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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.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Guest Blog Post, in which Matt (and his Hat) Tries the New Menu at Don Giovannis, Manchester

I was excited to be offered the chance to go and review the new menu at Don Giovannis, so braved the cold and sleet with my trusty new red hat (somehow I lost 10 black hats last year...anyway, that is beside the point).

I must admit I've never been before and walking through the door was struck by how warming and welcoming it was (especially the fish specials board!) We were led through to the new refurbished function room where the imposing white tables greeted us, beautifully dressed (them, not us). Now I'm not a massive fan of weddings but for an intimate gathering for a reception this would be ideal.

Hungry as always, we were eager to see what was going to appear. First though was the wine, and whilst I like most forms of wine it's a typical bugbear of mine, the concept of 'house wine'. In most restaurants it is overpriced, lacking in fruit or depth and ill chosen. However, the Trebbiano served to us was a surprise and a delight. Crisp, plenty of good stone fruit and a mellowing sweetness. I could see this matching with most of the food we were going to get.

First up was what I would call 'Dough Pillows', accompanied by olives and a light herb dressing. They were moreish to say the least, with enough salt so as to not be overpowering, and they complimented the olives nicely. I do love good Antipasti and was very happy to see three large plates descend on our tables. The cured meats were high quality which was nice to see (in a lot of Italian restaurants I've had bog standard antipasti and as a general rule of thumb do not order it, so was pleased with our offering here). My favourite things on the plate had to be the pickled green peppers, roasted courgette and artichoke hearts. The pickling was top drawer, light and delicate. The artichoke hearts were not smothered in oil and still had some leaves on them making them really tasty. Overall a great plate of classic Italian flavours.

Next up was 'Insalata di Polpo' (Warm Octopus Salad with Potato, Celery, Red Chilli and Lemon Juice). I was told by my esteemed friend that she would be jealous if this was served so was happy to send her some pictures! The dish overall was good but a little inconsistent as part of the octopus was a little soft and overcooked but the crisp bits with the chilli were delicious.

With the Trebbiano coming into its own the 'Ravioli Di Spinaci' (Spinach Ravioli with a Butter Sage Sauce) was presented to us. Well cooked pasta (I never get it right!) with a light sauce and smooth filling (a tiny bit under seasoned for my liking but I am a salt fiend).

Onto my highlight of the the evening, 'Capesante Casereccie' (Seared King Scallops with Pea Puree and Red Chilli). I'm a massive fan of pea puree and will have it with most dishes I cook for myself and this one did not disappoint. Smooth and wonderfully seasoned and a fantastic accompaniment to the perfectly cooked, caramelized King Scallops.

Our final savoury dish of the evening arrived and invited us to tuck in: 'Tagliata di Manzo' (Sliced 10oz Sirloin Steak with Rocket and Parmesan Shavings). Rocket, Steak & Parmesan are a classic combination, however I thought with this salad it needed to be dressed more and have more Parmesan. Maybe this was because it was served to us on big platters so some of the ingredients got lost. The steak was cooked perfectly rare which I can't fault but just needed something extra to give it that rounded feel.

I suppose Tiramisu to the Italians is like Bread and Butter Pudding to us, everyone has the 'best' recipe. Anyway, it was a colossal bomb-like pudding and a great spectacle to end the night with. As it should be, rich, creamy but light and airy.

And so our night came to a close. The function did what it was designed to do perfectly: got everyone together, talking and generally having a really good time. I think my overall view, not having been before, was that they could have showcased some more dishes, maybe some fish specials and other pasta dishes. When I read the menu before going I was impressed by the variety and depth of the dishes they had on offer so would have been keen to sample some more of what the menu had to offer. Having said that, from what I had would go back and enjoy a long Saturday lunch in the company of some very friendly and hospitable staff.

- Don Giovannis can be found at 1-2 Peter House, Oxford Street, Manchester, M1 5AN; telephone 0161 2282482.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Guest Blog Post: Susan Hill's The Mist in the Mirror at Oldham Coliseum

So, I've been a bit off-colour the last few weeks, and have had to hand over the blogging reins to some trusted souls - including the lovely Catherine, who has been to Oldham to see the premiere of The Mist in the Mirror, based on the novel by Susan Hill and adapted for the stage by Ian Kershaw. Here's what she thought of it...

Oldham often bears the brunt of the wintry weather in Greater Manchester and there was definitely a strange chill over the town on Tuesday evening, when Oldham Coliseum Theatre hosted the world premiere of Ian Kershaw’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Mist in the Mirror.

Avid fans of the Gothic tradition will not be disappointed with this chillingly entertaining production as Kershaw’s adaptation retains all the terrifying plot elements of Hill’s Gothic novel including: orphaned hero, terrifying villain, lots of thunder and lightning, eerie old houses, and even the Yorkshire moors.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, The Mist in the Mirror follows orphaned hero James Monmouth (played by the affable Paul Warriner), as an ‘honest’ gentleman on a quest to trace his family history. James travels from Africa, where he was sent to live at the age of 5, back to his native England. One gloomy evening he finally arrives in a Dickensian-like London that is smothered in fog and harbouring secrets down every alleyway.

It is at this moment that the production really brings the dark magic of the play to life. Whilst the narrator of the tale (played by Jack Lord) starts to recount the journey, a steamboat lurches into view and words appear to write themselves around the interior rim of the set. Actors pull wings from the blackened stage, and the dark set is suddenly transformed into an inn, then it morphs into a London street, and then an antiquarian bookshop. The list of set transitions and locations is copious, and all morph within the blink of an eye.

The stunning video and light projections are perfectly choreographed to every actor’s movements. Even the act of holding a lamp or candle is visually arresting in this play as the glow creates creeping shadows on the walls, illuminates a door that definitely wasn’t there a second ago, and allows the audience to glimpse the terrifying epitaph of the play’s arch-villain, Conrad Vane. Some of the set-pieces of the video projections include Monmouth’s spine-chilling amble around a library in search of Vane’s demonic writings, and a journey on a steam train to Yorkshire, complete with moving landscapes and falling snow.

A Gothic tale couldn’t be ‘gothic’ without exaggerated pathetic fallacy and Kershaw’s production brought the first audible gasps of fright from the audience with a huge crack of lightning that rippled across the backdrop. Further gasps and jumps were created by the lingering spectre of an unknown boy with a cloth sack for a head, who haunts James Monmouth throughout the play, and it’s a spectre that isn’t a video projection. This makes his appearances all the more terrifying and it will be impossible to look at a scarecrow in the same way ever again.

So, whilst the wintry mist still lays thick over Oldham, go and see The Mist in the Mirror before it descends on another town as part of its nation-wide tour.

...so, I think we can all agree Catherine is too professional by half and has put me to shame somewhat - gald she enjoyed it though (said through slightly gritted teeth). I'm keen to see this (despite having embarrassed myself when I saw Susan Hill's The Woman in Black at the theatre by being openly and audibly terrified) - luckily it's on until 21st Feb: full details here.

(All Mist in the Mirror production shots: credit Joel C Fildes)

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Makers Market Didsbury and Makers Market Knutsford; Fridge May Never Be Fully Empty Again

I'm a big fan of a local market. At their very best, these are pretty much the perfect day out - stalls full of interesting crafts and delicious local food and drink produce, manned by the very people who have so lovingly made the goods, and often accessorised with live music, beer tents and nice sociable dogs who jump up at you, tails wagging, at the very whiff of a sausage. Not all markets are like this though, offering instead a few desultory tables of over-priced tat and sub-standard fare that people still buy just because it has the word "artisan" appended to it; these leave me saddened and frustrated and in need of the pub.

Not so the Makers Markets, which I have recently discovered and now salute as a shining example of all that is good and right. These are monthly events across four locations - Cheadle, Didsbury, Knutsford and Middlewich; I went to Didsbury last Sunday and have been to Knutsford today (which did in fairness leave me in need of the pub, but only because it was so cold). Didsbury is by far the smaller of the two but does score additional points for being near my house and for having the best live acts (I've seen Badly Drawn Boy and poet Mike Garry there amongst others), while Knutsford today was simply a revelation. Here's what I came home with...

Orchard House Pâté. I'm a sucker for pâté and have thus come to know the lovely Danielle quite well - she makes simply gorgeous creations that are (unfeasibly) both dairy free and low fat (most of the mini pots come in somewhere just over one hundred calories each, meaning that one may comfortably eat three or so at one sitting with no fear of losing a button). There are lots of different flavours - my favourites include the chicken liver with tequila and orange, the mushroom and walnut and the cashew nut, lentil and sun-dried tomato but they're all good. I think I've tried them all now (including some incredible luxury ones she made for Christmas) and they merit their own blog post, so you'll hear more about them soon.

Bobby's Bangers sausages. You know all about these fine purveyors of pork products by now - their sausages are quite simply the best around. I was pretty restrained today, limiting myself to some pork and haggis and some of the award-winning Bombay Banger. Oh, and a black pudding.

Fatjax Chutneys. Paul is another delightful person who I've got to know through admiring his pickles at various food events over the years; I've just done a count and between the pantry and the fridge I currently have nine different varieties on the go. They're all addictive but the fruity ones are particularly irresistible, as are the chilli ones. Oh, and the spice mix sachets are really good too. The next house I buy will definitely need a bigger pantry.

Nom Nom Bread. This man knows how to make seriously good bread, in lots of interesting flavours. Today I bought a honey and sunflower seed loaf, and have already eaten half of it, smeared thickly with pâté. This may, arguably, offset the low fat, low calorie nature of the pâté to some extent.

Hemingways Pesto. I hadn't come across these people before; they make homemade sauces, pesto, gnocchi and pasta and appear to be very good at it judging by the lovely fresh pesto I sampled today. It's surprisingly rare to find a pesto that tastes properly of fresh basil and parmesan but this one has both in spades; when the nice man told me it would keep in the fridge for a month I'm afraid I found it hard not to laugh openly whilst prising the lid off it there and then.

I would have liked to have stayed longer, but it was really very cold and my purchases were getting on the heavy side - next time I go, I'll be the one with the extra-large tartan shopping trolley. Didsbury is the last Sunday of every month and Knutsford the first - full details are here on the website.

Friday, 16 January 2015

The Great 2014 Wine Haul: Three Wine Men Manchester Christmas Tasting and Origin Wine's Winter Wine Fair

I can't help noticing that this is my first blog post in over a month. This in itself is not a problem, of course - I'm well aware the general consensus is that there are plenty of bloggers already, and that the thought of some of us awarding ourselves a big fat lazy Christmas break is in many quarters likely to be welcomed rather than mourned. Anyway, the simple fact is that I try to avoid going outside in winter as much as possible, essentially entering a period of pyjama-clad hibernation that very few events could persuade me to forsake.

Fortunately, in the manner of a great hungry bear or similar, I had taken the precaution of topping up essential provisions for the long, cold nights ahead by attending not one but two wine festivals before Christmas. The first of these was a biggie - the Three Wine Men Manchester Christmas Tasting at Old Trafford Cricket Ground at the end of November. The three men in question are, of course, Olly Smith, Tim Atkin and Oz Clarke - all familiar to us from their TV appearances and always much in evidence at their wine events. This is the third Three Wine Men wine tasting I've been to now and they're great - well organised and with a wide variety of different stalls, from the supermarket behemoths (Morrisons, The Co-Operative, Asda) to local independents (Barrica Wines) to champions of specific countries and regions (Alpine Wines). All in all there were 37 different exhibitors (including the Cheshire Cheese Company, gamely attempting to line our stomachs with cheese samples - a little like swimming against the tide to be honest) - we started, naturally, with the lovely Jane at Barrica Wines, where we met this reprobate whilst admiring Jane's amazing white Rioja. Olly was charmed by my mother at the summer fair and was disappointed I had neglected to bring her on this occasion (although he is admittedly hiding it quite well here - brave face and all that).

As well as the tasting tables, we also tried one of the masterclasses - the cheese and wine matching with Tim Atkin. Although a regular at the Three Wine Men events, I'd never been to one of these masterclasses before, feeling that an extra £5 was a bit much on top of the entry price - but I take it all back. The class was both fun and informative, compèred by the lovely Lisa from Manchester Wine School and offering four different Wine Society wines matched with cheeses from the Cheshire Cheese Company (my favourite match was the Trimbach Gewurztraminer and the Irish Whiskey and Stem Ginger cheese) as well as a selection of excellent Tim jokes (mainly at the expense of Pinot Grigio). These events just keep on getting better and better, and I will certainly be keeping an eye on the website for the announcement of the next Manchester dates, and in the meantime will enjoy some of my purchases in the comfort of my own home.

The second event was at the other end of the scale - a small, intimate wine fair held by independent merchants Origin Wines and Spirits in the upstairs function room at the Northern Quarter's Market Restaurant. This was altogether a family affair, with big boss Dougie aided not only by the charming Conor but also by his mum (who had sampled widely from the tasting table prior to our arrival and was most helpful with her recommendations) and his dad, who had forgotten his glasses and was happily pouring what he called "drinking" rather than "tasting" measures. These are lovely people who stock a good selection of more than decent wines and spirits - we ordered a mixed case that has seen me through Christmas and which allowed my friend to dazzle her boyfriend's parents with her excellent choices of wine during Christmas dinner. They are based in Wigan but deliver around the Manchester area - find out more about them here.

So whilst I understand that the outside world has much to offer, whilst there is wine in my wine rack and the complete series of True Detective on Sky Box Set, I really can't see the rush to get back out there any time soon.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Gusto Manchester: Bigger, Shinier, Sexier (Them), Fatter (Me)

I've written before of my fondness for Gusto Didsbury, a charming venue right on my doorstep that manages to offer a friendly local feel despite being part of the large Living Ventures stable. The staff always remember you (although this might just be a sign I eat there too often), the menu is always interesting, the food is always good and the atmosphere is always buzzy. Best of all, Gusto Didsbury didn't even mind that this Monday lunchtime I was unfaithful, and spent the afternoon flirting and schmoozing with the frankly very beautiful new Gusto Manchester on Lloyd Street; after all, they probably fancy her too.

Gusto Manchester has actually been around for a while, but was a much smaller place by the name of Olive Restaurant and Bar - it's now fully rebranded and an ambitious refurbishment has seen it almost quadruple in size (although to be fair, I estimate that I too have probably done likewise since my last visit). The new venue is simply stunning, with a classy Art Deco feel that is both opulent and welcoming, with plush leather booths, sexy lighting and beautifully laid tables - we particularly admire the lovely wine glasses. The light above our table does cast some interesting shadows in the photos though, so I include a picture of it here in the spirit of naming and shaming, and pointing the finger of blame at anyone but the photographer (me).

The a la carte menu is the same as in other Gustos, and therefore embarrassingly familiar to me. For starters, I have the Fritto Misto of sardine, prawn and squid, served with pan fried garlic polenta, green gazpacho and lemon puree - all the fish is beautifully cooked in a light, crisp batter, but the sardine fillet is the standout element. I'm not sure the polenta adds a great deal, but I'm not a huge fan of this item anyway, finding that it takes the addition a good half pound of butter and Parmesan to render it desirable - this version is, in all honesty, pretty tasty. My friend orders a half portion of Tagliatelle with Prawns, Garlic and Sweet Chilli Tomato Sauce, one of my all-time favourite Gusto dishes and therefore clearly an erroneous choice as I snarf as much of it as I can get my hands on - it's just the right balance of hot and sweet chillies, the prawn-to-pasta ratio is generous and the added rocket gives the dish a nice freshness.

On to the mains, and our heads are turned by the super sexy specials list, which offers a range of tempters unique to this particular Gusto. Really and truly I want the Lobster Thermidor, but feel this is likely to be an inappropriately rich dish for someone who has to do some Christmas shopping after lunch. Instead, I go for the Rosemary Cured Monkfish with lobster sauce and crispy speck ham at £21.75 whilst my friend has the Six Bone Rack of Lamb with Salsa Verde at a slightly heftier £27.75. Both of these require additional side dishes, so between us we order fries, baked rosemary and garlic roast potatoes, French beans with shallots and Italian fried courgettes. These are all excellent, particularly the roast potatoes, but at £3.25 they do undeniably add a considerable expense to main courses that each come in at over £20 on their own. The mains themselves are beautiful to look at - well-portioned plates of good, simple ingredients without too much frippery. The monkfish is firm and meaty and goes well with the rich lobster sauce, and the lamb is perfectly pink and tender. Both dishes are, however, over-salted - the fish is salty even without the presence of the ham, and the salt crust on the lamb has been quite exuberantly applied and would perhaps have benefitted from a lighter touch. This is a shame, as it's the only flaw in what are otherwise impressive dishes.

Obviously I am full, and equally obviously I have dessert anyway. I am talked into the Nutella and Mascarpone Calzone by our very helpful waitress and I will be forever grateful for her persistence in this matter - it is a thing of quite astonishing deliciousness and well worth the fifteen minute wait. My friend orders the lemon Sorbet on the basis that this is a light, modest choice - and it would be, were it not the largest portion of sorbet that either of us has ever seen. Add to this gluttony a bottle of decent Barbera and I have never felt less like looking round the Christmas markets in my life - we could frankly have stayed in this oasis of calm and good taste for the entire day. Will I be leaving my first love, Gusto Didsbury, for her glamorous new relative? No. But I'm sure I can be permitted the occasional fling.

- Gusto Manchester is at 4 Lloyd Street (just off Deansgate), Manchester M2 5AB. We were invited as guests of the restaurant and paid for our wine and for service but not for our food.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Flanagan Collective's A Christmas Carol: Theatre, but with SPROUTS

I've never made any secret of the fact that I'm a big fan of Christmas. Obviously, I very much enjoy the additional opportunities for eating and drinking afforded by a celebration that now seems to fill an entire month, but my love of Christmas goes beyond mere greed and also encompasses my fondness for tradition. I love the whole ritual of it all - getting the decorations down from the loft, wrapping presents with a small snifter of sherry, watching It's a Wonderful Life with a glass of port and, best of all, re-reading Dickens' A Christmas Carol every year (and let's face it, Christmas hasn't really started until you've seen the Muppets film version as well).

Joyous news then that this December brings with it the chance to combine these two great pleasures into one irresistible Christmas package. A pop-up theatre - The New Playhouse - has appeared (as if by Christmas magic) in the Great Northern complex on Deansgate, and is hosting performances of The Flanagan Collective's version of A Christmas Carol throughout the month. This is no ordinary theatrical experience though: our first clue comes as we are purchasing Prosecco from the bar area (so far so standard) and notice a door in the corner with a sign proclaiming this to be the residence of one "Scrooge and Marley". Before long, we are allowed to go through it, and find ourselves in Scrooge's very parlour - we take our seats in various locations around the room and the play, such as it is, begins.

I say "such as it is" because this is unlike any play I have ever seen. Yes, there is some fine acting, but the story of Scrooge is so well known that there really is no need to spell it all out for us - instead, we are immersed in an evening of songs, parlour games, dancing and - hurrah! - eating. A very fine meal of cold meats, bread, veg (LOADS of sprouts - Jacob Marley fetches me seconds) and a couple of splendid homemade pies is served up partway through, along with mulled wine and some Christmas pudding and mince pies for afters - no mean feat when there are over forty hungry people in need of refreshment. We pull crackers (I win a pirate eyepatch); we sing Christmas songs as Marley accompanies us on his guitar; we play parlour games, including a few rounds of "Who Am I" during which my friend, who has made the mistake of wearing an eye-catching festive jumper, predictably finds himself sitting in Scrooge's armchair asking us questions such as whether he's male or female (jury still out on this one).

Everyone loves it, and is more than willing to embrace the Yuletide spirit despite it only being the 2nd December. As well as all the silliness there is also some very imaginative and atmospheric drama, including a truly inspired moment when Scrooge breaks free from the theatre and runs round the Great Northern amphitheatre as we watch him from the window. The whole thing is performed by just two very talented men (although we obviously help a great deal, and there are several nice people who bring us dinner) - John Holt-Roberts as Jacob Marley and Al Barclay as Ebeneezer Scrooge (pictured above courtesy of James Drury). Both are thoroughly charismatic and engaging, and one of them can even do handstands, something that I don't recall from the book - clearly time I read it again...

- The Flanagan Collective's Christmas Carol runs until 19th December (I can only imagine how much better it gets the closer we get to Christmas) and costs £35 a head (including that mighty dinner) or £30 each for groups of 10 people or more - tickets are quite scarce now but can be purchased here. And if you're still in doubt whether you should book, take a look at these photos and think about whether you've ever seen people having this much fun at the theatre before.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

New Menu at SoLIta - Cheeseburger Spring Rolls Spawn a Dangerous New Obsession

So, another blog, another post in which I eat too much at SoLIta - you've heard it all before. This time though, I'm at the Didsbury branch, which Franco and co. thoughtfully opened just a hop skip and a jump away from my house earlier this year (Franco jokes I was listed in his business plan when outlining the viability of the Didsbury site - or at least, I hope he's joking). And this time, I've brought along a vegetarian.

We're here to try out the new menu, having respectively spent most of the week eyeing up photos on Twitter of the Cheeseburger Spring Rolls (me) and the Halloumi Burger (my fragrant date, who had never been to SoLIta before due to its rather meaty reputation). SoLIta Didsbury is based in what was Cibo on School Lane - a building scarcely recognisable from its previous sorrowful occupancy. Now it's all Stanley Chow artwork and neon signs, with a buzzy atmosphere that Cibo could only dream of and a fleet of young, chipper staff ready to ply you with the good stuff; in fact, it's very like the Northern Quarter outpost, only a/ better and b/ nearer home.

Obviously, for starters I have the Cheeseburger Spring Rolls. When you've essentially spent the day drooling over a photograph of something in a Homer-esque way, there's always a very real worry that reality will be a let down; not so here thankfully. These spring rolls are as ridiculous and as amazing as they sound - with burger steak wrapped in proper yellow plastic cheese wrapped in pastry and then deep fried, they are essentially the very greedy person's version of an enigma wrapped inside an enigma. Meanwhile, my veggie date has one of my most favourite SoLIta starters, the Lucky 7 - so called because of its layers of guacamole, re-fried beans, sour cream, salsa, cheese, lettuce, olives. She loves it so much she snarfs the lot - lucky only for some, it appears.

For main, I have The Schnitz - a previous special that proved so popular it's muscled its way onto the new menu (and deservedly so - chicken breast schnitzel topped with home smoked shredded bbq chicken and apple slaw and then served with fries is fairly hard to say no to). I'm a sucker for any form of fried chicken anyway, and it makes a nice change from the ubiquitous pulled pork to find it topped with shredded chicken rather than pig. It's the apple slaw that really makes the dish though, adding a freshness and crunch that works well against the sweetness of the bbq sauce. The Veggie has the Hallou Me? Burger - charcoal grilled halloumi, Portobello mushrooms, red pepper and house sauce; she enjoys it, but feels it would benefit from a lightly toasted bun. To be fair though, she has to order it without the mushroom as she is allergic (yes, I know, a veggie allergic to mushrooms - it's a wonder she manages to eat out at all), and thinks that the dish would be fairly perfect had she had this element. On the side we have some cornmeal fried jalepenos and some deep fried pickles - the latter are particularly magnificent, and are fought over to such an extent that we have to actually cut the last one in half.

We are full by now, but share a dessert in the form of the Peanut Butter Chocolate Fudge Brownie served with Oreo ice cream. They know we want to share and helpfully cut the brownie in half before it arrives - either they are exceptionally thoughtful here or (perhaps the more likely) they simply witnessed the unseemly pickle tussle and wish to avoid further public disturbances. The brownie has an excellent texture, managing to be both light AND sticky - our only comment is that we could both handle a bigger hit of peanut butter (but then again, we are both the kind of people who eat it directly from the jar when we think no-one is watching). I do still mourn the deep-fried coke, but feel that I can bravely make do with this until Franco sees sense (/caves to pressure) and brings it back.

Any drawbacks? Well, I honestly think the portions are on the big side, but as the vast majority of the population have better self control than I do, they would probably just stop eating when they were full. Someone also commented via social media that they thought SoLIta prices a little expensive, but I'm not sure this is fair criticism - everything at SoLIta is big enough to share, and the burger prices have actually come down a pound or two thanks to the restaurant passing on discounts from suppliers. And yes, we didn't pay on this occasion, but I estimate that I have been to SoLIta NQ maybe twenty times as a paying customer and to SoLIta Didsbury already about five, so I am more than happy to part with my cash here. And even The Veggie says she wants to go again - high praise indeed, although I doubt very much I'll ever convert her to the delights of the cheeseburger spring roll...

- SoLIta Didsbury is on School Lane, M20 6RD; tel. 0161 434 4884.