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21st February 2013

The Albert Square Chop House

How does The Albert Square Chop House fare in the shadow of its older brothers?

The Albert Square Chop House is the newest addition to the Victorian Chop House Company, which already boasts two restaurants in Manchester and another in Leeds. From word of mouth, it is clear to see that the existing Sam’s Chop Houses and Tom’s Chop House are fairly well-received amongst those in the know.

Needless to say, I was very excited to be visiting the youngest member of the family. It claims to provide ‘classic British cooking with a modern twist’ – as a bit of a non-term, I was eager to explore and perhaps challenge this idea. Surely the nature of a chop house builds its own concept?

It is housed in the Memorial Hall, a beautiful Victorian building that exudes regal splendour before you’ve even entered the establishment. Its interior then hugs you with dark wood, which not only bolsters the aura of tradition and hearty Victorian-era fare, but it is also somehow in no way oppressive or smothering.

Sitting in the booths of the restaurant, you can see up to the bar above. Its upstairs floor doesn’t quite reach the large windows of the building’s fascia and thus creates some sort of semi-mezzanine to the restaurant. This, I loved, as you could hear the comforting, distant hum of conversation upstairs. However, some of the music drifting down from the bar left a bit to be desired, alternating bizarrely between the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Script and Rihanna.

For starters, we ordered the scallops with pork belly and watercress purée, and the steak tartare. The scallops were perfectly cooked, their softness dutifully allowing my knife to slide through them effortlessly. The pork belly sat alongside in neat little cubes, the crackling of which was crisp but thin so that it could be eaten without jarring your teeth together, but had enough delicate crunch to satisfy. The steak tartare also sung such succulence, with a beautiful pickled tang flecked throughout and a generous portion size. My fellow diner had never eaten raw steak before, and I felt happy that this was her first experience.

Our mains were the lemon sole with orange and chicory salad and the roast loin of venison. The lemon sole was delicious, and the simplicity of the dish let the flavour of the fish speak for itself. The salad that came alongside the lemon sole did not overpower, instead adding a delicious citrus layer and a pleasant crunch. The loin of venison was served with a humble mound of mashed potato, spiced red cabbage and a venison faggot. Once again, the meat’s flavours were central to the dish, and the life that had been taken for the purpose of our bellies was to some degree honoured.

This is perhaps the charm of places like this: allowing the tastes of the meat or fish to shine through, without trying to mask them with trivial and elaborate accompaniments. We live in quite a carb-centric country – it may not reach the levels of Italy, but there is still some sort of odd fixation that isn’t always necessary. That said, vegetarian dishes also don’t appear to be a mere afterthought; the Homity pie sat high amongst my potential choices, as did the curd and beetroot salad starter.

The raspberry soufflé for dessert did not disappoint, rounding the meal off deliciously. We also ordered the whimsically named ‘chocolate soup’, due in part to our cynicism for it. Oddly enough, the supposed ‘soup’ had been baked, so that the consistency was not fluid like one would presume, but had the very slightest wobble to resemble more of a mousse. It came with rubbles of golden honeycomb and a scoop of milk sorbet. As to be expected, it was on the whole quite tasty, but it was by no means imaginative. It was nothing like the theatrical image we had been thinking of, with a lack of Wonka-styled novelty that might warrant its presence on the menu. Perhaps opt for the more traditional desserts that are on offer, with a buttermilk posset and ginger parkin just a sample of what I expect to bear more substance.

Overall, I really enjoyed the food, and the staff were very friendly and attentive. Having napkins snapped for you feels a bit unnecessary in such a place – as though some of the wrong elements of fine dining have been embraced – but generally, service was excellent.

However, the one thing that struck me most was just how quiet the establishment was. The bar upstairs was fairly busy when we first arrived, but after ascending from the restaurant below with a satisfied post-dinner plumpness, we were met with an eerie silence. The buzz of its older brothers, Sam and Tom, doesn’t appear to have spread to the baby of the bunch.

After dinner, I decided to trawl the depths of the internet to suss out The Albert Square Chop House’s online presence. I found a neglected Facebook page and limited material on the internet. The company website for the Chop Houses also appeared to be guilty of favouritism amongst its offspring, proudly displaying Sam’s Chop House – both its Manchester and Leeds locations – and Tom’s Chop House, but failing to remind us that there was another.

The Albert Square Chop House deserves a lot more by means of advertisement, as both building and food proved to be pretty much what I’d want from a restaurant. It has the finesse of more refined dining, but the approachability and comfort of somewhere much more relaxed. Portions are generous but not oversized, instead relying on the rich flavours of hearty meat and vegetables. For me, this is a great combination, and I just hope that others choose to seek it out for themselves – because it doesn’t appear to be enjoying much self-promotion.

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