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Friday, 15 July 2016

Restaurant Review: Pier Eight at The Lowry, Salford (plus some exuberant singing at HMS Pinafore)

Back in December I reviewed Pier Eight, the new restaurant at The Lowry, and trumpeted loudly about how much I liked it. I've been back this week in order to try the new menu, and find to my relief that I still like it - if anything, even more than before, despite some streamlining to the menu and more limited pre-theatre options. Sometimes a simplified menu is a very good thing, and this proves to be the case here - we ate at 5.30 ahead of seeing the all-male cast performance of HMS Pinafore (more of which later), and whilst I was initially a bit disappointed that the full menu wasn't available, the fixed price option they run between 5 and 7pm on the night of a show turns out to be excellent.

We began with a sneaky additional bread course as I was starving, and in danger of eating my napkin in an unseemly manner. The bread was very good - three different types, including a cumin crispbread and a superlative walnut loaf - and some perfectly soft and salty butter (you get more than shown here - I did say I was hungry). For starters I had the scallops with pea purée, samphire, runner beans, sun dried tomato pesto - two beautiful fat scallops, well-seared and seasoned, and nicely offset by the sweetness of the pea purée and the brackishness of the samphire (one of my very favourite things). The pesto was presumably there to add some sweetness but wasn't needed and found itself a little overwhelmed by everything else - still, a very good dish though. The roast and pickled beetroots with beetroot jam, preserved pear, sorrel leaves, whipped Lancashire curd and powdered rosemary oil sounded fiddly but actually worked perfectly - a really well-balanced and interesting dish offering different textures and a ludicrously wonderful sweet sticky sauce that got me caught running my finger round the plate.

Mains kept up the standard, and provided the perfect summer accompaniment to an unusually sunny Salford. My roasted sea trout, steamed mussels, samphire, gnocchi and watercress sauce was a great example of a simple, elegant dish, despite a couple of blips - the mussels were initially forgotten and had to be brought separately, and the samphire had been substituted for fennel without warning. No real matter though - the mussels were brought swiftly (and the dish was indeed much augmented once I'd tipped them on) and the aniseed flavours of the fennel went perfectly with the trout. Also, these were the best gnocchi I have had anywhere. The lamb rump with crushed new season potatoes, warm pea salad and salsa verde across the table was both beautiful and generous - two large pieces of off-pink meat with a well-seasoned crust (although we added an extra grind of salt just to add a little more texture), with the warm pea salad and the salsa verde bringing a freshness to the dish that is often lacking with lamb.

It's an unwritten rule when reviewing that you should choose different things in order to try a variety of dishes, but neither of us has a sweet tooth and both went for the selection of British farm house cheese with poached pear, chutney, celery, oat biscuits and knacker bread (which, I now learn, is the proper name for the crispbread we had earlier, and is a much better term). Often a pre-chosen cheese board has one duff option amongst its wares, but not here - all three were excellent and included Garstang Blue and a lovely smoked Brie. Interesting accompaniments too. Drinks-wise, we chose an Argentine Torrontes from a decent and well-priced menu, and thought it great value for £17. The set menu itself is also good value at £22 for two courses or £27 for three - beware though that many of the options (including the scallops, lamb and cheese) carry supplements ranging from £1 to £5, so you could easily end up spending quite a lot more. Still, this is very reasonable for cooking of this standard, and the service struck the right balance between professional and chatty - I will definitely be back.

And as if that wasn't enough excitement, it was time for HMS Pinafore. I've never eaten at The Lowry before seeing a show, and normally end up sprinting full-pelt through the Outlet Mall with about 30 seconds to spare before curtain-up, so to be on-site, relaxed, full of dinner and in good time was quite a revelation. HMS Pinafore surely needs little introduction - it's one of Gilbert and Sullivan's best-known operettas, ostensibly dealing with the thorny issue of love between different social classes but essentially just an excuse for men in vests to hurl themselves around a stage having a lovely sing-song. And what a lot of vests there were - this is an all-male cast, and features some quite astonishing performances in the female roles as well as some great staging and set-pieces involving bunk beds, torches and creeping up behind the audience (me) to see if they can make them jump (yes). A quick chat during the interval with the elderly couple sitting next to us suggested that this slightly unconventional production isn't for everyone, but I loved every second of it and didn't really want it to end. It's on until tomorrow (Saturday) so do go if you get the chance - if not, I'm happy to come round and perform a selection of my favourite songs in my best baritone. Full details here.

- Pier Eight is at The Lowry, The Quays, Salford M50 3AZ. We were invited in to review and so dinner and the show were complimentary but this has not affected my opinions.