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Monday, 31 May 2010

Loch Fyne, Bella Italia, Kro Bar, Carvery...Tales of Greed and Gluttony

It is with some shame that I confess that I ate out, in some form or other, on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday of this week. Here is the whole sorry tale; in my defence, I have done some gardening today in a bid to get back on the straight and narrow.

Thursday:

Not strictly my fault, this one. Thursday was something of a stressful day - AS exams in English Language and Lang & Lit (yes, yes, I know I don't have to actually sit the exams myself, but it's still a trying time) AND my husband cruelly abandoned me overnight for some shindig in London Village. Luckily a kind friend immediately agreed to abandon her own husband in my favour, and a jaunty night out was hastily planned.

We began at The Didsbury with a glass of Prosecco, which luckily came from a new bottle and was therefore suitably fizzy. I need people's help with this - the Prosecco is on by the glass because I insisted on it, yet I seem to be the only one drinking it; indeed, the first couple of times I requested it, the staff didn't even know what I was talking about. This means that sometimes when I order it, my drink is poured from a bottle that has clearly been open since the last time I visited, so please please will somebody else start ordering it too?

Then we went on to Loch Fyne, where we were served by quite the friendliest waitress I've encountered for some time, and enjoyed a fishy dinner of whitebait, calamari, crab and scampi. The food here is reliably good, and the atmosphere was lively without being chaotic on a pleasant Thursday evening. I can confirm, however, the repetitive qualities of a meal choice that involves a whole crab with chilli and garlic dressing; apologies to all who encountered me.

Friday:

Ah, now - not really my fault either. The final Friday of May is traditionally the day we cease to be responsible for our A2 students who are going off on study leave, with the upshot that they take over the Robert Peel pub in Bury for the evening; the staff gamely show their faces and spend a few hours being hugged by drunken students who really, really love you - no, really, really do.

As soon as a respectable time had elapsed, we escaped for dinner to a local Italian called Bella Italia (NOT part of the well-known chain, as a hand-written notice taped to the wall is at pains to point out). The meal was pretty good, and was notable for two things: firstly, the absolute best ribs I have had anywhere, ever, as a starter; and secondly, the rather touching arrival of a carafe of red wine, apparently paid for and sent over by the young men who had just vacated the table behind us - former students. Bless.

Saturday:

Absolutely not my fault; when a friend I've not seen for ages who has a young child suggests a meet-up at Kro Bar in Heaton Moor, I clearly must go. To be honest, I didn't even know there was a Kro Bar in Heaton Moor, but there is: a lovely light, child-friendly space that currently offers a bacon sandwich with a hot drink for £2.50, or coffee and cake for £2.95. Under the circumstances, I cannot reasonably be expected to count this as a meal out.

Sunday:

Again, not my doing. This was a new experience for me, for yesterday I visited my very first Toby Carvery, in the company of my husband, our friend Paul, and his very charming three-year-old son. Paul lives in the foodie enclave of Ramsbottom, but I was unable to persuade anyone that Ramsons was a suitable location for lunch, and thus the Carvery was the preferred option. It all worked out very well: I was given extra meat by the obliging young man on duty (an ex-student - notice a pattern forming), and because I ate so many vegetables I am allowed to count this as a virtuous home-cooked dinner rather than a meal out.

So actually, now I review my week I see that I must take back my opening words and acknowledge that I am not to blame for any of the above...thus leaving me free to go out again next week - huzzah.

- Loch Fyne is at 848 Wilmslow Rd, Didsbury, Manchester M20 2RN
- Bella Italia is at 16 Bolton Street, Bury BL9 0LQ
- Kro Bar is at 110 Heaton Moor Road, Heaton Moor, Stockport
- Toby Carvery at Bulls Head, Brandlesholme Road, Greenmount, Bury BL8 4DS

Thursday, 20 May 2010

West Didsbury Beer Festival at The Albert Club, May 2010

Men across Manchester are looking anxiously at clocks and watches, tossing and turning in bed unable to sleep, and occasionally muttering "Is it time yet? It MUST be time...please?" For Friday May 21st - yes, tomorrow, the wait is almost over - sees the start of the inaugural West Didsbury Beer Festival: three glorious days of sun, beer and barbecues.

[short interlude while blogger places damp cloth on husband's feverish brow and steadies pulse]

The Albert Club on Old Lansdowne Road in West Didsbury is likely to make the perfect venue if the weather forecast is to be believed; already I am seeing myself wafting delicately across the bowling green in a floaty summer dress, Pimms in hand (I don't really do beer - see how magnanimous I am in allowing my husband to attend), exchanging witty bon mots and general pleasantries with like-minded people. Of course, what will actually happen is that I will sit on the grass, complaining intermittently about insects, grass stains, and blades of greenery prickling the backs of my legs and making those attractive criss-cross indentations; then I will go pink in the sun; then I will drink too much and have to go home to bed.

And yet I must strive to avert the inevitable course of events, for starting at 9pm on the Saturday evening is the Pressure Drop disco, promising pure class from the 80s and 90s, just asking for you to throw caution to the wind and dance enthusiastically around your handbag. So if you're at the Beer Festival early on Saturday evening and you notice a pink woman with a grass-stained dress slumbering peacefully in a corner, please shake her and shout "DISCO" - she'll be eternally grateful.

- full details at http://www.didsburylife.com

The Canterbury Tales at The Lowry Theatre, Manchester

Without a shadow of a doubt, the absolutely best thing about Chaucer is that his most famous poem, The Canterbury Tales, is a piece of literature whose credentials are beyond impeachment; an unshakeable fixture in the English canon, to remain forever on the A-level syllabus; and yet is almost entirely about sex and farting. Undergraduates across the land have been discovering this joyous and generally unsuspected fact for years now, marching smugly to a class on Middle English with their Riverside Chaucer tucked innocently under one arm, looking for all the world like an intellectual - and yet actually off to while away a pleasant hour or so discussing sexual partners and bodily functions.

So imagine my delight that Northern Broadsides - a fine theatrical company whose productions are always worth seeing - have brought their own version of The-Rudest-Poem-In-The-World-Disguised-As-Classic-Literature to The Lowry Theatre. This new adaptation by Mike Poulton has received rave reviews in London since it was first performed in February, and yet actually sticks very closely to the original text. Obviously Poulton has been careful to select the very rudest tales to include in his new production, but almost all of the language is Chaucer's own, with very little modernisation, although I'm not sure the inclusion of "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" featured prominently in the original text. When performed aloud the Middle English from over 600 years ago sounds surprisingly fresh and modern; I will gloss over the chilling fact that during the enunciation of the famous prologue, about the pilgrims setting off on their travels, someone in the row behind me did mutter (none too quietly) "Dear God, what is he on about? I really can't sit through three hours of this."

The friend who went with me was a Chaucer virgin, and although I did try to warn her about the filth that would surely follow she was still both shocked and impressed in equal measures by the combination of tender tales of love, honour and chivalry, and bawdy stories of cuckolded husbands, bare bottoms hanging out of windows and merry swiving in pear trees. The production is quite long at three hours including interval, but it passes in a flash, and the quality of staging, acting, music and singing is excellent across the board. The play runs until this Saturday, 22nd May and is well worth catching if you can - where else can you enjoy such base pleasures and still call it culture?

- full details at http://www.thelowry.com/event/canterbury-tales-may-10, or call the box office on 0843 208 6000.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Folk School Graduation for Manchester's Newest Music Journalist

So, against all odds I have attended all four of my music journalism lessons at Folk School with DJ Dave Haslam, and now know all there is to know about writing reviews, features, and interviewing any passing musicians who have a sudden urge to speak to me. The course has been very enjoyable: Folk's slightly eccentric charm has definitely grown on me, and my fellow students were very pleasant indeed (at least, I liked those left at the end - there were only five of us today out of the original twelve, nothing to do with the good weather of course).

Dave has proved a knowledgeable and entertaining teacher, and is running the course again in November - contact him via www.davehaslam.com to register your interest. AND, most importantly, he was very nice about my album review - far, far nicer than I am to my own students. So here it is, the fruit of my labours, and my first (and probably last) foray into the world of music journalism....



Album review: Bad Lieutenant Never Cry Another Tear (Triple Echo Records)

The lot of a New Order fan has not been an easy one over the years, learning to accept a feast here, a seven year famine there, all mixed with the band’s notoriously insouciant attitude towards their legions of admirers. Now Sumner, Hook, Morris and Gilbert have gone their (mostly) separate ways, crumbs of comfort must be sought in the band members’ newer projects; indeed, for the bereft fan seeking familiarity rather than originality there is much to enjoy in Never Cry Another Tear, the debut album from the Bernard Sumner-led Bad Lieutenant.

Very sensibly for a man now in his mid fifties, Sumner has elected to surround himself with the comparative youth of Jake Evans of Rambo and Leroy and Phil Cunningham, last seen in New Order’s most recent incarnation. The collaboration is largely successful when taken on its own terms: the band’s intentions are instantly displayed on the breezily melodic guitar pop of opening track and first single ‘Sink or Swim’, with a chorus that manages to be both infuriatingly catchy and instantly forgettable at the same time.

The strongest songs are those that have Sumner’s mark all over them: the upbeat hedonism of ‘Summer Days’ suggests a track that could have snuck itself onto 1989 masterpiece Technique, albeit amongst the weaker numbers; and the wistful melody of ‘Running Out of Luck’ reminds the listener how good a plaintive tune can sound when coupled with Sumner’s distinctively na├»ve vocals. His voice undoubtedly suits the material far better than Evans’s, and tracks sung by the latter lack the mysterious yet undeniable charm of the Sumner vocal.

So what’s the verdict? Any new release that boasts fifty percent of one the most influential British bands of all time – New Order drummer Stephen Morris features on a number of tracks, as does Blur bassist Alex James – is going to awaken great hopes in the hearts of many; disappointment seems almost inevitable. Yet taken on its own merits this is a perfectly decent pop record, the sound of a musical great easing himself into a relaxed retirement, and it seems churlish not to share at least some of his obvious enjoyment of this new phase of his career.

Monday, 17 May 2010

"Things on sticks" at Pinchjo's Bring Great Excitement to West Didsbury....

As anyone born in the seventies knows, food on sticks is quite the classiest way to eat. I recall all too clearly the stress of the annual popularity contest that was the birthday party, where you were judged (mercilessly) on just three things: the quality of the going-home bag; whether there was a gift in EVERY layer of the pass the parcel; and just how big your pineapple and cheese hedgehog was. If you've never watched your mum patiently poke cholesterol-laden cocktail sticks into a foil-covered orange, then the rest of this post is not for you and you may leave.

Anyone still remaining will understand the excitement of the "pinchos" concept - tasty morsels speared onto cocktail sticks (a "pincho" is a "spike" in Spanish) just asking to be snaffled up whilst standing at a bar quaffing large quantities of ice-cold beer. Now the very enterprising Joe Maddock of Pinchjo's Tapas Bar on Burton Road has decided to bring this commendably laid-back style of dining to West Didsbury, and judging by the enthusiastic troughing at tonight's launch do, he might just be on to something.

Bearing in mind that anything eaten whilst standing up contains neither fat nor calories, the "stick meal" is certainly something I can embrace. I have eaten all manner of delicious items this evening - highlights included excitingly salty courgette-wrapped anchovies (vegetable item, therefore = healthy) and quiveringly beautiful tortilla studded with bacon and potato. The idea is a bit like Yo! Sushi - you grab anything you like the look of as it wafts past, and then you pay for the number of cocktail sticks left on your plate at the end of your meal. The potential pitfalls are clear for all to see - no place to hide for the greedy - but it's great fun nevertheless, and perfect for annoying people like myself who are incapable of narrowing down their dinner choices to just one dish.

The mood at Pinchjo's is relaxed and friendly, and Joe makes for a genial host. Next time the sun is shining, I'm definitely going back to pretend that I am actually a chic Spanish lady dining in an oh-so-European manner; full details are at www.pinchjos.co.uk, or you can follow Joe on Twitter - http://twitter.com/pinchjos. Just off now to dig out my espadrilles....

Monday, 10 May 2010

Art, Wine, Amaretto and Wendy...

It is most probably a sign of impending old-age that tonight I am breathing a sigh of relief at the prospect of a night in after three nights out on the bounce; pitiful really, when I think back to my student days and remember that one early night "in the bank" would last for at least a week.

Anyway, my current run of debauchery began on Friday night, with the preview of an art exhibition at the Didsbury Life office on Burton Road in West Didsbury. Don't be fooled by its unassuming facade - ALL sorts go on here, often involving wine. The artist in question, Chaz Newton Smith, was on hand to answer questions about his impressive artwork - huge urban landscapes painted in the splodgy oil style that I am partial to but unsure of the technical name for (feel free to correct me if "splodgy oil" is not the correct terminology). A fine time was had by all and I would have stayed longer, but I had worn foolishly high shoes and frankly once the box of white wine had run out the pain became too much for me.

Saturday night should have been a civilised one - a quiet and refined dinner party at the beautiful home of a classy friend. Unfortunately, we have discovered a new cocktail: Amaretto Mimosa, a jaunty yet lethal combination of Amaretto, orange juice and champagne which can prove disastrous in the house of someone who still has two bottles of Amaretto left over from Christmas. Suffice to say I directed a bemused taxi driver back through Heaton Moor whilst also clutching a slowly disintegrating piece of cheesecake that I had insisted on bearing away with me at the end of the evening.

Sunday saw the 31st-and-a-bit birthday party of the marvellous Crazy Wendy, marked in typically generous Wendy-fashion with a buffet at her restaurant on Burton Road. My love for the super-singing-sequinned diva is no secret, and has been documented in a recent post - although to attempt to describe Wendy using words alone is a futile activity. Last night saw Wendy in thoughtful and dignified mode, restricting herself to just a couple of songs and perfectly happy to share centre stage with Thai dancers and other performers. She seemed to have a throat lurgy remarkably similar to the one I had when I visited last Saturday; I'm sure this is a coincidence and nothing whatsoever to do with me.

So anyway, tonight I am staying in, ready for Folk school tomorrow - and yes, I HAVE already done my homework! Off now to polish and admire halo...

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

School, Rhubarb, then more School....

You'd clearly have to be some kind of idiot to sign up for something calling itself "Folk School" on a Tuesday evening after six hours of teaching during the day. Clearly. And yet I do appear to have volunteered for extra "school", albeit school with beer - something I have often tried and failed to have introduced at my own college.

For this is a very special school, a four week music journalism with legendary Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam, in the distinctly non-academic environs of West Didsbury's Folk bar - a place so laid back you sometimes get the impression that you are lucky to have been served at all. The problem with holding lessons in the corner of a bar is that you get beer on the beautiful new pad that you purchased especially for the course (honestly, there's no worse pupil than someone whose day job is teaching) but then this is hardly Dave Haslam's fault. He makes for an engaging and knowledgeable tutor; last night (week 2) he was teaching us about album reviews, and I liked him immensely until he set us homework.

As "school" starts at seven, I was able to pop in to Rhubarb - next door to Folk, most conveniently - to partake of their early evening set menu offer beforehand. The food at Rhubarb is reliably excellent but the restaurant was dead last night - we were the only people in, thereby confirming my theory that my tonsilitis had resulted in me being the only person in Greater Manchester without a hangover on both Sunday and Monday.

Folk School unfortunately meant there was no time for pudding, thereby making the offer slightly less good value at £14.95 for two courses rather than £15.95 for three (AND there was sticky toffee pudding on - pah), and a further quibble was the pricing of the alcohol. Now I'm not one of these who orders a glass of wine in a pub and then proclaims that for that price I could have gone to Tesco and bought a whole bottle of the stuff (I drink at The Metropolitan, for goodness sake) but £5 for a small glass of ordinary house red? As the wine came in a much larger glass, this basically worked out at about £2.50 per inch - sort this out please Rhubarb!

- Folk is at 169-171 Burton Road, West Didsbury
- Rhubarb is 167 Burton Road, West Didsbury; food is lovely but beware the booze bill!

Monday, 3 May 2010

The Wonder of Crazy Wendy....

Anyone who lives in the vicinity of West Didsbury will surely know of the legend that is Crazy Wendy. Indeed, when I lived just off Burton Road I was a regular fixture in her restaurant, then called the Thai e Sarn, and was often to be found standing perilously aloft a table doing my very best Shirley Bassey. Some of my most memorable nights have taken place here; I moved house the day after visiting for my 26th birthday and suffice to say the bed had to be moved last, chiefly because I was still in it, unable to move.

But in recent years, I have let Wendy down. I don't live quite so close any more, and have become lazy, often staying at home - SingStar has a lot to answer for, allowing people to pretend to be incredibly talented in the privacy of their own homes rather than jostling for microphone time with a lot of very drunk girls on hen nights at the Thai e Sarn.

So we went, on Saturday night. The place has doubled in size since my last visit, and service is much better - Wendy has taken on a whole fleet of charming and efficient staff who keep the food and wine coming without hesitation. The place was packed, but as soon as we walked in Wendy remembered us - no mean feat considering it must be five years since I last saw her, and one reason no doubt why her restaurant remains so popular.

This is not a place to go to for a quiet or romantic night, or indeed if you are a shrinking violet who dislikes attention. However, as I currently have tonsilitis my visit on Saturday was my first ever encounter with Crazy Wendy when sober (me, not her) and the food was actually very, very good - there is a choice of three set menus (one of which is veggie), all reasonably priced, and all well executed; I swear that the hot and sour soup we started with did me more good than the antibiotics I've been on since Thursday.

Once everyone has finished eating - around 10.30 - Wendy slips away and reappears resplendent in one of her feather-boa draped party outfits, orange beehive wig perched jauntily atop her head, and serenades the appreciative crowd with Elvis classics in the special way that only Wendy can. The microphone is passed around as beered-up customers vie to perform Tom Jones or Shirley Bassey, often in a version entirely devoid of anything resembling the original tune, but this doesn't matter at all - everyone gets cheered, no matter how well or abysmally they sing. I had no voice at all, and found it painful not joining in with everyone else; we also had to slip away before the end before I physically expired and slumped under the table.

So sorry Wendy, for not saying goodbye, and sorry for having stayed away so long. I absolutely will not leave it another five years before I'm back, I promise.

- Crazy Wendy's is at 210 Burton Road, West Didsbury, Manchester M20 2JW, tel 0161 445 5200. Or if you're feeling brave, visit the website at www.crazywendy.co.uk - beware, some of the pictures WILL alarm you and Elvis WILL start singing at you....

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Sport Relief 2010 at Old Trafford, Manchester

The first rule when organising any kind of big day out must surely be to avoid getting tonsilitis three days before, as this will inevitably curtail your fun to a certain degree. This sadly was my fate, but regular readers will know of my pluck and steely determination in the face of adversity (well, certainly if I'm at risk of missing out on something that might be fun) and thus I soldiered on, despite being quite wobbly and having had my voice seemingly replaced by a comedy croak/whisper (progress on the day before, when I taught a day of lessons entirely through the medium of mime).

The reason for all this pluck, steely determination, etc etc was - quite unbelievably - a day at Old Trafford football ground. Yesterday afternoon saw the arrival of various "celebrities" and United greats of yesteryear at OT, to take part in a football match in aid of Sport Relief, and my United-supporting husband was positively slavering at the prospect of seeing Jaap Stam (who does actually appear to be about seven feet tall) and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer back in action.

He had to wait though, for first up was a mini pop concert with the kind of line-up that only this type of event can throw up - Tinchy Stryder, The Hoosiers, The Saturdays and Tony Christie. Each act had three songs, all except for Tony Christie who had one; no prizes for guessing what he went for. Highlight of this part of the day was seeing the grim realisation on the faces of The Saturdays that their five-inch stiletto heels were a poor choice of footwear considering they had to actually walk across the pitch to get to the stage; I too have performed "The Saturday Tiptoe" move in order to avoid inflicting damage on my wooden floorboards when sporting similar shoe products.

Anyway, silly concert bit over, and the real stuff was on. My husband seemed determined to treat it as a real, competitive match, oohing and aahing as X-Factor runner-up Olly Murs proved himself to be comfortably the worst striker in the history of football (I think The Saturdays would have had a better chance of scoring), and The Rivals went ahead through a goal from the scarily competent Ralf Little. But of course, United fans had no need to worry - 2-0 with just a few minutes left, Fergie-time was applied and the game basically went on until it was 2-2.

This meant penalties, easily the best bit of the whole day, as it had clearly been decided before-hand that only the celebs and not the pros would take the spot kicks. There is surely no better sight than Justin Moorhouse, as wide as he is tall and a good ten yards off the pace throughout the game, slotting one past a bemused Dave Beasant. In the end, The Rivals prevailed, although it barely seemed to matter by then (except to my husband, obviously).

The day was ridiculously good value at £15 per adult ticket - I haven't even mentioned the splendidly bizarre half-time fare of a kitted-up Bobby Charlton taking penalties - and was very well supported by the good folk of Manchester; I reckon there were at least 40,000 and maybe 50,000 in attendance. Hopefully it will prove to be a regular event - I can't wait to see who they get next year. Human League? Neil Diamond? Based on today's offering, I don't think anything's impossible...