In a city so constantly changing, there's something nice about coming across a Manchester institution, somewhere that has weathered the vagaries of public taste, found its niche and continued to fly in the fickle face of fashion. Bluu has occupied a corner in the Northern Quarter for years, long before it became fashionable and saw an influx of bars and restaurants and beards, but has not been without its wobbles - I stopped going in there a good few years ago when it became clear that I was approximately double the age of the average punter and that the atmosphere here just wasn't for me anymore.
A chat with manager Callum Winspear at Cocktails in the City a few weeks ago persuaded me that Bluu was worth a return visit though - Callum was here years ago, when it was good, and is back at the helm now, and promises it is good again. And it is. First up, there is a speakeasy bar downstairs now called The Smithfield Social - hiding behind a heavy blue curtain we discover a magical world with metal-panelled walls, and sexy lighting, and a lovely man called Mark waiting to make us cocktails and show us his smoking gun. Here we sip cocktails from 1920s-inspired metal glasses, and pretend we are in The Great Gatsby - I have a Gingerbread Man-hattan which packs a quite astonishing punch with its bourbon-smoked ginger liqueur (smoked before my very eyes) and its hefty double shot of Woodford Reserve. Meanwhile, my friend is getting in one of his 5-a-day with the Queen Mary - a take on a Bloody Mary made with smoked bacon vodka and hickory smoked celery sticks. We love it so much down here that we try another cocktail - a sweet and smoky Rosemary and Rhubarb Daiquiri for me and a Butter Beer for my sweet-toothed companion. Billed as a dessert in a glass, this features salted caramel vodka, cream soda and homemade butterscotch cream and is fairly amazing - although I imagine had he known the amount of food that was to follow he would have chosen slightly less filling cocktails. The Smithfield Social is clearly still a work in progress (there's talk of extending the wine list, for example) but is a bit of a hidden treasure that we plan to return to before very long.
We drag ourselves away with some reluctance, but our stomachs are rumbling and it's time to try the menu upstairs at Bluu. It's much busier up here but we bag a secluded booth and cast a hungry eye over a menu that describes itself as "an ode to British meat" but using cooking methods inspired by the southern states of America thanks to an imported smoker that is clearly their pride and joy. We elect to share a crate of the chilli and caramel chicken wings to start; these come in portions of 10, 15 or 20 so being modest, restrained eaters we order the smallest one. When our waitress explains that these come cut in half so that they absorb more of the sticky glaze and will therefore look like 20 rather than 10 we clearly don't realise the full extent of what is to come - the quantities are simply gargantuan. The wings are delicious though, and we eat the lot - I burn my fingers not just on the first one but on my first three, so low is my resistance to what has been placed in front of me. This is also a restaurant that believes in a decent condiment (as, indeed, do I) - we are given six different bottles (House BBQ Sauce, South Carolina BBQ Sauce, Smoky Ketchup, Chilli Vinegar, Chipotle Mayo and Bastardo Sauce) and predictably douse our already-laden plates with all of them except the last one, which proclaims itself as HOT HOT HOT and frightens us off. We consider the meal to have got off to a superlative start.
For mains, I have the St Louis Slab Ribs, which come with a choice of sides for £14. They arrive and are the size of a bus, and thereby present something of a dilemma - I am not normally one to be defeated by a plate of food, but it soon becomes patently obvious that on this occasion the final result will be Ribs 1, Liz 0. This is a shame, as they are very good - tender, smoky meat with a nice sticky glaze and some really excellent fries. The weakest note of the meal is my friend's Bluu Smoke Stack - a very-promising sounding burger topped with pulled pork, smoked cheddar and chipotle mayo that doesn't quite deliver on all fronts. The toppings go down well but the burger itself (which sounds lovely on the menu, made with a mix of minced brisket, flank and beef marrow) is overcooked and a little dry as a result; we also feel that, at £13, this dish doesn't offer such good value for money as the wings and the ribs. We each have a glass of wine from a smallish selection - a glass of the Faultline NZ Sauvignon and one of the El Camino Argentine Malbec, both of which come in tumblers rather than wine glasses. We like these glasses until my companion comes perilously close to accidentally pouring water into his still half-full glass; we feel his advancing meat coma easily explains this temporary stupidity however.
Service is excellent throughout, and overall our night suggests that there are plenty of reasons to visit Bluu these days. The pictures I put up on Twitter even prompted some discussion of whether one could successfully attempt the "Wings and Ribs Challenge" if a friend helpfully hummed the Rocky theme whilst the attempt was in progress - sounds like a great idea to me so I'm just off to have a batch of "Meat Contender" t-shirts printed...
- Bluu is at Smithfield Market Buildings, Thomas Street, Manchester M4 1BD. We were invited to review the menu and were not asked to pay for our food or drink.