Recently, I wrote about how exciting it is to live in a city which constantly reinvents itself, where new bars and restaurants spring up in different parts of town to tempt the hungry diner or the thirsty drinker at every turn. Exciting as this is, such regeneration means that old favourites sometimes get temporarily (or even permanently) forgotten, as shiny new upstarts jostle for your attention and lay ever increasing demands on both your time and your available dining funds.
Such a venue is Room, that venerable - not to mention graceful - stalwart that sits so regally on Spring Gardens at the top of King Street. I used to come here all the time, but have neglected it shockingly in recent years for no discernable reason other than lack of days in the week; now though, I've been back to try the new summer menu, and remembered all the reasons I loved it in the first place.
Firstly, the building itself is beautiful, a Grade II listed Victorian pile that used to be The Reform Club and still has a whiff of the Victorian gentleman about it (in a good way). We went on a Friday night and the bar at the front of the building was very loud and very busy; perhaps too noisy for anyone hoping for a quiet tête-à-tête, but the high ceilings help dissipate the volume, and personally I would rather eat somewhere cheerful and busy rather than silent and deserted any day.
Secondly - and most importantly - the food is great. Room's premise is a simple one: offer a menu full of classic dishes, but with a twist - you may recognise the name of the dish you are ordering, but when it comes it won't be quite what you were expecting (again, in a good way). In less skilled hands this could, I think, become a little tiresome and gimmicky, with exasperated diners baying for a good old plate of something plain and predictable rather than a fancy tower of something they didn't quite want, but fortunately the cooking at Room is always good and often excellent and thus the twists become intriguing and fun rather than annoying and unnecessary.
Take the starters, for example. We were lucky enough to have a sharing plate containing four different starters in order that we might try more dishes, but one of these was the dish I would have ordered anyway. The prawn and crab cocktail came without a lettuce leaf in sight; instead, king prawns - hot, juicy, salty - in a crisp tempura batter reclined seductively on plump pillows of crab meat spiced with cayenne pepper and served with guacamole, tomato jelly and apple crisps. I thought the chewy apple slice didn't really match the rest of the dish, but otherwise this was excellent, forcing a normally impeccably behaved diner to run her finger hopefully over the area where the crab had once been.
We also found the mushroom and Gruyere croquettes a surprise favourite: I wouldn't normally order something so apparently unassuming, but these were just lovely - wild mushrooms with shallots in a thick béchamel with gruyere cheese, seasoned with truffle oil and tarragon and then bread-crumbed into a sexy cylinder, then served with mushroom puree, pickled girolle mushrooms and some mushroom jam. Yes, that's a LOT of mushrooms, but simply don't order it if you DON'T LIKE mushrooms. The third starter we tried was the smoked salmon, served as a layered terrine with butter flavoured with shallots, capers and cornichons and presented with a shot of Bloody Mary tomato consomme and vodka-spiced cucumbers; in other words, it made a mockery of someone whose normal idea of a classy starter is to open a packet of smoked salmon and whip up a few mini pancakes to go with. Finally, the ham, egg and peas was very special - a sliced ballotine of shredded ham hock presented with pea mousse, pancetta crisps, pea shoot salad and, most excitingly of all, soft poached quail eggs coated with some sort of porky "air bag" to produce a thrilling hybrid a little like piggy popcorn. I would happily eat any of these starters again, particularly as normal-sized portions will be bigger than the tasters you see here.
For mains, we ordered off menu rather than sample several different options - primarily because I had my heart set on the monkfish bhaji and wouldn't be swayed by anything else. These didn't let me down: three large pieces of fish coated in a coriander-scented batter and deep-fried to produce the world's biggest and best bhajis. It wasn't just about the balls though: well-judged accompaniments included a bed of creamy coconut and spinach lentils, a little pan of Bombay potatoes and a most exciting pickle tray complete with poppadoms. The only bit I wasn't sure about was the little bottle of lassi served on the side - was it a drink or a dressing? Either way, it wasn't needed - I like a moist dinner as much as the next person, but there were plenty of suitable items on the pickle tray for dipping one's balls in, and if it was meant to be drink then serving it with a thicker straw would be a good idea. This is a minor quibble though - the dish as a whole was sublime and well worth a visit for this alone.
Meanwhile, Mr Liz was insisting on steak for main. I tried to get him to change his mind - purely and selfishly so I could see another dish-with-a-twist - but he (probably quite rightly) said that he wanted steak, and many others going to Room would want steak, and would therefore want to know what it was like. He ordered a sirloin medium-rare, and it was certainly a generously-sized piece of meat, served with a basket of excellent chips and - thrillingly - a little bone marrow fritter. I had a little taste of the steak and felt that I'd had sirloin with better flavour, but to be fair I had just been stuffing my face with spicy bhaji and I think this coloured my judgement slightly - Mr Liz felt the whole dish was very good, although perhaps a little generous with the watercress (but then again, too much of any kind of greenery makes him uneasy).
For dessert, we went for the sharing platter: two helpings each of three mini puddings selected from the menu by the chef. The best of these was the carrot cake, served with toffeed carrots and a carrot ice cream that really worked - this is what I would order next time. On the ground floor of our dessert palace resided some "chocolate and milk", a very rich chocolate marquise with hazelnuts and an excellent milk ice cream, and some "strawberries and cream" - a layered jellied terrine of strawberries and cream which I very much enjoyed, although I found the accompanying shot of strawberry soup a little too sweet (Mr Liz drank it, just to finally lay the watercress anxiety to bed).
We were invited in to review the new menu and were not asked to pay for our meal, but prices here range from £5.95 to £11.95 for a starter and £14.50 to £24.50 for mains - not cheap, then, but I would say worth it for the inventiveness and quality of both the menu and the cooking, and they do run excellent value set price lunch and dinner menus. Neither of us was drinking as I had a cold and Mr Liz was driving, but we both fancy going back and trying some of the cocktails, particularly as selected drinks are just £4.95 between 5pm and 8pm Monday to Friday. Now if I could just get them to bring me out a few monkfish bhaji to the bar area, everything would be perfect...
- Room is at 81 King Street, Manchester, M2 4AH; Tel 0161 839 2005.