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Sunday, 24 August 2014

Chaophraya, Manchester: Tasty Thai Cheers Up a Miserable Wet Monday

Sometimes, you mean to go to a restaurant for ages and yet somehow never get round to it - and for no discernible reason. Chaophraya has long been such a venue for me - great-looking menu, handy city centre location, never heard anything about it but good things...and yet never been there.

All of that has now been put right, and frankly I was a fool not to have done it earlier. The place was packed on a wet Monday evening - perhaps with people taking advantage of the excellent value Early Bird offer whilst seeking refuge against the weather in this plush haven - always a good sign I think, particularly when those customers range from large groups to couples on a romantic night out (and greedy bloggers). We wanted to try a number of dishes and therefore chose to eat from the set menu list - there are different options here at a range of price points, but we went for a middle ground option with the "Set Maenum Yom" at £35.50 per person. Being of a greedy persuasion, we started with some good prawn crackers and some excellent Prawn Tom Yum soup - a little pricey perhaps at £8.95, but with just the right level of chilli and generous amounts of mushrooms and king prawns. This particular Tom Yum was thickened with coconut milk, giving it a lovely creamy texture that our waitress explained was more typical of the Northern regions of Thailand and which we felt heightened the traditional hot and sour flavours of the soup.

On to the set menu then, which began with a sharing platter of pork spare ribs, chicken satay, steamed dumplings, prawn and chicken toasts and deep-fried pork marinated with honey and Thai herbs. This offered a nice combination of appetisers and was flawless in its execution - all the different flavours stood out despite the variety of tastes and textures on the plate; my favourite was the sweet, sticky pork strips, but I would happily eat any of this again.

Main courses were equally varied, offering full portions of four different dishes: Four Seasons Duck Curry, Crispy Pork Belly with Thai Basil, King Prawns with Ginger and Beef in Black Pepper Sauce, served with egg-frid rice. The only disappointment here was the beef dish: the sauce was satisfyingly fiery but the meat mysteriously tough and chewy - a real shame, as earlier we'd particularly admired the scent and sizzle of this dish as it made its way past us to another table. The others were lovely though, particularly the rich and comforting duck curry; we also loved the contrast between the fatty, sticky pork cubes and the fragrant Thai basil-infused sauce.

They sensibly recognise that most diners are likely to be pretty full after this lot but may still fancy something sweet to finish off their meal - the fresh fruit and chocolate fondue was perfectly judged in terms of size and content (and as I hadn't noticed it on the menu also came as a very welcome surprise). Another pleasant surprise at Chaophraya is the wine list - we had an excellent Gewürztraminer that we thought very well-priced at £24.95, the slight sweetness coping well with both the spiciness and delicacy of the dishes we tried.

So, a very good meal in a place with lovely staff and a great buzz. Obviously Chaophraya is part of a chain (albeit a small one), and with the lovely Siam Smiles in Chinatown attracting so much attention at the moment for its cheap and authentic Thai food, it would be easy to dismiss Chaophraya as rather expensive and comparatively Anglicised. This is unhelpful - the two places offer completely different dining experiences and I count myself lucky to live somewhere which offers the choice. I will definitely be back for the Early Bird evening menu - now I've finally made it to Chaophraya I'm very much looking forward to going again.

- Chaophraya is at 19 Chapel Walks, Manchester M2 1HN. We were invited to try the menu and were not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but both agreed we would be more than happy to go again as paying customers.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Botanist Comes to Deansgate, Manchester: Mini Wheelbarrow-Sized Handbags at the Ready

So, first things first: does Manchester city centre really need another Living Ventures venue? Whilst I have a lot of time for a number of Living Ventures restaurants, a quick look at the online menu for the new Botanist on Deansgate ahead of the launch do last week left me thinking that maybe we didn't, particularly as the food menu here is very similar to that of the nearby Oasthouse just down the road at Spinningfields. In the former Label premises at what people of my age might class as the "wrong end" of Deansgate, the decor at the new Botanist is, by all accounts, the same as others in the Botanist stable (I hadn't been to one before but know a few people who are regulars at the one in Alderley Edge). So really, what's the point?

Well, two things. Firstly, perhaps being at the "wrong end" of Deansgate, in an area packed with uninspiring chains and bars beloved of hen dos and stag parties, is a pretty clever decision - true, some of it might be based on nostalgia (the restaurant is located on the site of Living Ventures boss Tim Bacon's first Manchester bar, JW Johnson’s, back in the 90s), but there is simply nowhere else in this part of town that I, a lady of increasingly advanced years, can imagine going. There is live music every night, usually piano- or guitar- based, and featuring songs of an appropriate mood and vintage for someone who likes to pretend that time has frozen somewhere around 1997 - a definite bonus in my opinion.

Secondly, there is the cocktail menu. In recent years I have become heartily sick of the cocktail and increasingly choosy about both where I drink them and which ones I am prepared to drink - too many are sweet, sickly, over-priced concoctions that just don't interest me at all. The cocktail menu at the Botanist is quite simply the best I have seen for years - at first, it looked off-puttingly lengthy, but on closer examination I found I was pretty keen to try almost all of them (and, to be fair, I did have a noble attempt at this). My favourite so far is the Apple and Rosemary Sling, recommended by our knowledgeable waitress as a good palate cleanser for a girl too full for pudding - and the combination of rosemary, Olmeca Blanco tequila, Hayman’s Sloe Gin, apple juice, sugar syrup and lime juice was indeed perfect: long, refreshing, not remotely sweet and with the taste of decent tequila coming through very strongly. Second place went to the Peach and Basil Margarita with its fresh basil, peach purée, Olmeca Blanco tequila, lime juice and apricot liqueur, but I enjoyed everything I tried - I can't pretend that at typical city centre cocktail prices of £6.95 - £7.95 a go I could afford to drink many on a night out, but I would go back just for these alone (and have already been inspired to raid my herb garden to knock up my own Botanist-style drinks at home). And yes, you will notice a markable decrease in the quality of the cocktail photography - in itself I reckon this is a glowing testimony to the generosity of spirit content.

Food-wise, the place is more than decent. I'm not sure I would go here just to eat, but would definitely end up being tempted if I was in for drinks. The food is beautifully presented - my starter of Chicken liver and rum pâté with plum and apple chutney (£5.95) arrived with the pâté in a little plant pot with ginger crumb "soil" on the top and the chutney in the world's cutest mini wheelbarrow. It's easy to knock this kind of styling as a little contrived but I rather like the commitment to the theme shown here - and whilst the pâté could have done with a little more oomph flavourwise, I thought this was a great dish for the price. For main, I had half a chicken, fresh from the rotisserie, served in a crate with BBQ sauce and "properly seasoned" chips; the chicken was lovely (I want to use the words succulent, tender and moist but can't quite bring myself to use such a combination) and the extra sides I greedily chose (deep-fried onion "petals" and mustard seed and red cabbage coleslaw) were both excellent. Again, a good value dish at £9.95 - my only complaint being that the chips were a little salty even for me. I still ate them all though, and that is of course the only reason I drank so many cocktails afterwards.

- The Botanist Manchester is at 78 Deansgate, Manchester M3 2FW. I was invited to the press lunch and was not asked to pay for my food or drink, and have yet to dine there at a peak time - but service was excellent and I would be happy to pay the prices on the menu on another occasion.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Trafford Centre: Where Dangerous Peanut Butter Milkshake Habits are Formed

When I decided to accept an invitation to the newly refurbished Gourmet Burger Kitchen in Manchester's Trafford Centre, I was fully aware that I was ticking all the boxes for "Things Most Likely to Annoy Twitter": a freebie, at a chain outlet, in a soulless location, specialising in something that has apparently overstayed its welcome. To be fair, I rarely visit the Trafford Centre, but I have nothing against chains per se, and will actively defend the burger until the end of time - it is one of my favourite food items, and the one on which I am most likely to gorge at barbecues and other social gatherings involving men and fire.

And actually, GBK is pretty good, particularly for a lunchtime catch-up with a friend who works at the Trafford Centre (and who often eats at GBK) - with its canteen-style decor and the requirement to order your food at the bar I can't imagine coming here in the evening, but as a daytime venue it works well. Having never visited before, I couldn't really comment on the refurb, but my friend is a regular here and was impressed - she thought it much brighter and lighter (always a challenge for Trafford Centre restaurants), and we both liked the upstairs eating area and balcony.

We both have a burger (naturally) - I have The Taxidriver cooked medium-rare (American cheese, an onion ring, Cajun relish, smoked chilli mayo, dill pickle and salad on a brioche bun) whilst Miss Lucy has the Kiwiburger cooked medium (beetroot, fried egg, pineapple, aged Cheddar, house mayo, relish and salad). I am pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy the burger - it is pink in the middle but with a satisfyingly tasty crust on the outside, and strikes the right balance of being moist without being too sloppy. A Manchester diner doesn't necessarily want to be eating "beef from South West counties", but a lack of local product sourcing is a familiar issue with many chain restaurants and I know that individual outlets are generally powerless to do anything about it.

The side orders are a little more variable. My skinny Rosemary Fries are just TOO skinny for me, whilst the Sweet Potato Fries (which come with baconnaise) are excellent; Lucy's Blue Cheese Slaw is just a little claggy for me, whilst my GBK Homeslaw (cabbage, spring onions, carrot, celeriac and vinaigrette) is light, fresh and a perfect foil for a fat meaty burger. Pudding comes in the form of milkshake - there are very few sweet options available at GBK beyond frozen yoghurt, but we both have a child-sized glass of dairy goodness in lieu of dessert. As you can see from the photos, GBK's idea of "child-size" is a generous one - and I could develop a serious addiction to the Peanut Butter milkshake, a simple but literally heart-stopping combination of peanut butter, ice cream and whole milk.

Would I go again? Yes, but I would order carefully - the fact that sides cost extra means that it's pretty easy to run up a substantial bill here with really realising it. There are plenty of offers available though (see website for more details), and it's worth remembering that this NZ brand has been around since 2001 - long before burgers became so ubiquitous.

- GBK is at 117 The Orient, Trafford Centre, Manchester M17 8AA; tel. 0161 749 8465. We were invited in as guests of the restaurant and would like to thank manager James (a man who clearly enjoys his job) for making us so welcome.

Friday, 1 August 2014

New Guest Post: ManCoCo Coffee Arrives in Manchester

Now, as an exceptionally greedy person who wishes to maximise all eating and drinking opportunities, there are few foods I actively dislike: celery, Bounty bars and blackcurrant. My list of drinks dislikes is even shorter: coffee. I consider this evil brown liquid to be the devil's own drink but understand I am in the minority with this - witness the lovely Nicole's delight at the following torturous evening...

An Antipodean at heart (especially when New Zealand are playing rugby, or netball), I love nothing more than exceptionally good coffee. It's something we pride ourselves on, and one of the things I miss most about Aotearoa. Lucky for me then, that Manchester now has its very own artisan coffee roaster. Even luckier that I was invited to ManCoCo, located just off Deansgate, to sample a selection of their single origin coffees, roasted on the premises.

The roastery itself, located in a railway arch, is suitably authentic, with ManCoCo's sustainable and ethically sourced Arabica green coffee beans proudly displayed in burlap sacks identifying their widespread origins, and a world map with pins locating each specific source. We started with a tour of the roastery, and a talk by one of ManCoCo's passionate and knowledgeable roasters. We were introduced to ManCoCo's roasting machine, and the whole process was explained. I must admit to being rather naive to the intricacies of coffee bean roasting - I didn't realise what an involved process it is. Like all the best things in life, coffee bean roasting is an intriguing combination of art and science.

We moved on to the tasting area, to experience the cupping method of coffee tasting, a way to evaluate the flavour and aroma profiles of different coffees. We arranged ourselves carousel-style, in front of a tasting station and the demonstration began. Once the ground beans were topped up with water just off the boil, and brewed for a length of time, we all had the opportunity to try our hand at 'cupping' using two spoons. It is much more technical than it sounds, and I am reliably informed that this method is exactly as importers would experience, when they visit coffee producers to source beans.

Moving around the tasting stations gave us the opportunity to sample six of ManCoCo's most popular single origin coffees, and one of the lovely ManCoCo Men explained that we would just know when we tasted The One - that is, the coffee whose flavour and aroma profile matched perfectly with our tastebuds. I love the idea of a 'personalised' coffee, but I wasn't sure if my tastebuds would be able to discern the subtle differences in each sample. Although I felt like I was speed-dating each coffee rather than spending quality time getting to know it, remarkably I did 'just know' when I tasted Number 4, Sumatran Jagong Village. It was rich and strong, while also managing to be smooth and chocolately. The One.

It turns out that my One is also many other people's One, as Sumatran Jagong Village is ManCoCo's best-selling coffee. I can't decide if this means I'm frightfully common, or that I have frightfully good taste. Either way, ManCoCo were right - we all found our One, and each coffee was unique in its flavour and aroma, and each of us were unique in the tastes we experienced. Coffee tasting is as sophisticated and nuanced as wine tasting, but without the hangover. PS - it's polite to slurp, nay, expected.

Good coffee is hard to find. Very good coffee is even more elusive, but I think I may have found it at ManCoCo. If you too want to find The One, visit ManCoCo for your own coffee sampling session. ManCoCo sell their beans direct from the roastery and via their website www.mancoco.co.uk. Look out for their stall at local speciality markets and country fayres.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Manchester Basks (with a little help from Italy and Spain): Birra Moretti's Gran Tour, the Appleton Rum Bus and Evuna Make for a Perfect Summer Night

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Manchester, whilst clearly lovely, didn't really do SUN with any great aplomb - particularly if that sun is of the very hot variety. Well, I take it all back. Last Thursday was hot, sticky and sultry, and this is how a gloriously sunny Manchester made the best of the weather:

First stop, Birra Moretti's Gran Tour at the Old Granada Studios. There's still just about time to snap up tickets to this small but perfectly formed event, which has set up residence in the Old Granada Studios until tomorrow (Sunday) and offers a celebration of authentic Italian food via a food-based tour of regions such as Naples, Lombardy, Puglia and Sicily. I am wildly suspicious of anything marked "authentic" and am happy to acknowledge that Birra Moretti would not be everybody's first choice of beer (although I rather like it), but the streetfood traders for this event do genuinely seem to have been selected with great care, and each was offering excellent (and interesting) food. I very much enjoyed the arancini (risotto balls) from the Arancini Bros., the deep-fried meatball calzone from Cheeky Italian, the ricotta and sour cherry gelato from Gelupo, the gnocchi with slow-braised pork shoulder from Pasta e Basta, and last but not least, the torta fritta with Guanciale (a sort of savoury doughnut puff topped with cured meat) from the magnificently moustached Gurmetti. I didn't have time to try the ravioli from Cooking Cooks or the Porchetta from Forza Win, and was cruelly denied Pizza Pilgrims by an untimely oven fire, so it is your DUTY to go along tomorrow and try them for me. £10 gets you a beer and two dishes.

Next up, the Appleton Rum Bus on Great Northern Square. This seems to me like a fine idea - it's a bus, and it's full of rum, specifically rum-based cocktails designed by those nice people at West Didsbury's Violet Hour, and it's decided to park up in Great Northern Square for the next month. The bus itself seats 16, but obviously everybody at Thursday's launch was sitting outside - the place has a nice atmosphere even if the bar is a little high and the menu a little limited. I tried a Jamaican Mule, a Rum Punch and a Mai Tai (the one I didn't try, the Rum & Raisin Dream, is cream-based, and sounded a bit rich for me) - these are priced between £6 and £7 but come in generous cups and appear to my untrained eye to be on the strong side. Perhaps best not have three next time - I barely resisted the urge to keep shouting "PEEP PEEP! ALL ABOARD!" as it was.

Final destination, Evuna. Obviously I wasn't, ahem, at all hungry after all the food I'd put away earlier, but it seemed wrong not to take advantage of the balmy climes and sit outside a little longer, particularly as there was a table free outside Evuna on Deansgate, beckoning us enticingly. Evuna has always been reliable but seems to have upped its game a little - the four dishes we tried were all utterly (and in the case of the Iberico Black foot pig and the guest tapas of pork chop with broad bean sauce, breathtakingly) exemplary. No pictures (dark; tired; greedy), but I really need to go back and have a proper explore of the Evuna menu very soon.

Obviously, since then we have had thunder, lightning and apocalytic, end-of-days weather - but now the sun is peeping back out and quite frankly I'm ready to do it all again...

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Love Withington Baths and Drunken Butcher's Summer Banquet at Withington Leisure Centre, in which ZUMBA is Replaced with BEEF

Regular readers of this blog, who know of my reputation as an elite, finely honed athlete, will not be surprised to learn that I spent a good portion of last Sunday at a local sporting facility - Withington Leisure Centre or, as it is more affectionately known, Withy Baths.

Of course, I was there to eat and drink, not exert myself in any other way. I do actually really like swimming but dislike getting my hair wet or water in my eyes, and therefore have to swim in the manner of an old lady or a small dog with my head held high above the water - eating and drinking is something I am far more skilled at. Still, Withington Baths is an important and well-used local facility that finds itself with something of an uncertain future - it was granted a two-year stay of execution last year thanks to overwhelming public support, but is under threat once more with the planned opening of the new Hough End facility in 2015. Now, the Love Withington Baths campaign aims to highlight how this beautiful old building could be used for far more than just sport and could become an important part of community life once more, offering facilities such as a cafe, workspace, art and craft space, children's parties and so on.

Which brings me on to last Sunday's Summer Banquet. Only local dynamo Sian Astley - pictured here during her welcome talk - would have the vision and enthusiasm to transform the Zumba room to a pop-up restaurant offering a five course, sit-down menu for 40 people, but that's exactly what she did. Not alone, of course - a host of local traders showed their support for this worthy cause, with Sian from Flower Lounge providing the beautiful table decorations (one of which I bought to take home, where it is still lovely nearly a week later), Kate from Reserve Wines offering wine tastings and Sarah from Cocoa Cabana showing us how to make Manchester Tart truffles (stickiest hands I've had all week).

Food came courtesy of my old mate Iain, otherwise known as the Drunken Butcher, who had contemptuously farted in the face of the Baths currently having no kitchen facility and knocked up five glorious courses of cold food - to wit:

- Chilled pea and ham soup

- Salmon with cucumber and mint (cooked in Iain's sous-vide machine, which I covet most deeply)

- Beef with horseradish and potato salad (the most beautiful, pink Dexter brisket from Taste Tradition, whose meat is second to none)

- Cheshire Cheese with salad, pears and crackers

- Rose wine jelly with summer fruits

All of this was served on communal platters set down in the middle of each table, which meant the opportunity to meet lots of nice new people whilst politely wrestling over the last piece of beef. The food was all flawless, and ridiculous value at £20 a head including a welcome cocktail and water throughout the meal - it's little wonder that it was a complete sell-out.

If this is a just a glimpse of what can be done here, then the Love Withington Baths campaign is certainly one worth getting behind - I did ask Si when the next event was, but she looked a little as if she might cry so I'll allow her a week off at least before I enquire again. You can find out more about the campaign by following their Twitter feed @lovewithybaths or liking their Facebook page (where you can see a set of photos taken by a proper, skilled photographer rather than an enthusiastic girl with an iPhone). After all, there aren't many venues where you can pop upstairs to the loo and see loads of whippets in lycra busily working out in the gym whilst you contemplate the five courses you've just consumed...