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.