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Restaurant Review: Damson

On paper, Heaton Moor’s Damson should deliver one of the best Sunday lunches in Manchester.

The first thing going for it is it’s a bloody good restaurant. I’ve had four evening meals there since it opened in 2009 and can’t recall it hitting a single bum note. In my experience, it offers a consistency unmatched by any other restaurant in the city on a Saturday night. The food, the service and the ambiance have been uniformly excellent every single time.*

The second big reason it should rock on a Sunday is that revered restaurateur Steve Pilling is in charge; the man who built his reputation at Sam’s Chop House with its peerless beef roast. I visited the Chapel Walks pub regularly to eat this dish during his tenure and it remains the best non-home-cooked roast I’ve ever had.

Sadly, Sunday lunch at Damson does little to live up to the standards set by the restaurant on other days of the week, or Mr Pilling’s illustrious past.**

A starter of chicken liver and foie gras parfait, rhubarb chutney and toasted ginger brioche wasn’t bad, just mildly irritating. While all well made, the generous parfait slab dwarfed the two small pieces of brioche and thimble’s worth of chutney served alongside it.

Even rationing myself to an enormous chunk of parfait and tiny nibbles of brioche and chutney per bite – not the easiest balancing act, and an overly rich one – I still managed to exhaust the accompaniments with more than a quarter of the paté left.

Fortunately by this stage my wife was tired of her “too dry” game terrine and was able to provide me with some toast reinforcements.

Real problems, as opposed to minor quibbles, appeared with the main: 21 day aged roast rib of Cheshire beef served with Yorkshire pudding, duck fat roasted potatoes, seasonal vegetables and roasting juices.

My beef – seemingly cut from the end of the joint – was brown, not pink as requested. The plate was cold. What I imagine was meant to be the roasting juices was merely a damp stain that appeared to have been wiped around a bit. “Wouldn’t you think they’d give us a gravy boat so we can add a bit more?” said one of my dining companions. “Yes, it is rather dry,” was the consensus reply.

The only thing that was any good was the veg, and even then I’d say it needed cooking for a minute longer, with a knob of butter thrown in for good luck. Still, I’m quite glad they didn’t take the extra time. The vegetables had already shown up five minutes later than the rest of the food.

Dessert of bread and butter pudding was OK, but pretty forgettable. All I really remember about it was being puzzled by the serving temperature. I’d expected hot, I wouldn’t have been surprised by cold, I got tepid. If this was intentional, then fine, but it was a little weird.

There were some positives about the meal. Our waitress was lovely. The restaurant was very accommodating when one of our party asked if she could have a fruit salad instead of one of the listed starters, which was much appreciated. Our table, situated in the recently built extension, was nice and comfortable.

But I do feel a little like I’m clutching at straws.

This was actually my second experience of Sunday lunch at Damson and the first visit was no better. On that occasion we were told they were understaffed, which went some way towards explaining why the usually mustard kitchen and serving teams were so slow and made so many mistakes.

However, I could see no easy excuse this time; no reason why one of Manchester’s finest had delivered a meal so thoroughly mediocre.

I said it on Twitter afterwards that Damson feels like a completely different restaurant on a Sunday. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a very good one.

Damson on Urbanspoon

Food: 7.5/30

Service: 4/10

Dining Room: 3.5/5

Experience: 4/10

Overall score: 35/100 (Mediocre – not worth visiting)

Note: I returned to Damson for Saturday lunch in February 2012. Based on that experience and this one, I don’t think it’s possible to call it “a bloody good restaurant” anymore. The meal certainly wasn’t as bad as the Sunday lunch but it was a very mixed bag and I’ve reduced its mark on my Restaurant Ratings page accordingly.

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*A scallop-centred seafood dish with salt and vinegar cockles, which I had on my third visit, is one of the three best starters I’ve ever eaten in Manchester.

**As well as establishing the famous chop houses and The Damson – and winning lots of awards in the process – he’s also had great success with the Red Lion Hotel in Stockport. His next venture, Mr Pilling’s Roast Restaurant and Oyster Bar at The Courthouse in Manchester city centre, looks like a 2012 restaurant opening not to be missed.

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Food #6: Beef Rossini

Every so often you come across a recipe which instantly makes you think to yourself: “How the hell have I never heard of this before? How is it that this food is yet to pass my lips? Where is the big pile of broken glass I can crawl over – fly unzipped – to get it?”

Beef Rossini (aka Tournedos Rossini), invented by king of chefs and chef of kings Auguste Escoffier* in tribute to the famous composer, conjured up all these feelings and more when I first read about it towards the end of last year and immediately went on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die. How could it not when the basic recipe consists of pan-fried fillet steak, a slice of whole foie gras, a crouton, black truffle and a Madeira demi-glace sauce?

Have we all stopped slobbering yet? Good. Then let’s carry on…

I’ve harped on before about how much I love beef, but what I haven’t touched on is how scared I am of ordering it in restaurants these days – or at least how scared I am of ordering it in restaurants that don’t specialise in dead cow. I’m genuinely frightened of it being a disappointment. Beef is my favourite food in the whole wide world and if anything short of stunning arrives on my plate, I’m going to wish that I ordered something else instead.

So it says a lot about how appealing beef Rossini is that I ordered it without hesitation when presented with it on a menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester this summer.**

The dining room at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester's dining room

The menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

The menu (exterior)

The menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

The menu (interior). Our waiter arranged for chef Jocelyn Herland to sign it for us.

The version they serve at Alain Ducasse is slightly different from what I’ve described above. Instead of a crouton, there was a thick piece of toast. The truffles and Madeira demi-glace were combined in a Périgueux sauce. Crunchy cos lettuce drizzled with vinaigrette, which you’d imagine was just a side, was a fundamental part of the dish.

And it was all so perfect; I couldn’t imagine it being done any other way. The beef and the foie gras and the truffle sauce just belonged together, offering an exquisite marriage of richness and corruption that you only tend to find among Premier League football club owners.

The toast soaked up all the flavours beautifully and added some extra texture to the plate. The freshness and acidity of the dressed lettuce cut through the richness like a guillotine in 1793; its vibrant green helping my eyes to survive the onslaught of brown.

Combined, it tasted like the greatest burger you could possibly imagine. It was absolutely brilliant.

(You can see a picture of it on the Food Snob Blog here.)

The kitchen obviously deserves a lot of credit for cooking it all so precisely, and the amendments to the traditional dish (lettuce, toast) were masterful. The delightful sacristain potatoes that accompanied – peppery, spiral crisps that take a staggering amount of work to produce – iced the proverbial cake with further texture and flavours.

But the real kudos should be reserved for the inventor of beef Rossini – whoever that may be. My overriding feeling, as I pushed knife and fork into the centre of the plate*** and waited for one of the excellent waiting staff to take it away, was that I’d just eaten one of the world’s great dishes. A recipe conceived by a genius – one that if you stay faithful to it, will deliver time and time again.

I’ve had much better beef than the fillet steak I had here. I’ve had better foie gras too. In fact, I had superior versions of both ingredients mere days before my trip to Alain Ducasse. But I’ve yet to have a whole dish involving either beef or foie gras that was anywhere near as good as this beef Rossini.

To be honest, I might not have eaten anything as good in my whole life.

Verdict: Highest possible recommendation

NEXT UP: Rum Baba [at any Alain Ducasse restaurant]

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*This seems to be the most common belief anyway. I’ve seen it said that Escoffier’s roi de cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois forebear Antoine Carême actually came up with it – either way, beef Rossini is a dish with serious pedigree.

**I was also thinking that if I can’t trust a three-star Michelin restaurant to get beef right, I might as well just give up eating the stuff altogether.

 ***I loved the plate, by the way. It looked very plain, but there was a really subtle, almost imperceptible, decline towards the centre, which pooled the sauce and saved me having to chase it around the plate with the other ingredients. Just one of those little details that makes you realise the amount of thought and effort a restaurant like this puts in to trying to give you a perfect dining experience.

Restaurant Review: Smoak

The best steak restaurant in Manchester has been Gaucho for years. But now there’s a new sheriff in town.

Smoak is a restaurant that tries much too hard. Everywhere you look its desperation to be ice cool glares back. From the rustic lanterns that hang over some of the tables – and cause great irritation every time you have to duck around them when standing up or sitting down – to the ghastly metal-finished oil cans and sacks used as decoration, and the groan-inducing plumbed-in buckets that act as urinals in the gents, it’s a place that makes you want to roll your eyes like a teenage girl whose dad has just told her friends he’s a Lady Gaga fan.

I’m trying to imagine how drunk they were at the design meeting where it was agreed that having metal beakers for water is a good idea. Presumably it was at the same meeting where they decided they were going to put the dessert menus on the back of the placemats and the staff should all wear t-shirts.

(Because lord knows, when you’re dropping down £30+ for a steak you want to feel like you’re at TGI Fridays…)

Of course, I shouldn’t neglect to mention the glass butchery in the middle of the room, with its dead cow parts hanging from hooks. I’m by no means adverse to steakhouses showing off their produce in this way, but like most things at Smoak, it just feels false. As if the person who came up with it wasn’t thinking “let’s allow our customers to see our meat raw and up close, they’ll appreciate that”, but more “think how cutting edge we’ll look if we have a glass cage stuffed full of carcasses”.

It’s a wonder that the meat is actually real, given how staged it is. I was slightly surprised not to see a wagon wheel in there alongside a cardboard cutout of Clint Eastwood.

The over-the-top design continues into the food. Half a dozen oysters* were served in a ludicrously oversized bucket, with so much crushed ice in it I half expected to find a pre-transplant organ inside. The bone holding the marrow that accompanied the steak was so large you could beat someone to death with it – and I had half a mind to as I struggled to eat around it on the plate.

But at the end of the day, I’d much rather go to a restaurant that’s desperate to impress than one that doesn’t try at all, and where Smoak gets it right, it gets it very right indeed.

Take the dining room. Despite my quibbles above, it’s a very pleasant place to eat. Bright, airy, smart, it’s a world away from the gloomy, vomit-inducing garishness of Gaucho, which looks like Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen was asked to design a brothel for cowboys.

And the steak is good. Very, very, very good. I suspect Smoak’s ownership of a Josper Grill might have more to do with it being the kitchen gadget du jour than a desire to grill meat to perfection, but it doesn’t change the end product. My bone-in sirloin was flawlessly cooked: a textbook medium rare with a char on the outside to die for – the kind you only ever really get from a Josper.

The Belted Galloway beef was of fine quality too. Not at the same level as the meat I had at Goodman in London this summer, but easily as good as anything I’ve ever had in Manchester. With precise cooking and seasoning, and the Rolls Royce of grills at his disposal, the chef rang every ounce of flavour out of it he could, and the result was a steak that was truly sublime. Better than any I’ve had in this city; better than almost every other steak I’ve had.

The rest of the food was perfectly serviceable: the chips were solid, there was nothing wrong with the mushroom, the bone marrow was nice, despite its unwieldy presentation.

And the winelist was surprisingly friendly, offering a decent choice under £25 where I’d been expecting to find one or two wines at best.

But for me, anything beyond the steak at Smoak is pretty much irrelevant. It makes up for all the restaurant’s deficiencies with aplomb, and anything else that’s good about the place is merely a welcome bonus.

I think this change of opinion from my wife sums it up best. Before the meal, as it took us 30 minutes to get a drink at the incompetently staffed bar, she told me that she hated it already and wanted to leave. She spent the entire first course moaning and picking fault with the place; savaging it far more than I have in parts here.

And then three bites into her steak, after groaning with pleasure and uttering the words “oh my god”, she asked if it could become our new special restaurant – the place where we go to treat ourselves on birthdays and other occasions. The beef had wiped all the negatives away and left her eager to come back.

It did the same for me as well.

I’ve enjoyed going to Gaucho in recent years. I even went on my stag do and had a fantastic meal, perhaps the best yet out of five or six visits. In a lot of ways, it still sets the standard for this type of restaurant in my home city. But I can’t see myself going back anytime soon.

Based on grilled meat alone, there’s a new best steakhouse in Manchester. And its name is Smoak.

Smoak Grill on Urbanspoon

Food: 13.5/30

Service: 5/10

Dining Room: 4/5

Experience: 7.5/10

Overall score: 55/100 (Very Good)

 

Note: I returned to Smoak in June 2012 and had another good experience, although not as good as first time around. I’ve revised the score down on my Restaurant Ratings page accordingly. If you plan to go it’s worth looking around online for any discount offers as they seem to run these quite regularly. We had a 50% off food voucher on the latest visit, allowing us to share an excellent 900g wing rib sirloin (click link for picture) for the bargain price of £26.

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*That’s another item ticked off my Foods To Try Before You Die list…

Food #4: Porterhouse steak

Steak and chips is my all-time favourite meal. I probably eat it once a fortnight as a minimum. Nothing fancy, just a big slab of medium-rare meat, chips fresh from the fryer and a side of sautéed mushrooms.

If it’s a special occasion, like my birthday, I’ll probably triple-cook the chips and do a béarnaise sauce with it. But that’s about it. I like it nice and simple, with little in the way of distractions from the beef itself.

Until I started to develop a keen interest in food about six or seven years ago, I ordered steak pretty much everywhere I went. However, because I didn’t go to many places of real quality, the choice tended to be limited to just three cuts: rump, sirloin and fillet.

If I was lucky, there might be a rib-eye I could choose instead, but they never had the one cut I really wanted.

The one that always seemed to be in films.

The one with the cool name.

The one they called… T-bone.

When I put The List together T-bone steak went straight on there. I’d pined after it for the best part of two decades and still not managed to come across it, so it was an obvious choice. Its appeal had also advanced beyond the fact it sounds like a gangster rapper. I now knew it was made up of different parts of the cow – the top loin and the tenderloin (aka the fillet) – so you get two steaks in one.*

Unfortunately, a couple of days later, I had to take it off The List. I remembered that I had actually eaten a T-bone, five years earlier at a random pub in York. It was a rubbish experience – owing to poor quality beef and shoddy cooking – but one that clearly meant it was disqualified.

Undeterred, I started looking for an alternative; a cut of beef that could match the T-bone for flavour and sex appeal. In the end, I came across the porterhouse, which actually sounded much, much better.** It might not have made it into the Wu-Tang Clan, but it was definitely going to make it on to my plate.***

Goodman Steak Restaurants in London are meant to be among the country’s best steakhouses, if not the best. They offer extremely high quality USDA beef, as well as British varieties, and cook it all on a Josper Grill, the Rolls Royce of charcoal ovens.

Andy Hayler, the food critic famous for having eaten at all of the world’s three-star Michelin restaurants, raved about the steak he had at the branch on Maddox Street in Mayfair. What better place could I visit to give the porterhouse a spin?

My wife and I went to Goodman (the one on the purple bit of the Monopoly board) on the third day of our honeymoon. I was immediately impressed by the huge, wooden-handled shank that was placed before me on the table instead of the usual steak knife. Any restaurant that gives me a weapon to carve up my beef clearly means business.

We skipped starters and went straight for the steaks, ordering a 600g bone-in rib-eye and 600g porterhouse to share between us.****

I tried the rib-eye first and it was incredible. From field to plate, you could tell the love that had gone into it. It was a beautiful piece of beef, perfectly aged and perfectly cooked. The char on it was awesome; the taste mega. Stalin would go to bed at night dreaming he had the authority this flavour commanded.

It was in a totally different league to the best steak I’ve had in the UK (at Gaucho) and even topped the best I’ve ever had, at Ben & Jacks Steakhouse in New York.

Nevertheless, it couldn’t hold a candle to the porterhouse, at least as far as my tastebuds are concerned. It was clearly of the same standard, but I found myself preferring the milder, cleaner and much more defined flavour of the top loin. It was like putting a Humvee up against an Aston Martin – I can appreciate the big, hulking juggernaut, but I’m going to choose James Bond’s car every time.

Still, even an Aston Martin seems a bit lame next to a Bugatti Veyron, and so the top loin did here. The tenderloin wasn’t just in another league, it was on another planet.

Whoever it was who said fillet steak doesn’t have any flavour needs to be hunted down and beaten to death with a top tier porterhouse. Andy Hayler said he’s had superior beef at a couple of places, but I can’t imagine how this could be bettered. It just sang.

Two days earlier I’d been at Hibiscus eating roast duck foie gras and thinking: “Is this ambrosia – the food of the gods?”

In Goodman, Obi-Wan Kenobi appeared and answered my question. “No,” he whispered. “There is another…”

I had beef Rossini at Alain Ducasse a few nights later. Afterwards I concluded that it was probably the best dish I’d ever had, but the fillet of beef itself couldn’t compare to the tenderloin at Goodman. It went beyond wizard; it was full-on Jedi.

And as a Star Wars geek, my praise doesn’t really get any higher than that.

Verdict: Highest possible recommendation, but with the caveat that you try it somewhere really good. It doesn’t matter how great the cut is, if the beef’s not of a high quality or it hasn’t been aged well or cooked properly, you won’t have a special experience.

NEXT UP: Dom Perignon 2000 (technically it should be something else, but I was so excited when I drank this Champagne today, I figured I’d let it jump the queue…)

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*The tenderloin may not be substantial on a T-bone, but you’re still getting a bonus steak. It’s like going to a brothel and buying 60 minutes with an alright prostitute and then finding out you get 5 minutes with a really good one as part of the package.

**The porterhouse is very closely related to the T-bone, with both cuts being taken from the short loin of the cow. So similar are they that apparently some butchers will label a porterhouse as a T-bone, in order to avoid confusing customers. The porterhouse is actually taken from the larger end of the short loin, so it comes with a much bigger portion of fillet.

***Sorry, that was a much longer introduction than expected.

****We didn’t intentionally go for exactly the same as Mr Hayler, but it seems we’ve got similar tastes where beef is concerned. I do very much enjoy a rib-eye steak and I was interested to see how it tasted cooked on the bone and how the porterhouse stacked up against it.

As per usual, I said “no” to sauces – I wanted to taste the beef all on its own.

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