In the first of a new series focusing on pre-theatre eats in the North West, Northern Soul’s Guy Kilty visits three restaurants within a stone’s throw of Manchester’s Royal Exchange.
The Royal Exchange is one of Manchester’s great pleasures. Seeing the cavernous interior of the old cotton exchange open up in front of you as you climb the entrance steps is always impressive, as is the thrill of being so close to the action in the theatre itself. As the Exchange’s website proudly declares, the main theatre ‘resembles a lunar space craft set down amid the glass domes and towering columns of this Grade II listed building’.
Given the number of restaurants in the immediate vicinity, where do you go if you want to be fed and watered to perfection before a show? Northern Soul tried out out three contenders.
Once you’ve navigated your way through the perfume section and up a couple of escalators, the first thing you notice about the Second Floor Brasserie at Harvey Nichols on New Cathedral Street is the view. The gleaming, high-ceilinged restaurant directly overlooks the bustle of Exchange Square, making it a great place to people-watch from on high. The panorama also takes in Manchester Cathedral, and over the tops of the surrounding buildings you can glimpse the glory of the Lancashire countryside.
There’s also a nice long bar, complete with a mind-bending circle design along its length and chrome bar stools, which look like a great place to hang out if all you’re after is a glitzy pre-performance cocktail. My dining companion and I opted for a window seat in the main restaurant, and our friendly waiter soon presented us with a bowl of the plumpest olives we’d ever seen. A promising start.
The menu is packed full of great-sounding dishes and our starters lived up to expectations. The avocado bruschetta with quails’ eggs and broad beans was a perfect opening, the salty egg and crisp toast complementing the soft avocado and fragrant coriander perfectly. The duck liver served with brioche and mango purée exploded on the tongue, the soft fruit enhancing the much earthier meat. The only criticism of the starters was the size; both included a door-stop portion of bread which really wasn’t necessary.
For the main course, the lamb shank was top quality. The pink meat fell off the bone beautifully and the creamy mash, soft veg and super-salty bacon bits melted into the warming gravy. The dish we’d heard about prior to our arrival, the tandoori monkfish, didn’t disappoint either. It was balanced beautifully, combining sweet, sour, spice, heat and coolness wonderfully.
Alongside the food, our wine hit just the right complementary note. Handily available in a 500ml carafe, our Portuguese Duoro was both rich and fruity, without overwhelming anything. The staff did a great job of keeping us topped up and informed on what was coming, although sometimes it felt like we were chatting more to them than to each other.
After the starters and mains we were well and truly stuffed, but after careful consideration, and at the insistence of our waiter, we decided we had to share a portion of the rice pudding parcels. And we were glad we did. These things are amazing; delicious ice cream wrapped in delicate pastry with a fruit compote and ginger sauce on the side. Heaven on a plate for a sweet tooth.
Next up (although not on the same night I hasten to add), Mr Thomas’s Chop House on Cross Street. As soon as you walk in this Grade II listed building, which has been operating as a pub since 1870, you get a warm feeling inside. It feels like a place you want to be. The gorgeous tiling, the hanging lights, the pictures of great Mancunians on the walls and the clattering acoustics all contribute to the relaxed and welcoming atmosphere.
We take a seat in a booth and scrutinise the seasonal wine list, which includes a nice selection of British options. Looking for something rich and earthy to go with what we anticipate will be a meat-fuelled feast, we go for a bottle of Merlot. The food menu is staunchly British, revelling in its refusal to countenance flavours from other shores. Everything sounds amazing and it’s difficult to choose.
Eventually we manage it, and don’t have to wait long for our starters to arrive. The whitebait with chips and mayo is a treat. The batter is lovely and crisp and the mayo is beautifully silky, while the chips are incredible. The broccoli and Lancashire Bomb cheese is a masterpiece in its simplicity. It’s exactly what it says on the tin – a big hunk of broccoli topped with melted cheese. “Proper food,” as my dining companion described it.
Into the mains and the rib-eye steak was a treat; beautifully cooked and accompanied again by those chips. The pub’s ‘famous’ corned beef hash was similarly brilliant, although not for the faint-hearted. It looked phenomenal, with two rashers of perfectly cooked salty bacon and a runny poached egg on top, and it tasted fantastic. It doesn’t look too daunting size-wise at first but towards the end you realise how full you’re getting. Despite that, I couldn’t help but eat every mouthful.
Again we were torn between calling it quits and having a dessert and for a second time we caved in. Sadly, they didn’t match up to the rest of the meal. The Manchester Tart sounded alluring but failed to live up to expectations. The pastry was a little too hard and there was so much cream I could have started a dairy. The sticky toffee pudding just wasn’t that sticky and was more like a cake that had been covered in toffee sauce at the last minute.
Despite the disappointment in the desserts, the service at Mr Thomas’s Chop House throughout was fantastic. We were attended to by two of the staff, and we always felt looked after. They were masters of the art of never making us feel we were being left alone, without being obtrusive at any stage.
The final destination on the pre-Royal Exchange tour was relative newcomer Hawksmoor on Deansgate, where even getting from the front door to your table feels special. A member of staff leads you up the swirling staircase and through the fabulous-looking bar, and it’s then you see the main dining area in its full glory. All dark leather and wood with parquet flooring, even the lightshades look cool in this gentleman’s club meets early-60s New York.
We opt for the Express Menu, which is available until 6pm and then again after 10pm. Feeling all Don and Betty Draper from Mad Men in the art deco surroundings, we decide to order a couple of ‘sharpeners’ as they’re described on the menu, a Deansgate No 2 and a Hawksmoor Collins.
Admittedly we had ordered from the Express Menu, so it was understandable that our starters came out quickly, but less than ideal when they arrived before our sharpeners. The cocktails were outstanding, but we drank them as our starters sat before us. That mix-up aside, the service was fantastic. The staff were welcoming, knowledgeable and really contributed to making it a great experience.
The starters themselves were a mixed bag. The potted mackerel was infused with zingy lemon which worked well with the delicate crispbread. The bone marrow and onions, though, are an acquired taste, and didn’t work for me. I ordered them out of curiosity and probably should have known what to expect, but the super-slimy texture left me cold.
On to the main event then and the dish this place is famous for: steak. Both the rump and the fillet were soft and melt-in-the-mouth, with a wonderful subtle, oaky, smoky flavour that was hard to pin down. The fries were perfect, as was the house ketchup. The accompanying sauces were amazing too, especially the bearnaise. Hawksmoor promises much on the steak front and I’m pleased to say it delivers. My only criticism is that, having asked for my steak rare, it wasn’t as rare as I was expecting it to be.
To go with the steaks we ordered a 500ml carafe of Terre di Montelusa, Primitivo 2014, which was absolutely fantastic. The desserts weren’t too shabby either. The passion fruit crème brûlée was a delight, bursting with sweet and punchy flavours and perfectly light on the stomach. The sticky toffee pudding was a masterpiece, the toffee sauce soaked right through to the centre of the sponge. Make sure you try it.
The verdict: If you want fine dining with the best people-watching perch in town, the Second Floor Brasserie at Harvey Nichols is for you. If you want hearty, traditional dishes in a classic Manchester pub, head to Mr Thomas’s Chop House. If you want to feel like you’re hanging out in 1960s Manhattan and eating the juiciest steaks in town, it has to be Hawksmoor.
By Guy Kilty
Top image: Royal Exchange by Matthew Graham
For suggestions of pre-theatre menus in Manchester and other Northern cities and towns, please contact Northern Soul’s Assistant Editor Stephanie Alderson at email@example.com