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.
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…
I’ve spent the last two and a half years of my life relentlessly saving money. I squirreled away every penny I could, firstly to buy a house and then to pay for a wedding.
For some people the saving experience can be a positive one. It proves they’ve got the willpower to keep their spending in line; it makes them feel good about how sensible they are.
I’m not one of those people. I wanted to shoot myself in the face.
Going out to restaurants is one of my favourite things to do in the entire world. Dozens of the best evenings of my life have been spent in nice restaurants with good food, company and conversation. When everything is on song, it’s a near peerless way to spend a couple of hours.
But for the last 30 months – big gourmet honeymoon aside – I’ve had to put this part of my life on hold. And it’s been excruciating. I’d get excited about big new openings and places that had picked up rave reviews and then have to stop myself from getting carried away because I knew I couldn’t go.
Since the self-imposed restaurant ban came in to force, several highly-regarded restaurants have opened AND closed. I feel genuine pain at the thought that I never had the chance to try them.
Fortunately now, as a finally married homeowner, I no longer have to live this way. For the next few months at least, the saving shackles are off and I’m going to dive back into Manchester’s restaurant scene head first to find out what I’ve been missing.*
Here are the five restaurants at the top of my hitlist. If I can get to at least four before the year’s out, I’ll be a happy man.**
Anybody know anyone who has been to these? Are there any restaurants that I’m missing?
Stanley Street, Salford, M3 5EJ
0161 832 4080
I’ve been wanting to go ever since seeing chef Robert Owen Brown’s highly informative and piss-myself funny presentation on game birds at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival (MFDF) a while back. Handing out dead birds at the end to anybody who fancied one sealed the deal. This is my kind of chef.
2 Church Lane, Prestwich, Manchester M25 1AJ
0161 798 5841
This came to my attention when it was named Best Restaurant at last year’s MFDF and I spent hours trying to figure out why the hell anybody would open a nice restaurant in Prestwich. I’m still puzzled by that, but the menu looks great. I love that they’ve got the confidence to stick just 12 dishes on there. Classy.
The Lowry Hotel, 50 Dearmans Place, Chapel Wharf, Manchester, M3 5LH
0161 827 4041
You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m drawn to expensive things and this is pretty much as expensive as you’ll get in Manchester, with a typical starter over £10 and a lot of the mains in the mid-£20 range. Reviews are good and it’s got a few accolades, but I really just want to see if it can live up to its price tag.
36 John Dalton Street, Manchester, M2 6LE
0161 839 9907
From what I’ve read about the place and what I can see on the menu, the chef’s got a lot of ambition, which is rare in Manchester. Whether he’s trying too hard and attempting stuff that is beyond him remains to be seen, but I do like a tryer, so I want to give him a chance. Plus, Vertigo’s an awesome film. How can you say no to Hitchcock?
Malmaison, Piccadilly, Manchester, M1 1LZ
0161 278 1000
Two words: Josper Grill. Smoak’s desperate need to be cool, as demonstrated by its vomit-inducing website and we’re-too-hip-to-spell-properly name, makes me want to self-harm. But if it can deliver a top notch steak, as its equipment and menu suggest, all will be forgiven.
*If I’m totally honest, it wasn’t quite as bad as I’ve been making out. Thanks to very generous relatives and the odd lapse, I’ve been able to eat at all these generally well-thought-of places in the last two years. Some of them (mostly the ones which weren’t crushing disappointments) more than once:
The French Restaurant
Michael Caines @ Abode
No.4 Dine & Wine
Sam’s Chop House