Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Livebait, Manchester

I bought Jamie a copy of Giles Coren's How To Eat Out before I really knew who he was (Coren that is, not my other half), and - rather naughtily - ended up reading it before Jamie knew he'd been bought it. It is anecdotal with snippets of advice littered throughout, and despite agreeing with Ramsay's comment on the cover, I rather annoyingly enjoyed it. The best - and I suppose most obvious - piece of advice he gives is: "Always order the fish". A delicate specimen, best eaten on day of purchase, it makes sense to let restaurants do the hard work - filleting, scaling, pinboning, and, of course, cooking. I therefore felt very content to accept the invitation of Livebait via Manchester Confidential to dine at their restaurant as a guest, and do nothing other than order the fish. Apologies for photo quality - we couldn't find our camera charger so had to make do with the iPad!

Jamie and I had actually eaten at Livebait not that long ago, and it holds the special place of being the first Manchester restaurant we reviewed on our blog. Whilst we had a thoroughly enjoyable time before, we were disappointed at how empty it was. We returned on another Wednesday to a slightly busier restaurant - though this might have something to do with its 50% off deal during January - and were acknowledged as soon as we entered, despite the manageress being on the phone.

We were offered an aperitif and the manageress knowledgeably recommended Tanqueray 10 with grapefruit juice (I remembered from my earlier years as a bartender in a posh hotel that this premium gin is supposed to have notes of the citrus fruit in it; I say supposed as all I get is GINGINGIN, but that's my unrefined palette for you). This proved to be a great aperitif as the bitter fruit perfectly prepares the palate for the dinner to follow. I, however, am not a fan and boringly opted for a Hendricks.

We were recommended the bread and homemade dukkah to begin, which was a surprising delight despite popping whole coriander seeds in the mouth in one go. Jamie commented that it reminded him of Modernist Cuisine's fish spice mix, and once we dissected the individual spices realised how clever it was of them to serve this unusual accompaniment: all of the individual spices in dukkah (hazelnuts, coriander, sesame, cumin, fennel and poppy seeds) compliment the flavours of seafood.

 We cheekily decided to start by trying a selection of the oysters - 3 tempura'd (that's definitely in the dictionary) and 3 natural. All were delicious, but I particularly enjoyed the deep fried ones, accompanied with a cucumber pickle. The waitress told us they used to do a crab and pickled cucumber spring roll but took it off the menu. Bring it back! Please! Having since read that 75% of raw British oysters contain norovirus, you've got carte blanche to stuff your face with the deep fried morsels. Get in!

J decided to go old-school and opted for the prawn cocktail. The waitress was very serious in letting us know that there was nothing fancy about this: like Ronseal, it does what it says on the tin. It was a pleasant enough dish, though I found it slightly odd that they served extra Marie Rose on the side of a sauce-heavy dish. I opted for the anchovy and tomato bruschetta as I can't get enough of those salty little sea monsters and will happily eat them by the bucket-load when I can get my hands on the fresh ones. These were delicious and plentiful so I was pretty happy, though felt the dish slightly off-balance. I wanted to taste the anchovies more but felt a harsher acidity was present - perhaps from an addition of red wine vinegar? Jamie, however, poo-poo'ed my suggestion and said that he thought the dish was perfectly balanced. (That's me told.)

Most of the mains sounded delicious and I was struggling to decide between the plaice and the bass. Suddenly my stupid brain went left-field and opted for the scallops. Five little beauties, served in the shells with a piece of chorizo on top of each. They were cooked beautifully, though I would have loved the coral to have been served with them, but I never understand why chorizo and scallops are served together. Maybe it's just me but I think the strength of the sausage is too overwhelming for the delicate seafood to fight against. I ate most of them without the piece of meat, and found that the hint of fatty spice from the chorizo's juices worked well. If it were me, I'd consider serving them with just a chorizo butter (or foam as Jamie suggested: he's been reading too much Mugaritz). I'd been forewarned that they came as they were, but I couldn't help feel that a little more effort could have gone into making the scallops into more of a dish. Maybe I'm just talking rubbish though, and I'm just trying to turn a more than decent seafood restaurant into something it's not.

Or maybe it's just because I had serious food envy of Jamie's sea bass, which I'd originally wanted. It came with a sorrel and garlic sauce and potato galette. It was so good. I would actually go back just to have this dish. The skin was crisped to perfection - maybe they'd read my last write-up! ;) - and you could taste the beautifully browned butter on the delicately cooked fish. We accompanied the dishes with chips, because we're heathens, and the waitress made us feel good about doing so, so she gets brownie points too. Having recently been disappointed with neighbourhood's excuse for fries, I was very happy with these. Being something of a chip aficionado, I'm going to make a bold claim and say these are probably my favourite fries (very different from chips though, please note). They actually surpass the old-style Burger King ones and take pride of place in my fried potato hall of fame.

Our meal was accompanied by a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet, a recommendation from the waitress. We'd told her we usually went for an Albarino when eating seafood, and had suggested this as an adventurous alternative. A fairly dry white, it complimented all of the courses well and would happily opt for this again.

Dessert saw us share the trio of puds - something chocolatey with delicious salted caramel, a fresh cheesecake with homemade honeycomb, and something lemony. All pleasant enough, though nothing to steal the spotlight away from the oyster tempura and the sea bass.

All in all, the meal and service were definitely good enough to say that I would go back, and I was glad to see that they'd corrected the fatal flaw of floppy skin from last time! Obviously we were guests, so one would hope our experience would be good, but everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves and their food as well. I have to say, it's such a wonderful space that I really do wish Mancunians would try it out more, as I would absolutely love to see it buzzing. I'm not sure what the plans for 2013 are for the restaurant but I hope they give a nod to some of the current food trends as several are made for this place.

I think my only criticism is of myself, for not listening to Giles. Instead of opting for shells, I should have heeded his advice and ordered the bloody fish...

22 Lloyd Street, Manchester
M2 5WA
0161 817 4110
Livebait on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 31 July 2012


Wednesday night. A stressful day at work. Who doesn't want to come home to a sated and smug looking boyfriend who's had the day to sample Solita's new menu, proudly brandishing a jar of bacon jam? Okay, I'm not complaining - well... I am - but I did appreciate eating that sticky smokey goodness from my fingers as a post-work snack.

You're probably wondering how this has anything to do with LiveBait. Don't worry, I haven't gone all A.A. Gill on you (I vow never to turn into him when it comes to reviewing!).

Jamie's post-deep fried mac'n'cheese slump, and my apathy for cooking anything complicated after frying my brain all day in front of InDesign meant that we turned to the Taste card. I'm not sure how we acquired this, but I do know it was free, and the expiry date was fast-approaching. Feeling lazy, and never one to miss out on a bargain, we knew it was calling.

LiveBait is one of the restaurants that the Taste card offers a discount for. I'd read a review of its new menu over at Manchester Confidential, and it certainly seemed that it had changed hands for the better. Having previously trusted Jonathan Schofield's review of the revised menu at 101 Brasserie and had a fantastic meal on its recommendation, the odds were soon stacking up in favour of dining there.

The many years I'd spent working in various dining and drinking establishments across Manchester seemed to finally pay off: industry knowledge taught me that Wednesday is delivery day, hence LiveBait may well have caught a fresh flock of fish that day (I know, it's not the right collective noun, but school doesn't have the same ring to it...). We were sold.

We'd called ahead (as the T&C of the Taste card requires), and arrived at the restaurant for 8pm. Prime dining time, though sadly not for this place. There were only five tables - including ourselves - seated the whole time we were there. LiveBait is a huge restaurant, probably around 200 covers, and so I imagine it really needs more than 11 people to get a real atmosphere going - and the lobster tank geared up. The tank distinctly lacking in shellfish (i.e. totally empty) in the only fish restaurant in central Manchester was an humane, but disappointing sight. I began to worry... maybe the food was only decent when Man Con reviewed it because they'd sussed out who their guests were? I soon discovered my worries were all in vain...

We ordered our wine (a bottle of Albarino - reasonably priced, around the £20 mark). It was a pleasant dry white which worked well to accompany our dishes. The wine list was varied, and didn't look like it would break the bank. They do a deal of 6 oysters & 2 glasses of Prosecco which might also be a nice way to begin.

To start, I had the octopus salad. The octopus was well cooked, very tender, and the salad well dressed. It also had some naughty little oily potatoes hiding in amongst all the healthy looking leaves, which were salty and tasty and actually worked quite nicely, adding a different texture. We took a photo but I think you can all imagine what a plate of salad leaves looks like, so I shan't patronise you by adding the photo here! Jamie's starter was more interesting to the eye...

A well cooked piece of pork belly was the perfect salty accompaniment to a plump, sweet scallop. It was a few weeks ago that we went, but if my memory serves me correctly, it came with cucumber ribbons on the side, which tasted as if they had been marinated in some sort of Chinese-inspired acidic dressing (Man Con review tells me pickled - makes sense). Whilst tasty little morsels of cucumber they were, the marinade wasn't necessary and didn't particularly work with the modern surf'n'turf. I understood the thinking behind the dish but sometimes I reckon when you're going to be as indulgent as eating pork belly and the queen of the sea together, you should just concentrate on the pure succulence of the ingredients themselves. When they're cooked this well, the chef needn't hide the stars behind a raggedy old curtain. They also added - what I could imagine in a poncey restaurant being called - a 'texture' of pig ear, i.e. deep fried. It was certainly only there to add texture, as the taste was unremarkable. Chef: please see earlier comments, leave your tasty centrepieces well alone!

For mains came two pieces of fish - which, I hate to say, I could have cooked better at home. They weren't over or underdone, but where was the crispy skin?!?! This is the best bit of the fish!! And the closest thing I can get to feeling like I'm eating something naughty when I'm actually being reasonably healthy.

I had the striped bass, as shown below....

Look at that skin..... almost glistening with its moistness. It really saddens me when a beautiful piece of fish is ruined like this. Don't get me wrong, I get sad at real stuff too, like on Undercover Boss when they reveal themselves & give Joe Bloggs, who loves cleaning toilets for a living and does the best damn job of it anyone's ever done, a 50p pay rise. Anyway, salad no.2 was reminiscent of a beautiful nicoise, though I can't help but feel that it wouldn't have needed those croutons if they'd just cooked that skin... okay I'll shut up about it for now...

I tried to escape it, but I can't. The limp skin is back. I shall say no more, but it is present. This dish was pretty under seasoned, which was a shame as the sauce/bisque could have been really tasty. What you can't see from this photo (and I'm wondering if Jamie did this strategically to wipe its existence from its memory) is the er, 'bed'(?!) of polenta. I've never been a huge fan of this Italian semolina and this did nothing to start a club. It tasted like solid scrambled eggs fused with bread and butter pudding. Yum.

I feel like I've nearly gone all Bob Granleese on one of Manchester's better restaurants looking over this review, and that's unfair. We had a really enjoyable time - service was good, wine was hangover-free, and the starters were above par. I do feel that Man Con's review was a little on the generous side, but I would revisit - at least to check our their oyster and Prosecco deal - once they've 're-branded'. Using the Taste card, it was very reasonably priced, but I don't think I would've been overjoyed if I'd paid full price for those meals. Let's put it like this: if you're not as anal about your fish skin as I am then you'll probably spend less time whingeing and more time enjoying your meal.

Livebait on Urbanspoon