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39 Steps, Styal, Reviewed

Jonathan Schofield is utterly bemused

Published on August 23rd 2012.

39 Steps, Styal, Reviewed

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Being a food critic is one of the world's best jobs but even the most po-faced scribe would hardly consider it the most important.

Critics aren't saving lives or building engines or securing investment into cities, all we're trying to do is use our experience to say whether restaurants are any good. This gives readers a guide as to where they should spend their money.  

39 Steps needs to lower prices and do the basics properly. It needs to heat things properly. It needs to ditch slabs of flatulent courgette. 

Still reviews have value. 

When a venue is exceptional or very good a review can help sustain or improve the place, ensuring jobs, and maybe spring-boarding successful careers.

Linen and lean-toLinen and lean-to

Negative reviews are another matter.

Reviewing can be, forgive the pun, absolutely critical, for those restaurants on the end of a proper kicking. 

This is especially the case when a writer's being negative about independent restaurants that don't have the safety nets of chains and groups. The latter have economies of scale, marketing teams and numerous outlets to spread the burden should one of their number suffer condemnation. Indies are separated from the pack.

So when attacking independent restaurants you have to tread more carefully as a critic. Livelihoods are much more directly affected. But still you owe to the reader to tell the truth.

Which brings me to 39 Steps in Styal.

Oh dear. I really wish I hadn't gone.

In every negative food review there's farce as well as tragedy.

Farce began our meal.

"Who's the chef?" I asked the waiter as we looked at the menu.

"What do want to know for?" he said.

"Er....so who is it?" I eventually said, wondering if this was a game as he grinned at me.

"A very talented one," he said.

I think he may have stated a name at that point - but I'd moved on.

"Well, did the person in the kitchen create the dishes on the menu?" 

There was a nod - I think.

It was a curious attitude from the waiter when you consider that 39 Steps in Styal is the most expensive place in the region I've visited in perhaps two years. 

Of the six main courses not one is under £23. Sides are £3.75 a pop. The cheapest starter is almost £8 and the rest are over £9. Wines are astronomically priced. 

This is odd. It's certainly odd reading the prices on the menu and noting the fading varnish job on the floorboards and the lean to extension with a plastic corrugated roof. 

How much?How much?

If you're pitching things this high in tired surroundings then a restaurant's food has to very very special and its service equally so. 

Unfortunately for 39 Steps the best thing we ate was free.

This was an on-the-house amuse of a feta stuffed cherry tomato. Juicy and full of finesse. Tiny. It's the main picture at the top of this page.

The rest was a catalogue of errors apart from a couple of individual components such as the haggis with the lamb and the flesh of the pigeon with the starter but not the tepid peas, beans and ham that came with the latter. 

Goodly munchkins haggisGoodly munchkins haggis

Temperature was a major problem throughout.

Most of the food was underheated so flavours drained away and merged in muddy dullness.

In complex mains with descriptions such as Parma wrapped monkfish tail, fondant potatoes, tomato and sweet garlic butter (£23.75) this killing chill was compounded by a lack of care in constructing the dish.

Parma ham monkfish thingParma ham monkfish thing

Both with the tepid lamb (£24.75) and the monkfish, strange unannounced extras had been stuffed on the plate in the form of bricks of courgette cut lengthways. Were they to fill up the plate? Mange tout was almost as prolific as well.

Bring me courgettesBring me courgettes

Farce had nipped in early again with my starter of goats cheese, pinenut croquette, pickled beets and honey. It was £9, lukewarm and lacking in the delicacy of handling these ingredients required. The goats cheese mix was Polyfilla claggy, totally wrong.

I told the waiter.

"What do you expect, it's goats cheese?" said the waiter. 

My jaw dropped, and if it hadn't been a review visit I might have left there and then.

The implication was that the restaurant had only put this on the menu as a sop for veggies, so clearly it wasn't going to be any good, was it?Naughty. And nine pounds sterling.

Worse was the lemon pie dessert (£7) with souffle topping, that was freezing at the base and almost warm at the top. When I cut into it a watery goo ran out, and the whole thing began to smell of stink bombs. Completely horrible. And very brown. I would have even welcomed some courgettes to add colour and vibrancy. 

39 Steps 035The lemon stink bomb pie souffle - dull to look at disastrous to eat

Apparently the cheeseboard my dining partner had was good, but the waiter didn't bother telling us the names of the cheeses.

The fact that the £35.25 Pouilly Fuisse was also decent seemed immaterial given the poor food. 

The whole occasion was disconcerting in the extreme.

I first reviewed 39 Steps several years ago when John Thompson was the chef. This talented man has recently been helping create excellent food at Cicchetti in the city centre.

I recall a particularly good take on the classic of scallops and black pudding. 

I don't recall the breath-taking prices.

And I don't recall service which attempted to be funny and sharp but ended up slapdash and sarcastic. 

As for the food on my latest visit, the ambition in the kitchen was in no way matched by the experience on the plate. 

39 Steps needs to lower prices and do the basics properly. It needs to heat things properly. It needs to ditch slabs of flatulent courgette. There is no point in trying to be fancy before doing the basics. 

There is room for a restaurant such as 39 Steps in this part of the region, but the whole place on the evidence of my visit needs a massive re-think.

It's horrible giving a proper kicking to indies such as this, but really if reportage is the name of the game then what can be done in these circumstances? With those prices and that execution I almost feel the customers here are being mocked.

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here @JonathSchofield


39 Steps, 4 Altrincham Road, Styal, 01625 548 144  

Rating: 7/20 

Food: 3/10
Service: 2/5
Ambience: 2/5

PLEASE NOTE: Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20, we get carried away.

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53 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

pollolocoAugust 23rd 2012.

Went many years ago when it first opened under new management and it had the chef from the Aurora (Duncan something?) and the food was good. Haven't been in years beacuse the reputation locally is that's it's gobe to the dogs. They seem to be concentrating their efforts on sister restaurant Bacchus in Prestbury although having been twice I wasn't overly impressed and it certainly didn't justify the hefty prices. I notice they now have A boards outside offfering "deals"...always a sure sign of a struggling business.

pollolocoAugust 23rd 2012.

Poyser!! Don't know whether he's still involved though!

Simon TurnerAugust 23rd 2012.

"Deals" not always a sign of a struggling business - midweek deals and quick lunches etc are a realistic and sensible thing to offer I would have thought. Anyway, "Deals" the least of the worries at 39 Steps judging from this JS review!

AnonymousAugust 23rd 2012.

Sarcasim from a waiter is something that i really can't abide. Had i been spoken to in such a manner, said waiter would, at the very least have been wearing said tepid lamb dish

pollolocoAugust 23rd 2012.

Hi Simon...I was talking about Bacchus.....I live locally and drive past daily.....there seldom seems to be many customers, although weekends there are a few tables occupied. With the prices they charge it becomes a "special event" type of place for most people. My issue is that the food doesn't really stand up to the high prices.

StuieAugust 23rd 2012.

We have been on a number of occasions and have always found the service food and venue to be great. We are recognised as soon as we walk in and made to feel very welcome. The food has always been very good and the wine reasonable. I know it is not the cheapest of restaurants but you got what you paid for. You also have to remember that this is the opinion of just one person.

StuieAugust 23rd 2012.

oh! by the way. The deep fried poached eggs are AMAZING!!!

David AddisonAugust 23rd 2012.

Aah John Thompson, and 39 steps ,had some great nights in their with him,that man can cook!he had a very interesting social life as well! Great bloke great Friday nights,he once opened upon New Years Eve and let me have a party there. His food was always great in particular Steak poivre. He'd even cook you egg and chips if you wanted! Whatever happened to his daughter (sonya) ? She was the front of house for a few years but then?

1 Response: Reply To This...
John ThompsonSeptember 21st 2012.

Hi david,
thanks for the compliment they were very good times , i am now working at the stag great warford and doing great things there still cooking like crazy but still have that passion regards JT

RevaulxAugust 23rd 2012.

In the good old days it was on South King Street, and was up there with Cocos and the "old" Yang Sing as one of the few really decent restaurants in Manchester

suzyblewAugust 23rd 2012.

interestingly it is owned and managed by John Rebecchi who for a long time was restaurant manager of the Alderley Edge Hotel so I'm surprised you haven't mentioned him. The menus read quite similar.

bigearsAugust 23rd 2012.

Way too pricey for a local Restaurant. Much rather spend my money in Abode, Room or Harvey Nics. Plus I cant stand rude waiters

GordoAugust 23rd 2012.

A great shame. Absolutely shocked at the pricing.

Francesca MorrrisAugust 23rd 2012.

Sonia Johns daughter now ownes a restaurant in Sale called Table 10. She owns it with her husband Eugene who was the chef at 39 Steps king street when John opened Styaland ran that. He first started working with John in King Street for a couple of years before he became head chef, so has learnt many of Johns techniques as well as being a talented chef himself.
Table 10 is the sort of restaurant that 39 used to be many years ago, you want egg and chips Eugene will cook it for you but it would be a shame to ask for that as you would be missing out on his other fantastic food.
Defo recommended

1 Response: Reply To This...
David AddisonAugust 23rd 2012.

Hi fran how are you? I remember Eugene well , h was a good chef, do they have a web site, only I can't find it. Do you have any involvement with the restaurant?

Colin CampbellAugust 23rd 2012.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion but I strongly disagree with JC's review. My recent experience of 39 steps was that there were no quality or temperature issues with the food and the service was professional without being pretentious. The prices were also on a par with similar quality restaurants. We should be doing all we can to support the independent restaurants, and interestingly 39 steps will always cook you a favourite dish even if it is not on the menu, if you ask politely!

JohnthebriefAugust 23rd 2012.

I used to love 39 Steps on King Street, slightly blurred memories of many a happy evening in there

1 Response: Reply To This...
John ThompsonSeptember 21st 2012.

Hi john you and many others it was a great drinking hole for many

Julie BramallAugust 24th 2012.

Table 10 in Sale is fantastic. Visit recommended.

1 Response: Reply To This...
John ThompsonSeptember 21st 2012.

i agree

David AddisonAugust 24th 2012.

Last night I went to San Rocco on South King st. Considering San Carlos closed for refurb I would have expected it to be busy. It wasn't it had about 6 tables in, . The service was surly and the food quality poor, this used to be a reasonable venue but it's on it's way down at the moment ,BUCK UP!!

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousDecember 17th 2012.

It's gone down hill since the famous old school Italian head chef retired a couple of years ago.. Mondo I think his name is..

pollolocoAugust 24th 2012.

I'm puzzled...why expect San Rocco to be busy just because san Carlo is closed??

3 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousAugust 24th 2012.

Well people have to go somewhere ,we cant all eat tinned spaghetti hoops every night!

pollolocoAugust 24th 2012.

Fair point!

CobbydalerSeptember 2nd 2012.

Umm, exactly. How many (mediocre) Italian restaurants are there in the city centre?

Julien YatesAugust 24th 2012.

Don't take this snapshot as the norm! We go to 39 Steps and its sister Bacchus in Prestbury at least fortnightly, and the food and service is brilliant. The service is always friendly and the food is first class. If there is something you want that is not on the menu, they always accommodate (oranges in Grand Marnier with ice cream dessert). Give them a try - you will NOT be disappointed!

AnonymousAugust 24th 2012.

Well if it's normaly good then there must be some poetic justice in a local critic turning up and getting screwed out of £100+ for a crap meal and service. Restaurants should not be treating any of their customers with this level of contempt.

Kris CullineyAugust 24th 2012.

Why do you want to know the chef? I dont understand? what that has got to do with anything? A crumb has not ascended to your lips!

6 Responses: Reply To This...
Charlie ButterworthAugust 24th 2012.

Kris, so there is something wrong with asking who the chef is as a reviewer? Eh

Kris CullineyAugust 24th 2012.

I just wondered whether your there to review the food, service and ambiance? and I don't know why asking the chef's name prior to eating the food is relevant. If I was reviewing a restaurant that was owned by Gordon Ramsay and I asked who was the chef and it it wasn't him.It would put preconceptions in my mind. Additionally I cast no aspersions on the reviewer but i am sure he knows a lot of chefs and has given a number of chefs around Manchester both good and bad reviews. However if for example the reviewer had given the said chef a number of glowing reviews are expectations not raised prior to dining. Additionally if the sous chef is cooking at a famous chefs restaurant are expectations not somewhat lessened.

AnonymousAugust 25th 2012.

For pity's sake Kris, the problem isnt that he didnt find out the name its that the waiter was rude to him.

Charlie ButterworthAugust 26th 2012.

He didn't ask who was cooking that night just who the chef was? I do this too, so I know who wrote the menu.

Kris CullineyAugust 26th 2012.

So execution, skill,timing, presentation has nothing to do with it? Your as bad as him. Additionally I think he did mean who was cooking.

pollolocoAugust 27th 2012.

Take a chill pill Kris...there'snowt wrong with asking who the chef is ffs!

Kris CullineyAugust 25th 2012.

Rude? possibly, but who goes in to a restaurant asking "who's the chef"?As I see it an impertinent answer to an impertinent question.

Adrian WalshAugust 26th 2012.

As a regular customer of both Bacchus and the 39 Steps, i am bemused by this review.

The food has always been of great quality, and i know this quality doesn't come cheap.

I find Juan and the front of house team to be excellent, they always have a smile and will fulfill your dining wishes when they can.

A food critics opinion is just that - an opinion. and with opinions like this ... well...
Stop living in the 80's and get real. If you want cheap food - try the pub next door. it might just be what you're looking for.

Simon TurnerAugust 26th 2012.

What's the name of the pub next door, for future reference? And do they serve bricks of courgette with their pork scratchings?

1 Response: Reply To This...
pollolocoAugust 27th 2012.

The pub next door is The Legh Arms and it doesn't have the pretensionsof Bacchus. What it does have though is great service, atmosphere and good value simple food. You'll find that this is ther reason the Legh is packed out whilst the staff at Bacchus twiddle thumbs.

Local ChickenAugust 27th 2012.

Polloloco, with your vast knowledge of all the eateries north of Watford, all your criticisms that follow most reviews, dont you think you have missed your vocation in life & it is your time to show us all how it should be done ?

1 Response: Reply To This...
pollolocoAugust 28th 2012.

Just my personal opinions local...that is the point of a comments section isn't it?

RayAugust 28th 2012.

Worrying review, but on a lighter note, the wine list is sensational - really low markups, and breadth and depth in equal measure. It more than compensates for the food prices. I'd rather pay another tenner on the food while saving £30 on the wine.

max fineAugust 28th 2012.

Anyone else feel a little smug that JS had a not-so-fantastic time? After consuming a number of below-average meals having initially visited based on a glowing ManCon review, I can certainly say I am.

In fact I had resisted going to places recommended by this site this past 6 months, but I might just give this place a go now... least I won’t be disappointed.

Looks like they didn't recognise you Schofield and wheeled out the same 'New deal' chef the rest of us get after one of your preliminary visits.

Bitter? I don't think I will ever forgive ManCon for THAT Australasia write-up...!

2 Responses: Reply To This...
Jonathan SchofieldAugust 28th 2012.

Max, keep on reading.

a bottle of beer pleaseSeptember 12th 2012.

Max, oh my. friends and family?

Matthew MooneyAugust 28th 2012.

For info; John Thompson is alive and well and cooking at the Stags Head in Great Warford.
He has totally revitalised the food offering there and he still has one of the biggest smiles in the industry.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousSeptember 4th 2012.

thought he was at Chicchetti?

John ThompsonSeptember 21st 2012.

just doing my job and enjoying myself at the same time thank you Matthew

RdrAugust 28th 2012.

Me and my wife have eaten at the 39 steps for years and have always found the food and service first class.

It seems that your experience is definitely not the norm!

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2012.

After visiting 39 steps many times I have eaten the pigeon dish and the "tepid" salad is actually a cold salad. And "Parma ham monkfish thing", what were you expecting? It is what it says! Maybe you should pay more attention to menus before ordering!

AnonymousSeptember 11th 2012.

I live approx 200 yards from the 39 Steps and agree, the food is crap & way too expensive. We'd love a decent local restaurant.

Joel SandersonSeptember 12th 2012.

My wife and I have been eating at 39 Steps since it changed hands 6 years ago, and i can honestly say it is our favorite restaurant. I accept that the a la carte menu is not cheap but considering the quality of the ingredients and the cooking, it is worth it.
However there is no need to pay so much because the fixed price menus offer a good choice at a reasonable price. Sunday lunch in particular, is excellent value and the room seems to be full of regulars.
Finally, I must say I have always found the service friendly, if sometimes a bit informal, and any requests for alterations or even something not on the menu, has always been met with helpful courtesy.

Steven LeeSeptember 14th 2012.

I live about 5 miles from The 39 steps, worth the drive great food great service, you should try Sunday lunch good food and prices.try pub food and see what i mean,keep it guys.

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