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The 39 Steps

Cat Johnson solves the mystery of a Cheshire classic

Published on June 12th 2008.

The 39 Steps

What makes something a classic? I mused over this conundrum following a recent visit to The 39 Steps in Styal. If the very definition of 'classic' is something that has an enduring interest, quality, or style, this long-running Cheshire eatery seems to have made it their watchword. Everything about the place, from its setting in the heart of a quiet, leafy village to the traditional menu (albeit with modern twists) screams elegance and easy charm. Actually it whispers elegance and easy charm; the truly classic would never be vulgar enough to scream.

The well-balanced menu had the three Fs (something with fur, fins and feathers) and a couple of credible veggie choices too.

The evening had began less promisingly, with me doing my usual trick of getting lost in the wilds of Cheshire, despite having clear directions courtesy of AA Autoroute. My long suffering brother, David, eventually managed to get us there without throttling me for my questionable navigational skills and we arrived a shaming 30 minutes late. I sheepishly approached the maitre d' expecting at the very least a withering look, or worst-case-scenario, directions to the Wilmslow branch of McDonald's. Instead he welcomed us warmly and was charmingly unconcerned about our tardiness. In fact he couldn’t have been nicer, which immediately endeared him to me and elevated him to the status of my new best friend.

The decor looked simple and elegant. A nicely muted palette on the walls and furniture built for comfort not just style created a chic yet relaxed vibe. All too often, interior designers go for style over function and give you chairs that are either too awkward to sit on (but look fabulous) or in the case of those at Ithaca, need you to take an A-level in How to Sit Down before you can work out how to get on. Sliding and swinging about on a chair can be a bit embarrassing, particularly if you’re on a hot date and want to appear the epitome of sophistication and poise. No such problems here though. It was all very dignified.

The menu had a traditional feel but avoided being prosaic by having enough twists to please even the pickiest gourmand. Well-balanced, it had the three Fs (something with fur, fins and feathers) and a couple of credible veggie choices too. I started with the ballotine of smoked foie gras, pickled girolles and spiced pear purée (£10.50). I paired it with a glass of Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2004 (£5.50). The sweet wine and accompanying pear puree gave the dish a delightful synthesis and I was in goose liver heaven. David had the simply served Cheshire smoke house smoked salmon (£8.50). Although the menu didn’t state it was wild salmon, I assume it was because it was dense, meaty and full of flavour with none of the flabby, fatty quality that you get with farmed fish. A squeeze of lemon on top and a glass of the Pouilly-Fumé Silice 2005 (£24.50) and he was good to go.

Mains were equally impressive. My sautéed calves liver with sage, caramelised onion and balsamic sauce (£18.50) was delicious. Calves liver is easy to make a complete hash of in the hands of a less capable chef. I speak from a grim experience in Velvet recently when I was served something that claimed to be calves liver, but resembled a ten-year-old dishcloth. It was tough, grey and nasty and it almost scarred me for life, but I’m glad I persisted because this liver was cooked pink as can be and was the antithesis of my earlier experience.

David had the sea bass served with lemon and herbs (£21.50). The fillet was chunky, fresh and cooked lightly to perfection.

The pairing of lemon and herbs in the dressing was delicate and fragrant, but wasn’t so robust that the natural flavour of the bass couldn’t shine through. Fat chips accompanied our mains because...well you don’t need a reason to order chips, do you? And they were chunky little lovelies. Needless to say, there were none left at the end.

My dessert of hot apple crumble soufflé (£5.50) was terrific too. It was as light as a feather and the sweet yet tangy apple stopped it from straying into dreary territory.

Despite my excellent choice, I still coveted my companion’s melting valrhona chocolate pudding with crème fraiche (£5.50). This lush pudding used the finest cocoa beans so it avoided the bitterness found in some dark chocolate. Instead, it had a smooth, melt-in-your-mouth finish. He let me have a taste, but no more. Family feuds have started from lesser incidents, but as he was driving and I was 20 miles from home I didn’t feel able to quibble. So is it a classic? I would say unequivocally yes. From our arrival we were made to feel comfortable and relaxed because of the unobtrusive but eager to please staff. And it had all the touches of fine dining; good linen, crockery you wouldn’t be ashamed to get out at a dinner party, and an elegance that didn't stray into stuffiness or formality.

The food continued that theme with its modern twist on old favourites and it also boasted a reasonably priced, 100-bin wine list so you’d struggle not to find something to pair with your meal. You also get the sense that this isn’t a place living off its former glory. Cheshire Life voted it their Restaurant of the Year in 2007/08 and on the evidence of my visit, it’s not hard to see why. In fact it’s definitely a place to stray out of the city for, providing you don’t get lost in the process.

Rating: 17.5/20
Breakdown: 8.5/10 Food
5/5 Service
4/5 Ambience
Address: 39 Steps
4 Altrincham Road
01625 548144

Tuesday-Saturday 12pm-2pm and 6:30pm-10pm
Sunday 12pm-4pm
Closed Mondays

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

SharonJune 12th 2008.

Would like to hear how this place compares to The Moss Nook??

You WhatJune 12th 2008.

Foie Gras? Don't you mean ducks and geese that are force fed to enlarge their livers four times? Confidential are lower than whale **** on the ocean floor for promoting this outrageous torture. Who does this Cat Johnson think she is?

Jason CozensJune 12th 2008.

Top site editor tip maybe!..... New users who don't realise (like me) spend some time adding a rant only to be sent to another page to register but by then they have lost there rant... would be better if the system saved their rant whilst registering.

Jason CozensJune 12th 2008.

I fully enjoyed my Birthday dinner at the 39 Steps with my family, especially because I share my Birthday with my mother. The staff were very attentive. I agree that the pudding was outstanding. Its a shame that it was a bit spoilt by the fillet steaks that my father, brother and I had which were all cooked 'well done' rather than the 'medium' and 'rare' that we requested. I thought my 1st visit was spoilt by this. This kind of school boy error did not seem to be characteristic of the place that had been painted in my mind by the recomendations of friends. A big part of me would like to go again but....

Jonathan Schofield - editorJune 12th 2008.

Dear You What person,threats aren't allowed so I've taken off the relevant sentences. I suggest if you wish to make us think about these issues then frothing at the mouth insults are not the way to go, try some clever arguments instead.

Stuie72June 12th 2008.

We went last Saturday for a friends Civil Partnership Anniversary. The food was excellant and the deep fried poached eggs were gorgeous. Full marks all round

mark mJune 12th 2008.

Foie Gras is stunning when done well. Just because you don't agree with it does not mean you have to be obnoxious yourself, YouWhatxxxx

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