Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Foodie Penpals - Salty Sweetness in a Box

This month's foodie penal was a bit of a nightmare - not because of the person I was teamed with, lord no, but the fact that I don't get post delivered at work during the summer (it's a school, I'm the only one here) and it took me ages to catch up with the parcel at the post depot.

As you can imagine I was pretty eager to get my hands on this on - seeing as it had been at the post office for about two days (an AGE) - so desperate, that I'm afraid to say I rocked up at 8am and then ripped the box open in the car park like some food crazed fiend.

Here is the box screaming 'OPEN ME!'

So what's this month's box of tricks brought me? I was paired with Fay from Foodfables and it's like she actually knows me. Ok, I did send her an in depth email, but the food she picked out for me was if I'd gone out and bought it for myself.

First out was liquorice - this is something I'm addicted too, but not the sweet stuff; I love salty liquorice, or salmiakki as it's sometimes known - I first got hooked in Finland and now go to great lengths to track it down. Fay's liquorice was a Dutch version that combines salty and sweet - oh my, this is amazing and I've pretty much demolished half of it in the scarce few days I've had it.

Next out was Montezuma's Sea Dog chocolate. Again, how did Fay know? This is my favourite chocolate - it's salty and limey and bitter (like me) and is a great indulgent treat. Then came the tomato chilli jam - it's sweet, it's spicy and yes again, very me.

The box of goodies

Last but not least, and the true treat of the box, were Fay's homemade FAT FREE flapjacks. Yeah they've got oats and fruit in, so I've decided they are totally healthy and will binge on them forever. This is the first time a penpal has added something homemade in and the knowledge that someone has bothered to bake for me makes me feel so happy.

So what did I send? I was paired with Angie, her email stated how much she was a bit of a snacker (like me) and that she's trying to cook more. With that in mind I send her some not so sinful snacks and the bits and bobs to make her own pot noddles (great for the office). She's taken much better photos that me so head over to her blog to check it out.

The box I sent to Angie

If you want to take part in Foodie Penpals (and why wouldn't you) - then click on the button on the right hand side of my blog.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Australasia - Spinningfields, Manchester

Spinningfields - once an office surrounded wasteland full of commuting suits and empty units, has been undergoing a bit of a transformation lately, in an attempt to inject some soul into the corridors of corporate Manchester.

Now teaming with a mix of upper-end chain restaurants, funky pop ups, an outdoor cinema and even a frozen yogurt place; it's become the go to destination of the bright and spangly young professionals, keen to drink away their weekend and flash a little cash whilst they're at it.

At the top end of the scale is Living Venture's Australasia, an underground doyen that's so stylish and slick they're thinking of using it as the new teflon. For an underground bunker, Living Ventures have done exceptionally well - it's bright, light and well designed without feeling like you're sitting under 1,000 watt lamps; even though there's a profusion of tightly packed tables, the space feels intimate but not like your neighbour is spying on you.

Australasia interior - with thanks to Restaurants of Manchester

As you can guess from the name, Australasia's premise is the fusion food found in the city restaurants of Melbourne and Sydney, but most of the menu is very Asia heavy - sushi, tempura, a robata grill etc. As we were there for snacks and chats with drinks, we stuck around the sushi end of the menu so we could all share.

Unfortunately for the food it seems as overly styled as the restaurant - it's beautifully presented and minute attention to detail is paid to everything bar the taste (I know this as they have a glass walled kitchen and a legion of chefs doing very fiddly things to plates on the pass). Don't get me wrong, it's somewhat better than some of the food you find in Manchester, but for the prices we were paying I'd expect it to be AMAZING or something like that.

Oysters were great, very fresh with all the liquor still in them and the accompaniments worked a treat, but I'd be seriously pissed/worried if they managed to mess up an oyster. Next came kingfish sashimi; didn't taste that fresh, almost spongy and at £15.50 was a tiny portion - I don't care if it does come from Tasmania, I was hungry. We moved on to scallop sashimi with a sweet lime dressing; sweet scallops with a caramelised chillies and crispy shallots - could have done with that aforementioned lime juice to lighten it a little, but the dish was good enough for me to let it slide this time.

Kingfish sashimi - with thanks to Restaurants of Manchester

Soft shell crab California roll was dominated by the sesame seeds on the outside, no hint of what was on the inside at all; the tuna and crispy shallots tasted of cheese and onion crisps, no hint of the fish. With both the roles the rice was awful; really overly claggy and not a great texture at all. Just as we grumbled and moaned we were saved by the smoked ell nigiri - seriously the best I have ever tried (I adore unagi like Baltimorian's adore their drugs); soft, salty, sticky and smoky with the exact amount of wasabi to balance it all out - yes the rice let it down, but the fish was so good I didn't give a flying...

At that point we'd had enough of the over priced, over styled food; plus we were distressed at the tap water we'd been given that had an overpowering taste of 'gentleman's relish' (I'm not talking about anchovy paste here), so we scarpered, leaving the bright lights of Australasia to Manchester's shiny young things.

Price for two plates sashimi, six oysters, two lots of California rolls (4 each), one plate of nigri (4) and a bottle of wine - £81.50

Food - 6/10
Atmosphere - 8/10
Service - 7/10 (one guy was great, but the others were a little poor)
Value for money - 6/10

Total - 27/40

Go again? If I wanted to overly impress someone who didn't like food and they were paying, maybe. Shame as the restaurant itself is really lovely, the food just lets it down.

Ps Sorry for no photos, got carried away with the oysters and booze on this one.

Australasia, 1 The Avenue, Spinningfields, Manchester M3 3AP - 0161 831 0288 - info@australasia.uk.com


Australasia Manchester on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Solita - Northern Quarter, Manchester

Named after the area of Manchester it sits in SoLiTa - south of Little Italy, natch - doesn't really have much to do with Italian food; bar the manager's background and the fact that their small wine list is all sourced from Sardinia. That's a good thing though, as I've said before - Manchester is awash with Italian places and not many good ones at that.

Solita's got a big bold menu to go with a big bold cooking device in the kitchen - an Inka grill; the first in Manchester. Super expensive, it's able to cook meat very quickly whilst retaining the juiciness and producing the same char you get off the BBQ - minus the burnt sausages and food poisoning.

Inka Grill - serious kit

This boldness runs through the decor - all blacks and reds, leather seats, cartoons on the wall and the biggest blackboard you'll see in your life. The main dining room is dominated by the corner bar - the vibe is funky and upbeat. There's two private dining rooms upstairs and a large bar in the basement - all decked out in the red/black/leather theme.

As you can expect from somewhere that's got a fancy pants BBQ grill - most of the food is going to be cooked on there and anything else on the menu is going to compliment it. The style is big, comforting, American, smokey - there's pulled pork, burgers and steak; there's rooster skin to start and the mash has 40% butter in it. Don't visit if you're on a diet.

We started with nibbles; Rooster Skin; - so wrong (fried chicken skin), but so utterly moreish (I just tried to forget how much fat was in it, something you will learn to do at Solita). Another delightful nibble was the salt cod balls - not too salty or dry, which is a feat other restaurants can't cope with when it comes to salted cod all pepped up with a fresh parsley, caper, salsa verde type mayo under them.

Salt Cod Balls

Starters were massive - I could have seriously eaten on of these for my mains! The signature at Solita seems to be the pulled pork sundae; chunks of tender, smokey pork layered up with a tangy BBQ sauce and that mash - 60/40 mash to be specific ie. 60% potato and 40% butter. We also tried the Bacon Jam on Sourdough - more for comedy rather than anything else. There is nothing comedy about this dish - you get the sweetness of the pork tempered by a chilli kick; there's these intense smokey, syrupy, chocolaty, coffee flavours going on. Something simple is made superb - this is a must have dish off the menu.

Pulled pork sundae - if it's not bad enough, it's topped with more rooster skin...

As they've got this inka grill, we thought we'd give it a whirl and ordered burgers and hanger steak, just to do our colons a favour. Not sure if it is the way they're cooked or the mix they use, but the burgers seemed over processed - I know they use WH Frost's meat, so I am guessing it's the way they make them in the kitchen. If the texture was a little off, the taste was spot on - charred from the grill with the right balance of seasoning and some added freshness from some bits of veg that were thrown in to the bun for good measure. The hanger steak was brilliant; so soft and rare and juicy - covered with a rub that tasted of fire and chocolate, which just complimented the meat brilliantly.

Because we were intrigued by it, we also ordered a deep fried mac and cheese with pulled pork - well, we'd abused our arteries that much that we didn't think that there was much harm in sticking in another week's worth of fat and calories. We just couldn't fit in - it was all the things a good mac and cheese should be, then deep fried. Comfort food at it's best (and worst!).

Half of a Deep Fried Mac n Cheese

We did order sides, but there was no need to, we were so full - bit sad we didn't eat too much of the Smoked Buttered Veg (yup, even the veg is bad for you here) and it was delicious. However the triple cooked chips were a let down; everything was perfect, bar the taste - a bitter aftertaste of hay.

Just to sound the death knell for our circulatory system, we ordered pudding - they had Deep Fried Coke. That's Deep. Fried. Coke. I had to order it. Turns out I made a good choice; churros with a heavy dose of cinnamon, topped with Cabrelli's ice cream - it was meant to be vanilla, but we had coconut, which worked exceptionally well with the cinnamon notes in the churros and the coke - so where was this coke? They'd put some in the churros batter,obviously, but then - genius - they poured post mix coke syrup over the whole thing. Oh my.

Deep. Fried. Coke.

Solita is refreshing; there's nothing like it in the Northern Quarter (yes I know Americana is big right now, but we're not in London so we're not drowning in these places); they're going for a different audience here - midweek eaters, people shopping in the city centre and families; expanding the Northern Quarter and offering bags more variety. I like that and I think it'll last.

Price for two nibbles, two starters, three mains, two sides, one pudding - £62.70

Food - 8/10
Atmosphere - 8/10
Service - 7/10 (but they were newbies, so don't judge them too harsh)
Value for money - 9/10

Total - 32/40

Go again - yes the food is mostly great and it's a lovely place - really different and doesn't break the bank

Please note - Solita asked me to eat with them and gave me my meal free; however I was under no obligation to say nice things - I liked the food!

Solita - Margolis Building, Turner Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester - 0161 839 5600 - Twitter - Facebook


Solita Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Jamie's Italian - Manchester

Another meal out in Manchester; big surprise, it's another Italian - the city seems to breed them. This time it's the behemoth of Italians - the big, new, pukka kid on the block that's fittingly set in a big, bold, behemoth of a building. Even in the city where there's more Italian places than you can shake your spaghetti at, Manchester hasn't escaped Jamie's ever expanding eating empire.

Jamie's big old bank is once again a big money maker - with thank to Premier Construction

Set in the grand old HSBC building at the top of King Street, Jamie's chain has sympathetically moved in - most of the stunning old features are there, there's just the addition of tables and a dark wooden bar with it's customary parma ham legs and charcuterie hanging off it. Downstairs the personal vaults have hardly been messed around with, they've just been turned in to loos with reclaimed toilets. The main vault is now a private dining room, replete with the safe deposit boxes that hundreds of rich Mancunians stuffed their ill gotten gains into - pretty much the same thing that's now happening in the tills upstairs.

We were sat by the busy kitchen, watching the hustle and bustle of the chefs and the serving staff running in and out - service was pretty spot on and quick; the chap who served us knew everything about every dish and refreshingly, advised us on our food and drinks choices not by price, but by what we wanted and what he felt would show off the kitchen to the best degree.

The generous meat platter for one

Starters are the winners at Jamie's; filled, fiery pepperdews were tamed by a sharp creamy filling; the meat board for one was massive for the £6.95 it cost and t'boy's special of chargrilled squid salad on fregola was soft, smokey and had an amazing depth of flavour for the simple dish that it was. Despite looking a little sus (or was that just my dirty mind?), the baked courgette with stuffed flower retained a toothsome crunch in both the veg and the crispy panko coating, the sharp stuffing a great answer to the accompanying heavy sauce.

Squid and fregola salad

Compared to the well thought out and full of character starters, all the mains - bar the bream acqua pazza - were nothing more than average. Jamie's makes a big thing of advertising their homemade pasta; that's great, but if you're going to shout about it, cook it properly - most were a lot more than al dente whrn they arrived.

The special pasta of the night was a 'British seafood celebration' and described as a zesty bowl of gurnard, cockles, scallops and squid. A celebration is a great thing in a bowl, but most of the fish must have been at another party as there was only one rubbery piece of squid, six cockles and a tiny piece of gurnard in attendance: all I got from the 'refreshing' chilli, lemon and extra virgin olive oil dressing was some overly aggressive heat and no layers of flavours. Other pastas seemed as middle of the road but fared better with the amount of ingredients they contained (apart from one other British seafood celebration, which contained an even scantier amount of fish than mine did).

Celebration of British seafood pasta - sans much seafood

As mentioned before the bream was a bit of a star - just pan fried (I hate that as a descriptor) and simply dressed with a sweet cherry tomato and chilli dressing. All that was needed was a bit of bread to mop up the juices but, thankfully, we'd ordered some 'posh chips' (covered in truffle oil and parmesan) and they did the trick nicely - unlike Trof's version, these were heavy on the truffle, crisp, fluffy and a generous portion to boot.

Baked bream - fish, and dish, of the day

Pudding was predictable - an almond tart was basically a bakewell - good pastry, sweet filling, job done. The chocolate pot with vin santo cream was a hefty portion that we shared; chocolate wasn't too bitter, cream was interesting - again nothing brilliant, just well done.

As you'd expect there was a lot of wooden board action, enamelled dishes everywhere and beakers to drink from  - Jamie's styling team are pushing out that Jamie signature slap dash, share it with your friends vibe - it's just a bit too thought out and they've kept it on the conservative side of edgy - as you don't want to be scaring those patrons off. It's easy to hate Jamie for his shouty, full on character and his seemingly unstoppable money-making machine, but he must be doing something right as the place was full to bursting on the Monday night we went and you have to admire his business acumen. (for more Jamie Oliver love/hate postulating and articulating it much better than I would, check out Jay Rayner's Guardian comment).

Jamie's Italian is a chain; a well thought out, profit maximising concept that sets out to bring Jamie's brand of Italian food to the masses. People need to remember this when they come here - if you want something authentic, Manchester's got at least a dozen other places you can head to. The place succeeds in what it sets out to do and will probably continue to do very well in a city with no Michelin stars, plus a clientele of mainly provincial families and eager-eyed students.

Ps I live, work and play in Manchester's provinces and have done for the past 11 years, before you get all het up about my description of the general population.

Price for six starters, six mains, two puddings, two litres of organic house white, two shorts and a port, plus 10% service charge (as we were a large party) - £217.57

Food - 6/10
Service - 8/10
Atmosphere - 8/10
Value for money - 6/10 Starters spot on, mains tad expensive esp the pasta.

Total - 30/40

Go again? Only if food wasn't going to be the main reason I was going. For families, teenagers' birthday parties and food-conservative friends it's the destination to head.
Jamie's Italian, 100 King Street, Manchester M2 4UW - 0161 241 3901 - Website - Twitter - Facebook

Jamie's Italian on Urbanspoon

Monday, 2 July 2012

The Cornerhouse - Manchester

Located at the top of Manchester’s long and busy Oxford Road, The Cornerhouse is a legendary landmark in Manchester’s cultural heritage and is Manchester’s centre for contemporary and visual arts. Founded in 1985 by the Greater Manchester Visual Arts Trust it has lately merged with The Library Theatre and is now at the forefront of Manchester’s vibrant cultural scene.

The Cornerhouse Cinema - with thanks to The Guardian

As avid readers of this blog will realise; I’m not bigging The Cornerhouse up for the visually exciting galleries or the small, independent film showing cinemas it contains; nor for their support and funding of new arts projects; or for the well-stocked shop on the ground floor brimming with contemporary arts, visual and cultural materials – you all know there’s got to be some food link somewhere.

Cornerhouse main building - with thanks to Viewfinder General

The Cornerhouse does indeed hold a café-bar-restaurant: split over two floors it serves from first thing in the morning, to pretty late at night and is always filled to the rafters with students, workers, lovers and cultural explorers chatting over coffee, relaxing with a local beer, sharing tapas or eating something a bit more substantial. We visited on a Tuesday night and were hard-pushed to find a seat, sneaking in to a corner foursome by the big plate windows with a great view of the hustle and bustle of a rain-drenched Manchester evening.

The menu’s a mix of laid-back, comfy food taking inspiration from around the globe with a good smattering of veggie options, so there’s something for everyone. Being ravenous pigs on a budget, we decided to have the pizzas – nothing like a big hit of carbs to fill you up!

Pizzas at The Cornerhouse are stone-baked, thin and charred – the edges bubbling, blackened and crisp on the tooth. They’re not stingy on the toppings here; the polpette was covered with mini, juicy pork and beef meatballs and a big sprinkling of red onions. The tomato and chorizo sauce added a pleasing sweet, smokiness that was tempered by the milky, creaminess of the cheese.

Sweet, smokey, sexy polpette

A good old Americano was spicy sassiness; a salty plate full of salami and jalapenos that you could actually taste (rather than green mush tasting of pickling spices). There was little bit too much cheese for my liking, but I’m notorious for asking places to half the cheese (so I’m not going to listen to your complaints then - Ed).

Spicy, sassy Americano

Pizza’s aren’t anything extraordinary and there’s no shocks or surprises here – it’s just good food done really well, for a not too outrageous price. The added good value of The Reel Deal makes the food taste even better – a pizza, a drink (alcohol inc) and a film ticket all for £14.50 – that’s cheaper than an Orange Wednesday!

Price for two Reel Deals - £29
Usual price of pizzas – between £6-£9.

Food – 7/10
Atmosphere – 9/10
Service – 7/10
Value for money – 9/10 (for The Reel Deal)

Total – 32/40

Go again – Yes, the Reel Deal is excellent and I love the small, old skool cinemas at The Cornerhouse. I’d like to taste the main menu too as it looks pretty tasty and the portions seemed massive (when we were spying on other people’s food!).

The Cornerhouse, 70 Oxford Street, Manchester M1 5NH – 0161 228 7621 – info@cornerhouse.org – TwitterFacebook


Cornerhouse on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Foodie Penpals - Spicy, snacktime goodness

This month's foodie penpal was eagerly awaited as I'd been paired with Jules of Good Gobble Blog; a local mancunian and fellow blogger that I've been following for a while. Jules lives near my old neighbourhood of Rusholme, that's choc full of Asian stores and little foodie dens, so I was really excited to see what she was going to send me.

I'd told Jules that I've got a bad habit of snacking and that I was looking for something to sate my appitite whilst at work, that wasn't too naughty. I'd also mentioned my obsession with spicy food and that I love unusual things from around the world.

Juls didn't disappoint - when I opened my box, out popped a cornicopia of foodie bits and bobs from around the world. My box was packed full of; Turkish coffee, halva, coconut and pistachio snack bars, tabasco sauce that's not Tabasco, harissa, methi (fenugreek), banana cornmeal porridge and a cosmo mix from Funkin.

Pow! What a full box of food related fun

The coffee is great; really deep, chocolatey flavour off set with a little bitterness. I don't have a traditional Turkish coffee pot, so I had to use my french press and just make sure I didn't upset the fine grounds in the bottom when pouring. This went exceptionaly well with the pistachio bar - I have to find myself a ready source of these; I love pistacheos and this was nutty, sweet and still retained the unusual taste of the pistachio. Forget your salted caramel peanuts/cashews/almonds - pistachios are the way forward.

Turkish coffee and pistachio bar - new snack de jour

The harissa and the chili sauce are firey little cooking companions that I've been adding to everything. The tabasco is quite smokey, whereas the harissa has a wonderful, aromatic flavour thanks to the unusual addition of caraway. None of the harissas I've eaten before have included caraway and this added a fragrant, lifting taste. The old-skool illustration on the package is so asthetically pleasing that I'm going to save the pakage once I've finished.

Old skool graphics on Tunisian harissa

I've not managed to try the porridge yet, my mornings have been a little rushed and all over the place so I've been munching through the halva and bars instead. This looks like quite a random thing to eat, I love banana flavoured things but I'm not sure about cornmeal porridge - is this going to be banana polenta?

And what about the funkin? Well I drank that as soon as I got home. Jules and I are both 'old lady vodka drinkers' as she puts it. Here's one to you Jules, thanks so much for a great package!

What did I send you're asking? I was paired with another Juls, aka Pepper and Sherry the trainee chef. Juls told me she preferred ingredients to whole foods, so I sent her all the bits to make a Punjabi garam masala and a few Punjabi recipes that she could use the masala in. I also sent her some gram flour, as one of the recipes was for pakora and some chana so she could make one of my favourite dishes, chana dal. I included some pomegranate powder - for no other reason than I thought it was really random and I also liked the wording on the box 'NOT curry powder;' just in case you were confused!

Punjabi garam masarla for Juls.

Here's to the next box - why not get involved yourself and head over to RockSalt to join up.