[Manchester, city centre] The Rivals

We’d no great expectations of The Rivals (at the Royal Exchange Theatre, and open to non theatre goers, at both lunch and dinner). It was just somewhere handy to get an early dinner before the performance. So it was something of a surprise to find a well run restaurant that was punching above its weight, in terms of food quality and value for money. Twenty two pounds gets you two courses from a shortish menu – seven choices at starter and main. Another fiver would get you a dessert. You do need to pick carefully for that price, as several items carry a smallish supplement.

Many places with these sort of cheap menus offer tiny portions that could lead you wanting to get a bag of chips on the way home. But not here. There was a decent portion of confit salmon, just cooked through. It sat on a bed of sweet and sour cabbage which cut the richness of the fish perfectly, the crunch contrasting nicely with the softness of the salmon. The other starter was smoked mackerel rolled into a ball and given a breadcrumb coating before being fried to crisp. There’s cucumber for crunch and a blackcurrant pickle which you reckon won’t work but does.

As a main course, there was a sort of Italy meets the Middle East affair. Saffron flavoured risotto was cooked until pretty soft (not unpleasantly so, but not “al dente”) and was topped with cooked carrots dressed with lemon and the chilli heat from harissa. Crunch came from ribbons of raw carrot and a scattering of pumpkin seed dukkah. It all works well together.

Braised beef, kale and chips all sounds very straightforward but skill had been shown here. The meat was long braised in stout, which meant that there was a lovely, rich gravy. OK, kale is always going to go cold as soon as you look at it but this was otherwise fine. Which brings me to the chips. These are pretty much the perfect chip. Triple cooked chips. Chips that are chip sized – none of this “fat chip” nonsense. And they’re perfectly crisp on the outside and perfectly fluffy inside. And they taste of potato. And were just brilliant for dunking in that gravy.

Time was moving on towards performance time, so we passed on dessert and just had coffee. Good flavour but, as often, could have been hotter. Service had been on the ball and, as one crew member said, they are very proud of their food. And so they should be. Did I tell you how good the chips were?