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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...