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Monday, 25 May 2015

New Guest Post: Catherine Flies High with Boeing Boeing at Oldham Coliseum Theatre

You are probably all familiar with the old saying, if you want a job doing properly then send a better, sensible person to do it for you. Hence on Friday 15th May, whilst I was hanging round the alcohol at Cocktails in the City, the lovely Catherine went to press night of Boeing Boeing at Oldham Coliseum. Here's what she thought - beware though, she wrote this in a giddy mood after watching Eurovision, so there are a LOT of puns. DON'T SAY I HAVEN'T WARNED YOU...

Boeing Boeing touched down last week at the Oldham Coliseum Theatre for its opening night after originally flying into the West End for a seven year run during the 1960s. The play navigates the confusing love life of Bernard (Robin Simpson), a Parisian architect who has not one but three air hostess fiancés. Set during the early 1960s when a jet set lifestyle was still in its infancy, Bernard is able to take advantage of international scheduled flights to plan out his love life and create a dating system he describes enthusiastically as being mathematical “perfection”.

Luckily for Bernard his three fiancées all have names beginning with ‘G’: there’s Gloria from America (Laura Doddington), Gabrielle from Italy (Maeve Larkin) and Gretchen from Germany (Sarah Lawrie). All three also wear colour-coded clothing that makes it easy for not only Bernard, but also the audience to identify his different fiancées. The play takes off without a glitch as the coordinated comings and goings of Gloria, Gretchen and Gabrielle are as hassle-free as a place in first class. However, Bernard’s dating system soon meets turbulence when stormy weather and faster planes conspire to bring his system into free fall.

The first half of the play really begins to pick up the pace when Gloria takes off for America and Gabrielle flies in from Italy. Not long after this, Gretchen touches down in Paris from Germany and Bernard faces the uneasy prospect of entertaining both fiancées at once in his apartment - without either knowing about each other’s existence. From this moment on, the farce soars and things soon start to unravel faster than a transatlantic flight on Concorde. Bernard enlists the help of his best friend Robert (played by Ben Porter) who is visiting from the provinces, to act as a comic foil. He also needs his housekeeper Bertha (played by Gilly Tompkins) to help keep his love life airborne.

Because the action unfolds in one room, some elements of the plot are a little implausible at times. Gloria, Gretchen and Gabrielle would definitely be able to hear each other in the apartment and they would also be able to hear Robert and Bernard’s high-pitched, Carry-On-esque outbursts during the closing scenes. But this is a farce, and by its very nature should not be taken seriously. What prevents Boeing Boeing from becoming farcical is the on-set choreography as the different actors coordinate their moves seamlessly between the seven doors of the Parisian apartment. The energy of the choreography and comic performances by the cast are exciting and engaging throughout. The set itself is also impressive, with a convincing view of the Eiffel Tower illuminated in the background to remind the audience that this is Paris in the swinging sixties.

Boeing Boeing has been adapted for Oldham Coliseum Theatre by director Robin Herford from Swiss-born Frenchman Marc Camoletti’s play written in 1960. The original was a huge hit and it appears in the Guinness Book of World Records for holding the title of the most-performed French play ever. It’s well worth watching this classic hit at the Oldham Coliseum theatre before it’s Boeing Boeing gone.

- Boeing Boeing is at Oldham Coliseum Theatre until 6th June. Photos used in this post are courtesy of Joel C Fildes.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Art of Blending with Chivas Whisky, where I am unexpectedly revealed as a MASTER BLENDER

As I have said before, I am a fairly recent convert to the world of whisky, and whilst I like it very much - with all its whiff of old books, and leather armchairs, and hard-drinking, ball-busting ladies who probably keep a small pistol in their brassiere - I am still an enthusiastic but ignorant amateur. Left to my own devices, I tend to revert to a well-known brand of bourbon that is frequently on offer at the supermarket; I say this not with pride, but with the knowledge that there is a much wider world out there and that I want IN ON IT.

Thus I find myself at Gorilla on Whitworth Street, sitting in a room set up like the most exciting Chemistry lab you've ever seen (I would certainly have enjoyed lessons more at school had they been more like this), waiting for the Chivas "Art of Blending" event. Chivas is the third-best selling Scotch whisky in the world, with a bottle sold every two seconds, and despite the fact that it takes around 40 years to become a Master Blender, we are all here to have a go at producing something drinkable in around 90 minutes. So great is my whisky ignorance, I had some kind of idea that blended whiskies were inferior to single malts, no doubt haunted by ill-advised bottles of Bell's hastily and erroneously purchased from the duty-free; this misconception is gently corrected by brand ambassador Rachel Macdonald, who tells us that over 90% of Scotch whisky sales worldwide are of blended whiskies, and that the whole beauty of a blend is that it allows you to find a whisky that fits your own taste perfectly. Makes sense.

So, we all get to work on blending our own perfect whisky. On the table in front of us (as well as the mixing beakers, tasting glasses etc) is an exciting array of whisky bottles, each bearing a generic label - we have Grain, Lowlands, Highlands, Islay and Speyside, and the idea is to taste them all and then decide which proportion of each we want in our own blend. I am at a table composed enirely of gentlemen, who take their sweet time over this; I take a business-like, decisive approach and briskly taste each before deciding on my percentages and knocking up my own, personal 250ml of whisky, which I name the "Manchester Malt". To my surprise, it is very good, and I sit smugly basking in my own glory until Rachel brings us each a shot of Chivas Regal 12 and 18 and I realise that I am probably better off leaving it to the experts after all.

This is, of course, blending made easy - all the whiskies on the table in front of us are good quality brands in their own right, so we can't really go wrong. The evening is tremendous fun though, as Rachel (pictured above) is friendly and knowledgeable (as well as being young and female in what must surely still be a male-dominated spirit world) and the shared mixing tables are sociable and generously loaded with whisky that you are encouraged to drink (even if there is more than a whiff of competitive testosterone about my table). This was a press preview, but I plan to go back when the event returns on May 26, 27, 28 and 29 May - tickets are a ludicrous £10, which includes your own 250ml bottle of whisky to take home. Tickets can be purchased here via Eventbrite, and more information about the Chivas brand can be found here.

And as for the Manchester Malt? It was - quite unfeasibly - deemed a winner, netting me a bottle of Strathisla whisky as well as a real sense of pride (and luck). So if you were one of the people on the 143 last Thursday evening who sensibly avoided sitting next to the rather excitable girl clutching a large and a small bottle of whisky to her victorious breast, you have missed your chance to make the acquaintance of a Master Blender...

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Urban Cookhouse: Bringing a Little Style to Manchester's Princess Street

I do try very hard not to be the sort of person who judges a book by its cover. Like many others, though, I must confess to often making fairly instant decisions about whether a bar or restaurant is "my sort of place" - these are often pretty arbitrary, but in a city offering so many options there really is such a thing as too much choice. The nice thing about blogging is that you're sometimes invited to a place you wouldn't normally go and you find that actually, you like it - and such a place is Urban Cookhouse. I would probably never have got round to eating here, based on a flimsy combination of never really going out in this part of town (Princess Street) and not being quite certain about their Twitter bio, which pitches them as "styled on a New York loft" and as being a "downtown restaurant, bar & lounge" - despite being slap-bang in the middle of Manchester.

Actually though, we went on Sunday and it was pretty good. It's a nice space they've got here, up on the first floor in a converted shipping warehouse with lots of natural light and an open kitchen - we did feel that some of the smaller tables were positioned a little bit close together, but as the couple sitting next to us didn't actually speak to each other more than about twice during the course of the meal it didn't turn out to be too much of a problem. The menu is a wide-ranging one, positioning itself as serving "eclectic fusion dishes" but encompassing some more traditional options as well - I could happily have ordered pretty much anything from it, but we agreed instantly that the Crispy Cod Cheeks starter with Asian slaw and chilli and lime jam was a must. This was an immensely satisfying dish - three hefty cod cheeks battered and served with a nice tangy salad, although if I'm being very picky I'd have liked the batter a bit crispier and a little less red onion in my slaw. Alongside this we shared the much daintier Scallops served with black pudding crumble and a pea puree and foam - a classic dish, well executed. Our only quibble here was that the black pudding slightly overpowered the delicate flavour of the scallops - it's admirable to provide three scallops for under £8 at city centre prices, but I think the dish might work better with two larger, meatier scallops that could stand up to the earthiness of the black pudding with a little more defiance.

The mains provided an absolute stand-out dish that sounded a winner the moment we read its description - Sea Bream with coconut rice, tom yum sauce, lime foam and a crab spring roll. This was a perfectly put-together combination of textures and flavours, with the softness of the fish, the stickiness of the rice and the crispness of the spring roll complementing each other beautifully. The sauce was subtle and delicate rather than overpoweringly spicy, and the lime foam provided another layer of freshness to the flavours of the dish rather than just being the annoying frippery that foams are sometimes guilty of. My cannon and neck of lamb served with carrot and swede fondants, Boulangere potatoes and a port wine jus couldn't quite live up to the perfection of the fishy joy across the table (for alas, the sea bream was not *technically* mine) but was very enjoyable nonetheless, offering two very different textures and flavours in the meat and the very best roast carrots I have ever tasted.

On to desserts then, and the one I wanted (the Caramel Trio) wasn't available. This was a shame, as that left only two other sweet options or a cheese course for afters - something of a restricted choice. What they lacked in choice, they made up for in size - the Chocolate Torte with vanilla bean ice-cream, pistachio crumb and red pepper taffy was roughly the size of the National Deficit, perhaps something to do with it being towards the end of service on a Sunday night but a little overfacing all the same. Still, it was proclaimed suitably dense and heady, and it was only with some regret that some of it was left uneaten. My Carrot & Orange Cake with lemon meringue panna cotta was an interesting and inventive dish - I'd have preferred a little more filling sandwiching my two dainty circles of cake together, but the cake itself was moist with a good flavour, and the little cubes of lemony panna cotta were a revelation. None of mine was sent back to the kitchen.

Drinkswise, there isn't anything lagery on draft, so my date drank Budvar whilst I toyed elegantly with a couple of bucket-sized glasses of decent Tempranillo. Service was prompt and friendly, and the restaurant had a nice buzz about it - largely due to there being a Living Social deal running, but encouraging for a Sunday night all the same. All in all, we were pleasantly surprised by Urban Cookhouse - we were invited in to review the food and were therefore not asked to pay for our meal, but despite a few very minor shortcomings in the meal (that probably reflect the fact that the place hasn't long been open), we were impressed. There are plenty more things I want to try on the menu - but on my first return visit I will be asking for a table for one so that I can order that sea bream and not share it with a soul.

- Urban Cookhouse is at 54 Princess Street, Manchester M1 6HS; tel. 0161 235 8768

Monday, 4 May 2015

Gusto Didsbury: New Spring/Summer Menu Highlights

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate the coming of Spring. The long, light evenings; the cherry blossom bobbing merrily on the trees; the relaxing sounds of leather on willow along with the promise of Pimm's in the garden; the new series of Game of Thrones. And, of course, the new Gusto menu arrives, with its sexy new dishes and updates to old favourites on what is already a pretty difficult menu to decide what to have from. Still, we can but try, so last week I found a Gusto virgin and took him along to the Didsbury branch to have a look.

This is always a cheery place to visit - it's always busy and bustling and has a great atmosphere and lovely staff (who do, to be fair, recognise me a little too easily these days). I've eaten most of the things off the menu before, so I went for one of the new starters - Deep Fried Salt Cod Ravioli - whilst my friend stared in wonderment at the massive menu for so long that we had to have a cocktail while he chose. In the end he decided on Home Cured Salmon Tartare with Quail Egg, Creme Fraiche and Red Gazpacho, and it turned out to be quite the prettiest dish of the night, with a delicate but punchy flavour that entirely lived up to its head-turning good looks. My ravioli were sturdier than I had imagined - it's a clever idea to use pizza dough but it had lost a little of its softness during the deep frying process. Still, the salt cod filling was excellent in taste and in quantity, and the feisty tomato and caper dressing made this a most enjoyable dish.

On to the mains, and the only real issue of the night. I am a long-term admirer of the Gusto Roast Lamb Rump, which is always served perfectly pink and with just the right amount of crispy fat to give the whole thing both texture and flavour. This incarnation was no exception, and I was also very taken with the new summery accompaniment of buttered soy beans, asparagus and trofiette pasta (also available as a side) - a very good dish indeed. The Gusto virgin wanted steak, and when his 6oz chargrilled fillet steak with garlic butter, roasted vine tomatoes and fries arrived, it certainly looked the part. Alas, his first foray found that the steak was well-done rather than the requested medium. This was dealt with immediately and impeccably - the offending steak was whisked away and replaced as soon as one could reasonably expect with a perfect medium version, and the manager came over to apologise as well. It's an unfortunate thing to happen, especially if there's only two of you, as you essentially each end up eating your mains solo in a kind of food relay - but I'm also a big believer in judging restaurants by how they deal with mistakes and our waiter Nick couldn't really have been more helpful than he was during the entire course of our meal.

We decided to share the new Chocolate Fondue dessert - this is billed as being for two, and - unusually for a sharing dessert - there was actually more than enough for us both. The fondue was the right thickness and not too sweet, and came with little jug of Frangelico to stir in - a great idea for adding both some extra flavour and that certain something that only a good hit of booze can give. Speaking of drinks, Gusto is normally very good for cocktails, and this was certainly the case with the two we had - my friend described his Hazelnut and Fig Martini (fresh fig, lemon juice and hazelnut syrup shaken with Fratello and Martell VS) as "almost chewy, in a really good way", and my Bourbon Old Fashioned was right on the mark as usual. I usually have something Italian from the wine list but we felt the meatiness of our mains required something a little heftier, and the Don David Malbec from Argentina (£27) was perfect - I will definitely order this one again. My only criticism of the Chocolate Fondue dessert is that we'd both have liked more fruit - a lot of the dipping items provided (such as the chocolate brownies) were actually quite rich enough on their own without then dipping them into chocolate sauce as well. This may well be the first and last time I have ever called for more fruit in a pudding, but a few more strawberries wouldn't have gone amiss.

So, not a flawless evening on this occasion, but it's much to Gusto's credit that actually, our overall dining experience was still excellent - as evidenced by the fact that the Gusto virgin is already planning which pizza he wants on his next visit...

- Gusto Didsbury is at 756 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury M20 2DW; tel 0161 445 8209. We were invited in as guests of the restaurant and did not pay for our food or drink on this occasion, but I am a regular here and am happy to hand my dosh over to them at least every few weeks.

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Thyme Machine Lands in Chorlton: A Carvery with a Difference (and an unconvincing moustache)

I'm a big fan of a roast dinner, and can think of few other plates of food that so effortlessly encompass so many highs and so few lows. To be honest, I think the meat is almost the least exciting part - I like great piles of parpy vegetables, and enough crispy-edged roast potatoes to build a wall across half of Cumbria, and an ocean of gravy lapping lazily round the edge of the whole magnificent ensemble. And to be fair, most pubs and restaurants do a decent roast these days, no doubt having realised that this is a meal most people are capable of knocking up at home and thus there is no real excuse for getting it wrong.

Chorlton is not short of options when it comes to choosing a roast dinner, with places such as The Parlour and Electrik carving out pretty fearsome reputations on the back of their legendary Sunday lunches. Still, it's nice to find someone doing something a bit different, and The Thyme Machine, a new silver service carvery that has started popping up in the Chorlton Irish Club every Sunday, is certainly that. It's essentially Sunday dinner meets steampunk meets Parisian bistro - the blinds are down, the staff are dressed in fetchingly Victorian-esque outfits, the music is a mash-up of old and new, and the wine waiter (Marcel, apparently) sports an extravagant fake moustache that is only fractionally less convincing than his French accent.

Maybe this sounds a little contrived, but in reality it isn't - it's fun. And for all the frippery, at the heart of it all is great food and a proper wine list - the chef hard at work in the kitchen is Kim H Merritt and the man behind the ridiculous moustache is a wine merchant who really knows his stuff and is eager to share his enthusiasm (he also does magic tricks if you ask nicely). We start by sharing a couple of dishes from a board offering a short selection of starters, all priced at £4.50 - we have cubed watermelon wrapped in smoked ham (very refreshing and a good combination of textures and flavours) and the garlic mushrooms, which are pretty sexy and carry just the right amount of garlic (ie enough to be tasty but not so much as to preclude you actually speaking to anyone else for the rest of the day).

The main event though is obviously the roast dinner, which comes in at a reasonable £13. The meats change slightly every week - this week we are given brisket, pork and chicken along with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, carrots and parsnips, red cabbage, greens and a baked onion stuffed with bubble and squeak (a treat that I normally only get to eat once a year, on Boxing Day). This is all served at table from underneath satisfying silver domes, and our lovely server Melissa, to her credit, doesn't so much as blink when my "say when" with the roast potatoes takes an embarrassingly long time to come. We also like that when we request more gravy we are simply brought the enormous jug from the kitchen and allowed to drown our dinners to our hearts' content. Everything is beautifully cooked, with nice crispy frilled edges on the potatoes and the most flavoursome roast chicken either of us recall eating in some time - both of us surreptitiously save the skin till last. Even the veggie option looks good - smoked butter squash and goats cheese pie - and there is also a weekly special, which this week is blackened salmon niçoise.

As well as eating all this, we also take a pretty enthusiastic run at the wine list. We have a bottle of good Sauvignon Blanc at £16 (well, guineas, but I only have English pounds on me), a couple of glasses of very easy-drinking Barbera with dinner, and then a Port and a Madeira from the basket of goodies Marcel tempts us with after our meal. He is really quite something; in fact, all the staff are lovely, and Melissa even remembers me from my eating marathons at The Mark Addy when she used to work there (this might explain her lack of surprise at the RoastPotatoGate incident). We are both a little saddened to emerge from this mad little corner of 1890s Paris at the end of the meal, and will certainly go back - I don't think this concept will be to everyone's taste, but we enjoyed doing something a little bit different. Even better, next time I plan to return in full-on Victorian garb - Chorlton, you have been warned, and if anyone can lend me a top hat and some evening gloves I'll be eternally grateful.

- The Thyme Machine is currently running every Sunday afternoon on High Lane, Chorlton - check their Facebook page for more details or call 07459 023741 for reservations. We were invited to try the carvery and paid for all our drinks but not our food.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Spoiled for Choice at Spinningfields: Dockyard, Scene and Artisan Cafe Bar all Open for Business

It's hard to believe that until just a few years ago, the Spinningfields area of Manchester was a pretty unloved patch of concrete, designed as a business quarter and therefore unknown to many of us despite its prime location between Deansgate and the River Irwell. And I think it's fair to say that, despite its transformation into a public, social space offering shops, bars and restaurants, it has still felt like a bit of a work in progress. Yes, there are some great places there - Manchester House is one of my favourite places in the whole of the city, and The Lawn Club is hard to beat on a summer's day - but the area has still had something of an unfinished air about it.

Well, until now really. There's been plenty written about the recent flurry of big-name openings in recent weeks (Iberica, Fazenda) and there will be plenty more when Tattu (see their teaser video here) and The Kitchens open next month. Just this last week has seen the opening of a new pub, The Dockyard Spinningfields (sister to the already very successful Dockyard Media City), where I drank good house red and ate a huge deli sandwich (above) and sat outside by the Irwell, as well as a downstairs bar area at Artisan (above and below) and a vast new Indian restaurant called Scene. These seem like fine additions to me - Spinningfields needed another pubby venue as The Oasthouse gets packed, and as I find myself able to manage a curry at virtually any hour of the day or night I'm pretty sure that that Scene will be seeing me again.

The arrival of the Artisan Cafe Bar is also good news. This formerly wasted space beneath the main Artisan restaurant is now a very cute little bar offering all the signature Artisan cocktails but in a more intimate setting than the cavernous room upstairs, with plenty of outside seating too. We had a quick look last night, and were impressed with the friendliness of the staff, the quality of the cocktails (we particularly liked The Artisan - Green Mark vodka, Aperol, pomegranate, mint, lime and apple juice) and the moreishness of the canapes (I'm sorry to anyone who was hoping to get any of the pulled pork ones). As there will be a cinema opening above this bar area later in the year it seems possible that one may visit Artisan and indeed never leave, particularly as it seems I will be allowed to take my wine into the film with me. Definitely a case of watch this space.

From Artisan it's just a short walk to Scene - I know this, as we went straight from one to the other. The launch party here was pretty spectacular, as befitting such a grand venue - I don't know what I was expecting, but this huge, airy space with its floor to ceiling windows looking over the river is impressive to say the least. Here we drank champagne and danced along with some infectiously cheerful Indian dancers and ate plates of nicely spicy starters - I'll be interested to try the full menu, as the quality was very good despite the enormous number of covers sent out all at once.

So, Spinningfields continues to go from strength to strength. I still think it lacks a little cohesion, but it is really starting to present itself as a self-contained area of town where you can have a good night out from start to finish. And the rumours that I ate canapes at Artisan and then food at Scene and then returned to Artisan for a full meal in the restaurant are entirely unfounded*

*completely true.

- The Dockyard is on Leftbank, as is Scene. Artisan is on Avenue North. All three of these visits were press or preview nights, except for the meal we had later at Artisan which was fully paid.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Byron: Patty Meltdown at Manchester Piccadilly Gardens

There has been plenty of chuntering recently that Manchester has too many burger joints; that the market has in fact become somewhat saturated (there is surely a laboured joke to be had here involving saturated fat, but I will forgo it on the basis that I'd feel even guiltier about what I ate on Thursday night). I consider this to be total nonsense; I frankly can't get enough of a decent burger, and as restaurants tend to offer what people want, it seems that plenty of fellow Mancunians feel the same.

I had, however, been a bit sniffy about Byron. What need have we of some London chain, coming up here with its fancy Southern ways and trying to take business from our proud independents? So even though I heard lots of good things when it opened on Deansgate, I didn't go. Now there's one in Piccadilly Gardens too, and as it last week played host to the Byron Burger Club, a one-night only set menu cooked up by head chef Fred Smith, this seemed as good a time as any to check it out.

The venue itself is a bit canteeny for my liking, with small tables crammed pretty close together, but it does have a great view of the Manchester Wheel (well, for the time being anyway) and the staff are pretty ace. The idea of the Byron Burger Club is to offer a handful of items created especially for the event - this time, £15 got us spiced popcorn, a Patty Melt served with sweet potato fries and a sticky toffee rum hard shake to finish - things not normally on the Byron menu. This is a shame, as I would gladly eat any of them again and could indeed develop an embarrassing addiction to the Patty Melt - two slices of rye bread with caraway seeds fried in butter, sandwiching a loosely-ground beef patty, topped with slow-cooked red onions and Swiss cheese, grilled in a heavy-duty iron griddle. It's essentially a cross between a cheese toastie and a burger and is therefore to be applauded heartily - we all thought it very impressive too, with plenty of cheese and a really good quality burger served perfectly pink in the middle. The fries were great and the rum shake pleasingly boozy and thrillingly calorific.
Byron also offers some interesting drinks options, with a good range of bottled and canned craft beers as well as a couple on draft - we had the very refreshing Camden Hells Lager. The beer isn't cheap mind, and I can see how you could easily rack up a bit of a bill in here bearing in mind that most burgers are £9-10 and that sides are extra - not everyone will want to pay this in a canteen-style restaurant. On Thursday's evidence though the food is worth it - we were invited as guests of the restaurant but I was sufficiently impressed to want to go back and try one of the burgers as soon as humanly possible (in fact, I fear that every time I just miss a tram from Market Street I'll find myself in there). As for the Patty Melt, Northern Quarter institution Home Sweet Home has been doing a similar cheeseburger toastie for years and Manchester loves it - so fingers crossed it returns as a permanent menu item (I'm having the placards made up as we speak).

- Byron is at One Piccadilly Gardens Manchester M1 1RG and 115 Deansgate Manchester M3 2NW.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Ex-EMF Frontman James Atkin Comes to Manchester's Ruby Lounge (Don't Mention THAT SONG)

I imagine that fame can be a tricky beast, particularly for those known for one really, really famous thing. You don't want to bite the hand that feeds you, but you'd really rather move on now and do something else - we might perhaps call it Victor Meldrew Syndrome, or the Coolio Curse.

I'm pretty sure that James Atkin, erstwhile singer with EMF, feels the same about Unbelievable, a song which dominated the UK charts in 1990 and was a huge hit in the States the year after. It's a truly, truly great song; indeed, as an impressionable schoolgirl I was very taken with the whole album, Schubert Dip, and still have it on tape somewhere (although, alas, not the wherewithal to play it). I can still remember a sketch on The Mary Whitehouse Experience where Newman, Baddiel, Punt and Dennis came off stage as a sweaty, post-gig EMF, listening in astonishment as the audience demanded an encore and asking each other whether they had any really massive hit singles under their belts that they could play. You may mock, but if you don't remember the heady days of the early 90s you really don't know what you were missing.

James has a new album out, A Country Mile, which I've been listening to this week. It's very good indeed - an electronic, dancey album with a slightly aggressive edge and some memorable tunes, topped by James' distinctive vocals (which in themselves are enough to take me back to a time when I was too young to drink and considered Brookside to be the viewing highlight of my week). James has released all sorts of successful songs over the years, but this is the first time he's put his own name to a new collection of songs and they are (to my inner-schoolgirl-self's relief) no disappointment.

As I am now thankfully old enough to drink I'm looking forward to hearing the album played live next Friday at Manchester's Ruby Lounge - in fact, the whole line-up looks good, with The Narrows, Demons of Ruby Mae and Villiers also on the bill. I certainly can't imagine you'll find better value for a tenner anytime soon, and if you're too young to remember James from the first time around this looks an excellent chance to become acquainted with his music. And if you were listening to Xfm this morning at about half past seven you might, like me, have heard the opening riff to Unbelievable and shouted aloud in triumph before, like me, singing lustily along as you drove down Didsbury Road - best moment of today by a country mile.

- James' gig takes place at The Ruby Lounge, Northern Quarter, Manchester next Friday, 20th March 2015 from 7.30pm. Advance tickets £10 from fatsoma.com, seetickets.com & skiddle.com, and you can download the album from itunes here.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

New Menu at the Beagle, Chorlton; even the TOFU is Tasty

Despite being a Didsbury girl, I spend a fair old percentage of my time in Chorlton. And being a creature of habit, much of that Chorlton time is spent either in Font, enthusiastically drinking my way through the cocktail menu, or over the road at The Beagle. This latter venue tends to be my default meeting place - it's a nice, roomy pub (particularly since they built the lovely glass extension on the front) with decent beer, good food and a dog-friendly policy that always leaves my dog-loving friend feeling distinctly broody and me fearing he will dog-nap one and make off with it under his arm before I can stop him (Chorlton - LOCK UP YOUR DOGS).

Last week saw the launch of a new food menu, so I trammed it over the border to have a look. The menu in all honesty doesn't look vastly different from before and still offers its laid-back selection of tacos, burritos and burgers; there is a new pick and mix starters section though that looks very promising indeed. These can be bought individually or you can choose any three for £9.95, and although they're billed as "snacks" each is fairly substantial (and this is coming from a girl whose idea of a snack is a couple of rounds of cheese on toast at the very least). We were given a selection of four to try on the launch night - deep-fried pickles, sweetcorn and jalapeno fritters, fried courgette "wings" and crumbed chicken strips. We enjoyed them all, although my girly friend found the sweetcorn fritters too spicy - these were probably my favourite item though, so his loss = my gain (always best to take a picky plus-one as then you get to eat more than your share).

The next course was the highlight of the night - a selection of tacos (Baja Fish, Korean Tofu, Carne Asada and a Popcorn Shrimp lettuce cup). I am a big fan of The Beagle's Popcorn Shrimp and so was confidently expecting to enjoy this or the chargrilled steak the most from this particular platter - but the Korean Tofu (barbecued and served with kimchi, sriracha & crispy shallots) just edged it. Again, this one was very spicy - but was so good even the heat-averse friend had to eat it. Tofu has honestly never tasted this good to me - must be something to do with being in Chorlton maybe.

On to the mains, although by this stage we were pretty full and couldn't fully do them justice. I was bad and had the Homeslice Chicken Bucket despite it not being a new item on the menu - I am generally powerless to resist the lure of this cheery vessel of crumbed buttermilk chicken (three pieces of chicken, four wings, fries, slaw and a couple of sauces to make a mess with) and it proved the case yet again. Our other choice was the only misfire of the evening - the Nacho Maximo (nachos, melted cheese, cheese sauce, refried beans, pico, crema and jalapenos) was a toweringly generous plateful with a good balance of toppings, but the beef brisket we added as an extra was quite astonishingly salty. You can't see it in the pictures as it's lurking underneath, but there was lots of it and its integration into the dish made parts of it pretty inedible - and that's coming from someone who really, really likes salt. To be fair, I'm sure they would have changed it had we asked, but we had eaten so much by this point anyway we didn't ask them to.

There was the usual chuntering on Twitter about free food blah blah blah, but I spend a good percentage of my salary here anyway and we paid for all our drinks on the night aside from a welcome margarita. In fact, I'm fairly sure it was only the saltiness of the brisket that drove me to order and neck that very good, quite expensive Sauvignon Blanc (this is my story, and I plan to stick to it)....

- The Beagle is at 456-458 Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton, Manchester M21 0BQ. Food is served every day (except Monday) until 10.