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Thursday, 22 December 2011

Pinchjo's Tapas Bar Saves Local Girls from Festive Overload

Now, I like a mince pie as much as the next person - more, probably, if the next person happens to be a miserable Scroogey curmudgeon, although possibly slightly less if the next person is Mr Liz, whose high regard for any pie that has pastry both on the top AND the bottom would lead him to eat one at every meal if so permitted. However, there does come a point at this time of year when even I start to hanker after a non-Christmassy meal, one that does not involve a fat fistful of purple Quality Street, or the surreptitious consumption of the contents of one's Advent calendar before closing up the windows again with an innocent look on one's face.

Step forward Pinchjo's, the estimable tapas restaurant on Burton Road in West Didsbury, run by the ever delightful Joe. Visiting here is ALWAYS a pleasurable experience, as the food is the best tapas I've had in Manchester and it's almost - almost - possible to imagine oneself in sunny Spain, swaying one's elegant shoulders to the latino beats in much the same way a glamorous senorita might had she not spent the previous few minutes trying to avoid the world's biggest puddles along Burton Road.

Even better, Joe's Winter Deal is still on this week - two tapas dishes, a pudding and a beer or glass of wine for £15 every night between 5 and 7pm. Mr Liz went directly to the meat section of the menu, selecting beef with artichokes in balsamic glaze and chicken skewers with a tomato sauce as the dishes most likely to contain a very high meat-to-vegetable ratio (he was correct, and blissfully untroubled by salad of any kind throughout his meal). The ladies (I include myself in this appellation, as it's my blog, and I can call myself a lady if I wish) both chose lamb koftas served with mint yoghurt: spicy flat discs of tasty meat served with what was actually the best salad I've had in recent memory - Joe must have some secret with December tomatoes that turns them into a blast of pure sunshine; whatever it is, it's a secret I am myself sadly ignorant of. We both then picked from the fish section - creamy seafood paella for me and a dish of plump, tender calamari to my left that I stole shamelessly from. Not a shred of turkey or a sprout in sight.

Truth be told, the ladies were both full by now, but as dessert was included we all bravely grappled with a little something. Mr Liz's chocolate cake was pronounced delicious, but only by him as it disappeared too quickly for anyone else to try it, and my creme brulee was small but richly delicious. The only slightly flat note in the whole meal was the almond cake, which was decreed a little dry and heavy; if I was a better friend I'd have shared my creme brulee, but I'm not, and I didn't. *hopes friend will forget this*

So, a most enjoyable, Christmas-free night, with nary a Noddy or a Mariah to be heard and no festive comestibles allowed. Oh. Except one. A small bout of Twitter bullying - of which I am not proud - had prompted Joe to whip up a batch of mulled wine of quite astonishing ferocity, laced liberally with brandy and goodness knows what else, and absolutely the most delicious drink this side of Barcelona. And trust me, until you've had tapas washed down with Joe's lethal mulled wine, you really don't know what it is to have to retire to bed at 9.30pm on the first night of the Christmas holidays...

- Pinchjo's is at 192 Burton Road, West Didsbury, Manchester M20 1LH, tel. 0161 434 2020 or book via their website. There are no pictures in this blog, for which I blame a/ hunger and b/ Joe's mulled wine, upon which I plan to lay the blame for everything - domestic and political - during the next few weeks.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Local Girl Lured to Altrincham for Lamb Pitta and a Cheeky Mulled Wine; Pitta Crepe has a LOT to answer for...

I am increasingly distressed to note that my smug, insular existence - an existence that has seen me happily ensconced in the walled environs of Didsbury for many a year - has been somewhat under threat of late. Firstly, there's my new favourite restaurant, Damson, which lies across the border in Heaton Moor and therefore necessitates the procuring of a taxi cab, often on a Saturday night. Now, it seems that I am going to have to find a job in Altrincham, or at least an excuse to visit pretty much every Saturday, in order to feed my new lunchtime obsession: Pitta Crepe.

Now, I was a little sceptical about this too. On a Saturday just before Christmas, with a delicious mixture of sleet, rain and snow falling merrily from the leaden skies, street food was pretty much the last thing on my mind, which was veering far more naturally towards an afternoon on the sofa watching a black and white film and eating the remnants of the birthday chocolates. And yet an unassuming mobile kitchen, tucked away in the Stamford Quarter and manned by the most cheerful man in Britain, has today served me some of the best food I've eaten in ages - and that includes the meal where I sat by the Christmas tree in my pyjamas and ate five types of cheese for dinner.

Pitta Crepe has been going for about eight months, slowly building a large and loyal following who seemingly tweet daily about their love for the Moroccan Lamb Pitta: minced, spiced lamb served in a flatbread with salad, yoghurt and chilli sauce. This is their best-seller (with Chicken Tikka a close second), and it is easy to see why. The lamb is succulently tasty, and manages to be at once robust and delicately flavoured - Mr Liz literally gazed at it open-mouthed until he was thrown a scrap, at which point he immediately retired with it, growling at all comers until the treat was safely snaffled. Not that he wasn't much amused with his own gargantuan Bratwurst, hand-made by WH Frosts in Chorlton (is there a single foodie pie that Frosty doesn't have his finger in?) and served with onions and potato wedges. This one is a seasonal offering only, although has proved so popular that owner Simon is thinking of keeping it on as a regular (I'm pretty sure Mr Liz will put his signature to this if required) once the festivities have finished - it's worth getting one before next Saturday though, just in case he changes his mind.

This magical pocket kitchen also sells sweet and savoury crepes, and even has some alcohol-free mulled wine to wash it all down with. Prices are silly for food of this quality, with my large lamb pitta costing just £3.50 (and with hindsight, the regular size would have been plenty) and Mr Liz's sausage-fest £4.50. There is even a covered seating area alongside the van to protect hungry folk from the elements, or Simon will happily foil-wrap food so it can be taken home (although I suspect anything I tried to transport in this manner would not survive the car journey home).

The only downside? It was cold in Altrincham today, so cold that to defrost our hands we were FORCED to go to the nearby Brew House and drink more mulled wine - just to warm up, you understand. Last time we came here it was our beloved Le Trappiste, so it is with some relief that we note that it seems just as welcoming as ever - the decor is the same (although Tin Tin has gone), the staff just as lovely, and the selection of Belgian beers still healthy despite the emphasis now on this as a world beers bar.

In fact, after a quick trip to the market as well, today reminded me how much I like Altrincham - where else can you go home with a belly full of lamb pitta and a handbag full of kippers? They may, of course, wish to use this as their advertising slogan in future...

- Pitta Crepe is opposite Rackhams in Altrincham, and is open Monday to Saturday.

- The Brew House is at 18 Shaws Road, Altrincham WA14 1QU.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Airy Fairy Advent Calendar Gets Local Girl Frankly Too Giddy

First things first: one is NEVER too old for an advent calendar. It's high time that we adults rose in revolt and reclaimed Christmas from those pesky kids who seem to think it's all about them - Christmas is for grown-ups to drink Baileys, and wear sparkly eye-shadow, and eat all the purple ones out the tin of Quality Street; just this very evening I have cooked my last healthy meal of the year, and plan to subsist entirely on a diet of wine, cheese, pate and chocolate from now until Christmas Day.

Therefore, I not only have an advent calendar from Thorntons with my name iced on it, I have also completed the "spot the difference" puzzle on the back without an ounce of shame, and consume my precious chocolate at approximately 7am every day without compunction. So imagine my delight to discover ANOTHER advent calendar, this time online, where behind every window lurks not a risibly tiny scrap of chocolate, but a breathtakingly good cupcake-related deal. Such is the gift that Airy Fairy Cupcakes have bestowed upon us this year - twenty pink and purple boxes, each sheltering a sugar-based surprise (apparently 21-24 are coming soon - presumably chief Airy Fairy Laura didn't trust us not to peep), including discounts, competitions and special deals. She has even included a piece of cupcake-themed wisdom behind each window; not that I've, ahem, checked every door up to and including the 20th *avoids eye contact*

For someone who is old enough to harbour vague memories of advent calendars WITHOUT chocolate, where the windows had been opened so many times in previous years that they no longer stuck down, popping open willy nilly to reveal the thrilling religious image behind, this is all quite unreasonably exciting. Having checked my diet sheet, I have elected to add cake to my list of acceptable December meals, purely in the interests of a healthy balanced diet of course. So, Laura, I'll be seeing you on the 20th (if not before)...but if you could just add a spot the difference puzzle as well, my joy will be complete.

- Get into the Christmas spirit by opening a few doors on the calendar here; the charming Cake Boutique is on School Lane in Didsbury.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Manchester Christmas Markets 2011: Zippy's Back!

Love 'em or hate 'em, the Christmas Markets are now as much a part of the Manchester calendar as the Literature Festival, the Food and Drink Festival, and Mr Liz's annual pilgrimage to the black pudding stall at Bury Market where - if his behaviour for the year is found to bear scrutiny - he is allowed the double thrill of a hot one to eat there and then AND a cold one to take home.

Not everyone loves the Markets, however, and I myself am still pretty much undecided on whether they constitute a Jolly Good Thing or a Bit of a Damp Squib. Let us consider the whole conundrum in a scientific and objective manner for a moment...

Manchester Christmas Markets: Cons

1. Too many people. It's all very well to wake up on a festive morn, full of Christmas cheer and just in the mood to visit the Markets, but what you have not taken into account is that half of Manchester and the surrounding area have woken up with the exact same thought. The Albert Square Market opens at 10am, and if you want to get within a metre or two of ANY of the stalls (except for those one or two forlorn traders who never seem to get any custom at all, with their luridly painted glass and nauseatingly winsome clocks) then you really do have to think about getting there soon after this time. This year, the Markets have apparently been more popular than ever, and so whilst there are more sites than previous years to try to thin out excess traffic, this is still a fearsomely competitive arena - so get those elbows sharpened. If you have a shopping trolley or pram to use as a battering ram, so much the better.

2. The Manchester weather. All those people mean that there is no chance whatsoever of putting up an umbrella without causing serious injury to innocent bystanders. Crisp and clear = excellent Market weather; typical Manchester drizzle = stay at home with Saturday Kitchen.

3. Lack of Variety. There ARE some lovely stalls at the Markets, selling beautiful handmade jewellery, fragrant soaps and body products, cute toys and gifts, and delectable food and drink items. But they don't really change from year to year, nor from site to site - go round Albert Square, walk down Brazennose Street, then back up King Street, and you will have seen more woolly hats with animal faces on than you ever thought possible.

4. That Father Christmas. Now, I am something of a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas, and that includes my choice of Santa: he should be a big, fat, twinkly, rosy-cheeked old gentleman in a red suit - preferably made from a quality velour - and properly sturdy black boots. He should NOT be a strangely startled-looking creature with more than a passing resemblance to (the now sadly deceased) Zippy from Rainbow. This unfortunate individual sits dolefully above the Market in Albert Square and, frankly, frightens me more than just a little - he most certainly is not welcome down my chimney this Christmas.

5. Finishing before actual Christmas. Every year the Markets pack up and move on a few days before Christmas - this year they end on Wednesday 21st December, forcing hapless men across Manchester to do their last-minute panic Christmas Eve shop elsewhere. Selfish, just selfish.

Manchester Christmas Markets: Pros

1. Interesting alcohol at any time of day. Obviously, it's the law to drink as much mulled wine during the month of December as humanly possible, but the Markets have introduced a hitherto unknown treat to me - hot chocolate with a dash of brandy, covered with squirty cream. If you have followed my advice about getting to the Markets early, I can confirm that these taste excellent at any time from 10.30am onwards.

2. Pig in a Bun. Clearly, the concept of pig-in-a-bun is a sound one at any time of the year, but there is nothing better than the soft white roll filled to bursting with chunks of pork, stuffing and apple sauce served up at the Christmas Market. And once you've mastered the art of consuming it in a graceful manner, standing up, trying to maintain a vestige of lipgloss, wedged between 2,000 other people also eating Pig Buns, you'll have learnt a skill to be proud of.

3. It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Truth be told, the rigorous academic debate so strenuously explored above is completely irrelevant, pleasingly intellectual as it is: I go to the Christmas Markets EVERY year, and will continue to do so forever more, just because a trip to Albert Square to get pushed, and squashed, and trampled, and pay a £2 deposit for a mug that will eventually join the 27 identical ones in your kitchen cupboard, means that IT'S CHRISTMAS. So, unpack your straw reindeer with pride, for now it's time to pour yourself a small sherry and watch It's A Wonderful Life, secure in the knowledge that everything is how it should be.

- for more information on the Manchester Christmas Markets, visit the Manchester City Council website; you can even catch a little glimpse of Zippy Christmas...

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Damson Delivers: Perfect Birthday Dinner in Heaton Moor

For a long time, I had it pretty much all my own way on the birthday front. Indeed, although not technically an only child, the age difference between myself and my sisters meant that I was not really accustomed to sharing ANYTHING, and I saw no reason why birthdays should be any different. Even when I found out that Petula Clarke had had the temerity to be born on the same day as me it mattered not a jot, as Pip Schofield was playing Downtown in his broom cupboard with Gordon T. Gopher at the time, and anyway, no-one had really heard of her, leaving me pretty much free to continue enjoying the limelight.

No, it is only in recent years that it has all started to go badly wrong. I now personally know THREE other people who share my birthday, and even worse, TWO of these are in my immediate circle of friends, meaning that this year's celebration - where three of the eleven guests had to share the glory - really did have to be phenomenally good.

With such a high birthday-to-guest ratio, where better to go than Damson, current Cheshire Life Restaurant of the Year and home to the utterly charming Chef Stanley and team, who really couldn't have made us feel more welcome - and lets face it, what every restaurant really wants and needs on a busy Saturday night is for a loud group of highly over-excited people full of pink wine to turn up and start making demands of them. This is what happened:

1. We had our own private room, a little space that I had never noticed before tucked away off the main restaurant. The benefits to the staff of popping us in here were obvious - out of the way, easily contained etc etc - but the effect of this special room was nothing short of magical. Time ceased to operate in any normal sense as we sat encapsulated in our perfect, private bubble and ate all the delicious things that arrived every so often, only emerging into the real world to visit the toilet when absolutely necessary. The downside of this was that, eventually, someone realised it was the middle of the night and that everyone had missed their last train or tram home; let's just say that the local taxi firms probably did very well in the Heaton Moor area on Saturday night.

2. It was universally agreed that the food was pretty much perfect; two guests whose opinion admittedly counts less because neither of them was celebrating a birthday were heard to comment that it was the best restaurant meal they'd had in years. Obviously, when you're paying reasonably high prices (starters are between £6.95 and £9.95 and mains go up to £19.95 for the lamb and the steak) you do expect certain standards, but a large booking (of large, greedy people) certainly does expose any weaknesses in the kitchen, and Damson came through with flying colours. All the food arrived together, beautifully presented and perfectly cooked - no mean feat when everyone wants their steak cooked differently.

The most popular starters, for us, were the scallops, served with pea puree, and the chicken liver and foie gras parfait, which is pictured here. The latter was so gloriously rich and smooth that it soon outstripped the toasted brioche that accompanied it; fortunately, our party included a strong-minded slinkpot on the Dukan diet, and I kindly and selflessly used her toast to mop up my parfait - a clear example of teamwork, methinks. For mains, a couple of healthy souls went for the bream (actually, again, these were the slinky whippets of the table - perhaps there's a connection here *...thinks about this for a moment...swiftly discounts and moves on...*) but most of us chose either the rump steak with dauphinoise potato, or the duck; the steak can be seen briefly here before it went the same way as the parfait.

3. The service provided by the staff was flawless all evening, with extra napkins tolerently brought when there was something of a wine-related incident *glares at Mr Liz who, sadly, is currently at the football and therefore unaware of the ire coming his way* and glasses topped up whenever they got dangerously low. At the end of the night they were most solicitous in procuring us a variety of taxi prices and ensuring everyone got off safely; on reflection, however, it may just be that they were keen to ensure that we were actually going to leave the premises at some point before dawn. Our charming waiter is also to be commended for turning a tactfully blind eye to one of our party carefully cutting tasty morsels from her swanksteak and wrapping them in a napkin for her dog, the Duchess of Didsbury.

4. Simon Stanley is a/ a top chef and b/ the nicest man in Cheftown. He doesn't often cook at Damson these days, and is more often to be found at The Red Lion in High Lane (FAR less convenient for me), but we were lucky enough to have him in residence on Saturday. All I can say about Chef Stanley is that if he ever offers you a little taster of his salt and pepper lobster you should bite his hand off; as long, that is, as it's the actual hand holding the salt and pepper lobster - you can always spit the chef's whites out afterwards.

5. Damson's pastry chef, Katy Torevell, certainly knows how to rustle up a birthday cake. We had ordered and paid for such an item beforehand, with me providing a detailed and helpful specification that included clear instructions such as "um...maybe chocolate? And, um, I like butter icing. Oh, and I really like Maltesers too." Obviously, there's little that could go wrong with such precise direction, but the cake that arrived was breathtaking, prompting us to actually gasp aloud in sheer wonderment. The picture below appeared on Facebook on Sunday and prompted hungry people across Manchester to try to eat their smart phone in a desperate bid to get at THE CAKE.

So thank you to Damson for making a birthday party easily big enough to accommodate three special ones; there really are enough of us now, though, so if you are thinking of applying to join the fifteen of November club, I'm afraid it is now full. Find out more about Damson on their website, and marvel at Katy's cakes here.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Ruddigore at The Lowry - Ruddy Good, Ruddy Hell (Sorry)

Sometimes, there's just no option but to put your hand up and admit to having a glaringingly wide gap in your cultural knowledge. I have many such holes in my repertoire; I have never, for example, seen The Sound of Music all the way through (a record which Mr Liz is doing his best to ensure I maintain), and I managed to get through the whole of the nineties without once being exposed to a single episode of Cold Feet, Northern Exposure or Frasier.

Nor had I ever - until last night - had anything whatsoever to do with Gilbert and Sullivan. I had some general ideas, of course, involving vague notions of two avuncular English gentlemen, beloved of old ladies and amateur operatic associations the length and breadth of Britain, and in my head confusingly combined with an image of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer in waistcoats and top hats.

So when the always-reliable Opera North announced they were bringing Ruddigore - one of G & S's least known operettas - back to The Lowry in Salford after a triumphant run in 2010, it seemed churlish not to take the chance to go and have a look. Even Mr Liz was enthusiastic at the prospect, no doubt due in no small part to the question Opera North are posing with this year's production - "Are the old jokes still the best?" As Mr Liz grew up in the age of Benny Hill and Les Dawson, and appears himself not to possess a single joke more recent than 1978, this was always going to be right up his street.

Nor did it disappoint. Ruddigore - or The Witch's Curse - is billed as "a comic opera in two acts", and was first performed in 1887, the era of some of Mr Liz's very best jokes. It wasn't a complete success at the time, as the audiences who had been so thrilled by the novelty of G & S's previous work, The Mikado, now found themselves watching a comic slice of social satire, parodying the melodramas so beloved of the Victorians, complete with ghosts, a mad woman, and a properly old-school, be-caped villain. Naturally, such sophisticated, complex humour is perfect for someone who is SO high-brow they have a video of a bear dancing round a tree saved on their laptop to watch whenever a quick pick-me-up is needed.

*has a quick watch of bear dancing round tree. Laughs, a LOT*

The opera follows the complicated love life of Rose Maybud, the darling of the town, who checks her every move in her book of etiquette and is secretly in love with Robin Oakapple, a humble local farmer. They sing a lovely duet together and everything looks most promising - except for one, minor, inconvenience. Robin is not Robin at all, but is actually Ruthven Murgatroyd - yes, I too would change my name - the Baron of Ruddigore who seemingly died ten years ago. Turns out Robin has lain low for all this time not merely to avoid having a name like Ruthven Murgatroyd, but instead to avoid the curse of Ruddigore, whereby the current Baronet is forced by his ancestors to commit a daily crime.

Rose is on the brink of marrying Robin when his younger brother Despard, the current Baronet, bursts in to the church after a tip-off from a jilted sailor who Rose has passed over in favour of lovely farmer Oakwood. But wait! Despard is removing his villain's top hat and cape, and passing them over to the rightful Baronet, a simple farmer no longer. And all this is just the first act - definitely time for a glass of wine and a regroup.

The second act is even better. Opera North are always ambitious with their staging, and the scene where all the dead Baronets come to life and emerge from their portraits is worth the ticket price all on its own. As they glow into being and return to the physical world, it becomes clear that it's going to take a pretty ludicrous plotline to save Robin/Ruthven from the slow, painful death that accompanies the breaking of the curse; I shan't spoil it for you...and frankly it's so barking it would take too long to explain.

Overall, I can summarise thus:

1. Opera North are brilliant, consistently proving that opera doesn't have to be stuffy and boring.

2. I too would like to be followed around by a chorus in the guise of a troop of "professional bridesmaids", always on the hopeful lookout for a spot of romance that might lead to matrimony, and ever ready with a jaunty song, skip and handful of confetti to throw if a marriage looks likely. I will pay for this if necessary.

3. There are some seriously good voices in this cast - we particularly liked Grant Doyle as goodie/baddie Robin/Ruthven, and Steven Page as the ten-years-dead Sir Roderic Murgatroyd.

4. Conductor Timothy Henty is young, and talented, and brilliant - he has a genuine enthusiasm for this opera that is infectious, and NO-ONE can resist a conductor who is visibly enjoying himself throughout the performance.

5. We did NOT like the character of Mad Margaret, Despard's old love, driven crazy by his treatment of her. Yes, I know it's satire, but we thought the part completely over-acted and all a bit uncomfortable. Everybody else seemed to love her though.

6. We enjoyed the music, despite having been warned that G & S are a bit like Marmite (presumably in terms of being something you love or hate, as opposed to them being excellent on toast as a late-night snack). Mr Liz was delighted that the songs were memorable enough for me to serenade him all the way home with a selection of show tunes.

7. Gilbert and Sullivan are indeed beloved by old people, of whom there were approximately nine million in the toilet queue at any given time.

8. And finally? Yes, the old jokes are still the best. I'll take a twirly-moustached villain with a cane and a bunch of dead men running round dancing with skeletons over high-brow entertainment ANY day of the week.

There's another chance to see Ruddigore at The Lowry this Thursday - see the Opera North or Lowry websites for details, and then go and practise your best mwah-ha-ha laugh - you'll need it.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Didsbury Farm Shop Grand Opening, Dinner at Dimitri's, and a Lovely Big Christmas Pudding

I have written before of the Extraordinarily Good Day, a day which is packed with so many exciting things as to be almost wasteful. This kind of day swaggers about, full of its own importance, occasionally flexing its fingers and saying "oh, sorry - you thought I was finished? Nope - there's something else good in an hour or so - just remember this on Wednesday, when you'll have had three utterly unremarkable days in a row."

Yesterday was one of these Extraordinarily Good Days, and here's what it had to offer amongst its spectacularly showy wares:

1. The Grand Opening of The Didsbury Village Farm Shop. I'm a sucker for anything with the word "Grand" in the title (except possibly a DFS sale), and this was no exception. I have long been a fan of the Artisan Meat Company, and am understandably delighted by their thoughtful decision to open a more convenient shop for me, although I have now had it pointed out to me that Simon Rimmer will NOT, in fact, be there to chat about cheese EVERY shopping day.

There's a good chance, however, that the equally lovely Artisan Chris WILL be on hand though, to talk you through his tomatoes and sell you a sprout tree or two. It's a delight to find someone so visibly proud of the food they are selling, although I have not yet confirmed with any certainty that his first name is indeed "Artisan". No matter, for this shop is packed full of local produce, with 80% of their goodies coming from a 10 mile radius of their Cheshire base and pork, beef & lamb coming from within 3 miles. Owner Mark Faulkner and the team will also be selling hot sandwiches at lunchtime, which is all very nice for those who work in Didsbury, but a bit of a blot on an otherwise Extraordinarily Good Day for those who don't.

2. If you hadn't noticed, Christmas is a-coming, and yesterday marked the very traditional Stir-Up, erm, Saturday, the day when Christmas puddings are made. This also involves the drinking of wine, the eating of all the glace cherries straight out the pot, and the performing of Mariah Carey at a thrillingly loud volume. It also allows one to feel virtuous, domestic and worthy when one is, in fact, not.

3. Dinner at Dimitiri's. Obviously, it's exciting enough that Dimitiri's, that great Deansgate stalwart, has opened an outpost in Didsbury, but there was just that tiny worry that it wouldn't measure up to its colossal older brother. I mean, last time I went to Dimitri's on Deansgate, I wore a fake fur coat, danced wildly on my chair, AND everyone left with pockets full of fish kebabs (don't ask) - how could the new Dimitri's Didsbury possibly compete with that?

Luckily, Dimitri's Didsbury seems to have found its feet remarkably quickly. I'd heard one or two tales of early teething problems with the service, but we had very little complaint with anything, other than the normal problems faced by two girls attempting to share a number of small plates with two boys who have apparently not eaten for three weeks. The menu is the same as the one offered on Deansgate - ie VAST - so we took the easy option and selected from the Mezes section, which offers tapas combinations to share. The Kalamata Plata are available when two or more people order the same, so we went for two meat and two fish options - everything was hoovered up pretty much as soon as it came, but I can report that the ladies enjoyed the mussels and the whitebait best, with the boys preferring the Stifado and chorizo dishes. Everyone, sadly, liked the calamari.

There were a few quibbles; the Greek salad that came with both options was a bit perfunctory, a small dish with lots of lettuce and some sad, dry pieces of Feta cheese, and the Baklava and Kataifi on the "Traditionally Greek" Sweet Platter were also a bit meh - nowhere near in the same league as the exemplary Crema Catalana that we also shared. We also felt that the place has yet to develop a real sense of atmosphere - the plain white walls haven't changed since the restaurant's Fat Loaf days, and there was no music. I'm not saying I want to smash plates and dance to Zorba the Greek, but it could do with feeling just a little bit more, well, Greek.

Still, with the bill for four (including wine) coming in at under a hundred quid, we felt this represented a pretty enjoyable night out, certainly worthy of its place in an Extraordinarily Good Day.

And today? Well today I have marked essays whilst wearing pyjamas, done some washing, and bit of hoovering; later I will probably lose my temper at the XFactor Results Show. Looks like I'll just have to live off thoughts of yesterday a little bit longer...

- Didsbury Farm Shop is at 737 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury
- Dimitri's is at 846 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury; tel. 0161 434 5151
- Christmas puddings are currently steaming in my increasingly fuggy kitchen.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Didsbury Independents: Pie-Lovers Rejoice at New Fosters Menu

Now, I've got nothing whatsoever against West Didsbury, or the lovely people who live there. In fact, I have many friends living "Up West", and have enjoyed plenty of splendid nights out along Burton Road before slinking back to the East Side, counting my blessings that we, at least, have a cinema.

No, the thing about West Didsbury is that it knows how good it is. It laboriously counts up its thriving independent businesses on all of its fingers and toes, looking more than a bit smug about the whole thing, before saying in a sad, sympathetic voice what a shame it is that Didsbury itself has turned into such a clone town, a weary line of chain shops and bars, punctuated by one of the myriad charity shops that thrive here.

And to a certain extent, of course, this is all true. Didsbury now has two Wetherspoons, a Slug & Lettuce, a Costa Coffee, an M & S Food, a Co-Op and - horrifyingly - a Tesco will also soon be setting up shop on Wilmslow Road. I plan to walk straight past it, either with my nose in the air or a stern, disapproving look on my face; I haven't yet decided which, and may indeed alternate between the two just to keep them on their toes.

But this is only half the story. Didsbury has plenty of interesting, independent businesses, run by local folk who care about what they sell, and who actively want to build relationships with the people who shop there. I daren't list them all for fear of missing someone out, but most of them will have appeared on this blog at some point. This Saturday will see the arrival of another lovely local business, as the long-awaited Didsbury Farm Shop opens its doors to grateful shoppers who will no longer have to drive halfway across Cheshire to get their hands on some Artisan Meat Company sausages. The shop opens at 8am, with Simon Rimmer conducting the official, properly-glamorous launch at 10am; if I oversleep, you are not, repeat NOT, to purchase all the sausages before I get there. More on this after I have eaten my way along the shelves and can offer a full, ahem, professional report on proceedings.

Another Didsbury business going from strength to strength is Fosters Fish & Chips, which recently celebrated its first birthday and has now launched a catastrophically exciting new menu. Until now, the Didsbury restaurant has offered the same menu as the original Alderley Edge branch (I am resolutely refusing to consider that this makes Fosters a chain), but now, thrillingly, we get MORE and BETTER stuff. Whilst the focus - rightly - remains on fishius chippus, the menu has expanded to cater for a range of tastes. To wit:

- they now sell the most gorgeous pies, in a helpful, pocket-sized form that makes you feel that actually, you can't really be eating that much pastry and that, probably, it's really quite a healthy choice. Even more thrillingly, they are home-made by a lady who lives ON THE SAME ROAD AS ME, and when I find out which number, I plan to camp outside, crying and occasionally pointing at my open mouth in the manner of Simon's Cat waiting to be fed. There are five different types of pie; Mr Liz and I both liked the Cottage Pie best, topped as it was with the most amazing mashed potato, offering an apparent butter to potato ratio of approximately 60:40. We also both loved the Cheese and Onion, but they were all good; luckily, the menu allows you to choose any two - with Fosters legendary chips of course - as a main dish.

- clever Kath Foster has realised that there are many people who - much like myself - eat like little birds, barely picking at a few morsels before patting their tiny stomachs and declaring themselves fit to burst. Just for them, Fosters now offers a menu of mini dishes, including a weeny version of their signature cod, chips and mushy peas (pictured below, although remember there are two portions here - me and Mr Liz could hardly be expected to share) that costs £4 a go; very reasonable considering it's not really that weeny at all (although still not sharing, under ANY circumstances). Other "mini" dishes are available; three plump little fishcakes, for example, or two gorgeously fat risotto balls. Normal people will of course order these as starters, thereby eating even more than they'd intended to, while the thin people smugly pat their stomachs and order another diet Coke.

- and finally, even cuter than the little pies and the Borrowers-sized fish and chips, comes the advent of the mini dessert. Now this one really is clever; I am always ordering a pudding that proves to be the wafer-thin mint that breaks the normally restrained girl's back, AND being charged £7 for the privilege. Now, however, there is no need to exercise one's own restraint: simply hand over your £2.50, wait a moment or two, and a pudding will arrive IN A SHOT GLASS. Honestly, you can't possibly go wrong; unless you order twelve, of course. We tried the Millionaire's Shortbread, Key Lime Pie and Sherry Trifle; you can see them below, seconds before we began the undignified fight over them that almost resulted in a custard-strewn husband (NOTHING less than he deserved, I might add).

Obviously, it goes without saying that most people will still come to Fosters for the fish, which remains as extensive in range as ever, but it's certainly nice to have the option. My only fear is that Mr Liz will use it as an excuse to visit twice as often; you can take the pie-eater out of Wigan...

- Fosters Fish & Chips is at 812 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury M20 6UH.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The North Pole Bar Returns; (Most of) Manchester Rejoices

Now, I must start off by saying that it's probably just me. I have long since learned that if you're the sort of person prone to getting wildly over-excited about things, then you are also likely to suffer the occasional disappointment, where you look sadly at your wine glass and feel that perhaps, just this once, it maybe is really half empty - although normally this can be swiftly countered by sending a passing husband on a bar run.

And for someone who really, really likes Christmas, the opening of this year's temporary North Pole Bar by Urbis had excitement written all over it. I am one of those truly annoying souls who has to be physically restrained from getting out her copy of Nigella Christmas before October, who would happily listen to Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas is Yooooooo any time from June onwards, and who doesn't understand why mince pies can not be eaten with impunity all year round.

So a special Christmas bar, serving mulled wine and other tempting hot cocktails in a snug Winter Wonderland, sounded just perfect. I mean, just look at their twinkily seductive website! If you wait a moment, Parky the Polar Bear will even wink at you, for HE is excited about Christmas too! I'd also heard really good things about previous versions of this visiting festive paradise; literally the whole of Manchester seemed excited yesterday to welcome it back to the centre of our beautiful city.

So like I say, it's probably just me. A quick glance at Twitter this morning showed immense love for last night's launch party, and indeed, parts of it were lovely. Parky the Polar Bear was there to greet us all, as were a number of charming staff who did their best to keep so many people fed and watered, and the hot cocktails - including Manchester Mulled Wine (with added Vimto) and Winter Crumble (vodka, caramelised apple juice and cinnamon) - are indeed delicious.

The problem for me was that it just didn't feel Christmassy enough. The first room you enter is a wooden chalet, draped with festive greenery, and offering comfy leather sofas where you can toast yourself in front of a screen showing a picture of a flickering log fire; the second, a curtained-off area filled with white bench seating; the third, the excitingly-named "Rudolph Room", wasn't open before we left (although I like to hope it was full of reindeer sat around having a chat and a glass of mulled wine, making the most of their free time before being called into action on Christmas Eve). It just didn't have the cosy feel I was expecting; instead, it felt a little cold, a little sterile, and the music was an odd mixture of pop and dance that seemed not to give a jot for the fact that Slade probably should be on round about now.

Obviously, it doesn't really matter what I think - the bar will be a raging success, and why not? It has all the ingredients of a really good Christmas night out: mulled wine, a giant inanimate polar bear, and a food stall selling Bratwurst sausages and venison burgers. It deserves its success but it's not for me; I'm off to have a far less cool Yule with my copy of Now That's What I Call Christmas...

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Spinningfields Welcomes The Oast House; Thirsty Skaters Rejoice

I love Manchester. I may not have one of those posters in my window proclaiming my allegiance, but that doesn't mean I don't heart my adopted home town; Mr Liz never ceases to be amazed that I left God's own cider country in order to live amongst its smoky turrets and red brick palaces.

And yet, even the most ardent of Mancunians has always had to admit that not all parts of the city centre are as beautiful, striking or salubrious as their glitzy, show-off cousins just a stone's throw away; the contrast between the breathtaking juxtaposition of old and new in Exchange Square, for example, and the tiredness of the once-thriving Ancoats (although ANY area name-checked in Matchstick Men and Matchstick Cats and Dogs can't be all bad) makes it all too clear that some places in Manchester are more equal than others.

At least, this used to be the case. Recent years have seen plenty of areas of Manchester and Salford move from skank to swank (sometimes seemingly overnight, but then I'm not always very observant) - Salford Quays, with its glorious theatre, art gallery, museum and now big shiny lovely Media City thingy is a case in point, and the Northern Quarter, while still undeniably a little rough round the edges, is now one of my favourite places in Manchester for a night out, thanks to its mix of interesting independent businesses and its complete lack of loud, orange, WAG-y types.

And so to Spinningfields. It seemed uncertain that this previously unloved area of Manchester would ever really catch anyone's attention - you either didn't know it was there, or didn't care, or only vaguely registered its presence as you hurried past to get the Mark Addy. Shallow as I am, the reason for my initial antipathy towards the area is clear from the most cursory of glances at the Spinningfields website, which proudly proclaims it to be "Europe’s new premium financial and professional services destination"; well yes, all well and good, but sadly you may as well say "blah blah blah blah" to me instead for all the interest I have in financial and professional services.

Now, however, I AM interested in Spinningfields, for it is suddenly full of places I want to go. Australasia, with its faux-Louvre glass entrance, may have gathered mixed reviews, but it has certainly attracted plenty of press attention for its glamour and presumption; Southern Eleven has had people physically weeping over the beauty of its American BBQ ribs; and The Alchemist certainly knows how to serve after-work drinks in style.

To this increasingly impressive list can now be added The Oast House, yet another outpost for the seemingly tireless Tim Bacon of Living Ventures, and looking like yet another success. This is the first pub for Living Ventures, and is of course no ordinary pub; as with so many things, until you've seen a gorgeous little Alpine-esque chalet spring up in the middle of a shopping precinct, you never really realised how much you wanted or needed one. Certainly the place looked beautiful for its launch party on Thursday, decorated with hundreds of twinkly-mouthed pumpkin heads and with plenty of comfy sofas strewn with tempting furs that my cat - if invited - would have been loathe to leave. The Oast House is a temporary structure with a two-year licence, but feels so snug and sturdy that it is quite easy to imagine locals gripping on to its foundations and wailing "no! you mustn't take it away!" when its tenure is up.

The selection of alcohol on offer is impressive, with around 40 different bottled beers and ciders from around the world (during my evening I only managed two places, Brazil and Italy, so clearly I'm going to have to go back and continue my tour) as well as draught and cask ales (these included Thornbridge Jaipur, Redwillow Smokeless and Loweswater Gold the night we were there - as you would expect from a place that takes its name from a building used to dry hops, there is a strong beer presence here). Foodwise, they will be offering a deli-style menu of cheese boards and the like (I pray to the food gods above that some form of the Stilton tart canape I ate ten million of appears on this menu at some point) and - even more excitingly - an outside barbecue that they promise will laugh in the face of the impending Mancunian winter.

Any down sides? Well, after a few drinks I did find the toilet door handles difficult to operate (you'll see what I mean), but I am prepared to admit this may be a failing on my part rather than the venue. Does Manchester need another pub? Maybe not, but The Oast House does offer something a little bit different, and I for one am already picturing myself sailing elegantly round the soon-to-appear Spinningfields ice rink (in my imagination I am an excellent skater, rather than alternating between sitting on my bottom and holding on to the edge with grim determination) before skipping, rosy-cheeked, for a cheeky mulled wine at The Oast House.

- The Oast House is in Crown Square, Spinningfields, Manchester M3 3AY, tel 0161 8293830. may have noticed that the photos today are of an, ahem, slightly higher quality than perhaps normally appears on these pages. You may admire more of this talented man's work here - he's not quite mastered the art of "photographing a pear in the dark" yet, but he's working on it.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

October's Gourmet Evening at The Mark Addy Offers an Offally Civilised Menu...

Now, obviously I like to hope each finely-crafted, perfectly-honed blog post that I send out into the world is unique - an impeccable nugget of insightful, individualised, pithy comment. And yet, I cannot help noticing a certain "sameness" creeping into some of my posts - take the monthly Mark Addy Gourmet Evening post, for example, which pretty much reads each time "turned up, ate range of top offal dishes cooked by genial hairy bloke, went home".

And up to a point, this month's Gourmet Evening did indeed look the same: last Wednesday of the month, lots of hungry-faced diners, six lovely courses of local, seasonal goodness for £30...I could almost feel my fingers beginning to type "turned up, ate range of top offal dishes cooked by genial hairy bloke, went home", possibly with the witty addition of "trousers too tight" tagged on the end.

Then, however, Robert Owen Brown (rather selfishly, I thought) went off script. First of all, he has had his flaming locks sheared away, meaning that tirelessly brave bloggers who are already overworked must think of ANOTHER adjective with which to describe him - hirsute will no longer do. So, ROB will henceforth appear in these pages as "sleek" unless, of course, he grows his hair again and can go back to being hirsute. Honestly, I'll run out of words at this rate.

Secondly, one of the very greatest pleasures of the Gourmet Evening is taking a photo of the menu, posting it on Twitter and Facebook while Mr Liz is in the loo (he frowns on my social network dependence) and then awaiting the cries of disgust from less intrepid friends who are appalled to think of a happy band of diners elsewhere in Manchester chowing down on squirrel, pig's head, tripe and other assorted delicacies. This month's menu - disappointingly - was met with complete approval, attracting such comments as "sounds good - no odd animal bits on it which is nice"; I mean, honestly, where's the fun in this?

Anyway, this is the classy menu that I devoured in my normal, ladylike fashion:

- Game Broth Shooter. Obviously, it's game season, hence a hot little shot glass of clear, peppery broth that tasted - in a good way - just like the proper stock my dad used to make every year to restore us after our Christmas gluttony.

- Line Caught Sea Bass Fillet with Menai Mussels. A delicate sliver of fish with properly-crisped skin (The Mark Addy is the ONLY place where the fish skin is worth eating), swimming languidly in a sea (well, more like a puddle, but that ruins the metaphor a little) of tasty broth while its three small, sweet mussel friends tried to escape my gently smiling jaws. Delicious, although I didn't quite finish the broth due to the arrival of a distractingly charming landlord during this course.

- Saddle of Hare with Quinn's Quince. Oh my - who knew hare tasted so good? Or more to the point, that they were so SMALL? This course was perfection in all but size - two tiny glistening slivers of rare meat that managed to be both tender and satisyingly chewy at the same time, but which were sadly gone in a trice. I fear I may have to take to the fields myself, and fell a hare or two just so I don't have to share it with thirty other people who also - selfishly - seem to like it. Please note it was quite dark in The Mark Addy on Wednesday, and I almost set light to my hair trying to manipulate the candle to take this photo *is brave, and intrepid, and hoping for some kind of journalistic prize*

- Pheasant Breast with Chestnuts. These are two ingredients you really can't go wrong with, unless you are trying to write a blog about them and can't see past phrases containing references to plump young birds / nice firm breasts / tasty chewy nuts. This is what happens when you're forced to think of new adjectives to describe the chef - you're tired before you even get to the food.

- Vanilla and Saffron Poached Pear William. It's no good: I'm now in full-on Barbara Windsor mode, and very much enjoyed this lovely juicy pear. You will also see from the increasingly moody photography that it is VERY dark in the restaurant by now.

- Leagrams Ramshackle Sheep's Curd. A change from the normal cheese and crackers, and a good one - the crackers are really just a waste of calories and stomach space when there's cheese to be eaten, and this tangy curd slipped down a treat: even Mr Liz, who normally views anything other than Cheddar with much suspicion, enjoyed this *curses*

Of course, all I can think is that with so much class, dignity and restraint on show in this month's menu, we're just bound to get pig's head stuffed with brawn, tripe and testicles next time...

- The Mark Addy is on Stanley Street in Salford, tel. 0161 832 4080.

Friday, 21 October 2011

SIBA Great Northern Beer Festival: Happy Boy Does Actual Cartwheels of Beery Joy

To all intents and purposes, October used to be a pretty boring month. A safe month. A well-behaved haven of quiet nights in and abstinence sandwiched between the laid-back decadence of summer and the frenzied run-up to Christmas. But no longer. October has become the most showy of months - a properly flamboyant, look-at-me-and-all-I-have-to-offer-you kind of month. To wit: October, a month during which I once gave up alcohol entirely, now boasts a startling range of tempting activities just waiting to part you from the cash you really should be saving up for Aunty Gertrude's new Scrabble bag, and lure you from that wagon that everyone knows you really should be on.

The Manchester Literature Festival and the Manchester Food and Drink Festivals have been regular October fixtures for the last few years, and it is with much relief that Mr Liz notes that the Didsbury Beer Festival will once again be taking place a stone's throw from his house during the last weekend of this newly troublesome month. But now, a new temptation of which we had hitherto been unaware: the SIBA Great Northern Beer Festival is to take place at the Mercure Piccadilly in central Manchester between the 27th and 29th October; in other words, the same days as the Didsbury Beer Festival, leading over-excited boys to carefully write in their diary "beer festival x 2" for three consecutive days. And then perform a small happy dance of sheer disbelieving joy.

The SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers Association *knowledgeable face*) Festival looks a corker, with around 250 cask and 100 bottled beers available for thirsty Mancunians. A record 80 brewers have entered for this year's competition for the SIBA North Region Beer Competition 2011, the judging for which takes place during the day of the 27th before the doors are opened to the public at 4pm, although as 250 casks of ale apparently equates to 18000 pints, anyone worrying that the judges will swipe the lot can rest easy. Despite being stored in a specially installed cellar set up just for the weekend, the beer must be drunk within three days and the festival organisers have therefore set the entrance fee at just £3, including a £1 refundable glass desposit; they clearly don't realise that there is little chance of leftover beer now Mr Liz and his cronies have got wind of it.

The festival runs from 4pm - 10.30pm on Thursday 27th, and (more worryingly) from noon till 10.30 on the Friday and Saturday. Anyone yet to be convinced should click on their website, and if you can resist the picture of the fifties fox promising you beers "all Northern and wi' a proper 'ead" you are a stronger person than I...

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Mr Khandoker Takes us Back to the 80s in the Great Curry Roll-Back

So, 1983. I've got to be honest, I don't really have many clear memories of 1983; I was alive, certainly, and probably perfectly happy in my little corner of Somerset, still rocking the NHS spectacle look and still too young to realise that just because your granny has made you a crochet dress doesn't mean you have to agree to wear it.

But in terms of wider cultural references, what is there, really, so say about 1983? I mean, there was no Royal Wedding, and no princes were born during this year. It's far too soon for Back To the Future, and as I'm a girl I have no interest in some geeky space film called Return of the Jedi. True by Spandau Ballet is in the charts, but to admit to liking it would mean a slow, mortifying, humiliating death in the playground. Boy George is on Top of the Pops, and my grandma actually asks if he's a boy or a girl. Frankie goes to Hollywood are causing similar trouble with Relax; my youthful opinion on both ground-breaking, controversial songs is that they are both a bit rubbish as they don't really rhyme properly. I do have a strong, abiding memory of Ronnie Corbett dressed up as Boy George singing "Do you really want to squirt me, do you really want to make me wet"; I consider this to be much better than the original.

So I'm pleased to say that I have found something both significant and marvellous about the year-that-time-forgot: Khandoker curry house first opened its doors, and began serving hungry Mancunians some of the best curry around. Of course, at the time this meant nothing to the small girl in Somerset in the crochet dress, but it certainly means a lot to her now, particularly as lovely Mr Khandoker is doing one of his legendary price roll-backs to celebrate. This means that every weeknight during October you can order selected items from the menu at 1983 prices: starters including Chicken Tikka and Onion Bhaji are £1.95 each, curries such as Chicken Rogan Josh are £4.95, and chips (and admit it - who doesn't love chips with curry) are a risible 35 pence.

It is also worth noting that the flyer for this promotion says "help us celebrate our 28th birthday in style", above a photograph of certainly the least stylish people I have ever seen; did people really use to wear heart-shaped plastic spectacles adorned with slats not dissimilar to the blinds in my spare room? Even the crochet dress looked better than this. Anyway, you may want to give the fancy dress a miss - particularly as the look du jour also seemed to include accessorising the wacky specs with a neon visor - but get yourself down to Bramhall or Didsbury pronto to take advantage of the 80s prices without the pain of the accompanying fashion and the annoyance of the non-rhyming lyrics...

- Khandoker is at 10 Fir Road, Bramhall, and 812 Kingsway, East Didsbury.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Delightful Damson in Heaton Moor Lures Lazy Local Girl out of Didsbury

This time last week, I was bemoaning the heat. A short walk into Didsbury and back had rendered me virtually unconscious, able to do little other than fling myself onto the sofa and lie there, simultaneously cross and languid, loudly complaining and baying for cold beer. I'm ready for Autumn, I cried, for sweaters, and casseroles, and blankets, and the heating coming on in the evenings while you watch Strictly and idly leaf through Christmas catalogues; begone, unseasonably warm nonsense!

Well, sometimes you get what you wish for; today is wet, cold and miserable to a quite unreasonable degree. Thank heavens, then, for lunch at Damson - a bright, shining beacon in the midst of an otherwise dreary, colourless day (although I do have a range of party food in for Strictly later - never let it be said that you can't buy class...)

Damson opened to rave reviews in 2009, and obviously I meant to go and try it out as soon as possible. Now, just two and a half short years later, I have finally got off my backside and made the arduous trek across the border into deepest, darkest Heaton Moor - where I was rewarded with a meal of the very highest quality. The restaurant itself is stunning, all polished floorboards and tastefully upholstered chairs (a little like I hope my own house might look if it wasn't continually besmirched by layers of cat hair and socks discarded by untidy husbands), and appeared as nothing less than an oasis of warmth and comfort for those coming in out of the rain.

We ate from the set menu, which offers extraordinarily good value at £13.95 for two courses or £16.95 for three, with a choice of three options for each course. We both started with the Veloute of Cauliflower and Parmesan - a gloriously silky, warming soup offering a perfect combination of comfortingly bland creaminess and earthily tasty cruciferous-ness. I make cauliflower soup myself quite often, and Mr Liz has never, ever eaten my version with anything like so much enthusiasm, so I suspect the cream to vegetable ratio was quite high with this one; certainly both bowls were left embarrassingly spotless.

Next up, we both had had Pan-fried Lamb Liver, Crushed Minted Peas, Colcannon Potatoes, Slow Roasted Garlic, and Lamb Jus, and I can assure you we polished this off in far less time than it has just taken me to type it all out. The liver was perfect - caramelised on the outside but meltingly pink in the middle, and beautifully complemented by the rich lamb jus and the zingily fresh peas. And yes, we have both eaten a couple of whole garlic cloves apiece, so I pity the fool who tries to get close to either of us this evening *watches disgruntled cat slink away, offended by evil smell emanating from both parents*

And so to dessert. Here we daringly went our own separate ways, with Mr Liz opting for Caramel Panna Cotta, Crushed Raspberries and Honeycomb, and his better half choosing Chocolate and Chestnut Parfait with Pumpkin Sorbet. Astonishingly, these were even nicer than they sound; mine in particular, with its clever combination of Summer textures and Autumn flavours, reminding me exactly why I like this time of year so much (to be fair, we were tucked away in the back corner of the restaurant, allowing me to imagine that the streets outside were full of rosy cheeked children merrily kicking crisp leaves about rather than the cross, wet shoppers whom I suspect were there in actuality).

Side dishes are available at £3.50 a go, but the portions are generous enough without needing these extras (and if I say that, you KNOW it's true), making the set menu a steal for food of this quality. The deal runs Tuesday to Saturday between 12 and 2.30pm, 12 till 5pm on a Sunday, and between 5.30 and 6.30 most evenings - check out their website for more details.

And yes, I know there aren't any pictures - a fact that should be taken as a huge compliment to the chef. And, of course, an excellent excuse to go back...

- Damson is at 113 Heaton Moor Road, Heaton Moor, Stockport, Cheshire SK4 4HY, tel. 0161 4324666, and you can follow the charming chef/proprietor Simon Stanley on Twitter (@simonjstanley69) for more food-related musings.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Manchester Food and Drink Festival: Clean-living Girl Cruelly Floored by Raft of Whisky Events

Now, I am aware that over the last few years, I have inadvertently acquired something of a reputation as a bon viveur; indeed, a casual glance at this very blog might indicate that I am something of a greedy-faced glutton, forever sticking my hungry face into the food trough and then swilling it all down with a flagon or two of something alcoholic. And whilst I cannot, ahem, entirely refute these claims, I would like to highlight the following points:

- the glass of wine I am currently drinking is the first alcoholic drink I have had in a week, and what's more, I am sipping it daintily in a ladylike manner. So, that image you have of me throwing my head back and glugging directly from the bottle? False, entirely false.

- today I have eaten an apple, an orange, some raisins and a few sad morsels of melba toast, and I have a healthy pork and vegetable casserole bubbling away on the stove which - much to Mr Liz's chagrin - I plan to serve with EXTRA vegetables.

- finally (for now - I could extol my clean-living virtues for far longer than this), I can honestly say that I hardly ever drink spirits - a gin and tonic once a year with my mum whilst making the Christmas lunch (and everyone knows that Christmas Day offers a free pass to do whatever you want - I could dunk a selection of Quality Street in my gin and tonic if I so desired), and an occasional brandy and ginger in exceptionally cold or trying circumstances is about my lot.

I am certainly not a whisky drinker, so imagine my surprise upon checking my diary to find that it is full of whisky-based events; last time I drank whisky was about ten years ago at the house of a serious connoisseur, who was openly appalled when I mixed some prized vintage with diet coke to make it slightly more palatable. Next Saturday, 15th October sees the return of The Manchester Whisky Festival, the annual highlight of the Manchester Food and Drink Festival for Mr Liz and other excitable boys across the North West; last year, he returned home so drunkly triumphant he had to be put to bed for a couple of hours before he was considered tolerable once more by the general populace. Worryingly, the tickets for the afternoon session had already sold out, meaning that Mr Liz and his partners-in-crime will be starting on the whisky at 11am - ELEVEN AM.

As if that wasn't enough, he gets something of a whisky warm-up this weekend, as Common in Manchester's Northern Quarter hosts the final leg of the ‘Auchentoshan Presents’ tour on Sunday 9th October. Auchentoshan is a single malt, and therefore (I know now) NOT to be mixed with diet coke; imagine my delight, therefore, to find that the free whisky tasting that starts at four positively sanctions the mixing of whisky with other things for girly wooses. Three tasters will be available, including a long drink made with ginger ale (I like the sound of this one), and a combination involving chocolate - Mr Liz is, I think, hoping for a large glass of neat whisky with a Yorkie bar perched on the edge as decoration. Once everyone is nice and drunk (even I can see that free whisky mid-afternoon is a risky concept, albeit an exciting one), there will be music till midnight; Common say "proper fancy dj types playing music until midnight (it is a school night after all)" and I frankly have no wish to alter their splendid wording.

So, a couple of unfeasibly good weekends for whisky-loving Mr Liz; I'm honestly fed up with him leading me astray and dragging me out all the time...

Friday, 30 September 2011

Gluttonous Double-Header: Mark Addy Salford Gourmet Evening and Game Night at Join Us For Supper

Now, I am obviously aware that my reputation for restraint and abstinence became irreparably tarnished some time ago, and that starting up a blog in which I physically chronicle this greed has hardly helped present the image of someone who eats like a little bird. And yet I must stress at this point that today's double-headed blog of shame is absolutely not my fault; after all, it was not me that decided that The Mark Addy Gourmet Evening would be on the last Wednesday of the month and that North Star Deli would hold theirs on the following day, so I can hardly be held accountable for the fact that I have consumed a total of nine giant courses over just two evenings.

Having established my utter lack of culpability, I shall proceed with impunity, and confess to having consumed the following at Robert Owen Brown's latest feast at Salford's Mark Addy:

1. Potted Squirrel. As this month's Gourmet Evening fell during The Salford Food and Drink Festival, ROB's challenge was to use only ingredients from that well-known foodie mecca of Salford, a mission he apparently kicked off by sending Lee Frost from WH Frost Butchers out with his shot gun to fell squirrels in Mr Frost Senior's back garden. One can only imagine the pleasure Mr Frosty Butcher presumably took in such an operation, smearing camouflage paint on his face and rampaging through the undergrowth in search of his prey; I took much pleasure in the result - a generous smear of coarse, gamey pate atop a square of toast. Bravo Mr Squirrel Nutkin - a tasty fellow indeed.

2. Wild Mushroom Shooter. A gorgeously peppery soup made from foraged funghi and served in a wine glass tailor-made for unladylike slurping.

3. Baby Leaf Salad with Honey and Horseradish. Now, course number three is normally the fish course, so I can only surmise that ROB either failed to find any piscine life at all in Salford, or perhaps delved in the river and came out with one of those three-eyed specimens so common in Springfield and a rusty shopping trolley. Anyway, once we'd got over our surprise at such a healthy course appearing on an ROB menu we did enjoy the salad, although Mr Liz did maintain hope until the bitter end that he would move a piece of greenery and unearth a stray piece of black pudding underneath all that rabbit-food nonsense.

4. Chicken "Hindle Wakes". It was as this course arrived that I realised that, once again, I had neglected to photograph ANY of my food before wolfing it, thereby implying - erroneously of course - that I am not perhaps entirely professional in my food reporting. This time, I would do better, and take a lovely picture of the tender chicken pieces, stuffed with a gorgeously festive mix of prunes, almonds and spices, and served with a light, tangy lemon sauce. Eagle-eyed readers who notice that there is in fact no picture of this dish may like to blame the ebullience of landlord John, who came and sat next to me as the food arrived and distracted me with his beauty, wit and charm.

5. Eccles Cakes with Sloe Syrup. Well, what else would you expect to be served for pudding at a Salford Gourmet Evening? These were plump little creatures, stuffed full of juicy fruit and served with a sticky sloe reduction; considering how delicious they were, I am both astonished and proud to append below some photographic evidence of their perfection.

6. A Bit of Cheese, not from Salford. Perhaps ROB thought we would rise up, en masse, and revolt if deprived of cheese; I can find no other explanation for the small piece of cheese that arrived at the end of the meal. The small piece of cheese later admitted under interrogation that it was in fact not from Salford, and that this was its first visit to the area. I have not taken a picture of this interloper.

So, it could perhaps be argued that a girl who has troughed six courses (well, five really - you can't properly count salad as a course, surely) should sit quietly at home the following night, drinking water and nibbling on fresh air. Being, however - as noted above - an entirely professional food reporter, I considered it nothing less than my duty to show my face at Join Us For Supper, the monthly gourmet night at Chorlton's North Star Deli. This month was Game Night, celebrating the start of the season with a stunning menu of Autumnal delights that made you want to don a scarf and kick through some crisp leaves whilst breathing out white dragon breath into the cold, bracing air...hardly Deanna's fault that Game Night ended up taking place on the hottest September day in the history of the world. This is what we had:

1. Game Soup. A little bowl of intensely flavoured broth in which small birds and animals had selflessly disseminated their deliciously warm, gamey flavour, tender pieces of pigeon, mallard, rabbit, partridge and venison lurking tastily at the bottom of the dish. I could have eaten about twelve bowls of this, AND the butter for the bread came in the shape of star *impressed face*

2. Moroccan Spiced Partridge with Roast Root Vegetables and Apricot Sauce. A whole, plump little partridge reclining amongst meltingly soft, cinnamon-spiced vegetables, requiring girls with normally immaculate table manners to pick it up in their fingers and apply directly to face. This course was preceded with a talk from - guess who - Mr Frosty Butcher himself, a man who seems to have pretty much cornered the market in felling tasty creatures and then talking genially about the whole process; he is also a passionate believer - as I am - in treating the countryside with respect and taking only what you intend to eat (obviously, I intend to eat pretty much all of it) and not exploiting creatures for meaningless sport. AND he'd shined his shoes especially for the occasion.

3. Desserts from the Orchard. This turned out to be an apple filo tart, served with pears poached in both red and white wine and damson and plum ice-creams, and was actually my favourite course. Presentation was immaculate, and the ice-cream truly the best I have had. You may wish to observe that each of these courses is accompanied by a picture, and attribute this either to a growing professionalism in my work, or the fact that I am far more scared of Deanna than I am of Robert Owen Brown.

So, as the world's longest blog post finally draws to a close, I can only hope this session of vigorous typing has pretty much cancelled out my, ahem, temporary bout of gluttony - lets just hope I'm not called upon to do it all again next month...

- The Mark Addy is on Stanley Street in Salford; tel 0161 8324080 to book.

- North Star Deli is at 418 Wilbraham Road, Chorlton, Manchester; tel 0161 8620133.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Theatre Review: We Are Three Sisters at The Lowry, Salford

As previously noted, I have a weakness for booking theatre tickets during the week, when I am too tired to do anything other than slump languidly in my seat, waiting for it to be over. And obviously, having noted such a weakness, I have learnt a valuable lesson from my own life-mistakes and made sure not to do it again. Well, apart from last night that is, when I attended the opening night of We Are Three Sisters at The Lowry, entirely unavoidably, for the following very good reasons:

- We Are Three Sisters is a new play about the Bronte sisters, two of whom have written books that I am either currently teaching or have taught in the past. Therefore, the evening counts as research for work, and not as a night out, in any way.

- The play has been written by Blake Morrison, an author I admire. He is from Yorkshire, but this cannot technically be held against him on this occasion, as the play is about ladies who are, after all, from Yorkshire.

- The play is a Northern Broadsides production, and they are always excellent (despite, again, hailing from across the Pennines); their 2010 production of The Canterbury Tales (also at The Lowry) was splendid, and no doubt had many a hopeful man enquiring whether they too might swive in trees and stick their backsides through windows.

- The Lowry is a great venue, with a proven track record for booking interesting productions. And on a less artistic note, we always get to eat at Lime beforehand, where Mr Liz spends a good three minutes pretending to study the menu before deciding - again - that he simply cannot resist the Bookmaker's Sandwich; I truly live in fear of the day they decide to take it off the menu, anticipating tears, tantrums and truculence.

In short, we went along with high expectations; well, one of us did at least - Mr Liz enjoyed his Bookmaker's Sandwich, but was then saddened to find that the Man Utd game was just starting on the big screens in Lime as he was being dragged off to watch some "Bronte nonsense". In the end, we both enjoyed it, even the man who spent the first few minutes sniggering at there being a character called Tabby and asking whether this part would be played by a specially trained acting cat. (It wasn't).

The play opens with the three surviving Bronte sisters having already penned the novels that would become so famous - Anne and Emily have found a publisher, and Charlotte is on the hunt for one. Being women, of course, they have written under male pseudonyms, sure that their work would not be taken seriously if anyone were to find out the authors' true identities. Meanwhile, brother Branwell - not without talent himself - is busy drinking, gambling, and carrying on with his married employer, the magnificently vulgar Mrs Robinson who, for me, was the star of the show; Becky Hindley deserves full credit for creating such an appallingly enticing character whilst wearing the most unpleasant dress yet seen on these shores.

In fact, the acting is superb across the board. The three sisters are clearly drawn and played utterly as individuals rather than the amorphous mass of Bronte-ness they have come to represent for trepidatious literature students: Charlotte (Catherine Kinsella) is sensible and dowdy on the outside, but fiery and passionate on the inside; Emily (Sophia Di Martino) is morbid, and poetic, and solitary; Anne, the baby of the family, is played by Rebecca Hutchinson as desperate to work and experience new things, finding the quiet life at Haworth more than a little limited.

Not that they don't have a stream of male admirers beating a hopeful path to their door, including an incompetent doctor who hits the bottle when it becomes clear that Anne doesn't return his love, an idiotic school master determined to get the girls to work at his school, and a slimy curate who fancies his luck with anything in a skirt, using the same tired lines on whichever Bronte sister happens to be around at any given time. Amusement is also provided by Duggie Brown as Patrick, the father of the Bronte sisters, although some of this humour is unintentional as his supposedly Irish accent veers wildly from coast to coast during his performance (which is, nonetheless, extremely likeable).

In fact, I only have one quibble (well two, if you count taking along a husband intent on making cat jokes): twenty to eleven is really much too late for a play to finish on a school night. I certainly won't, ahem, be making that mistake again.

- We Are Three Sisters by Blake Morrison is on at The Lowry until Saturday 24th October, with tickets priced from just £16 - full details and booking on The Lowry website.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Happy First Birthday to Fosters Fish & Chips in Didsbury

If there's one thing the good people of Britain enjoy, it's a nice queue. We just can't resist it. It's the reason that I saw Madonna in concert from a distance of approximately one yard, close enough to see the wrinkles and the scary man-biceps; we saw her in Barcelona, and whilst all the laid-back Spaniards lolled outside in the sun, drinking beer and eyeing up the opposite sex, we QUEUED, because WE'RE BRITISH, and got RIGHT TO THE FRONT, because we were PATIENT.

And if there's another thing we're partial to as a nation, it's a bargain. People are loitering in the reduced-to-clear aisles of their local supermarket AS WE SPEAK, hoping to snag a packet of almost-out-of-date sausages for half price, acting purely on an unverified rumour that an employee has been spotted coming out of the stockroom holding her yellow sticker gun - time to sharpen those elbows and move in, trampling the weak and the dithering in the charge for those fish bits.

Britain really triumphs when these two pastimes are successfully combined. Shoppers queuing for bargains at sale time has become the staple image for Boxing Day news programmes, as people who should surely be at home arguing with their grandmother over a particularly fierce game of Scrabble instead fight it out for a slightly dented fridge freezer, a selection of cashmere sweaters in unpleasant colours, and a pair of Jimmy Choos two sizes too small.

And today, if you live in or near Didsbury, you could reach a particularly Mancunian pinnacle of achievement: queuing, for a bargain, in the rain and cold. For today marks the first birthday of Fosters Fish & Chips; it's a whole year since the Didsbury branch opened its doors to hungry folk fed up with Alderley Edge getting all the good stuff, and the Fosters (or the "Fishy Fosters", as they really like to be called) have very sportingly decided to celebrate the occasion by offering takeaway fish and chips for a pound. You still have time to get down there, as the offer runs until 10pm tonight (stocks permitting), and I can offer the following helpful pointers if you are considering doing so:

- if you have an obliging husband who finishes work earlier than you do, simply send him on ahead to start queuing on your behalf. I suggested Mr Liz fulfil the important man-role of "doing a recce", knowing full well that he would be unable to resist joining the queue when he got there; I sauntered up a good forty minutes later and innocently joined him just as he was approaching the doors of the shop, thus selflessly keeping him company for the final leg of his vigil.

*pause to accept good-wife plaudits*

- if you do not have your own Mr Liz or similar, it's worth knowing that each customer is allowed a maximum of two portions of fish and chips - simply pick someone near the front of the queue who looks as if they might be single and casually fall into conversation with them, perhaps mentioning that you haven't eaten yet and really could manage some fish and chips round about now. Do give them the pound though - obviously you don't want to look cheeky.

- Kath Foster herself has - for once - been allowed onto the premises, and is roaming the queue with fizz and cake pops, so it's worth catching her eye and being nice to her.

- there are also - allegedly - nice ladies with fish cakes patrolling the line; I cannot confirm this however, as Mr Liz, with great selfishness, failed to collect one on my behalf whilst queuing alone. Men.

- there is a fabulous cake on display, decorated with fish, chips and mushy peas crafted from what I can only assume is icing; I did not have a piece of this cake, however, so I feel disinclined to say any more about it.

- finally, and most importantly, the fish and chips are amazing. And everyone in the queue KNOWS they are going to be amazing, because they always are from Fosters, and thus the queue is good-natured, and happy, and patient in waiting for its tea - not for nothing were Fosters recently shortlisted in the final three of the National Fish & Chips Awards for the North West region.

So yes, it will take you a long time to get your dinner, but yes it will be worth it. Or you could simply take the easy option and go another night, a night when the whole of Didsbury is NOT having fish and chips for tea...

- Fosters Fish & Chips are at 812 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, Manchester M20 6UH.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Manchester Gastroclub Sept 2011: Choice Bar and Restaurant

There's no two ways about it; the Manchester Gastroclub is a very fine thing. Katie Brunt's merry band of convivial eaters take over a different restaurant every month, where they assemble to eat, drink and - obsessively - take pictures of their food before tweeting these along with smug comments about what a nice time they're having. And obviously, I wanted in.

However, I'm starting to think that I, or Gastroclub, or both, might be jinxed. Last month I attended my very first Gastroclub, only to find that on the night in question a small and unpleasant part of the Manchester community was busy looting shops, setting fires and generally rampaging through the streets in a manner not entirely conducive to having a relaxing evening. It's OK, Katie assured me, everything will be alright this time...and to be fair, there was no actual rioting. What there was instead was the world's largest traffic jam and a two-and-a-half hour journey home; this time, when I tweeted *cries*, I actually was, just a little bit, in sheer desperation at the mental picture of my lovely dinner slipping away from me.

But - hurrah - I made it. Yes, I looked rough, but I slipped into most excellent purple shoes that I hoped would divert the eye and was in Choice Bar and Restaurant, holding a glass of champagne, by 7.30. Restaurants that wish to lure the discerning Gastroclubbers through their doors need to put together a pretty tempting menu, and Choice - tucked away round the back of Key 103 on Castle Quay - had certainly done just that. Not all of it worked, but this is what we had:

1. Amuse Bouche of a Confit Duck BonBon. This really did amuse my mouth greatly for the fraction of a second that it lasted - a small ball of meaty goodness that amply demonstrated the fundamental flaw in the amuse bouche concept - we all felt we could have managed about eight of them. Or ten. Or a hundred and ten. A good start.

2. Terrine of Fois Gras with a coarse Chicken Liver Pate centre. This was the opposite of the amuse bouche - most of us felt we could have done with slightly less of this delicious but suicidally rich slab of pate. Luckily the VERY hungry man on our table selflessly ate all the leftovers, along with the extra bread that was brought at our request by the excellent staff.

3. Ravioli of Crab and Langoustine on Pumpkin Puree with seared Queen Scallops. Yes, it DOES sound nice, doesn't it - I'd been really looking forward to this one, and it was unfortunately a huge disappointment. The filling of the single ravioli was good, but the pasta woeful - so dry and crispy that one of our party mistook it for bread (although he had just eaten a dangerous amount of foie gras, and was perhaps not yet back on an even keel). Nor was there any sign of scallops - were these left out? Forgotten? Or had they just run out by the time they got to our table in the corner? Maybe they're the mysterious blobs dotted over the top of my ravioli in the photo below, in which case they had been chopped so small as to barely register. A shame; the main course needed to be spectacularly good to pull this one back.

4. Roast single bone Rack of Lamb served with Braised Lamb Belly Faggot wrapped in Savoy Cabbage. Spectacular. Perfectly pink and tender lamb, an unctuously good port reduction, a big fat faggot, and a really good timbale of haricot beans. This dish was faultless, and no-one was remotely surprised to find that once again Mr Frosty Butcher was responsible for the meat; we certainly all enjoyed nibbling on his best end, and sang the praises of his rump must heartily.

5. Assiette of Desserts, OR a selection of British Cheeses. I went for the latter, a wooden board laden with three cheeses, crackers, grapes, celery and onion chutney. This was generously portioned but unimaginative - the cheeses were essentially just slabs cut from a large block, the crackers were all the same type (thereby ruining the popular dinner-time game of fighting for the Hovis biscuit), and the chutney was bland and on the stingy side. I ate the blue cheese, but found the whole thing a little dry; luckily the hungry gentleman was indeed still hungry, and manfully dealt with the other cheeses.

So overall, a mixed bag. The meal was well-priced at five courses plus canapes and a glass of champagne for £30, the staff were excellent, continually replenishing the water jug without being asked, and there were flashes of real excellence in the cooking. However, it's a tall task to cater for 60 hungry people who all wish to eat at the same time, and at times Choice didn't seem entirely up to the job. I cannot fault their hospitality though, and despite the blemishes a very fine time was had by all - particularly those who showed exceptional bravery in battling through heavy traffic to get there. We can only await next month's Gastroclub with fear and trepidation to see what exactly might befall me next time; a plague of locusts, perhaps? Floods? Or even a non-matching shoe and handbag wardrobe misfire? I'll keep you posted.

- you can find out more about Gastroclub on their website, and can join as long as there remains room for me.

- Choice Bar and Restaurant is at Castle Quay, Castleford, Manchester M15 4NT, tel 0161 833 3400