After all, we’ve already got a ridiculous number of bars to choose from and (seemingly) most of the world’s cuisine covered in our restaurants. It’s a gamble trying to start from scratch in such a crowded market, and plenty of venues have come and gone in recent years without ever making a lasting impression.
I mention this because The Cellar Key, which opened just before Christmas in the spot formerly occupied by curry house Azad Manzil, is doing a lot of things differently.
There’s nowhere else quite like it. And that makes it worth taking a closer look.
The Cellar Key is the brainchild of Chorlton resident Andy Leathley. It’s fair to say that wine is his thing (his Twitter handle is @AndyTheWineGuy) and The Cellar Key has by far and away the biggest and best wine list in Chorlton, offering 80-odd bottles with prices starting from around £15. It also offers about a dozen wines by the glass, which is good news for those of us who don’t want to wake up with a stinking hangover in the morning.
But it’s not just Chorlton’s only wine bar. It’s also the only place with its own wine vending machine, or wine dispenser to give it its proper name. There are a couple of these in Manchester city centre (Bakerie on Lever Street has one and Salut Wines on Cooper Street has another), but none in Chorlton (or well-heeled Didsbury for that matter):
Basically, you buy a pre-paid card from behind the bar, load it up with credit and then you’re free to serve yourself a 50ml taster, a 125ml small glass or a 175ml large glass of any of the bottles in the machine that day. This means you can splash out on a sample of a wine that you’d never be able to afford to buy a bottle of:
This wine-first approach runs right through the establishment. It’s not often that I mention the toilet when reviewing somewhere, but The Cellar Key’s decision to decorate the bathroom with cuttings from a wine guide is a stroke of genius:
As well as all that, The Cellar Key is running wine tastings every 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month (starting Wednesday, 4 February 2015). You can ask behind the bar for details and reservations but essentially for £35, you get six wines and six light bites.
This leads me nicely onto the other half of the offering.
The thing that most surprised me about visiting The Cellar Key is that while it might look and sound like a wine bar, it’s actually got a very ambitious food offering too. There are bar snacks, flatbreads, sharing platters (the Camembert Platter is pictured below) and ten small plates:
Now this is where it starts to get a bit confusing. The small plates are a slightly odd portion size – not quite a main but too big to be tapas, and some (notably the Moroccan Spiced Lamb Shank at £9.75) are clearly larger than others (such as Sardines on Toast at £4.75).
The staff recommend ordering three dishes between two, which seems a bit on the small side to me and isn’t the easiest to work out when you’re in a group. If you choose the expensive small plates, it can all add up pretty quickly too. Me and the missus had two small plates, a sharing platter and a flatbread between us, which turned out to be a fairly light dinner. And I went back in a group a few days later and had one small plate, which made for a very light lunch.
From the customer’s point of view, it might be simpler to standardise the portion sizes a bit. They could maybe drop them all down to a traditional UK tapas size (say three per person) or bump it up to a full course (one per person).
I’m told the idea behind the The Cellar Key is to replicate the continental tapas-style culture and atmosphere.
It was originally intended to be a casual affair with people popping in for a glass of wine and maybe ordering a bit of food from the bar if they get peckish. However, this isn’t commonplace in the UK where people prefer to book tables at restaurants and order their entire evening meal in one go. The result is that you end up with a slightly odd situation in which customers aren’t quite sure whether to order everything upfront or graze throughout the evening.
This mix of formal dining and tapas-style wine bar is reflected in The Cellar Key’s layout too. Upstairs is a restaurant that’s primarily for reservations while downstairs (the beautifully refurbished cellar) is more like a wine bar open to casual walk-ins:
Apparently, word’s got around so fast that they’re already starting to book out the restaurant completely at weekends so it’ll be interesting to see if they retain the casual approach downstairs or switch to a more formal restaurant set-up there as well. Personally, I hope they stick to their guns because there aren’t many places that offer a genuine tapas-style atmosphere in Chorlton (only Bar San Juan and De Nada spring to mind) and none that cater specifically to wine lovers.
For the record, the Five Spiced Duck (£9) was delicious and the duck breast was cooked just right – it’s hard to find places that serve duck breast properly (8/10):
The Taster Platter (£11.50) was pretty good with really tasty crab spring rolls and a lovely texture to the smoked haddock arancini (although neither of us could taste the smoked haddock) and the pork and ginger dumplings seemed a bit overdone (7/10):
As for the Sweet Red Onion and Gruyere Flatbread (£3.75), this was strangely bitter and unpleasant the first time round but I tried it again a few days later and it was delicious so perhaps this was just a one-off (4/10):
Meanwhile, the Jerk Chicken Ballotine (£6.25) was very creamy and had a nice sweetness to it, although perhaps a bit more kick wouldn’t have gone amiss (7/10):
The wines were all good but the real standouts to me were the refreshing Te Kairanga Riesling (£5.70 for 175ml) (9/10) and the rich, fruity Juan Gil Pedrera Monastrell (£3.80 for 175ml) (9/10) pictured below:
Toasting The Cellar Key
In summary then, the Cellar Key’s wine offering is unparalleled and the food offering is almost as ambitious (albeit with a few reservations about things like portion size), while its relaxed tapas-style atmosphere is a real breath of fresh air for Chorlton.
And as I said at the start, it pays to be different!
Food rating: 7/10
Drink rating: 10/10
Service rating: 9/10
Atmosphere rating: 8/10
Overall rating: 9/10