When you're booked in for dinner at The Grill on the Alley and your friend suddenly announces they've given up meat for two months, it's hard not to feel somewhat annoyed. After all, Grill on the Alley is known for its steaks - some of the finest in the city - and was surely crying out for a meaty re-visit in the face of stiff new competition from an array of newcomers (including the mighty Hawksmoor). Despite an initial urge to ditch the original plus-one and take a more carnivorous alternative, The Awkward One assured me he was still eating fish and that this would be a good opportunity to see what the place could offer besides steak - and thus kept his place by the skin of his teeth.
Turned out to be a good move. After a quick round of emergency bread (with chorizo butter, which was every bit as exciting as it sounds), we shared two fish starters: the Torched Mackerel with gem salad and pickled vegetables, and the Prawn and Avocado Salad with Marie Rose sauce (as a true 70s child, the latter choice was quite obviously mine). These turned out to be good sharers - mine (which I'd rather laughably ordered as I'd seen the word "salad" and thought it might not fill me up too much before my steak) was essentially half an avocado filled with prawns and a thick, creamy sauce, and though delicious would have been very rich had one eaten it in its entirety. The perky mackerel dish with its grilled gem and nicely acerbic pickled vegetables was just the job to cut through the comforting blandness of the avocado dish and was also very beautiful to look at (until we divided it down the middle). I reckon some will question whether these dishes are cutting edge enough for 2015, but as far as I'm concerned, when food looks and tastes this good I have no problem with tradition.
For mains, I went for the Limousin fillet steak from the Best of British menu. This was not a cheap option at £35, but the restaurant are very proud of this grass-fed, 100% pure breed French option, and seem keen to promote it - no doubt aware that steak provision in the city centre has stepped up a notch in the last twelve months. And yes it's expensive, and yes it's not local, but this was one of the best steaks I've eaten in a good long while - a generally lean cut with a slight marbling of fat that meant that even the fillet cut (sometimes so perfect in texture but so lacking in taste) was packed with flavour. Meanwhile, the non-meaty one was enjoying his Sea Trout with asparagus, roasted cherry tomatoes and bearnaise sauce (£16.75) - a beautiful dish offering a substantial piece of fish, perfectly cooked and very much complemented by the well-rounded flavours of the rich yellow sauce surrounding it. The waiter had recommended he order a side to supplement the dish but in the end the extra chips we ordered weren't really necessary - he found the fish substantial and "meaty" enough in its own right (and enough to keep him away from my steak - a fairly remarkable feat all considered). We also ordered a side of Summer Green Vegetables (I'm all about the health) which were nicely varied and cooked al dente, and a jug of Chimichurri sauce to go with my steak - this latter was exceptional, and at £2 a go I'm tempted to order its fresh, garlicky goodness to go alongside every course next time I eat here.
The only moment of uncertainty with our meal came with desserts. No issue with my cheeseboard, which I had initally considered a little expensive at £9.75 but which turned out to be a shining example of its ilk - three excellent specimens (Butlers cheddar, Lancashire Blue and Crottin goat’s cheese) simply presented in generous portions with crackers and a chutney and made short work of. The one we were less sure of was the Champagne Sorbet - another simple dish (and good value at £4) but one which initially seemed full of discord - a saucer of fizz containing a scoop of slightly acerbic sorbet which appeared at odds with each other, distracting from each other's flavour rather than enhancing. We ignored it for a while while we ate the cheese and then went back to it - finding it much improved once the sorbet had melted a little into the fizz and essentially turned it into the world's poshest coke float. To wash all of this down we had a bottle of Cuma Argentine Malbec from a wine list to which I am very partial, offering as it does lots of very good options around the £20-25 mark. This wine coped perfectly with both the fish and the steak, and was also organic and therefore good for us.
On last week's performance then, Grill on the Alley is very much on form. Service was helpful and non-intrusive, and the fact that the place was pretty much full on a Wednesday night speaks volumes about how well regarded it is amongst Mancunians. It remains one of my favourites despite the wealth of choices now available, and although some options on the menu are not cheap, you get what you pay for - my Limousin steak was every bit as good as the spectacular one I had at Hawksmoor not long ago. And before certain people say "of course you liked it - it was FREE" I'll point out that a/ I've eaten here as a paying customer many many times and b/ we bumped into a friend who had ordered and loved every mouthful of her (paid-for) Limousin fillet. A little competition, it seems, is a glorious thing - and as for the brave pescetarian? Already counting down the days (and hours, and minutes) until Limousin Day.
- The Grill on the Alley is at 5 Ridgefield, Manchester M2 6EG; tel. 0161 833 3465. We were invited by the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our meal or our drinks.