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.
Jem&I is a restaurant about a mile away from where I live in Didsbury, Manchester. It’s fairly casual, family-friendly and enjoys a very solid local reputation, mostly due to the Bib Gourmand it held in the Michelin Guide half a decade back.* It always seems to be packed and there are no signs of its popularity abating anytime soon.
This is despite having one of the drabbest, dullest, most uninspiring lists of starters I’ve ever seen on a menu. It’s a startling display of laziness; a collection that could almost be a Who’s Who of reject plates from the first round of MasterChef.
You know you’re facing something truly terrible when you’re struggling to make that difficult decision as to which dish you’d mind eating the least.
Everything on there is a piece of piss to make. Everything screams: “We couldn’t care less about starters.”
And everything seems to come buried under an enormous pile of rocket.
Once upon a time, I was a big fan of rocket. There used to be an excellent little restaurant in Newcastle called The Comfort Food Company**, which served it alongside rump steak and it worked perfectly.
Mostly I’ll ignore salads with steak. They’re generally a pointless, irritating afterthought taking up valuable chips space. But at Comfort Food the rocket had a real purpose – it was designed to complement the meat, and complement it did.
That’s how rocket needs to be used; how it needs to be approached. It’s much too strong an ingredient to be plonked mindlessly on a plate. It requires something robust enough to stand up to it, like a steak or a thick piece of ham.
My theory: anything that goes well with English mustard will probably go well with rocket.
At Jem&I they don’t subscribe to this way of thinking. A week on from my last meal there, I still feel sorry for the scallops. They were of a decent enough quality and someone had taken the care to cook them very nicely. And then someone without care had buried them under a forest of fierce peppery leaf.
I felt like a pioneer as I became the first person in history to forage for shellfish inside a bush.
I looked across the table to see another trailblazer at work – my wife was having to do the exact same thing with her fried squid.
Now you could say I’m being deliberately unfair here. I knew my starter came with rocket salad and I knew my wife’s came with rocket salad. I’m not sure why they did, but it was at least listed on the menu. Most of the other dishes on there didn’t mention rocket, so presumably they came without it.
But this is the fourth starter I’ve had at Jem&I over the years, each of them completely different, and every single one has been served with this type of leaf. I generally think: “OK, well they probably won’t go together, but if I just focus on the primary ingredient, which is the main reason I want the dish, it’ll be fine.”
Unfortunately, the scallops or the squid or the smoked salmon – or whatever – never turn out to be the primary ingredient. Through sheer quantity***, rocket is always the daddy on the plate. Capi di tutti capi, the don of the starter.****
And as I’d mentioned, the list of starters is crap anyway. It’s not like I was spoilt for choice with delicious-sounding alternatives that could entice me away from a meal featuring this bloody plant. “Maybe they’ll surprise me and it’ll actually work this time,” I thought.
I think my cynicism needs some work.
My main course of fillet steak was good, if a little overpriced. Dessert of crème brulee was perfectly serviceable. The bottle of Valpolicella I selected, thanks to some very helpful tasting notes in the menu, was excellent.
On the whole it was a solid meal and I had a pleasant time. But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that sodding rocket since.
In light of that, I’ve made two decisions:
1) I’m not going to go back to Jem&I again. I don’t mean to put you off trying it. I’ve had at least one very good meal there and I’m sure you won’t have a bad experience. You could certainly do much worse in Didsbury, and I’d say it’s superior to local rival No.4 Dine & Wine if you’re ever deciding which to go to. But I’m just tired of it now. Better, more interesting food is available elsewhere and for a more reasonable price.
2) I’m going to make more of an effort to avoid rocket. I know it can still be good when used correctly, but I feel like I’ve got a bit of a complex about it now. It’s tarnished. I’m frightened that if I buy rocket I’ll have nightmares about it trying to take over the world like some sort of Triffid. Next time I make a ham sandwich, I’ll just go with mustard instead.
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 43/100 (OK)
*I can’t count the number of times people have told me it has a Michelin star. The guide makes some strange decisions sometimes, but I don’t think it’s completely lost its senses yet.
**I only found it had closed (a victim of the credit crunch) just now as I hunted around for a link to its website. Pity, it was a real gem of a place, hidden away down a back alley in the city centre. Absolutely tiny, but rustic, and with a really strong focus on British cooking and local ingredients (all of their producers and suppliers were listed at the back of the menu, along with contact details). I had hoped I’d be able to go back one day and try some of the seafood.
***The dish cost around £10.50. You’d think the high price was because there were four scallops on there, but I wonder how much was rocket. It must’ve been at least half a bag, so if we call that 40p’s worth wholesale and give it the standard three times restaurant mark-up, you could be talking £1.20.
****Not even the shop-bought-tasting sweet chilli sauce that seems to appear almost as often (yes, a big river of it was served with the scallops and the squid that night) or the similarly prolific crème fraiche could stand in its way.