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Friday, 19 June 2015

Secret Film Society - SE.01 EP.01 Whistle Down the Wind, Downham

I'm not actually a person who likes surprises. I like to know what I'm doing, and where and when I'm doing it - facts which I carefully record in an old-school diary, using my very best writing. So on the face of it, Manchester's new Secret Film Society isn't really for me, packed as it is full of the unknown; essentially, you pay for your ticket knowing only that you're going somewhere to watch a film and get fed. My friends are nothing if not persuasive, however, and thus I found myself loitering in central Manchester at 10.30am last Sunday, waiting for a coach to a mystery location and clutching a slip of paper instructing me (under pains of confiscation and - presumably - public shaming) to turn my phone to airplane mode. Scary days indeed.

Actually, it was all pretty exciting. The coach - full of excitable people with the air of a class released from lessons to go on a school trip - travelled north and it soon became clear that we were heading for Pendle Hill, famous in Lancashire and beyond for its witchy associations (and, hopefully, an ability to screen a film and provide a jolly good tea). More specifically, we were heading for the pretty village of Downham and its cute, bunting-clad village hall, where we parked up before being whisked off for a walk by a man wearing a top hat and cravat. This being England in June, it was quite cold and a bit rainy, but if anything this added to the atmosphere as we trailed after our extravagantly attired guide and listened to tales of witchcraft and persecution, all the while secretly wondering what we'd be having for lunch.

Lunch turned out to be splendid, all the more so as we felt we'd earned it after an hour and a half of tramping through long, damp grass. The caterers were your friends and mine, Bangers and Bacon, always ones to be relied on when one is is hungry and thus a very welcome sight indeed. The starter (bacon and chicken liver pate, ham hock terrine and bread) and main (giant Yorkshire pudding filled with Lancashire hotpot) were served before the film, at tables set up in convivial rows in front of the big screen, which meant that the only requirement to leave one's seat for the entire afternoon was to visit the bar where - astonishingly - wine was £2 a glass. The film, if you hadn't guessed by now, was the 60s classic Whistle Down the Wind, filmed in Downham and starring a dodgy-fringed Hayley Mills as a little girl who thinks Jesus is living in the family barn. This was enjoyable fare, with a pause partway through for apple crumble and custard - to be honest, I think most people were so full and tired and content by this point that it hardly mattered what the film was (that's what you get with a £2 bar).

Any downsides? Well, it sounds petty but the coach was quite spectacularly uncomfortable - I understand that it's tricky to fit 50-ish people on one vehicle but the seats were child-sized at best and necessitated some uncomfortable bottom overhanging that was neither dignified nor attractive. This can no doubt be addressed for next time though, and ultimately I don't think you can be too critical of a day that includes a coach trip, a walk in the rain, a film, a high quality three course lunch, a load of wine, and the opportunity for your best friend to repeatedly call you a witch. I'm still not a fan of surprises...but don't be too surprised if you see me again at Secret Film Society.

- Find out more about the Secret Film Society (although they're quite mean, and won't tell you everything, no matter how many times you ask them) via their Facebook page here. I was invited along as a guest but only asked to provide honest feedback.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Grill on the Alley, Manchester: Superb Steak and Surprisingly Fabulous Fish

When you're booked in for dinner at The Grill on the Alley and your friend suddenly announces they've given up meat for two months, it's hard not to feel somewhat annoyed. After all, Grill on the Alley is known for its steaks - some of the finest in the city - and was surely crying out for a meaty re-visit in the face of stiff new competition from an array of newcomers (including the mighty Hawksmoor). Despite an initial urge to ditch the original plus-one and take a more carnivorous alternative, The Awkward One assured me he was still eating fish and that this would be a good opportunity to see what the place could offer besides steak - and thus kept his place by the skin of his teeth.

Turned out to be a good move. After a quick round of emergency bread (with chorizo butter, which was every bit as exciting as it sounds), we shared two fish starters: the Torched Mackerel with gem salad and pickled vegetables, and the Prawn and Avocado Salad with Marie Rose sauce (as a true 70s child, the latter choice was quite obviously mine). These turned out to be good sharers - mine (which I'd rather laughably ordered as I'd seen the word "salad" and thought it might not fill me up too much before my steak) was essentially half an avocado filled with prawns and a thick, creamy sauce, and though delicious would have been very rich had one eaten it in its entirety. The perky mackerel dish with its grilled gem and nicely acerbic pickled vegetables was just the job to cut through the comforting blandness of the avocado dish and was also very beautiful to look at (until we divided it down the middle). I reckon some will question whether these dishes are cutting edge enough for 2015, but as far as I'm concerned, when food looks and tastes this good I have no problem with tradition.

For mains, I went for the Limousin fillet steak from the Best of British menu. This was not a cheap option at £35, but the restaurant are very proud of this grass-fed, 100% pure breed French option, and seem keen to promote it - no doubt aware that steak provision in the city centre has stepped up a notch in the last twelve months. And yes it's expensive, and yes it's not local, but this was one of the best steaks I've eaten in a good long while - a generally lean cut with a slight marbling of fat that meant that even the fillet cut (sometimes so perfect in texture but so lacking in taste) was packed with flavour. Meanwhile, the non-meaty one was enjoying his Sea Trout with asparagus, roasted cherry tomatoes and bearnaise sauce (£16.75) - a beautiful dish offering a substantial piece of fish, perfectly cooked and very much complemented by the well-rounded flavours of the rich yellow sauce surrounding it. The waiter had recommended he order a side to supplement the dish but in the end the extra chips we ordered weren't really necessary - he found the fish substantial and "meaty" enough in its own right (and enough to keep him away from my steak - a fairly remarkable feat all considered). We also ordered a side of Summer Green Vegetables (I'm all about the health) which were nicely varied and cooked al dente, and a jug of Chimichurri sauce to go with my steak - this latter was exceptional, and at £2 a go I'm tempted to order its fresh, garlicky goodness to go alongside every course next time I eat here.

The only moment of uncertainty with our meal came with desserts. No issue with my cheeseboard, which I had initally considered a little expensive at £9.75 but which turned out to be a shining example of its ilk - three excellent specimens (Butlers cheddar, Lancashire Blue and Crottin goat’s cheese) simply presented in generous portions with crackers and a chutney and made short work of. The one we were less sure of was the Champagne Sorbet - another simple dish (and good value at £4) but one which initially seemed full of discord - a saucer of fizz containing a scoop of slightly acerbic sorbet which appeared at odds with each other, distracting from each other's flavour rather than enhancing. We ignored it for a while while we ate the cheese and then went back to it - finding it much improved once the sorbet had melted a little into the fizz and essentially turned it into the world's poshest coke float. To wash all of this down we had a bottle of Cuma Argentine Malbec from a wine list to which I am very partial, offering as it does lots of very good options around the £20-25 mark. This wine coped perfectly with both the fish and the steak, and was also organic and therefore good for us.

On last week's performance then, Grill on the Alley is very much on form. Service was helpful and non-intrusive, and the fact that the place was pretty much full on a Wednesday night speaks volumes about how well regarded it is amongst Mancunians. It remains one of my favourites despite the wealth of choices now available, and although some options on the menu are not cheap, you get what you pay for - my Limousin steak was every bit as good as the spectacular one I had at Hawksmoor not long ago. And before certain people say "of course you liked it - it was FREE" I'll point out that a/ I've eaten here as a paying customer many many times and b/ we bumped into a friend who had ordered and loved every mouthful of her (paid-for) Limousin fillet. A little competition, it seems, is a glorious thing - and as for the brave pescetarian? Already counting down the days (and hours, and minutes) until Limousin Day.

- The Grill on the Alley is at 5 Ridgefield, Manchester M2 6EG; tel. 0161 833 3465. We were invited by the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our meal or our drinks.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Cuban Mojitos with Havana Club Rum: Where To Get 'Em and the Perfect Recipe

As confessed in my last post, I am really quite wary when it comes to cocktails. But one that I do like is a mojito - a long, sharp, simple drink traditionally made with only five ingredients (white rum, sugar, lime juice, sparkling water and mint) and therefore (in theory) easy enough even for a cocktail duffer like me to make. All too often though, the mojito is presented in some kind of adulterated form, with all sorts of unnecessary nonsense thrown in - presumably in the name of "innovation" or to appeal to sweeter palates. Now Havana Club - one of the world's best-selling rum brands - are on a mission to teach us how to make the perfect mojito without any of that frippery, and have been travelling the country looking for bars that make the real deal, the kind of mojitos people actually drink in Cuba (although I'll have to take their word for this). Surprisingly, there are only four Manchester bars that have made it on to the Havana Club Certified list - Gorilla, Cloud 23, Neighbourhood and Guilty by Association.

As I was unable to attend a recent mojito masterclass at Gorilla due to being at a glamorous and glittering event elsewhere*, Havana Club kindly sent me my own mojito-making kit to try at home, complete with recipe card, two jaunty tins and a bottle of Havana Club Anejo 3-year-old. Here's their recipe, along with what I hope are helpful additions.

*waiting in at home for a plasterer

Step 1: Squeeze the juice of half a fresh lime into a glass and add two teaspoons of white sugar. Stir with a spoon or swirl the glass around until the sugar is dissolved. I thought I knew better here and used only one spoon of sugar, but I then had to go back and add some more so that just shows you how much I know.

Step 2: Tap two whole fresh mint sprigs on the back of your hand to release the fragrant aromas. I grow mint in my garden all year round for the sole purpose of making emergency mojitos, and can confirm that the tapping motion is also very useful for dislodging small, slumbering insects who have hitherto resided on your mint leaves. Gently muddle (press) the mint a few times with the end of a wooden spoon.

Step 3: Fill the glass with ice. As you can see, I fell down a bit here and didn't have quite enough ice to reach the top. Use the bottle cap to pour four caps of rum over the ice (I must confess to doing this bit freehand), then top up with sparkling water.

The result was lovely (once I'd gone back and added the sugar that should have been there in the first place) and although I've done it in a normal glass here for viewing purposes, I shall be using my Havana Club tins next time. As drinking a mojito in the garden is almost certainly the nearest I'll get to being in Cuba for the forseeable future, it's nice to know I'm doing it right (although I consider further practice is the very least I can do).

For rather better instructions than I've given you here, visit the Havana Club website - if you sign up to their newsletter there's a chance to win your own mojito-making kit as well. Havana Club sent me the kit free of charge but asked only for honest feedback - I can confirm that the three-year-aged rum goes perfectly in a mojito and that the recipe is so foolproof even I can successfully recreate it.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Cocktails in the City, Manchester 2015: Something for Everyone, Even Me

I've mentioned before that I'm not a massive fan of the cocktail in its most general terms. There are some that I like very much - the heady, smoky bourbon affairs that I had recently at The Smithfield Social; the sharp, nicely acidic Mojitos that I whipped up at home last night (more of this another time) - but on the whole, I've had too many bad ones to fully trust the cocktail, being all too familiar with the crushing experience of handing over £8.95 for a sickly sweet concoction that does nothing other than give me a headache and make me feel a bit sick.

All of this perhaps explains why I hadn't been to Cocktails in the City before, a drinks showcase that hits Manchester on an annual basis and brings a number of bars and brands together under one roof. What lured me in this time was the presence of some of my favourite bars coupled with some of my preferred spirits - if you're going to trust anyone to make you a decent cocktail, it might as well be the likes of Harvey Nichols, Hawksmoor and Smithfield Social. This year's venue was in The Great Northern, a cavernous upstairs space that normally hosts events such as Beat Street; we went on the Friday night, and it was utterly, totally packed (a little too packed for me at first - I did feel a little like a confused, 95-year-old interloper until I found my bearings i.e. first drink). Easy to see why though - it's only a tenner in (which also gets you your first cocktail and a booklet of all the recipes) and then additional drinks or food tokens are an extra £6, which seems reasonable for the kind of bars and brands that are here, and there are all sorts of demos and competitions going on as well. The event was a sell-out, with 1,600 people through the doors over both nights and - apparently - a total of 5,203 cocktails consumed (I like how pleasingly precise this figure is, and that it would have been under 5,200 had I not gone).

Our visit was something of a flying one as we were on our way somewhere else, but we sensibly found time for a "Runnin' Wild in Florence" with Wild Turkey at Smithfield Social, a "Botanical Garden" with Botanist Gin at the Second Floor Bar at Harvey Nichols (the addition of thyme was a masterstroke), the scarily blue but surprisingly palatable "Rum 'n' Ginger Sherbert" with El Dorado Rum from Mojo and - my personal favourite - the "Appleton Estate Mai Tai" at Hawksmoor. I genuinely enjoyed ALL of these, so there is perhaps hope for me yet. I did, however, rather ineptly manage to avoid trying any of the winners (apart from one second place), which were later announced as follows:

Best Cocktail (selected by The Drinks Enthusiast Dave Marsland and World Best Bars editor Sasha Filiminov) was Cane and Grain with Old Forester for the "Old and Wild Spiced Smash". The Fitzgerald came second with the Chambord "Smoked French Manhattan" and third was Cloud 23 with Tanqueray No.TEN for "Up, Up and Away". The best Best Stand (voted for by the exhibitors) was won by Mr Coopers with Portobello Road Gin, and the Consumer Vote (voted for over the two nights by handing over a token) saw Elixir & Tonics being the people's favourite with Harvey Nichols and Under New Management coming 2nd and 3rd respectively. It seems clear that next year, I will simply have to try them all.

- apologies for the appalling quality of the photos, which look like I was in some kind of disco - we can perhaps charitably call them "atmospheric". We were given free tickets for the event but paid for our additional drinks.

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Smithfield Social at Bluu - Big Portions and a Boozy Bourbon Basement - BRAVO

In a city so constantly changing, there's something nice about coming across a Manchester institution, somewhere that has weathered the vagaries of public taste, found its niche and continued to fly in the fickle face of fashion. Bluu has occupied a corner in the Northern Quarter for years, long before it became fashionable and saw an influx of bars and restaurants and beards, but has not been without its wobbles - I stopped going in there a good few years ago when it became clear that I was approximately double the age of the average punter and that the atmosphere here just wasn't for me anymore.

A chat with manager Callum Winspear at Cocktails in the City a few weeks ago persuaded me that Bluu was worth a return visit though - Callum was here years ago, when it was good, and is back at the helm now, and promises it is good again. And it is. First up, there is a speakeasy bar downstairs now called The Smithfield Social - hiding behind a heavy blue curtain we discover a magical world with metal-panelled walls, and sexy lighting, and a lovely man called Mark waiting to make us cocktails and show us his smoking gun. Here we sip cocktails from 1920s-inspired metal glasses, and pretend we are in The Great Gatsby - I have a Gingerbread Man-hattan which packs a quite astonishing punch with its bourbon-smoked ginger liqueur (smoked before my very eyes) and its hefty double shot of Woodford Reserve. Meanwhile, my friend is getting in one of his 5-a-day with the Queen Mary - a take on a Bloody Mary made with smoked bacon vodka and hickory smoked celery sticks. We love it so much down here that we try another cocktail - a sweet and smoky Rosemary and Rhubarb Daiquiri for me and a Butter Beer for my sweet-toothed companion. Billed as a dessert in a glass, this features salted caramel vodka, cream soda and homemade butterscotch cream and is fairly amazing - although I imagine had he known the amount of food that was to follow he would have chosen slightly less filling cocktails. The Smithfield Social is clearly still a work in progress (there's talk of extending the wine list, for example) but is a bit of a hidden treasure that we plan to return to before very long.

We drag ourselves away with some reluctance, but our stomachs are rumbling and it's time to try the menu upstairs at Bluu. It's much busier up here but we bag a secluded booth and cast a hungry eye over a menu that describes itself as "an ode to British meat" but using cooking methods inspired by the southern states of America thanks to an imported smoker that is clearly their pride and joy. We elect to share a crate of the chilli and caramel chicken wings to start; these come in portions of 10, 15 or 20 so being modest, restrained eaters we order the smallest one. When our waitress explains that these come cut in half so that they absorb more of the sticky glaze and will therefore look like 20 rather than 10 we clearly don't realise the full extent of what is to come - the quantities are simply gargantuan. The wings are delicious though, and we eat the lot - I burn my fingers not just on the first one but on my first three, so low is my resistance to what has been placed in front of me. This is also a restaurant that believes in a decent condiment (as, indeed, do I) - we are given six different bottles (House BBQ Sauce, South Carolina BBQ Sauce, Smoky Ketchup, Chilli Vinegar, Chipotle Mayo and Bastardo Sauce) and predictably douse our already-laden plates with all of them except the last one, which proclaims itself as HOT HOT HOT and frightens us off. We consider the meal to have got off to a superlative start.

For mains, I have the St Louis Slab Ribs, which come with a choice of sides for £14. They arrive and are the size of a bus, and thereby present something of a dilemma - I am not normally one to be defeated by a plate of food, but it soon becomes patently obvious that on this occasion the final result will be Ribs 1, Liz 0. This is a shame, as they are very good - tender, smoky meat with a nice sticky glaze and some really excellent fries. The weakest note of the meal is my friend's Bluu Smoke Stack - a very-promising sounding burger topped with pulled pork, smoked cheddar and chipotle mayo that doesn't quite deliver on all fronts. The toppings go down well but the burger itself (which sounds lovely on the menu, made with a mix of minced brisket, flank and beef marrow) is overcooked and a little dry as a result; we also feel that, at £13, this dish doesn't offer such good value for money as the wings and the ribs. We each have a glass of wine from a smallish selection - a glass of the Faultline NZ Sauvignon and one of the El Camino Argentine Malbec, both of which come in tumblers rather than wine glasses. We like these glasses until my companion comes perilously close to accidentally pouring water into his still half-full glass; we feel his advancing meat coma easily explains this temporary stupidity however.

Service is excellent throughout, and overall our night suggests that there are plenty of reasons to visit Bluu these days. The pictures I put up on Twitter even prompted some discussion of whether one could successfully attempt the "Wings and Ribs Challenge" if a friend helpfully hummed the Rocky theme whilst the attempt was in progress - sounds like a great idea to me so I'm just off to have a batch of "Meat Contender" t-shirts printed...

- Bluu is at Smithfield Market Buildings, Thomas Street, Manchester M4 1BD. We were invited to review the menu and were not asked to pay for our food or drink.

Monday, 25 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 17 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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