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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, &, 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., 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.