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