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Wednesday 9 November 2011

Dinner at The Malmaison, Manchester‏

It was a notable day in the CWB household at the weekend and I decided I needed to take Mrs CWB out to celebrate - somewhere without the children.

I have been doing a series of pieces for the Hotel du Vin Cambridge in recent months and when the Hotel's General Manager Jacqui Griffiths heard I was heading "oop north", she kindly contacted her opposite number at the Manchester Malmaison (part of the same group as Hotel du Vin) and arranged for us to visit.

I have not been into central Manchester for several decades, despite having hung out there for much of my teenage years.

I hear it has completely changed and been redeveloped into something much nicer than what it used to be, but the short walk down from Piccadilly station to the hotel showed that it is still a buzzy, bustling city on a completely different scale to the quiet, genteel seat of learning that is Cambridge.

I have written elsewhere about my feelings towards my home town of Manchester, so suffice it to say here that to me it is a city characterised by its industrious professionals and businessmen who are not ashamed of their work ethic or personal achievements.

In a way, I find it rather Germanic, with strong social conventions and the business both of making money and having a good time taken equally seriously.

At 6:30 on a Saturday evening, we were amongst the first to arrive at the hotel's Smoak restaurant and were afforded a good view of the low, circular bar which was already lively and buzzy.

I was initially unsure what to make of the restaurant decor whose theme can best be described as "textured period Americana" but whose knowing touches and stylistic cues all came together on a visit to the bathroom.

Laid out in the style of a 1950s diner, it is furnished 21st century-style with unvarnished wood and porch lights replacing the traditional chrome; metallic camping-style mugs for water, a couple of old jerry cans and hessian sacks tied with thick rope for curtains add to the textured, rural southern states feel, but the best joke, however, is reserved for the gents' where the facilities are not porcelain but steel buckets - albeit fully plumbed-in ones.

The soundtrack is also period American and I noted with approval some classic-but-not-too-obvious southern boogie rock swaggering in the background.

The straightforward, slightly rustic theme also applies to the menu, which features steaks, burgers and mostly classic staples, whilst the wine list is extensive and well thought-out.

Having chosen our food, crusty bread with both butter and a very tasty tapenade were brought and the Restaurant Manager popped up to take our drinks order.

With the exception of a lamb main, our choices were heavy on fish and cheese and we eventually settled on an Austrian Grüner Veltliner after considering but dismissing Pinot Noir or Big White.

I had spotted quirkily-monickered Laurenz V "Friendly" Grüner on my quick skim through the wine list and whilst for an Austrophile like me it is hardly an adventurous choice, I was very happy to agree to it as a recommendation.

On first pouring, it was crisp and linear with typical Grüner aromas of white pepper, puy lentils and a touch of flintiness on the nose.

Grüner is Austria's signature grape and this one is from the Kamptal region just down river from the Wachau, with the vines grown on a mixture of granite, gneiss, mica-slate and loess soils. The grape is very expressive of its terroir, with subsoil being a key factor, and the greater the presence of granite, the more intense the minerality in the wine, whilst those grown on loess (a mixture of sand, silt and clay) have a more rounded, fleshier feel.

The wine stood up perfectly to my tuna carpaccio, the sweet, meaty fish marinaded with just a touch of chili and ginger, but also cut nicely through Mrs CWB's goat's cheese hush puppies - cubes of goat's cheese coated in grated apple, deep fried and served with a red pepper sauce.

The Restaurant Manager had suggested the wine might be overwhelmed by our mains and if that proved to be so, he would bring us a glass of something a little fuller; but, after finishing our starters and with our mains brought, right on cue the wine started to open up and become bigger and more mouthfilling with more minerality on the finish, matching perfectly with my dish.

I had chosen monk fish coated in a mix of dark spices that seemed to include cinnamon, nutmeg and cumin, then quickly roasted so that the inside remained plump, sweet and juicy.

With the bitterness of the spices balanced by the sweetness of the fish, it worked perfectly and was delicious, the different flavours complementing each other yet still distinct.

Simple accompaniments of potato puree and refreshing roasted cherry tomatoes also matched well and the wine took all of this in its stride and worked superbly.

Mrs CWB's dish of slow-roasted lamb was a little more complex on the plate; served on a puff-pastry base with a smear of tomato salsa reduction on top, the accompanying vegetables included morel mushrooms, goat's cheese, baby courgettes, baby carrots and broad beans.

With so much going on, it should not have worked and I joked that Chef had obviously just piled on everything he had too much of and served it up.

And yet, somehow it succeeded and the reason, to me, is that none of the flavours was too primary or dominant, so that the sweetness of the veg was balanced by the mild sharpness of the cheese whilst the savouriness of the mushrooms matched with both.

Moreover, the slow-cooked lamb showed less prominent, more secondary flavours that were in keeping with the vegetable accompaniment and again, the body and linear acidity of the wine stood up to the food.

By this point the restaurant had filled up and, with Mrs CWB looking stunning and me working the wine-journo "designer scruff" look, I noticed that we had inadvertently fitted in with the general dress code of the men dressing down and the women dressing up.

With a third of the bottle of wine still left, I opted for a cheese plate for dessert whilst Mrs CWB went for jam roly poly.

Leaving it to the waiting staff to select the cheeses, they came served with a generous selection of crackers, bread and charcoal biscuits and included the Lancashire Cheddar bombe I had tried at Cambridge Hotel du Vin's Cheese Masterclass, as well as a comté-style hard yellow cheese, a Cornish soft cheese and a blue cheese with a rind.

All were perfect with the wine which was showing brilliantly by this stage and, having finished mine, I sampled the deconstructed jam roly poly, purely in the interests of research and thoroughness.

Served as slices in a bowl of deliciously creamy custard, the roly poly itself had a surprisingly dense, strangely toffee-like texture almost as if not properly risen and yet was very pleasantly chewy, with a strawberry reduction on top.

We had been invited to check out the restaurant's VIP area after our meal and were ushered through to be welcomed by the mixologist with an extensive cocktail list.

A swift flick through was enough to convince I had no hope of choosing anything before midnight, and so I simply asked for something that would be refreshing and suitable after a plate of cheeses, with Mrs CWB indicating she would like something similar.

What came for me was a verbena-based long drink that was like a grown-up lemonade, beautifully balanced and refreshing, whilst Mrs CWB was presented with an elegant daiquiri which had a flavour of spices or bitters, but which we later found out did not contain any.

On the side was added a shot glass of rum, served neat, but garnished with a sliced of orange, flambée-ed and sprinkled with icing sugar and nutmeg which was also delicious.

Other members of the VIP lounge came and went, but most noticeable was a businessman of a certain age with a group of friends and a well-groomed, eye-catching young lady whom I can only assume to have been a favourite niece or perhaps a PA.

Another couple that we had marked down as likely fellow bloggers turned out to be the new mixologist, as our host was off to New York for a couple of months and then taking over a Bar Manager role at one of the hotel's other locations.

By this point, we were feeling extremely relaxed and rather enjoying the freedom of not having to put the kids to bed.

But years of bringing up children mean that we are no longer the party animals we once were and so we decided to make the short walk back to Piccadilly station and head home.

As we collected our coats from the restaurant, the waiting staff said "Oh, you're the bloggers - do say something nice about us", whilst the Restaurant Manager came over to ask if everything had been alright.

It had all been very pleasant indeed and I explained how the wine had opened up during the meal and stood up to each course.

It was, for many reasons, a memorable evening - not least Mrs CWB's amusement at being labelled a blogger - and having done it once, I'm sure we'll be heading back into Manchester again some time.

A three-course meal for two with wine at the Smoak restaurant costs around £100; we went as guests of the hotel.

Access to the VIP lounge is by invitation only; our cocktails cost £11 each and we paid for ourselves.


Malmaison Manchester - http://www.malmaison.com/hotels/manchester/manchester-mal.aspx
Hotel du Vin Cambridge - http://www.hotelduvin.com/hotels/cambridge/cambridge.aspx
Laurenz V - http://laurenzv.com/index.php

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