“ Address: 20 Castle St / Manchester / M3 4LZ / Tel: 0161 839 9818 „
~The Age of Barter~
When we bought the flat where I live during the week three or four years ago, we inherited a semi-functional washer dryer or as it would be more accurately termed - a washer/ex-dryer. I think the previous owners just couldn't face trying to get it down the stairs so they left it behind. Unfortunately despite using it only once in a blue moon, the washer function joined the dryer in white-goods-heaven not long after. I couldn't justify to buy a replacement when I can just take my laundry home at the weekend. Whilst I had one non-functioning washer-dryer, my friends Katya and Alex had one more fully functioning washer-dryer than they needed after returning from an overseas job with a Flemish machine in tow. They wanted it out of their kitchen and we volunteered to take it off their hands. But no good appliance receiving friend will simply take your unwanted goodies without giving something back, and no generous appliance-gifting buddies would ask you to pay them. The deal was struck - we got the the Flemish washer-dryer and in return, we bought dinner.
Alex did his research and chose to book a table for four at Albert's Shed in Manchester's Castlefield district, beside the Bridgewater Canal. He'd seen the place reviewed in a 'Great Cheap Eats' article in one of the newspapers and I appreciated that he didn't just pick somewhere really pricey. I checked the link that he sent me and was more than pleased to see that the place was part of the 'Dukes 92' family of restaurants and bars. Back in the early 1990s when I lived in Manchester, Duke's 92 was a favourite summer weekend lunch choice. It was famous for bread and cheese lunches that offered enough cheese to clog my guts for a week at a time, and was a fantastic place to sit by the canal on a warm Sunday afternoon.
Over time the Duke's 92 owners spread their influence around Castlefield opening a couple more restaurants. The building that's now been converted into Albert's Shed sits right next door to what was once the stable that was converted into Duke's 92. The owner's uncle Albert used to store his tools in the building and hence once it was tarted up and turned into a restaurant it took his name. Looking at it today, it's exceptionally difficult to imagine it was ever just a shed which is a bit of a shame. Mind you, if they'd gone 'cheesy' and hung the place with rusty ploughs and old horseshoes it would have looked pretty stupid.
We walked from the town centre along the canal to get to Castlefield. I wouldn't recommend to do it on your own or late at night since in places it's very isolated and it smells strongly of stale wee but it's a very different view of the city. We had a booking for 8 pm and turned up almost exactly on time, passed through the lobby with its 'interesting' upside down metal bucket lights, and were shown to our table. The interior is very modern, the ceilings are high, the tables wooden and closely spaced, the walls decorated with instantly forgettable art. We had a table close enough to the kitchens for me to glance over and see the staff collecting the dishes or the chefs finishing them off.
Our bums were barely on the seats and the first of the many waiting staff wanted our drinks order. A little taken aback by the speed we ordered fizzy water, diet cokes and a glass of white wine for Katya. Rather than offer her a choice, the waiter suggested a wine and she was encouraged to go along with their choice. I felt a bit rushed and rail-roaded and hoped things would slow down a bit once the drinks arrived.
Alex is quite a character. He's a wine snob but he doesn't actually drink alcohol. He's the type to check out the menu beforehand and know what he wants before we get there. But he made one big mistake on this evening because Alex is also known as 'The King of Cheesy Nibbles'. You cannot visit him and Katya and not get fed lots and lots of very excellent cheesy nibbles before you go out. The trouble was on this occasion that he'd really surpassed himself with the nibble selection and by the time we got to Albert's three of us were so stuffed with luxurious cheesy stuff that we weren't really very hungry. His face fell as three of us said no to starters and revived when we told him we were SO full that we could do with a bit longer for the nibbles to settle so he might as well have a starter. His chosen dish was called 'Little Pie 'n' Peas' and I think he'd been fantasising about it all day. The menu described it as a slow cooked brisket of beef in a shortcrust pastry case.
Another member of the waiting staff turned up with the pie about 10 minutes later. It was a feature of the evening that we got shared around between lots of different waiters and waitresses all of whom were very pleasant but I did find it a bit irritating to not have any continuity in the service. I have no idea what a brisket is, nor do I want to know, but it did look like an very cute titchy pie. It was about the size of a standard pork pie and was served with a little jug of gravy and a pile of posh mushy peas. As an exercise in miniaturisation it was quite a cute little dish.
For main courses Katya and I had both ordered a monkfish and scallop curry, my husband had opted for a coconut and lime chicken curry and Alex chose another chicken dish served in a cream sauce with two side dishes. He took chips as one of the sides but I wasn't paying attention to his second choice. The prices for the main courses were between £13.00 for the chicken curry and £14.50 for the monkfish and scallop curry.
When my curry arrived I was underwhelmed by both the quantity and the quality. The boys did better and looked like they got a decent sized dish each whereas Katya and I had a small dish each of rather tasteless slightly Thai-style curry with small pieces of monkfish and the tiniest scallops I've ever seen. There was far too much rice for the amount of sauce and the accompanying skewer of tempura king prawns had just two rather flabby, luke-warm battered prawns. I can understand and appreciate that monkfish and scallops can't fight a strong sauce so the description of 'mellow' for the sauce made sense but sadly the adjective that sprung to mind was bland. Even without a tummy filled with cheesy nibbles I don't think I could have worked up much enthusiasm for my dish but at least it didn't matter that there wasn't much of it and that it didn't taste that great.
I didn't think I could really review a restaurant if I'd only eaten one dish and I'd not really made much impact on that single dish. I thought I'd better have a pudding, purely to take my reviewing responsibilities seriously. The other three all opted for the same pud - a so-called chocolate volcano that was filled with hot oozing chocolate sauce and served with a small blob of vanilla ice-cream. Some people say there's no such thing as too much chocolate but all three agreed that this dish went too far and agreed that twice as much ice-cream would have balanced out the chocolate much better. I went for an Eton mess which is a mush of broken meringue with berries, whipped cream and fruit sauce. The menu claimed the meringue was 'home made Italian meringue' but I have to say it tasted exactly the same as the cheap factory made meringue I normally buy. For me it was a bit too rich but I was glad I'd chosen it instead of the volcano.
Other things to mention included the toilets which I didn't visit but were apparently SO far away that everyone got lost on the way there or on the way back. We could have eaten outside but it was mid-September and that seemed a bit too risky. I already mentioned that I found the mix of waiting staff a bit annoying.
The bill came to just over £100 which I wouldn't exactly call cheap but it could have been a lot worse considering we had only one alcoholic drink between the four of us all evening and only one starter. Whilst I was disappointed in my dish, hubby was happy with his and maybe I was just being a bit picky. I'd probably give them another go and try something different next time.
18-20 Castle Street
Open for lunch and dinner every day - Albert's Shed stays open all afternoon on Saturday and Sunday.
And just in case anyone's wondering - it's very unlikely the washer-dryer will ever get reviewed since all the instructions are in Dutch and it's a bit like trying to fly the Space Shuttle with no (understandable) labels on the knobs.