Now, I think we're all pretty much aware these days that certain wines go harmoniously well with particular foods - even if it's a slightly sketchy knowledge garnered from the wine matches served up on Saturday Kitchen, which are of course tempered anyway by the fact that the (often unknown) celebrity guest has to knock them back at ten in the morning. Still, whilst I might have the best of intentions where food and wine matching is concerned, I'm lucky if I can manage to serve red with steak and white with fish - I just don't run the kind of organised kitchen that has the perfect wine ready to be lined up with its appropriate partner, and am often distracted by the simple fact that I enjoy drinking Prosecco with more or less anything.
Little wonder, then, that the newest addition to the Manchester Chop House family on Albert Square is keen to publicise the excellent sommelier service it offers to all diners. We were equally keen to try it when invited to do so by Manchester Confidential, as we are both big fans of the original Chop Houses - Sam's in particular - with their emphasis on superlative pub classics and remarkably sensible portion size. However, if we were expecting more of the same from The Albert Square Chop House (we were) then we were wrong - this airy new reinvention of the classic 1866 Memorial Hall is streets away from the warm, dark corners offered by its more established brethren (and completely unrecognisable from its last incarnation, when it was the Square Albert Pub). There is a bar upstairs and a large dining area downstairs, the two separated by a floor that appears to float gracefully across the middle of this thoughtfully converted space; there is also an open kitchen and - even better - a lovely smiling sommelier called Carlos. But more (much more) of him later.
First things first: the food. The menu is something of a departure from the other Chop Houses, and for that reason will perhaps disappoint die-hard fans of the brown onion soup or the legendary corned beef hash. Still, we found much here that we fancied, with Mr Liz nobly going for his second choice (the braised ox tongue with parsley, radish and shallots) as his wife (whose blog it is, after all) pulled rank and bagsied his first choice from under his very nose - the seared scallops with slow-cooked belly pork. I thought the scallops were a little on the small side (some form of karmic retribution, perhaps, for insisting on first call), but they were nicely caramelised on the outside and were flattered by three perfect cubes of dense, sticky pork belly. Mr Liz, meanwhile, was delighted with his enforced choice - a serious amount of sliced tongue (which, done right - as this was - is delicious, and should be tried even if the very idea makes you feel a bit squeamish) served with a nicely complex salad with plenty of radish to pep up the comforting blandness of the ox tongue. After we'd ordered, but before the food arrived, the lovely Carlos - a young man from Madrid, in Manchester via Holland - came over to discuss his suggested wine matches with us. I approved whole-heartedly of his recommendation for me, a perky white made from 85% Moscatel and 15% Gewürztraminer with just the right level of floral off-dryness to cut through the rich fattiness of the pork belly without overwhelmimg the scallops. His choice for Mr Liz was inspired, and showed us up for the wine peasants we truly are - my automatic thought for the thick meatiness of ox tongue would be a red, but Carlos' decision to match the radish rather than the meat by partnering it with the Flagstone Noon Gun, a blend of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, proved that actually you should be guided by the dominant flavour of a dish rather than whether it is meat or fish.
On to the mains, then, and Mr Liz's normal go-to dish - the 8oz, 28-day aged Sirloin Steak served with chips and an additional peppercorn sauce. I always choose an Argentine Malbec to go with steak and - hurrah! - Carlos agreed, bringing over a glass of 2011 Etchart Privado. My whole roasted lemon sole, served with Morecambe Bay potted shrimps and a chicory and orange salad, very much enjoyed its brief relationship with the delicious La Croix Chardonnay; I much prefer Old World Chardonnay to New World, and this complemented the delicate fish whilst coping well with the strong citrus flavours of the salad. Both mains, by the way, were excellent, and my picture here of the lemon sole doesn't really do it justice - for one thing, the generous portion of salad arrived seconds after I had deftly but messily filleted my fish and therefore does not appear here; the chips you can see had been greedily ordered as an extra, and turned out to be entirely unneccessary. Mr Liz proclaimed his steak tasty and tender, and praised the proper pepperiness of the accompanying sauce - whilst the menu might be more refined here than at the other Chop Houses, the reliance upon good, strong flavours seems a common factor in their approach to the food that they serve.
Next to desserts, and Carlos could barely contain his sorrow when I ordered the rhubarb and sherry trifle - a difficult one to match, to be sure, and one that I normally partner with whatever is to hand when I eat it once a year on Christmas Day. In the end, he came up with not one but two matches for me to try. The first, a Hungarian dessert wine called Royal Tokaji, coped manfully with the trifle but was just a little too sweet for me; the second was a triumph, an off-dry French Grenache that I would never have thought to put with trifle but will henceforth pair with everything. Mr Liz's Chateau du Seuil had a very pretty label and - perhaps more importantly - acted as a sexy, honeyed foil to his custard tart (he also drank up my Royal Tokaji, which also presumably acted as sexy foil etc, although this was not specified - probably took all his concentration to juggle the two glasses AND the pudding spoon).
The Albert Square Chop House won't be for everyone, but we thought it was the most enjoyable city centre meal we'd had for some time; perhaps rather than compare it to the existing Chop Houses we should embrace the fact that there are now two different dining options within the same stable - one more casual and pubby, the other slightly more refined (although not actually that much pricier). We were not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but I can see how buying recommended wine by the glass could add up over the course of a meal. Still, Carlos' wine choices definitely added to our enjoyment of our food, and he is only the assistant sommelier - one can only imagine how knowledgeable advanced sommelier Marcin Oziebly (who was away competing in the UK Sommelier of the year competition) might be. We've already made plans to return for one of the restaurant's tasting menus, which run Monday to Thursday and offer six courses for £39 plus the option of matched wines for an additional £17.40 - perhaps after I've nipped to Sam's to satisfy my corned beef hash cravings that is...
- The Albert Square Chop House is located in The Memorial Hall, Albert Square, Manchester, M2 5PF; tel 0161 834 1866.