Let’s face it, the dirty food revolution was a lot of fun but didn’t really do any of us any favours in the long run. As we’re well past the near-two years we spent lying sedentary on the couch wondering when the last time we exercised was, to paraphrase the classic Burt Bacharach tune: what we all need now is incredible tasting cuisine that treats the body with real TLC.
Enter Maray, a 2022 Manchester opening and the first in the Merseyside mini empire of eateries to open outside Liverpool itself. As the attentive staff explain when quizzed about how things are going down this end of the Ship Canal, this move was a long-time coming, with lockdowns getting in the way of making the jump sooner. And, with a menu packed full of small plates that place the emphasis on fresh, healthy ingredients, you might wonder if diners round these parts could have waited much longer.
Partly inspired by the flavours on offer in the Parisian district of Le Marais - once the home of nobility in the French capital before nosediving into decay post-revolution and winding up a working-class area known for faded grandeur and Middle Eastern cafes - Maray’s dishes focus on bold flavours from the Eastern Mediterranean that pop in the mouth. Some presented with giddy flamboyance, others chic minimalism suited to the aesthetic inside the Lincoln Square location. Think artwork from modernists like Matisse and Klimt, raw concrete walls, various iterations of early 20th Century-style light fittings adding cosy ambience and a generous selection of plants to soften the tough edges.
Onto the food, and ignoring recommendations for three plates each, we dive straight into a four per-person feast, highlights really showcasing the diversity on offer. Living up to its name, the Disco Cauliflower is as ‘look at me’ as they come. Generous helpings of Chermoula, Harissa, Tahini and Yogurt stop reassuringly short of dousing the plant, which is roasted to perfection, Almond shavings adding welcome crunch and Pomegranate seeds introducing subtle sweetness. Party in the mouth, to put it mildly. At the other end of the visual spectrum, the Halloumi is simple but unforgettable, and has been fried then baked. Coated in a Honey dressing, the result is a near-dessert-like mouthful that cracks on first bite before melting in the mouth – the addition of crispy Kale and bed of spiced Butternut Leeks help us remember which course this actually is.
Less doubt hangs over the appropriately labelled Hot Stuff, an amalgamation of spicy things including Fermented Pickled Onions, one Chilli worthy of any good kebab house, and Marinated Egg. We rightly added Flatbread to the order, and this arrives glistening with Garlic Oil and screaming to be devoured. Initial disappointment at the unavailability of Mackerel on the day we visit quickly subsides when the Sea Bass lands; its slightly charred skin contrasts delicate meat beneath, slow-cooked Tomatoes fall apart with a nudge of the knife. Pork Collar brings a welcome platter of meat to this otherwise pescatarian and vegetarian spread (veering away from animals in general, Maray also offers a vegan menu). Cooked slightly pink, the flesh is nevertheless tender, and Date syrup brings a rich depth married well to confit Garlic cloves.
All of which is before we’ve found room — literally and literarily — for the Braised Carrots with pickled Celeriac, Orange, and Tamarind, so soft you could easily consume the entire portion in one fell swoop, and our Fattoush Salad. The latter comprising generous hunks of particularly tangy Feta and seasoned with Parsley, as expected, and the less-common Sumac, ensuring the whole thing is sharp in a more understated way than Lemon-based dressings usually deliver. Washed down with one Moloko and a Whip Royale — two cocktails from the Maray staples, respectively based on pomegranate and lime and rum, and peach-ginger-sparkling wine — it’s safe to say those behind the bar keep pace with the kitchen.
By now it’s clear the extensive original order was slightly ambitious but paying homage to the age-old adage that desserts use a different stomach — and emboldened by the fact that we feel full, but only full of genuine goodness doing great things to our insides — a cautious request for Espressos and a single helping of Chocolate Tart, to split between two, soon follows. The sweet treat is perhaps closer to a Torte in terms of density, but delicate enough not to defeat us at the last hurdle. An accompaniment of Tahini Chantilly lightening each bite (for those who don’t know, it has the joyful consistency of a Cheesecake’s interior), Cherry jam giving a slightly sour edge.
Back outside, reflecting on the overall experience brings to mind only positives. There’s a sense Maray can’t help but make confident statements with every combination of wonderful stuff on its plates, which, although modest in size all leave a big impression, cracking an often-elusive formula. Filling bellies to the brim yet still ensuring you’re constantly tempted to try more is no mean feat, but this welcome newcomer to Manchester’s informal dining scene makes it look incredibly easy. An accomplishment that, if there’s still justice in the world, should quickly establish this spot as a go-to for both light lunches and more relaxed, extended dinners, befitting of the warmer continental climes most of the recipes take their lead from.
Maray, 14 Brazennose St, Manchester M2 6LW.