Anyone who’s been near me over the past few weeks knows that I’m currently following some horrendous eating plan known as the Dukan Diet. It’s high protein hell and involves large quantities of meat and not much else.
Unfortunately, a lot of animals have had to die for me to rid myself of baby weight before the ‘baby’ in question grows up and starts shaving. This limits my current dining out options, but I’m heading towards becoming an authority on Manchester steak houses.
First up ‘Smoak Bar and Grill’, in the Malmaison hotel, which has recently been through a complete refurbishment in an attempt to move it from regular hotel restaurant to fashionable meeting place. My Twitter timeline’s been full of gasps of delight from bloggers who’d been invited to the recent opening party and generously plied with drinks. It wasn’t exactly like that for us during our visit.
The kitchen and menu have been based around one impressive piece of kit, The Josper Grill - the mother of all indoor barbecues. With a price tag of around £18,000 it’s an expensive chef’s toy and features in some of London’s finest kitchens, including Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Dinner’.
A Josper is a top of the range charcoal grill with a door which ensures all the natural moisture and flavours remain inside the meat or fish. It’s also quite an impressive thing to watch in action, which is why Smoak have designed a U-shaped counter top in front of the open kitchen for those that want a ring-side seat to the sights and smells that emerge when the door is opened.
Another pertinent design feature is the glass meat cabinet in which hang all manner of steaks and full sides of beef, like Lady Gaga’s walk-in closet. With all those racks of prime rib on show, do you think any size 6 WAG customers ever mistake it for a mirror?
Starters look high-end though basic. I’ve heard a few people rave about the fresh oysters but as I’m not a heterosexual man or a lesbian, slurping on all that gubbins holds little interest for me. So we ignored them and headed straight for the next source of high protein – steak. They’ve had a little go on the menu with some token vegetarian dishes and fish options but if you’re going to go to Smoak, with their fancy grill, steak’s their thing - though I spotted a burger on the counter top that looked delicious.
Even though they get a lot of meat from Scottish butcher Donald Russell, they’re also supplied by Althams, a reasonably local family butcher in Southport. I chose the 400g, 35 day aged rump which I wouldn’t normally go for, as rump can be a bit tough but was intrigued as to what the effect of hanging for over a month would have on it. It was tasty and juicy but much thinner than I expected for £25. However, I suspect you could stick an old boot in a Josper and it’d come out with half a chance of tasting delicious. Husband had 500g sirloin, rare, £28. Both came garnished with a grilled flat mushroom and a chunky bone marrow boat. I know all that nose-to-tail stuff is supposed to sort the men out from the boys but bone marrow on its own leaves me underwhelmed. Like say, flour, it’s an ingredient that really contributes as part of a dish in both taste and physiology, but eaten on its own?
Smoak must make a fortune shifting side dishes (all £3.25) as our waitress was amazed when I said I didn’t want any. ‘What, none?’ she said aghast, ‘no side dishes?…. AT ALL?’ ‘Er no, but I’ll have some wine in an attempt to distract you from this newsflash’….and that’s where it all started to go wrong.
I’d spent a while in gleeful anticipation over the wine list. Like old friends, getting together - me, Merlot, Shiraz and Rioja, we were going to have a long anticipated girls night out. The steaks were fine, even with a full restaurant on a busy Saturday night, the chef was cranking them out to order. He and Josper working together with efficient harmony, but after you’ve been working so hard to break down those proteinous enzymes, what you want is a drink. What you want when you’ve been on a daft no-alcohol diet for 6 weeks is a drink, so what was the most difficult thing to get access to at a place that calls itself a ‘BAR and grill’? Yes, you guessed it, a DRINK!
The food arrived at the table long before the wine was delivered so it took all I had not to grab the waitress’s lapel whilst knocking it back and shout ‘another! Wench.’ After dinner we decided to cut out the middle man and order drinks directly from the bar but unfortunately that’s when we magically became invisible. Truly, no-one could see us though we stood there plainly in view, thirsty and with money to spend. It wasn’t even busy, yet one end of the bar was piled high with dirty glasses. All the time we were waiting, there was only one guy slowly making a cocktail for someone - who’d probably ordered it the day before.
As we left, I spotted three influential Manchester food writers also unsuccessfully trying to get served before giving up and going to Mint Hotel round the corner. One of whom said ‘what’s going on, are we doing this wrong? Are we standing here trying to get served incorrectly?’
We stopped by reception on the way out to give them a piece of our mind. ‘Oh’ said the receptionist, ‘we do have a VIP bar, ‘the Ember lounge’, would you like to see it?’ See it? Ha! No thanks love, we’ve spent half an hour too long staring at this one…goodbye.’
It doesn’t matter how good the chef, the service, the steaks or the uber-grill are if your night is cut short and spoilt by not being able to get a drink. If there are any bar managers looking for a job in Manchester, please, get yourselves to Smoak forthwith.
For more information or to book call Smoak on 0161 278 1000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org