Now, if you have even a passing interest in a/ food and b/ social networking sites, you have probably noticed that Manchester's food bloggers have been out in force recently. And every single one of them seems to have been to Livebait, that venerable old fish restaurant that perches (sorry) so elegantly on one corner of Albert Square. You may well have mixed feelings about this - "oh," you are perfectly entitled to think whilst steeling yourself once again for a timeline full of of fishy finery, "I see another blogger has been for a free meal - how nice for them." On the other hand, there does seem to be a great deal of interest in how Livebait is currently doing - this used to be one of my favourite restaurants, and the affection I still feel for this classy dame is clearly shared by many others. It did undeniably go downhill a few years ago - I had a bad experience there with both food and service, and many others have reported similar problems - but I do think there is a general feeling of wanting Livebait to be back on top where it belongs. And after last night's visit, I am pleased to report that it very very nearly is.
The flurry of blogging invitations has been issued courtesy of Manchester Confidential, who have been proclaiming for some time that the new management (the Edinburgh-based Cafe Fish) and new chef (David Spanner) have made Livebait a must-visit dining destination once more. Certainly the restaurant was pretty busy last night considering the weather - the snow had finally hit the North, and I don't think I'm exaggerating one iota when I say that I now fully understand how Captain Scott must have felt when he ventured into the snowy wastes in search of adventure, immortality and a decent restaurant reservation. And indeed, the starters are just stunning, and fully justify the visit on their own: we go for a half dozen tempura oysters, the salt and pepper squid with chilli dipping sauce, and the deep-fried whitebait with aioli. I am happy to eat any kind of oyster served in any kind of way, but these - in a light batter with a sexy lemony pickle hiding underneath - prove particularly husband-friendly (he is from Wigan, and considers there are few foods that cannot be mightily improved by being battered and deep-fried), particularly when the thoughtful waiter brings over some Tabasco just to make them even more piquant. Mr Liz feels the whitebait could be a touch crisper but I disagree - they have a perfect dusting of crisp crumb and a beautiful flavour, as do the salt and pepper squid, which we agree are pretty much spot on. So far, so excellent.
Then on to mains. What I really want is the lobster, but even I don't have the brass neck to order the most expensive dish on the menu when on a freebie (and I fear for the safety of the rather nice LK Bennett dress I am wearing should I start wrestling with a large, potentially splattery crustacean). Instead I go for another dish which sounds just lovely - the tagliatelle with clams, served up in a tomato, garlic and chilli sauce. This is a tremendous disappointment. It's not that it's bad - it isn't: I eat it and wouldn't dream of sending it back. But it's bland, lacking the bite that should come with any chilli-spiked dish, and the ratio of clams to pasta is a little on the mean side. Meanwhile, across the table, Mr Liz - who I had mocked for what I considered to be a low-brow choice of line-caught haddock, deep-fried in batter and served with enormously fat chips and tartare sauce - is having the last laugh by devouring every scrap of what is a simply superb piece of fish, beautifully cooked. I am jealous, and behave badly by eating his side dish of excellent mushy peas while he is chivalrously topping up the wine glasses.
Fortunately, the final course cheers me up again. We share the £7 dessert tasting plate, recommended by our waiter and consisting of fairly generous portions of vanilla cheescake, lemon posset and chocolate pave: they are all very well executed, although why restaurants serve desserts in pots that are too small to fit your big greedy spoon into is beyond me. I also cannot resist trying the cheese board - for £10 you can have a chunk of each of the four cheeses on the menu, with each one accompanied by its own individual chaperone: lemon chutney with the Brie de Meaux, candied almonds with the oak smoked cheddar, beetroot chutney with the Stilton and a pleasingly alliterative membrillo with the Manchego. I think this is a great idea and am quite ridiculously excited by it - all the pairings work beautifully, and even the cheddar (of which I am not normally a fan) is interesting and distinctive in flavour. All of this is washed down with a bottle of stunning Sicilian white, the peachy Planeta Cometa Fiano at £37 - recommended by a friend and something I would definitely buy next time.
So, overall the signs for the new-style Livebait are more than promising. Prices are good, with most starters around £6 and many mains available around the £12-£15 mark (although Mr Liz will have to start saving for that lobster), and the restaurant clearly has faith in the quality of their food and cooking to be brave enough to invite in great hoards of greedy bloggers. Disappointed about my meh main? Yes, undeniably. But I'm also pleased to see an old friend getting its act together again - and I'm already planning whether I can justify a lunch consisting entirely of oysters and cheese...
- Livebait is at 22 Lloyd Street, Manchester, M2 5WA.