‘I'M AFRAID we have no tables for that evening…’

This is essentially solid stuff that won’t scare the Warhorses

The new restaurant at the Lowry Theatre, rethought, renamed and rebooted only a couple weeks previously must be selling out to raves if it is booking out the whole evening already. Just as I’m wondering how I will explain to the editor why I'm missing the deadline (does ‘other people ate my homework’ sound like a valid excuse?) the receptionist interjects: ‘what time did you want? 8pm? Oh I think we can manage to fit you in.’

If by ‘fit you in’ he means a place at one of the very many free tables in the Pier 8 then yes we managed to squeeze ourselves into one of the natty new booths to enjoy the peculiar ambience of dining in an almost empty restaurant.

The assumption anyone booking at Pier 8 would want a table at 6pm is justified though – realistically the restaurant exists solely to service pre-theatre diners treating themselves before a showing of the latest jukebox musical.

As mentioned above, the restaurant at the Lowry on Salford Quays has had an extensive facelift over the past couple of months. The new-look dining room is laid out around a glowing central core, which gives one the feeling of dining in the warp drive of a starship. The colour palette is also a very Starfleet combination of mustard and teal, offset by some candles in birch logs. The effect is one of a hotel lobby or an upmarket airport lounge in some very slightly futuristic city where yearning yet reclusive characters pass one another by.

Pier 8
Pier 8 warp drivePier 8's prawn cracker tree (above) amd warp drive

Running a restaurant and running a theatre are both tightrope acts, balancing between the creative and the commercial – in so far as it as an endeavour of the imagination, the arty types (chefs, directors) want to push boundaries as much as possible, while the house managers are much more concerned about who is going to pay for the fancy lighting effects and keep the sous vide running. One way to do this is to appeal to the masses of course, so while the director wants Ionesco, the manager pushes for Lloyd Weber.

It is clear which side of the tightrope Pier 8 has fallen off, as the menu itself is stacked with more crowd-pleasers than a performance of Cats. So classic in fact, that it comes off as unadventurous, dressing up the meat and veg combo with a variety of smoke and mirror effects - a confit thigh here and a savoury granola here - but this is essentially solid stuff that won’t scare the Warhorses.

We started with scallops (£9) with lentils, bacon and smoked red wine, which consisted of a pair of the marine bivalves simply but perfectly cooked so they were still quivering, accompanied by a smear of cauliflower puree which almost miraculously tasted very strongly of actual cauliflower, as if prolonged cooking had intensified the flavour of the vegetable instead of reducing it to a mass of soggy curds as it usually does. The lentils were still a little on the hard side, though luckily there were only a few hiding beneath the scallops so that didn’t make too much difference.

The Cornish crab (£9) arrived in two tiny mounds, one each of the brown and white meat, speckled with herb salad and framed by a mysterious green streak, while a stack of crisp toast appeared by its side. The simplicity of the preparation suited the delicate ingredients but it also lacked a certain something.

ScallopsScallop starter (£9)
Crab starter (£9)Crab starter (£9)

As for the mains, Cheshire lamb rump (£19) came with a supporting cast of sweetbreads (delicious), red cabbage (fabulous) and Lyonnaise potato (a solid performer). Sadly the supposed star of this particular dish, the lamb, was a bit of an old stage trooper rather than the expected ingénue, despite being cooked correctly. Overall this was a very satisfying dish though.

The Cheshire beef fillet (£21), on the other hand, was a nicer piece of meat but had been more harshly treated, granted it retained a hint of pink inside but had been over-seared. It was accompanied by a bolus of spinach and a very refined bubble and squeak (so refined I couldn’t detect the squeak).

.Lamp rump (£19)
.Beef fillet (£21)

For the encore, satsuma trifle (£5) was an interesting attempt at rejigging every Nan’s favourite pud. Even though it is decadence up there with encrusting the shell of your pet tortoise with diamonds and feeding him Ferrero Rocher, I do wish the satsuma segments had been peeled. In my book, the bottom layer of trifle should consist of fruit so overwhelmed by booze it can barely hold its shape. The skin-on satsuma just doesn’t get to mingle in the proper way. The taste combinations are good and the cream and custard layers are a winner (who can complain about cream layered next to slightly differently flavoured cream?), but overall I wasn’t a huge fan.

Tarte tatin (£7) was a faithful execution of the classic dish which is basically toffee apple for grown-ups. The caramelised apples walk the line between buttery richness and the ghost of bitter burntness, which stops the dish from being just too cloying.

.Satsuma trifle (£5)
.Tarte tatin (£7)

There is something oddly alienating about eating in a space where people spend time on their way somewhere else. Pier 8 is definitely a grown-up, ambitious restaurant, but if it wants to fill covers after the show bell then it needs to start exerting its personality beyond the theatre next door. In fact it is in a better position then many restaurants in that it is guaranteed bums on seats in the early evening whatever it does – the ultimate captive audience. Given that advantage, it should be working to become a destination in its own right, the star in its own production, rather than a side show.

Pier 8, Lowry Theatre, The Quays, Salford M50 3AZ - 0161 876 2121

Rating 12/20

Food: 6/10: (Scallops 7, Crab 6, Lamb 7, Beef 6, Trifle 6, Tarte Tatin 6)

Ambience: 3/5 

Service: 3/5

PLEASE NOTE: Remember venues are rated against the best examples of their type. All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commerical relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing, 14-15 worth a trip, 16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20, we get carried away.