Deanna Thomas thinks Manchester's latest steakhouse could give the big guys a run for their money
LET'S get down to the bones of it. What we all want to know is where this new place fits on Manchester’s list of steak restaurants in terms of price and quality.
Let’s say Hawksmoor sits in pole position with its British, grass-fed beef (because it does), followed by Blackhouse Grills; who hold regular ‘Book of Beef’ butchery training sessions, and then there’s the flashier Gaucho; whose beef has been reared on the Pampas plains of Argentina.
Alston are confident enough of the success of their original Glasgow Central Station venue to open a second – making them more of a link than a chain. It’s just that I’ve had to type ‘new restaurant opening’ and ‘The Corn Exchange’ so many times in the last couple of years, that I’m slightly punch drunk.
I usually balance any apathy by bringing my kids on reviews because they have such a simple, ‘say it like it is’ view of things. (The downside being that the poor buggers can’t even tuck into school dinners without pausing in case someone needs to photograph it first.)
Alston has its own entrance on the Cathedral side of this grade II-listed edifice. You are greeted on the ground floor and have to descend an illuminated stairway to access the basement restaurant. It’s plush. The definition of smart casual (‘ooh mum, is this what you call first class?’) mainly monochrome, exposed ceilings (‘why is there a plug socket on the roof?’) full sized murals and strategic glass shutters separating the dining areas into three areas.
It’s called Alston Bar & Beef because they specialise in gin – although where doesn’t right now? I’d struggle to recommend it as a place to come just for a drink. The bar only has four stools and some token bench seating opposite - more of a holding area for diners than a bar in itself. (We were told after this review that there is, in fact, another 'secret bar' down another set of stairs)
They offer over sixty different gins, including fourteen cold compound ginfusions produced on site, and have invented a special ‘Cathedral Bees Knees’ (£9) cocktail to celebrate their Manchester launch, which of course includes honey to represent our city’s bee symbol. This is a great idea. Unfortunately it’s the exact same great idea shared by almost every single bar and restaurant to open in the past six months.
Theirs contains local Three Rivers Gin shaken with lemon juice and honey produced over the road at Manchester Cathedral. It's a combo of cold remedies and I was certainly feeling no pain after a couple of sips. It even softened the edges of the 90’s R&B bouncing straight off the tiled floor into my ears. One strong gin cocktail in and I found myself happily doing that shoulder dancing mums do when they’re having fun but can’t be arsed standing up.
Food was well above our expectations. We ordered 50% of the eight starters and each one had us nodding like clockwork dogs in a vintage toyshop. Octopus and chorizo (£7) with fried potatoes was a triumph of tentacles; Arbroath Smokie & Crowdie Roulade (£7) was a cylinder of soft, flavour-packed fishy paté; Steak tartare (£9) served inside a hollowed out bone marrow was a decent effort.
The priciest one, seared scallops and burnt ends (£12) was a balanced dish of complementary forces. The yin being soft slow cooked cubes of full flavoured brisket and yang represented by three soft, perfectly cooked scallops enhanced by silky butternut puree, crispy onions and a green chilli emulsion.
Alston specialise in steak, but they offer other things to represent their pick of various global cuisines. Grilled bream with coconut rice, crispy onions and dhal (£16) was crispy skinned and pleasant enough, but not too far beyond what a decent cook could knock up at home. Same with Thai Steak with rice noodles, bok choy, grilled corn, sesame seeds, soy and lemongrass dressing (£16) - decent portion size, saves on having to do all that chopping, charring and grating yourself.
But steak is their thing. Scottish of course, from the Tweed valley, courtesy of their east Lothian master butcher John Gilmour. He specialises in rearing Limousine cross Aberdeen Angus cattle, fed on grass and barley, dry-aged on the bone for a minimum of 35 days. Interestingly, there’s not much difference price-wise in comparison to Hawksmoor - depending on which cut you choose. Alston’s 300g sirloin is £30, but Hawksmoor’s 400g sirloin is £29.50. At the other end of the scale Hawksmoor’s chateaubriand works out at £78 and 600g of Alston’s is £65. If you want a more comprehensive price/weight comparison chart, you’ll have to do it yourself.
We chose sirloin and a cheaper 250g D-Rump (£22) for comparison. The rump had slightly more flavour, but both were as soft as silk, cooked as rare as requested and not over seasoned – a problem with 90% of restaurant steaks.
Puddings are well worth saving some room for. Poached pear, dusted in a toasted oat crumb with a cute copper pan of crème Anglais (£6) was a light, palate cleansing way to round off half a pound of protein. Dividing an almond and sea salt chocolate brownie (£6) with warm chocolate sauce and toffee fudge ice cream, evenly, caused more arguments than a territory agreement, which is how you know it's good.
Alston have chosen Manchester as their first venue outside Scotland to show off their native produce with a little flair. They’re not cheap, but haven’t compromised on quality. A little healthy competition at the top of the steak restaurant market can only be good news for Manchester’s diners.
Alston Bar & Beef, Cathedral Street, Corn Exchange, M4 3TR Tel: 0161 804 5555
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Chorizo & octopus 8, smokie roulade 8, steak tartare 8, scallops 8, bream 7, Thai steak 7, sirloin 8, rump 7.5, pear 8, brownie 8
Good looking and smart, but not overly formal
New and enthusiastic