Monday, 30 April 2012

Foodie Penpals - random food love in the post

Last week, when feeling sad and lonely (get out the violins please) I got a wonderful package in the post - I'm not going to say it was a surprise, as I knew it was coming, but I had no clue as to what it contained - other than it would be something to do with food. Unwrapping a package, even if you know what's in it, it always gratifying - so this was made doubly amazing by the fact I had no clue as to what I find.

What is this you ask? Do randoms just send you packages from the good of their heart or have you paid for this lucky dip service? Well it's a bit of both really. Let's start at the beginning - the scheme is called Foodie Penpals and in the UK it's organised by a lovely lady called Carol Ann. I'd come across the scheme after some Twitter activity lead me to reading the Rock Salt blog and thought it sounded right up my street as a) I like food b) Like surprises and c) I love writing letters, I'm a bit old fashioned like that.

 The concept is thus: you sign up and each month Carol Ann does lots of jiggery pokery and emails out a spreadsheet. On this sheet you're assigned someone to send a package to (and someone is assigned you - this changes every month), then you send them a box of foodie treats by the 20th of the month. The idea was originally started in America by the Lean Green Bean and has been running in the UK for a couple of months now - some of our European cousins have joined in too, so there's a good chance you'll get paired with someone a little further afield that down' th road, opening up all sorts of adventurous foodie possibilities.

Simples? Yes it is. There are a few stipulations such as you must get in touch with your assigned person within 72 hours and ask them some basics eg. are you allergic to anything and where do I send your treats - then it's up to you to go find some scrummy surprises for about £10, box 'em up and send them off.

Enough of the background, you can find more out using the links littered about this blog - back to my package and me, me, me - so what did I get? A lovely lady called Helen Costello who runs Aardvark Cakes in St Helens was assigned me and sent me the inspired gift of Prestat dark chocolate buttons, some fruit and nuts and the most amazing mini tagines for sauces and dips and... well whatever other amazing things I put in them. And just the colour for me too. Brilliant. I opened the chocolate immediately and the taste is heavenly; really rich and fruity. As it's in the form of thin buttons it's just enough chocolate to deal with cravings without being too much of a naughty treat.

Helen also wrote me a lovely note explaining her love of the 'dip dishes,' saying that she was thinking about buying some herself - I wonder if she did? They're an ace addition to the kitchen and have already come in handy loads. I can't wait to have people over and make them the focus of a dish. Helen's choice of notelet was also pretty spot on for me and pretty apt seeing as she makes cakes for a living: I'm obsessed with anything floral flavoured - not only is the picture of lavender cakes, but there's a recipe on the back too - can't wait to get baking!

So did I send anything? I'm a good girl so I did indeed - I was paired with Emily, aka Bristol Bites, the don of knowing what's good to eat down Bristol way. As she was down South I decided I'd send her some great local produce from Cheshire, Lancashire and Greater Manchester; basically where I live, work and play. So what did I send? Well why not check out her post and see if you think if it I did us Northerners proud.

Sounds fun? Well why not get in on the action? All you need to do is submit the Foodie Penpals form on the Rock Salt blog or press the Foodie Penpals button in my side bar (eyes right) and get yourself registered - you don't have to be a blogger either. Who knows what will be winging its way to you next month? Well, that's all part of the fun!

Ps you can see what everyone else got here and if you live across the pond, then you can sign up to Foodie Penpals here.

Pps Yes, I know the photos are back to front. I'm sans phone/camera and am using the web cam for these. Better photos next month, I promise!

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Sweet Mandarin - Northern Quarter, Manchester

Last time I reviewed somewhere associated with a certain foul mouthed, botox injecting, kitchen tyrant celebrity chef, it closed down soon after (here), so it's with trepidation that I review another Ramsey endorsed establishment - although as Sweet Mandarin has been trading since 2004, I'm sure they're not quaking in their boots.

Sweet Mandarin - with thanks to themselves

After a public battle in the middle of the Northern Quarter with t'Boy and the little bro, we decamped to Sweet Mandarin as it was a) open b) looked inviting and c) it was cheaper than the surrounding places and d) the other places were full.

It's run by two sisters, Helen and Lisa Tse - one in the kitchen and one front of house. There's a family feel about the place, probably because the girls are third generation restaurateurs - their grandma opened one of the first Chinese restaurants in the UK and the menu is littered with dishes that hark back to their family; Mabel's clay pot chicken is their Mother's dish and their sweet and sour is made to a recipe their father created. You can also buy a book about the family's move over from China written by Helen - these girls are ever industrious, there's even homemade sauces which you can buy and take home and they've started a cookery school and cocktail classes and...

Fishy polystyrene and some ab fab sauces

Talking about the bottled sauces, out came the prawn crackers - I don't like  prawn crackers; words like fishy polystyrene, bubble wrap and plastic come to mind - however the sauces made them pretty agreeable. The sweet chilli was firey and sharp, with no over cloying sweetness and the BBQ was a finger-licking treat.

Lions Head meatballs - a portion size for a lion

Sweet Mandarin's not cheap for a Chinese, obviously taking a lead from it's Northern Quarter neighbours, the mains hover around the £10 mark with quite a few above that - plus there's rice needed on top as well! Feeling the pennies pinching, I chose the Lion Head Meatballs; soft and sweet meatballs in a fabulously salty, oyster sauce served with noodles (so no rice required) and some token Chinese greens. Playing on the salty/sweet, meat/seafood juxtapositions, this dish was a bit of a hit - though the size meant I could have shared it and saved myself a couple of extra quid.

Sweet and sour in a crispy bowl

Crispy Sichaun Beef lacked the massive chilli punch I was waiting for from a dish from the hot and spicy part of China, though the beef was crispy as advertised. The sweet and sour was served in a crispy bowl, which was good fun for dipping in the mouth puckering sauce; however I'm no fan of sweet and sour as it's always too gloopy for me and this was no exception.

Crispy Sichaun beef

Sweet Mandarin is a great little neighbourhood restaurant; the staff are welcoming and friendly, plus were super patient when I wanted to change my mind 15 times and didn't begrudge my refusal to budge from tap water all night. However if Sweet Mandarin was just a little neighbourhood place, tucked away in some provincial town, I'd be giving this place a full house of tens for the score - but this is the middle of Manchester, with some pretty fine eating establishments round the corner, a top-rate China Town down the road and Ramsey awarded it the best Chinese place in the UK.

Best Chinese in the UK? Not in my books, but better than your usual Chinese fare and a cheap for the Northern Quarter.

Total for prawn crackers, four mains, rice and three beers - £62.30

Food - 6/10
Service - 8/10
Atmosphere - 7/10
Price - 7/10

Total - 28/40

Go again? Yes, if I was in the area and the group wanted a Chinese - otherwise I'd head down to China Town for a big wallop in the face from Red Chilli or those delicious chewy handmade noodles from the BBQ King.

Sweet Mandarin, 19 Copperas Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester M4 1HS - 0161 832 8848 -

Sweet Mandarin on Urbanspoon

Monday, 23 April 2012

Whiskey Trail - The Liquorists, Manchester Northern Quarter

Mark Twain is famed for saying, "...too much of good whiskey is barely enough," and last week's Whiskey Tour, with bar consultants/boozy tour guides/general bon vivants The Liquorists, really lived up to Mark Twain's (and my) expectations - there was whiskey galore; plus plenty of good food and good chat thrown in for very good measure.

The concept of a Whiskey Trail is to sample some very good whiskey (note the 'e' you pedants, we're referring to non-Scotch here), taste it in a long drink and learn about the spirit - bit like non-geeky school trip for adults.

We started the night at Socio-Rehab; the old stomping ground of our guide Tom, who's one half of The Liquorists partnership. Gathered round in a booth with eight other strangers, I felt like a bit of a ninny, however Tom's warmth and boundless enthusiasm relaxed everyone immediately and we got off to a flying start with the American bourbon that is Woodford Reserve; sweet, salty caramel flavours with big hints of vanilla shining through. To highlight the versatility of the drink we were also served a Classic, apparently as drunk by those people on Mad Men all the time (how did they cope?), and a dark chocolate florentine. Perfect.

Classics and florentines at SocioRehab

From here we decamped to Trof NQ and their brand new bourbon bar - we scampered round our reserved table like excited primary-schoolers - our little faces all tuned in to Tom's captivating spiel about the Jim Beam and infamous mint julep in front of us - part history, part folklore, part innuendo, part tasting notes. To compliment we had a spoon of jelly and almonds, went down a treat I can tell you.

Mint julep - totally Hunter S Thompson

We formed a now less than orderly crocodile and popped in to the dark and moody Apotheca a few doors up; this time to the wonderful sight of two large drams, not just one! And we can say drams this time as one of them was the wonderful Auchentoshan - a smooth and delicate Scotch single malt; the only triple distilled malt in Scotland - see I was still listening, even if by this time I had a lovely warm feeling and things were getting a little hazy. This was contrasted against the fruity, slightly sweeter Yamazaki from Japan, which was one of my favourites from the trail.

By now we were all chatting amiably, no longer strangers, but partners on this unique guided discovery - good thing as we had the longest walk (all of two minutes) to Noho on Stevenson Square - to relax in some comfy sofas; just what we needed after four drams and three cocktails. Out came a Jameson, well we couldn't have trail without having a drink from the country that invented whiskey could we? Hmmm...they may have invented it, but I do think the Scots refined it (that's a debate for another post). Here we ate caramel and cheese popcorn, sounds gross but is surprisingly moreish.

This made the Jameson's taste nice! Basil, clove syrup and pepper cocktail at Noho

And for our last treat? A chow down at the Northern Quarter's now infamous secret meat den for plenty of alcohol absorbing, juicy, meaty, delicious (I could go on) burgers and addictive chicken wings - plus lots of Jack Daniels and cocktails that I think included root beer and cherries (yes 'I think,' I had to go by the photos I took and my twitter updates for this one). Good job Almost Famous had opened up especially for us as by this time we were all on the merry side.

End of the night, dirty beefy love mmmm.....

A tour through the whiskies of the world is something that may sound a little dry (no pun intended); obsessive booze geeks trailing around in chinos discussing tasting notes and cask weights, blah, bah, blah. Tom is obsessive, but in a very good way. His passion, interest and obvious knowledge shine through - coupled with an boundless friendliness and a true eagerness to actually know what you think about each drink, he makes the trail a very enjoyable and unforgettable experience.

Please don't fear that this is an overly boozy lads night out - it's not. The Liquorists have obviously gone to great pains to ensure the whole set-up is run as professional and smoothly as possible. Our tables were always reserved, the drinks were always ready and there were plenty of snacks and water to dilute the booze they were feeding us. For between £30-£40 it's a cheap night out, especially as we got through five whiskies, four cocktails and more food than I could fit in my gob (that's a lot, by the way).

Tom and his interesting spiel

The Whiskey Trail is on for the next five weeks so snap up your tickets here - you'll be gutted if you miss out, it really is that ace. Don't fear if it's already booked up; those sauce sessionistas will be back with a gin trail, and a vodka trail, and... well watch this space.

Want a bespoke party (they indeed will do these for 'a good deal'), or got some questions for Tom or his business partner Jody? Then head over to: or Twitter

Ps I was given the ticket to this trail for free, however I was under no obligation to write good things - Tom's enthusiasm for the drinks, his interest in us and just how jolly nice he was, plus the actual fabness of the trail means I think this definitely deserves a thumbs up.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Almost Famous Burgers - Secret Location, Northern Quarter, Manchester

There's a lot for me not to like about Almost Famous Burgers - the fact that there's no reservations (I'm lazy and hate queues), you have to be on Twitter to know where it is, they have a statement saying no bloggers , they don't let you take photos (not like this is all a clever marketing ploy or something...), and the word 'nom' is on the menu. It's actually in the title of one of the burgers. I don't like the word nom. End of.

But the lure of good quality burgers was too much for me; so despite my initial reservations and the large list of 'why I would probably hate its,' I found myself outside a nondescript door in Manchester's Northern Quarter early one Saturday evening. Pushing through the door like delinquent children at a derelict factory's gates, we found ourselves walking up some stairs through offices, all the way up to a door with 'No Photos' emblazoned on it. It's not a conventional entry so don't be scared off by thinking (in their words) 'What the frick is this?!'

T'boy and I pushed the door open; a very Alice in Wonderland moment as  we tentatively peered round not knowing what to expect, our eyes taking a moment to focus and then we were greeted by a large, white rabbit in a waistcoat - sorry I mean; welcoming barmen with friendly grins, a cocktail class at the bar and various 20-somethings mooching around, choosing what to eat.

We went through to main eating area; which is white, bright and high ceilinged with wonderfully cheeky prints on the walls - not somewhere you'd expect to be serving up an all American menu; but a lovely space that made you concentrate on the food and not some kitchy route 66 decor - and what food!

Almost Famous concentrates on two main things - burgers and chicken wings. The menu's short, a selection of burgers with different toppings, three types of wings and some fries. As t'boy commented "it's a good sign, means it'll be good." And his sentiment rang true with every bite we took.

Menu - This is the only photo I took. I know, I'm lame.

Our Almost Famous burger was served almost pink (finally, somewhere doing this...); a fat juicy patty in a sweet brioche-type bun, covered in cheese, special sauce and some greenery for freshness and fun. I am going to put it out there that this might be the best burger I have ever had. It's definitely the best one I've had in Manchester.

The burgers are brilliant, exceptional and totally moreish, but it's the chicken wings I'm going to bang on about. Called 'Crack Wings,' I can now see why they have been given this title; I don't usually like chicken wings, but I had to have extra portions - I don't know what's in them sauces but I couldn't stop. The Redneck sauce is definitely the best - spicy without killing your taste buds, heavy on the BBQ, immensely yummy. I licked my fingers for the next three hours - I was at a gig, people looked at me strange, I didn't care.

Despite all my reservations around Almost Famous' clever marketing ploys, on trend Charlie Sheen style winning talk and social media faux secrecy hype; I have found somewhere with the most unpretentious of welcomes, the best burgers and wings in town and deep down I really liked pushing open that anonymous door that could have lead anywhere, the butterflies in my tummy as I walked up the stairs and the fact that I'm now in on the secret.

Price for a burger, two portions of wings, a portion of chips and a beer - £18.90

Food - 9/10
Atmosphere - 9/10
Service - 9/10
Value for money - 8/10

Total - 35/40

Go again? Frick yeah! Although I'll have to be quick as they're only going to be open for the next few weekends (they only open Fri and Sat from about 4pm - midnight, though check out their Twitter for more info).

Almost Famous Burgers, Anonymous door in the main part of the Northern Quarter, Manchester. (Like I'm going to tell you where it is - check out the website and twitter to find out more).

Ps - sorry for the lack of photos, I took one of the menu and then chickened out like the massive girl that I am.

Pps - Check out the tiles on the main staircase up, amazingly beautiful.

Almost Famous on Urbanspoon

Almost Famous on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Papa G's - The Printworks, Manchester

The Printworks - Manchester's Disneyfied imaging of a print workshop filled to burst with low-cost drinking dens spilling out large ladies in small bits of lycra at all hours of the day. I avoid this place like the plague.

However I have recently been invited to look again at this denzian of cheap booze and even cheaper food - the people at Papa G's wanted to prove to me that just because something's in the Printworks, it doesn't mean you should instantly dismiss it. A bit of 'please don't judge this book by its cover' type of thing.

Papa G's is located right opposite the cinema; a Greek place with a menu that wanders across the Med rather than sitting in one place. The decor's not traditional - there's no white and blue walls, retsina in wicker bottles or smashed plates; rather there's trendy coloured lighting, a large expanse of expensive looking bar, a sensory children's library (I kid you not) and an open plan kitchen dominated by the wood fired oven. The only 'traditional' decor is in the conference/party/over spill area upstairs; a large white wall with a black and white collage of the family behind Papa G's.

Massive oven and a chef 

We popped along on a weekday lunch and were surprsied by how busy Papa G's was - there was a varied mix of grannies with shopping, workers and parents with kids. There seems to be something for everyone on the menu, canny when you consider the location and who passes the front door.

Paps G's busy dining room

Being a hungry carnivore, t'boy opted for the lamb soulvaki; a massive portion arrived of sweet, charred lamb, cooked to pink perfection. Combined with the fattest, fluffiest chips, pitta and two different sauces it was a massive portion and t'boy won't like me to say this, but he was defeated!

This photo doesn't do justice to how big this is

I opted for the chicken soulvaki off the lunch menu, - a smaller portion, but still a pretty good size and a very shrwed option if you're watching the pennies; the portion is plenty big enough for lunch, top quality and for £8.95 also comes with a starter (it's only £6.95 for one course). As a lunch option it's very good quality, charred and smokey with a cooling tatziki and a roasted pepper salsa (made fresh every day on site). With my soulvaki I opted for the chicken wings, not the best I've had, but certainly juicy, large and covered in a lip-smacking sauce.

Chicken soulvaki with a brilliant fresh dressing on those leaves

Speaking to the staff at Papa G's, they're all pretty jenned up on where they get their produce - most of it is local, they use people like Smiths Agar and have their fish delivered fresh every day. Without making a massive song an dance about it they seem to committed to producing fresh, good tasting food, using fresh, good quality ingredants.

Papa G's is special; not because it blows you out of the water, not because the chefs are trained in the newest branch of molecular gastrononmy and not because you can eat things here you can't eat anywhere else. No, it's because of where it is and what it does there - Papa G's brings fresh, tasty, character full food to the masses of the Printworks. We'd been expecting the same disneyfied, plastic experience that is synonimous with that part of town - instead we got fresh food, good eats and a great lunch - so they were right, we really shouldn't have judged that book by its cover.

Price for one main, one lunch deal and two drinks - £27.60

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

Total - 32/40

Go again? Yes I would, it's a great place for an early evening bite to eat or a working lunch; especially if you have a few different tastes to feed or are with the family - it's inoffensive, fresh and friendly.

Papa G's Grill and Bar, The Printworks, 27 Withy Grove, Manchester M4 2BS - 0161 834 8668 - - Twitter - Facebook

Please note I was asked to review this restaurant and they knew I was there - however all thoughts and views are my own and I was under no obligation to write anything nice.

Papa G's Grill and Bar on Urbanspoon