Funny things, families. In theory, if you like one family member, surely you should like them all; and yet, anyone who remembers childhood traumas of being gawped at by a friend's squinty brother or sneered at by her hoity toity older sister will know that this is not necessarily the case. So whilst it sounds like good news that Southern Eleven - one of my favourite casual restaurants in Manchester - has a stylish new little sister just a stone's throw from its own Spinningfields location, those childish fears are not far from the surface: what if the new place - Neighbourhood - is too swanky? What if its size - 200 covers - means it lacks the intimate atmosphere of its pocket-sized relative? What if those higher prices are not matched by a step up in quality from the already excellent food served up with Southern Eleven's very own brand of good-value, stylish hippery?
Well, thanks to an invitation from Manchester Confidential, I met the new family member of James Hitchen's stable on Thursday night, and I can confirm that she is very cool indeed but friendly with it, like someone who's been studying fashion in New York but then remembered her roots and headed back to kick up her heels in her old home town and show the rest of us how it's done. Inspired by the Meatpacking district, Neighbourhood offers a menu that is big on seafood and steak in a location that is pretty breath-taking - the mirrored tables and low-hanging glass lights have just the right combination of bling and insouciance, with the whole thing underpinned by the best playlist I've yet heard in a Manchester restaurant. Honestly - New Order's Bizarre Love Triangle, Human League's Don't You Want Me, Debbie Gibson's Shake Your Love AND Tiffany's I Think We're Alone Now in one heady half hour period? It's like being in that hoity toity older sister's bedroom, and playing her record collection whilst being allowed to apply her lipstick and try on her shoes - only BETTER.
And luckily, the food and drink more than matches up to the high standards set by the location. The prices here ARE considerably more expensive than at the bargainous Southern Eleven, but this is high-end stuff: even the cocktails come with added swanky extras, with my 5th Ave Oppulentini (an opulent martini, of course) arriving chaperoned by a supremely classy crab-fried oyster (yes - an oyster stuffed with generous amounts of spicy crab meat, then covered with crisp breadcrumbs) which sits fatly, smugly, awaiting my attention - and it is sublime. My dinner date chooses the Broadway - a chilli margarita accompanied by a meaty, mustardy toast sidekick - and proclaims the combination to be a triumphant one: these come in at £9.50 a go but are almost a small meal in themselves - a fact which makes the following procession of dinner items even more shameful.
For starters, we toy with the Artisan Board - a hefty assortment of cheeses and cured meats served with sourdough toast, onion pickle and tomato chutney - and a plate of Lobster Tacos, of which I have been dreaming since approximately 8.30 that morning. The Artisan Board is generous and well-executed, with particularly fine chunks of Brie and Stilton, but the Lobster Tacos are in a league all of their own: four soft flour tortillas, each packed with avocado and slaw and then topped with a jaunty beer-battered lobster tail and a drizzle of sweet red pepper sauce. These are quite simply spectacular, with the flavour of the lobster accentuated rather than overpowered by the freshness of the accompaniments; we politely eat two each, both fully aware that either one of us would betray the other in a heartbeat should any sign of weakness or slow-lobster-eating become visible.
The mains are just as exciting. We share a Baked Lobster Mac & Cheese and it is everything we hope it will be - rich, creamy comforting piles of fat-laden carbohydrate punctuated with generous nuggets of lobster and topped with a gloriously runny egg; there's a bit of baby spinach in there as well, just to ensure it remains a healthy and balanced dish. We also try the 8oz Fillet Steak, served rare with a greedy slab of blue cheese on the top and Neighbourhood Fries on the side; this is a stunning piece of meat, fat and quivering and quite ridiculously easy to cut through with our sparring knives - the veneer of polite civility is beginning to wear quite thin in the face of such desirable food. If I'm being picky, I would have preferred the cheese to be crumbled as promised on the menu rather than presented in a single, thick piece; I also think that these extra toppings are a bit steep at £3 a go when you've already paid £22 for your steak and another £3.50 for your fries. Still, we feel the value elsewhere is good considering the quality and the portion sizes. The wine list offers a number of reasonably priced options by the bottle and the glass (we go for an excellent Flagstone South African Pinotage at £27.50), the luxurious Mac & Cheese is £15 and the two starters combined (which, in all fairness, would have fed four people rather than two) come in at £21.
We make a similar mistake, portion-wise, when it comes to dessert.It seems obvious NOW that a pudding that costs £15 is likely to be the approximate size and heft of a small bungalow; and indeed, when the Sweet Tooth Pizzetta - chopped brownies, toasted pecans, marshmallows, ice-cream and caramel sauce atop a frisbee-sized pancake - arrives, we realise that even we have bitten off more than we can chew. We manage about two-thirds of this epic feast, and feel proud when our charming waiter tells us that six old ladies had attempted a similar feat the previous week and managed less than we did (sadly, he had no photographic evidence of what must have been a quite remarkable sight, so we must picture the row of tartan shopping trolleys waiting patiently whilst the six spoons do battle). Service is pitched at just the right level all night - friendly and helpful while remaining entirely professional, no mean feat when the urge to dance along to The Human League must be strong.
So far from letting the family down, Neighbourhood is a triumph. We ate as guests of the restaurant but will go back as paying customers; indeed, a friend is already planning a trip there tomorrow thanks to my lobster-related ravings. I really can't wait to meet the next sibling in this hip, happy family.
- Neighbourhood is on Avenue North in Manchester's Spinningfields.