Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Artisan - Manchester

I am unashamedly middle class. I'm not going to make excuses for my up-bringing, values and identity. I'm not going to pretend anymore, or make a mockery of where I fall in society - yes I worry about minor infringements of manners and I really like aspirational magazine; there's nothing wrong with being in the middle sometimes.

And that's why I like Artisan, the new-ish Spinnigfields offering from Living Ventures (Australaisa, Oast House, Alchemist). Artisan is not trying to be fine dining, it's not trying to be hipishly down-at-heel, it's not trying to push boundaries and it's not jumping on any bandwagon. It's just a comfortable, relaxed space, with great food and good drinks.

We visited mid-week and were pleasantly surprised that a) it was pretty busy for mid-week and b) that the vast, 12,000 ft space seemed really rather cosy. As with other Living Ventures concerns, there's been a conscious and very obvious effort to ensure the design encapsulates everything this space is about - comfort, cosiness, chatting with your friends, with a touch of something special to make you feel great being there.

As with all Living Ventures places, the staff have been expertly trained - we were met, welcomed and seated by genuinely friendly people and the staff knew most of the curve ball questions we threw at them (bar the whiskey question, but they were good enough to go and find out from the well-stocked bar).

The premise at Artisan is to relax and order food to share - we took advantage of this attitude and ordered a phalanx of nibbles and starters:
  • Olives; you can actually go wrong with olives, but Artisan have been clever enough to ensure they're bloody fresh and bunged a load of herbs on top.
  • Focaccia with dips; the bread was super fresh and straddled the just salty enough line with aplomb - the accompanying dips could have been a little more punchy, but we made up by dipping it in the camembert.
  • Baked camembert; melty cheese, what could be better? Artisan sprinkle said melty cheese with pine nuts and rosemary - simple, but inspired.
  • BBQ pork rib; a massive hunk of meat, soft and succulent in a pretty good BBQ sauce. The sauce could have been a bit more zingy, but was tasty enough for us to lick our fingers afterwards.
  • Wood baked sardines; out of the starters, this was the bum dish. The salsa
    that accompanied the fish had a great kick, but the sardines were dry and served on an over sized piece of wood. Now I understand Artisan's schtick is to cook stuff in the wood-fired oven, but the fish to wood ratio was ridiculous and we couldn't see how the wood had affected the taste of the fish.
  • Baked mussels - we thought these would be horribly chewy, having been in the oven, but this dish was amazing. Moules marinares steamed to perfection under a dough duvet - I'm not sure if you're meant to eat the crust, but it made a great plate to mouth transport devise for the sweetly, garlic rich sauce.
As we reached mains, we decided to save our waists a little and order only one dish apiece. The pulled pork burger was a solid, comforting dish with plenty of salty, soft meat. The salt baked sea bass was a star of a dish; perfectly steamed and seasoned in its salt crust, with the added theatre of it being hammered out of said crust by a member of the waiting staff, whilst we watched, goggled eyed.

Unfortunately my dish of pork tenderloin, let the side down. The dish itself was a great contrast of sweet and sharp tastes; apples and a mustard sauce cutting through the sweet fattiness of the pork. However the pork itself was over cooked, dry and slightly chewy - a shame, as if it had been spot on, this may have been the winning dish of the evening.

We were stuffed, but salted caramel baked bananas was too much like yum for us to turn down, so we
managed to find space - glad we did, simple yet delicious, the gingerbread ice cream was a perfect match for the warm, gooey, savoury-ish bananas.

Artisan is a great space; the food is mostly excellent, the staff are brilliant and it's not too heavy on the pocket (unless you try and eat the whole menu, like us gluttons). For a simple, laid back and definitely better than middle-of-the-road meal, go visit.

Price for five starters, three mains, two sides, three puddings, two cocktails, three beers, a whisky and two glasses of pudding wine: £139.85

Food - 7/10
Atmosphere - 8/10
Service - 9/10
Value for money - 7/10

Total - 32/40

Go again - yes, it's a great place to hang out with friends.

Artisan, Avenue North, 18-22 Bridge Street, Spinningfields, Manchester M3 3BZ - - 0161 832 4181 - Twitter - Facebook

Please note, I was given this meal gratis, but as you can see from my varied review of the dishes, I wasn't under any obligation to say anything nice.
Artisan on Urbanspoon

Delonghi Motiva Coffee Maker

Christmas has come early in my household - those lovely people at Argos have decided to send me a coffee maker to try out (so this post's in conjunction with them). I'd like to think its due to my winning ways with words, but in all likelihood they've looked at my morning time twitter feed and seen I was a girl with a serious coffee problem.

My usual coffee ritual starts with bleary eyed me remembering I can't get coffee on the way to work or anything other than instant at the office (I'm not starting the instant/fresh coffee debate here. Let's just say I don't understand why anyone would drink instant). Then a mad dash to get a cafetiere on before I tear out the door, then come back in to pick up the cafetiere I've forgotten, then dash down to the train. Please don't think I take a full coffee set on the train or that I can run with a glass french press; I have a very useful, lockable, plastic travel cafetiere, which double as a thermos and drinking vessel (ooh, look at me being practical AND safe).

Until now, I've looked on coffee machines as one of those aspirational luxuries that I'd never allow myself as I'm too damn practical to let loose and live a little. So when the Delonghi arrived I felt naughty, but like I'd made it into one of those middle class homes magazines my Mother likes to buy.

This is the coffee machine for semi-idiots - it's not one of those types that you just put pods in and press a button, the Motiva takes both ESE espresso capsules and fine ground espresso coffee (which I have tons of - perks of having a Dad who lives part of the year in Italy) - but it couldn't be simpler to set up as it's basically already done, you just have to put the coffee in, add water and attach the arm thingy (that's a technical term, by the way). Oh and turn a knob.

The  Motiva has a removable, external water reservoir - simply ingenious as you don't have to take the machine to water or need to cart jugs across the kitchen to fill it up; just click it out and fill from the tap. The coffee is put in a little holder and then can you feel all proper barrista like as you tamp it down on the tamper attachment, twist said holder and arm into the machine, turn a knob and the espresso pours out, just like it does at any well known coffee chain.

Our first few attempts at making a coffee did result in some exploding mishaps - the only downside to the easy picture instructions is that they don't tell you how much coffee to put in the holder, or how hard to tamp it down. Three goes later though and we had it to a tee.

The Motiva makes excellent espresso, you get a lovely crema on top and the espresso is sweet and smooth. I tried a taste test with my Biretta mokka hob top (also Daddy/Italy present), using the same Lavazza Rossa espresso grounds. The Biretta produced a more watery, bitter result (and I'm a pro at using my mokka, so don't even question my makery ability), which needed a good spoon of sugar to bring out the chocolaty flavours of the coffee. However the Delonghi espresso needed no sugar and was much smoother.

The Delonghi makes espresso, pure and simple - however you can also use it to add hot water to your drink (Americano, anyone?) and there's a very capable milk frother attachment - so you can make all your favourite drinks off one small, compact and very neat machine. It's made of plastic, but it pretty sturdy - I've got super guns of steel/am exceedingly clumsy and it's bearing up eminently under these tough conditions.

All in all, the Delonghi's a simple, easy to use machine that's great for someone without much space. It'll take one morning of getting used to and then there's quick and tasty coffee on tap whenever you have that craving. Argos do other coffee machines too, but I'm going to stick with this one.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Albert Matthews Butchers - Bury

Writing this blog, there are many people I come across, working in all walks of the food sector. There are charming front of house staff, knowledgeable bar specialists and creative chefs - but there's nothing that impresses and excites me more, than someone with passion.

Finding a passionate individual or company is what reminds me why I love food. Luckily for me, I've found another.

Winning an award
Albert Matthews is an award winning butchers based in the historic Bury market, with a pedigree as impressive as they produce they sell. Set up in 1935 by Albert Matthews, from the word go they have only ever sourced local, rare and traditional British breeds.

Albert Matthews built strong links with local producers, many of whom the business still uses today. Albert's dedication to good husbandry, high welfare and the continuation of traditional, rare breeds saw him purchase a farm and abattoir in Cheshire, grow the business to be one of the most successful in the region and become a top supplier to the high end restaurant trade.
Bury stall

In the past few years Chris and Sarah Matthews, grandchildren of the great man himself, have set up shop in Bury Market, to bring local, rare breed, quality produce back to the customer. But let's stop talking about history and talk about the food.

The first thing I like about Albert Matthews is there dedication to explaining their produce to you. They are so proud of their producers in fact, that there are pages on their website dedicated to where they source from, why, what feed the animals eat and their high welfare standards. If you go into the shop, the customer service and the knowledge is second to none.

Beef aging
The stand out item I tried was the 56 day, dry aged Galloway sirloin. Yeah, I just said 56 days - that's eight weeks for you struggling with the maths. Dry aged beef is what you want and is a true sign of quality and care on the part of the butcher. Hung on the bone in their cool store, the beef is allowed to age naturally, taking on a dark hue as the enzymes in the meat break down the tough fibres and the beneficial bacteria help develop an amazing taste. Hung like this, the meat loses a lot of water and weight - good for the customer, less profit for the butcher, hence why you won't find dry aged steak in your supermarket. Those wet, bright red lumps on the shelves? Not aged at all (see how much your steak shrinks as it cooks = water loss). Supermarket packs stating 28 days aged? Unless you see the magical word 'dry', the meat will have been sealed in its pack and left for 28 days; no bacteria or enzymes can make their way through that shrink wrapped plastic.

Meat lesson over - the steak was, quite literally, the best steak I have ever tasted. And I'm not exaggerating. The smell during cooking was intensely beefy, akin to a really good stock mixed in with some frying dripping. The taste was intense (I'd cooked them with the merest hint of salt and nothing else); deeply savoury, umami filled, the beefiest beef. To top it all off, the meat was silky soft - think fillet softness, but with a the flavour of a harder working cut. It's taken Albert Matthew's quite a while to develop this product and you can tell.

Another winner was the Black Strap Bacon; rare breed (Saddleback/Old Spot), slow grown, dry cured and then cured with molasses. The bacon is deeply porky, the sweetness of the pork shining through and then a big smoky/bitter hit off the molasses. Thick cut, no water/white ming seeping out - the ultimate bacon sarnie bacon.

I'd asked Chris if he could find me some wild rabbit (if your rabbit packet ain't sating wild, it's reared in appalling conditions a la battery farmed hens. Just so you know) and one of my favourite meats, pheasant. This was no problem for a company with strong links across Lancashire, Cumbria and the Forest of Bowland.

I also tried the diced heather fed lamb, which made a great hot pot and had a beautiful sweetness, plus two minces, pork and beef. It's been a long time since I cooked with mince and have memories
of buying the cheap stuff when I was a student; greasy, flaccid, grey, tasteless meat. Both the Albert Matthews minces had a good fat/meat ratio and the resulting mince (before the addition of any other ingredients) had a fine flavour (yes, I was eating mince straight from the pan, I'm not ashamed), which still shined through on the addition of other ingredients.

Because I'm a greedy guts I also tried the beef topside (tasty roast) and the Goosnargh corn-fed chicken supremes - oh my gosh these were a) tasty b) stayed moist and c) massive, great value for money.

I'm a convert to Albert Matthews - I care about the provenance/welfare of my meat, so it's great for conscious carnivores like me and all the produce is top quality and great tasting. The good news for lazy people like me, or those that live a little too far from Bury, is that they have a wonderful website, which has all the finer details of their producers, their products and some cracking offers; my favourite being the Choose Your Own Box (comes in totally recyclable packaging) - a good value box of a selection of different meats that you choose yourself; like a meaty veg box but without getting items you don't want that rot at the back of your fridge for a year.

So get off your bottom/get your laptop out; stop buying cheap, mass produced, grey tasting meat from the supermarket and get some passion in your mouth.

Albert Matthews Butchers, The Meat and Fish Hall, Bury Market, Murray Road, Bury, Lancashire BL9 0BJ - - 0161 341 0528 - - Facebook - Twitter

Please note, I was given my box of meat for free, but am under no obligation to say anything nice - it's just hard to say something bad against wonderful, passionate people.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Yo! Sushi - Trafford Centre, Manchester

I have a dirty secret, a secret I probably shouldn't share on a food blog, a blog that's here to educate gastronomically and to highlight the best of our region has to offer - I'm in love with Yo! Sushi.

Food on a belt!
I know it's a chain, that the selection of fish stretches to two, three if you count prawns and four if you separate smoked/non-smoked salmon and I'd avoid it if you have an aversion to bright colours. All that said, I love the place; they cater for most people (even non-fish eaters), there's the hypnotic parade of dishes speeding past you on the belt and their menu's genuinely, unpretentiously fun.

My first foray into Yo! was in the sadly now departed Selfridge's Exchange Square food hall; eighteen years old, never having eaten sushi, my senses were assaulted and I relished each visit, popping in for a plate of hamachi sashimi and a bowl of miso - as much as my meagre student budget would stretch to.

Over the years it has been a place to tell my brother (when he had a whole futomaki stuffed into his mouth) that he was eating fish eggs (cue him trying to get said futomaki out of his mouth as quickly as possible), to giggle uncontrollably (you mean snort? - ed) with friends and *blushes* as a date destination.

Yo! Sushi has just released a new menu inspired by street food at their Trafford Centre Selfridges

New menu
store (soon to be rolled out across the country) - I'm not going to discuss the morals of restaurants incorporating street food dishes onto their menus and the whole street food shebang (there will probably be a blog about that in the not too distant future...) - so naturally, new menu, any excuse to pop down.

The Yo! Sushi at Selfridges Trafford Centre has just had a major refit (indeed, I tried to pop down three weeks ago and it was closed. No weekly Yo! fix for me!). The old white store has been replaced with striped wood, shot through with the recognisable Yo! Sushi colours. There's less bright orange (good) and the whole place generally looks cleaner, brighter and more modern. So it's not just the menu that has changed.

Whilst we were trying out the street menu (six dishes, of which we tried four), we naturally had to sample as many of the other dishes we know and love. Because that's how I roll at Yo! (and then roll out the door).

Off the new menu - Chicken karage is a fried chicken dish (like popcorn chicken, my companion's observation) - salty with a crunchy outer layer, pretty moreish and probably very bad for you. We didn't like the processed tasting wasabi mayo dip that came on the side, but a dousing of soy makes this dish even better (or use the dip that comes with the goyza, takes it up another notch again).

Salmon harumaki; a crisp filo roll, filled with nori and salmon, then fried. I've never had cooked nori before, but it's something I'll definitely try again. The pastry gave a pleasing crisp crack and the fish inside was perfectly cooked, the nori seasoning it all beautifully. Only issue was that the pastry was soaked in oil - luckily it didn't taste stale, but left a little too much grease in the mouth.

Bum note was the duck and hoisin salad - some bland, soggy leaves shot through with massive chunks of onion and then topped unappetisingly with cold, unflavoured (just a hint of five spice was all I was getting) duck that had lumps of white fat and flabby skin stuck to it. We didn't finish it.

Luckily all this was saved by the dish of the day - salmon sashimi with an yuzu salsa. Miles away from the duck; spanking fresh, full of heady, fresh citrus perfume, zingy spice and sweetness from the salsa. I could have eaten this all day.

Then we started on dishes from the original menu; the usual, plain salmon sashimi was what it said on the tin - fresh but a little fatty. A tuna handroll was full to bursting and the staff were more than happy to skip the mayo as per my request, they did however, get a little trigger happy with the spicy sauce - it took three glasses of waster to stop the burning and my lips looked like they'd had some pretty full on filler work done (not that I minded, I'm addicted to that spicy sauce).

Because I'm a glutton/had to research I had the rice rolled salmon maki - there's no rice, the nori is replaced by summer roll wrapping and there's some avocado and cucumber in there - super light and refreshing, another winner that I'll add to my list of 'dishes I have to have every time I visit Yo!'

Yo! Sushi isn't for the sushi gourmand, that's not why I go there (try Umezushi instead if you're after that), but it's a great place for to grab a bite to eat that genuinely is different from the flabby sandwiches and bland soups that are your other lunch time/chain options.

Yo! Sushi operates a range of set prices for it's dishes, the colour of the dish denotes price - they go form £1.90 (green) to £5 (grey).

Food - 7/10
Service - 9/10 (Jamie is amazing, he's the most lovely, helpful man ever)
Atmosphere - 8/10 (rammed, mid-week lunch)
Value for money - 7/10

Total - 31/40

Go again - already been. Twice. Since last week.

Yo! Sushi Selfridges, The Dome, Trafford Centre, Trafford Park, Manchester M17 8DA - 0161 747 7689 -

YO! Sushi on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Kowloon Correspondents' Club - Barton Arcade, Manchester

Them Liquorists, Manchester's self-styled sauce slingers, tellers of tall tales and the purveyors of the most innovative/high class bar crawls I've ever been on, have done it again.

This time they've only gone and got themselves a proper bloody bar in Manchester city centre, which has popped up for the next two months to serve you beautifully crafted Belvedere cocktails (guess who they've partnered with...), an injection of oriental glamour and, as they informed me the other night, 'to get a bit of our luxury into your mouths,' - a phrase which works somewhat better when you see the (lecherous) faces they pulled with that.

To bring you the Kowloon Correspondents Club, The Liquorists have taken over a unit in the graceful, victorian Barton Arcade mall. Barton Arcade has been one of my favourite architectural gems since I first moved to Manchester twelve years ago and unfortunately has become a little underused these days, so it's great to see people using it again in a creative, playful way.

We kicked off our night with a Belvedere masterclass; tasting different expressions of the gin and the brand's signature Zephyr cocktail (heavy on the pink grapefruit). I'm not going to wax lyrical about the aceness of Belvedere because I've done that before, but I will wax on about KCC (as the kids are calling it).

Kowloon serves cocktails made of Belvedere vodka and some other stuff (skillfully) thrown in for good measure. As the staff are all part of The Liquorists you know that they know their stuff and that they know their way around the bar - if you go early, before the rush, they're also all pretty nice chaps who will explain anything you need to know about the drink you are drinking.

KCC is offering free Belvedere masterclasses so get yourself down there early - not only will you get some free booze, but you'll learn some knowledge that will make you sound super cool in front of your friends AND it's genuinely a very fun way to start of an evening.

So pop down to Barton Arcade, marvel at the beautiful victorian engineering and then slip into the moody/cosy/quirky space that is KCC - be quick, it's only there for a couple of months.

Ps good news - between 5 and 7pm EVERYTHING at the bar is half price. Would be rude not to...

Kowloon Correspondents Club is open Thurs through Sat, 5pm  - midnight.

Kowloon Correspondents Club, Off Deansgate/Off St Anne's Square, Manchester M3 2BW - Twitter

Saturday, 9 November 2013

San Carlo Bottega - Selfridges, Manchester

I'm not saying it's my best trait, but I'm known for being slightly, ever so slightly, competitive (slightly? Your uni housemates nicknamed you 'Monica' - ed).

If I were to pop psychoanalyse myself (as one does in the wee small hours), I would say this all stems from having a father who, instead of playing family games in a manner which allowed his small children a slight advantage, ruthlessly exploited our weaknesses to completely own whichever board it was we were playing on. 

When a challenge is laid down, I'll take it; hence why when Alessandro DiStefano of the San Carlo Restaurant Group, picked up my last blog post on Cicchetti and then laid down the challenge that if I thought that was good, I'd positively love Bottega, their new opening at Manchester's Selfridges; I couldn't say no, could I?

Bottega is an extension of the successful Cicchetti concept; small, tapas style plates to share, that come out when they're ready. What's the point of opening another place just like the one down the road (I hear you say)? Bottega's premise may be similar, but there are differences - instead of purely Italian cuisine, Bottega injects some French-style dishes to the menu, which is great because a) I bloody love French food and b) it makes a change from the raft of like-for-like Italian joints that Manchester is overrun with.

Decor is similar to the pared back opulence and marble found at Cicchetti and San Carlos, but with the most beautiful duck egg blue leather seats looking out over the twinkling lights of Exchange Square. I could take about the bar and the window of Italian produce, but enough of the decor, this is a food blog, so let's talk food.

Zucchini fritters are always a must and dare I say it, Bottega's were even better than the ones at Cicchetti (I know!); a super light batter surrounded slightly crunchy veg, all perfectly seasoned (think licking salt off your fingers level of seasoning).

As I said at Cicchetti, if I'd had the San Carlo pizza at any other restaurant, I'd be raving about it, but as everything else we ate was so good, the pizza just because another great dish among many; smokey from the oven, warmth from the chillies and savoury loveliness from the meat on top.

Chicken spiedino, ordered from the specials menu, was a moist, charred and salty skewer of pancetta wrapped chicken, sweet peppers and red onions. A dish of toulouse sausage was served with just an egg to dip in; anything more would have taken away from the sweetness of the fennel and the absolute quality of the sausage. Lemon sole and black shrimp was impeccably cooked, the flesh just off translucent - the shrimps, a spicy hint of mace and a squeeze of lemon kept the dish simple but memorable.

But the star of the night, the dish we are still talking about and the dish I will order every time I go back to Bottega, will be the tuna tartare. You may wonder what can be special about this dish; many places serve it and it doesn't particularly push gastronomic boundaries, but the classic simplicity and theatre of being served the dish is why it's so magic.
Frederico, tartare king

Tuna tartare at Bottega goes something like this; the waiting staff bring a sliver platter and set it up next to your table. Upon the platter they place a bottle of tabasco, a lemon, some oil, some balsamic, some salt and some pepper. And they leave you with that for a moment. You wait, you muse, you eat some more zucchini.

Tuna tartare - dish of my dreams
A plate is then brought to you; tuna, rocket, onion, caper, mustard and red onion - you are shown all of the finely chopped ingredients and you are asked if you like all of them (you can create your tartare to your exact tastes, adding or leaving out any of the ingredients you wish). Ingredient inspection over, your waiter expertly mixes everything, stopping to show you each step; an understated spectacle.

And then the dish is placed between you, you eat it, the balance of flavours is so exact and so clean you can't say anything and you don't. Tip, ask for Frederico to serve this dish to you. He's a master.

I ate all these
We finished with pudding, three of them between the two of us, for research purposes of course. If you like pannacotta, eat the Bottega one, I swear it's made with the creamiest cream you can cream off a cow. The rum baba is also worth a mention for sheer 70's nostalgia of puddings lovingly created for me by my grandma; light, boozy, making me feel like a happy little child (but don't eat the vanilla cream on top, a little too sweet and overbalances the dish somewhat).

Throughout the evening we'd been cossetted by very friendly staff. Like their other restaurants, San Carlo has invested heavily in customer service and it shows. Professional, knowledgeable, slightly cheeky and nowhere near dour, the staff made our evening.

I accepted the challenge to like Bottega and I can unequivocally say that I do. The decor is beautiful without being OTT, the staff are so friendly they make you feel like family, the food is spot on and the inclusion of french dishes is an inspiration, truly making Bottega stand out from the crowd. The only downsides? They'd run out of cassolet (my favourite dish bar a bouillabaisse) and they only open till 8pm - they have to close when Selfridges does. Just means I'll have to have some 'long lunches...'

Now, which one do I prefer - Bottega or Cicchetti. Not sure I'll ever be able to decide (obviously needs more 'research' - ed).

Dishes are Bottega are priced between £6 and £12, you need about six between two people with health appetites, but could get away with one pizza for a light-ish lunch.

Food - 8/10
Service - 9/10
Atmosphere - 7/10
Value for money - 8/10

Total - 32/40

Go again - yes. As with Cicchetti, I plan to become a regular and maybe even just move in.

Bottega, 2nd Floor Selfridges, 1 Exchange Square, Manchester M3 1BD - Twitter

Please note, I was invited to Bottega, they knew I was there and my food was free - however as with any freebie, I mark harder than if I've paid and you know me, I'll tell you when something is rubbish.

San Carlo Bottega on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Cicchetti - Manchester

Unlike swathes of my friends, peers and fellow mancunions, I had yet to have eaten at Cicchetti, the latest (though not that new now! Get with the times etc! - ed) offering from the San Carlo group.

Part laziness, part skintness and part 'every-time-I-go-in-the-service-is-appalling-and-I-leave-before-I'm-seated-ness', has kept me away. Till now. Because we were very hungry and mother was paying.

Packed, even on a rainy mid-week lunchtime, we were asked to wait at the bar; we ordered a coffee, we watched the world pass and this time, we were treated with impeccable service. The relaxed opulence, the hurry-scurrying of the waiters and the fact everyone seemed to either be speaking in Italian (staff) or to be extremely tanned (well-heeled customers), made us feel 'like us on us 'olidays, in Italy, like.'

Buzzy, busy - Cicchetti at lunchtime
Capricious menu
Cicchetti's premise and inspiration, is the cicchetti bars of Venice; where small plates are brought out with drinks, tapas style. The menu is quite vast and I could have happily eaten most of the dishes on there – however we were advised that five between two would probably satisfy (and they were correct, pudding was noted to have 'pushed us over.' Mother was smug, she didn't eat pudding).

Despite sitting in an Italian restaurant and feeling rather continental, Mother and I bickered in the most British of fashions, suggesting dishes and immediately deprecating said suggestion in favour for anything the other suggested. Luckily I went back five days later and ordered all the dishes I'd conceded.

In the end we settled on the Goat Ragu (this month’s special), a meaty, soft, delicate and satisfying dish with some of the best pasta I’ve eaten (family gossip, my little brother has started making his own pasta) and the best dish of the day (we may not have agreed on which dishes to order, but we both agreed on this important fact).

We also chose the buffalo mozzarella with tomato; a very small dish, but the sheer amount of flavour, seasoning and quality made up for it. There were butterflied sardines on toast with a caper and roasted tomato sauce, more capers were needed in my opinion, but Mother was happy as she hates them (this was a dish she had conceded to me, her special spoiled princess).

We also ordered the duck and apple salad, expecting more apple than duck, a la everywhere else I’ve ever eaten. Instead we were confronted by what must have been at least a quarter of a duck; super soft and sweet, with peppery rocket and fine slices of sharp apple to cut through the buttery meat.

And then there was the dish of green beans. This could be construed as a boring choice, actually it was my attempt to inject something healthy into the meal. The beans may have been green, but I would guess that at least 200g of butter had been melted over the top of 100g of beans. This is how beans should always be served. Take note.

Quick aside - run down on the dishes I order five days later minus mother, plus friend who I practically bullied into these choices:
1. Terra board - the creamiest, dreamiest mozzarella scattered with slices of charcuterie.
2. Calamari - my 'kitchen competency test' - just cooked, the sweet squid was encased in the lightest, well seasoned batter.
3. Courgette 'chips' - see beans above. Everything that applies to them applies to this dish.
4. Mushroom pizza - anywhere else this would be an amazing dish, but with everything else on the table, this was obscured.
5. Dolce cicchetti - a big board full of puddings, great for sharing, not a patch on affagato (see below).

Full, satisfied and utterly charmed by our waiter, we finished on coffee – well Mother did, I had the affagato, because coffee is always better when it super strong, poured over ice cream and finished with a good kick of amaretto.

Cicchetti’s a rare place where you can either order a quick, small plate for one at lunch (sit at the bar, listen to the waiters, pretend you’re in Venice and have sunny fantasises before heading back to the office) or sit down for hours, order plate after plate of inspired, brilliantly cooked food and share them with sunny laughter, gossip, wine and friends – and anything in between.

I'm not sure why I stayed away for so long!

Price for five small dishes, two glasses of wine, two coffees and one pudding – £53.35

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

Go again – see above. Yes, yes, YES!

Cicchetti, House of Fraser Ground Floor (private entrance off King Street West), Deansgate, Manchester M3 2QG - 0161 839 2233 - - Facebook - Twitter

San Carlo Cicchetti on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Neighbourhood - Manchester

Neighbourhood has been on my ‘to visit’ list for some time now, securing a place through good reviews and some shameless self-promotion (restaurants, please do not retweet every tweet people make about hanging out with you, thanks); but each time I have ventured near, the overspill of leopard print, shiny suits and false nails pushes me on elsewhere.

Neighbourhood - with thanks to Likerish Split
A few weeks back I was taken there; wasn't my choice, but my new personal development challenge is to stop being a dining control freak – NEWS FLASH – I am letting other people choose where we  go to eat (sometimes) (and not making bitchy comments before we have, at least, eaten there). I can't say I still don't get sweaty palms doing this, but if the meal is a disaster I am no longer crushed by catholic levels of guilt for weeks after.

Neighbourhood is located on the outer edges of the corporate world of Spinningfields. Owned by those chaps at Southern Eleven (all meat, stripped wood and Americana), Neighbourhood has been designed to recreate the feel of a Manhattan neighbourhood bar; unfortunately, like Spinningfields itself, it's all a little too clean cut, carefully constructed and image conscious.

Underwhelming shrimps
Dining on a Tuesday night didn't feel very neighbourly, in fact we didn't have any neighbours at all; our waiter made up for that, his customer service was spot on, he knew the menu inside out and wasn't afraid to describe the negatives as well as the positives of the dishes – this service, coupled with the good reviews and enjoying the food at Southern Eleven, initially promised good things from the night to come.

The buttermilk fried Chicken Lollipops we had to start were sweet, moist and salty - all my food cravings rolled into one great little dish; I am underlining the word LITTLE here. We'd ordered the Shrimp, Crackle and Pop because it sounded fun, a case of 'shucks you are so cool for putting rice crispies in a dish' – what actually came to the table was not fun; an overly reduced bisque with a cloying, metallic taste (that tainted my mouth for the rest of the evening), two chewy prawns and some very soggy rice crispies. For £9.

Baked Lobster Mac 'n' Cheese has been the one dish receiving constant rave reviews, my twitter feed is littered with it, however our experience of it was anything other than rave. How Neighbourhood managed to create a dish of pasta that was simultaneously dry and chewy on top, whilst soggy and swimming in pasta water on the bottom, I have no idea. There was little sauce, any to be found was watery and under-seasoned; there was no hint of cheese and very little of lobster (two, chewy, tiny pieces) - at £15 the dish left a hole in both stomachs and wallets.

Rubbish picture, not much better dish
The Grilled Rock Bass with clams and spinach was the best dish of the evening, but don't take that as a ringing endorsement. The fish and clams were well cooked, obviously lobster mac chef didn't cook this one, but that was the only thing going for the dish. The accompanying sauce was so insipid it may have been better to leave it off as it was so unnoticeable, the spinach was limp, the taste akin to eating solidified dishwater and I doubt any salt had even been near the dish, let alone added to it.

Sweet tooth pizza - £15
For some reason we decided to stay for pudding; maybe it was hunger, maybe we wanted to find a saving grace, maybe I have such a dazzling personality (definitely not the latter – ed). We picked the Sweet Tooth Pizza to share; a car crash of brownies, marshmallows, pecans and caramel loaded onto a sweet pizza base. The base was overly chewy, the brownies overly dry - the marshmallow was nice and that's about it. At least this dish was big enough to fill us up.

Neighbourhood's menu promises taste, comfort and competent cooking - but just like Spinningfield itself and Neighbourhood's usual punters, the food is all about show rather than substance.

Price for two starters, two mains, a pudding and two glasses of wine: £71.50

Food - 4/10
Atmosphere - 5/10
Service - 7/10
Value for money - 3/10

Total 19/40

Go again? - No thanks, I'll stick to somewhere that knows money/looks aren't everything.

Neighbourhood, The Avenue, Spinningfields, Manchester – M3 3JE – 0161 832 6334 - Twitter

Neighbourhood on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Gincident with The Liquorists - Castlefield, Manchester

'Believe me my young friend, there is nothing, absolute nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats...'

From the moment my young ears received this infinite wisdom from Kenneth Graham, via Ratty, via the lips of my mother imaginatively mimicking what she thought a water vole would sound like if one could speak, I've been fascinated by boats. (By the way Ratty is a misnomer, Ratty is actually a water vole).

Having grown up an actual stone's throw away from the sea and surrounded by gallons of crystal clear welsh mountain lakes, many have questioned why, if so enamoured, I didn't learn to sail - we'll gloss over that (I'm a shit hot swimmer though). Whether I can sail or not, stepping onto the deck of a boat and (having someone else) casting off, the lap lap lap on the hull and the slightly hypnotic to-fro swaying, is what makes me happiest in this crazy world of ours.

The bars of city centre Manchester aren't renowned for their proximity to either crystal clear lakes or the salty tang of the sea; but what they do have is a) a canal and b) the genius of the The Liquorists to work out that the only thing better than messing about in boats - is messing about in boats with a tonne of cocktails. And in this case, a tonne of gin.

Our captains and the lovely Lowry
We got our sea (manky canal water) legs ready and were met with large grins (and even larger gins) by The Liquorists who had commandeered the L.S Lowry for the Gincident; a veritable vessel steered by the chaps from City Centre Cruises - luckily for us, they were wise enough not to let any of the reprobates from The Liquorists play captain.
Salmon thanks to Tone Photography

On board we were served an exceptional meal from Hannah Eddleston; The Liquorists usually serve up some good food, but this was amazing - cured salmon with dill was tender and light, melting spiced ham hock with juniper and jewelled cous cous, succulent spicy chicken drumsticks on white bean salad and an inspired savoury strawberry salad.

Hannah took inspiration for her dishes from the botanicals used to flavour the gins we were sampling that night, coupled it with her exceptional cooking skills and then served us hefty portions to soak up the torrent of booze that we were about to receive - she's one talented girl.

As with any Liquorists night, the aim isn't just to get sozzled (that's just a happy coincident); the nights are an educational meander through different versions of one type of spirit - the Gincident, very obviously, being about gin.

'Jamie Jones and THAT jacket
Our gin journey was lead by the very amiable/competent/dashingly dressed Jamie Jones (just look at that blazer!); he's just been crowned G'Vine's Global Gin Connoisseur 2013, so I'm not sure there's anyone more proficient in gin-knowledge - he certainly seemed to know his stuff.

We started with the history of gin; this terribly British tipple actually started life as genever over in Holland - there has been a history of distilling juniper based white spirits to cure medical ailments since medieval times, but it wasn't till we went to war in the 17th century that we got our hands on it.

Gin started being distilled in the UK in the 18th century; some of it was frankly frightening stuff and lead to many social ills, Hogarth producing THAT drawing and earning it the moniker 'Mother's Ruin.' These days, thankfully, it's a quality spirit that has been given the attention of many premium and craft brands - with Jamie Jones at our helm, he steered us through his favourite expressions of the spirit and showed us there is more to the G and T than just gin and tonic (indeed check why we put tonic in our gins HERE).

Bloom - thanks Tone Photography
G'vine - thanks Tone Photography
We tried:
Genever - tastes like bargain gin from the supermarket.
Plymouth - old school; what you think gin tastes like.
Miller's - thanks Tone Photography
Massimo - thanks Tone Photography
Miller's - uses Icelandic water to give it a clean taste.
Bloom - the most floral of the gins we tasted.
G'Vine Floraison - made from grape spirit in France; Flouraison is the sweeter one.
G'Vine Nouaison - far more musky than Flouraison.

For each spirit we received one shot to sip (sip that is, not down, this was a civilised boat tour or something), whilst Jamie talked us through the botanics used to flavour each; then, for each gin, we were given a cocktail made by the unmatchable Massimo - each one using ingredients to match the botanics in each.

Cruise over, the sights of Manchester and Salford (and many cool birds including a grey wagtail, cormorants, sand martins and a kestrel family) seen, we gathered our slightly less steady sea legs and departed into the warm summer Manchester night - all happy faces proving that gin is far from a mother's ruin these days.

If you want to book the Gincident, do so HERE and any other of the Liquorists services HERE (cos they don't just steer people round in boats and fill them full of booze you know).

Ps The cruise we took can be booked, sans booze/Liquorists, through City Centre Cruises - it really is a good way to see the sights and excellent for bird watching.

Pps The good pictures were all kindly supplied by the ace Tone Photography.

Please note I was given my ticket to the Gincident for free, but I'm not inclined to say anything nice, The Liquorists are just tip top at what they do. And I did like Jamie's jacket.