good distance apart, so you don't end up eavesdropping rather than concentrating on your date's (hopefully) scintillating repartee. But hey, let's talk about the food! Starters, mains and desserts all have ten options so if your date can't find something they like then it's a sign that eating out in the future will be a nightmare. Given the attention to detail, complaints are unlikely to sideline your meal whatever you have. If you need recommendations: the crab kataifi with sweetcorn salsa is all well-balanced, delicate flavours and textural contrast; the butter-poached hake with smoked eel risotto has an intoxicating, mouth-filling richness. Don't shell out (ba-dum tsssh!) on the buttermilk-fried oysters: the portion size, which looks like one oyster divided into three, is somewhat miserly for the price; have the tequila and chili-laced Paper Plane to Mexico if you need a pick-me-up.
All this contributes to a distinctly relaxed atmosphere, surely the key to any date place. We realise that we would probably have concentrated more on each other, as opposed to the workings of the restaurant, if this had truly been our first date – but we also acknowledge that it was the interests closest to us (i.e. food) that brought us together in the first place. Our scathing, whispered criticism of Casa Tapas all that time ago was enough to create that first real bonding experience.
A restaurant review and some trite relationship advice for you all in one? I think I'll start an agony aunt column in 2015. Not.