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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...