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Friday, 15 July 2016

Restaurant Review: Pier Eight at The Lowry, Salford (plus some exuberant singing at HMS Pinafore)

Back in December I reviewed Pier Eight, the new restaurant at The Lowry, and trumpeted loudly about how much I liked it. I've been back this week in order to try the new menu, and find to my relief that I still like it - if anything, even more than before, despite some streamlining to the menu and more limited pre-theatre options. Sometimes a simplified menu is a very good thing, and this proves to be the case here - we ate at 5.30 ahead of seeing the all-male cast performance of HMS Pinafore (more of which later), and whilst I was initially a bit disappointed that the full menu wasn't available, the fixed price option they run between 5 and 7pm on the night of a show turns out to be excellent.

We began with a sneaky additional bread course as I was starving, and in danger of eating my napkin in an unseemly manner. The bread was very good - three different types, including a cumin crispbread and a superlative walnut loaf - and some perfectly soft and salty butter (you get more than shown here - I did say I was hungry). For starters I had the scallops with pea purée, samphire, runner beans, sun dried tomato pesto - two beautiful fat scallops, well-seared and seasoned, and nicely offset by the sweetness of the pea purée and the brackishness of the samphire (one of my very favourite things). The pesto was presumably there to add some sweetness but wasn't needed and found itself a little overwhelmed by everything else - still, a very good dish though. The roast and pickled beetroots with beetroot jam, preserved pear, sorrel leaves, whipped Lancashire curd and powdered rosemary oil sounded fiddly but actually worked perfectly - a really well-balanced and interesting dish offering different textures and a ludicrously wonderful sweet sticky sauce that got me caught running my finger round the plate.

Mains kept up the standard, and provided the perfect summer accompaniment to an unusually sunny Salford. My roasted sea trout, steamed mussels, samphire, gnocchi and watercress sauce was a great example of a simple, elegant dish, despite a couple of blips - the mussels were initially forgotten and had to be brought separately, and the samphire had been substituted for fennel without warning. No real matter though - the mussels were brought swiftly (and the dish was indeed much augmented once I'd tipped them on) and the aniseed flavours of the fennel went perfectly with the trout. Also, these were the best gnocchi I have had anywhere. The lamb rump with crushed new season potatoes, warm pea salad and salsa verde across the table was both beautiful and generous - two large pieces of off-pink meat with a well-seasoned crust (although we added an extra grind of salt just to add a little more texture), with the warm pea salad and the salsa verde bringing a freshness to the dish that is often lacking with lamb.

It's an unwritten rule when reviewing that you should choose different things in order to try a variety of dishes, but neither of us has a sweet tooth and both went for the selection of British farm house cheese with poached pear, chutney, celery, oat biscuits and knacker bread (which, I now learn, is the proper name for the crispbread we had earlier, and is a much better term). Often a pre-chosen cheese board has one duff option amongst its wares, but not here - all three were excellent and included Garstang Blue and a lovely smoked Brie. Interesting accompaniments too. Drinks-wise, we chose an Argentine Torrontes from a decent and well-priced menu, and thought it great value for £17. The set menu itself is also good value at £22 for two courses or £27 for three - beware though that many of the options (including the scallops, lamb and cheese) carry supplements ranging from £1 to £5, so you could easily end up spending quite a lot more. Still, this is very reasonable for cooking of this standard, and the service struck the right balance between professional and chatty - I will definitely be back.

And as if that wasn't enough excitement, it was time for HMS Pinafore. I've never eaten at The Lowry before seeing a show, and normally end up sprinting full-pelt through the Outlet Mall with about 30 seconds to spare before curtain-up, so to be on-site, relaxed, full of dinner and in good time was quite a revelation. HMS Pinafore surely needs little introduction - it's one of Gilbert and Sullivan's best-known operettas, ostensibly dealing with the thorny issue of love between different social classes but essentially just an excuse for men in vests to hurl themselves around a stage having a lovely sing-song. And what a lot of vests there were - this is an all-male cast, and features some quite astonishing performances in the female roles as well as some great staging and set-pieces involving bunk beds, torches and creeping up behind the audience (me) to see if they can make them jump (yes). A quick chat during the interval with the elderly couple sitting next to us suggested that this slightly unconventional production isn't for everyone, but I loved every second of it and didn't really want it to end. It's on until tomorrow (Saturday) so do go if you get the chance - if not, I'm happy to come round and perform a selection of my favourite songs in my best baritone. Full details here.

- Pier Eight is at The Lowry, The Quays, Salford M50 3AZ. We were invited in to review and so dinner and the show were complimentary but this has not affected my opinions.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

New Summer Menu at Iberica, Spinningfields

Manchester is spoilt for choice at the moment when it comes to tapas, almost as if we are being given our moment in the Spanish sun despite our occasionally inclement weather - it's altogether easier to overlook the rain and the cold when you're inside drinking sherry and eating patatas bravas. Nowhere is this more true than at Spinningfields' Iberica, where I once ate a full-on feast on the covered terrace whilst a particularly vehement Manchester storm raged a few feet away from me, trying and failing to wrest my attention from my jamon.

The Manchester outpost of this small chain has been with us for over a year now, and judging by the new Summer menu it continues to go from strength to strength. Last week we got to try selected dishes from the new menu along with a few old favourites (impossible to consider going to Iberica and not having the serrano ham croquettes), introduced by Ibérica's Group Head Chef and all-round charmer, César García. Here - deep breath - is what we had.

Trio of hams: a journey through three hams from north to south (and, indeed, from left to right, as the flavours get more pronounced the further you foray across the board).

Cured Iberian acorn-fed "Presa" (Lomito de Bellota). The meat at Iberica is consistently excellent - marbled thickly with fat and full of smoky, nutty flavour. ALL pigs should be encouraged to dine on acorns if this is the result.

Pan con tomate: toasted bread with tomato. Always a classic and always done well at Iberica. I sometimes sit at the bar for a glass of wine and accidentally order this (six is my current record).

Red berries gazpacho from MercatBar by Quique Dacosta. A real stand-out dish, this one - pretty as a picture and with a deeply savoury richness from the combination of earthy beetroot and sweet and sharp berries. Developed by world-renowned chef Quique Dacosta, this one is only available in June so get in quick.

Cauliflower tempura: deep fried fresh cauliflower heads with yoghurt sauce. I'm a big fan of cauliflower in all its forms, but let's not pretend that cauliflower rice or pizza base could ever live up to these gloriously crisp and golden morsels.

Asparagus toast: asparagus with manchego, onion confit & truffle oil on toast. You can't really go wrong with this combination of ingredients - I particularly like how pronounced the truffle flavour is and salute the generous pouring that clearly goes on here.

Ibérica’s serrano ham croquettes. An old favourite. These are addictive mouthfuls of molten cheese and salty ham breaded and deep fried - I love them dearly, and would sell my soul to have a plate of these to hand right now.

Fideua with garlic & prawns. This is a classic Spanish seafood dish originating from Valencia, like paella but made with pasta instead of rice. For me, this was the least impressive course - it had plenty of flavour from the fish stock and the liberal quantities of sliced garlic, but this one just didn't quite mesh together for me and remained less than the sum of its parts.

Ibérica octopus a la gallega: Galician style octopus with potatoes & pimenton de la Vera (paprika). Another favourite. This wouldn't be for everyone - the fat pieces of octopus are still waving their suckers about and the pimenton is very strong - I can't get enough of it though, and nobly helped out those others at table for whom this dish was a step/tentacle too far.

Fresh hake with hollandaise sauce & lettuce water. This is a really classy dish - perfectly poached fish with a fresh and bright green sauce that is made from healthy things but tastes amazing.

Sea trout with almond puree, pickled cauliflower & smoked olive oil. Another fishy winner - we particularly liked the combination of textures here.

Gloria cachopo: fried beef & Ibérico pork patty filled with Asturian cheeses & mushrooms. It's a shame I was so full by this point, as this was pretty spectacular - very meaty though, so I will return to do it justice another time.

Caramelised Spanish rice pudding, Gloria cheesecake, Churros with chocolate. I'm not normally one for dessert, and had consequently eaten with abandon until this point, secure in the knowledge I would not want this course. Predictably enough, all three were a revelation, particularly the obscenely sexy rice pudding.

This was a triumphant menu launch: interesting, beautifully-executed dishes served up in stunning surroundings by chatty staff who clearly both know and care about the food they are delivering. I can already feel a return visit coming on - and it's worth noting that they do croquettes to go...

- Iberica Manchester is at 14-15 The Avenue, Manchester M3 3HF. This was a press event and we were not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but I go here a lot. A LOT.

Monday, 30 May 2016

New Menu at Artisan Spinningfields, and a Big Birthday Party

Sometimes when I mention I'm going to Artisan, people look at me with some suspicion. There is a general perception that this particular member of the Living Ventures stable is a bit, well, WAG-ish, or a bit big, or a bit loud, or a bit something. It must be doing something right though, as it's just celebrated its third birthday with a lavish party that coincided with the launch of the new summer menu - a menu that seems to have ironed out some of the little issues here with the food that people (including me) have noted previously - earlier menus have seemed a little too eclectic, a fact that has been reflected in some patchier dishes alongside some excellent ones on previous visits.

Well, between three of us we tried six dishes and found not a duff one amongst them. The new menu has a more cohesive feel about it, and perhaps a more traditional one too - there is nothing fancy here, just big hearty portions of things that we all wanted to eat. We started with a couple of nibbles that weren't strictly needed - the crispy kale (all about the health, as you know) was a triumph, and the spiced chickpeas, almonds and cashews were tasty although a tiny bit burnt in places. Next up, the starters - I was hungry, and had the chicken liver and rum pâté with golden raisins sealed with chia seeds (bear with me on this one), whilst my two friends were feeling more virtuous and shared the asparagus served with broccomole dip and radish, and the globe artichoke with herb vinaigrette. The pâté was perfection, thick and creamy with a good hit of booze, and whilst the addition of chia seeds all sounded a bit Hemsley and Hemsley, it did add some texture to the layer of butter - although presumably any health benefits were swallowed up by all the bad fats and calories elsewhere. The other two starters were bright and fresh and appealing - the broccomole (which I've been meaning to make at home for ages after seeing Nigella whip some up a while back) made an interesting change from the ubiquitous avocado, and the artichoke with its zingy dressing was one of the prettiest dishes we'd seen for a very long time.

On to the mains, and no-one was even pretending to be healthy anymore (although it is perfectly possible with the new menu). I had the seared tuna with spiced lentils, whilst elsewhere on the table we tried the confit duck leg with chickpea cassoulet and the 10oz ribeye steak with matchstick fries and roast garlic and herb sauce. The tuna was generous and the lentils well flavoured, and whilst the fish was fractionally more cooked than I would do it myself, this is definitely a dish I would order again. Likewise the confit duck - we thought this excellent value at £14, and enjoyed the spiciness of the cassoulet - and the ribeye, which was perfectly cooked and similarly good value at £17.50. Portions were hefty, and although we didn't need the side orders of moreishly salty matchstick fries and sweet potato fries with paprika salt, we wolfed them anyway. In fact, we wolfed the lot, and found very little to fault across the board.

Away from the relative quiet of the restaurant area (the room divisions really do help this enormous industrial space feel far more intimate than it would otherwise), the birthday party was in full swing. We tried some of David Beckham's Haig Club whisky from a stand manned by a gentleman nearly as charming as David himself (and probably more generous with the shots), and listened to some very good live music, and ran amok behind the bar at very cute little Artisan cafe bar downstairs, where we were allowed to make our choice of drink from the Signature Cocktail list (I made the Raspberry and Thyme Sour, to which I have now become addicted), and tried very hard to resist the pop-up Kiehl's counter. In other words, it was an excellent party, the sort that makes it hard to see why people might be suspicious of Artisan. Yes, the ladies' toilets are about as bling as is possible to be, but this is a vast sexy space - the sort that Manchester does best - filled with interesting artwork, lovely staff and now, it seems, a consistently desirable menu. Here's to the next three years, and to the tiny bottle of Haig that I found in my handbag the next day (now that's a party).

- Artisan is on Avenue North, 18-22 Bridge Street, Manchester M3 3BZ. We paid for the wine we had with dinner but not for the meal itself - I will happily return as a paying customer though.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

New Spring Menu at Gusto Didsbury: Salmon, Lamb and a LOT of Avocado

Bearing in mind that some parts of the country have had snow this morning, it's perhaps a little difficult to believe that Spring has sprung in Britain. Still, sprung it has, and I know this for two reasons. Firstly, I am now awakened by actual daylight at 6am every morning, and secondly, the new Spring menu has launched at Gusto.

Gusto Didsbury is one of my favourite haunts. It's part of a chain but doesn't feel like it; it has a great atmosphere and lovely cosy leather booths where no-one can see if you get arrabiata down your top; the staff are lovely; it's possible to dine well there for not much money; there's a very decent, mostly Italian wine list; and it's ten minutes' walk from my house (a walk that I am always glad of afterwards, although technically more of a roll than a walk on the return journey). I also like that they change their menu every Spring and Autumn - it means regular visitors like me get to try new stuff, and also reflects their interest in seasonal eating (although to commit to this fully would require more frequent changes than twice-yearly, of course).

The new menu has some interesting-sounding new dishes; so many, in fact, that we are forced to eat olives and some rosemary focaccia bread whilst we are choosing. I want it all, although truth be told the options are more limited for my dairy-free, pescatarian plus-one (although his moment in the sun will come later, with the dessert menu). In the end I go for the asparagus spears with dolcelatte mayonnaise and roasted red peppers - a simple dish, well-executed. The dolcelatte mayonnaise is a thing of great joy and the asparagus spears are fresh and fat (although for £6.25 I think three of them is on the low side). My friend has the cold smoked salmon with spiced avocado, red pepper purée and capers and although it looks absolutely stunning, in practice it is a bit of a misfire - the star of the dish should be the salmon (which is, indeed, lovely) but it finds itself a bit overwhelmed by the other elements. The spiced avocado turns out to be a purée which would work well on its own as a dip or on toast, but here makes the dish a little wet, and the capers add too much salt to a dish that is already well-seasoned. It wouldn't take much tweaking to make this a great dish - more texture to the avocado and one or two less complicating elements perhaps.

For main, I have the roast lamb rump with truffled cheese piccolo ravioli and tomato sauce. I enjoy this very much - two generous slabs of perfectly pink and tender lamb surrounded by a whole army of exquisitely tiny ravioli that are probably my favourite component of the whole meal. I have misordered on the sides, as I have gone for my usuals of fries, Italian fried courgettes and, on the waitress' recommendation, the new polenta chips (these are to share by the way - not even I'm that greedy). Each of these, individually, is perfection, but the lamb dish would have benefited from a green vegetable and the salty sides end up making the overall dish a little over-seasoned. The picky friend is more of a problem though - there are some wonderful-sounding fish dishes on the menu but they contain reams of butter, so he ends up going for the pan fried salmon fillet with tomato and avocado salsa and spiced crumb, fully aware that he is essentially ordering salmon and avocado followed by salmon and avocado. Still, he is a little surprised when the "avocado salsa" turns out not to be a fresh, perky chopped salad but instead is more of the purée from his starter dish. This is a shame, as again we are close to the perfect dish here: it's a lovely piece of beautifully-cooked salmon and the crumb adds both flavour and texture, but as before, the purée is too wet and too salty - the advertised salsa would have worked far better.

Still, as someone with a dairy intolerance, he has become used to not even glancing at the dessert menu, much as he would like to. The manager has, however, already told him of the almond milk panna cotta with honeycomb, flaked almonds and lemon curd - he has been looking forward to it all evening and it doesn't disappoint; in fact, it exceeds expectations. I don't actually get to try any of it as it disappears down the hatch too quickly, but the idea makes sense to me - the natural sweetness that makes almond milk undesirable (in my opinion) in tea is surely perfect for this kind of dessert. To keep him company I have one of my all-time favourite things, the bombolini - homemade mini doughnuts with orange chantilly and chocolate sauce. Gusto is one of the few places I ever have a dessert, and they are as good (and calorifically unjustified) as ever.

A trip to Gusto Didsbury is always a pleasure, and this was no exception, despite a couple of issues with the meal. Avocado and salt are two of my very favourite things and I never thought I'd find myself writing negatively about them; still, we'll order more wisely next time we go. Gusto are clearly mindful of catering for people with allergies, and the arrival of the almond milk panna cotta suggests that more dairy-free dishes might appear on the menu alongside the excellent range of gluten-free options they currently offer. Or, next time I could just go with someone less picky...

- Gusto Didsbury is at 756 Wilmslow Rd, Didsbury M20 2DW. They have also recently started offering brunch at the weekends and it is very good, as witnessed by the photos below from a recent visit.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Botanical Syrups from Discover the Wild: Foraging Made Easy

As I have previously confessed, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an outdoorsy person (unless you count the occasional spot of gentle beer gardening); even less so during times of inclement weather. No-one was more surprised than I, then, to find myself foraging near Rochdale in torrential rain back in September 2014 - if gin had not been involved, then I count it highly unlikely that I would have bestirred myself for such an event. Thing is, though, I really enjoyed it, and have stayed in touch with our genial foraging guide, Dave from Discover the Wild, ever since, full of well-meaning intentions about booking onto one of his other events.

I still hold these well-meaning intentions but have hit upon an altogether more satisfying sort of arrangement: I stay warm and dry at home, and Dave pops round with some stuff he has already foraged on my behalf, and made into a range of enticingly-flavoured syrups. There are currently eight in total (some of which are still prototypes), made from all natural ingredients which Dave has foraged locally (blackcurrant leaf and nettle, rose, linden blossom, dandelion and burdock, spearmint), found in his garden (lavender, lemon verbena) or got a mate to source the plants for him (hibiscus); they are all handmade by Dave in his kitchen and are pretty much organic (although he can't say so as it would involve him getting every spot of land he's foraged on organically certified).

All of this worthiness is pretty meaningless unless they taste good too; fortunately, they really do. I haven't tried them all yet as once opened they don't have an indefinite shelf life (although the ones I opened a few weeks ago and have kept in the fridge since are still going strong), but so far, so good. The first ones I tried were the rose and the lavender, aided by a gin-loving friend - we simply added a dash to a gin and tonic. The rose was my slight favourite and the lavender just edged it for the gin-loving friend, who confessed afterwards that she doesn't normally like floral flavours but loved this due to its natural rather than synthetic taste. I have since tried the hibiscus in a g&t and can pronounce it just as good, and am thinking of trying the spearmint in a Mojito-type concoction next.

The other one I've tried is the dandelion and burdock - with some trepidation, I must confess, as even the smell of a can of d&b is enough to make me queasy. Turns out, of course, that real dandelion and burdock tastes nothing like this commercial imposter but is in fact delicious - far more intensely savoury, with strong notes of ginger and star anise augmented by the judicious addition of a little black treacle. I treated this one like a cordial and just added some hot water - it was utterly wonderful and is one of my new favourite things. All of the syrups can be used with water, lemonade or in cocktails; Dave also suggests pouring this one over some ice cream (and confesses to having tested this particular combination extensively, all in the name of professionalism). I can imagine that next time I'm poorly, a hot drink made with one of these would be particularly comforting, and am saving the linden blossom for this very purpose at Dave's recommendation - apparently it can be used to treat colds, runny noses, sore throats, headaches and to relieve anxiety. This is a man who really knows his stuff.

The botanical syrups are obviously small batch produce that also, in some cases, rely upon seasonable availability, but are already available in select local bars (including the Lawn Club in Spinningfields, which uses some of the syrups in their cocktails). The Discover the Wild website is currently being revamped so that individual customers (me! me!) will be able to order through the site from next month; businesses can already order through the "shop" link if they would like to use or stock the products. Each syrup is priced at £5 for a 250ml bottle - I think this is a bargain, as they last for ages. And what could be nicer than an afternoon's foraging in the fridge and emerging triumphant with a well-earned cocktail? This is my kind of outdoorsiness.

- as well as beavering away in his kitchen, Dave has announced a number of foraging events for 2016 that are also listed on the website (including a foraged drinks one where you will take home your own bottle of syrup, and some mushroom ones that I'm very interested in, not least for the opportunities for fungi jokes that such an occasion affords). Most of these are priced at £35 and can be booked via the site. Dave gave me the range of syrups for feedback purposes but I will genuinely be purchasing again (and be paying good money to wander round a field in the rain looking for mushrooms).