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Saturday, 8 October 2016

Your Buddy Mary - the Socially Acceptable Face of Breakfast Booze

I have always been partial to a Bloody Mary, partly because of its most excellent components (tomato juice, horseradish, Tabasco), and partly because it's entirely acceptable at any time of day, thereby sanctioning the consumption of alcohol at breakfast if so desired. Fortunately, many others share this view, and one such - Simon Burgess - has brought a range of Bloody Mary-themed events and pop-ups to Manchester (and not before time, in my opinion - no idea why no-one has thought to do this before).

A couple of weeks ago I got to attend the dry run (an inappropriate name if ever there was) of Simon's new baby: twenty or so of Manchester's food bloggers drinking their way through the full range of Your Buddy Mary's tomato-based repertoire. Simon's plan is to offer three different options, all of which I wish to do immediately:

1. #TheBuddyClub. This is the pop-up version, a 90-minute session coming soon to bars near you in Manchester and London - the first is a Halloween special at The Liquor Store on Sunday 30th October. Here you'll first be served up a selection of Taster Marys - we got to try loads of these and they were all excellent, especially the Red Snapper (properly blow-your-head-off levels of heat) and the tequila-based Bloody Maria - before the 'Club Mary' takes care of any hangover hungers. Finally, you'll get to make your own little bottle of #MyBuddyMary to take away - I loved this part of the press event, and went faintly feral in my application of spices, horseradish, Jalapeno Stoli and pickle juice in the creation of my own masterpiece. These events strike me as good value at £20, particularly as most Manchester bars/restaurants will relieve you of the best part of a tenner for just one Bloody Mary.

2. #BuddysBoozyBargeBonanza. Whilst the idea of combining booze, people and large stretches of water may seem a foolhardy one, I'm a big fan of a booze barge, and I think this one looks really good - little wonder, really, as Simon is a paid-up member of The Liquorists, who certainly know how to pack a boat with genial folk and ply them with alcohol. The 3-hour round trip goes from Castlefield to Media City, accompanied by live acoustic music, an arrival Mimosa and midday beer, a selection of Bloody Marys and - best of all - a #TheresSomethingAboutMary. I actually emitted an undignified cry of joy when this arrived at the press launch - an outstanding, Cajun-spiced, Bloody Mary sporting what I consider to be a superlative array of garnishes. As with the other events, you also get to make your own drink to take home, so you may wish to consult the pictures below to see what perfection you are aspiring to. At an introductory price of £35 this is crazy value, and I am very much hoping to be aboard the next barge on Sunday 3rd December.

3. #YourOfficeBuddy. The idea behind this one is pleasing: if you're hungover at work, Your Buddy Mary will pitch up and make everyone a Bloody Mary as well as one to take home, thereby restoring harmony in the workplace. I fear that a college staffroom will never be eligible for such a service, but it's a nice thought.

Further details and event tickets are available on Your Buddy Mary's website. The press event was a free event but for feedback only with no pressure to review - Simon's enthusiasm and knowledge is a fine thing though, and I shall be going to more events as a paying customer (if only for the prospect of shouting ALL ABOARD THE BLOODY MARY BARGE! for a couple of hours).

Monday, 19 September 2016

Provenance Food Hall and Restaurant: Fine Dining in Westhoughton

First things first: despite having quite a lot of friends who live in Bolton, I am woefully ignorant of the merits of this particular town and its environs. Thus I have to trust their judgement (and point the finger of blame squarely their way if this offends anyone) when I say that the news that Westhoughton, some four miles southwest of Bolton, had a more-than-decent restaurant, with an excellent young chef and a menu full of British classics, was not immediately thought to be credible when the invitation to its new menu tasting arrived a few weeks ago. In fact, some went so far as to suggest that "fine dining" and "Westhoughton" were not words that naturally collocate.

And yet it is indeed so; in fact, on the evidence of last week's preview, Provenance is far, far better than even the most open-minded Boltonians of my acquaintance could ever have dreamed. For one thing, it has a most excellent food hall on the ground floor, full of things I would like to eat. Fortunately for my bank balance this had closed for the evening, but I had a quick roam around and made a mental note of essential future purchases (by which I mean, essentially the whole shop). For another thing, the head chef Lewis Gallagher was awarded North West Chef of the Year in 2012 and went on to be runner up in the national competition, as well as winning Lancashire Young Chef of the Year twice in succession. And if that wasn't enough, Provenance have got themselves into the Good Food Guide 2017, after just one year of trading. All of this boded most auspiciously.

We started off with a platter of miniature versions of dishes from the forthcoming Christmas menu: goose rillettes, beetroot gravadlax and black pudding with apple. All of these went down a storm but the black pudding was probably the favourite across the table, certainly going by the evil looks that came my way when it transpired that my date for the evening didn't like black pudding and was in need of someone to eat hers on her behalf. This was followed by an exquisitely velvety pumpkin soup, which was widely decreed a proper taste of Autumn and equally widely devoured despite it being pretty much the hottest day of the year; I particularly liked the contrast between the rich smoothness of the soup and the crunch of the toasted seed topping.

Next up was a big fat scallop, briskly seared and served with some sharp Granny Smith apple and different textures of cauliflower. Rather excitingly, the apple had been vacuum packed and had its juice forced back into it, resulting in joyous, refreshing little bursts of flavour to complement the already varied textures of the cauliflower. The ravioli of truffle and Jerusalem artichoke that followed was initially met with a little suspicion, with some of us worrying the truffle would be overpowering and pretty much all of us wondering where the sauce was. We should, of course, have had greater faith - the pasta, filled with ricotta cheese and lightly drizzled with oil, was more than moist enough on its own, and boasted beautifully subtle notes of its bolshier ingredients (the chef clearly has more self-control than I when faced with a dish calling for either artichokes or truffle).

On to the two larger courses of the tasting menu - monkfish with a chorizo crumb, crisp ham and a lemon sauce, followed by fillet of beef with onions and mushroom - and both an absolute knockout. One of the most impressive aspects of Provenance is its focus on traceability (hence its name), and nowhere is this more visible than in the in-house ageing facilities, responsible for both the beef (which cut with ridiculous ease) and the ham. Another obvious strength is the sauces - the lemon sauce was brilliantly tart and very brave in its full-on citrus flavour, whilst the onion sauce that accompanied the steak was rich and smooth and sweet, and forced me to run my finger over my plate with a complete lack of dignity (although to be fair, the sauce does perhaps not look completely dignified itself).

The dessert course had got us all wondering what a chocolate "mushroom" might be, and visually this didn't disappoint. Chef Gallagher is quite rightly very proud of this dish, which was chosen as the dessert option at the Gala Dinner at the recent Bolton Food and Drink Festival, and whilst this was my least favourite course of the evening (I don't really care for chocolate-flavoured things), the clever combination of textures (think chewy meringue, soft ice cream, crisp chocolate shards etc) was a massive hit at our table. Similarly, the violet macarons that finished the meal weren't really for me - the texture was perfect but the flavour just too Parma Violety - but were wildly popular elsewhere, with one blogger successfully eating three before being captured and dealt with by the authorities.

Any downsides? We thought that the prices - which are essentially the prices you would find in central Manchester - might be a little steep for the area, although in my opinion the quality of the food justifies the pricing and in any case, there are plenty of fixed price menus and offers available (I am already eyeing up the Wednesday night Grill Nights). The only other downside was a small, personal sorrow - I live a long way away from Westhoughton, and therefore had to forgo the wine that flowed so generously throughout the evening. This aside (it's hardly the owners' problem that I live elsewhere, particularly as the restaurant is rather romantically located in the premises of the old family toy shop), I can't really fault Provenance. I shall certainly be back - and next time, I'm taking a shopping bag (and a credit card).

- Provenance is at 46-48 Market Street, Westhoughton, Bolton, Lancashire, BL5 3AZ. This was a free event but I have already made plans to go back.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Robert Owen Brown with Inca Pop Ups: Ancoats Coffee Supper Club Sparks Octopus Cravings

Facebook Memories can be a bit of a mixed blessing. Some days it throws up lovely memories, and reminds you of much-loved friends, and splendid nights out; sometimes, the memories are things you might perhaps rather forget, or reminders of quite what a greedy girl you really are. My own account is keen to remind me, for example, that four years ago I was seemingly a regular nuisance at The Mark Addy, where the wonderful Robert Owen Brown would rustle up six courses of unmitigated joy, the odd foray into brains or testes excepted, at his monthly Gourmet Nights; the menus serve as a constant reminder of how much I miss those nights.

Fortunately (well, for me, not so much for the wildlife of Greater Manchester), we can still enjoy Rob's distinctive menus via his semi-regular supper clubs in partnership with Inca Pop Ups, the most recent of these being last week at Ancoats Coffee House. I've been to pop up events at this venue before and it works really well for supper clubs - it's friendly, and has sexy brickwork, and sociable seating, and a generous bring-your-own policy that I applaud most heartily. And, of course, it's always a pleasure to see Rob. Here's what he cooked for us this time (and fear not - there's nary a bollock in sight):

Wild mushroom soup with summer truffle. Rob does a good soup, and this was one of his very best - rich, smooth and earthy, with a proper hit of truffle. Everyone loved this.

Pressed smoked duck, with raspberry vinegar emulsion. Another winner - I love duck in all its forms, but it is a meat that smokes particularly well, and went well with the sweetly tart dressing. And yes, I've now got an image of a duck in a velvet jacket smoking a cigarette in a long holder.

Octopus, heritage tomato, Yorkshire Chorizo with garlic & saffron mayonnaise. Genuinely one of the nicest things I have eaten this year - a really meaty, flavoursome stew completely brought to life with a big dollop of really garlicky aïoli and some nice crisp toast to dip in it. We didn't really share this very nicely on our table, and truth be told we found our portion of one medium and one small bowl between four a bit sparse. If the boys had had pistols, I think they would probably have duelled over the last piece of octopus (which, obviously, I ate - just to alleviate the tension).

Butter-roast free range guinea fowl, with candied honey, lemon & lime. Well, it wasn't guinea fowl but chicken; Rob had apparently been let down by a well-known butcher, although I know better than to comment on this. The meat was lovely - moist flesh (a phrase I don't type that often, thankfully), and the most perfectly crispy skin (again, likewise). The vegetables were beautifully cooked and the light jus brought everything together with exemplary cohesion; we did all feel the mashed potato was a little bland though, and could have stood a little more seasoning.

Classic summer pudding with vanilla ice cream. I wasn't initially that excited about this one, as summer pudding isn't my favourite dessert, and I can take or leave ice cream. I should have known to trust Rob though - the whole dish was stunning both in taste and presentation - and just look at the dinky little ice cream! Look!!

All in all, this was great value at £35 for food of this standard cooked by a chef of such high repute, particularly as taking your own booze keeps the costs down anyway. Do remember to factor in though that Rob will make you buy a copy of his excellent book, even if you already have a copy. You can catch him and Inca Pop Ups again at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival with an Edwardian-themed supper club on Saturday October 8th - more info and tickets here. And as there's cheese soup and lobster on the menu as well as a chance to dress up, you'll very probably see me there.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Manchester Three Rivers Gin at the City of Manchester Distillery: New Premium Gin Celebrates Manchester's Past

Manchester is, of course, wonderful, as any Mancunian (adopted or otherwise) will be pleased to tell you with little or no prompting. I moved here at 17, lured by two revolutions: the Industrial one which I had learned about in History lessons at school, seduced by the march of progress in the form of canals, and railways, and the enormous belching mills and factories; and the cultural one that I had learned about by riffling through my sister's record collection, full of moody black and white covers and even moodier black and white songs. Nor have I have ever regretted moving here, despite sporadic accusations from other, lesser cities that Manchester's glory is all in the past, a relic from another time.

This is clearly nonsense, as one of the things that Manchester does best is combine past and present - as even a cursory glance at the city centre skyline will make abundantly clear. This approach is also very evident in the new City of Manchester Distillery, located underneath one of the railway arches in the Green Quarter and home to Manchester Three Rivers Gin. This is the city centre's first dedicated gin distillery in modern times and aims to blend a sense of Manchester's glorious history with the current renaissance in small batch gin - the name refers to the three waterways (the Irwell, Irk and Medlock) that played such a huge part in Manchester's development into the city we know today. All of this is celebrated in the video that visitors to the Gin Experience will be greeted with and which we watched at the recent press launch - a video that speaks volumes about the passion of Master Distiller Dave Rigby and which brought several tears to several eyes (must have had something in mine, I reckon).

Dave began his career as a university lecturer but now spends his time with his beloved custom-built 450l copper pot Arnold Holstein still, named Angel after the distillery's location in the shadow of Angel Meadow. He produces all the gin himself, and very good it is too - I've never been able to enjoy gin neat, but the inclusion of oats leads to an oily sweetness that makes Three Rivers palatable even on its own. Dave suggests serving the gin with cherries in order to pick up the natural sweetness of the gin, which combines 11 botanicals and derives its smoothness from vanilla, cinnamon, cardamon and almond as well as the oats. Three Rivers Gin is already available in a growing number of Manchester bars and independent and online retailers (Manchester House has it behind the bar and you can pick up a bottle at Hanging Ditch), but the distillery is also positioning itself as an interactive visitor attraction. The City of Manchester Gin Experience offers a guided tour of the distillery, four drinks (all gin-based, of course) and - best of all - the chance to create a bespoke 700ml bottle of gin to take home using the mini Alembic copper pot stills. I am, naturally, beyond desperate to make my own gin, but had to make do with eyeing up these cute mini stills and drinking a Three Rivers and tonic, pretending I'd just made it.

The experience is not cheap at £95, but this is a chance to see (and taste) a seriously good gin being made by lovely, passionate people who want to share their love of gin and of Manchester and its history. And any cultural experience that leads to going home on the bus carrying your own bottle of gin is absolutely fine with me.

- Full details of the City of Manchester Gin Experience are available through the Three Rivers website, and the distillery can be found at 21 Red Bank Parade, Manchester M4 4HF.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Restaurant Review: Artisan Kitchen and Bar, Spinningfields

Much as Spinningfields has grown and improved over the last couple of years, it still seems to me a place of extremes. There are some brilliant casual places - I like The Dockyard, and am excited about Beastro coming to The Kitchens - and an excellent high-end bar/restaurant in Manchester House, as well as a couple of great restaurants if you're feeling really hungry (Iberica, Fazenda) but which won't leave you much change from £50 a head (well, not if you're as greedy as me, anyway). Where it seems lacking is in those useful in-between places, somewhere to have a quiet drink without risk of Z-list celebrities and dancing girls dangling from chandeliers, somewhere to have a decent-value dinner without too much bling but without having to perch on a trestle table.

This is where Artisan comes in. I wrote recently about how it had overcome an uncertain start to become a reliable, go-to place with good food, more-than-acceptable cocktails and great atmosphere (during the week, at least - I'm not really one for town on a weekend so cannot vouch for the Friday/Saturday crowd). We had a quick drink in the oh-so-cute Artisan bar underneath the main restaurant ahead of our whisky tasting at Manchester House last week; I like this little place, with its outside seating and relaxed atmosphere, particularly as it carries the same drinks list and offers as its big sister upstairs. We went back for dinner after the whisky tasting and were once again impressed by the new menu, which offered up lots of things we wanted to eat, although the starters were, for once, the weaker link. My prawns with roasted garlic, coriander, tomato, chilli and lemon were full of flavour, satisfyingly big and juicy and with just the right hit of chilli, but the dish seemed a little incomplete somehow - some substance and texture in the form of some bread (and to allow mopping up of the juices) would have improved this. Meanwhile, across the table the braised chorizo with cipollini onions, cherry tomatoes and super seeded toast was even better in terms of flavours but suffered the opposite problem - this simply didn't need the bread, which added a bulk and sweetness that jarred slightly with the rest of the dish. Predictably enough, I stole half the bread to have with my dish, and balance was thus restored.

Mains were very good. I had the 10 oz ribeye with french fries and roast garlic & herb sauce, an excellent value dish at £19.50 which was very well-executed - the steak had good flavour and was perfectly pink as ordered, and the fries were salty and moreish. The real revelation was the chopped salad with peanut dressing that I ordered as a side - I've never woken up the morning after a meal craving salad before, but I will have this fresh, crunchy, spicy, nutty joy every time I eat at Artisan from now on. My dinner date fancied a burger and was rightly pleased with his beef burger with bagel bun and french fries, a properly moist and pink burger with good texture and flavour and more of those addictive chips. They also knocked him up a tomato salad off-menu, just one example of some really excellent service throughout the meal.

Of course I didn't need dessert, and of course I had one. The sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream was indeed very sticky (in a good way), and brought the meal to an accomplished end. All in all, it was another very enjoyable Artisan evening; the food is good, but it's the overall package that really works - I like the atmosphere here, with its slightly seedy red-hued lighting (I've left the photos their original colour so you can share the enticing murk), its loud-but-not-too-loud music, its comfortable booths and its open kitchen, and we drank a lovely rich Cabernet Franc Carmenere priced at £24 from a wine list that has loads of nice things under £30. The mixed reports that plagued Artisan when it first opened seem to be increasingly a thing of the past - for me, Artisan has definitely found its feet, and any restaurant that can make a salad sexy deserves all the plaudits I can give.

- Artisan is on Avenue North, 18-22 Bridge Street, Manchester M3 3BZ. Our restaurant food and wine were complimentary but we paid for all our drinks in the downstairs bar and I come here quite regularly as a paying customer.