Football and great food.
They’re not entities that usually share the same sentence.
Dried out pies, hotdogs packed with barely legal offal and insipid fizzy lager in plastic cups. All at prices approaching that of a season ticket.
When my friend said he was having his birthday meal at Cafe Football, I asked if he was joking.
This is a man who spent much of his London work secondment dining at Michelin starred restaurants.
But he showed me a favourable review of said venue by no-nonsense food critic Jay Rayner and I was somewhat placated.
Cafe Football and Hotel Football, in which it occupies the ground floor, is a venture by former Manchester United stars Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville.
It’s across the street from Old Trafford, and I know what you’re thinking:
1) Footballers know nothing about good food.
2) It’ll be a tacky, cynical attempt to prise money from gullible, starving football fans.
Well, you’re wrong.
The model of selling one-off customers the worst possible food at the highest possible prices isn’t one Cafe Football is following.
Enter Cafe Football and you’ll certainly notice the abundance of colour.
Yes, there’s a clear football theme; you’d be disappointed if there wasn’t.
But it’s not overwhelming and neither is it particular tacky. In fact it’s almost tasteful with pop art renderings of football legends adorning the walls.
There are several large screens beaming out Sky Sports and what I can imagine is a fairly hefty sound system.
Thankfully neither are turned up to intrusive levels.
There are cosy booths as well as standard tables and there’s a pleasant view across the Manchester Ship Canal to the ‘Theatre of Dreams’.
The menu is about as football themed as it’s possible to get without serving the food on a piece of turf.
Starters are the ‘defence’ and mains come under the ‘midfield’ and ‘attack’ menu.
Among the best/worst puns are the ‘Mara Doner’, a pizza with (you’ve guessed it) doner lamb and ‘The Nicky Butty’, a toasted club sandwich.
You can also get a re-imagined Pot Noodle as well as burgers, hotdogs, kebabs, pasta and salad. All positions marked, you might say.
It sounds terrible but – here’s the surprise – it isn’t.
This is NOT cheaply themed, mass-produced slop disguised with salt and sugar.
I go for some squid rings while Steph goes for some satay chicken skewers.
The squid rings come in a wonderfully light salty batter, flecked with coriander and spring onion. Squeeze on a little lime and dip it in the mayonnaise provided and it’s crunchy, chewy heaven.
Steph’s skewers are more of a game of two halves (groan).
The chargrilled chicken is juicy and full of smokey flavour. The pickled cabbage it comes with is the perfect foil as would be the satay sauce. I say ‘would be’ because the sauce is Madras curry hot.
I suspect the chef’s hand slipped when he was adding the chilli to this batch as it’s not even marked as spicy on the menu. Spice heads may rejoice but your toddler will cry and your granny will faint.
For the mains I order a Mexican Wave burger described as two smoked beef patties with chilli cheese and burger sauce. It comes with skin-on fries.
Steph orders Nev’s Noodle Pot while our toddler Rosa goes for bangers and mash, as part of the kids’ menu deal which includes a trip to the ‘Sweet Shop’ next to the kitchen hatch.
My burger comes in the now ubiquitous brioche bun. The bun is a bit of an own goal, dry and flavourless but the patties on the other hand are tender and remarkably grease-free. There’s a bit of cheese and some burger relish of which I would have relished more. Overall, bland brioche aside, it’s a solid effort although the chips were a little on the dry side too.
Lucky for Steph her ‘Noodle Pot’ is only like the infamous petrol station snack in that it come in a conical pot and it contains noodles.
The quality of said noodles, the chicken, egg noodles, shitake mushrooms and bok choi are pretty decent. The large ceramic pot comes with a glass teapot containing some broth. Steph rates the dish but wishes it came with more of the tasty broth.
Rosa’s mash is creamy and the bangers have little of the cheap, artificial taste you’d normally expect of a children’s menu.
We also share a macaroni cheese side. It could have done with more Parmesan and a bit of pancetta but at least the egg pasta is spongy and fresh.
Then it’s off to the Sweet Shop with a toddler in tow where there’s a good range of ice-creams with sweets and sauces to smother them. We go for Vimto ripple ice-cream and it’s pretty good with a high cream to ice ratio.
Diners have every right to be sceptical about themed restaurants, especially so close to a tourist epicentre.
But I’m pleased that Mr Giggs and Mr Neville haven’t taken the cynical path. Perhaps they value repeat custom or – shock horror – they know a bit about food.