Newest Review: ... was a nice soup base but there was not a single piece of fish init. My wife had the cod with crushed new potatoes. The skin of the cod... more
Good cod, what was I thinking!
Member Name: fizzywizzy
Date: 12/12/06, updated on 12/12/06 (662 review reads)
Advantages: Interesting dishes, good choice of seafood and fish
Disadvantages: Expensive for standard of cooking, poor service, sniffy host, uncomfortable
I had almost forgotten about Livebait, though, until last week when I needed to book a meal in Manchester at short notice. Manchester is a city I vaguely know but don't get to that often so I had no starting point. An online search threw up the possibility of Simply Heathcotes which I found appealing having heard good things about it but at short notice there were no tables available. The trouble with a December birthday is that you are competing with Christmas parties for a table and some restaurants even abandon their normal menu and only offer Christmas fare. Once location, price and opening hours had been thrown into the equation the options became more limited but when I spotted Livebait it seemed to fit the bill.
Livebait is primarily a fish and seafood restaurant and is part of the "Groupe Chez Gerard". Usually I would avoid chains but a quick look at the menus on the Livebait website persuaded me to go for it. We made a reservation by telephone and arrived a couple of minutes after our 6.00 pm booking.
It was teeming with rain that evening and we arrived looking like drowned rats - so much for spending thirty minutes with the hair drier and straighteners! Since we were going straight on to the gig we were in jeans but were still fairly smart. The host appeared not to think so because he took one look at us and sat us at the opposite end of the restaurant, marching us past other diners before he sat us in an area where no other tables were taken. Furthermore, the other tables appeared to be laid for large groups. The way he looked us up and down before consulting his seating plan really made me feel quite small.
The menus had been in our hands less than thirty seconds before we were asked about drinks. This always annoys me as I try to consider the food and wine in combination (as far as my basic knowledge allows); had I been asked if I would like a drink while looking at the menu, I would have found this more acceptable. Just one of my niggles…
We could have gone for the early evening special - two courses for £14.50, three for £18.50 - but we could not find two things we wanted from the choices available. In the end we picked from the a la carte menu which changes weekly (not entirely, some dishes rotate); I chose the Louisiana crabcakes with Cajun potato salad and remoulade, followed by the fish and seafood tagine with couscous. My partner opted for the fried whitebait with lemon crème fraiche to start, followed by the red Thai fish curry with jasmine rice. From the extensive but pricey winelist we chose a bottle of pinot grigio; the wine list features about 75% white wines which I found disappointing having read an Observer article last year championing the possibilites of red wine with fish dishes. Still at £15.95 the Pinot Grigio was not so cheap as to reveal meanness but expensive enough to show we were up to the challenge of Livebait.
Ordering done, we were able to sit back and cast an eye over the surroundings. The website describes the style as "traditional fish and chip shop meets modern restaurant" and I'm inclined to agree; the white brick tiles are very like a traditional fish and chip shop, or even an East End pie and mash emporium. The wooden floors and furniture are no nonsense and sturdy but really not at all comfortable. A bar in the centre of the restaurant cuts of the various sections from each other and is lit with a green neon "Livebait" sign. I can kind of see the idea but it's not very well executed, coming across as a bit of a mishmash.
Our starters arrived promptly and provoked discussion immediately; my partner's pile of whitebait looked beautifully cisp, just the right golden shade, however the portion was rather mean. It came with a refreshingly crisp lemon creme fracihe which worked well with the seasoned fish.
My dish consisted of three crabcakes, a dish of the "Cajun potato salad" (hold onto that Cajun tag), and a small dish of the remoulade. Each crabcake was about the size of a two penny coin and about a centimetre thick - teeny basically. One side of each was a pale, insipid colour which really didn't look right and turning them over revealed each to be almost entirely black underneath. While they had once been hot, they were barely warm when they reached the table. The "Cajun" potato salad was merely a potato salad - try as hard as I could, I could not put my finger or tastebuds on anything remotely Cajun.
When the plates were cleared away, no enquiry was made regarding the starters. I find that quite significant - to me it says that the staff know the food is not up to standard and that they try to ensure you do not have the opportunity to complain handed to you.
The main courses arrived too quickly. My tagine arrived in a tagine (that cone shaped earthenware vessel used in north African cooking) but I am not convinced it was cooked in it as it arrived too quickly at our table. When the cover was lifted I expected the aroma of warm spices but it didn't come. The flavour wasn't right either, overwhelmingly tomatoes but none of those spices - no ginger, cumin, turmeric, star anise - nothing. There was a fair amount of fish and seafood but the dish had been heavily bulked out with chunks of courgette and artichoke hearts. I couldn't eat very much, it was just too much like a huge pile of tinned tomatoes.
The Thai curry came looking like a bowl of pale pink soup but investigation revealed a piece of salmon fillet and two pieces of white fish. The curry seemed bland at first but patience delivered a moderate kick. However, it was another rich dish, perhaps a little heavy on the coconut milk.
Again the plates were cleared without enquiry but I think the waitree may have heard us remarking on the standard of the food. The dessert menu was offered and I decided on the baked lemon cheesecake with gingerbread ice cream and limoncello chantilly. I asked the waitress to check whether it contained nuts and she returned to tell me it had ground nuts in the cheesecake base. I requested the creme brulee but this had nuts in the banana bread that accompanied it. Two other desserts also contained nuts that were not mentioned on the menu. In the end I gave up.
We asked for the bill and saw that it had a ten per cent service charge added to it as part of the total. We decided not to pay it as part of the bill but to leave our tip as we left. With half a glass of wine each we decided to put the bill to one side for a moment and finish the wine. The host noticed this and came over, asking if there had been a problem with the food. I told him my thoughts on the tagine and my disappointment that nut dishes were not highlighted on the menu. He said that they could not do anything about the nuts because head office designed and distributed the menus but that he would pass on my comments. He took the bill away and returned with a new one, explaining that he hd removed the service charge. When we pointed out that the charge was discretionary and that he had not done us any favour at all, his demeanour changed. We said that only the staff would lose out if he cancelled the service charge and that we weren't going to pay that amount anyway. His argument was twofold; apparently we should have said BEFOREHAND if we didn't want the service charge to appear on the menu and therefore we should pay it. The second point was that he said the staff were paid higher than in restaurants where the service charge was not included as a matter of course so they wouldn't suffer. Can you make any sense of that?
When I go to a restaurant I do not expect to go into the kitchen, cook the food myself and take it to my table. I also do not expect later to clear those dishes away and wash up. Why then should a service charge be imposed? Any sensible restaurant sets its prices according to the costs of the ingredients, the staff needed to prepare and serve the food and other overheads, as well as profit. I regularly tip and think that I am rather generous when doing so. Here I felt compelled not to leave anything because of the assumption that the service deserved it; it did not. It was mediocre to say the least; no interest in whether we had enjoyed the food, too hurried and the day's specials were gabbled so quickly I barely heard them.
Once more the bill went back; this time the service charge and the pirce of my main course were removed. We decided it might be best to pay up and leave. The bill had dropped from just over £60.00 to around £41.00 and I must stress that at no point had I expected a discount on the food. I had been willing to put the episode down to experience - an expensive one.
Livebait is over-priced for what is is; mains start at a shade under ten Pounds and increase at a steady rate. My tagine should have cost £12.95, one of the cheaper mains. At these prices I would expect the food to be faultless. I can eat at well-regarded non-chain restauarants for similar prices and come away feeling that I've had something really special. At £5.95 the crabcakes would have been reasonable if they had been perfect (and a little larger) but for these tiny burnt offerings I was ripped off.
I won't list all the prices here - the menu changes regularly and examples can be seen on the website. It is enough to say that three course from the a la carte menu with a mid-priced bottle of wine and coffees could set you back close to £100.00; for a chain I think that's outrageous. If you must go, go for the set menu - more reasonable and still a decent selection - usually a couple of fish dishes, a veggie option and a chicken dish.
I have learned my lesson; no more chain restaurants at these prices. Livebait just didn't deliver and it's customer service couldn't make up for the poor quality of the food. I'm off to Cork next week where I'll try again for a birthday dinner - one that memorable for the right reasons this time.
22 Lloyd Street
Tel 0161 8174110
Livebait Manchester has disabled access toilets although it has some quite high stpes at the entrance to the building. As a listed building this cannot be altered (Livebait claim on their website)
Summary: Overpriced, under spiced, fishy way of service charging