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Dining in Styal - or is it?
The 39 Steps Restaurant (Styal, Cheshire)
Member Name: koshkha
The 39 Steps Restaurant (Styal, Cheshire)
Advantages: Sorry, I'm struggling.
Disadvantages: Tables too close together, rather expensive for what it is, a bit pretentious
~The name – why the 39 Steps?’
In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller the ‘Thirty Nine Steps’ was a secret and deadly espionage organisation and the hero, Richard Hannay, spent a lot of time running around trying to solve mysteries and kissing strange ladies in trains. So what’s the connection to the restaurant by the same name? Does the owner have the top joint missing from one of his fingers? Do the waiters poison your soup or chase you round the car park? Simple answer – I honestly haven’t got a clue.
Apparently it’s the second restaurant to carry this name – the other is or was (I can’t get a clear picture on that) in the centre of Manchester. This branch in Styal has existed for some time but went under new management in September this year so any reviews pre-dating that are now likely to be out of date. The current management team consists of Duncan Poyser (in the kitchen) and John Rebecchi (front of house). Apparently they worked together at the Alderley Edge Hotel before taking over at The 39 Steps. Their website describes the style as “Modern British fine-dining” using locally sourced produce.
Please note - I suspect that the photo on the dooyoo listing may be the 'other' 39 steps as it doesn't look a lot like the one I visited.
~ High Expectations ~
Some members may know that I very recently got a new job in Manchester. On my very first day one of the guys in the office was raving about how great the 39 Steps is – so good that ‘even my Mum was impressed’ he enthused. The next day other people said they’d been for a lunch meeting there and thought it was great. So when my new boss announced we’d be going out for dinner with a couple of visitors I was quite excited that it would be at the 39 Steps.
~Where is it?~
Styal is just around the corner from Manchester Airport and approximately 3 miles from Wilmslow. Styal is a posh place so as you might expect they make the planes take off and land in the other direction ensuring that they fly over the poorer people’s houses – strange that! It’s not a town and it’s barely a village – there’s not a lot there but it does have the fabulous Styal Quarry Bank Mill which is a National Trust place (I think – check the website before you take my word on that) and is well worth a day out. It also has the largest prison for women offenders in the area but not too many of them will be getting ‘Modern British fine dining’.
The 39 Steps is on Altrincham Road, located between a pub and the cricket pitch, a stone’s throw from the Mill park and a few minutes walk from the teensy little railway station. All in all, it’s a lovely location.
~ The Restaurant ~
The car park is directly outside and would probably be too small on a busy night as you tend to see a lot of cars parked out along the road. Nice cars of course – this IS Cheshire after all. You enter through a door that’s up a few steps – not 39, just a few. Is there wheelchair access? I’m not sure. Maybe they could sneak you in through a back entrance but it didn’t look to me like the regular entrance would be good for anyone with mobility problems. And once you are in, there are steps to go down again.
The restaurant is in a sort of solarium/ summerhouse type building – lots of glass windows all round the outside. I didn’t get a great look because it was dark. The tables are quite close together and mostly rather small. It’s a ‘thick white table cloths’ sort of place with an air of ‘hold your breath, you are in for a treat’.
~ Our Experience ~
I was with the boss – who’s American – and two French visitors. We had an early booking at 7 pm because they’d taken early flights and been up since stupid o’clock that morning. We were the first in by about half an hour – so why did we get squeezed into a tiny table in the corner where I was being attacked by a large pot plant? It was a Tuesday evening – they can’t have supposed the place would be full. Our table was so densely packed with water glasses, white wine glasses, red wine glasses and so on that there was barely space for the odd lily-type flower and the piece of sprouting bamboo (I hate that stuff – what’s the point of bamboo unless you are a Panda?)
The menus arrived and confused the heck out of our French lady; a sheet for the set menu, another for starters, one for mains and the puddings randomly shoved on the back of one of the other sheets. It wasn’t at all obvious how the ‘system’ worked.
Now here’s where I confess to something that invalidates me as a restaurant reviewer forever more and shames me for my many years in the food ingredients business. Fact is, I’m not actually all that bothered about food. I ought to be capable of getting more excited but I’m pretty much in the ‘food as fuel’ camp and I’m fairly hard to impress with the ‘slab of fish and some veg’ type meal (I’m only really moved to great excitement by really fiery oriental food).
The waiter – or maybe he was the manager because he was much too grown up and wise to be a schoolboy waiter on minimum wage – came over to take our orders. We needed more time to get to the bottom of the menus and sent him away with just the drinks order. Never try to rush the French when they are engrossed in a menu.
~ The Menu ~
There’s a full a la carte or a ‘menu of the day’ with a restricted choice of maybe three or four starters, a similar number of main courses and some deserts. The 3 course Menu of the Day is about £25, which I would guess is maybe 20-30% below the a la carte. I’m always prone to the MotD because I figure they’ll be turning it over quickly and it’s what they want us to eat – I’m very accommodating like that even when it’s not my money that I’m spending.
On the standard menu the starters are £8.50 with a couple of them carrying an additional supplement of £2. I can’t help thinking that’s a high price for a starter. The main courses vary from £15.50 for a vegetarian option, through £18.50 for most of the dishes, up to £22.50 for a couple that carry a supplement. Desserts are probably the closest thing to a bargain at £5.50 each.
Wines range from house wine at £15 a bottle which is also available by the glass (there are TEN house wines listed on the wine menu!) up to grand whites at up to £115 and fancy reds at around £200.
~Placing the orders~
Five or ten minutes later and the chap was back again and we were ready. I’d been quizzed on what I thought a few of the terms on the menu meant and had a go at guessing – it’s one of those places that calls a spade an ‘earth moving implement’ so there’s quite a lot of pretension in the descriptions of the dishes on the menu. I ordered a seafood starter – a scallop something-or-other – perhaps a mousse - and the guy taking our order told me that it also contained crab and prawn. I was impressed that he filled me in on those other ingredients – a lot of people have quite selective allergies to odd types of sea food. Not me – I seafood and eat it (sorry, that’s a very old joke). The two men ordered starters and our French lady passes – saving herself for desert.
For main courses I ordered salmon, the boss went for sea bass and the two French visitors for duck. We turned our attention to the wine list which naturally out of sheer terror at making a total cock-up, we passed to the French. After some deliberation and consideration of what had been ordered, they choose a bottle of Chateuneuf du Pape to go with the duck and a Chablis to go with the fish. I thought to myself that actually that was a bit predictable and I could have managed to choose those myself. The wine arrived along with some water a few minutes later and it became very apparent that there really wasn’t enough room for all the glasses. The bamboo and lily were unceremoniously dumped on the window sill with the ice bucket.
The red wine got the star treatment – a decanter was placed in the middle of the table and a widget called a ‘decant-air’ placed in it. This is a sort of spraying funnel device that squirts the wine out sideways and aerates it. The server admitted that it’s 50% for aeration and 50% for sheer dramatic performance.
The bread arrived and was fantastic – for me a slice of onion bread which had layers of an onion-jam type substance inside. It was unusual and very tasty and I would have welcomed a second small slice.
~ The Food ~
The first thing I noticed when the food arrived was the plates were cold. My ‘scallop-whatever’ is too warm to be chilled and too cool to be warm. The texture was a bit rubbery and the flavour was not overly impressive. It’s like something you might pick up in M&S for a treat. Writing this a week later I’m struggling to remember much about it so I can conclude that it was not only not impressive but also not memorable.
My salmon arrives next and I was reminded of the advice of chef Anthony Bourdain in his excellent book ‘Kitchen Confidential’. He advises against ever having the fish special on a Monday because it’s probably been in the fridge since Saturday. It’s a Tuesday and the 39 Steps isn’t open on Mondays. I thought to myself that my salmon had probably sat in the fridge through Strictly Come Dancing, Songs of Praise and an episode of Eastenders before it got to my plate. It had that slightly metallic off-taste of salmon that’s past its best. It was served on some very hard vegetables that go beyond al dente and the so-called ‘chive buerre blanc’ was represented by a several millimetre deep pool of oily ‘stuff’ in the bottom of the bowl that didn’t taste much of anything. I hate fat and oil and there was nothing I could do to drain the stuff. Maybe if it has been hubby and me I would have checked nobody was looking and siphon it off into a saucer or the annoying pot plant but I was with new colleagues who I certainly don’t know well enough to pull such a stunt. I was really disappointed by how thoroughly average the dish was and how old the salmon tastes.
The two French tucked into their ducks and I put on a brave face and covered up that my salmon was less than perfect. I’m a guest after all. I had dinner a week later with the French guy and asked him – off the record, not to be repeated – what did he think of the meal. I was really wondering if it was just me but he admitted that he’d found the food quite uninspiring as well.
By this stage a few more diners had arrived and a couple more tables were taken. Two ladies were knocking back the champagne at the table next to us. I used to play hockey at a club just over the road from the restaurant and recognise these as what we use to call ‘the Merry Wives of Wilmslow’. They ate very little and knocked back the booze as if it were water. Their table was so close to ours that the waitress couldn’t top up our wine because there wasn’t enough space to get between the two tables. On a full Saturday night it might make sense but we can’t help feeling a bit oppressed by the proximity.
I wasn’t intending to have a desert – it seemed like it might just be too risky after the first two courses. But when I discovered that the sorbets included lemon and passion fruit (my two absolute favourites) I knew I had to give them a go and I’m glad I did. The passion fruit was a stunner and the sharpness of the lemon set it off beautifully. It was almost good enough to compensate for the previous disappointments. We passed on coffee and asked for the bill.
~ The Damage ~
Well of course it’s rude to pay too much interest in the bill when someone else is paying but I snuck a little look and it was around £170 for the four of us. My rough guess would be that the wine, water and aperitifs would have been around £60-70 and the balance would have been the food. It wasn’t shockingly expensive but I’ve certainly had a lot better for a lot less in nicer surroundings.
Would I go again? If I was paying with my own hard-earned cash then I doubt it. If I was invited and it would be rude to say no (which is likely to be the case) then it might be churlish not to go - but I think I’d be trying to propose alternative venues if I could. On the basis of what I ate that evening, I’m amazed they’ve got a second venue and I would be putting my money into an investment in a third.
There’s a sector of the restaurant review readership that I know always wants to know about the toilets and I am going to have to disappoint. I was so wedged in the corner with my pot plant that even if I’d wanted to go and check out the facilities I’d have struggled to get out of my corner spot. Sorry about that and I’ll try harder next time.
~ Address ~
The 39 Steps Restaurant
4 Altrincham Road
Tel – 01625 548144
Summary: Too dear for what it is and rather disappointing