December 23rd, 2011

The Guardian Review Australasia

The Guardian Review Australasia

Australasia, Manchester: Has the potential to be really rather special, if only the kitchen were given a freer hand. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

In his brilliant book A Guide To The New Ruins Of Great Britain, Owen Hatherley talks about the way that Manchester has embraced the doctrine of urban regeneration with such energy that it has "neatly repositioned itself as a cold, rain-soaked Barcelona". One of the areas on which he concentrates his attention is the new development around Spinningfields, a mixture of shops, flats and civic buildings that has at its heart something called the Avenue, a retail space that seems to be targeted at the kind of consumer who models herself on Footballers' Wives: there's a branch of Nicky Clarke to sort out the hair, a Mulberry for bags and accessories, an Emporio Armani for birthday presents and a Brooks Brothers for when the bloke has to be smart. The most architecturally striking buildings are the handiest of all: the magistrates court for minor misunderstandings, and the coroner's court for when he's caught in bed with the nanny and/or team-mate's wife.

And when it's time to eat, there is Australasia, a wonderful footballer's wife name for a restaurant, aspirational and vague and unthreatening all at the same time. I went on one of those Manchester days that starts rainy, gets rainier and stays so rainy that you find yourself entertaining the thought that it might never stop. The Avenue was entirely deserted; in fact, the whole city centre was close to empty, even the usually lively bits around Canal Street. I assumed that Australasia would be empty, too, but I was wrong: it was the busiest and liveliest place I saw all day.

The restaurant is in a basement, with a glass-walled entrance to the staircase on the street level. This had a yellow-and-black warning sign about slippery surfaces at the top. I bet that gets a fair bit of use. The staircase is the sort designed to allow for sweeping, dramatic entrances: you can see the whole restaurant and the whole restaurant can see you. As you descend, you think: this would be a bad moment to fall on my arse.

There's no shortage of bling about the room, which is long, brightly lit, high-ceilinged and, it has to be said, stylish and jolly for a basement. There is a deliberate and largely successful attempt at metropolitan chic, one the customers set out to match. That said, there are moments when the place tries too hard: the drinks list features a "Ladyboy martini" and another cocktail called the "Australasian porn star", while the interactive wine list is on an iPad. When I see restaurants trying so hard with the stunts, I tend to think, guys, the best way to seek attention is with your cooking.

As for that, well, it's complicated. The genre of the restaurant is the westernised semi-Japanese cooking brought to London by Nobu. It's a style of food that's now quite easy to get in London but isn't much represented elsewhere in the UK: an easy cuisine to like, ranging from sushi to teriyaki to tempura to grills, and with a crowdpleasing sweetness in much of the saucing. Australasia offers a very competent take on this style, at quite steep, London-like prices. Soft-shell crab tempura is a success, the balance of textures and seasoning just right; another hit is scallops on a bed of glass noodles, again showing good technique. All the post-Nobu restaurants serve black cod and the version here is good, cooked just à point, not as crazily, jammily sweet as some interpretations. The star of the meal, though, is a superb mango soufflé, an impeccable balance of fruit and citrus and risen egg, technically perfect, flamboyant in a quiet way, and an original idea to boot.

Some of the other cooking – a giant barbecued prawn, tuna sushi, beef skewers – is a little more ho-hum, not so much in the execution, which is always accomplished, as in the conception. The crew at Australasia can really cook, but some of their dishes are a little familiar. It made me think that the concept is being given priority over what the chefs can do, and maybe that's holding the kitchen back a little. Given a freer hand, and a willingness to trust customers to follow them, I think they could turn Australasia into somewhere special. At the moment, though, it's a clever copy – though at least it's copying the kind of food people like to eat, which is better than the other kind. .

• Australasia 1 The Avenue, Spinningfields, Manchester, 0161-831 0288. Open all week, noon-midnight (1am Thurs, 3am Fri & Sat). Three-course meal with wine, about £55 a head.

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A menu of Pacific Rim flavours underpinned by European cooking tradition, an exotic blend of Indonesian and Southeast Asian influences. Australia's strong ties with Japan also help determine taste and style.