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.
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
0161 817 4110