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Sunday, 29 January 2012

Afternoon Tea at Airyfairy Cake Boutique: Saturdays Now Perfect

Saturday is my very favourite day of the week. Some of the reasons for this are obvious - although I'm not one to let a little thing like that stop me listing them anyway.

1. No requirement to get up and go to work. As someone who used to work Saturdays, I am now immeasurably grateful to be able to lie-in on this day. Or, I would be if the stupid cat knew his days of the week properly - his poor time-keeping skills mean that he is simply unable to differentiate between days when he gets his breakfast at 6am, and days when he gets his breakfast when he's lucky. Cue lots of irritating, Simon's Cat-style squalling, pointing at hungry waiting mouth etc from a heartbreakingly early hour.

2. Saturday Kitchen. Once up, what could be nicer than watching a D-list celebrity drinking wine and eating red Thai curry at 10am in the morning? True, your own square of toast and marmite may begin to feel a little inadequate, but at least you won't start developing the slightly moon-faced appearance of James Martin. And if you DO fancy a glass of red at twenty to eleven in the morning, your actions are fully sanctioned by the unknown actor currently doing the same on your screen.

3. Saturday papers. Although, to be fair, I normally just read the Caitlin Moran column and then do the crossword; the cat, now fed, is probably lying all over the other bits anyway.

4. Didsbury Village Farm Shop. Another good thing about Saturdays is that the following day is Sunday, the Lord's own day when the law states that you can eat as many calories for breakfast as you like, and they don't count. Therefore, you should pop into the estimable Farm Shop and procure bacon, eggs and sausage (or, erm, your own choice of Vegan alternative) ready to stave off the mild headache you may have after spending Saturday evening in Folk.

5. And, as if Saturdays weren't glorious enough, I have a new favourite thing: Afternoon Tea at The Airyfairy Cake Boutique on School Lane, Didsbury. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure why it's taken me so long to try this - I've been a regular visitor to the gorgeously retro Cake Boutique ever since it opened, and the concept of a stand piled high with sandwiches and cakes is a sure-fire winner in my book; perhaps it's the fact you have to be organised and book at least 24 hours in advance that has hitherto scuppered me.

Anyway, this week I WAS organised enough to book - and what a reward. For £12.50 a head, you get unlimited tea from a wide selection (we chose Earl Grey, because we are LADIES), a selection of finger sandwiches (with the crusts cut off, naturally - you can't expect LADIES to tire themselves with excess chewing), scones with jam and cream (I graciously overlooked the fact that my companion erroneously pronounced it "scon" throughout our afternoon), and a whole army of dainty, bite-size cakes. The precise nature of these goodies changes every time, but our sandwiches included smoked salmon (our favourite), ham & mustard, cucumber & cream cheese and cheese & salad (note please, SALAD *healthy face*), and our most bestest cakes were the mini Nutella cheesecakes.
As you can see from this picture, the quantities are most generous, and staff will happily pack up leftovers in a doggy box to take home to anxiously waiting husbands - we couldn't eat all of ours, but then we ARE notorious for picking at our food with all the appetite of the little bird seen here perching atop our cake stand. In fact, so grand and exciting was the food mountain that when it arrived, the small boy sitting at the next table practically fell off his chair in the whole excitement of it all, his open-mouthed admiration really telling you all you need to know.

The Airyfairy Afternoon Tea is available Thursday to Saturday from 11am, thereby offering the thrilling possibility that it could also be consumed as a late breakfast. And, even better, I've just polished off the last couple of mini carrot cakes as a starter before I get on to my Didsbury Farm Shop sausage and bacon...before you know it, there'll be a whole list of reasons to love Sunday as well.

- Airyfairy Cake Boutique is at 24 School Lane, Didsbury M20 6RG, tel 07791850641

- Didsbury Village Farm Shop is at 737 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury M20 6WF.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Rhubarb, West Didsbury: Early Evening Menu Deal Rewards Selfless Girls in Thrilling School Night

Throughout these posts, I hope it has always been entirely clear that whatever I may be - greedy-faced glutton, sucker for a pointy heel or a slinky lipgloss, not entirely reliable in the music department, prone to slippage around the wine fridge, partial to a cricketer or two - I am above all, first and foremost, a good and loyal WIFE. So my words will surely ring true when I say that I had every intention of coming home last night, rustling up a healthy nutritious meal, consuming a refreshing chamomile tea or two, and going to bed early with a mind-improving book.

But Mr Liz was sorrowful. Sad to have missed out on Gusto on Tuesday, he had tried to book for next week and found the half price offer pretty much solidly booked out from here to eternity, and "I'm unlucky, SO unlucky; woe is indeed me" was writ large upon his face. Luckily, we live in an area that offers an embarrassment of riches, and within minutes, Good Wife (TM) had leapt onto the phone and secured an immediate reservation for the early evening menu deal at West Didsbury's Rhubarb.

Rhubarb is a splendid restaurant, and its early evening menu is good value at any time of the year, but throughout January and February you can get two courses from a set menu for £9.95 or three for £12.95 if you order before 7pm (6.30 on a Saturday). As with Gusto on Tuesday, the restaurant was packed - a heartening sign that people have been enthusiastic to take up the plethora of offers available at Manchester's more inventive and enterprising businesses, and as with Gusto on Tuesday, the food was of the same quality you would expect if you were paying full price.

The set menu changes according to availability, but offers a choice of four starters, four mains, and four desserts plus a cheese option - more than enough variety to suit all tastes. For starters, Mr Liz went for calamari, served with a lovely light lemon mayonnaise, while I had the chicken liver parfait with caramelised onions; the fact that there is no picture of these speaks volumes about our enthusiasm to stick our faces straight in and demonstrate a rare lack of professionalism. The parfait was delicious - weighty in portion size but light in texture, and contrasting perfectly with the sweet onions and lightly toasted brioche, and Mr Liz's calamari positively melted in the mouth (although their teasingly luxuriant bouffant batter DID float off into the depths of the mayonnaise, never to be seen again despite hopeful probing). One quibble - for the second time this week I've had to leave pate, something I have NEVER done in my life before, and as this is certainly not due to late-onset abstinence it must mean the portion sizes are getting bigger. Fair play to the delightful waitress though, who spotted the remaining parfait and immediately offered to bring me more bread - a nice change from restaurants where you have to beg for an extra morsel of crust to mop up your leftovers.

Next up, and a touching moment of harmony as Mr Liz and I both went for the beef with red wine and thyme, served with garlic roast potatoes. Chunks of tender beef flaking apart in a hearty dish of richly flavoured sauce, crunchy, crispy, melt-in-the-middle potatoes perched jauntily on the side...just the job for a cold January night. Although, why seven potatoes for Mr Liz and only six for me? I've already LEFT some parfait; do they want me to waste away before their very eyes? Fortunately my dessert choice was the size of China - having chosen the lemon posset because it sounded modest, I was rewarded with a giant cup (I think it might have been off of one of the rides at Disneyland, so large was it) of rich, creamy, sweet-yet-tart yellowy goodness, with two crisp shortbread on the side for elegant dunking. Mr Liz - who was surprised at my dessert, having confused it with a "Possum" and therefore expected a small Australian marsupial to be served up - stuck to his traditional favourite: sticky toffee pudding with ice-cream.

All this for £12.95 a head is just silly. My one bugbear about Rhubarb remains - I think the drinks are a little over-priced, with the cheapest red at £5.50 a glass - but with the food at these prices (and it being a school night) the bill still came in at a ludicrously reasonable £35. A lovely night, and a lovely meal - and all the sweeter for being utterly, entirely, SELFLESS.

- Rhubarb is at 167 Burton Road, West Didsbury, Manchester M20 2LN, tel. 0161 448 8887.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A Brief Paen to Bombolini: Sticky Faces All Round at Gusto Didsbury

So. I hadn't really planned to blog about last night's visit to Gusto, Didsbury village's ultra-reliable Italian restaurant. Not because I don't like it there, but because I go there quite a lot, and often order exactly the same things - thereby leading to a plethora of blog posts along the lines of: went to Gusto with (insert name), great atmosphere, busy but friendly staff, decent menu, big bowl of pasta/risotto (delete as appropriate), trip to toilet up scary spiral metal staircase leading to discovery of small blob of tomato sauce on chin, leave complaining have eaten too much. You could probably write it yourself, so familiar is the basic plot-line to you, and save me the whole faff and bother.

And yet. The visit IS actually worthy of note for two reasons. Firstly, there's still time to catch the 50% food discount offer, which runs to the end of January, and results in a three course meal for two greedy girls AND a decent bottle of red costing the faintly risible amount of £37. There are a few exceptions to the deal, but not many, so as long as you don't wish to dine on lobster or other fancy-pants items you should be fine. Mr Liz is sorrowful at the thought of missing out on this deal, and so I may be, ahem, forced to go again before next Tuesday in the role of good, loyal, dutiful wife; a position I take most seriously (when it suits).

Secondly, and most excitingly, the menu seems to have changed a little bit since my last visit. The dessert menu - something I often eschew in favour of eating extra garlic bread - is now a thing of astonishing beauty and temptation; if you don't believe me, please consult the pictoral evidence to your left.
Those smart fellows at the front are BOMBOLINI - home-made mini doughnuts, dredged in sugar, and served with hot chocolate sauce for dipping - and each one was a deep, deep joy. Hot, crispy, sweet exterior; pillowy-soft, chewy interior...I could live on these for the rest of my natural life, and have calculated that with the addition of a small side-salad I could probably argue it as a complete meal. Even better, as they are essentially the equivalent of the hole out of a normal doughnut, by my calculations they have few or no calories, particularly if you nobly leave the rather superfluous cream that accompanies them *loosens belt a little*

The perfect dessert? Almost. I managed to uncover but two flaws:
1. The trip to the toilet up the scary spiral metal staircase is now likely to reveal not just tomato on your chin, but an attractive smear of chocolate sauce as well, and
2. If you are recovering from tonsilitis, and are still a little husky-voiced, your cloth-eared husband is liable to mishear your blow-by-blow account of what you have consumed and go about his business under the mildly puzzled impression that you have had mini turnips for pudding...

- Gusto is at 756 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury M20 2DW, tel. 0161 445 8209.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

North Star Deli Hosts Exciting Supper Club Mash-Up as Join Us 4 Supper and Diablo & Supper JOIN FORCES

Just a few short years ago, if you'd outlined the concept of the Supper Club to my incredulous ears I would have called you a DREAMER, a crazy, beautiful optimist with a head full of shiny ideas and a suitcase full of unrealistic promises. After all, there's no way you'd get a load of previously unaquainted folk sitting down together to dine on a communal feast, often in the home of some complete stranger, from a menu with no choices, and no faff, and no obsequious waiters, and no hefty great bill presented at the end of it...that would just be CRAZY talk.

And yet. The advent of the Supper Club has been a revelation, and such an obvious opportunity for greedy people to eat even more than they did before that it's really no wonder the whole of the UK has fallen for its charms. And Manchester is no different - from the admirable Clandestine Cake Club, where ladies in nice dresses get high on sugar-fuelled confections and earnestly discuss anti-cracking techniques, to the South Manchester-based Our Paleo Kitchen, serving caveman-style goodies in a home environment (it's OK - I've been assured that cavemen are VERY keen on wine), there really is a Supper Club to suit everyone.

Of course, a Supper Club doesn't have to be in someone's home, as Chorlton's North Star Deli has proved through its phenomenally successful Join Us 4 Supper nights. I have been an enthusiastic supporter of these from day one, nobly allowing the super-talented (and recently be-fringed) Deanna Thomas to cook me up three courses of seasonal goodness while I quaff wine and talk with like-minded souls in the chic environs of her classy deli. Sometimes, I even remember to photograph the food and then cobble together a blog about it, but then that's just the kind of dedicated professionalism you've all come to expect from me.

This month's Supper Club was something special, held in conjunction with Diablo and Supper, which essentially meant that AS WELL as another Top Thomas Menu, some lovely people came along and plied us with wines from Casillero del Diablo that had been thoughtfully matched to each of the three courses. I now know that I was in the early stages of tonsilitis during this event, and that is perhaps the only reason I remember ANY of the following:

Canapes and Fizz: Two of my favourite words in the whole of the English language. The canapes were pure class - poppy seed macaroons with smoked salmon and lemon cream cheese, and rabbit empanadas - moreish cripy parcels of succulent pet-based goodness upon which I wish to dine for the rest of my life. The fizz - generously poured by the lovely Briony, who I suspect would be welcome at ANY party - was Brut Reserva Chardonnay, and utterly, utterly delicious *pretends is birthday and sends Mr Liz to shop to stock up*

Starter: King scallops with puy lentils and a Chardonnay sauce, as pictured here seconds before its speedy demise. Plump, tasty scallops, pillowy-soft within and sweetly caramelised without, reclining seductively upon a bed of healthy lentils (body = temple and all that) amid a sea of rich, buttery sauce (negated by lentils - see nutritional notes above). I have but one complaint here: I had A LOT of sauce left, and had I been in less exalted company I would have been able to go for a surreptitious slurp; as it was, I had to leave it on my plate with much reluctance and not a little anguish. The accompanying wines were the Casillero del Diablo Chardonnay, which unsurprisingly complemented the starter to perfection, and the peppy Reserva Privada Sauvignon Blanc. You can see from the picture how generous the servings were (no half-an-inch-lost-in-the-bottom-of-the-glass nonsense here), and a special mention must go to the ever-chivalrous Mr Liz who, spotting his wife was feeling unwell, stepped in to help drink her wine. He is STILL loitering now, hoping to receive some kind of medal for his actions.

Main: Red deer (venison to you and I), red wine sauce and Hunters Pie - cottage pie with venison mince and celeriac topping. I have little to say about this other than om, nom, and indeed nom: the deer was meltingly tender, and the venison pie a revelation - who knew that celeriac, the world's ugliest vegetable, could scrub up so well? The wines with this course were Shiraz and Carmenere, the latter proving to be most people's favourite wine of the night despite its lowly price tag *texts Mr Liz while en route to shop with orders to buy this as well* and plenty of people *names no names - MR LIZ* were spotted holding out their glasses for seconds. Luckily, the ebulliently knowledgeable Hans Joachim Wadsack (here to talk to us about his wines, and happy to answer either to Joe or his splendid Twitter moniker "Vinesack") was open to such cheek and kept pouring with good grace, resisting the suggestion that certain individuals should just open their mouths and have wine poured straight in, in manner of alcoholic fish or similar.

Dessert: Blood Orange Tart. Deanna excels in the pudding department, and this was exactly the kind of dessert that slips down without any trouble even after the consumption of approx. half a deer per head. It appeared with a dessert wine, an ilk of which I am not at all fond, but to my surprise I was able to rate the Casillero del Diablo Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc dessert wine "not half bad actually", before the rest of my glass was whipped away by a boy who was clearly dangerously low on alcohol, not having drunk for several seconds at that point. Even better, it was an EXCLUSIVE, and I can now legitimately call myself a TRAILBLAZER, in wine and stuff.

The next Supper Club is lined up for Feb 23rd, and looks set to be another great night - keep an eye on the deli website for details, and ensure you don't sit ANYWHERE near thirsty-looking boys...

Monday, 16 January 2012

Excited Local Boy Gets Sticky Hands on New PS Vita at Playstation Vita Rooms Manchester

Never let it be said that I don't know my limits. True, I have certain areas of very precise expertise; I am very good on shoes and bags, for example, and can talk pretentiously about virtually any book when called upon to do so - indeed, if I was allowed to only answer selected questions, and have a hundred point start, and all my correct answers counted double, I reckon I could have almost any team you care to mention on University Challenge. And yet, I am more than willing to accept that one or two areas are perhaps not my forte - cars, for example, or technology. For the latter, my interest can largely be documented through the following milestones:

1986 (ish): birthday yields up unexpected treasure in form of Sony Walkman (the cassette-playing version, for any younger readers). Benefits soon become clear - headphones placed firmly over ears during car journeys ensure parents etc cannot be heard. Batteries constantly running out through over-use, prompting frequent amusing episodes where music goes verrrrrry slowwwwwwwwww before finally conking out.

Late 1990s (sorry - did admit that tech not my thing): spontaneous purchase of Sony Playstation with just one game - Crash Bandicoot 2 - and no memory card (who knew one needed such items?) leads to riotous wine-fuelled night with sister. We both stay up till 4am laughing at the bit where we ride on the polar bear's back. We both stop laughing pretty quickly when realise game cannot be saved.

Late 2000s: arrival of Sky Plus means that people (girls) can now pause films and other forms of televisual entertainment for essential business such as visiting toilet, replenishing wine glass, talking with friends on phone etc. Everything therefore now takes approximately twice as long to watch, unless it has adverts, in which case only half the time is needed.

So, when we were invited to the launch night of PlayStation Vita Rooms Manchester, it seemed only best to send Mr Liz, who has been craving stardom for some time now and has frequently offered his services as a self-appointed "roving reporter" when he thinks there might be something in it for him. And this had him written all over it, essentially along the lines of "would you like to come for a beer or two, whilst trying out PlayStation’s new handheld device, PS Vita, more than a month before its official launch?" Weeeell, go on then, said Mr Liz, as his heels kicked up a clean trail of dust reaching all the way to Deansgate. Here are his thoughts:

- device is larger than he thought (in a good way) but surprisingly light
- quality of graphics very, very good - as good as PS3 in his opinion
- touch screen allows for easy navigation, with an intuitive menu bar and enhanced gameplay
- two joysticks and built-in camera combine the advantages of a PS3 with the convenience of a hand-held device
- best games? Wipeout 2048, Everybody's Golf and Uncharted.

Obviously, Mr Liz is just a trainee roving reporter, and whilst I might have come up with very, ahem, similar technical observations, I could also have provided a more in-depth commentary on the social aspect of the launch night. His help in this area comprised the following: a/ it was v busy and b/ he thinks Amir Khan was there (he was). He missed seeing the whole raft of Manchester United players in attendance, and continued his poor track record in Manchester-related matters by completely failing to spot Bernard Sumner or Bez (although I'm not sure I would know Bez without his maracas). Still, if you want a job doing properly...

- The PS Vita launches on 22nd February, and you can go along and have a play at PS Vita Rooms until Wednesday 18th January at 63 Deansgate, M3 2BW.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Perfect Saturday - Culture, Food and Bargaintastic Supper at Harvey Nics

Yesterday was another of those perfect January days with which we are sometimes spoiled: crisp, fresh air gently warmed by a surprisingly brave winter sun, while an over-arching sky of cloudless blue bathes the world in light and cons you into thinking Spring is just around the corner. Of course, the downside to this kind of day is that the aforementioned light floods its way into every nook and cranny of a house that has been largely neglected since Christmas, and points out that really, perhaps a bit of housework wouldn't go amiss, and that really, perhaps it's not a good look to have accumulated quite that much dust and cat fluff in the corners of all the rooms.

To cope with such unwanted accusations, yesterday I did what I do best: I went out. First stop, Clark Art in Hale, a gallery of tardis-like proportions full of gorgeous paintings that I would purchase in a flash if a/ I had any wall space left and b/ Mr Liz had deeper pockets. The gallery normally hosts two exhibitions per year, in March and September, but the Winter Show running at the moment is an extra, bonus collection that's well worth seeing: the constantly changing show is a mixed exhibition of Modern British Art with a particular (but not exclusive) focus on Northern artists and subject matter, and it's hard to imagine where else one might see such a fine collection - all for sale - hanging so casually together in such a convenient location. The show includes works by L.S. Lowry, Adolphe Valette, Braaq, Liam Spencer (about whom, rather terrifyingly, I once had to talk about in a spontaneous, knowledgeable and perhaps not entirely successful manner on BBC Radio Manchester), William Turner, John Thompson and Reg Gardner - amongst many others - and runs until 28th February.

Further details can be found at the gallery website. Incidentally, there is a cafe upstairs which we didn't have time to try but which is apparently run by Mrs Frosty Butcher, thereby reinforcing my theory that the Frosts are now approximately three quarters of the way to their planned world domination, and that soon you won't be able to go anywhere in the North West without being offered one of Frosty's tasty sausages. Instead, for lunch we went for a pit(ta) stop *smirks at own wit* at Pitta Crepe in nearby Altrincham - this time, I had the Chicken Tikka pitta and can confirm that whilst it was just as nice as the Moroccan Lamb I had last time, I did manage to make considerably more mess with this one, so be warned and don't wear a white top if you plan to have one.

Now, obviously in no way is my life dominated by food, but my thoughts were already turning to evening, and Harvey Nichols' Supper Club. The Second Floor Brasserie was - understandably - packed to the gills last night, full of lovely people who wanted in on the frankly ludicrous deal of three courses plus cocktail for £15 that is running throughout January; so packed, in fact, that the ballsy Brasserie space had begun to encroach upon the hushed environs of its older, posher sister - half the restaurant area had become Brasserie, meaning that we were lucky enough to bag a table by the window and gaze down upon Exchange Square throughout dinner.

And a really very good dinner it was. The Supper Club menu offers five choices per course, and frankly we quite fancied trying them all; in the end, Mr Liz went for the Black Pudding starter with Apple and Raisin Ravigote (you have to love a restaurant that serves a Northern staple with a classic French sauce) followed by the Chicken with Chilli & Coriander Hash Browns and Spicy Corn Salad, whilst I had Crispy Duck with Winter Slaw & Watercress Salad followed by Crispy Lamb Shoulder Tagine with Israeli Cous Cous.

The starters were great, particularly mine (hurrah - I'm best). Obviously, in this picture, my dish is NEAR, while Mr Liz's is FAR AWAY, but my starter really was the size of a small main, and even had to be shared with an eager Mr Liz lest I should run out of room for the next course. The duck was light and crisp, the winter slaw was oh-so-pretty with its pinky beetroot tinge, and overall this dish would have been perfect if only I could eat watercress in a dainty manner without bits sprawling from the sides of my mouth.

Mr Liz was the winner with the mains (hurroo - no longer best) - the sliced chicken was moist and tasty, and the three hash browns were things of great joy that I would have eaten in their entirety given half the chance; instead, the small taste I was permitted revealed them to be light, crunchy towers of tantalising moreishness. My lamb was tasty and tender, but just a little on the greasy side, and amongst the mostly delicious vegetables lurked a giant piece of carrot that due to its heft had not become as soft as its bedfellows (and indeed, had actually not become soft at all). These were minor details though, and obviously I cleared my plate and looked for more.

Desserts were of the standard you'd expect from a high-end restaurant, with Mr Liz choosing the Tiramisu Sundae (he always does this, as I dislike coffee, and he therefore doesn't have to share) while I went for the White Chocolate Brulee with Raspberry and Thyme Shortbread. Mr Liz proclaimed his deconstructed Tiramisu (a dinky dish filled with pieces of chocolate cake along with mascarpone sorbet and coffee mousse) a triumph, and my brulee - which would have been on the sickly side served on its own - was perfectly balanced out by the generous chunk of slightly savoury shortbread.

Obviously, it's wildly easy to spend far more than the advertised £15 here - bread, olives and side orders cost extra (although to be fair, you don't need them as the portions are generous anyway) and the cocktail provided on arrival is a glass of vodka punch that slips down rather too easily, so you may well need to order extra drinks as well unless you stick stoically to tap water. Still, the offer remains great value, and I'm busy checking my diary to see if I can possibly squeeze in another visit before the end of January...

Supper Club runs Monday to Saturday from 5.30pm - full details are on the website.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Feeling Blue? Five Reasons January ROCKS

Everyone seems a bit fed up, don't they? January is dark, and cold, and cash-strapped, and full of unrealistic expectations - already three quarters of the people I know who gave up the booze for January are well and truly off the wagon - and tight waistbands. So here's five reasons that January is, in fact, ace.

1. New diary. Everyone loves a nice new book to write in - who doesn't carefully, laboriously, use their very best handwriting on the first page, and die a little inside if a crossing out or correction has to be made? This year, not only do I have a new diary, but it's a big one. And it's a Simon's Cat one, with pictures of a hungry feline pointing sorrowfully at its mouth on almost every page. No further evidence required on this point, other than those pristine pages can now be filled with...

2. Even more good restaurant deals. I wrote rather giddily about some of these the other day - and have indeed already booked for Harvey Nichols Supper Club - but a couple more have come to my attention since. Firstly, I admit to my shame that I completely forgot about Room's legendary Winter Sale, which offers 50% off the food bill Monday to Friday (before 7pm) until 10th Feb - visit their website for further details and to apply for a discount card. And secondly, Azzurro, the excellent independent Italian restaurant in West Didsbury, has a tempting-looking offer on Friday nights, with three courses (from a set menu) and a bottle of wine per couple for £20.12 per person. The food here is consistently outstanding, lovingly chosen and prepared, and served in a convivial family atmosphere - check their website for sample menus. Obviously they could take my advice on the decor and replace all their tasteful nonsense with a few gingham tablecloths and some candles artfully stuck in be-skirted bottles, but apart from that this place is pretty much perfect. If the offer is popular, they may extend it beyond January, so you know what you need to do here.

3. And on a food-related note, the advent of Stilton Sunday. Now admittedly this is a new tradition, and it's not yet absolutely certain it will be adopted on a national level, but it should be - an annual event, perhaps the first Sunday in January, where every meal must contain leftover Christmas Stilton to a greater or lesser degree - I prefer greater. Today I have stopped short of stirring a chunk or two through my cups of tea, but only just.

4. January telly. There's always loads of Sexy Drama on TV in January - tonight it's Sherlock, tomorrow it's Above Suspicion, Hustle is back on Friday...and if you're more of a reality show bent, I note from my, ahem, Twitter timeline that certain besequinned favourites are back on our screens *pretends that in no way, at all, is watching Dancing On Ice - hard when Bleakley-rage is simmering not far beneath the surface*

5. January sales. Now, I'm obviously not advocating the type of frenzied, Boxing Day scrummage that ends up on the news every year, more the sedate pleasure of going round the shops in early January and picking up lots of gorgeous things that - inexplicibly - no-one else wants. This is a particularly enjoyable activity if one has received vouchers for one's birthday in November, although can cause feelings that a/ one is somehow misshapen, and a completely different size to the rest of the clothes-buying population in the UK, and b/ that one's taste is essentially quite suspect. Nothing that a half-price Jack Daniels gift set can't assuage though...

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Kevin Cummins' Exemplar Exhibition Comes to Manchester Photographic

It is the early 90s, and an otherwise unexceptional teenager living in Somerset has made a momentous discovery. To be fair, she's going into the sixth form now, and therefore considers herself really very knowledgeable about most things - fashion, world affairs, boys - but now she finds herself the first to discover music. More specifically, she is the sort of maverick trailblazer who has only gone and discovered really good music made before her time.

So, whilst her peers are probably listening to Roxette and Janet Jackson, she likes Roxy Music, and David Bowie, and Talking Heads, and she is the FIRST PERSON EVER TO DO SO - or so she thinks, anyway. Her very favourite bands are Joy Division and New Order, and when she stays at her sister's house she looks at a book discovered by chance on a shelf there, a gloriously moody book full of black and white shots of peaky young men with good cheekbones, hanging out in a rehearsal studio or larking about on a snowy bridge. Truth be told, these images are a major factor in her decision to apply to Manchester University without considering such minor details as course content, so it probably serves her right when they later make her translate the whole of Beowulf from the original Anglo-Saxon.

The photographs in question are of course those taken by Kevin Cummins between 1977 and 1980, when he had unrivalled photographic access to Joy Division. It seems lazy and cliched to call them iconic, but they really are: these pictures are almost synonymous with the band and their short-lived rise to prominence, and capture Manchester during a different era, a different time, when photographs were special and musicians were musicians rather than fame-hungry celebrities. Rather unsettlingly, tonight I have come face to face with all the photographs I used to pour over, as well as the man who took them - here's Ian Curtis dancing on stage in his own inimitable style; here are the four of them trudging through the snow, coat lapels raised against the Manchester cold; there's that oh-so-famous close up shot of a pale Curtis taking a drag on his cigarette. And they are as breathtaking and as important now as they were then.

The photographs have been touring the country and are on show at the Manchester Photographic Gallery until February 26th. Anyone with even the most fleeting of interests in Manchester music should go; preferably this Saturday (7th January), when Kevin will be in conversation with Joy Division/New Order's Stephen Morris, a gentleman to whom Mr Liz was introduced at a screening of Control yet still failed to recognise - apparently this in itself is not enough to instigate divorce proceedings, although it must surely come close. Kevin will be answering questions about what it was like to work with Joy Division, and although entry is a fiver, this is redeemable against the cost of his book should you wish to buy it (you do). The event is limited to 100 people, so get there early; I can't go, but if you can then please cut straight to the chase and ask the pair of them that all-important question - how guilty do they feel at being responsible for a seventeen-year-old having to translate Beowulf, hmmmm?

- Manchester Photographic can be found on Tariff Street, Manchester, M1 2FF.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Food and Drink January Offers: Resolutions Now Allocated "Under Threat" Status

Now, I'm guessing that across Manchester today people have dragged themselves out of bed and into work, to face an inbox so full that one may as well simply delete the lot, and exchange pleasantries with a range of colleagues with the puffy faces and oh-so-tight waistbands that can only really be acquired after two solid weeks of carousing ("no, no, really, you look fine. I've only put on the half a stone myself. Yes, I am sucking my cheekbones in"). Little wonder then, that most people's New Year's Resolutions revolve around eating and drinking less; indeed, I know two otherwise perfectly nice people who have elected to give up alcohol for the whole of January.

Logical, yes. Sensible? Well, I would say not. What's worse than going back to work after Christmas? Going back to work in the knowledge that you can't even have a glass of wine at the end of the day, and with nothing more to look forward to than cabbage soup for dinner. Quite apart from this, cunning restaurateurs and event planners across Manchester have devised a range of devious means of parting you from your good intentions, some of which are listed below and already marked in my diary:

1. Living Ventures - the group behind Gusto, The Alchemist and the Blackhouse chain of Grill on the... restaurants - is offering 50% off food throughout January. Tables must be booked online, and there are a few exceptions to the offer (basically no lobster, no fillet steak, no Saturdays - check individual restaurants for terms and conditions) but this looks a pretty good offer to me. And obviously, as you've given up the booze for January, your bill will look positively miniscule, although you will of course have to ignore those quaffing wine around you as you sip sadly at your diet lemonade.

2. Harvey Nichols' Supper Club - reasonably priced at ANY time of the year - is also having a January Sale by shaving a fiver off the normal price. For just £15, you get three courses plus a cocktail on arrival, and although the Supper Club is in the Brasserie rather than the Second Floor Restaurant the food is of excellent quality - and you can always pretend you can see the Manchester Wheel from your seat. Available Monday to Saturday from 5.30pm; visit the website to book.

3. Well, so far we've kept it down to lemonade plus one cocktail, but there's really no way of mitigating the alcohol content of this next one. The Campaign for Real Ale's National Winters Ales Festival 2012 arrives in town on Wednesday 18th January and runs until Saturday 21st, thereby accommodating those who have elected to give up alcohol on weeknights only. More than 200 British and foreign beers, Real Ales, Ciders and Perries will be available (I can just see Mr Liz reaching for his geeky tasting-notes pad as I speak), with CAMRA’s Winter Beer of Britain Competition on the Wednesday. Full details are on the website, to which I am currently attempting to block Mr Liz's access.

So, as far as I'm concerned, it's business as usual - I can always start the healthy living regime in February...

Monday, 2 January 2012

Things To Do in Manchester: Aspirational New Year's Resolutions for 2012

As I write this, it is Monday 2nd of January, and a beautifully sunny day in the Mecca of the North. I have spent the morning wrestling with a sad, desiccated Christmas tree that proved most unwilling to give up its cosy spot by the radiator and be put outside, and am now looking admiringly at my newly cavernous, uncluttered living room (although the way the cat is walking does suggest that all those pine needles did indeed have to go somewhere). If ever there was a bright, shiny day purpose-built for the coining of New Year's resolutions, this is it, so here they are. I realise they are highly aspirational, but I believe in aiming high, and as I'm clearly never going to be a size eight again I may as well start with these:

1. Strive to overcome new and dangerous addiction to Sexy Drama. Over the years, I have a found it a useful, time-gaining advantage that I don't really like watching television: there's no end to the fabulous places you can go, amazing people you can talk to and interesting books you can read when you're not tethered to the sofa fretting about some mindless nonsense. And yet. Over the last year or so, it has come to my attention that there's a LOT of irresistibly Sexy Drama around - witty, stylish, full of very beautiful people who would probably really like to be my friend/lover/admirer if this were real life (oh, would that it were), and just too seductive by half.

To wit: Dominic West, Romola Garai, Romola Garai's bottom and a selection of martinis in The Hour, arch Lady Mary and suddenly-hot Cousin Matthew (no-one knows how or when this happened) in Downton, David Morrissey and Aidan Gillen undergoing serious bouts of man angst and still finding time to cleanse the streets of crime in Thorne, psycho Suranne Jones stalking Rupert Graves across Manchester to the open disapproval and inner understanding of female viewers nationwide in Scott & Bailey, to give just a few examples. I realised my obsession with Sexy Drama had gone too far when I spent almost all of yesterday anxiously awaiting Sherlock, purely for the pleasure of seeing a tall man with luxuriant hair running around in a hot coat exchanging banter with a small man who would probably make an excellent Hobbit.

2. Go into Manchester between the hours of 11am and 7pm without visiting Grinch. Tricky one this, and one that I have actually already broken, having popped into Manchester today and accidentally found myself perched at a table with a glass of Prosecco - a bit like Cousin Matthew's sexy new look, no-one quite knows how this might have come about. Put simply, Grinch is irresistible - snug, welcoming, unchanging (in a good way) and with a superlative Happy Hour between 5 and 7pm, there is just no way of walking past without popping in. While I was there, I thought I may as well toy with one of their giant cheeseburgers (the best in Manchester) on the basis that I'd been carrying some heavy shopping and only had the one Toblerone yesterday; Mr Liz meanwhile polished off a modest Calzone the approximate size and weight of his own head. I fear this will be a difficult resolution to keep, so may abandon it on the grounds of sheer unrealistic-ness.

3. Shop local all the time, not just when easily done with no extra effort. I am a big believer in supporting local independent businesses, and am fortunate enough to live in an area positively thronging with interesting shops; sometimes you can hardly move round here for the proliferation of locally-branded jute bags with sprout trees coming out the top of them. I too can often be seen toting such a bag around various markets and worthy premises, each staffed by lovely, knowledgeable souls who really care about what they long as it's a weekend, or a holiday. At all other times, I fear I can be more often spotted wearily pushing a trolley round Sainsbury's and randomly throwing in pre-packaged meat of unknown origin and uniformly-sized, pre-scrubbed perfect vegetables while Mr Liz follows behind looking longingly at the sweet counter. I feel bad about this, and am fully aware that the actions of people like me are partly responsible for the fact that a Tesco Express is about to appear in Didsbury Village; I hereby promise to do better locally on ALL days of the week, and stop feeding the evil behemoth with my hard-earned coin.

4. Write interesting, intellectual blog posts that are not all about me. Oh...well, let's not be silly about this - I might leave this one for another year or so while I work on the others...

Happy New Year all, and here's to another twelve months of great things in Manchester :)