I was attending a conference in Manchester, the BCSC annual event, and was staying in the Malmaison, a hotel brand I have true love for. I am fortunate enough to stay in some of the great hotels around the world as part of my work, but Malmaison (and Hotel du Vin for that matter), have managed to seduce me, with their care and attention every time you step through the doors. If you are a regular guest, they remember, they give you the same room, they make you feel welcome – at least that is my experience.
The BCSC conference is always a frenetic event. Lots of last minute meetings, lots of mobile phone calls and drinks. However I had been rather well organised and was dining on the first evening with good friends who run a specialist design business, Rawls & Co http://www.rawls.co.uk/. Now the reason I mention this is that my two guests are a bit special when it comes to interiors, fit out, architecture and design, so I thought we would “stay in” and try what was the NEW, at that time, Smoak bar and grill. I always liked the old Malmaison restaurant and bar, so hoped this was going to be good!
Well, you need to be prepared for the shock if you are a regular. The bar and restaurant space have been transformed. Gone are the dark lighting, plush fabrics and cosy, intimate spaces, replaced with an altogether harsher environment. A bit too “designer” for me on first impressions.
The three of us sat in the bar and waited for some service. It was about half full, with staff in evidence, but not in abundance. We waited, and waited, and waited, and anybody who knows me fully understands there is a “threshold” before I jump into action. Having sat for 10 minutes without any attention, I went up to the rather odd two level bar, which made me feel like I was towering over the staff. “Can I have 3 gin and tonics please?” I asked one of the staff as he was dispensing something else. “We will come over and serve you”, he said, to which I replied “tonight?”. I think that got his attention. “I noticed you have been waiting a while” which to his credit was good. 5 minutes later we had the gins, tonics and embarked on the deep conversation I always get into when I meet the boys. Putting the world to rights, we went through to the restaurant area. WOW!
My first impression was – it wasn’t finished! Bare wood, sackcloth and chains were the predominant them. Very different from the old Brasserie style and the designers clearly wanted change and got it.
We were sat by Becky, who was studying at Hollings, the same Catering College I went to in Manchester. As the meal progressed, it turned out she was the daughter of one of my old colleagues from Hollings who now works for one of the big catering equipment manufacturers – small world.
So back to Smoak, the bar and grill with more than a hint of industrial and retro Americana about it. First problem, I smacked my head on the lights over the tables, so did both my guests. We vary in height from short (me) to very tall (Adam), so whoever designed this did an ace job of ensuring the insurance claims would keep flowing. I hope they sort these out very soon.
In launching Smoak bar and grill, the former chief executive of Malmaison, Robert Cook, said that he intended to create a totally new eating and drinking experience for Manchester. He has certainly done that. You can sit at the bar, at the food counter where the Josper grill is or in a variety of seats throughout the restaurant. From most of these you can see the imposing “meat case”. This is one of the trends in many restaurants, displaying the aged, beautiful cuts of meat and joints, ready for the hungry carnivore. Just a word of caution though. I doesn’t work when the same restaurant is used for breakfast! I felt strangely queasy the next morning staring over my cereals at half a dead cow.
The group are getting more edgy in their restaurants which is good, and there were definite “signature” details shared with the Bistros that the same group have opened in London. The restaurant has original brickwork surfaces and concrete walls exposed alongside steel girders and columns. We sat at the high-backed red leather banquette, staring at the grill area. My colleagues liked and commented on many of the quirky design details as we nursed our head wounds.
So to the food and menu, where steaks, burgers and lobster cooked over the Josper grill are the key focus of the menu. Meat is THE THEME for this year I feel. The selection of nine cuts are served with a choice of peppercorn, bearnaise, gascon, café de Paris or garlic butter sauces. My arteries were beginning to ache already.
The meat is fantastic. I asked and was told it came from the now legendary butcher, Taylors of Sale http://www.taylorsofsale.co.uk/. Take great meat, add a good grill chef and a Josper Grill and you are going to have a great meal. A Josper is a hybrid. It is first and foremost a grill but the secret of what it adds to whatever is cooked on it – whether steaks, chicken, fish, vegetables or anything enterprising chefs can turn their hands to – is that it has a front door which, when closed, ensures that none of the natural moisture or flavour escapes. More often than not, a Josper is described as an oven, although grilling is its primary role. Burning top-quality charcoal, the Josper is, in layman’s terms, the hottest indoor barbecue available. Marvellous.
We started with a Frito Misto, Steak Tartare and a Three sausage sampler. All well presented, competent dishes, but nothing to rave about. Priced at £6.50to £8.00 they were great value for money. Then came the meat, 2 Cote de Boeuf (400g) and 1 250g fillet, accompanied by the obligatory chips, spinach and a red onion and tomato salad. The steaks were £30 each, but they fully justified the price. Taylors have maintained the quality of what they have become famous for.
As most of you know I hardly drink alcohol these days, but we managed to consume 2 bottles of very decent, and reasonably priced Barolo, A Nebbiolo variety from the Piedmont region. Lush. We followed up with loads of chat and coffee. The meal including service charge was £250, or nearly £85 a head. Without wine (unthinkable!) that would have been £55 a head. Not cheap but a truly memorable evening with good friends and great food. I think I will put a Josper Grill on my Christmas list – I can just see the wife agreeing to that in our kitchen.
Sadly, I woke up the next morning with a terrible head. Not from the wine, but from the rather nasty bump caused by the lamp fitting over our table. Please sort it.