I imagine that running a hotel restaurant is not always the easiest job in the world. For one thing, I - and no doubt many others - have seen I'm Alan Partridge too many times to keep a straight face at the thought of a hotel buffet to which one might bring one's own Big Plate in order to consume more food at one sitting. For another, anyone who has been watching Restaurant Wars about Simon Rogan's efforts at The French at The Midland will have encountered the splendid Mrs North and others of her ilk - long-standing guests who regard the hotel restaurant as their own, and object to the introduction of anything swanky to their beloved, play-it-safe menu.
Hats off then to The River Bar & Grill at The Lowry Hotel, which seems to have cracked it with its new menu. As the first 5-star hotel in Manchester, The Lowry has a duty to provide "fine dining" facilities - trouble is, "fine dining" in a hotel can too often mean an over-fussy, over-starched, over-priced sort of experience, with all the fun sucked out of it and the very terrifying prospect of being thrown out for using an inappropriate piece of cutlery. No such worries here: the waiter sits us down, fetches us each a gin and tonic (presumably I have the kind of expression that can communicate "I need gin, and I need it now" without words), and repeatedly brings back the bread basket without question when it looks really very likely that I plan to eat its entire contents. Stuffy it isn't.
My starter is fantastic: the Hand Dived Scallops with Pork Belly is the dearest option on the menu at £14.50 but is perfect in its simplicity. Plump scallops, translucent in the centre and lightly caramelised on the outside, served alongside cubes of sticky pig - it's a combination I will just never tire of. The pickled baby red onions and teeny tiny diced carrots give the dish added crunch and tang, and elevate the whole ensemble to something really special. Meanwhile, across the table I am delighted to find it is circa 1977 with the arrival of the Dressed East Coast Crab - I mean it in a good way when I say this looks like something out of a gloriously retro cookbook that is amongst my most treasured possessions. The generous circle of finely flaked white and brown crab meat is topped with an exuberant squiggle of rich, mustardy dressing; the lemon half is wrapped in muslin; and the little triangles of bread and butter have the crusts cut off - I feel like we should be celebrating the Queen's Silver Jubilee. More importantly, it tastes magnificent - although right in the very last mouthful my friend does come across a little bit of shell that really shouldn't be there in a restaurant of this calibre.
For mains, we both try something meaty off the Josper Grill. I am always excited to come across one of these grills; indeed, the arrival of the Josper is the reason the restaurant has been renamed The River Bar & Grill. My rack of lamb is a shining example of what the Josper can do - the high temperatures mean the lamb is perfectly pink and juicy on the inside but crisp and sticky on the outside, and the closing door on the grill means that all little Larry's flavour stays in the meat rather than escaping into the ether. That said, Larry is not so little - I am beaten for quantity here, which is not a problem I often have in a restaurant. The rib-eye steak across the table is similarly delicious, and comes with a rich, eggy Bearnaise sauce that I purloin to dunk my fries in a most unladylike manner. The grill dishes all come with fries and a choice of sauce but we also try a selection of side dishes. Considering they normally retail at £3.50, these are a mixed bag: the spinach is lovely, and the rocket, Parmesan and pine nut salad is the best I've ever had, but the asparagus is over-cooked and served in a sea of hollandaise that overpowers its delicacy anyway. Our lovely waiter Filipe assures us that the asparagus is normally served far more al dente, and as he has selected and decanted a beautiful 2001 Spanish red for us to accompany our meal we are inclined to believe anything he says.
I don't technically have room for a pudding, but am persuaded (all too easily) by the promise of a perfect dessert wine if I can manage one. Filipe is unerring in his judgement once again - my dark chocolate fondant would be pretty sensational on its own, but paired with a lightly chilled red dessert wine, a little like a light, fruity Port, is nothing short of stunning. I have never had a red dessert wine before but plan to seek this out and purchase it immediately; I tell Filipe that people mock me for keeping Port in the fridge, but he assures me that I am right to do so and should ignore the naysayers. My friend has Brett's Cheesecake (Brett being Brett Pistorious, the restaurant's pastry chef), and finds its rich texture is perfectly cut through by light citrus flavours, thereby avoiding the sad claggy cloyingness of some lesser cheesecake specimens - the accompanying Muscat also works a treat.
I have to acknowledge that we were invited to try the menu and were not asked to pay for our meal, and as usual some people will say it's not possible to review honestly under such circumstances; as usual though, I have tried. We had a really lovely evening - the location overlooking the river is beautiful, the food is reasonably priced, and the staff couldn't be friendlier or more helpful. This is definitely somewhere I will visit again - particularly as the plates here are already so big there is simply no need to take your own...