High brow meets low brow in this new Altrincham opening
Fancy some bird feed, monkey’s blood or essence of Big Mac on your dinner plate? Nope, this is not an elaborate April Fool restaurant gag but a real menu coming to a new dining spot in Altrincham.
We tried the 'hotfrog' - a hot dog made from breaded frogs legs served in a brioche sub roll with green goddess dressing
The Ugly Duckling, actually a 15 min stroll from the Alty metro link station in the very posh Bowdon if you want to be pedantic about it, is an ambitious new venture from the folks behind the popular, adjacent Stamford pub. But standard pub fare, it is not.
We popped along for a first look as it prepares to open to the public this weekend, Saturday 18 June.
Born in Sale, Manchester, owner Nick Theaker has worked for Simon Rimmer amongst others in his years running front of house at hospitality venues in the North. He came back from Dubai - where he had been living for several years - to launch The Ugly Duckling. Its sibling The Stamford, which he took on and breathed new life into in 2016 (“It was an old man’s boozer, it showed the football, they never turned the heating on”), is part of a wider group that also has hospitality venues in the UAE. Nick's business partner Alex Bracken is still Dubai based.
So while the group behind The Stamford and Ugly Duckling has big international money behind it, it’s still got that Mancunian heart. Nick is nothing if not passionate, barely coming up for air as he excitedly tells me all about his latest project that's been a long time hatching.
The evolution of an 'ugly' old building
Housed in an “ugly” former function suite adjacent to The Stamford, it’s the culmination of years of planning and dreaming from “ideas man” Nick. The building was built as a temporary wedding venue for Lord Stamford of Dunham Massey in around 1886. It was only supposed to be up for 10 years. In recent times, it's been used for pub functions and even as a pop-up pie shop before finding its true calling as a restaurant.
Head Chef Stuart Snell has what Nick calls a “wanky Michelin star background”. But Stuart really did his time before coming to The Stamford, where he has now been for five years. Most notably he spent a few years at Tom Kerridge’s favourite restaurant the Michelin-starred Star Inn at Harome - sadly still temporarily closed after a heartbreaking fire took its thatched roof off in 2021. York-born Stu has also done a stage at the three-star Maaemo in Norway, manned the pans at Liz Cottam’s acclaimed HOME in Leeds been a key part of the team at the aforementioned Star Inn owner Andrew Pern’s relaxed small plates joint Mr P’s Curious Tavern in York - also now sadly closed. It was the latter that Stu tells me formed the foundation of his ideas for the menu at The Ugly Duckling.
The Yorkshire larder provides an enviable wealth of produce and I’ve never met a proud chef from Yorkshire who didn’t have a passion for that. Stu's Michelin experience and passion for junk food ( a passion shared with many fellow chefs), has helped him to create a menu that truly stands out from the crowd. Call it high brow meets low brow. A celebration of the indulgent flavour combinations of junk food but elevated into proper restaurant-style dishes. Very Great British Menu.
What's on the menu at The Ugly Duckling?
I glance over the menu, pinpointing the more surprising components while Stu tells me some of his secrets. Take the ugly salad with "essence of Big Mac". Due to a surprising secret ingredient which I have sworn to take to my grave (clue: It isn’t gherkins, though they do feature), it tastes properly meaty - exactly like a Big Mac. This dish is suitable for vegans. Even though owner Nick says he “can’t stand” them, vegans are well catered for with equally creative dishes like ember roast beetroot with peppered soy yoghurt, pickled apple and celery, and what Stu calls bird feed. “It looks like something that you'd find at the bottom of a bird cage but it tastes absolutely delicious,” he says. There’s also an incredible vegan fruit salad with mango sorbet made in a Pacojet and topped with smoking, blowtorched coconut shavings.
For non-vegans, there’s plenty of fun to be had. We tried the “hotfrog" - a hot dog made from breaded frogs legs served in a brioche sub roll with green goddess dressing - it's named after a Prefab Sprout song. “It's a take on a classic,” says Stu, “When you have frog's legs. You have it with an onion cream and loads of garlic and that's what we serve [the frog hot dog] with.”
Stu also likes to take classic British dishes and make them different. A good example is his ingenious bread and butter pudding made in a toastie maker. He also does a rhubarb and custard cheesecake with caviar, yes actual caviar, bringing blobs of saltiness to a sweet cheesecake that uses custard creams as its biscuit base and raw rhubarb for proper tang.
Another inspired dish is the doner kebab doughnut, “We get lamb bellies and lamb shoulders and we create doner spice mix, like a paste and cover it and cook for five, six hours, really low and slow and pull it for the filling. Then we make a lamb powder and mix that with sugar and a little bit of cinnamon, roll the doughnut in it and serve with kebab sauces.”
What does Stu like to eat when he’s not in the kitchen? He’s a sausage and mash man, preferring homely food. But he tells us his “desert island dish” would be The Star Inn at Harome's black pudding and foie gras which he has cooked many times when he worked there. “One of our dishes is kind of based on that,’” he says, “A sort of homage to Andrew Pern who invented that dish in about 1995.” He makes use of a waffle iron to make a fried rice and pork belly waffle which is served with foie gras and an apple treacle. As if that wasn’t enough, Stu even makes his own “Pringles”.
It’s all pretty out there, and it will be interesting to see what locals make of it.
Ancoats style food and drink in Altrincham
“If we were opening this in Ancoats, we probably could have gone a little bit more adventurous,” says Nick, “We’ve had to add some dishes onto the menu that we didn’t necessarily want to just for those people that look at a menu and go, I can’t eat anything here.
“There's no point in us going, we're gonna do all this crazy experimental food and then not get anyone in because they think, I might not like that. There's got to be a couple of 'safe' options. We’ve got a steak dish on that we’ve kept quite simple. We’ve got chicken tenders on there. We won’t let people order a burger from the pub menu in here though”
But the interiors will please the local IT crowd with high camp parrot wallpaper, rattan lampshades, comfy velvet seating and neon signs - including the as yet unhung restaurant sign on the exterior that just reads UGLY in neon capitals.
They started off with a full natural wine list but decided to pare it back a bit for local tastes. So you will still find a beautiful orange wine like Golden Mullet Fury from Alpha Box and Dice (one of my favourite oranges, a potent blend of Semillon and Viognier) but there are more familiar bottles too for those not swept up in that low intervention wave.
Cocktails will include people-pleasing Pornstar and Espresso Martinis but a small house selection will reflects the creativity of the menu. Bar manager Pam comes to the Duckling via Riva in Hale - a bar Nick says is “pushing boundaries with cocktails”. The cocktail menu, Nick says, is likely to evolve to be more ambitious and creative over time - the Top 50 Cocktail Bars style of “fat washing” is on the horizon in Bowdon.
With space for 35 covers to dine and a similar amount for walks in snacks and cocktails on a high stool, we expect this place to be packed from day one. The Ugly Duckling won’t be open during the daytime so it can still be used as a function room in a similar way it has in the past. There’s even a buffet menu for funerals, which Nick says he gets a lot of bookings for.
But this isn’t the end of the tale of the Ugly Duckling, Nick tells us has already got a second one lined up with the brewery not a million miles away from this one. Is a whole brood of Ugly Ducklings ready to hatch? Watch this space.
The Ugly Duckling, The Firs, Bowdon, Cheshire, WA14 2TW
Follow Kelly on Instagram @keliseating
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