I’m sure many of you will agree that service is high up on the checklist of what makes a good restaurant and enjoyable dining experience. It’s getting that balance of staff being friendly, attentive but not intrusive, knowing the ingredients and elements of the menu enough to explain when posed a question, and have the confidence to suggest their own recommendation.
On a recent trip to Vapiano, the German casual restaurant chain offering Italian food in Manchester’s revived Corn Exchange, from the moment James and I stepped in it was clear that this kind of spot-on service is a given. A beautiful light, airy and spacious venue filled with all things green, we were surrounded by fresh pots of basil, thyme and even an olive tree growing from the table; we both like these quirky things with a nod to nature.
The reason for my visit was part of Vapiano’s #EatPastaRunFaster campaign, aiming to promote carbs as part of a balanced fitness and diet plan designed by nutritionist Dr Sarah Schenker. Both plans balance carbohydrates with plenty of protein and healthy fats by teaming pasta dishes with vegetable-packed soups, salads and evening meals, to top up glycogen levels for those who run regularly, helping them to perform at their best and feel fit and energised.
Now, I’ll point out here that 1) I’m wheat intolerant so unfortunately can’t eat pasta; 2) Vapiano don’t offer a gluten-free version. However, it was good to know that I could choose from any of the following dishes that are included in the diet plan as a gluten/wheat-free alternative:
- Both the risotto dishes (Gamberetti and the vegetarian Mushroom option)
- Reef’n’Beef Salad with king prawns and fillet beef
- Any of the salads, except the Caesar which has croutons
- Homemade soup with Grana Padano cheese – with fillet beef as an extra to make it a real meal
If you haven’t been to Vapiano before, here’s the twist: the self-service concept of the restaurant means that when you arrive, you are given a card which you use to go and order your food and drink at the different bars, where your chosen dish will be made freshly in front of you. James and I both agreed that this had its pros and cons:
The bad: It meant that we had our table, with drinks, bags and jackets etc. but in between the meals, had to take it in turns to go and get our food, which means if you have more than one course it interrupts the flow of the evening. It was a quiet Monday night and there were a few queues from the different stations, so on a busier evening it could take time to be served while your other half already sat there halfway through their meal.
The good: It was a refreshing novelty to go up to the different counters and see the dishes being freshly prepared. Vapiano is all about freshness so it fits in well with this theme; all pasta is made from scratch every day on the premises, along with their pizza dough, sauces, dressings and dolci. This concept also means that you can ask modify the dish to suit your own tastes, by asking the chef personally to add a bit more chilli, or go easy on the garlic.
Onto the food – and this is where Vapiano wins. For starters, the Insalata Caprese, a classic, simple concoction of tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil, was executed so well it was transformed into a generous, juicy dish. Meanwhile James chose something he’d never tried: the Carpaccio, a huge plate decorated with finely sliced beef fillet, a tangy cipriana sauce, a scattering of mushrooms and finished with rocket and Grana Padano. Utter perfection.
For mains, and keeping in mind the campaign element of the occasion, I went for the Strawberry Spinach Salad. Berries in a salad? Yep, and trust me, it works a treat, paired with the creamy saltiness of the Goat’s Cheese and sharpness of the red onion. Matched with a scattering of toasted pine nuts for a burst of flavour and extra crunch, topped with a homemade raspberry maple dressing – well, it was a refreshing taste sensation!
James debated on about five different dishes but finally chose a vegetarian pasta dish, the Rucola Ravioli (featured as a Recover Meal as part of Sarah’s 3 day carb loading plan for pre-race long distance runs). Having not eaten fresh pasta for about 10 years, I relied on my other half to tell me how absolutely incredible the fresh ravioli tasted, stuffed with a creamy rocket and ricotta filling, smothered with butter and topped with onions and pine nuts. The smell was just sublime. Hats off to the chefs for transforming simple but high quality, fresh ingredients into some of the most delicious combinations of flavours both of us have experienced.
Too full for anything else, a refreshing loose-leaf Jasmine tea finished off the evening perfectly, while James caved in and asked our waitress what she would recommend for dessert (it’s all about balance, right?). The Barcio, chocolate and hazelnut blended on a biscuit base, topped with hazelnuts. Of course I had a taste (minus the biscuit)…Holy sh*t it was orgasmic, like a Ferrero Rocher mousse in a cute kilner jar. James was in love – he has even challenged me to try and re-create a healthier version of this dessert, so game on!
At the end of the meal, you simply hand your swipe card in at the till and pay on departure, making it a pretty simple process (note – no splitting bills, so if you’re with mates you might want to figure out how this works!). Aside from the self-service concept which you’ll either love or find a little inconvenient, we would both give Vapiano a thumbs up for food, service and value for money – and healthier offerings to help eating out fit in with your training regime.
Oh yeh – and the bikes, I couldn’t resist! 🙂