Now, they say that a change is as good as a holiday (or some other such worthy nonsense); I'm far more interested in the rather hurtful claims made by certain individuals that I am somewhat set in my ways, spending my time flitting between favourite haunts in Didsbury and a handful of places in the Northern Quarter, living on nothing but fancy-dan burgers, Aperol spritzes and cocktails served in jam jars. Obviously there is NO TRUTH WHATSOEVER in all of this, but just in case there is, I can offer up clear and incontrovertible proof of my adventuring ways. For last night, I went all the way to Hale.
Now, there is no need to be alarmed here: in recent years I have become most fond of Altrincham, its nearby sister - although we are not currently on speaking terms since the recent (and still painful) closure of the wondrous Brew House bar. Hale itself is smaller, but beautiful - I am already picturing myself decorating an enormous, Victorian-style Christmas tree in the bay window of one of the highly desirable houses that line the streets here; and I would particularly like one on Ashley Road please, as that seems to be where all the restaurants are, including last night's destination: Amba Restaurant and Bar.
First impressions are very, very good: on what is clearly a quiet night in Hale (all the other restaurants we pass are empty, some with waiters in the window sadly eyeing up the deserted streets), Amba is full - literally every table in this welcoming, bustling little place is occupied or has been occupied by the time we leave. Amba is about to celebrate its tenth birthday, and I suspect that the locals are wise to the excellent value set menu, available 6pm - 10pm from Sunday to Friday and offering two courses for £15.50 or three for £18.50. We decide to order off the full a la carte menu (in the interests of thorough research, obviously), and choose the following:
Pre-Starter: yes, yes, I know - I am now at the age where I fear I will NEVER learn my lesson about cramming another course in under pretence of needing time to study the menu; in fact, the whole tenor of this post will revolve around the familiar theme of my eyes being bigger than my stomach. Still, as long as a restaurant offers a dish of mixed vegetable crisps for £1.95, and as long as I have spirit in my soul and breath in my lungs, I will order them. And beat Mr Liz's eager hands with the drinks menu when he tries to share them.
Starters: Now these were good. I had the chicken liver parfait at £5.95, a PROPER parfait, with that perfect texture that is somewhere between artery-stopping richness and light-as-air, whipped softness; when I say that it has a light sheen of meaty sweat on its glistening surface I mean it as the greatest possible compliment. The orange-onion marmalade served on the side is a suitably sweet-yet-tart accompaniment, although the tiny kilner jar it is served in is reluctant to yield up its treasures to my clumsy, giant knife. Mr Liz has a crispy duck salad with pink grapefruit and pomegranate seeds, and considers that the zesty zing of the fruit is a perfect foil for the rich duck in its sweet dressing. Our only criticism is portion size: they are simply enormous, and I am happy to acknowledge that Mr Liz and I are two of the greediest people who ever walked the planet. Yes, it's perhaps better to err on the side of generosity, but I lack self-control and hate leaving food; you may wish to start preparing yourselves for the soon-to-be-unleashed revelation that Mr Liz has to leave some chips from his main course - he has been dreaming of them all night, and is STILL regretting this out-of-character action this morning.
Mains: Speaking of mains, one of the things I liked best about Amba was the seasonal specials section on the menu, clearly ever-changing to reflect what is particuarly fresh and good at any particular moment. From this, I choose the pheasant cooked with sour cherries and served with roast parsnips, kale and celeriac mash, a suitably Autumnal-sounding dish that doesn't disappoint. Pheasant can go a little dry, but this lucky individual is perfectly cooked and served with crispy skin (the best bit) still intact; the sour cherries are a nicely tart touch, although the quantity of meat provided (half a pheasant, methinks) perhaps requires one or two more fruits to really make the most of this classic combination. The star of the dish is the celeriac mash, which seems roughly one part healthy vegetable item to three parts butter and two parts salt: exactly the way I like it, in short. Some would find this too rich, too salty, but for me this kind of mash is a real restaurant treat, as the soullessly wholesome versions I make at home are lucky to see even a splash of skimmed milk. Meanwhile, Mr Liz is embarking upon a plate of steak and chips roughly the size of the Titanic - he has gone for the 280g rib-eye at £22.50, and it is a prime specimen indeed, with that beautiful marbling of fat that makes so much difference to the flavour and texture of this cut. The steak comes with baker chips, mushrooms and tomatoes - no additional side dishes needed here, although the fiery peppercorn sauce he fancies does come as an extra. To our shame and sorrow, though, Mr Liz leaves several of the excellent chips and I even abandon a little of the pheasant - I really feel I have let you all down and these are not the standards of eating you expect from me.
Desserts: but surely you'll try a pudding? cries the lovely lady who has been bringing us these gargantuan dishes, with all the innocent menace of a waiter offering a wafer-thin mint to a dangerously full diner. I am ready to explode, but do manage a spoonful of the shared white chocolate and raspberry creme brulee (I argue weakly for the lighter-sounding fruit and sorbets platter, but Mr Liz is having none of it). This is perhaps a little heavy a choice in view of what we have just eaten, but I like the unusual flavour combination, and the pert raspberries do help to cut through the richness of the white chocolate. We do not drink much with dinner as we have the car with us (yes, I realise that Dora the Explorer would have shown us up here, by finding some way of navigating her way to the far-off terrains of Hale without a motor vehicle), but I do manage to sample the Hendricks Fizz from the new gin cocktail menu and it is sublime; in fact, the drinks options here are impressive full stop, with a wide selection of wines, gins and cocktails as well as Belvoir soft drinks for those remaining compos mentis.
In short? A lovely restaurant, with a menu full of things I'd like to eat, friendly staff and great cocktails. I do think the portions here are on the hefty side, but we perhaps didn't help ourselves by ordering some of the heavier options - I shall certainly try to choose more judiciously next time (for we will certainly come again)...or maybe just ask for a doggy bag, for I could really just fancy some pheasant and chips round about now...
- Amba Restaurant and Bar is at 106 Ashley Road, Hale, Cheshire WA14 2UN; tel 0161 928 2343. We were invited here to review the restaurant and were therefore not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but we will definitely go again as paying customers, even though it is ALL THE WAY AWAY IN HALE.