Corn Exchange, Manchester
Manchester’s Corn Exchange located in the centre of the city has been updated, refreshed and kitted out with all new, modern, hip restaurants. From the outside looking in, all of these restaurants portray elegance, style and suggest a good quality dining experience. Having yet to try any of these restaurants I was most intrigued when I got an invite to dine at one of the Italian eateries located here: Vapiano.
Vapiano, a relatively new Italian restaurant boasting style and a refreshing take on food preparation and service. Set up in Hamburg in 2002 its a franchise thats expanding at a fast rate and in my opinion appears to be fierce competition for the likes of Nando’s and Five Guys. And this restaurant is indeed of a style that is more closely related to Nando’s, rather than that of a traditional Italian Trattoria. Its definitely worth bearing in mind that although Vapiano certainly looks the part in Corn Exchange its not pretentious or insistent on dress codes. Its definitely the kind of place that you can show up to after a long day of shopping, laden down with bags and looking a bit frazzled after long queues and warm dressing rooms.
Out with your mates? on a business lunch? Just after a few beverages? – it will probably suit your needs down to the ground.
However, if you’re after a romantic Italian meal, or a quiet, relaxing date night – then this place may be a little too informal. Grabbing a tray and ordering directly with the chef is a bit of a novelty, but its also in serious danger of crossing the boundary into cafe/diner. A very nice diner that is. Don’t get me wrong, I was fully impressed when we first walked into the upstairs restaurant area, with the chefs hard at work rolling out pizza dough and cooking up large pans of fresh pasta. Its all very idealistic and boasts an array of fresh dishes, and an ethos that fits right in with busy city life.
The Vapiano system
So first things first – how does it all work? Unlike most traditional restaurants there is no need to have a set table or to offer up a table number when ordering. All you need is your Vapiano ordering card, which you are given on arrival, a menu, and a tray.
There are several chefs counters to choose from: The bar; Antipasti and salads; pasta and risotto; and pizza. So – pick your counter, order with the chef and swipe your card when indicated to do so.
Your chef will then get straight to work and cook up your meal in front of you. Everything you order throughout your meal will be swiped onto this card, which you then hand back in when leaving and pay.
Its a really nice idea and seems relatively straight forward. However, it does come with its hassles. Firstly, if its busy you need to queue and wait while all the meals of the people in front of you are cooked off. Secondly, you need to go to each separate counter for each part of your meal, and for us this meant getting up a down several times and taking valuables with us each time. Thirdly, its not always easy to communicate with busy chefs and despite their friendly nature I found placing my order, directly with them, left me feeling a little flustered. Although these are minor issues, they are issues I would really rather avoid whilst eating out.
That said, we luckily arrived before it got too busy and so our wait was probably reasonably short, and most of the chefs were happy to answer any questions we asked about the food. The best way around the issue of personal belongings is to leave one person at the table whilst the other does all the ordering, fetching and carrying, – which is fine if you know what you want to eat.
So what did we actually eat and how was the food itself?
We of course had to start our meal with a large Aperol Spritz. Having just returned from our honeymoon in Italy, the bubbly, orange aperitif was a welcome sight indeed.
The bar is well stocked and well managed by the staff. Early on during a friday night it was very quiet and so we found it very easy to order. It undoubtedly got busier as the evening went on, and bar stools quickly filled up with people, but we still had no trouble in ordering more drinks. The bar area opens out and overlooks the inside of the Corn Exchange building. We found that we preferred this side of the restaurant, which felt a little more spacious and sophisticated, compared to the covered part closer to the pizza counter. As we didn’t have a set table, we actually moved tables and sat closer to the bar for our dessert.
But before I get to dessert…… lets go back to the savoury stuff. We decided to try an antipasti each, before sharing a pasta dish, then a pizza, and of course a dessert each. A lot of food I know, but what kind of ProperFoodie food blogger would I be if I didn’t go all out 🙂
So we chose bruschetta and soup of the day to begin and eagerly watched as they were prepared.
The end results looked great and we scurried back to the table to try them out.
Once equipped with spoons and knife and fork, we tucked in. The pumpkin soup was warming and moreish, just what I had hoped for and we quickly finished this off between us. The bruschetta was a little trickier. The bread was a little too soft and so had become soggy under the topping. This made it impossible to pick up and extremely difficult to cut with a knife and fork. However, the topping, which included freshly griddled king prawns was extremely tasty.
Next up was the pasta course and we went for a bolognese ravioli.
On arrival we were impressed to be told that all pasta had been freshly made that day – great stuff! You really can’t beat freshly made pasta. So imagine our disappointment when we ordered our pasta dish and the chef pulled out frozen ravioli!! I was assured by the manager afterwards that it was only the ravioli that was frozen and all other pasta was fresh, although it wasn’t very clear why.
The ravioli was served up with a rich sauce, spring onions and plenty of cheese. Although the filling was very nice I found the combination of the sauce, cheese and raw spring onions all a bit overpowering. I kind of wished we gone for a spaghetti or tagliatelle. . . maybe next time . . .
And so on to the pizza . . . we decided to keep things simple and go for a buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil pizza – a good old Neapolitan classic. The ordering process for the pizzas is exactly the same except due to the length of preparation time you are given a buzzer instead of having to wait.
I actually much preferred this as we could still watch the chefs from a distance but it kept the pizza counter area free and uncrowded and also meant we didn’t have to wait around and get in the way of others trying to order.
The pizzas are all made fresh and its great to watch the chefs throw the dough into the air, then load with toppings and carefully manoeuvre into the oven with a paddle. However, a traditional pizza oven (rather than the modern appliance they have) would have been a little more impressive.
The buzzer flashes and vibrates when your pizza is ready and the chef pulls the pizza out of the oven as you arrive at the counter.
So the ‘buffala’ pizza – it was very nice, but it doesn’t really match up to the pizzas produced by establishments who solely focus on pizza. The dough and crust were a little tough and the topping had a little too much grated cheese on for my liking. Less grated cheese and more fresh mozzarella would have been preferred. However, as pizzas go it wasn’t bad.
We also managed to fit in a sneaky caprese salad, which was spot on. Very refreshing with sweet tomatoes and plenty of mozzarella and basil.
And finally we moved onto dessert. As I’m sure you can imagine, by this point we were stuffed and so we were delighted to find that we could have mini desserts rather than the full size. We opted for a mini tiramisu (of course) and a mini panna cotta. A nice and easy finish to the end of the meal.
To sum up
Overall, we had a nice night and found the food to be of a good standard, although under par if comparing to high quality, traditional Italian recipes. I also felt that the prices on the menus were a little out of line with the dining experience. Would we go again?? Probably not. But as I said – its definitely useful if you’ve had a long day and fancy an easy bowl of pasta or a couple of beverages.