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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Zouk Cookery School, Manchester: Best Bhajis in Britain

When your day job is teaching, normally just the very mention of the word "school" is enough to give you palpitations and necessitate a quick lie down. Not so when preceded by the word "cookery" and located at Zouk, the much-lauded Pakistani and Indian restaurant tucked away at the top end of Studentville; indeed, so exciting was the prospect I willingly got up early on a Saturday morning and headed there in search of education, knowledge and new skills (and the prospect of a substantial luncheon).

I'd never been to Zouk before, but pretty much everyone I mentioned it to had already been and already loved it - although were surprised to learn of their regular cookery schools, so the restaurant perhaps needs to shout about this a bit more. Classes start at 10am with a welcome talk and a cup of masala chai; there are thirteen of us in all, including lots of people on their own, and everyone gets on immediately - united in our greed and enthusiasm for Indian food. The course I attended was "British Favourites", which promised to show us how to make all those anglicised dishes that everyone secretly really likes - Seekh Kebabs, Onion Bhaji, Chicken Tikka Masala, Lamb Rogan Josh and Channa Masala, along with rice and naan - but which never come out quite the same at home and which are so often garishly coloured and profoundly disappointing from one's local takeaway.

This is a refreshingly laid-back type of cookery school - we are given the recipes but told we won't need them, and we gather round a few tables in the restaurant area that have been pushed together and covered with tempting pots of herbs and spices. Much of the course is demonstration-led, but there is plenty of hands-on participation too: we are each given a metal tray filled with sliced onions and are at liberty to season at will (my bhajis are pleasingly heavy on the garlic and the coriander) before learning how much gram flour to use - this is the crucial bit - and how to combine the ingredients in such a way as to incorporate plenty of air. Our fledgling bhajis are then whisked away; next time we see them, they are sizzling away happily in the restaurant kitchen. Seconds later, most of them are in my mouth, hot from the fryer and quite simply the best bhajis that any of us has ever tasted (genuinely, and I've tasted a LOT). We also get hands-on with the chicken tikka, and whilst my tray of raw chicken might not look that appetising, its transformation once grilled on long skewers over (very) hot coals is quite something.

Much of the rest is handled by the chefs. Ali, our tutor, shows us how to make the seekh kebabs, which we enjoy along with some more bhajis and the chicken tikka over a very welcome tea break (well, Coke/beer break - soft drinks are on the house and alcohol can be purchased at the bar). Then - thrillingly - he lets us loose in the kitchen, where we run amok and, truth be told, everything gets a bit chaotic. It's fun though, with the three different main dishes on the go as well as the largest pan of rice I have ever seen. We are allowed to supervise, and stir, and taste, and ask questions, and generally make a bit of a nuisance of ourselves - the chefs are genial and tolerant, however, and I learn lots of new things, including how to make an extraordinarily good Channa Masala. The real surprise, though, is the Chicken Tikka Masala (seen below in its massive vat, which I was hoping was all for me) - a dish I normally avoid for its bland creaminess but which is quite simply a revelation in these expert hands.

Perhaps the nicest touch of all is that the budding chefs are each allowed to have a guest join them at the end of the course, to help eat all the food they have made. I had forgotten this until someone mentioned it during the morning, and it is to my friend's great credit that she responded so nobly to my late call, bravely hotfooting it across town despite a code amber hangover in order to admire our handiwork (she decreed her race against time well worth it). Each course is individually priced but the average is around £80-90 - not cheap, but this seems good value for the time and attention you receive and the generosity with the food you've helped to make. I was given a complimentary place on my course for review purposes but will definitely be booking more as a paying customer: full details can be found here on the Zouk website. In the meantime though, I now know how to make the world's best bhajis, so if anyone fancies popping round and helping me slice some onions, you'll be more than welcome.

- Zouk Tea Bar and Grill can be found at Unit 5, The Quadrangle, Chester Street, Manchester M1 5QS; tel 0161 233 1090. They won the Best Restaurant Award in the Manchester Tourism Awards in 2012 and I can see why, so it's to my great discredit that I'd never been before (an error I intend to atone for on a regular basis).

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

New Menu at Gusto: Old Didsbury Favourite Still Delivers

Things in Didsbury continue to look up. After a few years of empty shop fronts, bland chains and dodgy boozers, we now have Hispi (for which I have developed a shameful, costly weakness), a couple of new tapas places, the lovely Casa Italia, SoLIta, a couple of great chippies, loads of independent coffee shops and a brilliant Nepalese place. And yet despite this array of shiny loveliness and temptation, I still find myself as often as not in good old Gusto Didsbury, a stalwart of the high street for many years now thanks to its reliably great pizzas, interesting cocktails and lovely leather booths, into which one may sink thankfully whilst lobbing excellent fries in the direction of one's mouth and slurping a decent red.

Of course, Gusto can do grown-up too, as proved by the new menu which we tried last week. As usual, most of the old favourites have survived the cut; in fact, most of the starters remain the same (no bad thing, in my opinion). Still, only wise to toy with a little focaccia - a plump, garlicky square studded with rosemary and salt and presented with olive oil and aged balsamic - whilst choosing, not least because my date for the evening is the Annoyingly Dairy Free Friend, who requests the allergy book (cue heart sinking) and spends several hours working out what he can have. I can (and would like to) have all of it, so I choose the oven roast pork ribs served with tomato barbeque sauce and coleslaw - not strictly a new dish, but one I've not had before, and which turns out to be a triumphantly meaty affair smothered in a sauce that strikes just the right balance between sweet and tangy, and perched on an excellent thin-cut coleslaw. Most of the dishes have some form of dairy in, but in the end the Annoyingly Dairy Free Friend is delighted with his half portion of tagliatelle with prawns and garlic - really good pasta with a decent amount of fat prawns in sweet chilli tomato sauce with fresh lime and rocket. This is the kind of dish that Gusto do well - good ingredients cooked simply and served up in generous quantities (as proved by the fact the the ADFF was outside having a fag when his dinner arrived and I hadn't even made a dent in it by the time he got back).

Mains are excellent. I have the new duck dish - a pan roasted breast with buttered winter vegetables, aged balsamic and honey - and it is just lovely. The duck is perfectly cooked - briskly seared on the outside and pink and juicy within (they will do it well done if you want, but look visibly relieved when I ask for it pink), and resting on a bed of interesting vegetables (although there is a hefty hit of chilli here that isn't advertised on the menu - not a problem for me, but others may wish to be wary). Despite this plate of meaty joy, I end up with total, utter dinner envy, as the ADFF has the whole salt baked sea bass and it is SPECTACULAR. The theatre of such a dish is always fun, involving as it does an intrepid member of staff setting up a table alongside yours and burrowing wildly into the salty casing in order to free the fish that lies within; this is expertly done by John, whose service is faultless all night. Indeed, after such drama the dish itself looks a little underwhelming, but its looks belie its stunning flavour - soft, gently flaking fish, infused with lemon and herbs from within and a good sturdy blast of saltiness from without. The ADFF practically sucks the bones clean; not a phrase I ever expected to use in polite company. The fish is not cheap at £18.95, particularly as it comes solo and requires the ordering of extra side dishes, but it is perfection, and to be honest I always order fries and some Italian fried courgettes whatever I'm having - a meal at Gusto is simply unthinkable without either or both of these splendid items.

Desserts are the only misfire. The ADFF can only have the lemon sorbet, which fortunately he loves, but my basil and mint panna cotta - one of the new dishes - needs a bit of a rethink in my opinion. The panna cotta itself is fine, if unremarkable, but any subtlety of flavour is completely drowned out by a sea of heavily spiced plum compote. The flavours are reminiscent of mulled wine, but not in a good way - the spices hit the back of your throat and dominate what should be the star of the dish; there is also far too much of it. This is the only flaw of the evening though - service is knowledgeable and friendly, there is live music at an unobtrusive volume, and a very good Chianti from a wine list full of tempting Italian numbers at fairly reasonable prices. Gusto continues to be a cut above most, and I'm crossing every digit I have that their traditional 50%-off-food will be on in January, when I plan to dine on whole salt baked sea bass every single night.

- Gusto Didsbury is at 756 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury M20 2DW. We were invited to review the new menu and were not asked to pay for our food or drink, but I'm a regular here to the point of embarrassing levels of recognition from the staff.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Three Wine Men Manchester Christmas Wine Tasting 2016: Embarrassingly Clanky Bags on the Tram Time!

There are all sorts of things clamouring for our attention at any given time. Restaurants come and go; pop-ups spring up everywhere you look; street food continues to flourish; and every week seems to see the launch of at least one new bar in the city centre. So any event that keeps people coming back year after year is something to be applauded, particularly if it permits one to sample hundreds of wines in the rarefied atmosphere of Manchester Town Hall; indeed, I can think of few things besides the Three Wine Men Manchester Christmas Tasting that would see me boarding a tram at 11am on a Sunday morning and heading off in search of a nice glass of red.

Three Wine Men is, for me, one of the best days of the year. Hosted every year by Tim Atkin, Olly Smith and Oz Clarke, it would be easy to be cynical about the branding - you're invited, for example, to take a test to see with which of the three you most share your wine tastes, complete with a sticker to wear (terrifyingly, if you end up liking the same wines as Olly this means liking "wines as exuberant as riding a unicorn by the horn all the way to the gates of Guzzle City", a trip I'd be keen to avoid, even to the extent of paying an Uber surge). Too much cynicism would rather miss the point though - this is simply a happy, joyous affair where, in exchange for £27.50, you get to merrily weave your way round the Town Hall, sampling lovely wines at will and getting to talk to some of the small producers and stockists who often don't get much of a look-in.

One such company is Alpine Wines (pictured below), who are just lovely and from whom I end up buying every year - this year, the lovely Grüner Veltliner "Mitanaund" from Elisabeth Hausgnost. In fact, for me the Reislings and the Grüners were the stars of this year's show, with some excellent examples at GK Wine House (as personally recommended by Olly Smith who - as usual - asked after my mother, whom he met for about three minutes about three years ago).

I shall also remember 2016 as the year I was finally converted to Sherry, a drink of which I have always been a little suspicious. Whilst I can't claim to have liked all of the Sherries on show at the Sherry Wines stall (Tio Pepe Fino still has too much of a whiff of old ladies in bed jackets about it for me), I did enjoy most of them, particularly the Manzanillas and the Oloroso. In fact, I did so well and was SO brave that I was allowed my badge for achieving the Sherry Challenge despite some rather undignified retching of the Tio Pepe into the spittoon.

I avoided most of the big name stalls simply in the interests of time - the whole point of Three Wine Men is to try wine you perhaps wouldn't come across on the high street. That said, who could resist a chat with the lovely Dave Marsland (aka Drinks Enthusiast), on hand to represent Warner Edwards Gin (try the rhubarb one - it's wondrous) and seen below in one of his typically unassuming, camera-shy poses. I also very much liked the wines chosen to represent the International Wine Challenge, an annual award that recognises outstanding wines regardless of their cost - some of the 2016 medal winners on show included the lovely Greyfriars Vineyard Blanc de Blancs 2013 (I'm a sucker for an English sparkler) and a very good Tempranillo from Asda that comes in at under six quid.

All too soon, our time was up - three hours fly by here, and we had to make way for the good folk thirstily arriving for the next session. The only rogue note of the day? The three wine men were being filmed for a TV show, and as I was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time there is a worrying chance I'll soon be on a TV screen near you, swaying slightly and pretending to listen to Oz Clarke as he talks to me about something. Still, potential public humiliation aside, I'm already looking forward to the next one.

- Find out more about Three Wine Men here on their website. I was given complimentary tickets to the event, but spent approximately three million pounds on wine and would happily go (and have been) as a paying customer.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Hip Hop Chip Shop Bring Fish-Based Joy to the Northern Quarter

If there's one meal capable of bringing both great joy and inconsolable sorrow, it's surely fish and chips. Good fish and chips is a wondrous thing indeed - properly crispy batter concealing soft, flaky fish; big fat chips with fluffy middles and a few scrappy bits at the bottom of the tray; more salt and vinegar than any normal person would ever want. In short, it is a thing of great beauty. Unfortunately, standards vary, and too many chippies serve up greasy, soggy fish with anaemic, under-cooked chips...I'm almost weeping at the thought of such travesty. Still, if the purchasing of fish and chips is a gamble, all the more reason to rejoice that purveyors of fine fishy wares The Hip Hop Chip Shop have taken over the kitchens at Kosmonaut in the Northern Quarter for the foreseeable future.

The new venue feels like a good fit for Hip Hop, who have been seeking a new home since the end of The Kitchens project at Spinningfields - Kosmonaut has decent beers, loads of space and always has a good atmosphere, plus it's right in the middle of the NQ rather than tucked away at the bottom of town. The new menu features Hip Hip favourites (the Battered Halloumi Fingers are on as a side and a main, and Feastie Boys - battered fish biters, chips, minty mushy peas, tartare sauce - and the splendid Shell L Cool J Burger - Louisiana spiced crabcake, battered smoky bacon, spicy ‘slaw, brioche bun, chips - are on the mains) as well as some new dishes, the standout of which is the DJ Kool Jerk - jerk batter fish, battered plantain and scotch bonnet pickled pepper. The Chilli Batter Onion Rings remain superlative, and the Minty Mushy Peas are still, for me, the best in Manchester; we also very much liked the Pea Fritters and have both become a bit obsessed with the Curry Sauce and the Black Sunday Gravy (which takes between three and several hundred days to make, depending on who you speak to).

In fact, we liked it all. We like the Hip Hop Chip Shop, we like the beer at Kosmonaut, we like the music (NWA + DJ Kool Jerk = v.g.), and we like the menu, which has a decent range of veggie and meat dishes as well as the obvious fish ones, and just shows what a permanent kitchen can do for you. Yes, it's all a bit deep-fried, but there's still far more range here than you'd get at most chippies, and anyway, there's wholesome booze to wash it all down with. The dishes you see here were part of a preview tasting and thus some of the dishes are not full size (and the crabcake is completely stark naked, apart from its 'slaw) - Hip Hop are not shy with portion size so you'll often get a bit more than seen here. And if fish and chips is more of a takeaway thing for you, they'll soon be on Deliveroo, thus rendering movement from the sofa completely unnecessary.

- You can find Hip Hop Chip Shop at Kosmonaut 4-9pm Mon-Thurs and 12-10pm Fri-Sun (full menu here); the van will also be taking up residence at Trinity Leeds for the next six weeks. This was a preview event with complimentary food but they had my cash off me plenty of times at The Kitchens and will continue to do so now.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Christmas Made Easy: Giving the Gift of GIN this Festive Season

Much as I adore it, I do try to avoid mentioning the C-word - Christmas - until the end of November or so. It really isn't easy. The Boots Christmas catalogue has been in store so long I've had ample time to select which Soap & Glory gift set I require this year (the twisty-tin with ladies on, just in case you've got a spare item in your 3-for-2 basket). A colleague admitted this week to having had Christmas pudding for his tea on Monday. There is a box of biscuits in the staffroom, which makes no direct mention of Christmas but which bears a drawing in which several of the biscuits are sporting festive hats. All this, and we've not even had Halloween yet.

And to be honest, the presents are the least interesting bit of Christmas once you're a grown-up with a house full of tat and very little room to put any more (twisty-lady-tin excepted, obviously); this means it's hard to come up with a meaningful answer when people ask you what you want. Well, no longer, thanks to a PR email I received a couple of weeks ago: had I thought of gin as the perfect Christmas gift? Astonishingly, I hadn't - but it makes perfect sense. If there's nothing you really need, the whole point of a present is for it to be a treat that makes you happy: and if that isn't the very definition of gin, I really don't know what is (bourbon or rum maybe, but that's for a different post).

Thus a happy quartet of four mini gins arrived through the post, along with the promise that there would be one here for every palate. Obviously I immediately broke up the little family by opening and drinking them - purely in the interests of providing the following Christmas gift guide, of course.

BLOOM Gin. This comes in a beautiful bottle and has a slightly floral flavour that explains why it is so beloved of Manchester cocktail bars. BLOOM is distilled by one of the world's few female Master Gin Distillers, Joanne Moore, who is celebrating her 10th Anniversary as Master Distiller this year. This, along with the three main botanicals that go into BLOOM Gin - the flowers of chamomile and honeysuckle and the citrus fruit pomelo - perhaps explains why this is suggested as being a perfect gift for a woman. I'm not sure about this as I think most people would enjoy this gin, but as long as that woman is me I don't really mind.

Available from: Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Harvey Nichols and Ocado. RRP £24.00 for 70cl. ABV: 40%.

Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin. This is billed as a unique and different style of London Dry Gin made using exotic botanicals, herbs and spices; it also comes in the most beautiful bottle. I'd had this once in a cocktail and decided I didn't like it, but it turns out it must have been the cocktail I didn't like - this makes a very fine gin and tonic indeed and I am converted. My boyfriend has favoured this gin for some time, but warns that the attractive tassel that decorates the bottle can be used as a rope by cunning dinosaurs with a taste for Opihr.

Available from: Tesco, Morrison's, Waitrose, Ocado, Booths and seven regional Harvey Nichols stores nationwide and 31Dover.com. RRP: £23.00 for 70cl. ABV 40%.

Thomas Dakin Gin. I'd had this one before as well, courtesy of Manchester legend Alix Walker, and been impressed - it comes in a sexy apothecary-style bottle and is nice and savoury thanks to botanicals including horseradish and English coriander (which explains why it's so perfect in a Bloody Mary). And, it's named after the forefather of English gin, which makes it educational too.

Available from: Waitrose and Harvey Nichols, Booths, Ocado.com, 31Dover.com, GinFoundry.com. RRP: £29.00 for 70cl. ABV: 42%.

Greenall's. This one has a freshness thanks to its rounded juniper notes and mature citrus flavours, but was for me the least interesting of the four. That said, I would much prefer this to the Gordon's (particularly as they are similarly priced) that my mum uses for our lunchtime gin and tonic on Christmas Day, so she may well find that Santa pops a bottle of this in her stocking this year. Even better, it comes in a gift box that looks like a green phone box, so Santa may as well bring me one as well while he's at it.

Available at Waitrose, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Master of Malt. RRP: £15.00 for 70cl. ABV: 37.5%.

In short, I've made Christmas easy for you - you're welcome. And if you can't decide which one to buy me, may I helpfully draw your attention to the fact my birthday is in November - once again, you're welcome.

- the gin samples were sent to me for review purposes (thanks to MPR Communications, who also provided some of the photos you see here - the professional ones and those without dinosaurs), but as I think this post makes clear, this will end up costing me dearly in the gin aisle from now on.