If top meat and a badass grill are all you need for a decent steakhouse, then Hawksmoor Seven Dials is absolutely superb.
Their Longhorn beef, supplied by The Ginger Pig and dry-aged for a minimum of 35 days, holds the sort of flavour that makes you lose control of bodily functions. Your eyes close, your face contorts to a gurn, and you moan and slobber like a zombie in sight of an attractive blonde named Barbara.
After the first bite, if you’re married, your spouse may ask the question “is that really necessary?” and you know without opening your eyes they’ll be looking at you with a mixture of amusement, embarrassment and scorn. Yet you can’t apologise because to do so would be to tell a lie. This beef is as good as beef gets; a producer of such juicy, voluptuous, carnivorous joy as cannot be described.
If your natural reaction to it is that of a stroke victim having his prostate examined, it’s something you can live with.
Of course the grill has a lot to do with provoking this response as well. I’m used to (and generally prefer) my steak being cooked on a Josper these days, its hellfire heat turning the meat’s exterior into glorious, crispy carbon.
But Hawksmoor’s charcoal-driven beast is just as effective despite its gentler persuasion. Where it can’t match the Josper for texture or retention of juices, it tops it through the flavour it imparts, the woody smoke of the char elevating the beef to even higher heights.
It’s just a pity really that I want my steakhouses to offer a bit more than that.
I’m not quite sure what it was that spoiled my meal at Hawksmoor Seven Dials. I left the restaurant feeling I’d had a fairly enjoyable experience but the more I think about it the more negative my feelings become. Yes, the 900g porterhouse my wife and I shared was awesome, and the bone marrow – wow! What a stunning example it was.* But almost everything else rankled.
First there was our waiter, presumably moonlighting from a job as a payment protection insurance salesman, who was so relentless in his efforts to sell us a starter you’d have thought his children’s lives depended on it.
Then there was the potted beef starter we eventually ordered to get him to go away and its Yorkshire puddings that had something of the Aunt Bessie about them. £8 for a jar of offcut meat, some onions and two circles of poorly risen batter – the beef was excellent but I didn’t feel like we got our money’s worth.
With the mains we had mushrooms: flaccid rounds of soot black which’d had all the life sweated out of them. They tasted of nothing at all. We had triple-cooked chips too – not the beef dripping chips we’d actually ordered – and they were so dry and saturated with fat they could’ve been used for kindling.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think these had been cooked from frozen,” I said, after trying a couple. They really were poor.
Even the steak couldn’t escape criticism, my wife declaring it to be too salty. I have a high tolerance for salt and thought the seasoning, while high, was just about acceptable. But she felt it really spoilt it.**
It was a while before we were able to attract a waiter’s attention, get them to clear the table and present us with the bill. The cost of brilliant steak and bone marrow, a decent bottle of wine and a fair dollop of disappointment was around £180, which didn’t feel the best value. Our outstanding a la carte lunch at The Ledbury the following day was only about £40 more expensive, to put it in context.
I think on the whole I actually prefer my local Gaucho to Hawksmoor Seven Dials. And that’s certainly not something I was expecting to say going in. While Gaucho’s steaks don’t bear comparison with Hawksmoor’s, they offer a far more complete experience than we got on this London visit. Through half a dozen meals I’ve never had a complaint about any of their side dishes.
Afterwards I took to Twitter to say the beef had been great but Hawksmoor is Championship standard versus the Premier League of Goodman. On reflection, given that Goodman Mayfair gave us a faultless steakhouse experience when we visited last year, I’d suggest the gulf is far bigger than that.
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 56/100 (Very Good)
*Thanks to fellow blogger Mrs Petticoat (@MrsPetticoat) for the bone marrow recommendation.
**There were other irritations too, although once I hit my stride I think I just started being picky. As such, I’ll just mention them here in the footnotes:
The dining room reminded of the hall where I used to sit my music theory exams albeit with much poorer lighting conditions. Tables were heavily regimented and if the room hadn’t been packed I think it would’ve felt very cold. It was certainly buzzing and I reckon a lot of people probably like the stripped back, casual look they’ve gone for, but it wasn’t a room I personally felt comfortable in.
I also felt the steak knife looked cheap and rubbish. I know it’s only a small thing, but when I went to Goodman and saw the knives they have I thought “this is a place that means business”. At Hawksmoor Seven Dials the cutlery reminded me of a Beefeater, in that I immediately thought “even Beefeaters have better knives than this”. It didn’t make quite the same first impression.
As you’d expect given the incredible foodie year I’ve had, I’ve eaten some truly sublime things in 2011. Here I run down the best dishes I’ve eaten overall, and the best dishes I’ve eaten in my home city of Manchester, during the last 12 months.
TOP 10 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (OVERALL)
- Warm Raspberry Soufflé [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]
Out of everything I’ve eaten this year, this is the one I find myself day-dreaming about the most. My mouth moistens, my memory goes back to a perfect summer’s evening and I want more than anything to be sat in the dining room of The Waterside Inn, gazing out over a moonlit river and eating this faultless raspberry soufflé.
I’ve had many more profound eating experiences during 2011; revelations that changed my whole outlook on food. But this relatively simple dessert handily beat each of them in the most important category of all – taste.
I had often wondered what the fuss is with soufflés; this featherlight version, with the texture of a celestial cloud and the intense flavour of fresh English raspberries (aided by a tart raspberry coulis), explained it better than words ever could. A symphony of pleasures from the moment it arrived on the table to the last spoonful, no dish has ever given me greater joy – and I think it might be a long time before another gives as much again.
2. Roast Foie Gras, Isle of Skye Sorrel, Gooseberry & Cardamom [Hibiscus, London – July]
3. Fillet of Beef Rossini, Crunchy Cos Lettuce, “Sacristain” Potatoes [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]
4. Seared Scallop, Pea Purée, Toasted Coconut and Morteau Sausage Emulsion [Hibiscus, London – July]
Done correctly, scallops can be remarkable little morsels – jewels of the sea – but I had no idea how good they could be until I had this dish, with a big, fat, hand-dived specimen at its centre. The accompaniments were impressively made and the whole dish was beautifully presented and cooked, but it was Mother Nature who made it sing through the creation of this exquisite central ingredient. So fresh and so sweet, it almost makes me scared to order scallops again in case they’re just not this good.
(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number ten on this list, here, via Nordic Nibbler. I think I might’ve actually been there on the same night as him as I had the first four dishes he had, as well as the same amuse bouche, pre-dessert and first dessert course.)
5. Roasted Challandais Duck with a Lemon and Thyme Jus, Potato and Garlic Mousseline [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]
The Waterside Inn is all about the duck. They float down the Thames as you sit out on the terrace, pictures of them adorn the walls and menus, and the smell of them roasting permeates every inch of the restaurant (delightful when you’re waiting for your food, not so delightful when you wake up hungover in the morning).
I believe it hasn’t been off the menu since it opened well over three decades ago and I found out just why when I had the chance to try it: it’s a total classic. I loved the theatre of the whole duck being presented at the table then carved in front of us. I also loved the little puff pastry duck served alongside it. But, as you’d expect, the dish was really all about the duck itself, which was stunning.
It was supremely old-fashioned, and it looked it, but this is my sort of food. If I ate at The Waterside Inn ten more times, I don’t think there’d be a single occasion where I wouldn’t order the duck.
(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number nine on this list, here, via Food-E-Matters.)
6. Porterhouse & Bone In Rib-Eye Steaks (150-day Corn Fed USDA Angus Beef), Hand Cut Chips [Goodman Mayfair, London – August]
7. Baba like in Monte-Carlo [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]
8. Macerated English Raspberries, Fine Puff Pastry Layers, Lime and Yoghurt Custard, White Chocolate Shards [Northcote Manor, Langho – August]
9. Terrine of Foie Gras with Lightly Peppered Rabbit Fillets and Glazed with a Sauternes Wine Jelly, Salad of Chinese Cabbage Leaves and a Violet Mustard-Flavoured Brioche Toast [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]
10. Tartare of King Crab, Sweetcorn, Meadow Sweet & Smoke Kipper Consommé, Sea Herbs [Hibiscus, London – July]
This dish was my intro to two-star Michelin cooking and I could immediately see the difference between it and everything I’d had before at one-star level. “The Red Guide inspectors aren’t completely clueless,” I thought. It was an unusual dish, absolutely nothing like anything I’ve ever had before or since, but it was such an awesome way to start a meal. A fascinating exploration of different tastes and textures, it was a real treat for the senses, and one I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
TOP 5 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (MANCHESTER)
1. Bone In Sirloin (Belted Galloway), Bone Marrow, Mushroom, Chips [Smoak, City Centre – October]
2. Rib-Eye Steak, Chips, Humitas, Baby Gem salad, Tender Stem Broccoli and Peppercorn Sauce [Gaucho, City Centre – July]
Gaucho might not do the best steak in town anymore, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t still do a bloody good job. Had an excellent meal there on my stag do, the highlight of which was a main course featuring humitas (a paste of sweetcorn, onions and goat’s cheese, boiled in a corn husk). I’ve never been a big fan of sweetcorn, but these were a revelation – a wonderful sweet accompaniment to the perfectly-cooked beef.
3. Eccles Cakes with Double Cream [The Mark Addy, Salford – November]
When I got married earlier in the year, I had an Eccles cake mountain instead of a traditional wedding cake (below). It looked good, it tasted good; the guys from Slattery’s in Whitefield did a great job. But when I tasted the Eccles cakes at The Mark Addy a few months later, my first thought was: “Why the hell didn’t we get these guys to do our Eccles cakes instead?” Absolutely gorgeous and, as I said in the comments here, the best I’ve ever had.
4. Pigeon, Bury Black Pudding, Belly Pork, Apple [The Lime Tree, West Didsbury – November]
5. Chicken with Garlic [Kyotoya, Withington – November]
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.
Dining Room: 4/5
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.
*That’s another item ticked off my Foods To Try Before You Die list…