The LAN, 18 Princess Street, Manchester M1 4LG (0161 236 8999). Snacks and small plates £3 to £6.50, steaks and chops £16 to £28, desserts £7, wines from £25
First impressions count. First impressions can also be wrong. The first impression tonight at The Alan, a new boutique hotel on the edge of Manchester’s Chinatown, is of a place about as popular as Herpes. The dimly lit lobby is a concoction of rough brick and rough plaster walls, housing stone slab tables of the kind on which Aslan could be sacrificed if you needed a bit of mid-century religious symbolism. -journey. There are ceiling ducts and tinny industrial lighting and acres of crazy cobblestone style polished stone flooring. And almost no bettors. The Alan is not only silent. He feels abandoned. Only one employee is on duty in the main foyer tonight, eyeing the entrance. He greets us happily as we push open the doors. Maybe he’s grateful for the company.
To the right is the dining room. There is an open square kitchen, bordered by a low counter. It houses three serious cooks. You can watch them work while you eat, but tonight no one does. They cook for only a few tables. Granted, it’s a Tuesday night, but currently there aren’t many options in Manchester on a Tuesday night. I should know. I’m in town for a ride in Dictionary Corner on Countdown, constantly hoping to find an esoteric word among the nine letters available to make me look smart. (Esoteric would be a great eight-letter find.) This is an opportunity to review, so I explored the options, but perhaps due to pervasive staffing shortages, the available candidates, both obvious and less, are not open on a Monday and Tuesday.
But hey, there’s the Alan, which is new. And empty. Something has to happen. Alternatively, it’s just a quiet school night. Let’s go with that, with a parallel command of “they don’t know what they’re missing”. Because at the moment the Alan’s kitchen, led by chef Iain Thomas, is concocting a truly delicious and admirably tight menu of disconcerting dishes, which reveal their joys a little at the same time.
And all at a price positioned to comfort rather than terrorize (nine letters, but you’re unlikely to get three “r’s”). Money has clearly been spent on this development, which is apparently designed to celebrate and revive the existing materials in this once industrial building. If so, they’re not trying to recoup that investment through the parade of small plates on offer. They top out at £6.50; the steaks and chops, sourced from the highly regarded Butcher’s Quarter north of town, are also a bargain. We start, for £3.50, with a neatly arranged pile of pickled anchovies (nine letters), their silvery skins glistening towards us, zhuzhed (big seven letters Countdown word, if you had two zeds) with Amalfi lemon, decorated with fronds of green herbs and resting in a puddle of peppery olive oil. We get a plate of blistered flatbreads and politely present to each other.
Pearly cubes of halibut ceviche, with a taste of both citrus and surf, accompany the burnt orange and the slightly bitter joys of chicory. Hispi cabbage was broken into its individual leaves and then piled with crumbly pieces of long-braised lamb shoulder. The celeriac was first cooked in salt to a buttery softness (eight letters). It is accompanied by a soothing celeriac purée and a crispy truffle crumb. My only complaint concerns their view of Imam Bayildi. Halved and roasted mini eggplants are layered over a tomato and garlic puree, with plenty more of the now familiar green herbs. The mash is quite good, but the eggplant is just a bit dry and tough. Maybe head for the baba ganoush from the snack menu, if eggplant action is what you’re looking for.
From the Quartier du Boucher menu, we share a perfectly cooked pork chop, pre-sliced to reveal the pink and avoid the steak knives at dawn. It’s a £16 steal, and beautifully presented in the form of a fan of the kind a Victorian lady might have preferred, if fans made of quality grilled pork had been her thing. We have a side of their chard brassicas (great nine-letter word) drizzled with grated lemon zest to make us feel good about ourselves, and a bowl of their fries, because we deserve them because of the brassicas. Life is all about balance, isn’t it? Speaking of germs (sort of), we have a nice chat with our impatient waiter, partly to keep him from asking how everything is going, less because he’s been trained to do so, but because he seems really interested. He studies music business at the city’s university and also has a band influenced by the big names of the 80s “like Prefab Sprout”. I admire both its taste and I feel very, very old.
Come for the small plates; stay for dessert, as the short list includes an arctic roll. Awesome, isn’t it? I’m a seemingly sophisticated and courteous 55-year-old man. Over the years, I’ve gone into culinary swoon mode over the best of Parisian chocolate or recreations of golden spun sugar birdcages enclosing a wild strawberry millefeuille. Turns out all I really wanted was a very well-made arctic roll with a scoop of blackberry ice cream, to gently remind me of what it was like to have been an easy seven-year-old to be satisfied. It was left out of the fridge long enough for the sponge cake to soften and the edges of the vanilla ice cream topping to just begin to melt.
If that wasn’t enough, they now bring what they call a Snickers (eight letters, but I don’t think names are allowed): a large cylinder of airy milk chocolate mousse with, in the center, a generous dollop of dulce de leche, accompanied by candied peanuts and topped with a scoop of ice cream. These are real desserts that required care, consideration and childlike joy. They cost £7 each. The wine list is short, only five whites and reds, but at least they’re all available by the glass.
A few other tables came and went during the evening but it really remained quiet. However, there is now a solo diner at the counter, entertained by the brigade who seem grateful for the company. The Alan is a hotel restaurant with which you can call each other by your first names. Right now though, he needs a few more friends. Not least because what’s happening here is quite seductive. And it’s a solid eight-letter word. My work here is done.
Four top chefs come together on May 10 to cook a fundraising dinner for the #cookforukraine call. Tickets for the four-course dinner at Pino, on London’s Kensington High Street, cost £85. The menu includes steak tartare with asparagus and pecorino salad from Henry Harris or Allegra McEvedy’s root, nettle and borage ravioli from Albertine, a casserole of brill and morels from Rick Stein and a ginger rhubarb pie from Rowley Leigh. . For tickets, visit pinobar.com.
The Owl Gastro Pub, which opened in Kirkgate Market, Leeds, in 2019, is moving. It will reopen on May 28 on a site twice the size of the original in the residential development of Mustard Wharf, on the banks of the River Aire to the east of the town centre. The last service at the current location will be May 21 (theowleeds.co.uk).
Margot Henderson from La Rochelle canteen enters the advertising business. She has taken over the Three Horseshoes in the Somerset village of Batcombe and will reopen it as a gastropub with five bedrooms in November. Expect a menu of devil crab and focaccia, chicken and tarragon pie, grilled brill, fennel, Swiss chard and green sauce with Somerset apple crumble, custard pies and local cheeses with tips to finish.