When I set about planning a week in London last year, oysters were as prominent a part of my plans as Michelin stars. I figured I’d get off the train at Euston, hop on over to St Pancras and the St Pancras Grand, crack open a bottle of champagne and tip a dozen bivalve molluscs down my throat.
It didn’t matter that I’d never had oysters before and might not like them, it just sounded like a good idea.
As plans changed and I realised it’d be a stretch to go to the St Pancras Grand on day one, I decided I’d get my first taste of oysters while on a trip to Borough Market instead. The Wright Brothers Oyster & Porter House was earmarked. It looked like a lot of fun.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find space in my schedule to go to Borough Market either. By the time I had time for some oyster chugging, it was the end of the week. Homesick, overeating and rich food sick, I decided to give it a miss. My first oyster experience would have to wait.
I eventually ticked this item off my Foods To Try Before You Die list a couple of months later – completely unplanned – at Manchester’s Smoak, a restaurant known more for its steak than its seafood. I’d spent most of the day at a whisky tasting and was pretty damn drunk by the time I arrived. Not really in the mood for oysters, my wife and I ordered just half a dozen between us. What followed next was, I felt, quite profound.*
The Cornish oysters arrived in a ridiculously oversized bucket, so full of ice I half-expected to see a polar bear roaming amongst it. Lemon quarters, shallot vinegar and a bottle of Tabasco were shoved in alongside.
I looked down at the oysters and they glared back at me – huge albino slugs, trodden into jagged shells, threatening to come alive at any moment. I was John Hurt, staring on the eggs of aliens, at risk of one bursting open and attaching itself to my face.
Oysters didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. I was dreading the first tip; steeling myself for something truly horrific. I’ve never hesitated with food before, but I had the same feeling with this that I have when someone places a shot of tequila in front of me.** It wasn’t going to taste nice; afterwards I might have to fight the urge to vomit.
My wife cracked one down her throat, and I decided I should stop being such a pussy and followed suit.
A salty tang of seawater filled my mouth and I gave the mollusc a couple of chews. The texture was as anticipated – a combination of raw gristle and jellied mucous. The flavour was that of brine.
Swallowing was unpleasant – like chugging down a big ball of snot – however, there were no feelings of nausea after; I simply felt incredibly underwhelmed.
“Seriously, that was it?!”
Some people love oysters, worship them, can’t get enough. I’d expected that if that wasn’t me, I’d have to be the antithesis – hate oysters, revile them, can’t get away quick enough. But I had no opinion either way. I just didn’t get it.
I tried another oyster with a squeeze of lemon and some shallot vinegar. This was better because it didn’t just taste of salty water, but it still felt like there was no point in me eating it. It was doing nothing for me at all.
The last oyster I had with a dash of Tabasco. The sauce jarred with the ocean taste and I wished I’d just stuck with the lemon instead. Again, I didn’t understand.
At Smoak that evening, for the first time in my life, I’d eaten something and been totally bewildered as to why anybody bothers to eat it. Just what is the appeal of this giant bogey that tastes like the sea? It’s not that it was revolting or anything like that. It was just banal.
I appreciate that these were probably far from the best oysters available. I can also see how you might be able to get some enjoyment from the way oysters are consumed. However, I cannot at all envisage how people take pleasure from the actual eating.
I don’t plan to try them again.
Verdict: I can’t possibly recommend oysters based on my experience, but maybe you could try them and tell me what I seem to be missing.
NEXT UP: Valrhona chocolate
*How profound I might have found any of this had I not spent all afternoon knocking back drams is up for debate.
**Tequila and I were once great friends. When I was 18 years old, we were as close as close could be. For seven months, we partied together relentlessly. Salt and lime were shunned – we wanted nothing to come between us. But after a while tequila began to turn on me. The taste of her started to make me feel sick, then the smell of her started to make me feel sick. Once the mere thought of her made me want to vomit, I decided we could no longer see each other. People I know who don’t understand our past will occasionally bring her along to parties. When this happens I just need to grit my teeth, choke back the chunder, and get on with it.
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…