There are few places in Manchester’s centre that are as charming as Sam’s Chop House, a haven of Victoriana in a 21st century city. The below-street-level timbered bar, with its olde-worlde fittings and characterful warmth, is as good a room to drink in as any in town. The dining area – a tiled jewel every bit as pretty as the centuries-old Paris bistros tourists go so wild for on holiday – is even better, and for years it had food to match.
I vividly remember my first visit in 2005, when I was left awed by an incredibly simple but immaculate plate of smoked salmon, seasoned only with capers, egg and spring onion. An award-winning roast dinner followed: generous slices of stunning beef, gravy made from the pan juices, one crisp giant of a Yorkshire pudding, beautifully cooked buttery veg and that ultimate restaurant rarity – acceptable roast potatoes.
I went back time and time again for the roast when I lived in the city centre. The portions were monstrous but I’d order other courses when I felt manly enough. There was the legendary brown onion soup, cooked for three days ‘til rich and sumptuous, and deeper than a poem by Sylvia Plath. There was the house-made corn-beef hash, a luxurious take on the tinned working class favourite; comforting and tasty enough to be a serious contender for a death row last meal.
It wasn’t entirely consistent, but the fabulous surroundings and wine list were always the perfect plaster for any cracks. Sam’s was, quite simply, the best place to eat lunch in Manchester.
Last week, after a two-year hiatus*, I decided it was finally time to go back.
The usual crowd was in for a quiet Tuesday lunchtime. A few City-types enjoying business lunch over a bottle; an old retired couple trying admirably to conquer a full three courses. Not wishing to spend too much money or be full to bursting, we elected to just have two courses and drink beer.
My hanger steak carpaccio had decent flavour and went well with a watercress, radish and horseradish coleslaw, but it felt more like sandwich filling than a complete dish. Certainly, it would’ve been more interesting between two thick slices of white bread, and I probably wouldn’t have felt so cheated by the portion size.
My wife’s starter of scallops with ham hock and a butternut squash purée was better but similarly uninspired. The purée was sickly sweet and the scallops, though well-cooked, were dismally small. The combination of hot scallops with fridge-cold ham hock and lukewarm butternut squash was slightly disconcerting.
(We did take pictures of both of these, but they were crap, so I’m not going to bother putting them in.)
One disappointment I experienced on an earlier visit to Sam’s was a dish of belly pork that was absolutely delicious but didn’t have any crackling with it, which sort of defeats the point of pork belly as far as I’m concerned. Seeing crackling specifically mentioned on the menu this time, I couldn’t resist giving it another go, and I found myself disappointed all over again.
The skin itself was fine, though nothing more than that; the pork was very dry. Stodgy black pudding mash and somewhat out-of-place slices of mustard swede completed the dish. In a lot of pubs this would be adequate fare, but not in Sam’s, a place that one critic once said did “cooking like your mother wished she could”. I can’t imagine many keen home cooks being proud of this.
The best bit of the meal was probably the chips served with my wife’s steak, although in a world where the triple-cooked variety is becoming increasingly common, they’re nothing to write home about. The steak seemed to be a lovely piece of beef, but of course in this meal of letdowns it was unevenly cooked; one half the requested medium, the rest more or less well done. It wasn’t a patch on the steak I remember ordering from here back in the day.
The bill came to £66, which included three-and-a-half pints of Stella Artois and a 10% service charge. This seemed rather expensive given the quality of the food and compared to what we’d be able to get for the same price elsewhere in the city (a far better meal at The Mark Addy, for example). It was by no means a terrible experience, but it was thoroughly average.
In the past, when I went to Sam’s Chop House, there was always a bit of magic about the place. If something wasn’t right, there was normally something else to make up for it; at the very least, there was the feeling that next time it would all be right again.
Regretfully, on this visit, the magic was gone. Unless it’s just for a drink, I don’t think I’ll be going back.
Dining Room: 4/5
Overall score: 42/100 (OK)
*In case you’re scratching your head and wondering why I stopped going if I loved it so much, I had to cut back a lot on restaurant visits between 2009 and 2011 as I saved up to buy a house and pay for a wedding. It’s only been open season again since August and now I don’t live in the city centre, lunch at Sam’s is no longer as convenient as it used to be.
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.
Dining Room: 3.5/5
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.
*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.