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Sunday, 27 June 2010

Reliving Student Days of Yore at Shahenshah, Rusholme

Often, the unplanned nights out end up being the most enjoyable. Particularly those that come with a healthy dose of nostalgia; indeed, for most of Friday I was located somewhere in the mid-1990s, and having a thoroughly lovely time.

First I got to relive my academic career at Manchester University by taking a party of students to the Discover English Day at the Roscoe Building, a full day of talks and lectures that obviously I enjoyed far more than some of the students, pushing my way through the adolescent ranks to take my rightful place at the front of the class with my new Paperchase notebook. By 4pm I had more than earned a Friday beer, and where better than sitting outside KroBar with a lovely friend who works at the University, enjoying the Manchester sunshine (and trying hard to pretend I wasn't clutching an A4 folder entitled "Welcome to the University of Manchester" - slightly beer stained now).

Three beers later, and my friend was replaced by a hot and bothered (and slightly cross) husband, who had apparently trailed all over Manchester checking in ALL the KroBars for his errant wife, who, being advanced in years, had failed to realise quite how many variations there now are on the Kro theme. In my day - shifts Zimmerframe slightly and readjusts blanket over knees - there was only one, hence the confusion. Such discontent was soon smoothed over, and as it was such a lovely evening we decided to walk part of the way home; this was our second mistake. It is clinically impossible to walk through Rusholme at meal time and emerge unscathed on the other side; one of the curry houses, with their lovely tempting aromas and twinkly waiters lurking outside, ready to lure you in with promise of free poppadoms, will get you in the end.

On Friday it was Shahenshah. To be honest, we had to go in, for my husband made the startling confession that he had NEVER EATEN THERE. And then, when I thought about it, I realised that I probably hadn't eaten there for about ten years, and therefore was in no position to mock. Shahenshah was our student restaurant of choice, largely (I suspect) because they would let us eat there no matter how drunk we were, although I do recall that the drunker you were, the more likely you were to be hidden away upstairs, so as not to cause offence. Was the food there actually any good? Or were my rosy memories about to be shattered?

Hurrah; the food was amazing. My starter of Aubergine Pakora - four generous slices of meltingly soft vegetable (N.B. vegetable, therefore healthy) in light and crispy batter - was delicious, as was the Chicken Chilli starter across the way. Even better were the mains; my Chicken Punjabi was the best curry I've had for ages - bear in mind this was my second curry in three days, so this recommendation does actually say quite a lot - and my husband's main was polished off so quickly I can't even remember what it was. Prices are reasonable, and wine particularly so - we had a very drinkable bottle of Chilean Merlot that was under £10.

Shahenshah tends to get slightly mixed reviews from its diners, and has had some unfortunate brushes with environmental health issues in the past; on this form, however, we will certainly be back. My only criticism? Don't tell the waiter that the chairs are heavy as you struggle to pull it out from under the table, as he will tell you the same line that he told me and EVERY OTHER WOMAN within earshot during the course of the evening - some new jokes please!

- Shahenshah is at 135 Wilmslow Road, Rusholme, Manchester M14 5AW; tel 0161 2572534.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

In All Her Finery, Didsbury: Jewellery (and Cake) Heaven

Few things can improve one's mood when the sun is shining brightly on a Saturday morning and you don't really have very much to do until Monday. Until, that is, a Facebook Message arrives from In All Her Finery, an emporium of gorgeous items whose virtues I have extolled many times before, tucked away on School Lane in Didsbury. After the success of the regular "Cava and Cake" nights, owner Fiona has decided to make the most of the unusually nice weather to do some lovely things on Saturdays as well; today, the lure (against which I put up only the briefest of token resistance) was a table outside the shop, laden with Fiona's cute handmade jewellery at reduced prices - earrings and rings at £5, nceklaces at £10.

As well as jewellery, Fiona also seems very adept at cake-making, and understands that browsing for gorgeous trinkets can often make one very hungry; thus I left clutching not only three pairs of earrings, but a lovely daisy cake as well - I was going to photograph it for the blog but unfortunately couldn't find an angle that concealed the parts of it I ate in the car on the way home. If you've yet to discover the delights of In All Her Finery then it's well worth following on Facebook or Twitter, as Fiona is very good at keeping followers updated with the latest situation re: cake and cava availability, as well as lots of offers and discounts.

A word of warning to this lovely local independent business though: make the most of the nice weather now. I break up for summer in just over a week, at which point the summer will become cold and wet until it's time to go back in September; you have been warned...

- In All Her Finery is at 56 School Lane, Didsbury, Manchester M20 6RT; tel. 0161 4455225; website; or follow on Facebook or Twitter. Or actually, just go there - she'll give you cake :)

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Hungry Man Inches Away from Achieving Pastry Hat Trick at Love2Eat Deli

Busy day yesterday. Part one saw a vigorous workout in the form of a trip around Bury Market; anyone who thinks this might not be good exercise is invited to roll up their sleeves and do battle with the army of old ladies with sharp elbows and tartan shopping trollies who patrol all the best stalls, forming an instant scrum around anything that looks like it might be about to be reduced in price.

For all its tat - there are some SERIOUSLY undesirable items on display here - Bury Market is an amazing place, unbeatable for reasonably priced meat, fish, fruit and veg. This is what I bought:
- goat's cheese (£1)
- chilli cheese (£1)
- onion and chive cheddar (£1)
- four football pitch-sized slabs of chocolate chip shortbread (£1)
- a huge tray of fresh anchovies in garlic marinade (£2.80)
- four sausages with bits of black pudding in (I know! I know!) and four chilli sausages (£3.13)
- one black pudding (90p)
- one frankly divine M & S sundress (£15)

A veritable treasure trove - half the fun is getting home and unpacking the random items you have purchased. And if you overlook the fact that I didn't actually need ANY of these items, I think you'll agree they are complete bargains.

After such an exciting afternoon, I clearly couldn't be expected to sit quietly in front of the television (football, erm, schmootball), so we walked up to West Didsbury (I was wearing my FitFlops, so am expecting bottom to be visibly smaller by this afternoon) and enjoyed the early evening sunshine sitting outside Folk bar. Rumour has it that the so-laid-back-it's-horizontal Folk plans to create a Burton Road beach next weekend, but for now we had to make do with pavement; will dig out swimming costume ready for when the sea and sand appears.

Dinner was at Love2Eat Deli, a tiny weeny place that really couldn't have been more charming. Half a dozen tables inside, a huge deli counter packed with lovely things, and a wall of blackboards listing the offerings for the day - no menus here, just whatever is freshest, nicest and bestest. The spur for our visit was the "Love Saturdays" offer: three courses with unlimited wine for £20 a head. And not nasty horrid wine either - we can vouch for the red being dangerously quaffable, AND with a cute label (cat sitting on an egg - Chat-en Oeuf - *sniggers*), AND generously poured whenever your glass dips dangerously below the halfway mark.

The food was also good. For starters, I had Katie's Proper Pate Plate, and Mr Liz had the leek and salmon tartlet, the first of an exciting pastry double. Both were delicious, although a small criticism - the "crusty bread" that was advertised along with the pate was actually a bit chewy and bland, although there was plenty of it. For mains I had the veggie lasagne (with more of the boring bread - I left it this time), and my husband had the steak, mushroom and red wine pie. For pud, he was obviously hoping to achieve some kind of unprecedented pie-product triple, but fell at the final hurdle by fancying Eton Mess. Meanwhile, I was excited to try my first Whoopie-pie, two chocolate biscuit/cake things (technical term) sandwiched together with buttery creamy goodness; not as nice as a cup-cake though.

All in all, a great night with excellent service and atmosphere. We will definitely be back on a Monday night to try another of their offers - main, cake and a glass of wine for a measly seven pounds. Just one thing though - they kept turning lovely hungry people away all night, saying they were fully booked, so if you were the party that didn't turn up and left a lovely table unoccupied then SHAME ON YOU.

- Love2Eat is at 190a Burton Road, West Didsbury, Manchester M20 1LH; tel. 0161 434 7077; for more details.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Sun, Wine, Flags and Felicini...Summer in Didsbury

Having spent the day filling in the reams of paperwork required to take a small group of almost-adults all the way from Bury to Manchester on a college trip, a jaunt into Didsbury to enjoy the evening sunshine seemed virtually compulsory. So I did a quick risk assessment, and decided that a trip to Felicini was in order to take advantage of the 20% food discount that is running throughout June.

A small party of like-minded people was raised, and we agreed to meet at The Milson Rhodes. Now, my rather snobbish thoughts on a Wetherspoons pub replacing the really rather tasteful Pitcher and Piano have been documented in previous posts, but let's be honest, the outside space is exactly the same. Only you find that the drinks you are consuming have actually cost you a fraction of what you would have paid at Pitcher and Piano; seriously - a pint of good lager, an excellent glass of Pinot Grigio and a gin and tonic is seven pounds something-or-other. Unbelievable. We went upstairs and sat out on the balcony, thoroughly annoying two girls who previously had it all to themselves, and pretended that we were abroad; only the large England flag attached to the balcony shattered the mood.

The welcome at Felicini, long a favourite of ours, really couldn't have been warmer. We turned up with an extra person who had decided to come along at the last minute, and they were relaxed and helpful about the whole thing; I've NEVER understood restaurants that turn their noses up at extra custom. The place was packed, with a birthday party in the rear area and an event for Didsbury Magazine at the front; we were tucked safely away in one of the capacious booths in the middle in our own oasis of calm (although we did weigh up the possibility of gate-crashing the Didsbury Magazine party - there WERE canapes, after all).

The menu has had a bit of an overhaul since I last visited, and includes some exciting new dishes. For starters, the three ladies of the party exercised their usual indecision and, as usual, went for a selection of sharey things - olives, fresh anchovies and an amazing taster plate of dips, sun-dried tomatoes, prosciutto, stuffed vine leaves and mozzarella. I am now obsessed with the idea that anytime I'm in Didsbury with just short of three pounds in change, I can go to Felicini and they will sell me a generous dish of fresh anchovies marinated in lemon and paprika; amazing. This makes me practically Italian.

The mains were just as good; several people went for the rump steak, which was meltingly tender (or, ahem, so I hear) and my husband went for his usual - the spicy Al Diavolo pizza. Our waitress, who was charming all night, even brought him some extra chilli oil upon hearing his idle boasts about normal pizza not being spicy enough for him. I chose the mussels in a cream sauce, served with frites and aioli (apologies to anyone I spoke to today), and they were delicious; I do have to say though, that rich cream sauce AND garlic mayonnaise in the same dish is too much even for an exceptionally greedy person like myself.

The highlight of the meal was the pudding; being a savoury person myself, I have NEVER said this about a restaurant meal before. The ice-creams they sell at Felicini (and Grinch) are simply astonishing, although my husband had to fight back the tears when told they'd run out of the Peroni beer flavour. Go for the peanut butter flavour instead, a remarkable feat of salty sweetness that defies belief. Other popular choices included the Chocolate Pot, a dark haven of boozy goodness topped with morello cherry ice-cream; the sort of chocolately goodness that refuses to come off the spoon, so great is its artery-busting glory.

With our 20% discount voucher (see the website for details), the bill came to a reasonable £28 per head for three courses with booze. It's good to see Felicini continuing with its familiar Italian classics whilst expanding its horizons by including other European favourites; we have already vowed to go again before the end of the month to test out a few more new options. Well, actually, that'll just be me; the husband refuses to move past the Al Diavolo.

- Felicini is at 747-751 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, Manchester M20 6RN; tel. 0161 445 2055

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Elizabeth Gaskell Exhibition at John Rylands Library, Manchester

The John Rylands Library is surely one of Manchester's most unsung treasures. People who know about it tend to fall into just two categories: students at The University of Manchester (I was taken there during my undergraduate course, and all I remember about the visit is that I fainted - physically dropped to the floor - when we were shown a fragment of the Bible. I'm pretty sure my tutors regarded me as an excellent example of piety and devotion for the rest of my time at university, rather than considering the rather prosaic truth that it was simply too hot in the display room), or people who have stumbled across its gothic splendour whilst wandering down Deansgate in search of Evuna or Dimitris.

Anyway, this general ignorance is a crying shame, and suggests an apathy that I myself am also guilty of, not having visited the library since it reopened in 2007 after a huge restoration project. I intend to rectify this over the summer by going along to the Elizabeth Gaskell exhibition, which runs from 15th July to 28th November to honour the bicentenary of the novelist's birth. If your knowledge of Gaskell is largely centred around busybodies in bonnets squabbling over fabric for dresses in a variety of whimsically scenic locations, then don't be put off: Gaskell was a marvellous writer, genuinely concerned with the plight of the poor in her hometown of Manchester, and not shy of depicting the hardships of their lives in her work. And there is always the exciting possibility that I will be able to purchase an Elizabeth Gaskell pencil or mug in the shop afterwards.

As well as the exhibition, the Gaskell celebrations include three public lectures between August and October. I will certainly be attending at least two of these: the second lecturer, Jenny Uglow, wrote the Gaskell biography that helped steer me safely through the Victorian Novelists module of my degree, so I feel I owe her something; the third lecturer, Alan Shelston, is the very man who delivered the aforementioned Victorian Novelists module, and as he was advanced in years even then I am most keen to see how he is faring.

Elizabeth Gaskell: A Connected Life, is at The John Rylands Library from 15 July to 28 November 2010 and is free (hurrah - leaves more cash for the shop). Full details at

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Manchester Food & Drink Offers during the World Cup

I am fairly certain there is a football tournament currently in progress, having painstakingly gathered the following evidence:

- my husband is wearing an England shirt.

- the house across the road from ours suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from view while I was at work yesterday, apparently replaced entirely by a selection of flags and bunting. All of which are now flapping in a most irritating manner.

- I have just attempted to get something to eat from the fridge, but was stymied by the ARMY of bottles of lager patiently stacked along the entirety of each shelf; I believe there may be some cheese hidden behind one of the rows, but lack the confidence to confirm this hunch.

All of this points to just one thing: a couple of weeks of frenzied patriotism and sun-burned young men leaning out of moving cars and hollering "Engerland" at innocent girls simply trying to go about their daily business; in short, it's World Cup time. Yet there is hope on the horizon for those wishing to continue with reality, as restaurants and bars attempt to outdo each other with tempting offers over the next few weeks.

I have already sampled and given my approval to one of these: every day that England are playing, The Fat Loaf in Didsbury is offering fish, chips, mushy peas and homemade tartare sauce along with a pint of Amstel for a miserly £8.95. We called in there today on our way back from the Didsbury Festival, and as it's frankly very tiring work getting caught up in the drama of which canine will win the coveted title of Dog With the Waggiest Tail, we were glad to stop off for sustenance. We sat outside in the sunshine, watching the long line of cars crawling into the village, and everything was really very pleasant; the batter on the fish was light and crisp, the chips were properly fat with crunchy edges, and the service was cheery. My husband refused to give me his mushy peas, but to be honest that's his fault rather than The Fat Loaf's.

Other offers worth investigating include those at Felicini and Grinch, with a 20% discount on food throughout June, even at weekends. You need a voucher for this one, easily procured by signing up at If, like me, you are prone to going out for the evening and then realising that the required voucher is in a different handbag, you can still take advantage of their Happy Hour, offering any cocktail for £3.95 between 5 and 7pm for the rest of the month. I hope to file a special report next week, establishing just how many cocktails it is possible to drink in a two-hour period; stay tuned.

- The Fat Loaf:
844-846 Wilmslow Rd, Didsbury M20 2RN
- Felicini:
747-751 Wilmslow Rd, Didsbury M20 6RN
60 Oxford Street, Manchester M1 5EE

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Dirk Benedict Sets Middle-Aged Pulses Racing in Columbo at The Lowry

First things first: despite growing up in the 80s - and once owning a version of every single outfit sported by Alex Drake on Ashes to Ashes - certain aspects of my upbringing appear to have been deficient. I have never watched The A-Team, and I have never seen Columbo, and thus did not share the whoops (yes, actual whoops) of enthusiasm emitted by some of my friends upon learning that Dirk Benedict was to star as Lieutenant Columbo at The Lowry in the current production of Prescription Murder.

Clearly though, many others shared their excitement, as last night's performance was absolutely packed. The story of Prescription Murder - Columbo's first ever case - scarcely matters; suffice to say that you see the murder being committed in scene two, and must then watch as Columbo shuffles and smokes his way to solving the case. The premise of the character seems simple - he looks a mess! he smokes cigars in a louche manner! his hair is wild and his voice gravelly...yet he's SMART! Certainly too smart for the oily psychiatrist who has bumped his own wife off.

And to be fair to Dirk Benedict, he does a good job with this. Having never seen the original I cannot vouch for authenticity, but he certainly exudes charm and cunning in spades. Perhaps most interesting is his effect upon women (and men) of a certain age - my friend confessed to him having been her favourite 80s crush, and was almost overcome by the position of our seats in the second row, barely resisting the urge to reach out and give him a quick stroke from time to time. The man in front of us was even more taken with Dirk, his enthusiasm so palpable that the great man rewarded him with a special wink at curtain call. One point to note though: don't be fooled by the publicity photo accompanying the play, which a cynic may say was perhaps taken in a different decade (or century) entirely.

The supporting cast do their best to shine in the presence of such stardom, and do a pretty good job (one or two slightly ropey American accents aside). And to save you the frustration of trying to work out who is playing the unfortunate wife, it's Susannah Farnham of Max & Susannah Brookside fame; clearly born to play ill-fated wives throughout her acting career (one day she'll live; one day....)

The play is quite long at around two and a half hours including interval, but passes in a flash and requires absolutely no brain power. Staging is slick and effective, and contributes to a seamlessly entertaining package which has allowed me to tick off two boxes on my "to-do" list: Dirk Benedict? Check. Columbo? Check. But if my ticket-happy friends are reading, I just want to make it clear that I'm drawing the line at the A-Team film.

- Prescription Murder is on at The Lowry until Sat 12th June; visit forr more details.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

First Barbecue of the Season...and How to Cook a Whole Chicken on a Beer Can

I will try to ignore the rain currently lashing at the window, and transport myself back to yesterday teatime: the sun is shining, England are finally getting Bangladesh out, and I am off to my first barbecue proper of the summer. Not only am I wearing my new DKNY maxi-dress (a thing of great beauty - tall girls everywhere are rejoicing at the return of the maxi) but on our arrival we hear the words that my husband has been longing to hear ever since we saw some chef or other (Jamie?) demonstrating every boy's dream on television: "Come on through; we're just trying out that thing where you cook a whole chicken on the barbecue over a can of beer."

And yes: there she is, sitting proudly astride a can of John Smith's, and wearing a jaunty tin-foil hat as the barbecue works its magic. My understanding of the whole procedure is sketchy - clearly I couldn't get anywhere near the barbecue for the throng of admiring boys clustered around - but I did glean the following:

- you need a can of beer without a widget (my friend assures me that the staff at Sainsbury's look at you as if you're mad when you explain this)
- you can also stuff the cavity with rosemary if you happen to have loads of the stuff growing in the garden
- it takes about an hour over the barbecue and you don't need the lid on
- it would be a good idea to wrap the beer can in tin-foil to prevent the print from the tin coming off onto the chicken (we only know this with hindsight)
- it's delicious :)

So frankly, I fear a new standard has been set; what can I cook to better this when it's my turn to host the next barbecue? Suggestions please; although from the look of the weather I've got at least a week or so to come up with something....