Neil Sowerby gets down with the po’ boys and discovers a street bar with desire
I have had my share of catfish po’ boys at the dark end of Bourbon Street, tried my hand with Sazeracs under the exuberant tutelage of Abbi ‘Rye Girl’ Gullo, bartender at Compere Lapin in the heart of The Big Easy. I’ve even followed a brassy funeral cortege through Treme. Get me. So, blessed with such ‘insider knowledge’ (it was a memorable if short visit), I was prepared to be a mite snotty about Henry C, downtown Chorlton’s New Orleans-influenced bar.
Chorlton has become quite a banlieue of broken bar dreams, where some homespun homage to a distant cuisine or drinks culture hasn’t quite got to grips with the basics, even if the posters of Tintin or Mexican Day of The Dead souvenirs do look kinda cute.
My visit to Henry C coincided with their regular Fat Tuesday offer, where the po’boy sandwiches and cocktails all cost just a fiver. They made an exception for me. The Sazerac I demanded as a badge of authenticity isn’t on the drinks list, so I paid the full £8 whack for a bespoke combo of Woodford Reserve, Peychaud bitters, absinthe and sugar.
Cocktail geeks will tell you it’s America’s first cocktail, created in New Orleans in 1838 by Antoine Peychaud, who named it for his favourite French brandy, Sazerac-de-Forge. Soon rye generally replaced the brandy – an improvement – while absinthe, especially the local Herbsaint, has always been essential. This was a lovely, smooth take on a true classic from a city where bartenders are gods.
By now I was taking in my surroundings, ordering a Negroni (well, only a fiver and I now had faith in the barman). It’s an intimate, gregarious space, a shop until recently, so big windows looking across at organic grocery Unicorn, whose hair-shirt wholemeal ethos is at odds with the kind of white bread needed for a po’ boy – like a good greasy gumbo, food of the poor.
You need a softish loaf wider than a baguette, a solid ‘boat’ to carry gravy, mayo and any number of fillings. Actually, I only tried catfish the once, preferring the ubiquitous shrimp and that was what I ordered first at Henry C from a smallish menu where you struggle to avoid soy aioli and perhaps too much red cabbage slaw.
The prawns were sweet and tender, the bread slightly too good for a po’ boy. Good to see that co-owners Joe White and Sophie Robson source from the likes of Out Of The Blue and Barbakan. Both, on day off, had popped in to sit around the compact bar, so I chatted with them and their Fat Tuesday regulars while I awaited Po’ Boy 2: The Beef Brisket.
Before I could smart-ass catch them out by insisting the kitchen made me a muffaletta, they trumped me by asking: “Will you try a Ramos Fizz?”
Both are ex-Gorilla, so top bar pedigree and it shows, even if they haven’t spent any time researching all this in the estaminets of the French Quarter.
Before I could smart-ass catch them out by insisting the kitchen made me a muffaletta (sounds rude but it’s just a packed Sicilian roll that’s the Italian rival to the po’ boy in N’Yawleans) they trumped me by asking: “Will you try a Ramos Fizz?”
Never had one before, but I didn’t let on. It’s how the bar gets its name. Back in 1888 at the Imperial Cabinet Saloon on Gravier Street, Henry C Ramos invented this mixture of gin, lemon juice, lime juice, egg white, sugar, cream, orange flower water and soda water.
Perhaps you prefer your bar’s raison d’etre a little simpler. Then go to near neighbour Pi and eat pie. Joe and Sophie’s twist on the cocktail is the Almond Ramos, where you get almond milk and maraska from sour cherries.
The best place for cocktails in this ‘burb? Almost certainly, and prices don’t soar beyond £8. There’s also a couple of Camden beers on draught and the usual informed suspects such as Magic Rock and Beavertown in cans with a small wine selection, again reasonably priced. Bar snacks include bowls of capers and cornichons, while brunch served Friday to Sunday 12pm-4pm features plenty of spiciness as well as, inevitably, crushed avocado on sourdough, here with chilli, lime and spring onion.
The Beef Brisket could have been heavier on the gravy, but gherkin and mustard gave it the piquancy of the po’ boy backstory, which goes… Two street car conductors called Bennie and Clovis Martin opened a restaurant in the French Market. Later when their former colleagues went on strike and the bosses called in strikebreakers from New York, the pair pledged to feed the strikers until the dispute ended. Whenever they saw one come by they would say: “Here comes another poor boy.”
Not many of those around in today’s Chorlton, but that’s why such a classy yet friendly bar ought to succeed. Oh, yes, and there is a poster of New Orleans.
Henry C, 107 Manchester Road, Chorlton M21 9GA. 0161 881 0697. http://www.wearehenryc.com
Food & drink
(shrimp po' boy 7, beef brisket po' boy 6, cocktails 9)
An intimate, gregarious space
Great shakes from knowledgeable staff