It will come as no surprise to many of you that most meals are of interest to me; indeed, my Twitter timeline consists almost entirely of people who I follow purely because, like me, they are prone to listing details of whatever they have just consumed, ideally with a photograph or two. My very favourite meal of all, however, stands head and shoulders above all others: Christmas dinner, shining like a lovely sprouty beacon at the end of a long wintery corridor; a sturdily shimmering mirage lighting the way through the dark months of the year. I love everything about it: the oft-maligned turkey, the goose-fat roasties, the fruity stuffing, the chipolatas, the honey-roast parsnips, the gravy, the sprouts...oh, especially the SPROUTS. I even like the bit where I sleep fatly on the sofa afterwards: I literally look forward to this meal all year.
So when the email arrived from DoubleTree by Hilton inviting us in to try the new Festive menu, a small corner of Didsbury might just have caught a glimpse of me, running about excitedly, full of the thrilling possibility of an additional, bonus turkey dinner - in NOVEMBER. There are of course plenty of set menus about at this time of year, but the one at DoubleTrees's City Cafe outpost is pleasingly traditional, allowing the hungry and festive diner to choose from the following:
Parsnip and apple soup
Mosaic of guinea fowl, pistachio, cranberry, plum chutney
Poached salmon , caviar, lemon crème fraîche
Beetroot tarte tatin, goats cheese fritters, balsamic dressing
Roast turkey, apricot and chestnut stuffing, roasted vegetables, cranberry sauce
8oz rib eye steak, horseradish mashed potato, onion frites, truffle sauce
Pan fried sea bass, Lyonnaise potatoes, fennel puree, creamed leeks
Chestnut and mushroom pithivier, cranberry chutney, roasted vegetables
Cheese cake, hazelnuts, marshmallows
Traditional Christmas pudding, brandy sauce
Dark chocolate ganache, cherry cloud, cherry sorbet
Selection of English cheese, fruit chutney
The restaurant is quiet when we visit on a freezing cold Tuesday night - just as well really, as our table has thoughtfully been set with crackers which we pull loudly and excitedly before squabbling noisily over the prizes (remember this is a full three days before the launch of the Christmas menu on November 30th); it is with no little sorrow that I resist donning my paper hat in a jaunty manner.
And the food is excellent. I start with the soup, which arrives - rather thrillingly - as a pile of grated apple in a dish with the jug of soup on the side; the two are then united at table before my very eyes. This is no mere theatre: keeping the raw apple separate from the hot, creamy soup until the last possible moment means the fruit retains its sweetness and its crunch, cutting through the comforting velvet of the liquid in a manner that leads me to think that I shall do this at home from now on whenever I make soup. Meanwhile, Mr Liz is hoovering up a substantial piece of lightly poached salmon served alongside a little pile of satisfyingly piquant potato salad topped with caviar - a most classy dish, although obviously it would have been made classier still had he put his party hat on.
(NB In this narrative I have omitted the part where Mr Liz stage whispers - with some trepidation - to enquire "whether he can eat the flowers".)
For main, I have the turkey, of course. This is everything this misunderstood bird should be - moist, thickly sliced and nestling in a sea of sticky gravy, and flanked by crunchy roast potatoes and a lovely fruity stuffing. There is even a sausage on the top and a dish of cranberry sauce on the side - perfect. Well, almost perfect - come on DoubleTree, THREE sprouts? I normally serve myself in the region of twenty (although I have, at times, come to regret this). Mr Liz has the steak, which is obviously the more sophisticated dish - tender pink meat with a rich sauce, served with perfect, thin, crunchy onion rings and a pile of horseradish mash. I am amazed that on such a reasonably priced set menu this dish does not come at a supplement - it is quite simply great value. I would have put a little more horseradish in the mash, but that is because I have been known to eat creamed horseradish straight from the jar, so my opinion probably doesn't count here.
We are by now pretty full, but Mr Liz makes room for some Christmas pudding - a spicy little number in a pool of boozy sauce - whilst I toy coquettishly* with a handsome selection of cheese.
*stuff face wildly in the manner of a person who has not eaten for weeks
Head chef Michael Campbell comes out for a chat; he is rightly proud of the menu he has designed, although he did say he might make a few tweaks here and there before the full launch, so it's possible your dinner might differ very slightly from what you see here. All in all, it would be hard to beat this in terms of quality and value for a Christmas do - the menu ends with coffee and mince pies, and costs £19.95 at lunch and £22.50 in the evening. We also felt the wine list was approachable, with an excellent barrel-aged Tempranillo at £21.50 and plenty of others around the same price mark (although I did not permit Mr Liz to look at the prices towards the bottom of the pages, lest he keel over clutching his chest).
So, a good night to really get the festive season underway, and even raise the exciting possibility of squeezing in at least five turkey dinners before the year is out. Although, looking at this, I can't help thinking it would serve me right if they just give me sprouts and horseradish next time I go...
Doubletree by Hilton Manchester is at 1 Piccadilly Place, I Auburn Street, Manchester M1 3DG - just across the pedestrian bridge leading from the train station. The set menu runs until December 23rd.