Jonathan Schofield has a fine time but wants a bit more head swivelling

‘Moody’, ‘glamorous’, ‘a bit sexy’.

Is that:

a) How I was feeling as I passed two giant ceramic cherries in the reception of the Dakota Hotel?

b) How many guests and visitors to Manchester have described the Dakota?

Thankfully, it’s b and that mood-setting is very deliberate. It’s part of the story. 

Back in 1994 Scot entrepreneur, Ken McCullough, opened the first Malmaison Hotel in his home town of Glasgow. A couple or so years later he opened in Manchester. The latter was different from other hotels in the city; it was moody, glamorous and a bit sexy.

McCullough sold his Malmaison chain in 1998 and several years and business ventures later returned to hotels with Dakota. Cheekily he opened his hotels close to existing Malmaisons, literally yards away in Glasgow and just around the corner in Manchester. This was cheeky because it was Amanda Rosa, his wife, who had designed the Malmaison interiors back in the day and now she was back designing the even moodier feel of the Dakotas. Sort of Malmaison 2:0 and a clever bit of chutzpah. 

Lucy Tomlinson with a previous review wrote how the interior was 'dripping in candlelight, (whispering) in a silkily seductive voice, ‘assignation’.'

2024 01 30 Dakota Hotel
The moody restaurant Image: Confidentials

As for the dining experience, let's start with the room.

The Dakota Manchester Grill is generous in scale and continues the sultry low-lit mood of the bar and the reception. It's got loads of legroom. When you’re over six foot that is a real asset. 

The menu is as straightforward as the name grill would imply with prices that are hotel extravagant. Steaks are big part of the offer but I wanted to check potentially more subtle dishes.

Before we could choose though we received a gift. This was a complimentary ‘Venetian dip’ which thankfully doesn’t involve being thrown in the adjacent Rochdale Canal but is a rich tomato sauce with a fat blob of goats cheese and bread to scoop it up. This is very good, very good indeed, deeply satisfying, so much so that I forgot to take a picture of the thing. 

From the menu I started with tempura prawns, wakame seawood and a generous splash of dashi (£12). This was superb with a refined tempura batter, generously juicy prawns, elegant dashi. The seawood added grist. All in all the dish was beautifully handled. 

The other starter of chicken ravioli (£13) was almost as good and pretty as a picture. The ravioli was juicy with good fowl flesh given texture with chopped chorizo and all the better for the grated Parmesan. 

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Tempura prawns, a winner Image: Confidentials
29 01 29 Dakota Restaurant 5
Chicken ravioli, another hit Image: Confidentials

A main of stone bass and soft-shell crab (£28) came with samphire and generous swash of excellent bisque. The bass sang a beautifully fishy song with the bisque. The soft-shell crab was a downer, the tempura batter wasn’t as finely prepared as that coating the prawns and was more Harry Ramsdens than Musu. 

Incidentally, there seems to be a great deal of soft-shell crab around at the moment. Has there been a glut on the market or is this a food fashion? If the latter, I prefer it to a few years ago when every dish seemed to have beetroot shoehorned on to it with all the grace of Trump losing an election.

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Stone bass and soft shell-crab Image: Confidentials

The vegetarian main of wild mushroom and spinach gnocchi (£20) with balsamic and garlic wasn’t any good at all. This was a clumsy lump of a thing which could have borne the title of wild mushroom and spinach Blu Tack. The gnocchi was grim and the whole dish seemed like it had produced without love as a sop to vegetarians. 

That wasn't the case with the sides. The dauphinoise and thyme was excellently moist and creamy (£12) and the tenderstem broccoli (£7) was timed well.      

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Gnocchi not for us Image: Confidentials
29 01 29 Dakota Restaurant 6
Al dente tenderstem broccoli Image: Confidentials
29 01 29 Dakota Restaurant 7
Dauphinoise potatoes were a creamy delight Image: Confidentials

The desserts were cracking. The vanilla cheesecake (£7) was as rampant as a Roman off to an orgy with a full amphora of grog and a clean conscience. The braised cherries and cherry sorbet joined in the fun with the excellently textured cheesecake to produce gleefully excessive pudd. The affogato (£5) was a delight too with the coffee adding a real kick.

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A fabulous cheesecake Image: Confidentials
2024 01 29 Dakota Restaurant Again
Affogato excellence Image: Confidentials

The service is an issue, sometimes awkward, sometimes spot on. The main problem was with some staff who need to head swivel more, scan the room, see if the customer craves their attention. This is especially the case in such a big room.

There was an awkward moment when we asked the waiter to place the Alvarinho we’d ordered next to the table rather than three metres away so we could guzzle as we wanted rather waiting for someone to spot if our glasses were empty.

The waiter made it clear he was reluctant to move the wine closer as Dakota had double ice buckets between tables containing, in our case, our bottle and our neighbours' bottle. After some gentle insistence the waiter gave in and found a single ice bucket just for us. It was an amusing moment but as stated awkward and totally unnecessary. Service needs to be just right given the prices.

That caveat aside, dining in the Dakota Grill is a very enjoyable experience. The ambience is great driven by the seductive lighting, the food is generally very good and the music is happily not too loud. Chatter is encouraged. Cocktails are a hit I’m told and the wine list is extensive. I'll definitely return.

So back to where we started, ‘moody’, glamorous’, ‘a bit sexy’. Well, yes, that applies, and for the record I left the Dakota feeling content, satiated and a bit drunk. 

The Scores

All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, and ALWAYS paid for by and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.

If you want to see the receipt as proof this magazine paid for the meal then a copy will be available upon request. Or maybe ask the restaurant.

Venues are rated against the best examples of their type. What we mean by this is a restaurant which aspires to be fine dining is measured against other fine dining restaurants, a mid-range restaurant against other mid-range restaurants, a pizzeria against other pizzerias, a teashop against other teashops, a KFC against the contents of your bin. You get the message.

Given the above, this is how we score: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: sigh and shake your head, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: nothing's that good is it?

  • Food 7/10

    Venetian dip 7, prawns 8, chicken ravioli 7, stone bass 7, gnocchi 4, broccoli side 7, spuds 7, cheesecake 8, affogato 7.5

  • Service 3/5

  • Ambience 4/5