Now, I have lived in Manchester for many, many years. And yet it never ceases to amaze me by yielding up something new; some hitherto unexplored little street, or some old favourite venue into which new life has unexpectedly been breathed. And on Tuesday night, I found out something little short of amazing: when you come out of Piccadilly train station, you can turn LEFT as well as right. Nah, you say - that's just the London Road, there's not much down there except maybe a hotel or two; well, one of those hotels - The Macdonald Manchester Hotel and Spa - has a restaurant which is frankly too good to remain the preserve of overnight guests a moment longer, and now I know it's there, I WANT IN.
The Scottish Steak Club Restaurant (yes, I know - the name IS promising - more of that later) is pretty busy on a filthy wet Manchester night, and although there are plenty of lone diners busily reading their Kindles at a table for one (the classic stereotype of a hotel restaurant), there is actually a nice buzz about the place thanks to a number of parties who are clearly already in the know about the left turn out of Piccadilly. Christmas music plays softly in the background, and the view of traffic on the London Road through the rain-smeared window actually makes me feel pretty cosy and - dare I say it - festive. I also very much like that from my seat I have a variety of interesting things within my sightline: I can see into the open plan kitchen, and am able to keep a close eye on a table piled high with fresh bread that is sliced on demand whenever someone (mostly me, truth be told) orders a plate of wheaty goodness served with balsamic vinegar and oil at a reasonable £2.50. I can also see Mr Liz, with a bit of sauce around his mouth, but I choose to largely ignore this and keep an eye on the chefs and the bread and the rain instead.
For starters, I go with the chicken liver parfait served with fruit chutney and toasted brioche. The pate itself is very good, although I'm not really a fan of brioche as an accompaniment - the soft sweet bread fails to provide the contrast needed to cut through the richness of the meat, but this problem could be easily circumvented next time by asking for different bread (yes - I am still gazing longingly at that table). Meanwhile, across the table Mr Liz has come up trumps (thankfully not literally) by ordering the haggis, neeps and tatties with whisky sauce. This comes as a pretty tower of different layers, with the haggis stratus just seen here peeking coyly from its moat of rich cream sauce, and whilst some might feel this is a rather gentrified version of what is essentially a sturdy, rustic sort of dish, it's actually far less polite than it looks, and we both love it.
As the name suggests, the restaurant specialises in Scottish steak, and although the menu is actually extremely wide-ranging and includes plenty of non-steak options, we both decide to try the main attraction - not least because all the steaks are cooked on a Josper charcoal grill. If you've never tried steak (or indeed anything) cooked on a Josper, I can assure you it's a revelation - this is essentially a giant indoor barbecue, but because it's being manned by experts rather than someone's slightly inebriated husband in a comedy apron, the food comes out perfectly moist and with a delicately smoky taste that a man full of beer in a back garden will never get close to. I elect to have the fillet steak, which is on the edge of pricey at £27.50 but is just stunning - charcoally, slightly caramelised stripes on the outside but perfectly rare in the middle - and comes handsomely equipped with some very good chips. Mr Liz goes for an enormous rib eye off the specials board and enjoys its strong, earthy flavour - he reckons he can taste more than a hint of unami, and decides that the accompanying onion marmalade forms an unusual but inspired foil to its savoury notes. I also order an entirely unnecessary side, also from the specials board - cabbage with bacon and cream, which provides a peerless lesson in the art of taking a healthy vegetable item and turning it into a decadent frenzy and is absolutely delicious, albeit a little on the rich side.
We are pretty full by now, but Mr Liz's eyes light up at the sight of someone else's Knickerbocker Glory and he bravely finds a small spare corner of his pudding stomach to try his own. I'm a big fan of retro desserts appearing on sprightly modern menus, and this is a good example of how to take a 70s staple and make it just a little more sophisticated - plenty of fruit, plenty of good quality ice cream and jelly and - thankfully - two chocolate sticks, so that an unseemly squabble does not develop. The service throughout is spot on - friendly and helpful without being intrusive, with staff happy to offer advice and recommendations - they even bring a little sample of the "secret sauce" for us to try when we are trying to decide what should accompany our steaks.
We were invited to try the menu as guests of the restaurant and therefore were lucky enough not asked to pay for our meal - if I have any criticism of the Scottish Steak Club it is that a meal for two here with steak and wine would soon mount up cost-wise. You do get what you pay for, however, and knowing the quality of the steak and the cooking I would go back, especially as special offers run on certain nights and there are plenty of lower-priced items on the menu. And Manchester? PLEASE don't show me any more nice places to eat - there aren't enough days in the week, and these jeans are frankly getting really a bit tight now...
- The MacDonald Manchester Hotel and Spa is on the London Road, Manchester M1 2PG; tel 0161 272 3200.