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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Summer's Here: Yay and Pah Says Fair-Minded Local Girl

First of all, let me start by saying that OBVIOUSLY, I like this nice sunny weather as much as the next person. It's clearly FAR easier to drag yourself out of bed in the morning when the sun is beaming cheerfully through the curtains, and the thrill of buying your first ice-creams for the year in your weekly supermarket run can under no circumstances be underestimated.

But. An unseasonably early run of temperate climate conditions is not ALL good news, and in the interests of the fair, balanced journalism for which I am internationally renowned, I feel it is up to me to try to counteract a Twitter timeline that currently consists almost entirely of people using the words "yippee", "lovely" and "gorgeous" in only minorly varying combinations. Here are a few of the significant downsides to all of these Spring-time shenanigans:

1. Sunny weather's poor inability to differentiate between a weekend and a school day. There are not really any problems, as far as I can see, with having nice weather on a day you're not working. For me, those days are Saturday and Sunday, and very nice they were too. However, as I have spent the whole of yesterday and today teaching in a stuffy classroom with a window the approximate size of a postage stamp (presumably to discourage any ideas students might have about escaping through the window whilst my back is turned, perhaps engaged in writing a particularly tricky spelling on the board), I have not really benefitted from this. Bright pink students coming into the room wearing shorts and exclaiming about how nice it is outside do NOT help matters.

2. Lack of communication between blazing sun and unhelpfully earthy contents of weekly vegetable box. Now, I'm very fond of root vegetables. Very fond. And yet, you'd think Mother Nature would send some kind of communication between the sky and the earth, giving a basic heads-up that hot weather is on the way and thereby avoiding a sorrowful scenario in which one wishes to make a light frisky salad, but has to do so only equipped with swede, carrots and parsnips.

3. Difficult sartorial decisions. It's all well and good being a million degrees by lunchtime - what about the dangerously nippy walk across the carpark at seven thirty in the morning? There are three possible options here: wear nice thick winter tights, which will be unbearably hot and uncomfortable by lunchtime; go daringly bare-legged, which will necessitate a virtual sprint to the office (and don't even THINK about stopping for petrol) but will pay off later; or my own personal choice of wearing tights and then whipping them off mid-morning. The only downside to this particular manoeuvre that I have discovered thus far is the look of shock and terror on the face of the only male member of staff in the office at the female disrobement unfolding before his startled eyes.

4. Garden guilt complex. Now, obviously I'm fortunate to have a garden, but as it spends a good 95% of the year making me feel guilty, lazy and neglectful, this is something of a double-edged sword. In fact, the only time my garden looks nice is when it's been snowing, and all offending eyesores are smoothed into a perfect white blanket. Luckily, for most of winter it's entirely possible to ignore the garden altogether and have another glass of wine instead; however, whilst it's clearly lovely to be able to hang one's washing on the line again, having to climb over a stack of dead weeds and last year's tomato plants to even reach the lawn brings it home loud and clear that work needs to be done.

*makes note to commence nagging Mr Liz re: garden*

5. Inability to stay at home and get anything done, ever. I'm aware that certain regular readers of this blog may have (erroneously) come to the conclusion that I go out all the time, and maintain my superlative ligging record by only agreeing to drink wine on days that have a "y" in them; I can assure you, however, that this is most definitely not true. I spend a great many sober, industrious evenings at home, cooking healthy nutritious meals and completing intellectual, mind-improving actities; it's just I choose not to write about them. Trouble is, when the weather is like this, the mind-improving activities are the first thing to be jettisoned, to be replaced with general lying about - perhaps in a beer garden, perhaps in the park, or perhaps just on the bed with the windows open while the cat flops limply by my side.

Take last night, for example. I certainly didn't MEAN to go into Didsbury, and sit outside Felicini in the sun, drinking Happy Hour Birra Moretti at £2.85 a bottle. I DEFINITELY can't then be held responsible for being lured inside said restaurant, where we lounged on a couch as the gentle breeze wafted through the open doors, and feasted on taster platters piled high with bresaola, chorizo and prosciutto, with mozarella and rocket and shaved parmesan, with hummus and stuffed vine leaves. And no-one in their right mind would blame me for choosing to dine on zingy Crab and Coriander Linguine rather than the poor old mardy-faced swede waiting dejectedly at home. And even better, all week this most sunny of restaurants is offering a 40% discount from your food bill - just follow them on Twitter (@feliciniD) to snaffle your secret code.

So, I hope that a sense of balance is now restored regarding all this giddiness. Rest assured though, I'll be the FIRST to complain when the wet weather returns - swede casserole, anyone?

- Felicini is at 747 - 751 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, Manchester M20 6RN; tel. 0161 445 2055.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Red Lion, High Lane: Local Girl Defeated by Chef Stanley's Big Yorkies

A few weeks ago, an interesting contest developed between two of my favourite local chefs; a contest most helpfully broadcast over the ever-enlightening medium of Twitter. In one corner, the mighty Andrew Nutter; in the other, the pugnacious Simon Stanley. And what were they fighting about? Asparagus. Or, more specifically, which of them could get it onto their menu (and onto their punters' plates) first.

(If you're interested - and the Manchester Evening News WAS interested, enough to run a whole column on it - this particular heavyweight battle was won by Chef Stanley, whose asparagus-based offering appeared on the menu at both the Red Lion and Damson on 29th Feb.)

Anyway, such was the fallout from this epic encounter - smugness from Stanley; nonchalance from Nutter - that another public assertion both bold and brazen in nature seemed to go almost completely unnoticed. For not only has Chef Stanley been bragging about his speedy Spring veg; he's also been flaunting the size of his Yorkies. Now, as I live with a man who firmly believes that the addition of batter to hot oil is the best thing to come out of Yorkshire by a country mile, tweets such as #showusyouryorkies and #Yorkshirepuddingwars were like a red rag to a bull, and before I could say "size isn't everything" we were haring up the A6 towards High Lane to investigate the size of Chef Stanley's wares.

And here they are. What Chef Stanley was too modest to say is that he has giant EVERYTHING - Sunday lunch at The Red Lion is the most generous, joyful, EBULLIENT repast you could possibly imagine. The deal is two courses for £13.95 or three for £16.95 from a wide-ranging set menu that - with impossible blitheness of spirit - allows you to have, say, chicken liver and foie gras parfait for starters, followed by perfectly pink rib of beef, Yorkshire pudding, duck fat roast potatoes, seasonal vegetables and gravy (about which Chef Stanley also makes bold claims - I think he's simply a man who knows his worth).

Anyway, every single last mouthful was sheer joy. Sheer, jumbo, giant-sized joy. I'm not sure how hungry folk are in High Lane, but everything here is elephantine in its proportions - a bungalow-sized slab of parfait that managed to be rich yet light all at the same time, served with proper, thickly-sliced toast that - tragically - had to be shared with a disbelievingly triumphant Mr Liz, who had polished off his own corned beef hash cake in record time and was sat gazing at my plate with the air of a man who is on his second pint of ale by 2pm. The mains were spectacular - a jenga tower of succulent beef served alongside that Yorkie and three crispy-on-the-outside-fluffy-in-the-middle roast potatoes that were each of a suitable size to replace any missing monoliths at Stonehenge should this ever become necessary. Even better, there were LOADS of veg - I HATE Sunday lunches that scrimp in this area, as a proper Sabbath repast should at the very least allow you to claim you've had your five-a-day, even if this IS at a cost of approximately fifty eight thousand calories.

I'm ashamed to say that I shared my starter, gave away half my giant Yorkie (Mr Liz's buttons starting to strain slightly by this point) and couldn't manage pudding, despite having already decided on arrival that the sticky toffee pudding* had my name firmly on it. So we'll simply have to go back - great food at more than reasonable prices, served in sizes that make you feel like a wee Lilliputian who eats like a tiny bird: what's not to like?

*Simon's entirely predictable response to my epic dessert fail was to issue a tweet declaring that he makes the best sticky toffee pudding; apparently there is a pudding club on the way should you wish to put him to the test - I'll pass on further details when I have them, lest you wish to get into training for such an event.

- The Red Lion is at 112 Buxton Road, High Lane, Stockport SK6 8ED, tel. 01663 765227; take a doggy bag or a VERY hungry husband.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Great Cocktails, Top DJs and a LOVELY Bit of Purple Velvet at Uber Lounge, Castlefield

When you're young, the whole idea of being OLD seems truly, utterly terrible. You stride confidently about town in the oxblood-red Doc Martens that you think look really most desirable indeed, stopping off to drink warm beer from plastic cups in a range of dingy watering holes that never, ever have any toilet paper in the ladies. And you do this because it is FUN, whilst boring old people sit in their la-di-da restaurants and posh wine bars, happy with their dull little lives because, really, they are so old they may as well be dead (i.e. they are older than THIRTY).

And then, you become one of these really old, dull people. The ones who eat at proper restaurants rather than trying to share a Rusholme curry between four people at three in the morning; who drink in bars where there are comfy seats, and toilets with functioning locks on the doors, and music played at a level that still allows you to have a nice chat with the people you have chosen to spend some time with. And what your eighteen-year-old self would never in a million years believe is that being old is truly, utterly fabulous.

My eighteen-year-old self would have HATED the Uber Lounge, the new cocktail bar in Castlefield owned by the folk behind Bohemia and Twisted Med. And she would have hated it for all the reasons I liked it so much when we visited last week. First of all, it's tucked away under the arches in a formerly quiet part of town that now boasts a fine array of eateries and drinkeries (she would NEVER have ventured so far from Oxford Road, lest someone try to charge her more than a pound a pint). And to be fair, the drinks here are not cheap: my favourite - the Watermelon Cascade pictured here in all of its one-of-your-five-a-day-surely glory - comes from the list of Champagne Cocktails priced at £8.95 a go (and I fear I could drink many, many of these, and then have to face up to telling Mr Liz I'd spent the mortgage money entirely on sparkle-based goods). Unfortunately, though, these kind of prices are pretty much standard now for city centre cocktails, and there are plenty of Classics (including another old friend, the Mojito) for a reasonable £6.95.

Even better is the decor (well, if you like purple, which I do). The unassuming flight of stairs that leads from the ground floor entrance suddenly opens up into what can only be described as a haven of lavender loveliness, of luscious lilacness, of perfect plum, of amazing amethyst (OK, OK *steps away from the thesaurus*) - it wouldn't have gone with the oxblood-red DMs at ALL. And, being an old person, I very much enjoyed the comfort of the plush booth-style seating and the attentiveness of the lovely staff in bringing over drinks and sparing my weary old bones the effort of upward movement. There is also a lovely outdoor terrace, but as I had neglected to bring a blanket for my knees I was sadly unable to venture outside lest I catch my death of cold.

So my eighteen-year-old self's loss is my gain - another top-quality drinking den in Manchester's ever-growing crown. But then, let's face it - with her oxblood-red Doc Martens and her lousy taste in beer she really wouldn't have been welcome here anyway.

- Uber Lounge is open Thursday to Sunday from 7pm till late, and can be found at Arch 9, Catalan Square, Manchester M3 4RU; tel. 0161 8397099.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Mark Addy Gourmet Evening February 2012: No Romance, No Proposals, but some VERY Tight Jeans

I imagine that February 29th is a pretty scary day for unmarried menfolk who happen to be in a relationship. Either they are madly, deeply, desperately in love, and spend the day moping winsomely, hoping upon hope for a proposal from their beloved; or they would much rather acquire a new lawn mower than a mother-in-law, and spend the day hiding at the office, or perhaps adding a new coat of varnish to the fence in a bid to be out the house as much as possible. One thing I'm fairly sure of is that most women would NOT book two places at The Mark Addy monthly Gourmet Evening in order to pop the question, no doubt knowing of chef Robert Owen Brown's penchant for serving up entire pig heads - hardly conducive to a romantic evening (unless you are a lady pig, with an eye for a quiet partner). In the end, this month's menu was fairly restrained - the brains that had apparently been ordered mercifully had not turned up, so instead we ate this little lot.

1. Morecambe Bay Shrimp and Sea Urchin Soup. One of the great delights of The Mark Addy Gourmet Evening is to take a picture of whatever bonkers combination has tickled ROB's fancy this month, put it on Facebook, and then return an hour or so later to peruse the excited/ indignant/ horrified thread that will have run wild whilst you were away. This particular course, served inside an empty sea urchin, prompted much discussion, with metaphors ranging from hedgehog to, um, hairy bollock. It was actually delicious - an intensely fishy broth that tasted of 1980s seaside holidays, although a lack of small spoons meant we had to drink it through a straw in the manner of a Vic Reeves' Big Night Out sketch: "round about this time of night, I like to slip a straw into a sea urchin"...inDEED.

2. Rose Veal Pate. Veal is a much misunderstood meat - anything that involves perceived cruelty to cute, baby animals is likely to be controversial - but rose veal is a natural by-product of the dairy industry and is produced to the highest welfare standards; and as I've said before, you either eat animals and the associated dairy products, or you don't. I do, and so does ROB; thus this gorgeous pate was rich with cream and butter in a tribute to the animal that made it, and served with crispy melba toast in a tribute to, erm, bread products.

3. Ferreted Rabbit with Wild Mushrooms. As their name suggests, these Flopsies had been garnered by popping little furry ferrets down the rabbit holes and then catching the fleeing bunnies in a net; what the description does NOT tell you is that this dish was actually the world's poshest vol-au-vent - a well of flaky pastry filled to the brim with a creamy rabbit-and-mushroom mixture that we would have been eating at parties in the 1970s, had we known such a thrilling possibility was within our grasp *demands re-enactment of ALL childhood birthday parties, only with better food*

4. Gurnard Tail with Thyme, Wild Garlic and Salford Ham. Now, the main course at the Addy Gourmet Evening is ALWAYS meat, so this one represented something of a departure (well, that or ROB had brain fricasse planned for us - unlucky, eh *wipes brow in relief*). To be fair, gurnard is quite a meaty fish anyway, and was wrapped up snugly in Salford's own version of Parma ham for this classy dish; even classier when you consider that all the staff had been out collecting the wild garlic in bin bags just hours earlier. NB I will NOT repeat what a crude-minded friend said this picture reminded her of *disapproving face*

5. Timperley Early Rhubarb Fool. Unusually for me, the dessert course was my favourite course of the night, perhaps because I was already in retro mode: I grew up on gooseberry fool, so this sweet-yet-tart combination of prettily pink rhubarb swirled with thick cream and served with brittle ginger biscuits, dark with treacle, was just perfect. When this stunning course was served, ROB stopped off at our table to ask what we thought of it, no doubt expecting some pithy and insightful comment on the nature of fresh seasonal ingredients and the importance of supporting local producers. I said that the biscuits looked like Mickey Mouse ears. He left and went to another table.

6. Local Cheese. The usual straw that broke the camel's back: two types of cheese - one blue, one not and therefore ignored - crackers and butter. This is the course that always makes my jeans too tight; you'd really think I'd have learned not to eat it by now.

So, whilst ROB's lovely business partner Margaret may have been bemoaning the lack of proposals by the end of the night, the food was as good as ever, and - as usual - excellent value at £30 for six courses. Next month, for one month only, Gourmet Evening is on the last Thursday in March - and I can't go. Anyone who wishes to go along, eat hairy bollocks and write a guest post is MORE than welcome....

- The Mark Addy is on Stanley Street in Salford, Manchester, M3 5EJ; tel: 0161 832 4080; email: