It strikes me that, by and large, hotel restaurants must be a tricky thing to get right. I fear that for many of us, raised on a diet of sitcoms from the 1970s and 80s, the image that prevails is one of a very tall, quite silly man goose-stepping his way around the tables of some astonished, weeping tourists, while a small Spanish man drops trays and gets smacked around the head (yes - I actually thought Andrew Sachs was Spanish - I was very young). I have eaten in some truly dreadful hotel restaurants, utterly beige in their soullessness, and peopled almost entirely by unhappy couples pushing little pieces of very anaemic fish around their plates.
I have also been to some rip-snorting hotel bars and restaurants, which have taken the sensible route of thinking, "I know! Let us simply concentrate on designing and running a really good bar or restaurant, that loads of people would want to come to, and give them lovely food and drink in an atmosphere not resembling that of a funeral parlour - and then we'll run a nice hotel as well." The very best hotel bar I have ever been to was at a nice little place on the outskirts of Edinburgh - they made Bloody Marys with fiercely hot chilli vodka, and ran a quiz where someone would come round with an enormous carrier bag full of packets of crisps between games, prompting an unseemly fight over the last bag of prawn cocktail between the hundreds of happy locals who were happy to patronise this excellent bar that just happened to have handy rooms attached.
For similar reasons, I applaud Smoak Bar and Grill, the new restaurant that has replaced the Brasserie at Manchester's Malmaison. On a Thursday night, the place was packed - full of youngish, cheerful people who were eating and drinking here because they wanted to, not because they had to - a huge compliment to a new restaurant in a part of Manchester not short of places to eat. Here is why we loved it:
1. The menu. As its name suggests, Smoak is primarily a steak restaurant, specialising in succulent slabs of meat grilled to perfection over oak smoked chips (more of that in a minute). However, the menu is impressively extensive: I have already ear-marked a further half dozen dishes I must come back and try - top of the list for next time is the rare breed chop with pulled pork, served with coleslaw, cornbread and fried onions. There are a few vegetarian dishes on the menu, but as our table offered a clear view of the restaurant's butchery (basically some tasty animal carcasses hanging in a glass case), it might be a little thoughtless to bring your herbivorous friends here anyway.
2. The staff. The people who work here are simply lovely, and give the impression that they enjoy their jobs very much. From the charming young barman who assured us that ALL their cocktails were both hangover and calorie free, particularly the cream-based ones (fictitiously, it turned out - NEVER trust a winking barman is a life lesson I have clearly learned far too late) to the cheeky waiter who took one look at my licked-clean dessert plate and said "well yes - I can see you didn't enjoy that at all", all were cheerful, funny and friendly - a delight.
3. The grungy-in-a-good-way atmosphere. This might just be the point that divides opinion over Smoak - this is a dark, sexy warehouse of a space, with bright red seating and tables crammed in close together (all the better for noseying at what your neighbours are eating, is what I say), and The Killers playing at high volume over the noisy clink of cutlery and the buzz of cheery, after-work conversation. The staff wear t-shirts, and happily dollop ketchup onto the side of your plate if that is what you so desire; the wine is served in tumblers and the water from space-ace metallic beakers. We loved all of this, but it IS brave to serve high-end food and drink (at reasonably high-end prices) in this kind of deliberately casual atmosphere; we were disappointed to see, for example, that all of the neighbouring tables had spurned their tumblers and asked for proper wine glasses instead (which were brought instantly, without resentment).
4. The food, obviously. All of this would count for nothing, of course, if the food wasn't really, really good. The steaks themselves were peerless - I went for the fillet steak with bearnaise sauce and, for the first time ever, left my sauce through choice, because the steak it accompanied was simply too rich, juicy and buttery to have any need of such adornments; my husband found the same with his pepper-crusted sirloin steak from the specials board, and joyously dunked his skinny, skin-on chips into his peppercorn sauce instead. He also wolfed down the roasted bone marrow that came with my fillet with all the speed and alacrity of a cat that has stolen something particularly tasty from your plate; I swear I even heard him growl softly, just once, when a passing waiter came too close.
Starters and puds were also good - frito misto with a gorgeously fishy, salty dipping sauce for me, and the splendidly named "Three Sausage Sampler" for Mr Liz - a strange but exuberant offering of three differently sized meaty chunks (putting me in mind a little, somewhat bizarrely, of the three bears) perched aloft a smear of mashed potato. The starter portions were not large, but the desserts were enormous (I would prefer a slight swapping-round of these ratios) - six perfect profiteroles balancing on a choux pastry ring for me, and a plateful of pear and chocolate waffles for Mr Liz; both are shown below - remember the waffles look smaller due to the perspective, but were actually roughly similar to the Coliseum in circumference.
Regretfully, all this greed left me unable to sample what might just be Smoak's crowning glory - a proper, wheel-it-about, point-at-what-you-want CHEESE TROLLEY. I will have this next time, and in the meantime I include a picture below that I may stroke lovingly from time to time whilst thinking about what I could have had.
So...not everyone will like Smoak, and that is precisely why we loved it - a great restaurant that just happens to be part of a hotel. And not a goose-stepper or a moose head in sight.