The World’s Your Lobster in Manchester these days, but surely it has to taste of something, believes Neil Sowerby, comparing two rival purveyors...
EVERYBODY loves a bargain. Cast your mind back to last Christmas when thousands of frozen Canadian lobsters flooded our discount stores at £5 a go and customers were shelling out for what they hoped would be a cracking gourmet experience. It wasn’t. You get what you pay for.
One of those outlets was Iceland, who brought their ‘Surf & Turf Shack’ to Manchester’s St Ann’s Square from August 19-21. We passed it on our way to dine at Steak and Lobster (above) in the Radisson Blu Edwardian. Alas, not a rival crustacean in the hut – just venison burgers, scallops and gelato. So we still lag behind London, which has had a spate of lobster ‘shacks’ opening. In one small area off Tottenham Court Road alone three jostle for attention – Fraq’s Lobster Shack, Lobster Kitchen and Smack Lobster.
Don’t get confused about what the latter serves. Not straight lobster, obviously not heroin. Just lobster rolls. It’s another roll-out from the Russian-owned Lobster and Burger chain which has recently arrived in King Street, Manchester, occupying a large swanky (might we say oligarchical?) space in Ship Canal House. They serve what is says on the concept – lobster and burgers (oh and lobster rolls).
Simply order any of these for an all-in price of £20 a head. There’s no written menu; your server gives you the lowdown, then hands you a cute bib. No dithering. You’ll be getting a whole lobster, 10oz burger or lobster roll, all with chips and a little salad pot, all for the same set price. The lobster is obviously more of a bargain than the burger then. For an extra tenner you can upgrade to a two-pounder. Flown in fresh(ish) from Nova Scotia, they watch you from a tank on the right as you arrive in the cavernous 240-cover dining space.
On your behalf we explored all the options, including one steamed lobster and one grilled. The latter, with a certain smokiness imparted, was better. The texture of both was taut, not fluffy, which was encouraging. Neither tasted of much, though. The fries felt industrial. The lobster roll was more attractive on an excellent brioche bun, while the burger (made from ‘corn-fed beef from the rolling Nebraska hills’) was medium, rare and moist with excellent pickle, but ouch what a price.
You get what you pay for. The same applied at the established Steak & Lobster, which occupies the Radisson’s casual dining space, Alto. It is part of a six-restaurant mini-franchise that also takes in Guildford and Heathrow. Hooray, the steak here is from Cheshire and they sometimes source their lobsters from Scotland, but demand means the bulk come from across the Atlantic, where global warming and clever husbandry have created a competitively priced abundance.
In 2013 the UK imported 2,600 tonnes of lobster from around the world, up from 1,900 tonnes in 2009. Meanwhile, our prime Scottish specimens, are snapped up by the Spanish, who are prepared to pay the premium price.
Statistics, damn statistics. They can’t excuse further crustacean disappointment at Alto. This time we just went for steamed. It was so bland. The chips were better, the service far smooth than at B&L (we'll forgive the waitress who poured our red relentlessly until we hit that ‘do you want a second bottle?’ moment), the 10oz rib-eye very acceptable, spoiled only by a tired bearnaise on the side. A similar deal here – £20, just the bare choice, with mixed salad and unlimited fries, though if you upgrade your lobster to 2lb, it’s £45.
Two months ago, in Howth outside Dublin, we paid that sum for a lobster (pictured above) just pulled that day from Balscadden Bay. We watched the boat go out from our bedroom at the King Sitric fish restaurant-with-rooms. Even without its butter sauce the flesh was sweet and plentiful, the claw meat especially. The contents of our Manchester claws were uniformly dry and unattractive.
OK, this was lobster as special treat, yet still affordable because so locally sourced. It was also properly mature; hence the flavour. Canada allows them to be caught too young – and lots of those immature specimens end up on our bargain plates. Perhaps we struck unlucky at both places in the lobster lottery, but it felt like the crustacean equivalent of fur coat with no knickers.
June 15 was National Lobster Day. I don’t know how the little dears celebrated. Most were probably finding their feet after a long flight.
Burger and Lobster, 98 King St, Manchester, M2 4WU. 0161 832 0222.
Steak and Lobster, ‘Free Trade Hall’, Peter Street, Manchester, M2 5GT. 0161 835 8903.
Three stars is for the overall experience of both restaurants. The lobsters deserve fewer.