Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Smoak, Malmaison Hotel - Manchester

Smoak is Malmaison Manchester's new restaurant; a big, bold brasserie marketing itself as an homage to the grill, good provenance and plenty of meat.

Situated on the ground floor of the hotel you're greeted by friendly staff dressed down in jeans and converse, in a bid by the hotel to tell you that this isn't a stuffy old hotel restaurant; it's got mixologists and stripped zinc and house wine served in tumblers - it's cool don't cha know it?

Smoak's sunken bar

This theme carries in to the bar area; all leather, neon and vintage accessories, bumping out the we're cool, gritty and industrial vibe - which I suppose is what a grill feels it should be, rather than starched table clothes and silver service. There's at counter dining with a short bar menu for the pushed business man and there's a cocktail menu with the house signature, the Smoak Stack. Served a little impractically in a kilner jar (the lid kept dripping on my leg), the Smoak Stack is a very drinkable mix of buffalo trace bourbon, pear juice, caramel liqueur and smoked apple wood smoke from the 'smoaking' gun - it's a big cocktail, with a big price (£9). Lifting the lid off the smoke rises out, a wonderful scent and piece of theatre hammering home the message that all their meat is cooked on a josper grill and meat needs wood smoke, yadda yadda.
Smoak Stack

The restaurant's a two tier affair of well spaced tables - the pared back theme runs through with rough grey walls, bare faced grey columns and zinc tumblers for your water. We had a great seat opposite the meat fridge; a glass fronted affair with steaks stacked high and hanging carcasses - it was total meat porn and is worth a trip to salivate at this alter of the beast.

Meat porn, er I mean fridge...

As with all hotel menus, Smoak's is a bit of a mismatch, pleasing all punters rather than concentrating on one direction; therefore there's salads, a curry, fish fingers and pasta - we decided to order off the grill; why come to a restaurant so keen on marketing this aspect to have a dish we could get somewhere else?

Sausage sampler

The starter of steak tartare was presented elegantly and simply; a large portion of achingly tender, superb quality beef with a heady mix of shallots and capers cutting through the sweet, deep umami flavour of the beef. There's a choice of mild or spicy, however I felt the mild was lively enough, letting the top quality beef sing loud rather than end up as a backing note. A sausage sampler was all there with the flavour, but the portion was small for the £8 and the overly fiddled presentation jarred with the industrial, meaty image Smoak is trying to conjure.
Steak tartare - truly divine, best dish of the evening

The boy felt it rude not to order a steak for mains; the menu lists provenance of each cut including meat from Donald Russels and breeds such as Belted Galoways and Short Horn Cross. The fillet was perfection; exactly as medium rare should be. A tender, well flavoured and obviously quality piece of meat that had been granted the care and attention it commanded.

Side of bone marrow

The baked half shells was an impressive dish - half a lobster, crab, a fat juicy scallop, prawns, crayfish, razor clams, clams and mussels galore; all coated in a buttery garlic sauce richly flavoured with the aniseed kiss of fennel. The sauce was brilliantly and expertly tasteful, and lashings off it too; most of the dish was cooked to absolute perfection, however the lobster claws and razor clams were chewy and overcooked - a gripe I would usually overlook when the rest of the dish was so sublime; were it not for the £35 price tag.
Half baked shells
Expert cooking and flavouring followed in to the puddings; a fruit terrine, wafer thin slivers of fruit in a champagne jelly, was as excellent, light, sublime creation; an inspired bright flash of mint creating a fresh, delightful end to a meal. The baked alaska was a very sweet treat, but didn't stand up to the height standard of the terrine - the sponge weirdly tasted shop bought and was very hard and the small garnish of strawberry sauce could have been larger adding an interesting, sharp edge to a very sweet dish, rather than the red dribble it was.
The food at Smoak is, overall, very good - it's large plates of food, given the time and quality of cooking it affords with excellent, attentive and well informed service. There's a large selection of drinks and a good choice of wines by the glass from a well stocked cellar, rather than the ubiquitous vinegary pinot grigiot. The only real issue is the price; Lounge 10 is offering a fillet AND plenty of sides for £22 and Smoak's is £30 for a fillet, a small piece of bone marrow and a mushroom - whether this is a calculated ploy aimed at those on expenses or the need to recoup the installing of a josper (£18k just for the grill I've heard), I'm not sure; but don't they know there's a recession on?!

Price for one cocktail, one beer, four glasses of wine (all different), two starters, two mains, two puddings, two sides and one port (service not included) - £141.85

Food - 8/10
Service - 8/10
Atmosphere - 8/10
Value for money - 6/10

Total - 30/40

Go again - I'd go back, but only if someone else was paying! (Or I'd not order a steak as some of the other mains are pretty well priced!).

Smoak, Manchester Malmaison, Piccadilly, Manchester M1 1LZ - 0161 278 1000 - smoak.manchester@malmaison.com

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Malmaison Brasserie on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Viva Espana - Horwich

When I was at primary school we had a dragon of a teacher named Mrs Parker; tightly permed grey hair, lined face, perma-nicotine stained fingers and a bark that could quell a doberman at fifty paces. Apart from giving me a fear of short, permed, old ladies the only lasting lesson she impressed on the young me was that Spain was full of matadors eating paella and shouting viva espana, thanks to constant renditions of Eviva Espana whilst we sat cross legged on the hall's parke flooring.

Viva Espana, with thanks to the Bolton News

Opening the doors to Viva Espana in Horwich, the days on the floor of the hall came flooding back; half brick walls with blue paint, Spanish flags and tables finished off with red and yellow paper napkins. Ole!

Viva Espana is primarily a tapas restaurant, the menu split into various headings, for example Carne and Mariscos - we ordered broadly across all sections apart from the breads as these weren't value for money being too highly priced.

Serrano ham

Though the decor of Viva Espana is redolent of the Spain in pastiches and cheap Benidorm bars, the food is properly rustic with hints of real Spain shining through. The Habas Con Morcilla; black pudding with broad beans, onions and herbs was the star dish; warm, peppery and full of body. Similarly good was the slow cooked lamb; spiked with the warm spice of paprika and the meat falling apart in the mouth.

Habas con morcilla

As with all rustic cooking there are well cooked dishes from the heart and those that are clunky and, however well intentioned, uncoordinated. The squid; soft and brilliantly cooked, was covered in an unappetising thick and greasy batter (house special apparently). Mussels; sweet, amazingly cooked - just kissed by the pan, were drowning in a greasy bath of flavourless oil.

Squid rings

We were welcomed warmly to Viva Espana and seated quickly, however throughout the night the service became less apparent and to order another beer took a long time of trying to catch the waiter's eye. As the restaurant is small the atmosphere gets going as the night goes on, we were surrounded by a birthday party and a group of middle-aged ladies on the rose - certainly cheered up our Tuesday!

Viva Espana is pulling away from the plastic sombrero image of tapas restaurants foisted upon us up and down the highstreets of our small towns, nonetheless there is a long way to go until we find ourselves in Huesca and not Horwich.

Total for six tapas plates and two beers -

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

Total 26/40

Go again - maybe for a local, midweek meal on the hoof.

Viva Espana, 12 Winter Hey Lane, Horwich, BL6 7AA - 01204 438235 - contact@vivaespanauk.com

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Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Electrik Bar - Chorlton, Manchester

Where do old DJs go when they hang up their headphones? Some become big name record producers, some crash and burn spectacularly and some get graveyard slots on Radio Hull. And some open bars, as have Jake and Luke of  Manchester's legendary Unabombers - is this where their reputations lay down and die?

Electrik is the latest offering from Jake and Luke Unabomber and is decked out in mismatched chairs, wood and previous Electric Chair posters trumpeting past successes; a fitting decor in the largely young professional populated Chorlton. It's the young, middle class idea of hangover heaven.

Electrik - with thanks to Deltrams

The vibe is funky, with a great jukebox and playlists from staff, public and the Manchester great and good like Guy Garvey. By day it's a relaxed eating/drinking joint with a book exchange, wifi and daily papers. By night the atmosphere steps up a gear and gets quite busy with locals appreciating the music and sampling the victuals.

Food is as relaxed as the surroundings, however this attitude produces some pretty underwhelming outputs from the kitchen.

Boy ate the burger; we were hoping for great things as the menu descried it as being made with bourbon beer and served in a Barbakan bun (chi chi bakery up the road, if you ain't using their bread you ain't on message); unfortunately the texture of the meat was too soft and mushy, almost if the burger had been (shh don't say it) bought it. The overall taste of the dish was far too sweet and a real let down.


My falafel and haloumi burger hardly fared better; consisting of a few large chunks of crunchy but soft falafel with hunks of overly fried and greasy haloumi. The pitta it was served in fell apart and there was a severe lack of seasoning; however the addition of salsa and hummus meant there was at least some flavour and a lot of value for the princely sum of £5. Better than the boy's, but I still couldn't get excited.


Electrik's a great bar with a good selection of drinks; including cask ales, Hendricks gin and alright cocktails. The service is a bit slack due to staff becoming swamped at busy times, but here's a lot of thought been put in to making this a relaxed and friendly joint that's good for whiling away a few Saturday morning hours, catching up with good friends or getting the night started. A few tweeks with the food and they'll be bang on - just like their DJ sets used to be.

Ps Check out the Electrik website and twitter for event updates, there's some very interesting things going on there, plus they've been nominated for second year running as Best Bar in the Manchester Food and Drink Awards.

Price for two mains - £10.50

Food - 4/10
Service - 5/10
Atmosphere - 8/10
Value for money - 8/10

Total - 25/40

Go again? - Yes for drinks, but not for the food.

Electrik, 559a Wilbraham Road, Chorlton, Manchester M21 0AE - 0161 831 3315 - info@electrikbar.co.uk



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Thursday, 11 August 2011

Clandestine Cake Club - North Star Deli, Chorlton

Cake, cake, cake. What's better than cake? How about 22 cakes? How about 22 cakes and 25 people talking about cake. How about 22 cakes and 25 people talking about cakes AND you get to eat the cakes for FREE and take the leftover cake home with you?

Cakes galore!

Welcome to the world of the Clandestine Cake Club, a group of like-minded individuals that meets up at secret locations and chats cakes once a month.

As I'm a cake club newbie and consider myself an amateur cake baker at most, I roped in both Pin Ups in Pinnies founder Fanny Divine, and the ever delectable Welsh Wonder to accompany me to North Star Deli in Chorlton; the venue for this month's meeting of the Manchester branch of this erstwhile gathering.

There's no restriction to the type of cake you can bake, apart from that it has to be 'big' (no cupcakes, cookies etc) and that it adheres to the club's theme - this month's being British Summer. After deciding that a drizzle cake would only serve to remind people of yet another wash out, the inspiration for the bake was that other bastion of summer time; afternoon tea.

In preparation for the club, countless books were consulted but no recipes jumped out. As well as representing the British Summer theme the idea that the cake should be inclusive to people like Fanny Divine who is wheat and dairy intolerant, appealed. From this idea it was decided to create my own recipe. Dairy free was not the issue as I commonly replace butter with light olive oil when baking - however wheat free was a new horizon.

Much testing ensued to ensure the cake would taste of tea and rise; wheat free flour doesn’t rise as well and is sweeter, until the boy held up his hands and bid me never to bake another wheat free earl grey cake for him. EVER. Or face the consequences.

The day of Clandestine Cake Club arrived; the recipe was watertight, but disaster struck. After rigorous cake testing, the filling was just to be a simple layer of soya sour cream, therefore untested - don't buy this product, in sight and taste it is akin to white acrylic paint. After grating in some lemon to mask the cloying chemical taste, the natural oils ceased the sour cream to set and it melted out of the cake. On trying to remove the top to take out the filling, it cracked. Disaster.

If this doesn't scream summer then I don't know what does

However the lovely people of Clandestine Cake Club invited my cake with open arms and devoured it (or took it home). There was no snobbery, people seemed genuinely happy to see my slightly deformed cake and chatted away to me regarding the recipe and the inspiration to create something wheat and dairy free.

So whilst news that London was burning and the yobs of Manchester geared themselves for a night of looting; we sipped drinks and discussed the mojito cake, the fab lolly cake, a New Zealand yellow cake, someone’s courgette and chamomile creation and the amount of cakes with berries on. Sometimes all it takes is a bake to bring you together and remember to take time out of the day for others and yourselves.

Yum! (ps this was seconds!)

If you want to get in on some lovely cake action with some great people; please refer to the Clandestine Cake Club website, email Gwyneth or check out the VintageTs or ClandestineCake twitter. Don't despair if you don't live in Manchester; there's many a Clandestine Cake clubs across the UK - it's a cake baking phenomenon.

Ps - thanks to Danielle Ferguson Bespoke and Design Dressmaking for saving the day and giving me some white ribbon (for FREE) to hide the cake disaster that was the melting filling.

Earl Grey Cake (wheat and dairy free)
Makes 1 x 21 cm cake - I made two cakes and sandwiched them together

4 x earl grey teabags (you need quality, I used Twinings)
80ml boiling water
80ml light olive oil
3 large free range eggs
160g unrefined caster sugar
190g Doves Farm wheat free self raising flour
Pinch of salt

Six lemons
250g icing sugar
Soya margarine

1. Preheat the oven to 180c (fan) and grease (with oil) a 21cm springform cake tin

2. Separate the yolks and the white, placing in them in separate large bowls

3. Boil the kettle, add 80ml and one teabag to small bowl/mug and put to one side

4. Empty the contents of the other three teabags into a pestle and mortar, add a pinch of salt and grind to as small as possible

5. Whisk the whites until just before stiff peaks and put aside

6. Beat the eggs with a fork until just combined (literally a minute), then beat in the sugar in four separate amounts. Start with the motor running slow and as you add more sugar, work up the settings until on high (this incorporates as much as possible and air is integral to this cake). Should go pale and sticky.

7. Drizzle in the oil using the same technique as step 6.

8. Take out the teabag and squeeze as much out as you can. Add the ground up tea to the tea/water and mix in together. Beat into the eggs/sugar/oil using technique in step 6. Make sure all the tea leaves in the small bowl/mug end up in the big bowl.

9. Keep whisking for a few mins, you need as much air as possible in this cake.

10. Sieve in the flour and fold in carefully with a wooden spoon until incorporated.

11. Add 1/3 of the eggs and fold in with a metal spoon or spatula (wooden spoons knock out the air) until mixed in - repeat two more times until all mixed in carefully (don't leave massive bits of egg white as they look/taste weird in your cake)

12. Pour in to tin; the mixture will be a little more liquid than a usual cake batter, but not uber runny. Knock gently to release and big air bubbles and then pop in to oven.

13. Bake for roughly 30-35 mins until the top is golden, the cake springs back and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin.

Repeat all the steps above to make the second layer of the cake. Whilst they are cooling beat two big spoons of soya margarine with half of the icing sugar. Grate in the peel of three lemons and mix together until the right consistency (adding more icing sugar/marg as needed) and spread between the two layers. (This isn't what I put in my cake, but what I should have).

Make the icing by combing icing sugar and the juice of one lemon - make up the right consistency and then pour over the cake and leave to set.

Enjoy with a cup of Earl Grey with a slice of lemon in the dappled light of a tree, feeling the light summer breeze on your face. Or, more usual for Britain, in a warm kitchen imaging summer.

Wheat and dairy free Earl Grey Cake - with thanks to VintageTs for the photo

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Thursday, 4 August 2011

Southern11 - Spinningfields, Manchester

BBQ is big right now - and I don't just mean overweight men drinking Stella burning Poundland sausages, battling against the British weather whilst their wives get tipsy on no food and warm rose. No, I mean proper  BBQ, rich from the American South where people win prizes for their 24 hour smoked hog and closely guarded BBQ basting recipes are passed down from father to son in time honoured tradition.

There's Barbacoa, Jamie's central London restaurant with Adam Perry Lang and an on site butchery, there's also a further raft of restaurants round the capital, such as Bodean's - not to mention the various street carts and pop ups adding to the mix.

To show we're not slow on the uptake, Manchester now has it's own homage to the BBQ phenomenon in the shape of Southern11, in not one, but two locations. There's a small offering at the Arndale food market, but the main event happens in Manchester's glorified capitalist centre; Spinningfields.

Buzzy interior

It's a genuine surprise when you go somewhere and see one thing and experience something completely different. At Southern11 it was luckily a good surprise. The interior is shiny shiny new new and feels like it's trying to cosy up to the city types lunch crowd, the presentation is all chopping boards, buckets for chips and kilner jars. I'd usually consign this to the flashy gear, no idea list of establishments that unfortunately pull in the millions through style over substance; Southern11 is somewhat different. It is a little flashy, but the food and the service are spot on.

Southern11's mission is 'hospitality the Southern way,' serving BBQ foods cooked in the traditional way (they even have traditional Oklahoma smokers supplied from the only UK guy to win the Jack Daniel's cook off) and believe in sourcing quality produce from local suppliers.

The boy chose the Hickory Wood Smoked Belly Ribs after eyeing up several other coming out of the kitchen. When the dish arrived the meat fell off the bone and you could taste the sweet licks of hickory smoke; the meat to bone ratio was very favourable and even left enough for me to steal. The only downside to the dish was the fries, a but flabby but the homemade BBQ sauce made up for that.

Hickory smoked belly ribs replete with brush for BBQ sauce

I ordered the pulled pork; soft, juicy and very sweet. The side of jalapeno cornbread added and welcome spice to cut through the dish, and wasn't overly sweet like American cornbread can be (thankfully!). Homemade slaw was crunchy and fresh, made with only a smattering of mayo so no horrible sludgy pile to plough through. The dish was a little small compared to  the boy's ribs, but at £8.95 I wasn't expecting a whole pig.

Pulled pork and jalapeno cornbread

Southern11 is a mixed bag. Looking and feeling akin to a higher-end chain restaurant with a very affordable menu, they seem to really care about good food, good service and good quality produce. Hopefully this good food, low costs ethos will catch on else where, as usually the mere whiff of 'rare breed' bumps the price up to £20 or more.

I'm not sure how authentic Southern11 is as I've never been to the deep south and have a feeling the BBQ shacks don't serve Parmesan truffle fries and are a little more rustic with food hygiene coming second to taste. However Southern11 do great things to meat and are a fresh breath for Manchester's culinary scene. You're not going to find fireworks here; but well cooked, honest food and lovely staff are winners in my book.

Ps - the bar is super well stocked and they do cocktails too.

Pps - Southern11 has really great toilets, but has really confusing toilet door signs.

Price for two mains and two bottles of beer - £26

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

Total - 29/40

Go again - Yes it's brilliant for a relaxed, informal meal at little cost.

Southern11, Unit 26, 3 Hardman Street, Spinningfields, Manchester M3 3EB - 0161 832 0482 - info@southern11.co.uk



Southern 11 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Avanti - Heaton Moor, Stockport

There’s one thing Italian’s do well and that’s style; from the matching all in ones of the ski slope, to the famous fashion house of Milan. Thinking of stylish eateries they have cool, airy rooms full of white tablecloths and glistening silverware, wafts of lemon and fig float in through the billowing white curtains and men stand in stylishly cut suits, smoking on the terrace overlooking the vibrant blue sea.

Avanti exterior - with thanks to dineavanti.co.uk

So when an Italian restaurant markets itself as ‘vibrant,’ ‘stylish’ and ‘Stockport’s finest,’ I go expecting Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni sipping espressos and discussing the finer points of tailoring.

Avanti, Heaton Moor, is none of the above and if it’s the best Italian in Stockport then I don’t want even want to consider eating at the others.

Initially the evening looked good. Staff were friendly and fetched drinks whilst we waited for latecomers. Starters arrived and were decent enough: my king prawn crostini was full of loud punchy flavours finished off with a decent helping of lemon. Meatballs were soft, tender and enrobed in a garlicky sauce redolent of something homemade.

King prawn crostini

Just as we were pootling along on this not-very-adventurous-but-alright-for-a-high-street meal, the mains arrived and the evening’s gastronomic happiness took a turn for the worse.

I’ve eaten in Brewers Fayres and pubs with carveries, so I know food can be crap; but I pay £5.95 for that pleasure and not what I was paying at Avanti. The chicken wrapped in parma ham was very dry, lamb shanks tasted of an overly sweet mint sauce, seemed like they had been bought in, plus were chewy and dry (how you get a shank to be dry I’m not sure). My main of seabass was terribly overcooked – the fish dry and flaky, dumped on some poorly seasoned mash with a raggle taggle of greasy sundried tomatoes and olives. All dishes apart from some vegetarian pancakes were poorly constructed, poorly presented and poorly executed.

Over cooked seabass

And do I really need to bother describing the puddings? Let’s just say they were bought in and awful.

Very cakey, obviously bought in: the boy's sticky toffee pudding (in an Italian? Indeed!)

Avanti in Heaton Moor is not ‘stylish,’ the d├ęcor is boring to say the least; rather like a high street coffee chain. It’s not ‘vibrant’ either – yes the atmosphere was ok, but there was no buzzing fug emanating from the place. And I will probably guess its not the best in Stockport either - I'd go as far as to say the Pizza Hut would probably be better than this.

To sum up I’m not going to go back to Avanti, there are plenty of better places serving much better food across the city and the North West. And there probably are in Heaton Moor as well.

Price for a starter, main and pudding – £25

Food – 4/10
Atmosphere – 6/10
Service – 5/10
Value for money – 5/10

Total – 20/40

Go again? No, rather go to the chippy up the street!

Avanti Restaurant and Grill, 1 Moorside Road, Heaton Moor, Stockport SK4 4DT - 0161 443 3123


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Monday, 1 August 2011

Yuzu - Manchester

Good Japanese food is a scarce find in Manchester. Yes there's plenty about - Sapporro, New Samsi, Tokyo Season, Yo! to name a few, but quality is hard to find and it's not easy on the wallet either.
Yuzu, on Faulkner Street at the edge of Manchester's compact but vibrant China Town, is set to change all that. The restaurant's a simple affair with an understated sign and a paired down interior; reflecting their ethos of serving simple, everyday Japanese dishes.

We were greeted to an empty restaurant when we visited and as the meal wore on we wondered why this place wasn't buzzing with a queue round the block (we did eat at 6pm on a Tuesday).

The food's not amazingly complex or outstandingly different, but is cooked extraordinarily well. A starter of prawn gyoza included large chunks of whole, well seasoned, soft prawns - none of this greasy, unidentifiable, salty mush you get in most places. The boy's chicken katsu was the best we've had in this country; the chicken soft and juicy, almost poached with a crunchy, crispy coating and no hint of old oil or staleness you often find with breaded products.

Mains kept up the high standard. The boy’s tuna sashimi set; a little pricey at £12.95, was served with miso soup, rice and daikon and surprised us with its freshness and the quality of the fish – something not that common in Manchester. The high standard of the dish made the price much easier to swallow as we’ve had worse/less than this at a restaurant just around the corner for much more money.

My tempura kishimen (king prawn and vegetable with traditional kishimen noodles from the Nagoya region) was light and fresh; with a crunchy, gossamer thin batter. The noodles and accompanying broth were as fresh as spring water and delicately seasoned; the subtle taste could have been lost with heavy accompaniments, but the balance in the dish was spot on and even for simple food the execution and presentation were exquisite and a snip at £8.95.

Many restaurants in the area should sit up and take notice of Yuzu. They source locally, the service is quiet yet first rate and the food is truly amazing considering most dishes are under a tenner and the most expensive thing on the menu is £15.95. The idea of keeping it simples ensures that what they do, they do well and nothing is lost in gimmicks, fusion or simple bluster.

Yuzu is a hidden gem, it’s a brilliant little restaurant that’s getting everything right – let’s just hope that enough people ignore the brash neon signs of its neighbours and realises that simplicity is the key to success.

Ps – Yuzu is also open for lunch with most dishes priced very attractively at 5.95!

Cost for two starters, two mains and a beer - £32.20

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

Total – 30/40

Would you visit again? Yes definitely!

Yuzu, 39 Faulkner Street, Manchester M1 4EE – 0161 236 4159


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