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Restaurants: It's only rock'n'roll but I like it

The interior of Manchester's Reform restaurant is pure decadence. Shame, then, that the food is a bit hit and miss. Photographs by Ged Murray
Though it opened last September, Manchester's Reform only registered with me when I read an article listing it as one of a handful of British restaurants which have recently started serving absinthe. Intrigued, I asked a friend who lives in Manchester whether he'd ever eaten there. "Yes - it's pretty good, in a wild Bill Wymanesque sort of way," he replied. Now that's a description which would have many potential diners running for the hills. Not this one. Plans to meet there were swiftly drawn up, though the recent arrival of my friend's third baby meant that we were confined to a sober lunch rather than an evening of absinthe-fuelled excess.

It didn't matter - just walking into Reform is a trip in itself. For sheer theatricality, the lobby more than equals anything in London or New York. An enormous red-carpeted staircase sweeps up into a first-floor bar, in which the original features of a Victorian gentleman's club have been sexed up with acres of scarlet velvet and animal-skin print. The room, divided by a huge, curvy bar, is both monumental and monumentally louche, and seems to have been designed to provide the missing link between a nightclub and a Cambridge senior common room. The plush designer sofas put the "bonk" back into banquette, and walls and carpets are a glorious, unrepentant purple.

Waiting for John at the bar, I felt distinctly underdressed, though in this setting, even Bet Lynch would probably have felt a little dowdy. A couple of expensive blondes perched next to me were treating themselves to Champagne and strawberries after a hard morning's shopping. "Cheshire wives," whispered John when he arrived. "They love it here." Despite its decadent decor, Reform apparently attracts an older, straighter crowd than the minimalist Mash and Air, Manchester's other city-centre hot spot, and most of our fellow diners were smartly suited businessmen.

The dining room is conceived on the same massive scale as the bar, and contains what must be Europe's largest sofa. John pointed out a raised, tiger-striped alcove where he'd once spent an uncomfortable evening getting to know a new boss in a setting that would have been more appropriate for Noel and Meg's first date.

Other rock'n'roll touches include candlesticks fashioned from brass busts of naked women, and a big sculpture, made from bendy wire, of a bottle of Absolut vodka. The long menu, which includes daily specials, takes you on a brisk trot around the Modern British block.

I started with char-grilled vegetable tabbouleh, which came prettily arranged on a huge plate surrounded by a drizzle of mint raita. But the chef apparently belongs to the "here's one I prepared earlier" school, judging from the tabbouleh's fridgey chill. As the dish warmed up, it developed more character, but by then I'd scoffed most of it - the enormous scale of Reform doesn't apparently extend to the servings. John did better, both in size and content, with macaroni of mussels in a creamy herb sauce, which he found comforting, if not particularly exciting.

My main course of roast halibut was served on a cake of bubble and squeak, which would have been fine, had our waiter not advised me to supplement my order with a redundant side dish of mashed potato. Further questioning revealed that he'd been with Reform for only two days, so the slip was forgivable. Less so was his earlier response when I'd asked him what was particularly good on the menu, and he'd replied "everything!" Given that this was his third day, he was either an optimist or a very quick eater. The mash, as it turned out, wasn't good at all; in the current fashion, it had been boosted with horseradish, giving it a waxy texture and overpowering taste. The halibut itself was overcooked, and only the accompanying lime hollandaise rescued it from terminal dryness.

John's cod and chips, however, were exemplary, as you'd expect so close to Harry Ramsden country. The fish was perfectly fresh, and came arranged on a Jenga-like lattice of big, meaty chips. Mushy peas, too, were excellent, their taste for once as vivid as their colour, and John pronounced them "Ivy-esque" in their perfection.

The huge floor-to-ceiling windows came into their own when the spring sun broke through and poured into the room in shafts that illuminated the blue plumes of smoke from our puffing neighbours. We agreed that with its candles, velvet drapery, and upfront sexy atmosphere, Reform was probably more of a night-time place. "It's like a vampire movie," commented John. "You get the impression that people's flesh will crumble when the sun hits them."

Puddings took an age to arrive, because I ordered a citrus crumble souffle. But it was worth the wait, combining the puffiness of a souffle with the comforting richness of a bread and butter pudding and tangy with lemon and orange zest. John's ginger creme brulee was also good, and served with pliable ginger biscuits. Over coffees, I asked our waiter what the place used to be before it became a restaurant. "A Liberal gentleman's club," he replied as though he'd memorised the phrase phonetically. Then he promptly gave the bill to John, though I'd requested it.

Including service, our lunch came to pounds 75 without wine, which is on the steep side, although looking around, you can see where the money's gone. Bernard Carroll, the Anglo/Belgian owner and designer, brings a new chef over from Belgium this month. If he succeeds in bringing the cooking up to the same standard as the decor, Reform will really get rocking

Reform, King Street, Spring Gardens, Manchester (0161 839 9966). Open Mon-Thur noon-midnight, Fri-Sat noon-2am. Private dining room. All cards accepted. No disabled access.

Manchester round-up: Bites, page 49