In the light of all the recent publicity for Manchester House, it's easy to forget that some of the Living Ventures restaurant stable have been with us for years. One of these venerable old favourites is The Grill on the Alley, tucked away off John Dalton Street, and as with any restaurant that's been around more than a few years, it's had its share of ups and downs. Indeed, when I casually asked Twitter earlier in the day whether anyone had tried the Sunday lunch here, I was met with a mixed response in terms of quality of experience. People were interested though, and expressed a general hope that I would find a return to form on my visit - and I include myself here. I used to eat at The Grill on the Alley regularly but haven't been for years and can't even remember why - increased competition maybe? A mediocre dining experience?
Anyway, I can confirm that, based on Sunday's visit, The Grill on the Alley is right back up there as a contender. We begin with a cocktail (perfectly respectable - it was a 4.30 booking) and some bread and olives whilst we consider the menu; the bread is a dinky loaf warm from the oven, the butter is soft to the point of melting (my absolute preference in restaurant butter, following a difficult episode when a particularly unyielding pat of butter shot across the table and into my friend's lap under the impetus of my impatient knife) and the olives are, well, olives. The cocktails are both excellent: I make short work of my Chocolate and Cinnamon Refashioned (Appleton VX gold rum with chocolate liqueur, orange zest and cinnamon syrup, which slides down all too smoothly and strikes the perfect balance between spice and sweetness) and then move on to the Cucumber and Raspberry Cooler that has foolishly been left untended. This one strikes me as a perfect summer cocktail, with the combination of Beefeater gin, Chase raspberry liqueur, Monin Raspberry, fresh cucumber, raspberries, sweetened lemon juice and lemonade proving both heady and refreshing. We also order a bottle of the great value Kleine Rust Pinotage/Shiraz from Stellenbosch - I always order this when I see it on a restaurant menu as it copes with most foods and is simply a bargain at £21.
On to the food then, and for starters we go for the Blackhouse Sharing Plate: Bang Bang Chicken Skewers, Fish Cakes, Duck Spring Roll and Calamari. I consider this on the edge of being a bit dear at £14.75 but when it comes it is simply exemplary - we agree the calamari is amongst the best we've ever had in any restaurant (I can only think of an amazing meal I once had in Sorrento that would top it) thanks to the lightness of the hot, crispy, salty batter and its contrast with the tender squid within. The Bang Bang chicken has a real hit of sesame to it, the duck spring rolls are satisfyingly meaty and the fish cakes pull off that rare feat of being light and fresh whilst being substantial enough to prevent greedy girls from whining about portion size. I would happily order any of these as individual starters another time, with the added advantage of not having to share any of them.
For me, there is only one choice of main on this visit - I have been dreaming of roast beef and roast potatoes and head for the Sunday Roast menu without a second thought. The beef can be done either medium or well done, and here is where my only niggle lies - I like my beef pretty pink (ideally reclining in a pool of its own blood) but this option is not available. Still, they are catering for large numbers here and the roast is otherwise excellent - generous amounts of tender, tasty meat, outstanding roasties, a light-as-air Yorkshire pudding and side dishes of carrot and swede mash and buttered shredded cabbage. They are also quick to bring me more gravy whenever my levels drop dangerously low (which for me, is often). Meanwhile, across the table is an enticingly juicy-looking Rib-Eye steak, which has been properly grilled to produce a sticky, crusty exterior whilst remaining perfectly pink in the middle (as demonstrated in the rather inelegant photo below - this was the piece I particularly request from my friend's plate). I also eat more than my share of the accompanying chips (dipped in a very good red wine jus), although their rightful owner - who claims not to like proper chips, only fries - becomes increasingly put out and eventually builds a wall of condiments to keep me out.
Service is friendly and professional throughout, and we are entertained by a lovely man playing the piano while we eat - sadly there is no photo as they have put him downstairs, and I only see him when I go to the loo. As usual, I have to hold my hands up at this point and acknowledge that we were invited in to review and were not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but I have been a regular, paying customer here before and I fully intend to be again - the Sunday Roast in particular is great value for food of this quality at £12.95. And as were were too full for pudding (surely a world first for me), a return visit looks on the cards sooner rather than later.