The unlikely spectres of Cliff Richard and Paul Kitching haunt my imagination as I dine (magnificently) in a new Manchester hotel that restores my faith in exposed brickwork and small plates. Both the 81-year-old former poster boy of British pop and the one-time enfant terrible of Michelin tasting menus are still going strong. So this is no elegy.
My whimsical connection is The Alan’s former incarnation as the Arora hotel, in which Sir Cliff was a stakeholder, and the cv of current chef Iain Thomas (below), who learnt his trade under Kitching, once of Juniper in Altrincham, a restaurant that married wackiness with true one star quality. A bit like Cliff?
All this was back in the early part of this century and Manchester has moved on. Well, not always. Many incoming hospitality operators feel the need for bee motifs, Hacienda colour schemes and gratuitous homages to Emmeline Pankhurst, Alan Turing or Tony Wilson.
That could have happened to the old Arora, later the Princess Street Hotel, which had long shed its star appeal. I can’t ascertain when the five Cliff-themed rooms were consigned to history – there ought to be a plaque.
Briefly in the basement the Arora was home to a ‘destination restaurant’, Obsidian. How dated neon-raked images of that doomed project look now. What a contrast to the sustainable core of the refit from the new owners, which strikes you as soon as you enter off Princess Street. The outside sign is so discreet that the ambition of the opened-out lobby/bar takes you aback. Welcome to a relaxed, Shoreditch vibe that continues across the 137 bedrooms of this six storey Grade II listed edifice, all vibrant brickwork and distressed paint.
Congratulations (and jubilations) to the raft of designers name-checked on the website. I was particularly smitten with the lobby floor made from a collage of fragmented and discarded marble pieces, and a bar front “inspired by the M62 that runs round our city” (do they really mean the M60?) consisting of cigarette butts, weeds, flowers all set in a resin.
It is all a playfully welcoming surprise. Yet my object in visiting is to check our Chef Iain’s all-day seasonal menu, with more ambitious small and larger plates in the evening. I first met him when he hosted a game dinner at reinvented old boozer The Edinburgh Castle in Manchester’s Ancoats neighbourhood. As with his predecessor in the kitchen there, Julian Pfizer (now of Another Hand) he was given his head and then the owners seemed to get cold feet about culinary ambition.
The Alan strikes just the right balance. From the off it seems just the kind of relaxed setting and offering if you are a hotel guest but there’s plenty of well-sourced interest on the menu to make it a destination in its own right. Ah, the sourcing. Iain name-checks the city centre Butcher’s Quarter for his meat, while mushrooms are from Polyspore, and microgreens from Aztec Farms, the vertical farming start-up based at Manchester Science Park. On the drinks list there’s beer from the city’s own Pomona Island and Cloudwater with caffeine input from Ancoats Coffee. The wine list, understandably from further afield, is uninspiring, alas.
Then, provenance one-upmanship. As spring gathers pace expect a very special vegetable input from the chef’s own allotment in Tameside’s Hattersley Projects. I trust him to make the most of it all on the evidence of his impressive track record – in kitchens since 16 with stints at Establishment in Manchester (where Rosso now is), at the “amazing” Paul Kitching’s Michelin-starred 21212 in Edinburgh and s sidekick to Davey Aspin, one of the iconic chef names in Scotland.
At The Alan we asked to try all eight small plates on the menu, all priced around £5 to £6.50. Attractive looking snacks and meat could await another visit. The plan was to sit at the chef’s table with a perfect eye-line onto the open kitchen, but old bones dictated we retrenched to a booth.
The dishes came in pairs and were a well-judged mixture of plant-based and flesh. No duff note with either direction but we were most impressed with the vegan salt-baked celeriac with truffle and sherry vinegar and the cauliflower tikka with cumin, coriander and pomegranate, both managing to be earthy and yet delicate at the same time. Punchier was what threatens to become a Thomas signature dish – lamb fat hispi cabbage. Here lamb trimmings are rendered down and the fat is used to sous vide the cabbage, which is then warmed up in a lamb fat cream emulsion with braised shoulder.
There’s an equal richness to a potato and ox cheek terrine, an elaborate confection where 10 butter-brushed layers of finely sliced potato, a layer of ox cheek and a further 10 spud layers are sandwiched together, and served with blobs of French’s mustard and dill pickle gel.
Undoubtedly there’s an Ottolenghi influence going on. The likes of Confit thighs of Goosnargh chicken are glazed with pomegranate molasses, soy sauce aand mushroom ketchup and, also garnished with nasturtium leaves, that simple Turkish aubergine and tomato dishImam Bayildi, that translates as “the Imam fainted”.
The Levantine spice palette of cumin, coriander, along with pomegranate arils also permeate Iain’s otherwise classical Cheshire beef tartare, but it’s all lightly handled. Ditto a ceviche of Scottish halibut, where chicory and but orange partner the fish rather than overwhelm. Is any hotel dining menu in Manchester (the obvious exception of Adam Reid at The French apart) better than this?
The Alan, 18 Princess Street, M1 4LG. 0161 236 8999. All rooms feature Emperor sized beds dressed in 200 thread count Egyptian cotton, 50” Samsung Smart TVs with Google Chromecast and pay-per-view movies, superfast Wi-Fi and Audio Pro Bluetooth speakers. The tech-forward hotel is also one of only four in the UK to offer Google Nest smart concierge in all its rooms. There are a variety of rooms on offer, the affordability of which gained The Alan a place in the ’40 UK Hotels For Under £100’ list in the latest Sunday Times.