Now, I have embraced the recent trend for a more casual style of dining in Manchester's eateries with some enthusiasm and not a little ketchup on my face. I've drunk from jam jars in Almost Famous, perched on the patchwork sofa and trying deperately to eat a Triple Nom burger from a little low-down table without depositing half of it in my lap; I've fought with a similarly gannet-minded friend over the last piece of chilli cornbread in Southern Eleven in a MOST undignified way; I've been allowed to eat crispy chicken skin in the sancified guise of Rooster Fries at SoLIta. And I love them all.
Sometimes, though, it's nice to go a little bit old-school. I have a huge fondness for a traditional, "proper" restaurant - the ones with beautifully starched white napkins and tableclothes (even though I DO always spill red wine on them, no matter how carefully I pour), with elegantly upholstered damask chairs and wine glasses that magically top themselves up whenever alcohol levels get dangerously low. Of course, there is a danger that this type of restaurant can be stuffy, and arrogant, and over-priced; I am pleased to report that Linen, where we dined last night, is none of these.
Linen is the restaurant attached to Manchester 235 Casino in the Great Northern complex on Deansgate; I suspect many people don't know of its existence, or don't realise that it operates independently of the casino, as it was quiet on what was admittedly a filthy wet Tuesday night. Still, I'd heard good things about the food here, particularly since new(ish) Head Chef Jarda arrives at Linen fresh from helping transform the Malmaison Brasserie into superior grillhouse Smoak last year. Here's what we had:
Starters: I quite fancied everything from the starter list, but in the end I went for Brixham Crab with spiced gazpacho, chillies and spring onions while Mr Liz chose seared squid and chorizo salad with harissa dressing, both priced at £7.50. Both dishes were almost perfect but not quite - both were generously sized and offered classic combinations of high-quality ingredients, but Mr Liz felt some of the squid was a fraction chewier than it should have been, and my crab was icy-cold, clearly straight from the fridge. This is not really the restaurant's fault - we were the first diners of the evening, and obviously seafood dishes cannot be left lying about at room temperature on the off-chance that someone will wish to order one shortly. Still, the chill did take the edge off the flavour of the crab, and whilst the punchy, sweet gazpacho was spot on, the dish as a whole would have worked better if I'd been able to wait for it to warm up a little (I couldn't).
Mains: It was on this course that the meal really hit its stride - Mr Liz tried the 8oz rib-eye steak whilst I went for the 10oz pork cutlet served with crispy pork cheek, spring peas and a sauce of gribiche, capers, shallots and gherkins. The steak was served perfectly pink, and achieved that happy texture of a well-cooked rib-eye - tender enough to cut easily, but with just that right amount of sturdy chew that characterises this cut of meat. The accompanying peppercorn sauce was also excellent - unlike some of the bland offerings that are served up with steak, this one had a hefty, spicy, warming kick to it (and I should know - ALL my chips were surreptitiously dipped into this when Mr Liz wasn't looking).
My own choice of main had largely been made on the strength of the accompaniments - I love a nice saucy dish, and this certainly met my requirements. A pork chop is a pork chop (albeit a fine one), but the pig cheek croquette was the star of the plate - densely-packed flakes of what is, to my mind, quite the tastiest part of any porcine friend. I also enjoyed the sauce - gribiche is essentially an egg sauce, a little like a rich mayonnaise, and this one worked well with the plainly-cooked chop, the generosity of the gherkins and capers helping to cut through the richness. My only quibble here is a churlish one - I found the portions on the large side and couldn't finish my chop; luckily no food goes to waste when dining with Mr Liz, and I had rather brought it on myself by ordering a variety of side dishes that, frankly, I didn't need. Sides are priced at £3.95 each, which may feel a little steep when you've already paid £19.50 for your steak, but I would suggest perhaps just one (the pleasingly sturdy hand-cut chips, or the fine mashed potato) to go alongside the steak rather than the, ahem, three that we ordered.
Desserts: Now, the advantage of giving your husband half your chop (no euphemism intended) is that you have essentially left yourself some room for pudding. I had the fromage blanc and vanilla mousse served in a crispy dark chocolate shell with summer berries - a light, sweet, slightly lemony froth of a dessert, although I did find the chocolate shell superfluous and ate round it. Mr Liz enjoyed his syllabub with strawberry and rhubarb compote, and left the restaurant confident that he had had an entirely healthy option, despite eating a spare chocolate shell he had found lying around on a nearby plate.
We drank a very good Pinot Noir priced at £22, and service was faultless throughout - helpful without being intrusive. The restaurant is open every day and is keen to bring more people in during the week - to this end, they are offering what looks to be an excellent-value set menu at £17.50 for two courses or £20 for three - I will definitely be back to try this. I also have my eye on the private wine room, where a table for four nestles enticingly amongst a sea of fine bottles, and the chef's table, where a party of six can watch Jarda rustle up a special eight course menu, and then delicately scoff the lot. Have a look at the restaurant's website for more details.
Whilst on the premises, it seemed churlish not to have a look at Fusion, the adjoining bar. They are rightly proud of their cocktails, and a quick look at the extensive list explains why: these are classics with a twist, made with knowledge and enthusiasm (and in some cases, FIRE). I had the 235 - Amaretto, Creme de Fraise, strawberry puree and champagne - and it was absolutely delicious, although rather tame compared to Mr Liz's Zombie. This appears to be the best cocktail in the history of the world - gold and dark rum, apricot liqueur, pineapple juice, fresh passionfruit, and a flaming shot of Wray & Nephew rum served in the recently-hollowed out passion fruit shell. It is spectacular, SO spectacular that a passing couple saw Mr Liz's being made and had to stop for one each of their own. Prices here are in line with most other city centre bars at around £7-£8.50, but the selection is more interesting than most, and - terrifyingly - they serve until 6am.
We were invited to review both the bar and the restaurant and so did not have to pay for our meal or our drink, but were encouraged to be completely honest and unbiased in our feedback. Whilst the restaurant was quiet and lacked a little atmosphere, I would definitely eat here again, and have already suggested Fusion as a meeting place for a forthcoming night out - if I can just manage to drag Mr Liz past all those gambling tables AND keep the whole 6am thing from him...