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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Sunday Lunch at Loch Fyne, Alderley Edge, Manchester - And Driving Through the Peak District

One of the things I like most about the occasional journey back to my ancestral home on the south side of Manchester near the Derbyshire border is the part of the drive that takes us through the Peak District.

One of the various possible routes takes us along the road from Chesterfield to Sparrowpit and, at the right time with the right light, no traffic and some loud guitar rock on the CD, it is as uplifting and scenic a drive as any I have done - especially with the potential detours via Chatsworth House, Froggatt Edge and Winnats Pass.

I am not the only wine writer with a fondness for this area, as both Robert McIntosh and Brett Jones can also be found tweeting about their trips to the Peak District.

Growing up in the north, Manchester was my nearest big city and I spent many of my teenage years hanging out at Affleck's Palace, waiting for the day I could leave school, get my ear pierced, grow my hair long and generally express my individuality by doing the same as the rest of the would-be disaffected late-80s youth in the city of Factory Records and Creation, home to such iconic bands as Joy Division and the Jesus and Mary Chain which, between them, formed the soundtrack to much of my teenage era.

Fast forward two decades and central Manchester has had a series of make-overs and is, so everyone tells me, completely different from the place where I used to hang out.

I have no impression of what Manchester is actually like these days as I haven't been into the city centre for years, but I do not believe the character of the city has changed fundamentally and to me it is still a flash, industrious, new-money sort of place, fundamentally working class in its outlook where intruders are attacked by homeowners and so-called "bigots" harangue politicians.

Someone more adept in journalistic euphemisms than I might call it dynamic, entrepreneurial and go-ahead, but I find it brash and tribal, a place of football shirts, BMWs and trophy wives.

And if anything, the city is becoming more so with the influx of yet more meritocratic new money from football.

Alderley Edge, once an Old Money area, with grand homes and a villagey feel, has historically been the village of choice for captains of industry, partners at law firms and GPs.

However, ever since a certain famous footballer and his ex-pop-star wife / svengali moved there, it has changed from quietly genteel to upwardly mobile and the sole reason I visit it these days is for a wander around the leafy footpaths of the Edge for spectacular views across the Cheshire Plain to the Welsh borders in one direction and the foothills of the Pennines in the other.

However, at the weekend, I found myself driving there to meet the rest of my family for lunch at Alderley Edge's branch of the mainly-seafood chain, Loch Fyne.

The negotiations involved in getting us all there on the same day at the same time are not worth recalling here, but suffice it to say that I come from a family of individuals who all have very different outlooks on and expectations from life.

And with so many generations, opinions and lifestyles around the table, it seemed like a good opportunity to see how the restaurant would cope with the number and variety of us.

In short we numbered 11 in total, with three generations, three children aged between 4 and 12, one wheelchair-user, two vegetarians and three people whose relation to our family is by marriage only; this, then, is a very thoroughly-researched review.

As it happens, we do have a branch of Loch Fyne in Cambridge but in the decade or so we have been here, I have never visited it - I rather like the idea of a seafood restaurant, but somehow I have heard rather underwhelming reports of it (mostly second- if not third-hand, to be fair) and have never quite taken the plunge to find out for myself.

My parents, retired and sociable who like eating out with friends regularly, inform me that the quality of the various branches of this chain vary, but that the Alderley Edge one is the best in their area.

On a bright but autumnal day, our party made up about half the car park as we all arrived for a Sunday lunch, and the place never really got much busier than that.

Housed in a former pub on a bend in the road a mile or two out of Alderley Edge, it is not especially a destination for seeing and being seen, and given all I have said about Manchester so far, that is A Good Thing.

After hellos and welcomes, handshakes and hugs and discussions about the seating arrangements and drinks, we finally all settled down with menus in front of us to consider our meal.

In addition to the usual a la carte and specials board, the restaurant has a £10 two-course lunch menu and a £6 children's menu, delivered with crayons and pictures to colour.

In the setting of my family, I have the habit of trying to organise everyone else - for their own benefit, of course - but on this occasion I resolved to sit back and just go with the flow, partly as an admission of the error of my ways and partly with the aim of a broader, more democratic review.

One of my principles when eating out is to try and have something we do not eat at home, and so I chose a starter of rilettes, a coarse, smoked-fish quasi-pate served with white-bread toast which was well-made and had plenty of strong, salmon flavour.

My brother in law applied the same principle and enjoyed a bowl of moules which my sister, being vegetarian, does not allow him to have in the house.

Mrs CWB chose goose liver pate which she later pronounced "alright", whilst the remainder of the adults generally opted for smoked salmon - which proved to be two small slices with a couple of salad leaves of which the quality was deemed good but the portion size modest to say the least.

Mother CWB opted for bread with oil and balsamic vinegar and olives - my niece, who had never had balsamic vinegar before, decided she liked it, whilst my sister and I both approved of the black and green olives we tried.

The children's mains were brought along with our starters and niece had a bowl of pumpkin soup which she pronounced delicious and creamy whilst our two tucked into haddock goujons and sausages.

Children go through different phases and moods and on this occasion, child #1 was rather quiet and indecisive whilst her younger brother made the most of the waitress's attentions firstly by ordering sausages for himself, then telling her he would like chips with them - not mash, and no veg - and that he would like his gravy poured over his sausages rather than on the side.

The wine-ordering process somewhat passed me by as I had decided not to interfere, so all I know is that a couple of carafes of house rosé arrived and one found its way to my end of the table.

On first pouring, it was perhaps a little overchilled and under-aired and all I really picked up was good, crisp acidity that cut through the oily fishiness of my starter, with neither much fruit on the nose nor the minerality on the finish that I would hope for in a food rose.

On the plus side, the wine glasses were reasonably tulip-shaped and we were left to pour the wines ourselves which meant no overfilling in my case and allowed for some swirling.

With a bit of air and warmth, the red berry fruit became more apparent on the palate whilst the finish started to show a little more minerality.

The choice of mains was slightly more taxing - sausages are a regular feature in the CWB household, so hardly an adventurous option whilst of the remaining fish options neither whiting fillet (bland white fish) nor sardines (not keen last time I had them) appealed, so I opted for the plaice with boiled potatoes.

When it came, grilled whole with parsley butter on top, it was as good as a plain grilled plaice can be and in no way unpleasant.

With brother-in-law enjoying his sausages and Dad tucking into his sardines, I was more intrigued by the presence of samphire with my sister's tilapia fillet served with chili and ginger (she can only bring herself to eat fish that neither looks nor tastes like fish, but found this meal excellent).

I managed to try one of the dainty green strands of samphire and found it to taste mainly of the melted butter that had been poured over it, but with a juicy, succulent texture and a shap hint of herbaceousness to it.

At this point my brother declared he had enjoyed his fish, but there was not much of it and inwardly sympathising, I stole a few of my daughter's chips before she polished the lot off along with a couple of her Grandma's langoustine-tail scampi (which Grandma herself pronounced delicious).

Fortunately, #2 child came to the rescue by filling up on a second bottle of J2O and leaving most of his sausage and chips, so I was able to finish them off and report back that they were fairly good, with a reasonable texture and some herbiness that a went well with the gravy whilst the chips were good too.

For desserts, the children's menu kept it simple and classic with a choice of three flavours of ice-cream, which came with a bit of wafer biscuit and a dusting of icing sugar.

I was completely unsuccessful in persuading #1 child to let me try some of her ice cream and was reminded of the saying that "Whoever coined the phrase 'As easy as taking candy from a baby' has clearly never tried taking candy from a baby !".

However, when my latte arrived with a long spoon, I was able to reach over and steal enough of a mouthful to tell that it was good and tasted home-made.

And with most of the rest of the party not bothering with either coffees or puddings, that was pretty much it.

Asking for the bill, I flashed a Loch Fyne loyalty card which got me a 10% discount that was then added straight back as a gratuity, but overall the price was very reasonable given the quality of the food and, whilst portions were modest, I would rather it that way round than greater quantities of less-good food.

There was then the rush of trips to the loo with little ones ahead of our journey back to East Anglia and goodbyes and farewells in the car park.

In terms of style and presentation, Loch Fyne treads something of a middle ground with more of an identity and a personality than most chains plus high standards of service and a touch of upmarket edge, but not quite the quirkiness or individuality of a truly independent or one-off restaurant.

That said, it succeeds where a lot of other places fail, in providing good, well-made, food at very reasonable prices and therefore is a very safe option for a get-together with the added advantages for my family of being wheelchair accessible, vegetarian and child-friendly.

As a group of 11 rather diverse people, finding somewhere like that to accommodate all tastes and wallets is no mean feat and I would happily return - even if I need to remember to have a big breakfast on the day.

A meal for a mixed party of 11 people cost £155, including wine, loyalty card discount and gratuity.

xxx---xxx

Our route back to Cambridge bears some recalling as, for the first hour-and-a-half it was a stunning drive through some lovely north Derbyshire countryside.

We started by driving through Alderley Edge, climbing up to Over Alderley and the Edge itself where, with more time we would have stopped for a stroll.

Instead, we carried on through winding lanes to Macclesfield, then took the Cat and Fiddle road (the A537) to Buxton.

The climb out of Macc is winding and spectacular with great views across the Cheshire Plain until you reach the moorlands at the top and then begin the descent into the faded glamour of the 19th century spa town of Buxton, still famous for its waters.

The A515 down to Ashbourne, another genteel Peak District market town famous for its waters, is a less winding, more undulating drive and, with the sun setting over the hills and a blast of something uplifting on the stereo makes for a lovely end to the weekend.

Sadly, a few miles beyond Ashbourne, we hit the dual carriageways and motorways that make up the rest of the journey and whilst this allows us to cover the rest of the journey efficiently, the spell of the dramatic scenery is broken by the tedium of motorway miles and the mood changes from being wistfully at one with the landscape to something more focused and purposeful.

As the landscape gets flatter and more predictable, so does my mood as I feel myself mentally doing that Sunday-night thing of starting to gear up for the working week ahead.

Maybe that's both inevitable and No Bad Thing, but for me, however nice Cambridge is, and it is one of the most unique university cities in the world, I will always miss the dramatic hills and brooding moors of the area I grew up in.

Links

Loch Fyne Alderley Edge - http://www.lochfyne-restaurants.com/restaurants/alderley-edge
The Peak District National Park - http://www.peakdistrict.gov.uk/
Chatsworth - http://www.chatsworth.org/

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