There's no smoke without fire. And there's no Smoak without fire, either. It's just a shame that the fire here comes in the form of a three-storey illuminated billboard promoting this restaurant on the building opposite, which flickers distractingly all the time.
Smoak is a big deal in Manchester; or so the bods at Malmaison want us to think – that many LED units don't come cheap. The hotel has revamped its brasserie and it now comes tricked out with glass-fronted chiller room with great chunks of raw beef on display, in that fetishised way we have come to know.
The décor is vintage Americana, all dusty Coke crates and leather banquettes (although from outside all one can see are lengths of chain and rope, slightly offputtingly. I'm not sure what message the hotel was sending with that one).
I'm in Manchester to meet readers of The Independent on Sunday's sister paper, i; a group of engaged, smart folk who are not backward at coming forward on a wide variety of subjects – not least where to eat out in Manchester. None has yet been to Smoak; perhaps I've misjudged the appeal of the steak shrine here. Or perhaps Malmaison has?
The menu is big in both dimension and range. There are the expected smoky sections of Josper-grilled cuts of beef, and a Smoakburger; there are five varieties of chips; there is corn chowder, shrimp cocktail, buttermilk chicken, ribs – all the usual diner-deluxe standards. But hotel restaurants must keep half an eye on the returning guest, I guess, so there are also fishcakes, curries, risotto and noodle soups. It's a bit muddled.
There's no arguing, however, with the provenance of what's on my plate. A spanking-fresh shrimp cocktail is £10 . (From here on, I refuse to use the fraction affectation. It's all across Smoak's menu, like a Key Stage 3 test paper.) The gargantuan crustateans drape over the sides of the dish like the tassels on Ariel's cocktail dress.
Rebecca, my long-suffering office wife, is drawn to goat's cheese and apple hush puppies with red-pepper jelly (£5.50). This is mainly out of curiosity, since she has never before had these Southern cornbread balls. Three humungous boulders arrive on a rough-hewn wooden platter; another modern restaurant trope ticked off, I note wearily. They're a bit pappy, we agree, but the flavour is good.
The duff dish is Archie's steamed gnocchi with spring onions, chestnut mushrooms and Parmesan (£6.50). I'd never have ordered that lacklustre line-up anywhere. We find it stodgy and bland.
By sticking to the standards, I've done best: my rib-eye steak (£28 for 350g) is superb. The cut is excellent – marbled and thick – and they've not messed it about, just Jospered it so the exterior caramelises and the meat inside is tender and a deep pink. Could have done without the slightly charred and greasy bone marrow on the side, though.
Accompanying onion rings and a mac and cheese are no match for the high bar set by London's Meat Liquor, but they're decent enough and assist manfully in soaking up the Bloody Marys.
My companions are kind enough to order from round the edges of the menu to test the scope, but a pan-seared duck breast with oyster sauce and citrus-sesame noodles (£17.50) is only just passable: undercooked skin, uniform grey colour, challenging texture. I should have let poor Rebecca order a steak, too, but since she is standing in for the equally long-suffering Mr M, she understands her duties. Archie appreciates the size of the fried buttermilk chicken (£11¾. STOP WITH THE FRACTIONS, ALL RIGHT?), but once past the heavyweight batter, the meat is, says Archie, underpowered and almost dry. He's a fan of the paprika skinny chips, though, so that's all right.
We're defeated by the portion sizes and can only pick at a shared peach Melba (£5.50). By now the half-empty room has completely emptied and a trip to the loo turns surreal as I tune in to what's playing over the PA – a live recording of a comedian doing stand-up, complete with loud guffaws of the audience. Just, why?
We could have gone on to Ember, the lounge privée, where "the fire never dies", but – one suspects – the atmosphere is going to take some serious fanning to get going. As we leave, the virtual flames from across the road illuminate the empty tables. Would the last one out please turn off the lights?
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Smoak Malmaison, Piccadilly, Manchester, tel: 0161 278 1000 Lunch and dinner daily. £100 for two, with wine
Cheyne Walk Brasserie
50 Cheyne Walk, London SW3, tel: 020 7376 8787
With its fabulous Gallic food – much of it cooked on an open grill – this romantic venture can seem a find – though you might feel the experience is no match for the bill
Grill on the Alley
5 Ridgefield, Manchester, tel: 0161 833 3465
A place to suit all ages – this buzzy, slick city-centre surf 'n' turf outfit has a great location (just off King Street) and its amazing steaks are a highlight
62 St Mary Street, Cardiff, tel: 02920 387 376
The city-centre venue of choice for those in the know – a sawdust-on-the-floor, first-floor operation, where you choose your steak or fish from the chiller-cabinets
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012' www.hardens.com