Masons Restaurant Bar sits within Manchester Hall, the former Freemasons Hall on Bridge Street. The Grade II listed building has undergone a multi-million pound refurbishment after remaining untouched for decades.
It’s a glamorous space, all oak panelled walls, ornate plasterwork and polished parquet floors.
It’s also a flexible space, with the restaurant offering several different dining settings under one roof, from breakfast to business lunches or a romantic evening meal.
Despite the gleaming marble bar, grand oak windows and plush green upholstery with hints of art deco, the restaurant manages to feel laid back, comfortable and welcoming.
That’s partly down to the friendly service and partly the toe-tapping playlist of Motown and soul classics on the Friday night we visited.
But it’s also down to the martini trolley.
A beautiful vintage style trolley, with a selection of gins and vodkas, vermouths, garnishes and jiggers, was wheeled out for us to choose our perfect pre-prandial aperitif (£12).
The bartender asked us whether we liked our martinis wet or dry (referring to the amount of vermouth added), with olive or citrus, and then proceeded to mix a bespoke drink.
Starting a meal with a strong, ice cold martini is a wonderful thing, harking back to the glamorous era of Mad Men or James Bond.
Remembering the wise words of Dorothy Parker, however, we stuck to just the one: “I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.”
But while three martinis would have been too many, three courses was just right, and there wasn’t a dud among the dishes we tried. Even the snack of sweet pea hummus with sweet potato crisps was good, an elegant accompaniment to the cocktails.
The menu is simple and unfussy, familiar favourites given playful little upgrades. Ingredients are sourced from across the British Isles, including Connemara organic salmon from Ireland, Goosnargh chicken from Norfolk, and Dukesmoor steaks from Cumbria.
My starter of scallop ceviche (£9.50) was light, fresh and zingy, the delicate scallops marinated in lime, chilli, red onion and coriander, with a touch of fiery radish and fresh, clean cucumber.
Kedgeree arancini (£7) saw arborio rice balls stuffed with smoked haddock and subtle curry flavours, fried until crisp, served with homemade piccalilli.
My main was delicious, sweet, firm fillets of red snapper (£18.50) served over a fragrant broth with braised greens and golden saffron potato pearls, with the warming hug of thin slivers of red chilli.
Tender Goosnargh chicken breast (£14.50) was filled with artichoke mousse, served with crisp shards of smoky pancetta and a seasonal asparagus, pea and broad bean cassoulet.
A heritage tomato side salad with warm vinaigrette wasn’t really needed but was welcome nevertheless, a rainbow of colours packed with summery flavour.
Desserts showed a playful side. Eton Mess (£7.50) had the addition of sharp lime jelly and granita alongside fresh, sweet strawberries and Chantilly cream.
Grapefruit panna cotta (£7) with a picture perfect wobble was creamy with a tart edge, dotted with crunchy pistachio crumb and served alongside a grown-up Manchester Gin and tonic jelly.
It’s a confident menu – simple and unintimidating, yet inventive enough to keep things interesting. The wine list is equally appealing, featuring predominantly European bottles starting from £20 as well as a handful of choices by the glass.
They also offer a port flight (£15), and Louis XIII cognac composed of up to 1,200 individual eaux-de-vie from Grande Champagne vineyards, ranging from 40 years to 100 years in age. A 10ml glass will set you back £40, or 50ml an eye-watering £190.
At the opposite end of the price spectrum, the lunch menu offers a selection of dishes such as a sirloin steak sandwich or kedgeree risotto with a runny poached egg for under a tenner, including a glass of wine or a beer.
And that’s the clever thing. The space and the service is just as warm and welcoming whether you’re in for a quick bite at lunch or a long, boozy dinner.
But I’m still thinking about the glamour of the martini trolley. Maybe it’s time to bring back the three-martini lunch, after all. Who’s in?