Monday, 27 September 2010

The Cartford Inn - Little Eccleston, Nr Preston

Call me old fashioned, but I don't like to be lied to. I know, it's an old prejudice that I just can't get over, but I especially hate it when there is no need to be lied to.

Arriving at The Cartford Inn on a Friday night we had expected a long wait for a table or to be turned away, especially as we hadn't booked ahead. After Chinese whispers through four staff we were told we had been squeezed in to a table, but they were completely full and we would have to relinquish it by 9pm at the latest (it was 7pm at this point so we weren't worried).

As we were 'squeezed in' we were lead upstairs to the slightly more formal mushroom dining room where surprise surprise, we were the only ones in (and there were at least six or seven tables up there). For the next two hours (we were good and left at 9pm) we were only joined by two other couples - very busy indeed.

The Mushrooms

I'll stop moaning now and talk about food - I know that's why you're here.

The Cartford Inn is a sleek gastropub, recently renovated in light wood, contemporary wall paper and many pictures of mushrooms. This is mirrored in their menu with it's mix of British classics, local produce and Mediterranean influences - though not many mushrooms (much to the delight of my dining companion, the massively mushroom phobic male solicitor).

To start we decided to share two of the wooden platters between the four of us - the antipasti and the Fleetwood seafood. Both were laden with food and good value for £8.95 each. Especially worth a mention was the smoked duck breast; pink, soft and with a delectable hint of wood smoke. The crevettes on the seafood board were massive, two of the largest specimens I have seen in my life and cooked brilliantly to boot.

Antipasti platter (minus quite a few bits, the boys were tucking in)

Following this came the mains, the boy's Chef's signature dish was a well executed oxtail and ale suet pudding (he's Northern, he needs suet to survive). The oxtail unctuous, soft and comforting in a rich gravy; the suet soothing, salty and warm all served up with a massive beetroot salad (there must have been at least three beetroots in there), plus a smooth mash and some seasonal British beans.

The chef's special and all its beetroot

Having spent the whole weekend feasting my way round the outskirts of Preston and the lower Lakes I wasn't feeling up for a whole main, so instead chose two starters to come out with the main dishes. The Lancashire Cheese tart was just a tasty cheese and onion tart as you'd find in any good pub. But it was the soft shelled crab on the shore that raised a smile.

Lancashire cheese tart

Consisting of soft shell crab, potted shrimps, samphire and chili jam, the dish could have come out with some pretty standard presentation. However, the chef had the good sense to make a beach scene and present the whole crab breaded, the shrimps as a sandcastle (replete with little plastic spade) and a jelly fish made of samphire and chili jam.

Soft shell crab on the seashore

If the taste level of the dish had matched the level of fun then we'd have been on to a winner. The chili jam was great, as were the local shrimps, the contrast in textures created an exciting dish - it was just the crab and the samphire that let the dish down. The samphire was cold and soggy and the crab was more breadcrumb than meat - the crumb was nice, I just wanted some more crab!

Overall The Cartford Inn is a great place for sleek pub food, served in in a comfortable and modern environment. Other than what I guess was an attempt at pushy table-turning by the manager the service was impeccable and attentive - the waiter was very knowledgeable about the food. And other than the soft shell crab being more style than substance - the food was pretty good.

And the gin and tonic issue? This is the only establishment I have been where I have asked for a cucumber in my Hendricks and been given one - they even went to the trouble of going to the kitchen to cut me a slice without a grumble and asked my opinion on the advantage of it over lime or lemon - what jolly nice people, gold star!

Ps - if approaching from any other way than through Little Ecclestone, then take change for the tollbridge - it's 40p each way.

Price for four including: two starters, two platters and three mains (we ordered drinks at the bar): £70.82

Value for money: 7/10
Atmosphere: 7/10
Service: 6/10
Food: 7/10

Total: 27/40

The Cartford Inn, Cartford Lane, Little Eccleston, Nr Great Eccleston, Preston, Lancashire PR3 0YP - 01995 670166,

Cartford Inn on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Izakaya Samsi - Manchester

Not matter what many people tell you cheap is most often not cheerful. I am highly suspicious of things I think are too good to be true. So imagine my surprise in enjoying a very cheap meal in the basement of one of Manchester's premier Japanese restaurants.

Izakaya Samsi is the newest addition in the rapidly growing Samsi chain of restaurants in Manchester. Located in the basement underneath Samsi Manchester, Izakaya sets out to recreate a type of Japanese drinking establishment that serves heartier food than bar snacks. And hearty it is! Myself and the welsh fashionista spent hardly anything and ate like kings in the process.

With thanks to Samsi
To start we both ordered the miso soup, plus the vegetable gyoza whilst we read through the rest of the menu and tried to decide what to have from the many delectable dishes on offer - and after what seemed like an age fashionista chose chicken katsu AND the yakiudon, whereas I was a little more restrained and went for the bento box; although it was hard not order a curry as well -  there was a special offer of all curries half price (working out at about £2 per massive dish!). It almost seemed rude not to order one.

Our tummies were rumbling after we'd had the miso, as even though we were the only other group in the izakaya, service was very slow.  This is due to the server doubling as the cook, therefore having to prepare everything and see to all the customers' needs at the same time.

However, the wait was worth it. When the food arrived it was very generous in size and had a good flavour for the cost we were paying. For twice the price I have eaten dishes of the same quality (or worse!) and a smaller size in other parts of Manchester.

My bento was especially good value at £4.50 for two large pieces of expertly cooked salmon, a large mound of  well cooked rice (not cold, not soggy, just right), pickles, seaweed and sauce. The bento has the added advantage of offering many different combinations including; gyoza, salmon, chicken, beef, teriyaki, katsu, noodles, rice and so on - and if you order takeaway it comes in a proper bento box.

The good value bento
Fashionista's katsu was a large portion of very crispy chicken in panko, nothing special, but thankfully with no taste of stale oil and no pieces of gristle. His yakiudon was massive and delicious; we had to apologise to the server/cook for how much we wasted (I did question two mains did I not Mr WF?).

Katsu and the massive yakiudon

The overall quality of the food wasn't Michelin star, the service was slow but very attentive and friendly, the izakaya was noisy (due to an extractor fan) and was cramped in next to the shop. But for the cost, the taste and overall experience I couldn't have asked for more. For the price we paid and the time we had it was indeed everything I could wish for from a Japanese pub in a basement and am already booking in with the boy for our next visit (well, I couldn't not take him with his favourite dish being katsu, could I?).

Workers in the area should also be aware that Izakaya Samsi is open for lunch and has a takeaway option. Thankfully I don't live or work anywhere near, otherwise I'd be twice the size I am right now!

Price for two including: three starters and three mains (we bought drinks separately) - £17.70.

Value for money: 9/10
Service: 6/10
Atmosphere: 6/10
Food: 7/10

Total: 28/40

Izakaya Samsi, Basement, 36-38 Whitworth Street, Manchester M1 3NR - 0161 279 0023

Samsi Izakaya on Urbanspoon

Monday, 20 September 2010

Charango - Chorlton, Manchester

Having spent many years practicing eating, I have been largely been disappointed by every South American restaurant I have ever eaten in; so much so that I have stopped eating in them. Largely this is due to fried everything, substandard steak and the belief that smoked paprika and harsh chili are the only flavourings found throughout the whole of the continent.

It was with a heavy heart and many trepidations that I agreed to meet a friend at Charango, Chorlton's South America tapas restaurant (I have similar issues with tapas, so you can imagine the state of mind I was in).

Charango has a large decking area to the front and big glass windows that open out on to it. Lovely if it's a summer day/you're in Europe; however this was Manchester, it was raining and it was the first day of a very full cold for me so I was not happy having to sit in front of them and wrapped myself in the boy's jacket to compensate. The cold feeling wasn't even tempered by the bright colours on the walls and the relaxed feel of the place - the tiling and lack of people in Charango positively exacerbated it.

To combat the cold in my feet and the one in my head I started with Mayan Hot Chocolate - 'a pre-Hispanic recipe of ground cocoa nibs, ancho chili, annantto and spices.' This was a soothing, warm concoction of full milk with a not too sweet, not overpowering chocolate flavour and an underlying warmth, rather than a full on spiciness (thank god). I'm not one to suggest miracle cures but my cold cleared up the next day whereas my colleagues at work suffered all week. Whether a miracle cure or not it's certainly worth stopping by just for this.

We relocated indoors towards the back to see if I could warm up, it was very quiet but we were eating early (4pm Sunday). By the time we had finished the tables were half full and the place was starting to buzz.

Charango interior - with thanks to
As there were three of us we took advantage of the small plates at Charango and decided to share. Food came out quickly and mostly all together. A smooth, sweet and creamy pepper salsa coming out first with the rest of the plates being added a few minutes later.

I always order squid, I see it as a benchmark on the quality of the restaurant. Charango's chili squid from the small plates menu was very well cooked, soft and tasty, apart from one or two pieces that came out slightly chewy. From the same menu we had the bacalo fitters, which were salty and soft, really moreish and the salsa served with them was smokey and fresh. We also had the fresh crab empanadas (small pasties), the pastry of which was lovely and crisp with a soft and fresh filling; the sweetness of the crab being off-set by the zingy spring onion and jalapeno.

Unfortunately there was no slow roasted pork or black bean and sweet potato stew left, but the quality of the rest of the medium sized plates made up for this. The Black Bean, Pork and Beef Feijoada really lived up to the description of being a 'wonderful stew' - the sauce was deep and savoury with a smokey underlying taste; the pieces of beef and pork small but wonderfully soft.

Pork Meatballs were quite large in a smokey, tangy tomatoy sauce - which livened up and complimented the sweetness of the pork. Puerto Rican adobo chicken skewers were small, but well flavoured and the minute steak and prawn skewers were expertly cooked with medium beef and soft prawns (again prawns are another benchmark ingredient I find).

Whoops - no pictures of the food - we ate it all before I could remember to take a picture!
Even though we were stuffed I was intrigued by Charango's Mayan Gold Chocolate Cake - this was a squidgy, dark, rich torte with quite a strong chili flavour - unfortunately unlike all the other dishes which highlighted Charango's expertise at layering flavours the cake had that annoying throat-hurting, harsh chili, rather than a warmth in the mouth. Although the lime creme fraishe did help somewhat towards extinguishing the fire in my throat, this was a disappointing end to a satisfying meal and I wish I had chosen the churros.

Mayan Gold Chocolate Cake
Charango is a great place to go for a sharing lunch/informal meal with friends and the chili based dishes, heavy with flavour and savouriness will soothe out any hangover/flu/cold/general malaise. The food is satisfying and warm with only a few mistakes (such as the cake). It is good to find a restaurant that recognises the different flavours and personalities of chilies and structures dishes around this; rather than in other places where it's all jalapenos, smoked paprika and finger chilies only. This can also be seen in the pairing of salsas with dishes, and having more than one type of salsa available.

Charango scores extra points for the fact that their menu is made up of fairtrade, free-range, outdoor reared, responsibly and locally sourced ingredients without the exorbitant prices or continual menu boasting in every description of every dish as you would find with most other places - a very refreshing change and something I, and hope many others, will support.

Cost for three including: one dip, three small plates, three medium plates and one pudding (drinks were bought separately): £43.35

Value for money: 9/10
Atmosphere: 6/10
Service: 7/10
Food: 8/10

Total: 30/40

Charango, 456 Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton Cum Hardy, Manchester M21 0BQ - 0161 881 8596

Charango on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Retreat - Bolton

After a long day and no sleep the night before there was nothing I wanted other than someone to cook my food, and I didn't fancy one of the boy's accidentally grilled pizzas. Not being too far from Retreat the boy and I decided to give it a go as we had been promising for a while to pop along.

There is nothing more disappointing than arriving at 8pm to find half a restaurant booked out by an accountancy firm with no tables free till at least 9.15pm unless you want to go outside and freeze on the patio. However Retreat's owner (from across the modern, stylish room no less) noticed our fallen crests and within five minutes of sitting outside and pestering the waitress over the possibility of the patio heaters being lit, we were whisked back inside to a thousand apologies about how the table we had magically been found wasn't his best table (more restaurants should remember it's these little touches that makes their patrons feel like the only people who matter in the world).

Sitting at the table it wasn't the worst; it wasn't one of the lovely booths that Retreat is famed for, but it certainly sat both of us and had space  for the food, without being in a draft or smelling of toilets - that's ok in my books.

Having already seen Retreat's menu a few weeks back (we have been promising to go for ages) I was unsure of the style of food as it seemed to err on the side of grilled. To start we ordered some bread as my tummy was rumbling and I swear the boy was almost fainting off his seat. Retreat's bread starter was three large doorsteps of bread; soft, chewy and fresh accompanied by two oils - chili and lemon. I'm not sure about the lemon oil as it tasted of lemon curd, not savoury in the slightest and something I didn't want to eat or even liked, but for some reason was exceptionally moreish, like rubber-necking at a car crash.

Mains followed and I had chosen the venison and this turned out to be a scrumptious dish (it should have been for £17.95). The meat was very tender, succulent, tasty and just the right shade of pink accompanied by the best carrot and swede mash I have ever tasted in my life (sorry Mother). The dish was served with a pot of honey, an unusual but entirely brilliant addition that I enjoyed dunking my soft meat in.

Venison and THE best swede and carrot mash
The boy had chosen duck and asked for it pink - when it arrived it was a little over cooked, but very well seasoned and still very soft, with a lovely chargrilled flavour. The apple puree was slightly sharp really complimented the sweet, rich meat. Overall the whole dish was very tasty, although served with asparagus - I'm not one for serving food with ingredients flown half way around the world when are still in bean season here and there are plenty of other seasonal alternatives that would have gone just as well.

The boy's duck
Mains were quite large and we were quite satisfied and full, however the puddings were calling to me with their sweet little song to me (it's only something girls can usually hear). The boy was very upset to learn that all the custard had gone (shock!) so he settled for a coffee. I was having none of that and ordered the tiramasu - Retreat's version would make any traditionalist eat their hat as this was more of a light coffee, chocolaty mousse than the usual layered version. In saying that this was an extremely enjoyable interpretation, beautifully flavoured and quite light (though I still couldn't manage the whole of it!).

Yum, yum, yum, yum and um...yum
In all Retreat is a brilliant little getaway, especially as good out of the city food can be hard to come by unless you are very keen on pubs. The service was brilliant, the food was very good and most of all it sure beat having to cook for oneself.

Ps - Don't use Google maps to find Retreat as it sends to you a Victorian terrace in Horwich where you won't find food, unless the tenant of the house is obliging enough to open her freezer to you. Retreat is in between Lostock and Bolton, peeping out from between the large houses and leafy trees of Chorley New Road.

Cost for one starter, two mains, one pudding, one coffee, one large glass of wine, two beers and one gin and tonic: £76.00

Value for money: 7/10
Atmosphere: 8/10
Service: 8/10
Food: 8/10

Total: 31/40

Retreat, 319-321 Chorley New Road, Bolton, Greater Manchester BL1 5BP - 01204 849313

Retreat Restau on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Home Farm Shop - Bispham Green, Nr Wigan

The Home Farm Shop is a farm shop on steroids. Owned by Ainscoughs, the Parbold family that have been farming the area for the last 200 years and who have built up a 'group of select, pubs, hotels and restuarants' throughout the North West, the shop sells their organic and high welfare produce; plus a delicious selection of other goodies and is next door to their pub The Eagle and Child.

Home Farm Shop boasts an impressive meat counter selling the Ainscoughs' organic beef from their farm in the area (the 1600 acre farm converted in 2000), plus organic lamb and pork from Mansergh Hall and Matson Ground organic farms in Cumbria.

Although the meat is organic it is surprisingly good value and is aged for at least 21 days in the shop's chillers. Better quality, low food miles and better welfare is something I'm happier to pay a little bit more for (I think the two lamb steaks we bought turned out to be £1 more for the same weight non-organic at the supermarket).

Plus at the meat counter of the Home Farm Shop I (and more importantly the Boy) made the best discovery ever - home-made black pudding! The square pudding is made with fresh blood in store by the butcher (he's great) and has a lovely spicy flavour with not too much fat - a great find that the Boy (a true northerner) ensured I bought enough for at least three breakfasts. I would like to make a very controversial comment about this controversial product - it's better than Bury's.

Not only a great selection of meat, the shop boasts a cheese counter with such delights as Blacksticks Blue and Stinking Bishop, plus less well known cheeses - the staff are very helpful and will guide you to a cheese that suits, plus choose the right accompaniments - I had never thought of plum bread with blue cheese (it's a type of spiced fruit loaf), but turns out to be a great companion on my cheese board.

The rest of the shop is taken over by numerous jams, chutneys, oils, chocolates and other premium store cupboard products. It's hard to go in here with a budget and stick to it! They also sell my favourite chocolate - Montezuma's Dark Chocolate with Orange and Geranium; dark, slightly orangey with a lovely floral flavour, doesn't last long!

The Home Farm Shop also sells organic and non-organic locally produced fruit and veg. You can't plan your weekly shop before you come here as the produce is very much what's in season and what is available to them - this is the only place I have been able to pick up damsons when in season so it's always worth a trip to see what they have.

Being placed next to The Eagle and Child and being part of a hospitality chain, The Home Farm Shop makes good use of their alcohol sourcing. The shop is stocked with a good selection of wines, real ales and ciders, plus organic versions of all. The staff at the shop are again very good at pointing you in the right direction and we walked away with a very good Fleurie (we raised a glass that night to The Home Farm Shop).

The Home Farm Shop isn't cheap and you can't do your weekly shop here (unless you're talking about the meat and then you can), but as it goes it's the most well stocked farm shop I've come across with a genuine care for sourcing good quality products with a cracking butchers. Why not pop into the Eagle and Child whilst you're there (you won't be disappointed with the food their either).

Opening hours -
Mon-Tue: Closed
Wed-Sat: 10am-5.30pm
Sun: 11am-5pm

The Home Farm Shop, Bispham Green, Near Parbold, Lancashire L40 3SG - 01257 462624

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Eagle and Child - Bispham Green, Nr Wigan

Sometimes you have a longing for a proper pub; a pub with dark wood, flagged floors, proper ale on tap and a log fire (ok, the fire was off as it was a hot day, but you're getting the picture). The only thing about a 'proper pub' is that you run a gauntlet with the menu: chicken nuggets, scampi, flabby chips and pickled eggs, if you're lucky.

Thankfully there's the The Eagle and Child in Bispham Green: stone floors, check; dark wood, check; real ale on tap, check; typical menu, thankfully no.

The Eagle and Child is a cosy pub, especially if you sit near the bar and not in the dining room (book ahead and ask) and features one of the best food menus I've seen in a pub for a while. The food on the menu is mainly from local suppliers and there is a large emphasis on using high-welfare meat and plenty of game, especially on the specials menu (which is very long and actually much better than the bar menu) and also includes meat reared on the farm that also owns the pub (and the farm shop next door).

Being a Sunday the Boy decided that he couldn't let the massive yorkshire puddings being paraded past our table go, so he and the Make-up Artist decided to opt for the traditional beef roast. Myself and Daddy decided that we would kick of the beginning off the season and help the local farmers by ordering the wood pigeon with wild mushroom and pancetta gravy.

The beef roast was a big dish including two different types of potatoes (the boy was in heaven), two big, thick slabs of beef, a massive home made yorkshire and gravy. The roasties were good and crisp, not a patch on Mother's (but then whose would be?), the beef wasn't served pink (much to the boy's dismay), but was soft and well flavoured. And the yorkshire pudding? Large and lovely by all accounts (there was none left for me to try!).

The roast beef (and the boy's hand)

The pigeon was a little more of a cultured affair with three large breasts served pink, only one was slightly dry. The birds had been hung well as most of the meat was soft and had a lovely gamey flavour that some establishments are too scared to highlight these days. The pancetta and mushroom gravy really complimented the rich meat, though was slightly too salty for my taste (but I am known for being particularly fussy with salt).

The pheasant

On Sunday main dishes at The Eagle and Child come with a side of veg; this day's being carrots, cauli and ratatouille. The carrots and cauli were just plain boiled, fine with the rest of the dish and had a good crunch left in them. It was good to see somewhere trying to be a bit different with the inclusion of the ratatouille, however it had been overly reduced and was very tinny tasting. Against fish or light chicken dishes this may have been a great compliment, but against the heavy roast and the meaty pigeon the flavours clashed and the ratatouille was so flavourful it almost drowned out everything else.

Side veg with the overpowering ratatouille

Again the parading dishes caught the Boy's eye and he couldn't let the apple crumble and custard go. Compared to the mains the puddings at the Eagle and Child weren't up to scratch. The crumble was soft and overly sweet, and I swear the custard wasn't home made. Make-up artist's crannock was a soft dish of cream, oats and whiskey with a few raspberries thrown in. This pudding presented with far too much cream and not enough oats, whiskey or raspberries - more fruit would have lightened the dish up no end and provided a refreshing juxtaposition in what was otherwise a very heavy and disappointing end to a fabulous meal. However compared to the traditional pub puddings of Sara Lee black forest gateaux these were ambrosia (just like the custard).

Cost for four mains, two puddings and two pints: £65.99.

Value for money: 7/10
Atmosphere: 7/10
Service: 6/10
Food: 7/10

Total: 27/40

The Eagle and Child, Bispham Green, Parbold, Lancashire L40 3SG - 01257 462297

Eagle & Child on Urbanspoon

Monday, 6 September 2010

Embers - Haworth

Another girly day with Mother and stuck for where to try for dinner we asked the Haworth locals, not the usual small north western town type people - the inhabitants of Haworth are far more likely to know the difference between a jambon iberico de bellota and jamon iberico de cebo than which Jedward is which - and after establishing that yes, we have already eaten at Weavers, and no we didn't want to drive up on to the wild and distant moors, then we were pointed many times in the direction of Embers.

Embers is located half way up the quint cobbled street that marks the middle of Haworth and is hard to miss with its cream front and glass covered balcony.

Dining in the middle of the week we were shown upstairs, as the downstairs dining room facing the open kitchen is closed unless it's very busy. However, we were not dissapointed as we were seated in the glass covered terrace - the romance of eating out in the dusk without the chill of the British weather and the nip of the millions of bugs.

The menu at Embers features modern British food such as beef wellington and pan fried duck breast with the influence of countries such as Italy and Thailand.

After a large meal the night before (and a large lunch), (and a cake and coffee), (and chocolates) Mother and I fancied nothing too heavy and what really cried out to both of us was the Little Stew of Crayfish and Mussels, Pernod and Cream topped with Puff Pastry. Although this dish was a starter the staff were more than happy to bring us a larger portion size and only upped the price by a few pounds (rather than doubling it as happens most places elsewhere), and the portion was really very generous.

Small stew of crayfish and mussels

The dish was indeed light even though the sauce was all cream. The pernod and some stewed fennel added a wonderful aromatic aniseed flavour that really lightened the dish up. The whole seasoning and flavouring was very carefully and expertly done as I had been worried that the dish would have either been a bit rich from the cream or a little overpowering from the pernod.

Unfortunately I cannot wax so lyrical about the contents of the dish. The crayfish was overdone, chewy in texture and really off-putting, some of the mussels were fine but the smaller specimens had suffered the same fate as the crayfish. Plus the puff pastry was heavy and soft, it seemed somewhat stale and was a real let down to the dish. Thankfully the bread we had been served at the side was crisp and just the right chewiness and proved a great vehicle for conveying sauce to mouth (and unfortunately down the front of my dress as well, Mother was not best pleased!).

In all the dish would have been a roaring success if it hadn't been for a few slip ups letting it down. The flavouring was really special and spot on, so obviously an indication that the kitchen at Embers knows what is doing and because of this I am hoping the overcooking was a mere oversight for that night only (although I really can't forgive them the stale pastry).

Embers seems like a great place for a relaxed meal with friends, the staff were very lovely and dining on the enclosed balcony was really very lovely; it would make a great setting for a romantic meal for two or a relaxed meal with the family and friends.

Cost for two mains and one glass of wine: £23.45.

Value for money: 7/10
Atmosphere: 7/10
Service: 7/10
Food: 6/10

Total: 27/40

Embers of Haworth, 81 Main Street, Haworth –
01535 642809