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Saturday, 29 December 2012

Tops World Buffet Restaurant, Manchester: Local Girl Wants to Live off Teppanyaki for Rest of Life

Now, I'll start this review with a confession: the concept of an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant has never sat easily with me. For one thing, I simply cannot be trusted with it - my eyes are far, far bigger than my belly (hard as this may be to believe), and my plate generally ends up a rather random assortment of items that in no way go together, and often piled so high I can barely navigate my way safely back to my table. I also have a problem with pacing: starters are my favourite part of any meal and as a result the mains often go untouched - this is of course sometimes for the best, as I have in the past been somewhat frightened by the sight of tray after industrial tray of brightly coloured gloop plopping and gurgling away as they stretch miles into the distance, before disappearing into a shimmering haze of their own monosodium glutamate.

So you'll no doubt all agree that I was both brave and professional to give the whole concept another chance when we were invited to try Tops, a world food buffet restaurant on Manchester's Portland Street which opened in June of this year and promises the hungry diner up to 300 global dishes (presumably not all to be consumed in one sitting, although Mr Liz does starve himself during the day of our visit so that he might have a go). You pay when you go in, and already a queue is starting to form at the cash desks - little wonder, as when we visit the Christmas party season is in full swing, and at £14.99 per head on a Friday or Saturday night the value here is hard to beat. Unless, of course, the food is terrible - my worry with any restaurant offering so many dishes from so many different cuisines is a potential case of "jack of all trades, master of none", but the steady stream of customers from a huge range of different nationalities filing into the cavernous dining area suggests that something a bit better than that might be going on here.

And, it is. There are plenty of those scary ranks of stainless steel counters, but the stuff contained within them is, on the whole, pretty good. My starter plate (which you see here in all its random finery - and yes, I do really like Chinese "seaweed", so no snarky comments please) is largely good quality and I particularly enjoy the satay chicken and the large plate of crispy duck that Mr Liz helpfully goes and fetches afterwards for us to share; one or two items are more mediocre (the prawn toasts are nothing special, and Mr Liz feels that his otherwise delicious crispy shredded beef is a little on the cold side), but a first visit to this kind of restaurant is often best seen as an exploratory mission, a kind of recce if you like, to find out what to fill your plate with next time you come. Anyway, I have by this time caught sight of the sushi conveyor belt, and whilst the selection of dishes is not enormous at the time of our visit I do enjoy what there is, and take extra pickled ginger to make up for it.

But the main courses are where Tops really comes into its own, and are the reason I will definitely be coming back. I avoid the dreaded trays because I have my eye on something else, but Mr Liz tries a selection of meat from the Indian mains and enjoys them all - rice is obviously available, but he has a chocolate fountain in his sight-line for the duration of the meal and has clearly decided to start skipping empty carbohydrates). Meanwhile, I am at the Teppanyaki grill, one of a number of food stations around the edge of the room - here, a charming man lets me choose two items (I go for calamari and king prawn) and cooks them while I wait, tactfully turning a blind eye as I slaver hungrily onto his lovely cooking surface. The fish is a revelation - hot, tender, salty from a liberal application of soy sauce; when I come back, I am tempted just to have this, over and over again. I also make time (and space) to visit the seafood counter, where I greedily load my plate with fresh crab and shell-on king prawns - simple but utterly, utterly delicious.

Whilst I attempt to rip the heads off prawns in a graceful manner, Mr Liz (crack squad that we are) is checking out the desserts. There is a huge selection - profiteroles, Eton Mess, mini cakes and puddings of all varieties...but Mr Liz likes the chocolate fountains best, dipping a number of sweets into their molten rivers before finishing the whole lot off with a self-serve Mr Whippy ice-cream. Yes, I agree that it is truly remarkable that he wasn't sick on the bus on the way home.

Obviously, this kind of restaurant will always provide a certain kind of experience - the table is only yours for an hour-and-a-half, and there is a certain element of pile it high, stuff it in, and leave with a sore tummy bemoaning your lack of self control. We do, however, feel that most of the food here is of a far-better-than-average standard, and are impressed with the service, which is fast and efficient (although they do like you to have your cash ready when the drinks arrive at your table: woe-betide a pocket fumbler here) - dirty plates are quickly whipped away so that you can pretend that you've not eaten a thing yet and go and load a new plate up with something else. Tops have taken a difficult concept and raised the bar a good notch or two here, and we will definitely be back - next time, though, I might just bring a doggy bag...*drifts off into enjoyable reverie, picturing casual consumption of whole crab on journey home...*

- Tops Restaurant is at 106 Portland Street, Manchester M1 4RJ; tel. 0161 2371000. Do not, repeat DO NOT, eat anything before you go.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Didsbury Wine Club Christmas Dinner at the Grosvenor Casino, in which I eat, drink and make like Sharon Stone

Ah - the Christmas party. Absolutely rife at this time of year, and probably anticipated with roughly equal measures of excitement and dread: if you are lucky enough to get on really well with your colleagues, like I do, and go to a really lovely venue, like we did (Whim Wham Cafe on Whitworth Street if you're interested), then the Christmas party is a thing of much joy. Others are less fortunate, however - I don't have to look too far afield to spot a man who recently spent several torturous hours in Revolution bar on a Friday night, largely thanks to the fact that his work do had been organised by someone approximately half his age. Indeed, you can't move in Manchester at the moment without falling over (often literally) an overexcited party of people wearing ill-fitting sparkly clothing and believing they are Mariah Carey: as Band Aid so chillingly prophesised, it is indeed a world of dread and fear out there.

Much better, then, to attend a Christmas party in the company of people with whom you share a natural affinity, as witnessed at the Didsbury Wine Club Christmas Dinner at the Grosvenor Casino on Wednesday night. I have spoken fondly of this merry band of imbibers in previous posts - they meet monthly to sample various wines and nibble daintily on canapes under the tutelage of Omar, David and Kate in different Didsbury locations - but this was my first experience of the DWC Christmas shebang; and to my surprise, considering the night consisted of wine, food and free bets, I found it was right up my street.

We begin the night with a welcome warmer in the shape of David's own-recipe mulled wine, made using a light, fresh red with the addition of muscavado syrup, cinnamon bark and - apparently this is what makes all the difference - a few bay leaves. The wines for Didsbury Wine Club are usually supplied by West Didsbury's Reserve Wines, but everything tonight has been purchased from the nation's favourite supermarkets, in order to prove that high-street bargains are plentiful. Indeed, the Tesco Beaujolais that accompanies our starter of venison pate is most acceptable - the lighter, flintier brother of the better known Pinot Noir grape, this is fresh, gluggable and (best of all) currently on offer at £7.99. It is a brave but effective foil to the coarse meatiness of the pate; in fact, the whole thing briefly transports me back to Paris in August, where I lived on pate and Beaujolais for three days and then made the mistake of weighing myself when I got home.

*hides scales, to be brought out again mid-January, or perhaps never*

Next up is the fish course, a magnificently retro affair consisting of yellow fin sole stuffed with crab meat and served with parsley sauce. This is served with my favourite wine of the night - the Las Moras Pacha-Mama Torrontes, all the way from Argentina, or, more locally, the Co-Op for a frankly astonishing £6.99. I am not really a lover of white wine, but this is a revelation - it has sweet lychee notes jostling alongside the crisper, drier tones of elderflower, and it cuts through the richness of the fish dish perfectly. Pleasingly, this new wine discovery makes me feel I have learned something, and can mark the whole evening down as "educational"
*underlines this in notepad*

The main course is a rib-eye steak with peppercorn sauce, accompanied by a French Malbec from Tesco. I am normally very partial to Malbec, but this wine is the only disappointment of the night for me - I find it rather vinegary, and a touch harsh on the throat. Omar encourages us to try it with the food and it DOES taste much better after a mouthful of lovely rare steak; still, I won't be buying this one. The wine train immediately gets back on course with the next offering though - the perky French Gewurztraminer that arrives alongside our dessert of lemon tart is honeyed enough to cope with the food pairing but has none of that cloying sweetness that puts me off of more traditional dessert wines. An inspired choice this one, and another wine I shall be buying (£8.99 from M & S if you wish to do likewise).

A shot of Baileys comes and goes (I don't like Baileys, Mr Liz does - I shan't spoil the plot line for you), and then it's time to grab our final wine of the night (a £9.99 Prosecco from M & S - I am already familiar with its work, and have a bottle of it in the fridge as we speak) and hit the gaming tables. The casino have laid on a "how to play session" which we have attended before, and a free £5 bet is also included in the Christmas Dinner ticket price - I treble mine at the Blackjack table before I remember it is a school night and I am not ACTUALLY Sharon Stone (too sturdily clad, for one thing) and go to cash in my winnings. Grosvenor Didsbury is a good place to go if you fancy a quick flutter but are a little intimidated by the thought of visiting a casino - the staff are lovely, and happy to explain things to you slowly and patiently; the food served in the restaurant is also far better than you might expect - we very much enjoy our four courses, although are a little surprised when great dishes of sprouts and roast potatoes appear to accompany the dainty little fish course pictured earlier. Still, never one to turn down a sprout opportunity.

Excess sproutage aside, if you live locally it's well worth getting involved with the Didsbury Wine Club, or one of their other outposts in Chorlton, Hale or Manchester. They are really friendly, enthusiastic people who are in it for the love of it rather than the money - the six wines, four courses, shot of Baileys and £5 bet come in at a total cost per head of just £35, and I honestly think that Omar might cry a little when I tell him I am going to buy some of the Torrontes. And remember, it's all *checks notepad* EDUCATIONAL, so even if you're planning a dry January, you can attend the Wine Club with a clear conscience (sort of). And me? I'm off to blow my £15 winnings on a couple of bottles of wine - see you all in January.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Guerrilla Eats Street Food Initiative Comes to Manchester: Not a Wasp in Sight

I feel I must begin with a confession: I am not someone who is naturally drawn to the concept of eating outside. Obviously I've attended some excellent barbecues, but on reflection these have largely consisted of me lolling on the swing seat or other comfortable equivalent whilst assorted menfolk bring over charred offerings with all the loving pride of a thoughtful cat bringing you a half-eaten mouse, before going inside at the first sign of a chill and putting on a pair of nice warm socks. Similarly, I cannot think of a picnic where I wasn't troubled by a/ damp grass; b/warm wine; c/hungry wasps anxious to share; or d/all of the above.

So I'm quite clearly not an obvious candidate to have my head turned by the thought of Guerrilla Eats, a new initiative being brought to Manchester by a collective of passionate food producers who want to prove to prefer-it-in-the-warm people like me that actually, street food can be brilliant. Until recently, my own personal experience of food purchased and consumed on the street would have been limited to the hideously claustrophobic annual ordeal of trying to eat half a pig stuffed in a bun at the Christmas Markets whilst an actual million other people make it their business/sport to try to push you over, an experience often followed up with finding that you have apple sauce on your chin only when you catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror in Top Shop some three hours later. Having conducted extensive research*, however, I am aware that a healthy and - dare I say it - tempting range of street food has been available in London Town for some time, so it seemed only fair to give Manchester's new initiative a quick look.

*watched those bits on the Lorraine Pascale programme where she goes and menaces various street food sellers

I do not get off to a promising start when I can't find it. Eventually a kindly/despairing man from Port Street Beer House takes pity on me and points me in the right direction - and indeed, in a little car park at the top end of Port Street I suddenly espy some stalls that seem to be laid with the most tempting of food items (and also, Sarah - who has invited us - is standing there with a clipboard, waving - this provides an additional clue). The collective currently consists of seven traders (although more are set to come on board), and the idea is for them to pop up in various locations all over Manchester - there was a recent, small-scale trial run but this is their first full weekend of trading: hence we have been invited to a sneaky preview to see what it's all about.

And I'll be honest with you - it's cold in the car park, and it's raining a little bit, but the welcome is warm and the food is spectacular. We try cupcakes from the Sugar Bun Sisters (yes, they ARE sisters, and yes, they ARE the girls who made those amazing vodka cupcakes that I once ate about 15 of in Almost Famous); extraordinary rump steak burgers served up by The Barnhouse Bistro from their corrugated iron-clad trailer; traditional Indian street food from Chaat Cart, who give us samosas and samples of dosa that are SO good that I think Mr Liz completely fails to notice they are all vegetarian; chorizo and spicy, garlicky patatas bravas from Las Paelleras; chilli dogs from Dirty Dogs that prove that a hot dog doesn't have to consist of sad, mechanically recovered meat scrapings (although I do find it hard to eat this daintily, and get chilli on my chin); pulled pork from Fire and Salt BBQ, where we marvel at Mal's ability to coolly demonstrate the pulling apart of the meat (seen here, before being set upon by pack of hungry bloggers) whilst simultaneously running around trying to sort out the lighting for the car park; and finally, for dessert (yes, I know we started with cake) some Chorlton Crack (salted caramel and peanut butter ice-cream) from the legendary Ginger’s Comfort Emporium van - they are old hands at this street food lark, having won ‘Best of the Best’ and ‘Best Dessert’ at the British Street Food Awards 2012.

And do you know what? Despite the cold, the rain, the encroaching darkness and the chilli-chin incident, it is all wonderful. Look out for Guerrilla Eats popping up in all sorts of places in the New Year, but if you're quick you can catch them today (Sunday 9th December) between 11am and 4pm - I'm seriously thinking of going back myself. There is a covered seating area in the car park, or you can even buy your food from the stalls and then go and eat it in the warmth of the nearby Port Street Beer House...unfortunately no-one told me this until AFTER my fingers had frozen themselves to my tub of Chorlton Crack.

For full details on each of the traders involved, visit their websites/twitter feeds or - better still - go and chat with them this afternoon!
Fire and Salt BBQ
Sugar Bun Sisters
Barnhouse Bistro
Chaat Cart
Las Paelleras
Dirty Dogs Hot Dogs
Ginger's Comfort Emporium

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Scottish Steak Club Restaurant at the MacDonald Manchester: No LONGER Just for Hotel Guests

Now, I have lived in Manchester for many, many years. And yet it never ceases to amaze me by yielding up something new; some hitherto unexplored little street, or some old favourite venue into which new life has unexpectedly been breathed. And on Tuesday night, I found out something little short of amazing: when you come out of Piccadilly train station, you can turn LEFT as well as right. Nah, you say - that's just the London Road, there's not much down there except maybe a hotel or two; well, one of those hotels - The Macdonald Manchester Hotel and Spa - has a restaurant which is frankly too good to remain the preserve of overnight guests a moment longer, and now I know it's there, I WANT IN.

The Scottish Steak Club Restaurant (yes, I know - the name IS promising - more of that later) is pretty busy on a filthy wet Manchester night, and although there are plenty of lone diners busily reading their Kindles at a table for one (the classic stereotype of a hotel restaurant), there is actually a nice buzz about the place thanks to a number of parties who are clearly already in the know about the left turn out of Piccadilly. Christmas music plays softly in the background, and the view of traffic on the London Road through the rain-smeared window actually makes me feel pretty cosy and - dare I say it - festive. I also very much like that from my seat I have a variety of interesting things within my sightline: I can see into the open plan kitchen, and am able to keep a close eye on a table piled high with fresh bread that is sliced on demand whenever someone (mostly me, truth be told) orders a plate of wheaty goodness served with balsamic vinegar and oil at a reasonable £2.50. I can also see Mr Liz, with a bit of sauce around his mouth, but I choose to largely ignore this and keep an eye on the chefs and the bread and the rain instead.

For starters, I go with the chicken liver parfait served with fruit chutney and toasted brioche. The pate itself is very good, although I'm not really a fan of brioche as an accompaniment - the soft sweet bread fails to provide the contrast needed to cut through the richness of the meat, but this problem could be easily circumvented next time by asking for different bread (yes - I am still gazing longingly at that table). Meanwhile, across the table Mr Liz has come up trumps (thankfully not literally) by ordering the haggis, neeps and tatties with whisky sauce. This comes as a pretty tower of different layers, with the haggis stratus just seen here peeking coyly from its moat of rich cream sauce, and whilst some might feel this is a rather gentrified version of what is essentially a sturdy, rustic sort of dish, it's actually far less polite than it looks, and we both love it.

As the name suggests, the restaurant specialises in Scottish steak, and although the menu is actually extremely wide-ranging and includes plenty of non-steak options, we both decide to try the main attraction - not least because all the steaks are cooked on a Josper charcoal grill. If you've never tried steak (or indeed anything) cooked on a Josper, I can assure you it's a revelation - this is essentially a giant indoor barbecue, but because it's being manned by experts rather than someone's slightly inebriated husband in a comedy apron, the food comes out perfectly moist and with a delicately smoky taste that a man full of beer in a back garden will never get close to. I elect to have the fillet steak, which is on the edge of pricey at £27.50 but is just stunning - charcoally, slightly caramelised stripes on the outside but perfectly rare in the middle - and comes handsomely equipped with some very good chips. Mr Liz goes for an enormous rib eye off the specials board and enjoys its strong, earthy flavour - he reckons he can taste more than a hint of unami, and decides that the accompanying onion marmalade forms an unusual but inspired foil to its savoury notes. I also order an entirely unnecessary side, also from the specials board - cabbage with bacon and cream, which provides a peerless lesson in the art of taking a healthy vegetable item and turning it into a decadent frenzy and is absolutely delicious, albeit a little on the rich side.

We are pretty full by now, but Mr Liz's eyes light up at the sight of someone else's Knickerbocker Glory and he bravely finds a small spare corner of his pudding stomach to try his own. I'm a big fan of retro desserts appearing on sprightly modern menus, and this is a good example of how to take a 70s staple and make it just a little more sophisticated - plenty of fruit, plenty of good quality ice cream and jelly and - thankfully - two chocolate sticks, so that an unseemly squabble does not develop. The service throughout is spot on - friendly and helpful without being intrusive, with staff happy to offer advice and recommendations - they even bring a little sample of the "secret sauce" for us to try when we are trying to decide what should accompany our steaks.

We were invited to try the menu as guests of the restaurant and therefore were lucky enough not asked to pay for our meal - if I have any criticism of the Scottish Steak Club it is that a meal for two here with steak and wine would soon mount up cost-wise. You do get what you pay for, however, and knowing the quality of the steak and the cooking I would go back, especially as special offers run on certain nights and there are plenty of lower-priced items on the menu. And Manchester? PLEASE don't show me any more nice places to eat - there aren't enough days in the week, and these jeans are frankly getting really a bit tight now...

- The MacDonald Manchester Hotel and Spa is on the London Road, Manchester M1 2PG; tel 0161 272 3200.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Festive Christmas Menu at Manchester's DoubleTree by Hilton: Local Girl Thrilled with Bonus Turkey Dinner

It will come as no surprise to many of you that most meals are of interest to me; indeed, my Twitter timeline consists almost entirely of people who I follow purely because, like me, they are prone to listing details of whatever they have just consumed, ideally with a photograph or two. My very favourite meal of all, however, stands head and shoulders above all others: Christmas dinner, shining like a lovely sprouty beacon at the end of a long wintery corridor; a sturdily shimmering mirage lighting the way through the dark months of the year. I love everything about it: the oft-maligned turkey, the goose-fat roasties, the fruity stuffing, the chipolatas, the honey-roast parsnips, the gravy, the sprouts...oh, especially the SPROUTS. I even like the bit where I sleep fatly on the sofa afterwards: I literally look forward to this meal all year.

So when the email arrived from DoubleTree by Hilton inviting us in to try the new Festive menu, a small corner of Didsbury might just have caught a glimpse of me, running about excitedly, full of the thrilling possibility of an additional, bonus turkey dinner - in NOVEMBER. There are of course plenty of set menus about at this time of year, but the one at DoubleTrees's City Cafe outpost is pleasingly traditional, allowing the hungry and festive diner to choose from the following:


Parsnip and apple soup
Mosaic of guinea fowl, pistachio, cranberry, plum chutney
Poached salmon , caviar, lemon crème fraîche
Beetroot tarte tatin, goats cheese fritters, balsamic dressing

Main courses
Roast turkey, apricot and chestnut stuffing, roasted vegetables, cranberry sauce
8oz rib eye steak, horseradish mashed potato, onion frites, truffle sauce
Pan fried sea bass, Lyonnaise potatoes, fennel puree, creamed leeks
Chestnut and mushroom pithivier, cranberry chutney, roasted vegetables

Cheese cake, hazelnuts, marshmallows
Traditional Christmas pudding, brandy sauce
Dark chocolate ganache, cherry cloud, cherry sorbet
Selection of English cheese, fruit chutney

The restaurant is quiet when we visit on a freezing cold Tuesday night - just as well really, as our table has thoughtfully been set with crackers which we pull loudly and excitedly before squabbling noisily over the prizes (remember this is a full three days before the launch of the Christmas menu on November 30th); it is with no little sorrow that I resist donning my paper hat in a jaunty manner.

And the food is excellent. I start with the soup, which arrives - rather thrillingly - as a pile of grated apple in a dish with the jug of soup on the side; the two are then united at table before my very eyes. This is no mere theatre: keeping the raw apple separate from the hot, creamy soup until the last possible moment means the fruit retains its sweetness and its crunch, cutting through the comforting velvet of the liquid in a manner that leads me to think that I shall do this at home from now on whenever I make soup. Meanwhile, Mr Liz is hoovering up a substantial piece of lightly poached salmon served alongside a little pile of satisfyingly piquant potato salad topped with caviar - a most classy dish, although obviously it would have been made classier still had he put his party hat on.

(NB In this narrative I have omitted the part where Mr Liz stage whispers - with some trepidation - to enquire "whether he can eat the flowers".)

For main, I have the turkey, of course. This is everything this misunderstood bird should be - moist, thickly sliced and nestling in a sea of sticky gravy, and flanked by crunchy roast potatoes and a lovely fruity stuffing. There is even a sausage on the top and a dish of cranberry sauce on the side - perfect. Well, almost perfect - come on DoubleTree, THREE sprouts? I normally serve myself in the region of twenty (although I have, at times, come to regret this). Mr Liz has the steak, which is obviously the more sophisticated dish - tender pink meat with a rich sauce, served with perfect, thin, crunchy onion rings and a pile of horseradish mash. I am amazed that on such a reasonably priced set menu this dish does not come at a supplement - it is quite simply great value. I would have put a little more horseradish in the mash, but that is because I have been known to eat creamed horseradish straight from the jar, so my opinion probably doesn't count here.

We are by now pretty full, but Mr Liz makes room for some Christmas pudding - a spicy little number in a pool of boozy sauce - whilst I toy coquettishly* with a handsome selection of cheese.

*stuff face wildly in the manner of a person who has not eaten for weeks

Head chef Michael Campbell comes out for a chat; he is rightly proud of the menu he has designed, although he did say he might make a few tweaks here and there before the full launch, so it's possible your dinner might differ very slightly from what you see here. All in all, it would be hard to beat this in terms of quality and value for a Christmas do - the menu ends with coffee and mince pies, and costs £19.95 at lunch and £22.50 in the evening. We also felt the wine list was approachable, with an excellent barrel-aged Tempranillo at £21.50 and plenty of others around the same price mark (although I did not permit Mr Liz to look at the prices towards the bottom of the pages, lest he keel over clutching his chest).

So, a good night to really get the festive season underway, and even raise the exciting possibility of squeezing in at least five turkey dinners before the year is out. Although, looking at this, I can't help thinking it would serve me right if they just give me sprouts and horseradish next time I go...

Doubletree by Hilton Manchester is at 1 Piccadilly Place, I Auburn Street, Manchester M1 3DG - just across the pedestrian bridge leading from the train station. The set menu runs until December 23rd.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Flannels Creates - Charity Fashion Auction for Christies has Local Girl Fretting re: Bidding Skills

Now, truth be told, I've always quite fancied going to an auction. And yet, I also find the whole concept a little scary, as a woman brought up on a series of 1970s and 80s sitcoms is wont to do - what if I scratch my nose at the wrong time and accidentally purchase something that costs a million pounds? I am virtually certain I have seen Basil Fawlty, or Del Boy, or someone equally hapless do such a thing, leading to a full half hour of hilarious and uncomfortable wheeling and dealing before the whole thing is eventually ironed out. Or, on a more personal and predictable level, what if I have a couple of speedy Proseccos first, and get carried away with the excitement of the whole thing? The entire scenario is fraught with danger, and thus I have always - despite my interest - stayed away from such a potential hotbed of trouble.

Until now, that is. For this Thursday sees a pretty special auction - to celebrate their 35th birthday, Flannels will be hosting an evening of fundraising at their Manchester Spinningfields branch in aid of The Christie, by showcasing 40 mannequins created by some of the designers available in store and then auctioning off a selection of these bespoke creations: hence the name of the event - Flannels Creates. The evening starts at 7.45 with a champagne reception (take note - just the one glass for me please, lest I start bidding wildly) and ends with live music and more drinks in the Oast House winter Tepee just across the way. There will also be a raffle with prizes including £2,000 to spend at Flannels and a £7,500 Prada handbag, a fashion exhibition, and a goodie bag to take home to soften the blow of not having won the Prada one.

Tickets cost £35 a head, and are available here. The aim is to raise £50,000 to help cancer patients at an institution that is very dear to my own heart - I'm hoping that the worthiness of the cause will negate Mr Liz's wrath when I come home on Thursday night having blown the mortgage money. We all know I'll be the one on the bus, full of champagne, with a hard-won Dolce and Gabbana mannequin tucked under one arm...

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Didsbury Wine Club's November Gathering - Cheese and Wine at The Albert Club

There are many, many things that have failed to stand the test of time. That net-lined puffball skirt, for instance, that I spotted on a member of Bananarama c. 1986 and cried and cried for - fortunately my mother knew better, and refused to buy me something so clearly, hideously temporal. But then again, there are some things that simply do not date; take the cheese and wine party, for example. In my head this thrilling food and drink combo is most clearly associated with the 1970s: I suspect I may be thinking of an episode of The Good Life, in which Margot is perhaps wearing some kind of long, satiny dress and handing round pieces of cheese on sticks before Tom and Barbara probably come in wearing dungarees and smelling of pigs.

This may then explain why I was so ridiculously excited to find that this month's outing for the Didsbury Wine Club was to be - *Margot-inspired gasp* - a cheese and wine night. If you've not come across this laudable club before, it is essentially a group of nice, sociable people with a permanent, insatiable sort of thirst, who gather together on a regular basis under the friendly tutelage of Omar, David and Kate (who is new to the team, and has come all the way from California just to have wine with us) to try a range of wines in various locations across Didsbury. This month it was the turn of The Albert Club on Old Lansdowne Road, previously best known to me as the host of a splendid annual beer festival but now forever etched into my memory as the place I went to a cheese and wine party, on a dance floor, behind a curtain.

Anyway, this is what we had, with all wines - as ever - available from West Didsbury's Reserve Wines:

1- Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2011: I am definitely more of a red wine person, but this is lovely - as well as the familiar Sauvignon notes of melon and pineapple, this has a deeper, richer, more complex flavour. I comment to Mr Liz that I feel it is vaguely reminiscent of a good Chardonnay, BEFORE being told that 10% of the wine is oak aged in barrels - this time (this ONE time), my *knowledgeable wine face* actually turns out to be a *knowledgeable, accurate, TRIUMPHANT wine face*.

2- Chateau Lucas, Lussac St. Emilion 2008: the grapes for this French wine - a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon - receive constant sun, and it shows in the rich warmth and creamy finish of this highly suppable offering. Even better, it is offered alongside a large platter of a perkily firm cheese that has been bathed twice in Spanish red wine, a custom I plan to adopt myself prior to particularly special occasions.

3- Tabali Reserve Pinot Noir 2011: I love Pinot Noir, and this is no disappointment - this Chilean wine is made by a company that believes in old-school values, hand-picking all the grapes and oak-ageing 20% of them, and has a sultry, smoky taste. The cool night-time climate in the Chilean valleys means that the fruit takes longer to ripen, leading to thicker skins and a drier finish, and the poor soil quality results in a light, mineral flavour. There is no cheese with this wine, but David explains that we are using it as a palate cleanser due to its light, dry qualities; I consider this a reasonable answer, and reluctantly withdraw the angry, cheeseless tantrum that had been brewing. I also briefly consider that it may be some form of punishment implemented by Omar as retribution for the fact that when he asks us to try cheese two with and without the cheese, it transpires that everyone has in fact already eaten all their cheese, the very second it appeared.

4- Pulenta Estate, La Flor Malbec 2011: oh my - the high altitude of Mendoza in Argentina leads to big, fat, juicy grapes, which in turn leads to big, fat, juicy, wine-stained faces, for this is delicious, particularly as it is served with one of my favourite cheeses - Burt's Blue from Altrincham. This is my new favourite combination-for-life, and added to the fact that the cheesy platters also contain fresh figs, there is a serious chance that I may weep tears of sheer food joy.

5- Juan Gil 4 Meses 2011: last up is a real big-hitter - an Old World wine made from 100% Monastrell grape, but in a New World style that results in a wine clocking in at 15% ABV but remaining seriously drinkable. This is another great pairing, partnered with an 18-month-matured French Comté that perfectly complements the hefty swagger of the wine.

Amongst all this quaffing and scoffing, there is time for a quick cheesy joke competition (which is won by a lady who tells a great joke about the best cheese for hiding a horse), and much informal chat and erudition from the wine team. All in all, the night is pretty much perfect, and offers ludicrous value at £15 a head for frankly vast quantities of excellent food and drink and really lovely company. Obviously, for this to have been done properly, the cheese sticks should really have been served poking becomingly from an orange dressed up in tin foil to resemble a hedgehog, but you can't have everything - I shall offer this expert feedback so that this small glitch may be corrected next time...

- Find out more about the Didsbury Wine Club (and their new sister club in Chorlton) by visiting their website here - and don't forget to nake the point about the cheesy hedgehog. All cheeses were supplied by The Cheese Hamlet in Didsbury Village.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Ski Club, Manchester: Guest Blogger Rests Aching Limbs after Hard Day Skiing Round Spinningfields

Now, much as this blog may occasionally suggest otherwise, I am not a terribly proficient drinker; indeed, for every sighting of me opening a bottle of prosecco or deliberating over a cocktail, there are at least ten markedly less glamorous times when I am to be found in the kitchen, making a nice cup of chamomile tea. But if there's one girl who really knows her way round a drinks cabinet it's the Liquor Chick, so who better to send along to Manchester's latest pop-up bar, The Ski Club, to investigate this year's winter warmers in a little more detail...

You’d think that on a skiing holiday the main desire would be to ski, but many skiers look forward to something else just as much: the après ski. Yes, that reward for all the *ahem* hard work you’ve been doing on the slopes. A place to rest your aching legs, sit in front of a log fire and socialise wearing clothing that you wouldn’t ever dream of walking into a bar on a night out in the city. But that’s all part of the fun of après ski.

This is exactly what Heart Soul Rock & Roll, experts in innovative pop up bars, are endeavouring to bring to the city of Manchester.

The Ski Club opened its door to a thirsty public at the start of this month, and I was lucky enough to go and sample some of what they are offering on a special bloggers' preview night.

Now, cocktails are my speciality and it has to be said that there was one that truly won my heart...THE BRANDY BLAZER. A mixture of cognac, Grand Marnier orange Cognac, apple brandy, Canadian maple syrup, cinnamon stick and nutmeg. This is the PERFECT winter warmer *plans a selfless day out Christmas shopping and a stop off at Ski Club to revive my aching legs and thaw out*. This is also EXACTLY the type of thing I would order on a ski holiday and is a PERFECT match for this venue.

We were also lucky enough to try the Ski Club Punch Bowl, a GIGANTIC specimen, serving up to 6 people. It contained Grand Marnier orange Cognac, Chambord French Black raspberry liqueur, fruity red wine, a hint of plum bitters and fresh Clementine juice. Effectively it was like a rather large, but cold, mulled wine. At £45 it is reasonable for the amount you get.

A few of the cocktails on the menu are reflective of the uniqueness that Heart Soul Rock & Roll strive to achieve, and if they get the amount of ingredients right, they could bring extra creativity to the cocktail scene of Manchester. For example, I tried the Port & Starboard cocktail, nothing like the traditional Port and Starboard which contains Creme de Menthe and Grenadine... No, THIS cocktail contains Graham’s 6 Grapes Port, raspberries, Chambord, brandy, Clementine juice and is garnished with blue cheese. This cocktail excited me as I am partial to bit of port, a perfect seasonal drink *raises glass* ‘all in the name of Christmas’. Cheese and port always provides a special finishing touch to the festivities at this time of season, so as a cocktail this is a really appealing and fresh idea; unfortunately there was a little too much Chambord and too many raspberries in this, so it was very hard to taste the port. The raspberry flavour overpowered the rest of the drink and as a result did not correlate with the name of the drink. The blue cheese also did therefore not accompany it very well.

The food was good and very reflective of the type of thing you would want from a bar in the cold weather; traditional après-ski bars tend to sell simple yet tasty snacks. I would particularly recommend the cheese fondue *wonders how she can bribe a home delivery on a dull school night*. There are lots of amazing food packages available too.

The Ski Club attempts to bring the décor and ambiance of a vintage inspired ski chalet; with Scandinavian G-Plan furniture, alpine scenes, furs and retro lighting. The retro vibe it brings creates a relaxing feeling, ideal after a hard day ‘on the slopes’ *thinks of a way to emulate the results of a day of skiing in order to justify consuming everything on the Ski Club menu next weekend*. The concept of this winter bar is fresh, unique and brings something that Manchester has never been seen before. As a skier myself, there were little niggles that didn’t quite fit. But it is an indoor pop up bar after all and it would be unrealistic to expect it to be perfectly executed in every way. This is a great addition to the city and I’ll definitely be paying a few visits over the forthcoming months *roots in the loft for ski poles*

- The Ski Club can be found on the first floor of Quay House, Off Hardman Square, Spinningfields, Manchester, M3 3JE.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Restaurant Bar and Grill, Manchester: Mr Liz Becomes an Oyster Convert

So. When I originally rescued Mr Liz from Wiganer bachelordom - now more than a decade ago - our individual food terrains were clearly and unmistakably delineated. Sure there was some common ground (we both put on about a stone in our first month together, due almost entirely to a shared and slightly shameful love of the baked bean and cheese toastie as a Sunday morning breakfast), but many of my most favourite food items were met with suspicion, incomprehension or occasionally downright terror on Mr Liz's part. I mean, he even claimed not to like peanut butter - he was lucky I kept him on to be quite honest.

Anyway, over the years he has gradually got braver and/or greedier, embracing an ever wider field of food items and leaving me with less and less to call my own, until now - finally, tragically - the last bastion has fallen. Mr Liz likes oysters.

And The Restaurant Bar and Grill on John Dalton Street is entirely to blame. We dined there last Saturday night courtesy of Manchester Confidential, and were treated to such a virtuoso display of skillful and sensitive cooking that I felt thoroughly ashamed to have never eaten here before - I think somehow the very size of the place had put me off, its three vast floors looming intimidatingly over the old-fashioned charms of this Manchester street, all modern and shiny and fashionable. I feel silly now, for although it is modern and shiny and fashionable, it is also friendly and welcoming, and if you are lucky enough to get a window seat on the first floor then the views are spectacular - I spend the evening torn between admiring the beauty of the food on the table and the twinkly allure of the Christmas lights outside.

In the end, of course, the food wins the day. I start with the aforementioned oysters - six plump beauties lounging seductively in their ice bath, just waiting for a hungry blogger to apply a little tabasco to each one and scoff the lot. Mais non - for Mr Liz is already looking at them with some interest, and plucks up the courage to try one; this I permit, for after all, this noble act of generosity will still leave me five. Except, quite rightly, he loves them - a good, fresh oyster is pretty much unbeatable, and we end up splitting them fifty-fifty; not an entirely bad thing in the end, as he is then morally obliged to give me one of his crispy duck spring rolls. These are enormous fat parcels, generously packed with meat and served with a little Thai salad and some good, sticky dipping sauce - truth be told, they make an excellent foil to the slippery saltiness of the oysters, and I learn a valuable lesson about sharing.

After such a good start, we have high hopes for the mains - and they do not disappoint. Mr Liz chooses steak, as Mr Liz ALWAYS chooses steak (and he has already been quite adventurous with the oysters, remember), and asks our exceptionally helpful waiter for his advice - advice that proves spot on, as THIS is what arrives...

...the 35-day-aged 14oz bone-in prime rib, served with chips and a particularly successful mustard sauce. I always prefer bone-in meat (insert your own innuendo here, if you must), and this is a prime example *smirks* of the advantages of such cuts - the flavour is superb, and the texture substantial without being tough or chewy. Meanwhile, I am attempting to be vaguely healthy by ordering the Tuna au Poivre with salad - sterling efforts a little scuppered by the sheer size of the fish, the pefectly rich buttery bearnaise that accompanies it, and the fact that the waiter throws in a few chips as well (truly my kind of man). The tuna loin is excellent, and perfectly seared as requested - but, astonishingly, the real star is the house salad, which offers a variety of leaves in a refreshingly tangy herb vinaigrette; I decide that this unexpected bonus is my reward for sharing my oysters.

The healthy train is well and truly derailed when we order dessert. I choose the sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce whilst Mr Liz has the Autumn special - a dainty little apple and blackberry crumble; both are delicious, but I had also admired the Black Forest Eton Mess on the menu, so the waiter simply brings this as well - I tell you, this oyster karma just keeps on giving. The desserts are generously sized and nicely rich; my only comment would be that the Black Forest Eton Mess (chocolate brownies, cherries, crushed meringue, chocolate ice-cream) becomes a little too rich by the time you've eaten quite a lot of it, but bearing in mind I have already consumed one large pudding I'm not entirely sure this constitutes fair criticism.

The wine list is a good one - we have an excellent bottle of Pouilly Fume, and although there are few wines on the menu around the £20 mark there are plenty available by the glass. We are already planning a return visit, to sit on the new terrace and drink a cocktail or two - I have already made it very clear to Mr Liz though that if he wants oysters next time, he's really going to have to get his own.

- The Restaurant Bar and Grill is at 14 John Dalton Street, Manchester M2 6JR; tel. 0161 839 1999. The restaurant knew we were there to review and we were not asked to pay for our meal, but the place was obviously full of very happy customers and we will go again as paying guests.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Dinner at The OxNoble, Manchester: Proper Restaurant Food, Proper Old-Style Boozer

Now, after almost one hundred years (approximately) of generally happy marriage, I believe that I can offer some wise and helpful advice. Obviously, the very most desirable thing is to acquire a spouse who simply does whatever you say (and all the while with an adoring look on his face), but failing this then compromise is clearly the way forward. Take Mr Liz, for example. After years of stubborn resistance to the Saturday tradition of Strictly Come Dancing, I have now discovered that he will sit through it quite happily if furnished beforehand with some kind of beer product, and if I promise faithfully not to expect him to partipate in discussions re: Tess' dress and/or the merits of a particular Cha-Cha-Cha.

But what if the marital division is a potentially more lethal stumbling block, whereby your favourite word is "restaurant" and your husband's favourite word is "pub"? Well, I can now provide the solution to this also, as on Friday we dined at The Oxnoble, a proper pub that satisfies all Mr Liz's criteria for a top boozer whilst also serving food that wouldn't be ashamed to show its face in a restaurant. And a most splendid old pub it is too - it's been around since 1804, when Mr Liz was a boy, and although locally it's been known as The Ox in recent years, manager Alex is keen for this venerable establishment to return to its original, full title - not least because, as far as he knows, it's the only pub in Britain named after a Georgian variety of potato. If that's not a reason to visit, then I'm afraid you and I have NOTHING in common.

So, on to the food. I'd made the mistake of idly investigating the menu during the day, and found that pretty much every dish looked to be a winner: choosing was clearly going to be a difficult decision. Alex doesn't like the term "gastropub", but if we remove all sneery connotations of this over-used term and think about what it actually means...

*pretends is going off to look in clever, learned book; does quick search on Wikipedia*

...then this most certainly is "a bar and restaurant that serves high-end beer and food" - it's not in the least a term to be ashamed of. And by and large, the food here is high-end: for starters, Mr Liz chooses the Panfried Sardines served with a tomato, chorizo and spinach sauce from the regular menu, whilst I go for the exotic-sounding Roast Teal with black pudding mash, chocolate red cabbage and green beans. The first of these is an out-and-out winner - two whole sardines in a lovely piquant, earthy sauce, and absolutely crazy value at £4.25; it is as good, if not better, than a far more costly version I had in a top-end restaurant in Leith a few years ago. My teal (a particularly jaunty, handsome sort of duck, although they all look the same on the plate) is also excellent, and although pricier at £6.95, is actually nearer the size of a main than a starter; in fact, I can think of places that would indeed call this a main and charge you nearer twenty quid. Now generosity in itself is not an issue, but if you're trying to tempt people into a pub for a restaurant-quality meal, you do have to be mindful that many diners will wish to consume three courses - if you're pretty full after your starter, then the balance has gone a little awry. Although, obviously I could have left some. Equally obviously, I didn't.

On to the mains then. We both choose from the "Oxnoble Favourites" section of the menu: Braised Ox Cheek with champ mash, greens and a rich Marsala jus for me, and the Timothy Taylor Steak & Ale Pie with cabbage, mashed potato, black pudding and gravy for Mr Liz. I can't fault the quality of the ox cheek - it's a cliche to say that slow-cooked meat falls apart on your fork, melts in your mouth etc, but on this occasion it is true; the sticky tenderness of the cheek is perfection, and the rich jus sets it off just nicely. Do I really need another enormous mound of mash though, and more green beans? Probably not, and I must float the possibility that this is a dish that divides opinion - I love it, but a Twitter friend tells me soon afterwards that she tried it recently and found the jus too over-reduced and the green beans over-cooked. Meanwhile, over the other side of the table Mr Liz has temporarily disappeared from view behind the Manchester outpost of the European food mountain - a whole pie, full to bursting with (again) properly slow-cooked meat and thick gravy, perched upon mash, upon black pudding slices, upon veg, upon gravy. The pie is excellent, but the portion size begins to become an issue here - I have never before witnessed my Wiganer husband leave pastry or black pudding, and to see the pain in his eyes as he realises he is not going to manage it all is hard to bear.

Food-wise, the only bum note is a bizarre side dish we order in the form of courgette fritters - these are one of my favourite things, and I excitedly request them without noticing that they come with sweet chilli sauce and creme fraiche. Now, I like all of these ingredients very much, but separately; the fritters themselves are superlative - joyously crisp and puffy batter on the outside, tender melting flesh on the inside - but completely drowned by a sea of sweet sauce underneath and a massive, cold blob of dairy product plonked on the top. Have faith in your chef - he knows what he's doing, and his fritters should be allowed to stand lone, and proud, and speak for themselves.

And so to dessert. Now, greedy as I am, LOOK AT THOSE PORTION SIZES. Even I can't manage the merest sliver of a pudding, so head chef Richard Davies very kindly chooses a few favourite items and packages them up for us to take away, no doubt under the impression that we are going to leap into a taxi rather than accidentally being side-tracked into the Whim Wham Cafe Bar, where we sit, proudly and not a little smugly, with our foil parcel of delicious delights on the table between us. I'm somewhat ashamed to say that we eat the lot for breakfast the next day, and they have fared remarkably well despite their late-night adventures - even the vanilla-flecked panacotta remains moist and buoyant, and the raspberry cheescake is an absolute joy. The cat looks at us despairingly and goes back to bed.

The Oxnoble want people to know that they are a destination for an evening meal as well as for a quick pint, and we were therefore invited in to review the menu for free. I will however go again, as a paying customer - the food is great value (I am particularly keen to investigate the ludicrously good value "2 courses for £10" offer that runs Monday-Saturday until 9.30pm), and the attention to detail is impressive. If you're not convinced, I'll leave you with this little detail - when I complimented Alex on the quality of the balsamic vinegar that came with our bread, and asked what brand it was, he said that the chef prefers to make his own balsamic reduction, to really intensify the flavour. So yes, a busy pub it might be, but our little corner of The Oxnoble was all restaurant.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Competition Winner: I Need Pampering - in which I am the WORST Noel Edmonds in HISTORY

Just a quick update on the winner of the lovely Manchester Spa Day from I Need Pampering - I think you all know I was looking forward to playing Noel on this one, generously bestowing gifts upon the deserving, pausing only to polish my halo. Well, turns out that I'm rubbish at benevolence, because I wish to give prizes to EVERYONE - even after a few entries had been ruled out (either because the nominee wasn't anywhere near Manchester, or because people had nominated themselves which, whilst not exactly against the rules, wasn't really in keeping with the spirit of the whole thing), there were still loads of really lovely-sounding people left.

So, I delegated. I chose a few I thought were particularly deserving and then passed them over to a more rational/neutral/cold-hearted friend (she can delete as she sees appropriate) to make the final decision. And she chose a lovely Manchester mum called Julie, nominated by her daughter for more reasons than I can list here; suffice to say she is a worthy winner and thoroughly meritorious of her day of pampering.

Have a lovely spa day Julie, and thanks again to I Need Pampering for such a gorgeous prize.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Opera North's The Makropulos Case at The Lowry: Guest Blogger is Smitten, and Wants to Bounce on her OWN Bed

Now, I know what you're thinking, and it goes a little something like this: "Well - that WAS an enjoyable and informative blog post on Opera North's current productions of Faust and Don Giovanni - I feel it was was entertaining AND useful - infotainment, if you will. However, I believed Opera North to be touring THREE shows this season - what of The Makropulos Case? And, more importantly, who will go out of Strictly tonight?"

Well, as it happens I can answer BOTH of those questions for you, but in the interests of leaving your viewing pleasure unbesmirched I will concentrate solely on the former - here's lovely guest blogger Nicole to tell us more...

Now, as an opera virgin, I'm not afraid to admit that I did have some pre-conceptions. Firstly, that all operas are highbrow, frequented by people who know the plot, and the songs (yes, I know that's not the technical term) intimately. In my mind, there is also a strict dress code - diamond drop earrings, glittering floor-length gown and expensive fur definitely NOT optional. Cue frenetic fretting about what to wear, curbed only when Liz tells me, "dress smartly, but not too glamorously, as the man next to me was wearing an actual anorak!" As a firm believer that there is no outfit that cannot be tarted up with a shiny blazer, a pair of vertiginous heels, and slick of red lipstick, I slid into a taxi (the tram being, in my mind, wholly unsuitable for such an important event in my life) and made my way to The Lowry for my first ever opera experience - Opera North's production of The Makropulos Case.

His penultimate opera, The Makropulos Case is one of Janacek's lesser known works - an adaptation of Karel Capek's play of the same name, written in the 1920s. At the heart of The Makropulos Case is the long-hoped-for resolution of the Gregor vs. Prus case, a legal battle over an unclaimed estate that has dragged on for over a century, and dragged many generations of both families into destitution and death. Albert Gregor ('Bertie' - played with complete conviction by Paul Nilon) is on tenterhooks waiting to hear the outcome of the latest legal brawl, when the "dazzling, seductive and fascinating" soprano Emilia Marty (the captivating Ylva Kihlberg) arrives at his lawyer's office with some surprisingly accurate knowledge of the case, and some mysteries of her own. Bertie promptly falls in love with Miss Marty, and so begins the drama. Although essentially a dramatic comedy, The Makropulos Case presents some real food-for-thought: if you could live forever, would you really want to if it meant living without love? And can we ever truly appreciate life unless we accept that at some point, we will die?

Opera North have set their production in the same decade, and the set design and costumes are suitably 'roaring', particularly Miss Marty's shimmering dress coat, which I briefly considered snaffling, as it is entirely suitable attire for my next girls' Sparkle Night. The staging was particularly inventive, with the detailed hustle and bustle of a lawyer's office in Act 1 convincingly portrayed through stacked shelves and desks in varying states of disarray. Act 2 takes place backstage following Marty's latest performance, giving the cast the opportunity to have fun and allow the audience in on a few backstage secrets, with a knowing wink. The final act brings the story to its riveting climax in Marty's hotel room, where the bed in the middle of the stage, resplendent with diaphanous curtain, becomes the focus, despite the huddle of armchairs stage right (well, I am practically an expert now) that remains throughout the acts, serving as a waiting area, a stack of disused furniture, and a lounge area respectively.

Admittedly, the first 15 minutes of the opera were, for me, a rather unsettling experience. Having been led to believe that opera consists of a series of sung pieces hinged on a gravely serious plot, it was a surprise when the characters began to sing their lines to each other. Coupled with the fact that The Makropulos Case is a comedy, as an opera novice, I felt in a state of cognitive dissonance - was I to laugh, or nod soberly? As soon as I realised laughter was acceptable, nay, expected (especially with such pithy quips as "Do you want to spit in my face?" "No, I want to spit in my own!"), I got into the groove. I found myself unable to take my eyes off Kihlberg, and began to fancy myself as an Emilia Marty figure: beguiling, jet-setting, jaded. Well, I was wearing red lipstick...My companion and I both agreed that Act 3 was most enjoyable, due almost entirely to Kihlberg's mesmerizing portrayal of Marty's self-destruction - as she bounced on the bed with reckless abandon whilst swigging from a bottle of wine, we exchanged a glance of recognition, mentally singing along to our own internal soundtrack *aaaall byyyyy myyseeellf...* Unfortunately, this was the only song to run through my head following the performance as the production did not include any sung pieces, which I was a little disappointed by. Despite this, the orchestral accompaniment was aurally luminous, and the ovation for conductor Richard Farnes justly deserved.

Back to my pre-opera pre-conceptions. I can honestly say that Opera North made my first experience a very positive one. The Makropulos Case is accessible for opera newbies as it is sung in English, and for those who can't quite discern the dialogue, the subtitles are helpfully displayed on large, easily-visible screens to the side of the stage (however, if like me, you find yourself needing to continually refer to the subtitles to be sure you are following the complexities of the plot, it can be distracting). With all first-timers, I must reflect on what I have learnt from my experience: 1. Opera can be funny. 2. Not all operas contain arias (yes, I have now learnt the technical term) 3. You don't have to be glam, but of course it helps if you identify with the main character...! My companion - also new to the opera - summed up her experience of The Makropulos Case as being "like a musical version of Death Becomes Her - but in a very good way". And in the taxi home, we found ourselves deeply engaged in a discussion about the relevance of Heidegger's 'Seine zum Ende' (a being towards death) - his idea that until we accept that death is not just a possibility, we will never fully 'live' our lives. Now who would have thought my first experience of opera would have provoked a discussion of 20th century German existential philosophy? Certainly not I, but I would certainly go again.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Opera North's Faust and Don Giovanni at The Lowry, Salford: Local Girl Tra-La-Las and Wants to Dress as Madonna

There's a general perception, I think, that opera is kind of old, and stuffy, and elitist. If I asked you to picture your idea of a typical opera-goer, I'm betting there's a good chance you'll think of a posho posh elderly couple - he has a grey suit, and a slightly military bearing, and possibly a handkerchief a-poking out his top pocket; she has a tidy bouffant updo, and a twinset, and possibly a pince-nez. And I'm not denying that there weren't plenty such in evidence at The Lowry this week when Opera North rolled into town, bearing tasty mid-week treats in the form of Faust on Tuesday night and Don Giovanni on Wednesday, but they certainly were not in the majority - what Opera North do best is make this most majestic of all the theatrical arts accessible, appealing, and - dare I say it - sexy to all.

And I do mean ALL - I can pay no finer accolade to Opera North than by pointing out that, on a busy night of European football action, Mr Liz actually requested to come and see Gounod's Faust with me on Tuesday. This classic tale of a middle-aged scholar and his desperate yearnings to relive the pleasures of his youth (hmmm - *looks closely at self in the mirror*) was first performed in 1859 and has been an Opera North favourite since 1986; the current production opened to rave reviews in Leeds last month.

You probably know the story already - Dr Faust is a lonely man, getting older and feeling all alone in a world he no longer relates to; he contemplates suicide, and calls upon Satan, who duly appears and offers him renewed youth and all its pleasures in exchange for the trifling consideration of his immortal soul. The clincher here is the vision that Mephistopheles shows him of Marguerite, a beautiful young woman who - the devil suggests - can be Faust's if he agrees to make the deal; Faust thinks long and hard for about half a second and agrees. He is transformed into an attractive young man (albeit minus his soul, which now glows becomingly in the devil's greedy mitt) and begins his pursuit of Marguerite; I will reveal no more of the plot but will suggest that all of this is unlikely to end well, lest we all start following Faust's example, handing over our souls to any passing charmer (hmmm - *looks closely at self in the mirror, again*).

As ever with Opera North, the central performances are flawless - Peter Auty shines as Faust, and I am finding James Creswell FAR too sexy as Mephistopheles by the end of the show. Juanita Lascarro is also most convincing as the chaste young girl who gamely resists Faust's advances until he showers her with shedloads of diamonds (*mirror now on floor, smashed*). The updating is as inventive as ever - the chorus takes the guise of a bunch of immoral, greedy, lascivious bankers, storming the stage importantly wielding their iPads, and much use is made of sliding screens onto which are projected various images which are often suitably dark and unsettling (but which do at times become a little distracting).

Anyway, after all this brilliant darkness, and passion, and death, it is fortunate that Wednesday night's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni is played very much for laughs. This is an equally familiar tale - Don G is a serial charmer and seducer, making a string of empty promises to all the women he meets and then leaving them heartbroken and - in the case of his magnificent former conquest Elvira - more than a little cross. We follow him on his eventful last day, which begins with a grope that goes very wrong and ends with a splendidly baroque picnic with a dead man, with just time to seduce a bride on her wedding day in between.

I know that this perhaps doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs (particularly as, the same as Faust, we know that things cannot possibly end well for a man who is mean to women and goes round killing people, or they'd all be doing it), but it really is. This is largely due to the character of Don G's increasingly frustrated servant Leporello, who spends most of his time either keeping watch while his master is seducing his latest lady friend or avoiding a comedy beating from all the previous ones; he is splendidly played by Alastair Miles with a perfect combination of righteous anger and a keen urge to get laid himself, just once. Other standout performances come from the women - Elizabeth Atherton makes for a feisty Elvira, alternating between a classy laydee and a dejected, pouting figure dressed in Desperately Seeking Susan era Madonna-esque lace, whilst Claire Wild's turn as Zerlina, the innocent young bride who turns out to have a great deal of inner raunch, contains one song (delivered from atop her new husband) that you probably won't forget in a while.

The staging is also quite brilliant, relying heavily on use of puppets - characters often appear as scaled down, mannequin-like versions of themselves, and the moment at the end when our philandering hero finally meets his maker is quite something. It also goes without saying that in both productions the music is flawless - Opera North might play it for laughs sometimes, but they always take the essentials seriously, which probably explains why they appeal to both opera purists and to people like me and my Wednesday companion (who particularly enjoys the bit where Don G buries his face in a pair of boob-shaped jellies). In fact, as she was, until Wednesday, an opera virgin, I will use her words to sum up her cherry-popping experience: stunning, brilliant...and SAUCY. And that, I would say, sums up Opera North pretty well.

- You can find out more about Opera North here, and about The Lowry and their other productions here.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Halloween Gourmet Evening at The Mark Addy: Local Girl Finally Gets Some Brains

Now, I'm quite happy to admit that in a number of ways, I am not in the least bit adventurous. I like to be in bed early on a school night, for example, and I am highly suspicious of change; I am yet to be convinced that black and navy can be worn together, or that an open-toed sandal can be accessorised with tights. And yet I've always fancied myself as quite an adventurous eater, altogether brave in my food choices despite being - naturally - most discerning about what I pop into my gannet-like mouth.

In fact, I've always said that there's only one thing I wouldn't really want to try, and that's brains. Born in the 70s into an enthusiastically meaty family, I've eaten most things - when you've watched your father press his own tongue (so to speak) every Christmas, there's not much left in this world that can scare you. Except brains. And I think we all knew it was only a matter of time until Robert Owen Brown decided to serve them up as part of the monthly six course Gourmet Evening at The Mark Addy; on Wednesday, that time was finally nigh. Here's what we had, including - a new entry at number three - the course that almost dereailed my adventurously greedy spirit...

1. Roast Pear William with Shropshire Blue Cheese. When he introduces this, ROB terms it a salad, despite it only having one or two miniscule hints of greenery in evidence upon its arrival. Mr Liz deems this his idea of a salad, and whilst I would have liked a little more vegetation, we both enjoy the contrast of the soft, fragrant fruit against the salty strutting of the cheese and the sweetness of the honey and saffron dressing. I have to pretend that I am not running my finger round the bowl to get at the last of this dressing when someone comes to clear the table, lest I look greedy, and am brought extra brains later.

2. Pumpkin Soup Shooter. Thoroughly appropriate for Halloween, this smooth, rich soup, topped with a frisky foam, is mellow and warming, combining the soft spice of the pumpkin with the roundness of what is clearly a considerable quantity of cream. All across the pub, diners knock back their shooter and exchange anxious glances at the thought of what is to come, perhaps wishing the soup had a hefty glug of brandy in it as well.

3. Crispy Veal Calf Brain with Diablo Sauce. This course arrives whilst I am indulging in some heady sausage talk with James of Bobby's Bangers; I return to my table to find Mr Liz looking warily at the dish that has appeared there, with a sort of "they're he-eeere" expression on his face as he peers - with some trepidation - into the shadowy depths of the bowl. And do you know what? They're OK - two flat, white discs of meat (one each), coated in batter, deep fried, and served with a spicy dipping sauce. Would I have liked them if they hadn't essentially tasted of batter and spicy dipping sauce? Maybe not, but I can now say I've tried them, and if I get pestered by trick or treaters in future years I can always offer this up to them as a tasty alternative to all that bland Haribo, and then watch them run away, screaming, down the street.

4. Roast Local Pheasant. A sensibly straightforward course after all that excitement - moist, gamey bird served with tiny roast onions, spinach and fondant potato. I enjoy this very much, particularly as, after the last course, I too now consider myself to be something of a game old bird.

5. Chestnut and Fig Tart. I love Autumn/Winter food, and this encapsulates everything that is right and good about the season - a crisp pastry shell filled with a rich, nutty mixture that is not too sweet, just flavoured with the natural sugars of the figs and the warmth of the chestnuts. It is perfect, and I think those who have eaten the brains should have extra portions at the expense of those who have not.

6. Local Cheese. As ever, two cheeses, grapes, celery and crackers; as ever, excellent. The only variable with this one is the location of their consumption; tonight, I eat them on the premises rather than in the car on the way home.

As I weigh all of this up the next day, there are two things that come to mind. First of all, only ROB would have the chutzpah to serve up brains to the 30 Swedish tourists who have booked in for Gourmet Evening for a taste of real English cuisine (to be fair, many of them do give them a good go, although others look rather as if they would like to return home with immediate effect). And secondly? The brains were fine, but given a choice, I'll take balls over brains ANY day.