Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Sneak Preview! Italia, Manchester

Italia? Is that a new restaurant? Well technically it's ancient, as old as the modern Manchester dining scene, as old as the manky hotdogs in the window of the hotdog cart on Market Street and nearly as old as the hills themselves...

So what's all this about a sneak preview? Italia, or Rustica as it has been known over the years, has been trading at the top of Deansgate since 1977, when the UK's perception of high class Italian cuisine and sophistication was a thick based pizza and an overly creamy lasagna. Unfortunately as tastes changed Rustica didn't, still churning out those solid, staid staples to an ever ageing/dwindling clientele; that is until Fraco Sogitu, the guy behind Solita, stepped in.

Rebranded back to its original name (it opened as Pizzaria Italia), Italia aims to make take proper Italian food and deliver it Manchester, whilst keeping traditional staples (albeit with a little twist/taking the recipes back to their proper Italian versions) and doing it all at a price that is accessible to everyone. So here we have Carbonara minus cream and bolognase with tagliatelle/ragu (see, they know what they're doing).

Located in a building that’s earmarked for ‘development’ (ie bulldozing), Franco hasn’t pumped millions of pounds in to a glitzy face lift or hired in a celebrity chef from Milan to transform the menu – indeed many of the original 70’s fittings are still there – instead he’s given it a kick up the arse to create a laid back, true to its roots place that uses the best quality and regional ingredients to create dishes us Northern folk would label 'proper tasty.'

Original 70s dessert trolley (don't worry, the pudding is freshly made)

A plate of mixed bruschetta to start with – pear and gorgonzola a sure fire favourite for its sweet and tangy contrasts; smoked mozzarella and anchovy worked exceptionally well and lardo (cured pork fat) was a lighter, tastier version of bone marrow on toast.

Lots of bruschetta for my little tummy to contend with

Next were risottos – both cooked properly al dente (unlike most of the manky, soggy crap you get in Manchester). The butternut squash and fontina-full Invorno; light, silky, sweet and given an extra taste/texture dimension with the inclusion of crushed amoretti – inspired, but I could only eat a small portion. And the yet unnamed simple, yet stunning (although still slightly too cheesy) caviar risotto, made with farmed sturgeon from France (yes I thought it was impossible too); this will eventually appear on the specials menu when they’ve finished tweaking those cheese levels.

Carrying on with the rice and cheese, we literally pulled apart the Suppli al Telefonica – pillowy soft rice and mozzarella sticks, covered in a light breadcrumbs and fried – I guess these will be my downfall one day; when they cut me open they will be pulling out big strings of mozzarella from these (that’s how this dish gets its name – telephone wires).

Suppli al telephonica served on a bed of kick ass tomato sauce to cut through the cheese

Dish of the night was gnocchi coda di bue brasta (gnocchi baked with oxtail) –I haven’t had such light as cloud gnocchi like these since I was last in Italy and being cooked for by my Dad’s friend’s Nonna (she's amazing, but pretty scary). Beefy and thick; softly, softly rich; comforting and delicious…drooling just thinking about it.

Food porn - seriously - just go order this now

There’s an inka grill installed at Italia (like Solita) and Franco was determined to show it off – three large tiger prawns with nothing more on them than the charred skins on their back – they didn’t need anything as the succulent woody char they picked up from this ingenious (and expensive) bit of kit was enough.

It wouldn’t be an Italian without the pasta – firstly a menu dish, Zitti Contadino – so called the most messy pasta in Italy as the long tubes wiggle all over the place. It may have been messy (and very fun), but the sauce was sublime simplicity; tomato and vegetable shot through and pepped up a good dose of piquant gorgonzola. Then for something special – naked spaghetti with bottarga grated over the top (that’s dried tuna/mullet roe) – sounds a bit ming, but is in fact very tasty (if you miso soup or anything very savoury then this will suit you) – not a dish that’s on the menu, but it may sneak on to the specials, so keep your eyes open!

And then pudding. Or three puddings to be exact – cannoli, oranges with ice cream and cheesecake. All perfectly lovely, but by this point in the tasting I was calling for the torture/pleasure to stop and rolled my fat belly down the conveniently placed hill to the station and then ultimately to a stuffed and satisfied sleep.

Torture - I mean freshly made cannoli and gelato

As is apparent from the menu, Italia is not about fancy pants dishes or charging exuberant costs for fiddly food – it’s about Italian classics/traditional dishes, cooked well and for a fair price with a specials board for those dishes that are a little different. With very competent chef Tim Shirley (ex-Jamie's Italian and Piccolinos) in the kitchen and a dedicated, knowledgeable and enthusiastic floor staff it looks like they have all the ingredients for success.

Please note Italia is not fully open yet and the menu is not finalised, so I’m not going to score on this occasion. However from what I’ve seen it’s fair to say the food is of a very high quality for a pretty decent price.

Please note I was comped all the food in this piece, but as you know from other places I been and slated, I’m under no obligation to say nice things, I just thoroughly enjoyed the food and good company.
Italia, 40-42 Deansgate, Manchester M3 1RH - Twitter - Website

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Happy Seasons - China Town, Manchester

Taking a tip from a fellow food lover I followed my nose and took my grumbling tummy to Manchester's brightly coloured, richly smelly, hustling and bustling China Town to search out a long-standing little gem called Happy Seasons.

I have to admit, I've never been to Happy Seasons; never giving it more than a quick glance as I moved on to the pared back Japanese cuisine at Yuzu or the face-melting dishes at Red Chilli. It's rammed in to Faulkner Street between a dozen other dining dens and only manages to catch your attention because of its fuck off neon sign. Oh and the guy chopping meat in the window.

Big sign/bad photo

How I never managed to spot a place with peking ducks hanging in the window and a man permanently chopping different BBQ meats (don't question this, we have done tests, he is always there, always chopping. We have visited numerous times to confirm this), I don't know, especially as I've been next door to Wasabi about 400 times. I shan't miss it now though, not that I know it's there.

Meat window - chopping man got shy but you can still see him hiding - here Mr Chopping Man

Happy Seasons is very much like Handmade BBQ Noodle King - you don't go there for the decor. In fact many weak-stomached mortals who rather like shiny new chain restaurants (ooh...well ya knor jus wot yers getting even if yer go to like another town int it?) would take one look inside and condemn the place faster than an over zealous food hygiene officer. It's shabby, it's ramshackle and it's painted hospital green - but as I said, you really don't go there for the decor.

Wow, look at this amazing decor...NO LOOK AT THE FOOD, it's what you're there for

What you do go to Happy Seasons for is BBQ meat. There's a big menu with other un/usual dishes, some of it looks amazing, but nothing touches the BBQ meat. Ever. Well maybe the Char Sui buns, but you can have them for starter so let's not worry about it.

Due to the extreme amazigness of the smells coming from the kitchen we got giddy and ordered rather too much for our stomachs (don't worry, we got a doggy bag and ate it later on) all of which came  at once - I'm sure our little corner table gave an audible groan as the plates were laid upon it.

Prawn dumplings were little (well actually quite big, two bites I'd say) steamed dim sum - super hot, but gorgeous and stuffed full with large chunks of prawns with a good dose of seasoning; we suffered burnt mouths almost with glee to get these in.

Char sui buns were some of the best I've had in China Town; super fluffy and soft, oozing with sweet/salty/unctuos char sui (roast pork) - again lava hot, but again we didn't care and merely shovelled in jasmine scented tea to deal with it.

Char sui buns - don't even think about eating anything else (apart from the BBQ meat)

BBQ pork was divine and arguably the best - chucks of dense belly pork with only a little fat topping each piece off (I prefer this less fat/more meat ratio) with a crispy, crunchy crackling top. The BBQ sauce is super salty with that indescribable umami satisfaction taste wrapping itself around your tongue and smothering you with savouriness, all partnering well with the sweet pork fat/meat and the bland boiled rice we'd ordered to sop up all the lovely juices running off the meat (this is imperative. DO NOT lose/leave behind those juices - fight your table companions/the next table for them and guard them with your life).

Pork back, duck front - FIT

We ordered the duck in this BBQ style as well - not as successful as there was far too much fat and the dish left your lips overly greasy and a little sickly. Plus we'd already eaten so much pork we couldn't give the poor old duck as much attention as we liked so it had gone a little cold and hard by the time we got to it - in fact, each of the meats was served a little cold, but the rice was so hot it didn't matter at all.

Don't march down Faulkner Street dismissing places that don't conform to the perceived ideas of cleanliness or fancy decor - Happy Seasons (as well as Handmade BBQ King) is a proper hidden gem and is proof that sometimes it's the food that should be concentrated on, not the dining room.

Ps Ask for the spring onion dipping sauce - just spring onion, ginger and fish sauce bashed together. Amazing to cut through the fatty sweetness of the dishes, but you will need to drink about three gallons of water during the following night or you'll wake up with a face like a prune.

Price for two starters, two mains, one rice and tea for two - £26.40.

Food - 8/10
Atmosphere - 9/10 (packed and full of very talkative Chinese families)
Service - 6/10 (functional but probably better if we spoke Chinese)
Value for money - 10/10 (seriously massive portions and minimal price)

Total - 33/40

Go again? Yes! Yes! Yes! I need more of that BBQ pork and those Char Sui buns.

Happy Seasons, 59-61 Faulkner Street, Manchester M1 4FF - 0161 236 7189

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Big Chilli Coook Off - Almost Famous

The first time I attempted to make chilli con carne was for my first proper boyfriend. I was playing domestic goddess whilst my Mum was away; ready to surprise him with a bottle of wine, some home cuisine and a night of unbridled teenage passion.

This isn’t a happy story – after using a state of the art Shwartz seasoning shake I duly burnt the mince so we had a chemically, fag-burn pile of grey mince with soggy veg to wade through; plus he wasn’t a fan of wine and I don’t think my crying over the meal helped. Needless to say the relationship didn’t last for long.

Over the years I’ve honed my chilli making skills to be somewhere near passable – I like the results anyway – but it’s nowhere near authentic; my version has a satisfying savoury sweetness with a smoky/spicy kick and is cooked low and slow for a melt in the mouth finish – but this isn’t about my chilli, this is about the latest speciality night at Almost Famous.

Digressing from burgers and their usual Thurs-Sun opening policy, The Big Chilli Cook Off pitted three of the Famous chefs (yes, even burger joints have chefs) against the two owners, with Manchester’s joe public (well those that paid for the pleasure) judging/scoring each chilli.

Straight through the door and we were presented with a Lil’ Sloppy Juan, which was meant to be a slider, but was almost the size of a regular Almost Famous burger – pink as per usual, the patty was cajun spiced and slathered in crispy onions, cheese, chipolte paste, famous sauce and plenty of chillies.

Lil' Sloppy Juan - sloppier than your Mum

Then the chillis – you controlled which order you ate them in; with no hint as to taste/spiciness, so each bowl was a gastronomic gauntlet, that was both fun and tongue trembling scary at the time. You got as much guacamole/cream cheese/salsa etc as you could fit in your bowl/mouth/tummy to enhance/cover up the flavour and to dip the unlimited nachos in - take it from me, totally filling. A rundown of the chillies was thus and in order of my favourite (least first, favourite last):

• John Wayne – from the name I expected a large, swaggering chilli that was going to sternly yet respectfully slap me round the chops before lingering on my taste buds until disappearing off in to the sunset – I found this chilli a little under seasoned and without much depth of flavour. Good, but no cigar, pardner.

• Ben’s Bad Ass Chicken Chilli – I have issues with the meat here, call me snobby but I like red meat in my chilli. This was the fiercest of the chillis, apparently the recipe was loaded with plenty of scotch bonnets thrown in for the chilli fiends, however this made it a bit too spicy for me, but good flavour (once you got past the heat) and I enjoyed the non-textbook inclusion of sweetcorn.

• Mad Dog’s Meaty Feast – this seemed more like a stew than a chilli; no bad thing as it was full of gamey, winey, umami flavours with super tender meat and a mellow spicy tickle underneath from the added chorizo. I got two bowls of this, not technically allowed, but so what, I’m a rebel/glutton or something.

• Jailbreak/bait – Very nearly my favourite chilli; this was a super smoky mouthful of tender beef with a bit of a kick at the end to make you sit up and listen. Topped with pulled BBQ pork, which added a whole extra dimension of flavour/texture it certainly was a contender for the top spot and was the one that received the most votes over all.

• Flippin fuckin bloody chilli – Just beating jailbreak/bait for the extra depth of flavour and a slight tone down in the spice, I loved this chilli and damned myself for eating it last - when I snuck back for an illegal second helping it was all gone.

Chilli bar - I wish all bars were this meaty

So you just went and judged what chilli was best was it? No, remember we were at Almost Famous so there was some audacious theatricals to keep the punters happy- as the night was an homage to southern style eating, food contests and general Man Vs Foodness then the only thing for it was a hot wing eating contest.

These singed my nose hairs - not sure what it did to the people eating them

Hot wing eating? Ah this was no volume/speed challenge though – this was a sheer, bloody minded heat/pain contest; the winners those that could make their way up to the hottest chicken wing and successfully keep it down/not die. Call me a masochist, but there is nothing more pleasurable than watching 13 grown men gasping, tears running down their face and calling out for their Mummies. I don’t know how they made it to the end as even the penultimate wings singed my nose hairs and made me gag as they were walked past. Brave men, we will remember them all.

Chilli Cook Off wasn’t as formal or busy as Pig Out, but was a whole lot of fun – I went home full of meat and booze; stuffed and happy that I had watched a table full of grown men reduced to blubbering wrecks. It’s the simple things in life.

Almost Famous, nondescript wooden door between Keko Moku and Socio Rehab, 100 High Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester M4 1HP – Twitter

Please note I was given my ticket to this event, but I was under no obligation to write nice things, I just really enjoyed myself and thought it would have been well worth it for the £15 I would have paid.

Almost Famous on Urbanspoon

Monday, 1 October 2012

Old Fashioned Cake (gluten free) - Whiskey and Orange and BOOM

What's this? Another recipe from me? What have become a recluse and stopped writing about going out and stuffing things in my face? No I just got on a recipe kick this week and I've been blasting huge amounts of bourbon in to things and bloody enjoying it - so thought you would too. And it's my blog, so I can write what I want, can't I?

"What's an Old Fashioned cake," I hear you cry? It's not a dusty tea loaf from your spinster aunt's kitchen, full of cat hair and ten year old raisins; no, this cake has been inspired by my very favourite cocktail - an Old Fashioned - basically bourbon whiskey, sugar syrup and orange peel; smoky, sweet, short and a little perfume kick, delicious really.

So enough waffling as this cake recipe is super scrumptious and amazing (like me) and you should all rush out and make it now. Plus it's like the pancakes, it's legitimising booze DURING THE DAY - and most of the booze in this one isn't cooked, so you get a lovely warm kick of it with each and every slice.

And yes, I'm using Woodford again - the booze isn't cooked off here, so I wanted the cake to taste of something nice rather than that £8 crap from Aldi. This is a gluten free cake - but just replace the GF flour with normal self-raising and congratulate yourself on being about to metabolise this protein.

Nosh's Old Fashioned Cake - or Whiskey and Orange Cake

3 large free range eggs, at room temperature - separated
160g unrefined caster sugar
80ml light olive oil (not heavy or EV as it will make the cake taste ming)
25ml Woodford or other bourbon/whiskey
Juice of one and a half oranges
Zest of two oranges
190g Doves Farm gluten free self raising flour
Pinch of Doves Farm baking powder (this is gluten free)
Pinch of salt

Once the cake is cooked
Juice of half an orange
50 ml Woodford/bourbon/whiskey

For the buttercream
100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
200g icing sugar
1-2 tblsp Woodford/bourbon/whiskey

For the icing
125g icing sugar
1 tblsp Woodford

1. Preheat the oven to 180c (fan) and grease/line an 18cm cake tin

2. Beat the egg whites to peaks and set aside.

3. In a separate bowl add the sugar and beat in one egg yolk at a time on the lowest whisk setting. Once all the eggs are in, work through the whisk setting, spending about a minute at each speed. Will go pale and creamy. It may seem a blag but the whole idea is to get as MUCH air as possible in your cake as gluten free flour doesn't rise in the same way and can be pretty flat.

4. Pop the orange zest in the bowl and then start your whisk on slow - whilst it's running drizzle in the oil, followed by the orange juice and the bourbon. As in step 3, work through your whisk's settings.

5. Add the flour, salt and baking powder to the bowl and fold in - I tend to do this in two separate amounts to make it easier. Be as gentle as you can to keep all that precious air in. I would advise against eating the batter right now - gluten free flour is pretty grainy and it tastes a bit land sand; DELICIOUS.

6. Add the egg whites is three separate amounts and fold in gentle gentle with a spatula or metal spoon (wood will knock the air out). Make sure you ensure it's properly incorporated otherwise you get random rubbery white bits throughout the cake.

7. Pour the mixture in to your tin, it will be wetter than a normal cake batter, but this is normal - then pop it in the oven for 35-40 min. It's ready when you do the whole clean skewer test thing.

8. Whilst the cake is cooking; get the ice out of the freezer, pop four cubes in a whiskey glass and pour yourself a large measure. Relax, you're half way through and no one is home for the next two hours.

9. As the cake is baking you can be a super goody two shoes and wash up, plus it's a brilliant time to make the butter cream, or you can just carry on drinking if you like.

10. For the buttercream, put the butter in a bowl and use your electric whisk to beat till light. Add in the icing sugar and beat again. The add the bourbon and, you got it, beat again. Keeping it simple for this part as I'm not sure how large that measure was you just poured yourself. Give the butterceam a taste and add more sugar/bourbon as needed. This recipe makes slightly more than you will need so you can eat a big spoon of it when no one is looking (if you want to cover the whole cake in buttercream, then just double the recipe, it works, I've done it).

11. Take the cake out and let it rest in the tin for five minute - be careful because it's hot - you may feel invincible from your post-baking drinking, but singed finger are not good. After five minutes, take the cake out of the tin but leave it in it's paper and leave to cool on a rack.

12. Once the cake is pretty cool, slice in half and drizzle one cut side with the juice of half an orange and the other with whiskey. Sandwich the cake together and set aside whilst you pour yourself another/make the icing.

13. To make the icing put the icing sugar in a bowl and add the whiskey a little at a time until the mix coats the back of a spoon. Really it's that's easy. Leave to thicken for a few minutes and then pour over the cake and garnish with a twist of orange peel.

14. Congratulate by pouring yourself a Woodford and tucking in to a healthy slice before anyone comes home and finds you slumped over the cooker with no dinner on and cake crumbs round your mouth.

If you want to serve this with the cocktail that inspired it get a whiskey glass (or an old fashioned one, it actually has a certain glass!), add ice, a few drops of bitters, 1 tsp sugar syrup/gomme and 50ml of bourbon - I'd go with Woodford, but the according to the Woodford/Jack ambassador a Jack Daniels Single Barrel is better as it's less heavy on the rye. However you drink it, ENJOY!

By the way, as I've said before, the content on this blog and then recipes are my own that i have slavishly worked on to make work - especially with this bastard of a cake. If you would like to reproduce it then do ask and I'm sure I won't hesitate to say yes as long as there's links/references/sexual favours for me. If you do reproduce without my permission then I will lift myself off the cooker, wade through the Woodford fog and probably do something I will regret in the morning. Thanks.