The Alan, 18 Princess Street, Manchester M1 4LG (0161 236 8999). Snacks and small plates £3-£6.50, steaks and chops £16-£28, desserts £7, wines from £25
First impressions matter. 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 somewhere about as popular as herpes. The moodily lit foyer is a confection of raw brick and rough plastered walls, housing stone slab tables of the sort Aslan might be sacrificed upon if you were in need of a little light midcourse religious symbolism. There’s ceiling ducting and spindly industrial lighting and acres of polished crazy paving-style stone floor. And almost no punters. The Alan isn’t just quiet. It feels abandoned. A single employee is on duty in the main foyer this evening, eyeing the entrance. He greets us cheerfully as we push through the doors. Perhaps he’s grateful for the company.
To the right is the dining area. There’s a square, open kitchen, edged by a low counter. It houses three earnest-looking cooks. You can watch them at work while you eat, but tonight nobody is doing so. They are cooking for just a couple of tables. Granted, it’s a Tuesday night, but currently there aren’t that many options in Manchester on a Tuesday night. I should know. I’m in town for a turn in Dictionary Corner on Countdown, constantly hoping to find an esoteric word from the nine available letters to make me look clever. (Esoteric would be a great eight-letter find.) It’s an opportunity to review, so I’ve scoped out the options, but perhaps because of ever-present staff shortages the available candidates, both obvious and less so, are not open on a Monday and Tuesday.
But hey, there’s the Alan, which is new. And empty. Something must be up. Alternatively, it’s just a quiet school night. Let’s go with that, with a side order of “they don’t know what they’re missing”. Because right now the kitchen of the Alan, led by chef Iain Thomas, is cooking a truly delightful and admirably tight menu of diverting dishes, which reveal their joys a little at a time.
And all at a price positioned to comfort rather than terrorise (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 attempting to recoup that investment from 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 in the north of the city, are a bargain, too. We begin, for £3.50, with a tidily arranged pile of vinegared anchovies (nine letters), their silvery skins glinting up at us, zhuzhed (great seven-letter 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 introduce one to the other.
Pearly cubes of halibut ceviche, tasting both of citrus and surf, come with burnt orange and the lightly bitter joys of chicory. Hispi cabbage has been broken up into its individual leaves and then heaped with friable pieces of long-braised lamb shoulder. Celeriac has first been salt-baked unto a buttery softness (eight letters). It comes with a soothing celeriac purée, and a crunchy, truffled crumb. My only grumble is with their take on imam bayildi. Halved and roasted baby aubergines are laid on a tomato and garlic purée, with lots more of the by now familiar green herbs. The purée is nice enough, but the aubergine is just a little dry and tough. Perhaps head for the baba ganoush from the snacks menu, if aubergine action is what you’re after.
From the Butcher’s Quarter menu, we share a perfectly cooked pork chop, pre-sliced to reveal the pink and to help avoid steak knives at dawn. It’s a steal at £16, and beautifully presented in the shape of a fan of the sort a Victorian lady might have favoured, had fans made of quality grilled pig been her thing. We have a side of their chard brassicas (terrific nine-letter word) showered with grated lemon zest to make us feel good about ourselves, and a bowl of their chips, because we deserve them on account of the brassicas. Life is all about balance isn’t it? Talking of sprouts (kind of) we have a lovely chat to our eager waiter, partly to stop him asking how everything is, less because he’s been trained to do so, but because he seems genuinely interested. He’s studying music business at university in the city and also has a band influenced by 80s greats “like Prefab Sprout”. I both admire his taste and feel very, very old.
Come for the small plates; stay for dessert, because the short list includes an Arctic roll. Great, isn’t it? I’m a seemingly sophisticated, urbane 55-year-old man. Across the years I have gone into full culinary swoon mode over the finest of Parisian chocolate work or recreations of bird’s cages in golden spun sugar enclosing a wild strawberry millefeuille. It turns out that all I really wanted was a seriously well-made Arctic roll with a scoop of blackberry ice-cream, to remind me gently of what it was to once have been an easily pleased seven-year-old. It has been left out of the fridge long enough so that the sponge has softened, and the edges of the vanilla ice-cream filling have just begun to melt.
If that wasn’t enough, now they bring what they call a Snickers (eight letters, but I don’t think names are allowed): a broad cylinder of an airy milk chocolate mousse with, at its centre, a generous dollop of dulce de leche, alongside candied peanuts and topped by a scoop of ice-cream. These are proper desserts that have required care, consideration and a childlike glee. They cost £7 each. The wine list is short, just five whites and reds, but at least they are all available by the glass.
A couple of other tables have come and gone during the evening but it really has remained quiet. However, there is now a solo diner at the counter, being entertained by the brigade who seem grateful for the company. The Alan is a hotel restaurant with which you can be on first-name terms. Right now though, it needs a few more pals. Not least because what is going on here is thoroughly alluring. And that’s a solid eight-letter word. My work here is done.
Four big-name chefs are coming together on 10 May to cook a dinner raising funds for the #cookforukraine appeal. Tickets for the four-course dinner at Pino, on London’s Kensington High Street, cost £85. The menu includes steak tartare with an asparagus and pecorino salad by Henry Harris of the much-missed Racine, nettle and borage ravioli by Allegra McEvedy of Albertine, a casserole of brill and morels by Rick Stein, and a ginger tart with rhubarb by Rowley Leigh. For tickets, visit pinobar.co.uk.
The Owl gastropub, which first opened in Kirkgate Market, Leeds, in 2019, is relocating. It will reopen on 28 May on a site that’s twice the size of the original within the Mustard Wharf residential development, by the River Aire to the east of the city centre. The last service at the current location will be on 21 May (theowlleeds.co.uk).
Margot Henderson of Rochelle Canteen is going into the pub business. She has taken over the Three Horseshoes in the Somerset village of Batcombe and will reopen it as a food pub with five bedrooms in November. Expect a menu of devilled crab and focaccia, chicken and tarragon pie, grilled brill, fennel, chard and green sauce with a Somerset apple crumble, custard tarts and local cheeses with cobnuts to finish.
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