One of the many ways you can bifucate the world of restaurants is to divide them into those with and those without overtly descriptive parts to their names. So, “Le Gavroche”, for example, versus “Romano’s Ristorante Italiano“. What can the inclusion of a descriptive part of a restaurant name tell us? Well, a lot, but not what you might expect. Take “Cafe” for example. This word you cannot trust. You could be lumped with Cafe Rouge, or be transported to the heights of Le Cafe Anglais. “Ristorante Italiano” is more helpful – it means “don’t eat here” in Italian. None of the capital’s great Italian restaurants’ names contain these words (think Zucca, Bocca di Lupo, Locanda Locatelli, even the less elevated Ciao Bella). “Bar and Grill” is similarly to be avoided – it means nothing more than the place will have sticky tables and smell faintly of vomit.
What about “Chop House”? I love the phrase “Chop House”. “Chop” is used adjectivally here, but it’s also a noun, so it indicates rather pleasingly both what you might get and how it might have got to you. “House” has a hospitable ring to it, as if they are welcoming you into their home (which could be a mixed blessing, depending whose it is). But when applied to actual Chop Houses the sense of the appellation isn’t necessarily what you get. Mr Thomas’s Chop House in Manchester is pretty orthodox. It has a fine Victorian interior and the portions are so hospitable you simply won’t finish them, viz the family sized steak and kidney pudding I struggled to get even 1/3 of the way through when I was there last year. But the Quality Chop House in Clerkenwell, London, recently re-opened to much accalaim is a different story altogether. It too is a restored Victorian place but “Chop House” belies the standard of the fare. You won’t get a fatty slab of lamb or beef there, hanging over the side of the plate. Oh no. When I was there it was all fried artichokes and aioli, char-grilled mackerel, that sort of stuff. “Chop House” it ain’t but “Quality” it most certainly is. It’s probably doing itself a disservice calling itself the “Quality” Chop House (you’re really thinking “Quality Hotel Airport East” aren’t you?) but its qualities are such that they don’t need me to recommend them. Go.
My most recent exposure to somewhere calling itself a Chop House is the Albert Square Chop House in Manchester. It came to my attention via a website that claimed it offered the best Sunday lunch in Manchester so I thought I’d give it a try. (We really wanted to try the much hyped “The French” but it is closed on Sundays. Boo).
The place is trying very hard to get it right and in many respects it is. It offers a well devised, traditional, seasonal British menu with apparent thought given to the sourcing of ingredients. It offers more than just token choices for vegetarians. The wine list is extensive and well put together. It is modern – open kitchen; leather booths juxtaposed against exposed brick and air conditioning ducting. It is smart.
It is, however, falling short of its aspirations. For a restaurant with such an emphasis on wine, it was odd that we had to ask to see the wine list. This request provoked a look of delighted surprise on the waiter’s part. The wine glasses themselves are frankly ridiculous. No serious wino could have chosen these mammoth, clunky, awkwardly shaped, thick-glassed, round rimmed, cumbersome vessels. There must have been a job lot of theatre-prop sized chalices going cheap. When the wine was actually poured, we had to intervene in the waiter’s apparent attempt to fit the entire contents of the bottle into my glass in one pour. They did however have one thing over their London cousins – once the first pour was in our glasses they left the bottle with us and then left us the fuck alone to top up as we saw fit. Smart places in London would do well to observe this practice.
Right, the food. To start I had ox tongue with parsley and radish. The tongue was well cooked but it was served hot, piled up on top of radish ribbons which thereby lost all their crunch and were reduced to a sad, floppy and pointless accompaniment. Joe had a beetroot and cows curd salad which he said was fine but not much to write home about. My main course was roast rump of beef “served pink” with all the trimmings. I imagine it may well have been pink when it was carved, but by the time it got to the table it was cooked through – too much time under a heat lamp I suspect. It was, however, an excellent piece of meat and perfectly tender. The accompaniments were hit and miss – a correct Yorkshire pudding, very good gravy, but the saltiest carrot/swede puree I think I had ever tasted. Roast potatoes were too taut. You have to rough up the surface of a potato for it to be crunchy when roasted. These had hard, rather than crunchy, skins. Joe had a Jersey Royal salad that was very dry and claimed to be served with a “slow-poached egg”. I assume that by this they mean one of these 3-hours-at-55-degrees things, which I’ve seen done very successfully at places like Bohemia, Jersey, and my own kitchen. It’s supposed to result in a state of almost suspended animation – a very slow flowing egg yolk with amazing silky texture. This one was just a failure. The yolk was hard, like a normal poached egg left in for too long. The stuff arriving at other tables looked more tempting, such as individual steak and kidney puddings, and a whole roast chicken for 2 that looked regal, browned and inviting.
As for the wine, there was lots of great stuff on the list. We chose a bin end of 2003 Castello di Bossi Corbaia, a Sangiovese dominant Supertuscan, a stunning choice and even better given that the list price was actually cheaper than the lowest advertised retail price on Wine Searcher. So it is nothing if not good value, but happily also much more.
I don’t mean to sound too down about this place. It has things going for it. If I visited Manchester again and someone took me there I would regard it is a pleasant surprise. But, without wanting to sound too much like a London snob, it’s got a way to go before it can rival most of the current field of British food proponents.