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Sunday, 29 April 2012

"The Series": Local Girl Runs (Expensively) Amok on The Avenue, Spinningfields

It's a bleak day, for I have realised that I am starting to sound like an old person. In pretty much any conversation that revolves around Manchester - its architecture, its shops, its bars and restaurants - I can now almost entirely be relied upon to come up with some meaningless nonsense about how much it's changed since I moved here sometime in the late twentieth century. I've not yet started using the phrase "back in the day", or "when I was a girl", but it's surely just a matter of time now.

And the trouble is, it's all true. Manchester has changed almost beyond all recognition since I was a girl, back in the day - it's still fabulous, just in a different, bigger, shinier way. Not everything quite hits the mark - the disappointing Triangle, the strangely sterile Printworks - but one newly-developed area that IS shaping up very nicely is Spinningfields, snugly tucked away just west of the city centre, between Deansgate and the River Irwell. Many of the restaurants and bars there have already made their name - think Australasia, The Alchemist, The Oast House, Southern Eleven - and now a new series of weekly events aims to drive traffic to the increasingly impressive array of shops there as well.

The first of these was last Thursday, and - frankly - had trouble written all over it from the start. First of all, it was hosted by Kurt Geiger, a shop that sells shoes and bags of such breathtaking beauty that you sometimes - sometimes - forget to look at the price-tag, with often costly results. Secondly, complimentary drinks were provided by the new Yacht Club Bar, and poured with astonishing generosity by a young man who greeted me with a friendly "hello - you were at the Yacht Club last night, weren't you" and merrily poured me all the more (despite my protestations that I would have been at home, studying, or reading, or something, and that he must have got me confused with someone else). Thirdly, there was a 10% discount on the night. And finally, I was attending in the company of two ladies whose - independent - reaction to the 10% discount was something along the lines of "well! practically free then!"

Add this all together, and you have a group of dangerously over-excited ladies, fuelled by large quantities of pink Prosecco, charging around an exquisite shop wanting to buy everything (you can probably take a guess how many shoes we accidentally knocked off the beautiful display you see here during the course of the evening), and lusting after every single item modelled on the thrillingly exciting "shoe catwalk". All I can say is, I'll get a lot of use out of the bag, and the purse, and that if someone were to work out cost-per-wear, it would probably be very reasonable indeed. AND I can offset the value of the items in the cute Molton Brown goody bags that were given out as well - practically free then.

The events will run every Thursday between 6 and 8pm, hosted by different shops on The Avenue, and will each be publicised from the Monday on The Avenue website and also via Twitter and Facebook. Each event is complimentary but you'll need to get your name on the guestlist by dropping them an email to confirm your place. A shoe catwalk? Shopping certainly wasn't this exciting back in my day...

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Mr Trotter's Pork Crackling Dinner at Harvey Nichol's Second Floor Restaurant: Local Girl Set to Brave THE SCRATCHING

As should be manifestly obvious by now, I am a good, loyal and above all SELFLESS wife, wholly committed to making Mr Liz's life as pleasant as possible in every conceivable way*.

*if his wants, needs etc coincide with what I was planning to do anyway.

Take, for example, the way in which I have nobly adapted my own food tastes to accommodate his own, Northern-man preferences - I now don't mind a bit of a dabble with a tasty black pudding, and just last week I was to be found bravely forcing down large measures of whisky JUST so we could have something in common *swiftly deletes Liquorists' Whisky Trail post, in which I am to be found dancing aloft a table proclaiming the joys of Jack Daniels*.

This pretty much just leaves one last bastion to scale - the mighty fortress of the pork scratching. Now, I've never really understood the allure of this particular snack, although on the rare occasions Mr Liz spots a bag of scratchings behind a pub counter, his reaction is something akin to that of the small boy on the Disneyland advert who can't sleep because he's TOO EXCITED - imagine wide eyes, lots of sleeve tugging, plaintive cries of "look! look!" Even Scampi-flavoured Fries don't mesmerise him to quite the same extent.

The more cynical amongst you may suspect an ulterior motive in my sudden urge to tackle the world of the scratching; "why now?", you may be asking, or even perhaps "what's in it for you?" Well, nothing; it is a completely unrelated coincidence that on Friday May 18th Harvey Nichols Second Floor Restaurant (by some amazing fluke, one of my favourite places to eat) is hosting a three course "Pork Crackling Dinner" to celebrate the fact that the Food Shop now stocks Mr Trotter's Great British Pork Crackling - a joyous-looking bag of salty porcine goodness, on the front of which poses an imperious looking pig who clearly knows what a fine figure he cuts in his Union Jack waistcoat. This, presumably, is Mr Trotter himself, although whether he oversees the whole operation or is actually the one offering up bits of his own body for us to eat is not entirely clear.

The brains behind the brand, food writers Tom Parker Bowles and Matthew Fort, will be on hand to tell us more about the joys of scratching throughout the evening - I wish them luck, as I can envisage them battling against a tide of hungry boys who do not wish to learn ANYTHING about pork scratchings other than: where are my scratchings? can I have more scratchings? can I eat my wife's scratchings when she goes to the loo? haven't I seen you off the telly? why has that man got more scratchings than me? ad infinitum.

Head Chef Sam Everett has put together a lovely-sounding menu designed to showcase Mr Trotter's in all its glory - here's what's planned:


Black pudding, Mr Trotter’s Pork Scratching, herb salad (I already know which bit of this Mr Liz will be trying to make me swap in exchange for my scratching)


Pork loin
Confit pork belly, pig's cheek hash brown, Mr Trotter’s Pork Scratching


Mr Trotter’s Pork Scratching baked custard (I know it's wrong, but this one excites me greatly, not least for the hope that Manchester gets a taste for it and Greggs etc are forced to add bacon to their custard tarts)
Chocolate mousse, Maple granite.

Places cost £30 per head - see the website for more details of how to book. Frankly, if anything is going to convert me, it's this - a gorgeously refined dinner, flawlessly served by sleek, professional staff in the luxurious environment of the Second Floor Restaurant. If only I didn't know, in my heart of hearts, that I'm bound to end up leaving with a man whose pockets are stuffed to bursting with bags of Mr Trotter's to eat noisily on the night bus...

Friday, 27 April 2012

Busy Wednesday Sees Plucky Local Girl Brave the Rain for The Yacht Club and The Mark Addy

Good old Manchester - it can always be relied on not to let you down. Take the 2002 Commonwealth Games, for example, which I seem to recall flew the flag with consummate pride by staging a closing ceremony in which Mini Coopers drove around in formation to the theme from Coronation Street, whilst lithe young men dressed in inplausible flat-caps performed gymnastics. I think there may even have been an act involving some whippets, although the mists of time mean I cannot be entirely certain about this.

Similarly, you could pretty much guarantee that the week Manchester's hottest new bar opened - a jaunty outdoor affair at Spinningfields called The Yacht Club, complete with large decking area and garden beds - the heavens would open and even Noah himself would perhaps raise a wary eyebrow at the apocalypse raging outside. Still, Mancunians are a hardy breed, not easily daunted, and Wednesday night saw a joyful crowd of people huddled cheerily under the awning drinking excellent Prosecco and generally behaving as if they were in the South of France rather than at the epicentre of a small gale. The Yacht Club has been admirably inspired by the 1950s-era French Riviera, conjuring up an impossibly glamorous world where all the ladies look a little like Audrey Hepburn and all the men wear deckshoes with insoucient aplomb. Despite the weather, and my subsequent decision not to wear the Capri pants I had planned, I was most impressed - I think I shall while away many a happy hour here between now and September, when the Good Ship Glamorous cruelly plans to set sail and disappear forever. Oh, and if you're the very nice blonde lady whose table we shared, I'm sorry I ate your nuts, and I appreciate you going to get more.

Sadly, we couldn't hang around at The Yacht Club - once the nice lady's nuts were gone it was time for a short skip across the Irwell's handy new pedestrian bridge for the monthly Gourmet Night at the mighty Mark Addy. You know how it works by now...six surprise courses of Robert Owen Brown's finest for £30, plus - if you're lucky - a kiss thrown in for free from landlord John. This is what we ate this month: all delicious, and - for the first time ever - attracting absolutely no disapproval whatsoever from the social networks, who are normally split between astonished admiration/jealousy/naked greed, and open-mouthed terror.

1. Morecambe Bay Shrimp Soup. There's a valuable lesson to be learnt here: if a little dish of soup has a pastry crust perching proudly aloft its upper environs, when you remove (and eat) said lid, the amber nectar pooling seductively beneath will be the approximate temperature of recently-spewed lava. It's a greedy girl indeed whose tongue is still burnt two full days after the event.

2. Line-Caught Anglesey Joey Mackerel with Herb Crumb. A revelation - these are the teensy weensy little fishies who, thanks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, must now be eaten if they are scooped up along with larger, more desirable specimens: and they were delicious. Mind you, someone had painstakingly removed every single teensy weensy little bone, and then thoughtfully carpeted them with a dark green blanket woven from cheese and herbs - it's what I like to think that fake verdure in the greengrocer's might taste like if one were to chow down whilst the shopkeeper's back was turned.

3. Fillet of Wild Sea Trout. NO-ONE can crisp up fish skin like the team at the Addy, making this meaty nugget, still swimming gaily through a sea of cream sauce, the best dish of the night.

4. Rabbit (shot in the head, according to a cheerful ROB) with St George's Mushrooms and Jersey Royals. I love Jersey Royal potatoes; just as well, as these apparently cost more than anything else on tonight's menu - worth every penny, I say. And indeed, I must have looked hungry, for Chef Owen Brown sneaked us a few more when no-one was looking - suggesting that all those hours spent sucking in my cheeks in pursuit of the "hungry waif" look had finally paid off.

5. Poached Pear with Saffron and Vanilla. An impossibly generous dessert, showcasing a perfectly poached pear (one of your five-a-day, don't forget, and thereby justifying EVERYTHING ELSE served with it) amid a sticky pool of sunset sauce that had to be largely retrieved by running one's fingers daintily over the plate. Add a scoop of vanilla cream and some homemade raspberry ripple ice-cream, and this was the Addy's best pudding to date.

6. Local Cheese Selection. I can't tell you much about this course, as I haven't eaten it yet - those extra Jersey Royals had taken their toll, and the cheese had to be wrapped up in a foil party bag to be taken home for later consumption. You KNOW you've had a class night when you find yourself riding home on the night bus in the company of a man with pockets full of dairy products.

So it is with much joy that I'm off now to eat my cheese - see you all at the Addy next month when we do it ALL AGAIN on Wednesday 30th May.

- The Yacht Club is at Hardman Square, Spinningfields, Manchester M3 3HF.

- The Mark Addy is on Stanley Street, salford M3 5EJ.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Liquorists' Whisky Trail: Reluctant Local Girl Now Converted

Now, I'm aware that a casual, non-educated sort of glance at this blog MAY suggest that I am in the habit of going out for a drink or two. But whilst perhaps there IS some truth in this (OK, OK, there is), I am strictly a wine drinker - one, moreover, who accepts that she is not really very good at drinking spirits. I enjoy a gin and tonic every year with my mum whilst peeling vegetables for the Christmas lunch (and to be honest, I enjoy this as much for my sister's not-very-subtle glances at her watch as anything), but that's about it. I am most certainly NOT a whisky drinker; in fact, I would go so far as to say BLEURGH to whisky.

That's not to say I haven't tried to like it in the past. There was, for example, the uncomfortable moment when I poured diet Coke into something expensive at a friend's house, in order to make it more palatable; his apoplectic expression (complete with actual comedy splutters) indicated that this was not in fact an acceptable course of action. And the one and only time I ever drank a LOT of whisky was in 2001, when Jack Daniels were giving out a range of highly desirable gifts in Didsbury's Pitcher and Piano to people who bought two doubles at a time. Surely I only have to say that I ended up in Friday's Nightclub, still dressed in the clothes I'd worn to work, and no further evidence is required of my inherent incompatibility with this evil devil-brew.

So when The Liquorists ask if I'd be interested in going on their Whisky Trail - a tour around five bars in Manchester's Northern Quarter, with a shot and a whisky-based cocktail in each and grub at the end - I say thanks, but no thanks. They ask again, confident that they can win me round and expand my bibendi horizons. And - fatally - Mr Liz has by now got wind of the whole thing, and is looking at me with the kind of betrayed yet hopeful expression you see on the faces of special acting dogs in charity appeals. For Mr Liz LOVES whisky, to the point where he has to be put to bed in disgrace each year after the annual Manchester Whisky Festival, and Mr Liz now wants, more than anything, to go on the Northern Quarter Whisky Trail.

So we go, and with utterly dazzling predictability, I am a whisky convert by bar number two. Here's the whole slippery slope in all its surely-it's-too-early-to-be-drinking-this-much-hard-liquor glory:

1. Socio Rehab. It is here that we meet the rest of our drinking party and are introduced to Tom Sneezby, one half of The Liquorists and a man who clearly enjoys his job VERY much indeed. Our first drink is a shot of Woodford Reserve, and it frightens me a little, for it is just six o'clock in the evening and I'm surrounded by people swilling and gasping and mmmmmmming and generally making approving noises about a drink I don't really like very much. I try a sip or two, and then get Mr Liz to drink the rest when Tom isn't looking. But then an Old-Fashioned appears, and it is LUSH - tangy and sweet and bitter and lovely. I drink it all and Mr Liz looks disappointed.

2. Trof. Next up, Trof, and I blame Tom entirely for the fact that Mr Liz now knows that there is a new first floor Bourbon bar here - I may never see him again. Here we have Jim Beam Black. I like it. We have a cute enamel mug filled with Mint Julep, a drink that reminds me of summer and (I'm fairly certain) must count towards your five a day. I like this even more. I like Tom, I like Trof, I like the other people I'm with, I like that I feel a little tipsy and it's still broad daylight outside...I like EVERYTHING, in fact. Even whisky.

3. Apotheca. Just down the road at Apotheca, we are whisked downstairs to find a table set with TWO glasses of whisky each - one is the Scottish Auchentoshan, which I really enjoy, and the other is the *deep breath* Suntory Yamazaki Japanese Water of Life, which I don't. I do however, very much like the Whisky Sour, which reminds me a little of the Haribo Tangfast Chicks I bought to give out to my students at Easter and then ate myself when the coursework marking got on top of me.

4. NoHo. I have never been in NoHo before, but will definitely go again - this place has a great vibe and an irresistable-looking dance floor that sadly no-one else is tempted by at 8pm in the evening. Here we nestle in vast leather armchairs and snack on so-wrong-it-HAS-to-be-right cheese and caramel popcorn whilst drinking Jamesons. The cocktail here is most people's favourite of the night, and in true professional style, I have completely forgotten what it was called, what was in it, or indeed what my own name might be.
5. Back to Socio. The fifth and final stop is technically Almost Famous, but as it's their final weekend and the queue to get in now stretches back approximately as far as Wales, the food and drink is sensibly sent downstairs to our hungrily waiting mouths as we sit in comfort in Socio. Here, we drink Jack Daniels and Drugstore Bandits (a drink I have become most attached to during the 58 times I have already been to Almost Famous in the last eight weeks), and daintily eat the enormous burgers you see here. I probably have barbecue sauce all down my chin, but I don't care, for I am a WHISKY DRINKER, and I am proud to hold my glass aloft and proclaim ALL IT STANDS FOR.

By nine of the clock, it's all over. We loudly and lustily applaud Tom, who has done a sterling job keeping us on track throughout the trail's brisk pace, and has even taught us a few things. Most of all, he has taught me that I like whisky, and for this I am unsure whether to salute him or curse him; at least I ended up back in NoHo rather than Fridays this time...

- The Whisk(e)y Trail runs on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for the next six weeks, and is priced at £30, £35 or £40 depending on which night you go. They start at 6pm and 7pm each night, and there are exciting whispers about trails later in the year based around vodka, rum and tequila, as well as trip in July/August that involves large quantities of gin and a barge on the River Irwell...see you there.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Local Girl Wins BIG at Grosvenor Casino Didsbury

First of all, I have to admit I am not by nature a gambler. Whilst I am not particularly cautious in my general, day-to-day modus operandi, I am a little unsure about the concept of handing over money that you might not then get back in the form of shoes, wine, cocktail etc; surely you're better off guaranteeing that nice pair of TopShop trousers than perhaps ending up with nothing?

Well, yes and no. My two previous forays into the heady world of gambling (I'm using the term quite loosely here, as befits a slightly unadventurous girl from the suburbs) have been fairly successful: a £10 win on the office Grand National sweepstake (which, to be fair, involved no more skill than picking a scrunched-up piece of paper from a Tupperware box passed round by a History teacher), and - more excitingly - a night on the BlackJack in the now-defunct Hard Rock Casino that yielded me about £80 profit which I promptly spent on drinks for everyone.

So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I heard of Grosvenor Casino's plans to open their latest venue just a stone's throw from my house, at the Parrswood Entertainment Centre in Didsbury. And it's taken me this long to go because I just felt a bit, well, nervous of the whole thing. Surely the place would be filled with scary American men in 1930s-style hats, and hard-nosed women with furs, and evil-minded croupiers who would take all your money whilst cackling in a Machiavellian manner?

In the end, Grosvenor took pity on me, and invited me in for a "Learn to Play" session at a nice quiet time when the scary, be-hatted Americans would not be there (if, indeed, they ever are). The lovely Rob showed us round, manfully pretending not to notice when he had to more or less physically drag Mr Liz from the impressive bar area, with its big screen football and separate Games Lounge - where he no doubt envisages himself sweeping the leader board at FIFA in the company of those who, unlike his wife, are NOT too mean to play against him. They also hold live entertainment here and - most importantly - serve a very good Cabernet Sauvignon that ladies may amuse themselves with once they've lost their husbands to Sky Sports News (put a man in a room with a TV screen and he will watch it, no matter what's on it: this is scientific FACT).

The venue also boasts a restaurant with a surprisingly classy menu - I certainly wasn't expecting to dine on a prawn & crayfish cocktail whilst Mr Liz delicately snaffled some smoked Scottish salmon with pickled ginger and wasabi cream - a really interesting combination that I was forced to sample several times whilst also admiring the generosity of crayfish in my own starter. For mains, Mr Liz had the steak special (chilli spiced minute steak flash fried and served with dauphinoise potatoes) whilst I had the Roast Duck basted in plum sauce, served with garlic and ginger pak choi and chilli noodles. I was expecting duck breast; what I got was far, far better - pretty much half a duck, served on the bone, with gorgeously crispy skin: even allowing for the dodgy perspective on this admirable photo, it was still MASSIVE. How Mr Liz managed to help with this AND then eat the dainty little treacle sponge you see here I will never know.

The food here is not particularly cheap, but it IS good, and service is faultless and friendly. They also run some enticing-looking deals: for example, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, you can choose two courses from the set menu and receive a cinema ticket for £11.50, and a range of well-priced "snacks" are served in the bar area (any venue that considers a full burger a "snack" has my vote every time).

Anyway, bolstered by our training session with Rob, where he patiently explained to us how to play and didn't once look cross at my foolish questions and poor card skills, we decided to have a quick flutter on the tables before we left. By this point I am no longer nervous: having had two glasses of the aforementioned excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, in my head I am now Sharon Stone, sashaying elegantly round the tables to the admiration of all who behold me ("well", a friend with limited and slightly confused film knowledge said afterwards, "I hope you had knickers on") and dazzling all-comers with my tenacious table skills. In reality, we had a few nice games of BlackJack on a table with some cheery middle-aged ladies who were also new to gambling, supervised by a charming young croupier who chatted with us and even gave us advice when needed - absolutely nothing to be scared of whatsoever.

The upshot? I will be going again, even if it's just for a drink at the bar or a meal in the restaurant; I fear I may be banned from the tables anyway after pretty much cleaning up last night. Yep, that's right - one £2 stake (of Mr Liz's money) + five swift, all-conquering games of BlackJack = enough money for a Triple Nom Burger and some dirty fries at Almost Famous tonight. Everyone's a winner...except, of course, Mr Liz.

- Grosvenor Casino Didsbury is at Parrswood Entertainment Centre, Didsbury, Manchester, M20 5PG and is open everyday from midday until - gulp - 6am.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Not Afternoon Tea at Harvey Nichols, Manchester: Local Boy Saved From Shopping Nightmare

There are certain words in the English Language that work harder than all the others put together. Add them to any other word and they instantly bring pleasure - take "and chips", for example: such simple words, yet when affixed to any innocently passing pie, fish or similar they guarantee a most excellent experience lies ahead.

"Afternoon" is a similarly selfless, industrious sort of word. Try appending it to "nap", and instantly picture yourself reclining on the sofa with a pot of tea and a somnolent cat on your lap. Now pop it in front of "drinking", and immediately it is a sunny Bank Holiday which you are spending in a beer garden with your nearest and dearest, secure in the knowledge that you are SAVING money as every alcoholic drink consumed between the hours of midday and 4pm counts double. So imagine my initial suspicion when Harvey Nichols announced that their estimable Second Floor Brasserie would now be serving something called "Not Afternoon Tea" - NOT Afternoon Tea? NOT dainty sandwiches, and little cakes, and so many cups of tea you have to use the toilet at least twice before you leave? NOT all of this?

Of course, I should have trusted them. This is NOT a replacement for Afternoon Tea, which continues to be served in the restaurant, but an alternative, to be used when in the company of those with more modest appetites, or boys who refuse to go for Afternoon Tea because they think they look silly eating dollies' picnic-sized food items (which, to be fair, they do). The idea is as follows: turn up between 2pm and 5pm, clutching £12.50, and in return you will receive a stunning dessert matched with a complementing cocktail. Yep, that's right - not a chance of a stray bit of healthy salad etc, just classy booze and pud served up in the always-buzzing atmosphere of the Brasserie.

We tried it last Saturday, when Mr Liz had already been dragged around the shops for several hours by a wife who was about to cruelly abandon him for Italy and was rubbing salt into the wound by making him queue with her for travel money on a Saturday. Just as his eyes were about to glaze over, he was rescued in the nick (there's an excellent pun here if you would care to stop and enjoy it for a moment) of time by the killer combination of the chocolate & caramel dessert option (dark chocolate pave, white chocolate créme brulee, peanut butter marshmallow and salted caramel macaroon) paired with Milk Punch (Kraken Black Spiced Rum, Crème de Cacao, Mozart Dark Chocolate Liqueur, vanilla sugar, chocolate bitters, milk and cream). Such was the power of this extraordinary combination that it completely wiped the pain of the hour that had just been spent showing polite interest in bags and shoes in Top Shop from his fevered man-brow.

Meanwhile, his good lady wife had the sticky toffee dessert (milk chocolate mousse, sticky toffee pudding, maple syrup jelly, fresh date and a belgium slice) partnered by the Dark 'n’ Stormy cocktail (Goslings Black Seal Rum, homemade gingerbeer, lime and soda). Such was the power of this extraordinary combination that it completely restored her energy levels ready for a new assualt on the bags and shoes department of Top Shop, although she was a little disappointed that the "fresh date" did not actually turn out to be a night on the town with a man with excessively wandering hands.

There are two other combinations to try - a jaunty-sounding citrus affair, and a flirty little tutti frutti number - so we'll obviously have to go back another time. NEVER has Mr Liz been so keen for another day spent shopping in Manchester...

- for more information and latest menus, see the Harvey Nichols website - then go for some VERY classy Afternoon Drinking.