AFTER dipping into the gin and steak offering that defines Alston Bar & Beef – the best Glaswegian addition to Manchester since Sir Alex Ferguson – this gentleman definitely prefers Tweed.
The sylvan valley of that name in the Scottish Lowlands is a whole tree-hugging world away from the Corn Exchange, whose days of agricultural barter are long gone. Yet the damp forest floor is in my nostrils as I sip the restaurant/bar’s signature Tweed Valley Gin, a ‘cold compound’ tipple using botanicals foraged there such as dandelion and burdock root, water mint and turkey tail mushroom.
Geek alert: Cold compounding is an alternative to distillation, with flavour essences steeped in a neutral alcohol. Commercially, once a short-cut; in the right hands (as here, concocted on site) an interesting alternative, using proper botanicals alongside the obligatory juniper.
The jars behind the bar revelled in infusions such as British Hedgerow/wild horseradish, lemon verbena, damson and juniper, wild plum and vanilla and barman Ryan confirmed an agave version was in the pipeline. (For the still purist there are 60 fascinating gin brands on the list).
It’s not just the foragers who are getting the benefit of the Valley’s lushness. The beasts who graze there provideAlston’s trademark 35 day aged Tweed Valley beef. Every Monday you’ll find their master butcher John Gilmour prowling the St Boswells livestock market in the Borders in his quest to select only from the top one per cent of the Scottish grass and barley-fed suckler herd – ideally, a Limousin-Aberdeen Angus cross.
We couldn’t resist ordering a 600g Chateaubriand (£65 for two to share), delicately charred on the outside, its evenly pink slices as tender as a Rabbie Burns love song. Huge flavour, too. As good as Hawksmoor’s? Definitely. Better? Could both venues invite ToM to a Battle of the Beefs?
Fat chips were so splendid we fought over them, but a side of spinach was way over-salted; the green peppercorn sauce pipped by the bearnaise, which still could have benefited from tarragon. In tracklements and savoury accompaniments Hawksmoor still rules the roost.
With the Chateaubriand in our sights a trio of fishy starters was the balanced move, but on impulse I added on lamb belly with an anchovy kedgeree. Which was a mistake, perhaps because we ate it last when the rolled meat was lukewarm and, with the rice, quite greasy, the anchovy just a faint echo. In contrast seared scallops and burnt ends (£12) was a mini surf and turf triumph – a holy trinity of scorched brisket nibbles, nutty bivalve and chilli-spiked butternut squash puree.
Octopus and chorizo (£7) wasn’t far behind, Galician style with sauteed potatoes in – the meaty clincher – a bone marrow jus. My companion thought the final starter, Arbroath Smokie & crowdie roulade (£7) too rich after the marrow jus but I loved this kippery creamy cylinder of Scotland on a plate.
Maybe call for a wee dram with it? Well, I’m sure there’s some quality single malt about the place. They’re definitely not ‘agin’ importing Scottish drinks. The tonic for all those gins is Edinburgh’s Bon Accord and a couple of draught beers were from Glasgow craft stars Drygate (still good to see though a Cloudwater alongside).
We went to New Zealand for our requisite bottle of red. Our Pencarrow Pinot Noir (£36), lusciously fruity but with a streak of acidity, is sourced from top London merchants Justerini and Brooks, as is an esteemed Tasmanian Pinot on the list, Apsley Gorge, at twice the price. Saving this one for a special occasion.
I love such attention to detail for both food and drink at Alston. As I do at Hawksmoor which, on this evidence, has a serious steak rival in town. In a very different, less patrician setting.
Puddings aren’t perfunctory either. A whole poached pear powdered with fine oat crumb (£6) was perfect autumnal fodder and I liked the accompanying custard in a little copper pan. Equally enticing for the same price was a creamy panna cotta topped with a berry crumble.
So, snubbing the invitation for a gin digestif in the secret speakeasy, it was quite a waddle back up the twinkly stairs to Alston’s entrance opposite the Cathedral (there is no direct route into the Corn Exchange atrium).
Alston Bar & Beef, Corn Exchange, Cathedral Street, Manchester M4 3TR. 0161 804 5555.