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Thursday, 15 November 2012

Dinner at The OxNoble, Manchester: Proper Restaurant Food, Proper Old-Style Boozer

Now, after almost one hundred years (approximately) of generally happy marriage, I believe that I can offer some wise and helpful advice. Obviously, the very most desirable thing is to acquire a spouse who simply does whatever you say (and all the while with an adoring look on his face), but failing this then compromise is clearly the way forward. Take Mr Liz, for example. After years of stubborn resistance to the Saturday tradition of Strictly Come Dancing, I have now discovered that he will sit through it quite happily if furnished beforehand with some kind of beer product, and if I promise faithfully not to expect him to partipate in discussions re: Tess' dress and/or the merits of a particular Cha-Cha-Cha.

But what if the marital division is a potentially more lethal stumbling block, whereby your favourite word is "restaurant" and your husband's favourite word is "pub"? Well, I can now provide the solution to this also, as on Friday we dined at The Oxnoble, a proper pub that satisfies all Mr Liz's criteria for a top boozer whilst also serving food that wouldn't be ashamed to show its face in a restaurant. And a most splendid old pub it is too - it's been around since 1804, when Mr Liz was a boy, and although locally it's been known as The Ox in recent years, manager Alex is keen for this venerable establishment to return to its original, full title - not least because, as far as he knows, it's the only pub in Britain named after a Georgian variety of potato. If that's not a reason to visit, then I'm afraid you and I have NOTHING in common.

So, on to the food. I'd made the mistake of idly investigating the menu during the day, and found that pretty much every dish looked to be a winner: choosing was clearly going to be a difficult decision. Alex doesn't like the term "gastropub", but if we remove all sneery connotations of this over-used term and think about what it actually means...

*pretends is going off to look in clever, learned book; does quick search on Wikipedia*

...then this most certainly is "a bar and restaurant that serves high-end beer and food" - it's not in the least a term to be ashamed of. And by and large, the food here is high-end: for starters, Mr Liz chooses the Panfried Sardines served with a tomato, chorizo and spinach sauce from the regular menu, whilst I go for the exotic-sounding Roast Teal with black pudding mash, chocolate red cabbage and green beans. The first of these is an out-and-out winner - two whole sardines in a lovely piquant, earthy sauce, and absolutely crazy value at £4.25; it is as good, if not better, than a far more costly version I had in a top-end restaurant in Leith a few years ago. My teal (a particularly jaunty, handsome sort of duck, although they all look the same on the plate) is also excellent, and although pricier at £6.95, is actually nearer the size of a main than a starter; in fact, I can think of places that would indeed call this a main and charge you nearer twenty quid. Now generosity in itself is not an issue, but if you're trying to tempt people into a pub for a restaurant-quality meal, you do have to be mindful that many diners will wish to consume three courses - if you're pretty full after your starter, then the balance has gone a little awry. Although, obviously I could have left some. Equally obviously, I didn't.

On to the mains then. We both choose from the "Oxnoble Favourites" section of the menu: Braised Ox Cheek with champ mash, greens and a rich Marsala jus for me, and the Timothy Taylor Steak & Ale Pie with cabbage, mashed potato, black pudding and gravy for Mr Liz. I can't fault the quality of the ox cheek - it's a cliche to say that slow-cooked meat falls apart on your fork, melts in your mouth etc, but on this occasion it is true; the sticky tenderness of the cheek is perfection, and the rich jus sets it off just nicely. Do I really need another enormous mound of mash though, and more green beans? Probably not, and I must float the possibility that this is a dish that divides opinion - I love it, but a Twitter friend tells me soon afterwards that she tried it recently and found the jus too over-reduced and the green beans over-cooked. Meanwhile, over the other side of the table Mr Liz has temporarily disappeared from view behind the Manchester outpost of the European food mountain - a whole pie, full to bursting with (again) properly slow-cooked meat and thick gravy, perched upon mash, upon black pudding slices, upon veg, upon gravy. The pie is excellent, but the portion size begins to become an issue here - I have never before witnessed my Wiganer husband leave pastry or black pudding, and to see the pain in his eyes as he realises he is not going to manage it all is hard to bear.

Food-wise, the only bum note is a bizarre side dish we order in the form of courgette fritters - these are one of my favourite things, and I excitedly request them without noticing that they come with sweet chilli sauce and creme fraiche. Now, I like all of these ingredients very much, but separately; the fritters themselves are superlative - joyously crisp and puffy batter on the outside, tender melting flesh on the inside - but completely drowned by a sea of sweet sauce underneath and a massive, cold blob of dairy product plonked on the top. Have faith in your chef - he knows what he's doing, and his fritters should be allowed to stand lone, and proud, and speak for themselves.

And so to dessert. Now, greedy as I am, LOOK AT THOSE PORTION SIZES. Even I can't manage the merest sliver of a pudding, so head chef Richard Davies very kindly chooses a few favourite items and packages them up for us to take away, no doubt under the impression that we are going to leap into a taxi rather than accidentally being side-tracked into the Whim Wham Cafe Bar, where we sit, proudly and not a little smugly, with our foil parcel of delicious delights on the table between us. I'm somewhat ashamed to say that we eat the lot for breakfast the next day, and they have fared remarkably well despite their late-night adventures - even the vanilla-flecked panacotta remains moist and buoyant, and the raspberry cheescake is an absolute joy. The cat looks at us despairingly and goes back to bed.

The Oxnoble want people to know that they are a destination for an evening meal as well as for a quick pint, and we were therefore invited in to review the menu for free. I will however go again, as a paying customer - the food is great value (I am particularly keen to investigate the ludicrously good value "2 courses for £10" offer that runs Monday-Saturday until 9.30pm), and the attention to detail is impressive. If you're not convinced, I'll leave you with this little detail - when I complimented Alex on the quality of the balsamic vinegar that came with our bread, and asked what brand it was, he said that the chef prefers to make his own balsamic reduction, to really intensify the flavour. So yes, a busy pub it might be, but our little corner of The Oxnoble was all restaurant.

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