I don’t think I’m alone in saying that these days, dining out is way, way more than just what you put in your mouth or select from a wine list. Sure, it used to be that way – but those were simpler times, before Instagram and molecular cocktails and artisanal ingredients served on marble planks instead of china plates.
I seem to have entered the hospitality blogging scene at the peak of a time where customers are demanding much more than just great food and high-quality beverages. These days, the success of a memorable dining out experience is measured on the whole entire experiential package – the art of aroma, the craftsmanship of modern cuisine and the skills that go into creating those must-see surroundings.
Some can’t crack it, others are kind of on their way there but some – like The Refuge by Volta – are working pure multi-sensory magic.
The Refuge by Volta – more fondly referred to as ‘Refuge’ – makes its home inside the historical walls of the Principal Hotel venue on Manchester’s Oxford Road (formerly the Palace Hotel).
I won’t wax lyrical about the hotel itself right now as this is definitely somewhere I want to revisit and dedicate a bespoke blog post to so let’s get down to the good stuff… The beautiful, glamorous, accolade-rich Refuge restaurant.
The Grade-II listed red brick building was once known as the Refuge Assurance Building after the insurance company but I like to think it got its name for the sanctuary of 19th Century style it provides away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
I was completely and utterly enamoured by the interior from the moment I stepped over the terracotta façade. Ceilings as high as the sky, filament lighting, tiled walls, grand stairways, twinkling chandeliers, a botanical atrium and towering ceramic pillars throughout simply ooze old school glamour.
The Refuge and its adjacent bars and hotel amenities really are stunning – but did the food and drink match up?
Put simply: yes, the food was every bit as exceptional as the setting but I already had an inkling it was going to be when we were seated at our upholstered booth – real Gatsby style – and were met with the scent of top-quality food.
It always unsettles me a bit when I walk into a restaurant and can’t smell cooking but The Refuge was positively billowing with mouth-watering aromas so I suspected we were in for a treat.
The menu is made up of globally-influenced small plates and sharing dishes with international appeal but an undeniable focus on Middle Eastern flavour combinations.
We were advised to pick 3-4 plates each, which would be served as and when they’re ready – a dining style I properly dabbled in first at my beloved Salthouse Bacaro in Liverpool and one which has always been my personal preference since. (It even inspired an article I wrote for Taste Cheshire on the Small Plate Revolution recently!)
Our highlights from the list included the Chicken Shawarma with Harissa & Herb Yoghurt (£8.50), the Chargrilled Picanha Steak swimming in Café de Paris Butter (£11) and the Spiced Lamb Flatbread with Pomegranate & Mint (£8).
My overriding star of the show though, however, just had to be the Chorizo with Cinnamon & Red Wine (£5.50) – a modest plate of sticky chorizo chunks which smelt like Christmas and tasted like the deep, deep Mediterranean. A heavenly and indulgent combination of warm flavours and complimentary textures.
For my partner in dine, the dish that stole the limelight was the Sake-cured Salmon with Spring On-ion & Ponzu (£7.50) which was a small but mighty plate of smoked salmon which was fresh and toasty simultaneously. A truly memorable menu.
I don’t really have much to say about The Refuge bar at this moment in time as we didn’t really indulge too heavily in the cocktail menu or wine list. This is something I plan to do at a later date when there isn’t a 6am alarm and a parked car outside stealing our attention.
However, our host was more than happy to provide me with something ‘off the list’ as I had a hankering for a Sherry & Tonic and the large glass of Pinot Grigio that my accomplice ordered came perfectly chilled so I’ve got high hopes. These guys quite clearly know how to treat a tipple.
If you’re a regular at The Refuge watering hole, I’d love you to give me your cocktail recommendations in the comments below!
I was very kindly invited to review The Refuge by Volta but all words, photographs, opinions, teeth, hair, boobs and nails are my very own.