Artless dining

Manchester's newest gallery, The Lowry, is an impressive location for a restaurant. Shame about the food, though
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Indy Lifestyle Online

That terrible song about matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs. It haunted me all the way to lunch at The Lowry in Salford. This is the trouble with going only, or mainly, to eat rather than admire the art or the architecture at millennium landmarks. Even if you give a flying buttress what the place looks like, trivia such as annoying theme tune becomes disproportionately important.

That terrible song about matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs. It haunted me all the way to lunch at The Lowry in Salford. This is the trouble with going only, or mainly, to eat rather than admire the art or the architecture at millennium landmarks. Even if you give a flying buttress what the place looks like, trivia such as annoying theme tune becomes disproportionately important.

Not that eating is supposed to be irrelevant to art. It now constitutes a vital part of the experience offered to (and the revenue extracted from) visitors to these cultural landmarks. Hence I've dashed in and out of the Tate Modern for lunch, jumped on the escalator to The Portrait at the top of the National Portrait Gallery, wolfed canapés at the Royal Opera House. Being there only for the cod in beer batter might sound philistine, but those who run these places collude in the café-with-a-gallery approach to marketing: lure the consumers in for a drink and a snack, then slip them a bit of culture on the side.

The Lowry, a triumphantly brilliant jumble of glinting, stainless-steel-scaled shapes teetering on a promontory of water-locked wasteland at the end of the Manchester Ship Canal, was designed by Michael Wilford at a cost of £60m. Mostly funded by the lottery, Salford City Council, which has amassed a collection of the painter's work, also chipped in. The theatre seems to occupy the greater part of the satisfyingly complex performing and visual arts equation; the galleries are at furthest remove, contrastingly white walled compared to the blaze of orange, yellow, purple and blue of walls and even carpet that everywhere else in the exuberant building challenge the drabness of the artist's palette.

While they don't thrust the pictures in your face, there seems to be a café round every corner, the most impressive being the glorious sweep of the bar looking north from the prow of the building across water, ships and razed land. On the level below, Steven Saunders at The Lowry restaurant aims higher - it's a destination as much as a cultural pit-stop.

Steven who? The self-styled celebrity chef first found fame on TV's Ready Steady Cook. A son of Salford? If he is, he's not saying. Saunders, an undoubtedly talented chef with a seemingly unsatisfied craving for the limelight, has two restaurants outside Cambridge - the florid and cottagey Pink Geranium and its more brasserie-like neighbour, Sheene Mill. Except for the perceived need to have a crowd-pulling name, it's a mystery worthy of one of the touring theatre companies why his name appears in lights at The Lowry. Presumably he visits occasionally to draw up the menus - which shows, in the veloutés and sabayons, the classical basis of his Savoy training, plus judicious additions of Chinoiserie - then leaves as many chefs as will fit into the minute kitchen to execute them.

A Wednesday lunch was punctuated by tannoy announcements that the afternoon performance was about to begin. Though the restaurant wasn't full they were turning people away, perhaps because the kitchen - a stainless-steel galley inconveniently parked in the middle and obscuring from much of the dining area the view across the canal - is too small to cope with a full house. Demonstrating the power of the grey pound, the matinée audience had bagged the best seats, leaving us a far-flung and only partly laid table. Well-intentioned but uncoordinated service did little to remedy this. There were no napkins; we weren't offered bread for the side plates we didn't have, but apprehended someone else's as they sent it away, having already reached their main courses; then we had to flag someone else down to get butter. A fork and a spoonful into two of the starters, and we noticed there was no salt or pepper on the table. Seafood terrine - mainly salmon and cod mixed with crÿme fraîche - lacked the property that distinguishes sea from fresh water. "Bland; like something you'd get at a wedding reception," said one friend. A soup of potato and leek, disappointing choices of vegetables to represent the essence of early summer was, agreed the other, "dramatically under-seasoned".

After starters short of salt came more pronounced-tasting main courses that nevertheless erred towards the sugary. Cod came in a sweet cream sauce, with ratatouille and "crushed" saffron potatoes (with their skins); lamb's liver was expertly cooked so the outside was dark, the inside contrastingly pink, with spring-onion mash, mange-touts and green beans and a respectable meat stock and Madeira sauce. Slices of duck were also cooked with notable skill, so the skin was crisp and irresistible, the fat melting and the meat - always a hard trick to pull off with duck - tender. Underneath were beansprouts, sautéed greens and a sweet plum sauce already familiar from the third starter of Chinese-style beef. Some carbohydrate would have given ballast to this otherwise satisfactory plate balancing.

Apart from a well-textured brioche-and-butter pudding with a little too much (salted) butter in relation to sugar, puddings made a poor impression. A tasteless cheesecake on a breeze-block base of ginger biscuits was redeemed by a pleasing slick of toffee sauce and caramel ice cream. But a white-chocolate torte brought to mind the legal definition of tort. With a thick raspberry jelly on top, it failed in its duty to provide creamy satisfaction.

If the menu aims just beyond the grasp of the kitchen, prices, however, are easily within reach. They're very fair, with a two-course lunch for £10, three courses for £12, and set dinners for £12 and £16, although an à la carte has mains from £11-£15, raising expectations that I'd be surprised to find met.

Though it's prepared with care and some skill, the food lacks character; it's cooking with elocution lessons - without any distinguishing accent, regional or otherwise - following the received pronunciation of a supposedly celeb chef.

As it should be, The Lowry is a vibrant monument to culture that remains etched on the memory. It helped me forget the maddening matchstick men; but there's nothing much to remember about the food. It is, after all, incidental.

Steven Saunders at The Lowry, Pier 8, Salford Quays, Manchester (0161-876 2121). Daily lunch 12-3pm and dinner 5-6.45pm, 8-10pm. All cards accepted. Disabled access

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