You think it’s easy being invited to eat at restaurants for free in return for a review? Well it’s not, not at all. It’s fraught with a tangled web of unspoken rules and imagined obligations. ‘What happens if I decide not to write about it, despite having stuffed my face at their expense?’, ‘What if I had a terrible experience? Shall I tell the truth or should I lie because they have paid for my opinion with a cocktail and that extra side-order?
However, the one issue that most bloggers really lose sleep over is – ‘Can we order the lobster?’ In short, does ordering from the top end of a menu constitute as ‘taking the piss?’ This question fills your average, polite, British blogger with absolute fear. Don’t take my word for it, pick any 3 freebie blogs at random and you’ll see various versions of ‘Mr Bloggycake wanted the foie gras but we settled for some lettuce and water as it would clearly be wrong to infringe on complimentary hospitality.’
I’m as guilty of this etiquette merry-go-round as anyone. My husband and I have had the ‘can I have one more free beer?’ argument more times than I’ve had hot dinners. (Oh, ok, well maybe not as many as that, but lots of times.)
Livebait in Manchester has new owners and is no longer part of a chain. It’s now proudly independent and wants to start afresh, dispelling memories of any previous, unrelated experiences. Through Manchester Confidential, they invited a gaggle of local bloggers to dine and offer their opinion on the new menu, which brings me back to my culinary quagmire.
The menu lists a range of simple, well priced fish dishes with a couple of veggie and meat options thrown in. Starters average around £7 and include several ways with oysters, and simple classics like fried whitebait, smoked salmon and prawn cocktail. Mains average around £16 and include fried haddock & chips, plaice with lemon & capers, cod with risotto, the obligatory sea bass and a fish curry.
Fish and shellfish are delivered fresh every day, so what interests me the most, is the section entitled ‘Shells’; Seared King Scallops in the half shell, Thai scented Scottish Mussels, Lobster and chips (Thermidore or garlic buttered) and….. the Shellfish Platter for Two.
I can make most of those mains myself at home, but what I can’t make is one of those magnificent, glorious, abundant cascades of assorted fresh seafood on crushed ice. I searched my soul wondering whether it would be cheeky to order one but after reading other recent Livebait blogs I became absolutely determined to bloody well order it. Surely the point of these reviews is to showcase what a restaurant does well.
A fresh seafood platter is a thing of beauty, it makes a good fish restaurant stand out and that is the main reason I would ever go to Livebait. As it turns out, it’s the thing that would make me return.
Our waitress brought us a platter of fresh bread with Spanish extra virgin olive oil and the chef’s own dukkah. I’ve never been that keen on the idea of dipping bread into a load of whole spices but I was wrong, this is a really good idea. Lightly roasted coriander, fennel and cumin seeds, flaked salt, sesame and poppy seeds with toasted slithers of hazelnuts really got the taste buds going.
The wine list is reasonably priced and matched mostly for fish, seafood and light dishes as expected. I abandoned my usual Chenin or Sauvingon Blanc and decided to go for a previously untried Albarino, available in small/large glass, carafe or bottle. It was delicious– light, apricot fruitiness gave way to a drier, crisp, refreshing drink.
After the bread, we shared a portion of whitebait which I’ve now decided would make a perfect cinema snack. Wouldn’t you rather dive into a bucket of tiny, hot, crispy, salt and pepper dusted whitebait rather than popcorn? *dials local Odeon*
What’s exciting about ordering the shellfish platter (if that’s your sort of thing) is the theatre that pre-empts it. Our waitress arrived with a stream of deliveries, building up the anticipation – fingerbowls, claw crackers, tweezers, empty bowl for shells, extra napkins, Tabasco and the metal stand. Other diners turned to watch as our waitress struggled to keep her composure under the weight of the abundant and glorious collection of fresh seafood she was carrying.
It was a thing of beauty; a pyramid of crushed ice upon which was laid a perfect towering medley of rosy-hued crustacean treasure; fresh oysters, shell on prawns, mussels, clams, a whole crab and a lobster, divided neatly into two equal sides for harmonious sharing. Ramekins of diced vinegared shallots, aioli, cucumber pickle and fresh lemon were provided, but the seafood needed nothing else to accompany it.
At £70 for two, it is not cheap but it is absolute value. We spent the next finger-licking hour happily cracking and poking, teasing morsels of seafood out of the shell and knocking back fresh oysters decadently like ancient Romans. I wouldn’t recommend this for a first date, but it’s a great way to spend the afternoon or evening getting away from it all with someone you’re comfortable with, and is much cheaper than a spa hotel in Cheshire or 2 tickets on Eurostar.
We decided to round things off with homemade dessert (well, we’d come this far…) Livebait offers a tasting plate but Pat fancied the apple crumble with warm custard and I wanted the slab of Chocolate Délice with salted caramel and hazelnut ice cream. Carrying on with my Spanish themed drinking, I ordered a cheeky shot of smooth, dark Pedro Ximenez. If you’ve never had it, I recommend you order it when you see it; it’s like delicious alcoholic prune syrup or liquid Christmas pudding.
So there we are, our afternoon ‘away’. A chat with assistant manager Gareth began with me babbling effusively, trying to justify my decision to order the shellfish platter. As it turns out I needn’t have worried, he confirmed it IS the best thing they do and he was in fact curious as to why more of those polite bloggers hadn’t ordered one too…
Click here to visit the Livebait website.
22 Lloyd Street (off Albert Sq), Manchester, M2 5WA
Tel: 0161 817 4110