THEY named the Royal Exchange’s current restaurant after the theatre’s first production, Sheridan’s The Rivals. Framed programme extracts hanging in the reinvented dining space make me suddenly feel old. Quoth the Ancient Critic casting his jaundiced eyeball over the cast list for the 1976 production: “Ye Gods, I was there.”
I also reviewed Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg, which soon joined it in repertoire, but I don’t suppose A Homburger Joint is what the Exchange were after when they enlisted Rupert Hill and Goska Langrish to reimagine the restaurant/cafe area. It had perennially felt a sterile aside to the still amazing theatre module sitting like the Starship Enterprise inside the old cotton trading hub.
Looking back, which I won’t do for much longer, I can’t recall ever eating in the space. A tub of ice cream or more likely a glass of dull red I instantly regretted were my only comestibles in the thespian years.
So is it worth it choosing to dine at The Rivals now? The menu overhaul has been entrusted to Anna Fysh, whose often impressive Grey’s Larder closed late last year. Ex-Corrie star Rupert, Goska and her husband Jamie were associated with fellow Chorlton stalwarts, Parlour (new owners) and Palette (shut), the former acclaimed for its roasts. Goska worked at Hawksmoor. Their track records are impressive.
The Rivals offers a simple all-day bar menu at its cafe, which includes focaccia bread pizzas plus pre theatre menus (two courses £20, three courses £25). We went a la carte. Anna wasn’t in the kitchen that lunchtime and the dining room was quieter than you’d expect later just before curtain up (we’ll call it that even though the Exchange is quintessential theatre in the round). The refurb consists of walls/partitions created from old, stressed doors combined with dark walls and mix and match stately home oils and Exchange memorabilia. All slightly theatre of the absurd.
The menu, six starters and seven mains, reads like a gastropub offering, the kind of dishes you’d find in The Wharf in Castlefield, say. No harm in that. None of the restaurants attached to our artistic venues aspire to be destination places, though some are pretty good, notably The Art Gallery and HOME.
We actually add on a bar snack because we fancy a nibble on a monkfish goujon or two with tartare sauce. As it turns out cod cheeks are that day’s substitute, rewardingly crisp though the cod is underseasoned.
Not so my shallot bhaji starter (£6), its mint pesto a tangy match, refreshed too by thinly sliced tomato and onion. A confit salmon (£7) comes with a similarly refreshing tangle of fennel and apple salad but it is hard to see how ‘confit’ applies to a very dull tranche of salmon.
Seventeen pounds seems an ambitious price for a main of blue cheese arancini, a cluster of three, but there is a depth of oozing blue cheese flavour inside and sage and caramelised figs is nicely judged Italian conceit.
My £19 main, is a braise of beef featherblade, a cut that can dry and toughen. Not here. It’s a substantial winter dish with lots of favour and appropriate accompaniments of celeriac puree, buttered kale and dauphinoise potatoes.
Not a pretty dish but our first pud, Lemon curd, meringues, mascarpone cream, blueberries (£6) was and tastes pretty, too. I’m a sucker for rice pudding and coconut and The Rivals’ combo is ample and satisfying, a garnish of dried pineapple irrelevant.
Many of these dishes may be off the menu soon when Anna Fysh revamps it for spring. I like the current one, but it just lacks a certain thrill factor (a bit like The Prince of Homburg as I recall).
The Rivals, Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann's Square, Manchester M2 7DH. 0161 615 6666.