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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Restaurant Review: Annie's, Manchester, which charms us despite its flaws

For various reasons, I didn't have a great week last week. And as is so often the way when you're not having a great week, I clung on to the promise of a Friday night out with good friends as the raft that would rescue me and carry me over to a better, brighter week (don't worry - I've exhausted myself now as well as the metaphor, so there will be no more to trouble you). And as is also so often the way, Manchester came up trumps with a frankly splendid night out - even if the centrepiece of the evening, dinner at Annie's restaurant, was a slightly haphazard experience.

If you've heard of Annie's restaurant before, it's probably because of the involvement of Coronation Street star Jenny McAlpine - it's almost certainly not because you've happened to wander past. Annie's is tucked away on Old Bank Street, between Cross Street and St Ann's Square, and unlikely to attract much passing trade despite its city centre location - which might explain why the upstairs bar was completely empty at 8pm on a Friday night. Downstairs in the restaurant it was slightly busier - we were shown to some comfy, mismatched armchairs and perused the menus whilst admiring the paper doilies, which we liked, because they reminded us all of our grandmas' houses. There was also a pianist/singer who plays live every Friday and she was excellent, warbling her way through a number of classics in a heartfelt manner which prompted one of my companions to remark that a single girl "could have a really good cry in here on a Friday over a few cocktails". He meant this as a compliment, but the recently single should consider themselves warned. It was also very dark downstairs in the restaurant, hence the poor quality of photos - as my flash has the ability to make even a long-dead piece of steak look startled, I've gone with murky as the lesser of two evils.

Foodwise, the menu is a cracker, full of pub classics that perhaps don't push the envelope (sorry - but that is more of a cliche than a metaphor, so I'm having it) but which are a tempting sight indeed for a girl who's only eaten two Ryvitas and an apple all day. Whilst I could happily have eaten the lot, execution was a little inconsistent - my starter of scallops with Bury black pudding and minty peas was an enjoyable version of this classic combination, with plump, perfectly seared scallops (although for £8.95 I would have preferred an extra scallop and a little less black pudding), whilst the Lancashire Rarebit (toasted bloomer topped with cheese, mustard and ale accompanied by homemade chutney) was tasty and satisfying, if a little inelegant. The corned beef hash cake was rather under-seasoned though, and the accompanying poached egg was hard - a careless mistake to make in a restaurant that wasn't that busy.

With the mains, I came up trumps again - my fillet steak was a beauty, cooked very rare as requested and with excellent texture and flavour; the accompaniments (large flat mushroom, tomato, hand-cut chips, a really good Bearnaise sauce) generous and tasty. The medium-rare sirloin was similarly impressive, and offered particularly good value at £18.95 including choice of sauce. The vegetable hot pot (seasonal vegetables topped with sliced potatoes and served with homemade red cabbage) was also deemed a success, offering a good selection of different vegetables and a properly crunchy topping. The issues were with the Cheese and Onion Pie, served with hand cut chips and Annie's baked beans, and one of the restaurant's signature dishes - but also very dry (as can be clearly seen even through the gloom of my low-grade photography) and almost completely lacking in flavour. It wasn't bad enough to send back - it was just heartbreakingly inferior to the other dishes on the table. Maybe it was just an off-night - this pie is apparently the dish which receives the most positive customer feedback, so perhaps another sampling is due.

Rather unfairly, I also had the best dessert. My sticky toffee pudding was a vast slab of light-as-air cake drowning in a sea of butterscotch sauce, and was delicious; Didsbury Girl's spotted dick and custard (ordered primarily for juvenile reasons) was also very well-executed and reminded us all that the 70s did give us something of note after all. The Mint Chocolate Indulgence (homemade minty chocolate mousse with mint chocolate chip ice cream, dark chocolate sauce and crisp minty chocolates) was fine, although deemed a little heavy on the ice cream. The Fizz Bomb was a disaster though - billed as a "chilled chocolate treat", this was essentially an inpenetrably hard ball of ice cream that remained inedible even after the rest of us had finished.

Despite these issues, we did like Annie's. The staff were helpful and obliging, the portions were generous and some of the cooking excellent. It is frustrating though for a meal to be so inconsistent when it could be outstanding - I would award my three courses a good 8.5 out of ten and would happily have paid for it, but this was not the case across the board. We also would have liked the singer to play on past 9pm on a Friday night - there was no music at all after she'd finished, which in a quiet restaurant produces a strange, flat sort of atmosphere. Next time, I've threatened to bash out a few tunes myself, so Annie's really do need to think twice about whether they want that...

- We were invited in as guests of the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our food, although we did pay for some of our drinks and for service.

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