Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Gallery Cafe - Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Many cultural establishments seem to forget that food is part of our culture; a sensory, thought provoking experience and that it can make or break a day out. There's been many times when, feet aching and tummy rumbling, I've gone in search of respite and been faced with packaged sandwiches, bought in muffins and dishwater coffee: it's as if the cafe is an after-thought, a mere money making addition rather than a proper supporting act.

The Whitworth Art Gallery - with thanks to Donald Rafferty

Manchester's Whitworth Gallery, however, have realised that good food equals a good time and have partnered with The Modern Caterer to provide a bustling, homely space with food so good you'll go there just for the cafe itself. I first came across The Modern Caterer at Joderall Bank's Planet Pavilion, another Manchester University museum (as is The Whitworth Gallery), and was so over joyed by their brilliant food, local sourcing and friendly staff that I couldn't wait to get to The Whitworth.

We'd planned to have lunch first, before looking round the exhibits, but the cafe was rammed with local workers taking advantage of the great eats on their doorstep (there's not much down that way that's actually good, unless you want a curry!). So we pootled round a bit and then came back. Still rammed, but we managed to get a seat in the atrium - however, eagled eyed, we spotted someone paying and found their just vacated table in the main part of the cafe. Much better as you get the full spirit of the place (and there's no draft from the front door) - but the museum may want to lend a few more bits and pieces to jazz up the place; as it's all white walls, slightly too close tables (it's a very small space to be fair) and the Modern Caterer's trademark giant blackboards proclaiming what's in season and what there is to eat.

The bustling Gallery Cafe

As we'd experienced the food before and knew how good it is, we decided we'd share a selection of dishes - they're not too expensive here and the portions are decent. The Whitworth Gallery Cafe is self service, just like their Joderall Bank outfit, so we rocked up to the counter and ordered; there was bit of a wait on the drinks, but the staff were absolutely run off their feet with orders and we were in no rush.

The bruchetta of new season beetroot was massive for the £5.25 we paid for it. There must have been at least four beetroot used (all cut in to wedges) and there was piles of sharp blacksticks blue to cut through the earthy beetroot and the sweet dressing it was wrapped in. A soup of tomato and spring greens was thick and homely, heavy with a good black pepper kick to warm us up (guess what, it was raining) - served with three large slabs of Barbakan bread, this would have been enough for me on my own.

Whoops, we ate all the bruschetta before we could photo it!

Because we're greedy, and because we'd been blown away by it at The Planet Pavilion, we ordered the terrine of local pork. Salty, sweet piggy perfection; the pork was left in large, rustic pieces, giving you a good feel for the texture and flavour of the meat. This was served with a sharp rhubarb compote (last time it was apple, they change the menu to fit the seasons) and more bread, we were stuffed and admitted defeat before we could try any homemade cake - but I did buy some homemade baklava from Peter Booth's son Gabriel, who had a little stall set up selling his own jams and cakes by the door - like father, like son hey?

Tremendous terrine - all products locally sourced, yum!

Manchester University and her various museums seem to have hit upon the winning formula of culture AND food; creating memorable experiences that stimulate all your senses - no wonder the place is rammed most of the time - the food and galleries provide plenty of soul soothing for weary workers, studied out students and cultural tourists alike.

Ps All the food is local, seasonal. sustainable and fair trade - The Modern Grocer is committed to sourcing all the best the North West has to offer and provide wholesome, home cooked food to us all - bless 'em.

Blackboard of seasonality

Price for three small meals and one cup of coffee -

Food - 8/10
Atmosphere - 9/10
Service - 6/10 (it is self-service, but they were rushed off their feet)
Value for money - 7/10 (on the pricier side, but massive portions and quality ingredients)

Total - 30/40

Go again - Yes it's a great place for lunch and a fab little gallery too.

The Modern Caterer at The Gallery Cafe, Whitworth Gallery, Oxford Road, Manchester M15 6ER -
0161 275 7497 - Facebook - Twitter

Gallery Café on Urbanspoon

Monday, 18 June 2012

Aumbry - Prestwich, Manchester

Named after a small, recessed cupboard in which medieval Lords and Abbots kept precious items; Aumbry in Prestwich, Manchester, really lives up to its namesake and can safely be called the jewel in Manchester's dining scene.

Tucked around a corner of Prestwich’s slowly crumbling high street, Aumbry's dinky dining space is a stark contrast to its external setting - the decor is understated, but high quality and as thought through as each mouthful of each plate - light colours, barely patterned papers, crisp linen and quirky highlights like the patterned boot-sale side plates. It's an intimate space with a familial feel; but a professional, well-bred family rather than the colourful chaos of many other small, neighbourhood eateries.

Aumbry interior - with thanks to The Guardian

Skimming the menu you immediately spot the bald headed molecular chef, Mary Ellen (chef/patron and one half of Aumbry’s husband and wife culinary team), has worked under; there's the odd molecular flourishes in the menu, influences from their 14th century name and modern techniques like sous vide. Unlike Heston's fare, this food is real, edible and understated - but packs a mean punch all the same (and for far less money).

Being skint, we’d chosen the Tuesday night special – five course tasting menu for £25 – this meant we could try a selection of the dishes without being too out of pocket (the usual tasting menu is a reasonable £65 for 9 courses). What we didn’t realise is that for the price you also get given a snackette, bread course and petit fours with coffee thrown in too: good value for money, even if the portion sizes match Aumbry’s diminutive dining space.

To whet the appetite we were given home-made crisps; crunchy, salty and with a sharp slap of vinegar as well as light as a button smoked cheddar gougeres – if the business fails (which it won't) Mary Ellen and Laurence certainly have a promising future in the luxury snack market. This was followed by the bread – chewy, home baked sourdough (why does mine never turn out as good as that?) served with some light as air butters (one a lovely nutty version) and a pot of dripping. Yep, that good old fashioned artery clogger, making a fashionable reappearance. Dripping, I have concluded, is not something to be snobby or health conscious about – it’s divine; deep savoury beefyness coating the mouth and soothing the soul – we were terribly cheeky and asked for more.

Dripping - the stuff my dreams (and arteries) are made of

Out followed a succession of courses – each lilliputian portion brilliantly engineered to be big, but subtle with the flavours. Each dish a clever assimilation of perfectly matching and contrasting elements – all must have been worked and re-worked painstakingly to develop that level of balance. The kitchen may be small, but there’s plenty of skill squeezed in there.

A wild garlic (ramson) soup with truffle was sweet, heady and earthy – those truffles adding a supportive ground note to the dish so it wasn’t all overly heady garlic and cream. It’s funny how such a heavy ingredient could actually lighten a dish.

We were slightly torn with the pressed hare terrine wrapped in Cumbrian air dried ham – a silky soft, melt in the mouth dish; however hares are in decline and we were perturbed about the sustainability/morality of the ingredient when eating this dish - (Aumbry holds many Sustainable Restaurant Awards) (oh, and we still ate the dish, our morals only stretch so far).

Hare today, gone tomorrow?

A dish of home smoked mackerel was just clothed in the sweetest of smokes and dashed through by the ultra red sour grenadine poached rhubarb and the fiery acidity of a mustard cream. Then the main attraction – slow cooked pork; served with part of the loin and part of the shoulder, this had obviously spent it’s life as a very happy pig. Superb quality, supported by pitch perfect cooking and, again perfectly picked apple to accompany and cut through the salty, sweet meat.

Here was an interlude; we were offered the cheese course for an additional £7 (usually £10) - a wander through speciality cheeses of Britain and Ireland, arranged in taste order; youngest and lightest first, all the way through to some uber salty, punch you in the face blue at the end. Each pair of cheeses (there were three pairs) had been paired with an accompanying chutney and biscuits made in house; as our helpful waiter told us when we asked (and we asked about everything).

Out came pudding, a dish that really split the waters between myself and t’boy; grapefruit posset with celery granita and grapefruit sherbet. I loved the intense sourness of the sherbet, the creamy delicateness of the posset and the unusual, refreshing granita on top; in my mind it totally worked. T’boy however felt that it was a let down of a pudding and refused to even touch the granita after the first bite. I would say the pudding was the least strong course, but I usually find that – the only place I’ve seen puddings match the mains is Nutters in Rochdale.

Throughout the meal the very small FOH team were superb – they looked after us brilliantly, were incredibly knowledgeable, didn’t mind me asking a million questions and kept the supply of bread constant. They’re also pretty genned up on the wine they serve - in fact you can have tasting menu of wines to match each dish, but we were pushing our budget just by being out, so we declined. Instead the staff chose two excellent glasses that would compliment the courses we were having and gave us a complete run down of what we were drinking (to read more out Aumbry’s food and wine matching click here).

Mary Ellen and Laurence, husband and wife kitchen wizardry - thanks to Manchester Made it Easy

I’m not going to deny that the portion sizes at Aumbry are as miniature as their restaurant and I know that’s been a criticism from some corners; however this was a tasting menu so I knew each plate would be small. When you take in to account the snacks, unlimited bread, cheese (extra) and petit fours; well, I had to undo the button on my trousers when driving home, so there was no issue with portion sizes for me. Maybe if you are a massive man you’d have an issue, but sometimes isn’t it better to go for quality over quantity?

Aumbry definitely is the jewel in Manchester’s eating crown and the best food I've had in the area. Get in quick as I’m sure a raft of prestigious awards will be thrown their way in the next few years (not sure why they haven't got one yet to be honest).

Ps If you're early for dinner, or fancy a night cap – pop to the pub at the bottom of the road called The Church. Lovely, low beamed affair with some alright whiskies and some cracking ale.

Pps – not only do they have the best food and service, they have the best toilet too!

Price for two Tuesday tasting menus, two glasses of wine, cheese and a port – £74 (or there abouts)

Food – 9/10
Atmosphere – 9/10
Service – 10/10
Value for money – 9/10 (I think £25 for five courses and extras is pretty good)

Total – 37/40

Go again? Yes. I’d like to go back for the full tasting menu, but until I can afford that I think it’s another Tuesday night cheapo for me!

Aumbry, 2 Church Lane, Prestwich, Manchester M25 1AJ – 0161 798 841 - enquires@aumbry - TwitterFacebook

Please forgive the lack of photos, with such an intimate dining room and as I was enjoying myself so much, I felt it would be rude and obtrusive to take loads.

Aumbry on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Rosso - Manchester

What do I know about footballers? They throw tantrums, they like bling and the ball is the wrong shape (I'm from Wales, we play it different over there). So what about footballers and food? After the disaster that was Vermillion, I wasn't too up for trying Rosso; Rio Ferdinand's Italian offering smack bang in the middle of Manchester's luxury brand stores and financial offices. With these type of neighbours, is Rosso more style over substance?

Certainly the setting's impressive; housed in an old bank there's a profusion of marble columns, linen table cloths and high ceilings. There's a large bar serving an array of Italian inspired cocktails, splashes of red (Rosso, you geddit, yeah?) on the walls and a wall dedicated to a who's who of the Manchester glitterati who've graced the tables. Bit too glitz and glam for me, I like my colours neutral and couldn't tell you Maradonna from Madonna, but if you've got a fancy footballer backer and a clientele of players and their Wags why not celebrate it?

Rosso's impressive setting - with thanks to What Happended Last Night

Everyone seemed happy to be there and the atmosphere was buzzy - there was a mix of suits, ladies who have husbands in a certain wage bracket and well-dressed couples - and they were all enjoying the entertainment; during the week Rosso hires singers to serenade you whilst you eat; I'm terribly British about this and am perturbed at any type of intrusion - but the lady in question was very subdued and very good.

First out, ubiquitous bread and olives found in Italian places countrywide - but luckily these olives were fat little grenades of grassy greenness - so grassy indeed that it felt like licking meadow. The accompanying bread roll was a little stale, but plus points for seeming like it homemade. Served with another big grassy hit from a quality olive oil, it was a shame it was let down by a substandard balsamic - one of those vinegar with caramels added rather than a sticky, musty PDO original.

Slightly stale bread, substandard balsamic, best olives in that part of town

Asparagus wrapped in provolone and parma ham was salty, fresh and had plenty of crunch from the just cooked spears. Roasted mushrooms with a goat cheese and rocket mousse was simple but gorgeous - soft, salty, oniony and light. By this point we were already getting stuffed, the portions at Rosso are certainly footballer sized rather than those eaten by Wags.

Asparagus, parma and provolone - salty, crunchy, fresh goodness

For my main I chose the tuna, thinking fish = light = small; however this was a huge slab, as big as my face - their menu inspiration must be plenty of lean protein for muscle building! The tuna was perfectly seared, very fresh and was accompanied by a caper sauce that could have done with a bit more punchy sharpness. My friend had been advised to have the ostrich she'd ordered medium rare rather than medium to avoid chewiness. The meat was cooked to perfection; soft, unctuous and dressed in a rich, savoury sauce on top of the softest mash. We'd chosen sides of roasted veg and chilli broccoli, but the size of the portions meant we hardly touched them, even though they were gorgeous and perfectly cooked.

Do not let my photo deceive you, that slab is as big as my face!
By the time pudding came around I was thinking how good it was they'd seated us in the corner booth - we had a great view of everyone else, but we were covered by acres of white linen, so my button was loosened and with that I ordered the bombolini; sweet mini doughnuts with dark and white dipping sauce. I may have been stuffed but I got them in - the white sauce was a bit too sweet and looked a bit suss; but I think that was our dirty minds, no fault of the sauce, and I don't like white chocolate anyway. A ginger cheesecake was the only really bum note of the meal - very sans ginger and too cheesy; but the accompanying rhubarb compote was sharp and divine.

Bombolini - see suspect looking sauce at the back - sorry, got a dirty mind!

Rosso is big, it's bold and in some respects it's a bit brash; but unlike other celebrity owned places they actually bother to make the food very good - although not traditionally Italian, rather more Italian inspired -rather than just trading on a famous name. The service is fantastic, caring without being obtrusive; the cocktails are brilliant, if a little lethal and the setting truly is impressive.

Oh and I know the question on everyone's lips - did we see the man himself? No he was away, but I was assured by the general manager that he comes in at least twice a week and always gets very involved with running the place - so not just a name, but an active partner too. Impressive. And what do famous footballers eat when they own a restaurant? Everything off the menu? Nope; chicken breast, pasta and plain tomato sauce, every time.

Price for three cocktails, one G+T, bread and olives, two starters, two mains, two puddings and two coffees - £101.75

Food - 7/10
Service - 9/10
Atmosphere - 9/10
Value for money - 8/10; expensive, but massive portions!

Total - 33/40

Go again - yes, if we had people we wanted to take out for a good, decent meal.

Ps If you don't eat massive portions I would suggest just having a main, or a starter and a pudding. I seriously struggled and had to send food back!

Rosso Restaurant, 43 Spring Gardens, Manchester M2 2BG - 0843 290 1900 - - Twitter - Facebook

Please note the restaurant knew I was there to review them and comp-ed my meal for me, however the views are my own and I am under no obligation to write nice things. In fact, I 'm probably harsher as I expect things to be perfect if they know that I'm there!

Rosso Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Foodie Penpals Month Two - Middle Eastern Maddness

So month two has come along in the Foodie Penpals experience. This month I was paired with Made With Pink, or Andrea as she's otherwise known. I was particularly excited as the last box Andrea had sent out to a penpal was a pandora's box of American ingredients, brought back from a recent trip there.

Contact was made and this time I was a little less specific about my likes and dislikes, I think in the first month I had bamboozled my penpal with all my 'what I don't eats' and 'this is my ethical stance' - I still got an ace box, but I felt sorry for my penpal, so I went easy this time and explained my interest in Middle Eastern food.

Andrea took this brief by the horns and when my box arrived it was chock full of treats. This time round I got extra presents as Andrea had been ill and felt sorry for sending my box late (in fact it wasn't late at all!! She's very organised!). So what did I get?

First off were some of my favourite things - sesame snaps. I've grown up snacking on these, my Mum thought they were much healthier as they sold them in Holland and Barrett's (along with Panda liquorice, but that's another story). Andrea sent me some interesting flavours, such as yogurt and coconut - not sure I liked the coconut one, bit suntan lotion, but good to try something else.

Carrying on in the Middle East there sweet treats in the form of rose Turkish Delight - delicious and a good quality version. Rose is my favourite flavour, so I immediately jumped on this and it was gone within about three seconds. Included in the box was also some Lebanese (?) nougat - full of pistachios and fruit leather: fruity, sweet little mouthfuls of gooey goodness.

Next out was Moroccan spiced cous cous - I've had the plain version and love it, so this version was an eye opener and a product I'll definitely buy if I see it round here. It's been great for lunches as well as dinner and I've purposely made extra just so I have some left overs. Andrea wrote in her (obviously) pink notecard that she was excited by my box as she really wanted to try the Asian store just up the road to her office - glad to have been of service.

What were my extra treats? Some cute little jubilee cupcake cases, jubilee trivia cards and some writing icing in red, white and blue. Great for the upcoming celebrations and something she's been sent by Waitrose - this is what Foodie Penpals is all about, sharing the love.

This time I opened my box with people all around - all my friends were very jealous and I wonder if some of them have signed up for the forthcoming month. How do you sign up? Follow this link or click the Foodie Penpals button on the side of my blog bar (to the right).

So who was I paired up with? My penpal was The Wee Mouse Caroline Clark who told me she had a perchance for Japanese food - music to my ears as I love Japanese and eastern cuisine and wanted an excuse to go to the Asian supermarket (so it wasn't just Andrea who got to go), we have a lot in Manchester and one of the biggest in the UK. What did I send? Head on over to her blog to take a peek....

Bring on month three!