Review: superb steaks and a hidden gin bar at Alston Bar & Beef


A good steak is a wonderful thing. In a world of sharing plates, tasting menus and pretty-as-a-picture dishes that could almost be art installations, there’s something deeply reassuring about ordering a medium rare slab of beef.

It may not always be much of a looker, but when done well, steak is a unique joy. It’s a primeval pleasure of fire and flesh, from charred crust to satisfying chew, the robust savoury flavours giving way to sweet, bloody juiciness. It’s one of the few dishes that can silence an entire table, as the sound of chatter is replaced by satisfied sighs.

Luckily, Alston Bar & Beef does steak well. The 160-cover restaurant in the Corn Exchange, which opened late last year, is the first English branch of Alston’s award-winning Glaswegian restaurant.

The beef is supplied by John Gilmour & Co Ltd, an independent family run business established in 1946, and comes from the Tweed Valley in the Scottish Borders.

The menu features different cuts of beef including a chateaubriand and 500g T-Bone, as well as classic fillet, rump and sirloin cuts, with prices starting at £22. Each cut has been selected from the top one per cent of Scottish beef and dry hung for 35 days for optimum flavour before being cooked in specialist Montague ovens.

It’s pleasing to see some less ubiquitous cuts on the menu, too. A sharing platter of flank, hanger and flat-iron is superb value at £50 for two, offering three generous steaks with distinct flavours and textures and accompanied by triple-cooked chips or mash, vegetables or salad, and a choice of sauce or butter.

My 300g rib-eye (£30) was beautifully marbled, tender and succulent, the fat basting it with rich beefy flavour. The accompaniments were just as pleasing: rustic skin-on chips, cooked in vegetable oil rather than dripping but still flavoursome and well-seasoned; comforting, creamy spinach; and a buttery, tarragon-spiked béarnaise sauce.

Alston may specialise in steak, but the rest of the menu shouldn’t be overlooked. A starter of seared scallops and burnt ends (£12) encompassed slow cooked cubes of tender, full-flavoured brisket and three plump, juicy scallops with a smooth butternut puree, crispy onions and a green chilli emulsion.

A sneak preview of a new seasonal starter, not yet on the menu, sees the sweet scallops paired with Jerusalem artichoke mousse, buttered green peas, crisp pancetta chips and pickled wild mushrooms – a welcome taste of spring.

As well as the beef, the menu also features starters such as octopus and chorizo with bone marrow jus and fried potatoes (£7), and main dishes such as crab linguine in a bisque sauce (£14), and beetroot and goats cheese risotto with roast pumpkin seeds, walnut and basil (£13). And, of course, a premium burger, topped with pulled brisket, Swiss cheese and smoked chilli mayo (£16).

Manchester already has several tempting options for a high-end steak dinner, from the grass-fed British beef at Hawksmoor to the butcher’s cuts at Blackhouse Grills and the Argentinian offerings at Gaucho. Alston comes in at a similar price point, but can it compete with the big boys? The short answer is, yes.

One of the things that sets Alston apart is their passion for gin, which they are keen to encourage customers to pair with their steak as a change from the usual glass of red. The bar offers 62 gins from around the world, including several local brands such as Manchester Three Rivers, Thomas Dakin and Manchester Gin.

Alston’s bar is one of the first in the city to produce its own cold-compound gins, which have been created to accompany the steaks and dishes on offer as well as to be enjoyed on their own. Up to 14 cold-compound gins are available on rotation at the bar. And with a unique blend of plants and botanicals, many of which have been foraged from in and around Manchester, each gin has a distinct flavour profile.

A cold-compound peppercorn gin, which sees six litres of single-grain spirit infused for two days with 400g of peppercorns, makes a punchy sidekick to their full-flavoured beef. But for those who’d rather stick with the wine, the list includes plenty of choice by the glass as well as bottle, from Chilean Merlot and Argentinian Malbec to a pricier Australian Pinot Noir or Italian Barolo.

A cocktail list makes full use of the gins as well as other local ingredients, with a Cathedral Honey Bees Knees (£9) using Manchester Three Rivers gin shaken with honey from Manchester Cathedral and lemon. Thomas Dakin, with its distinctive red cole and orange peel flavours, makes a mean Negroni.

Guests enter the restaurant via a feature staircase from the external Cathedral Street entrance of the Corn Exchange, and are greeted by a small stylish bar centred around the venue’s extensive gin offering. Interior design and architecture practice Jestico + Whiles have done a splendid job transforming the place, and the eye is drawn to a 10m-wide mural feature wall specially commissioned by Manchester-based street-artist Tank Petrol.

But if you’re looking for somewhere comfortable to really relax with a cocktail, it’s worth checking out the secret hidden gin bar, 1837, downstairs. Tucked away, and not something Alston have shouted about, it’s a real hidden gem. Until now.

Alston Bar & Beef, Cathedral Street, Corn Exchange, M4 3TR


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