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Friday, 29 June 2012

The Mark Addy Gourmet Evening June 2012; This Time, it's NORMAL

Now, I realise that for regular readers, it's about the time of the month that I entertain you with tales of testicle-eating and squirrel-bothering at the venerable Mark Addy, whose monthly Gourmet Evenings are as delicious as they are bonkers. What would chef Robert Owen Brown have worked his magic on this month? A well-meaning friend at work kindly suggested perhaps it would be a slug risotto, whilst another simply begins humming the theme to I'm a Celebrity whenever I hove into view. Well, you PHILISTINES - it's not about shock value, it's about cooking with whatever happens to be seasonal, local, available and good; and this month, there's really nothing that anyone could turn their noses up at (unless they were a vegetarian of course; the Gourmet Evening remains solidly unsuitable for non-meat eaters). Here's what we had:

1. Glebeland City Growers Salad with Poached Egg and Bacon. Glebelands, on the banks of the Mersey in Sale, produces organic food for consumption within Greater Manchester; most admirable, of course, although Mr Liz did look a little crestfallen when this first, apparently healthy, course was announced. He needn't have worried of course: this was salad ROB style, i.e. served with a big fat poached egg and a generous amount of salty porcine chunks, and as any fool knows, you can have pretty much anything you want with salad leaves and it's still good for you, FACT*.

*Although I am not technically a qualified nutritionist, I still whole-heartedly believe this to be true.

2. Cider Marinated Cornish Sardines with Scallop and Deep-Fried Herring Roe. This was the most unusual course of the night and it was also the best, the cold, sharp, tangy fish contrasting beautifully with the hot, crunchy, golden puffs of battered roe. I have a photo of it here, but the quality is poor, due to the iphone flash having been crafted by a malicious goblin in the fiery pit of Hades. I'm sorry to let you all down with this, but frankly you should blame Apple, not me, and maybe write a letter or something.

3. Wood Pigeon with Black Pudding and Pea Shoots. Turns out, there are some things that are just MEANT to go together. And lo, tonight at The Addy a new duo was born, with two new names to add to the already illustrious roll call of perfect pairings: Lennon & McCartney, Morrissey & Marr, Morecambe & Wise, Fry & Laurie...and now wood pigeon and black pudding. Tender, gamey morsels of pink pigeon roosting atop a crumbly disc of Bury's finest - a perfect combination of flavours and textures that sadly never stood a chance of lasting even as long as Morrissey & Marr. I even have good photos now, as I have turned off the flash and Mr Liz is suspending himself over the table illuminating the scene with the torch app on his own phone. Never let it be said I am ANYTHING other than a true and dedicated professional.

4. Mutton with Cream and Capers. By ROB's reckoning, all that salad to start meant that our arteries were now as clean as a whistle and could thereby justify THIS, a heavenly yet sturdy dish of slow-cooked mutton (which to my mind has a much better flavour than lamb if you cook it right) in a rich sauce cut through with the salty freshness of caper berries. As I swiped up the last of the cream sauce on my finger I couldn't help thinking it was a mighty fine job I had eaten all my pea shoots as well as my salad, or I might have been guilty of over-indulgence here.

5. Gooseberry Fool. As a child of the 70s and 80s, I remember gooseberry fool as a pretty formative part of those early years, served up to great enthusiasm and acclaim even from a bunch of picky kids who all had wildly differing food tastes. My mum makes a GREAT gooseberry fool. Now, as she doesn't read this blog, I can say* that it turns out that ROB's fool is EVEN BETTER than my mum's - so good, in fact, I had two. I am most ashamed of myself, and can promise that it will not happen again**.

*I am however going to say it very quietly, in case my sister is reading this and tells my mum - I can simply claim she misheard.

**It very probably WILL happen again.

6. Shropshire Blue Cheese. I had offered to forgo my cheese course in return for extra dessert, and meant it: there was a very worrying possibility that I might burst during this part of the evening. However, I eschewed the crackers and only nibbled the end sections of cheese, thereby scotching in one deft stroke any rumours you may have heard about me being a big fat greed-face.

So, a great night, and adventurous as I am, I must admit this was my favourite menu yet - pretty much all things I would have chosen anyway, particularly the fish course. I can't help worrying though, that with all this month's restraint there's going to be something REALLY terrifying next month...

- The Mark Addy is on Stanley St in Salford, M3 5EJ; tel. 0161 832 4080.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Local Girl Finally Finds Natural Habitat at New Manchester Gin EMPORIUM, The Whim Wham Cafe

I often think I should have been born in the nineteenth century, perhaps around 1836 or similar. True, I'm not sure about the whole outside toilet thing (although I DO quite like the idea of those great big tin baths in front the fire - I'm having first water, mind) or indeed, the general lack of home comforts that would likely befall me: I'm picturing a mattress made of straw, perhaps to be shared with a family of mice and a smaller sister or two, although I'm not entirely sure of the historical accuracy of this - we only really did Hitler at school. But I'm exactly the right build for those nice bodicey-type dresses and - most importantly - to the best of my knowledge, the whole of Britain lived almost entirely on gin during this period, thereby making the 1800s my natural milieu of choice.

Now, much to my delight, Manchester has its own mecca for sophisticated, urbanite, gin-loving wenches like myself in the shape of the new Whim Wham Cafe, snugly housed under one of the railway arches on Whitworth Street West. As with many of the best recent Manchester ventures, word has spread via Twitter, and as anyone who uses this particular social networking site will know, it's both exhilarating and infuriating in equal measures to find your timeline clogged up with well-meaning folk trumpeting about how they're swilling gin cocktails in the most gorgeous new place.

Well guess what? I've been swilling gin cocktails in the most gorgeous new place, and you must go there immediately. Frankly, you should go there even if you don't like gin (although if I see you, I will look at you disapprovingly), as there is a good selection of British beers (local where possible - Mr Liz had a manly pint of Beartown Brewery Polar Eclipse whilst all around him were drinking pink gin frippery), and the food is really quite something. Owners Alix and Jessica have set their stall out to offer top-quality artisan produce, locally sourced where possible, including award-winning pies from Neil Broomfields's Great North Pie Co. and cheese and meat platters served with their own chutney. For starters, I went for what is fast-becoming Whim Wham's signature dish - Slow Poach Mackerel in Horseradish and Worcester Liquor served with Apple and Beetroot Salad. This is Alix's own invention, and can be seen here in all its fishy, tangy, it's-salad-so-it-must-be-good-for-you glory (nb - my friend chose this as well - I didn't order and consume BOTH of these, although I would have liked to).

For mains, Mr Liz rather predictably had pie (Classic Lancashire Cheese and Onion), which came with Lemon and Thyme Potato Salad for £7.50. Please note that, as this dish contained no meat, Mr Liz considered it a healthy, noble sort of choice, despite the fact that any normal person could quickly identify the double potato and pastry combo that sadly negates his virtue. The rest of us chose the Slow Roast Oxtail with Chickpea Mash and Cabbage, seen here after the de-boning pixies had worked their magic and before I'd licked my plate clean (turned out this was not, unfortunately, a suitable activity for anyone who had erroneously decided to wear white jeans for the evening).

Did we need pudding? No, but if someone will offer to sell you a big slab of Sticky Toffee Pudding served with Salted Caramel and Peanut Butter Ice Cream from Ginger's Comfort Emporium for a FIVER, then frankly you'd be mad to say no. Other choices - the Double Chocolate Slice with White Chocolate Ganache and the Pecan Tart with Cointreau Cream* - also went down well.

*If you look closely at the illustrative evidence here provided, you will observe the ONLY fault with the whole evening - regardez the NAKED Pecan Tart. However, my friend decided not to draw attention to the missing cream for fear she'd be brought a vat of it and then burst.

Last but clearly not least, the GIN. Between us we sampled The Whim Wham Martini, a Black & Blue from the "Long Drinks" section, The Gin Wham spritzer and the straight up Vimto Smile (a winning combination of Manchester's finest and Sloe Gin). These are all priced between £5 and £7.50; our favourite was the Martini, a potent hit of Hendrick's, Cherry Liqueur and Martini Rosso, with a secret ingredient which we fancied might be something to do with cloves, or perhaps aniseed (further testing to be completed before final decision taken on this matter - I take my professional duties VERY seriously).

This compact little bar looks set to be a huge success, and deservedly so. Hardened 19th century wench/good-time girl/show pony that I am, I was worried a new place brazenly promising itself as "Manchester's Epicurean Eatery and Gin Saloon" could never live up to its name. I am pleased to say it does - and then some...*goes off, flouncing skirts, can-canning for sheer joy*

- The Whim Wham Cafe is at Arch 64, Whitworth Street West, Manchester M1 5WO - no website as yet, but you can hunt them down on Twitter and Facebook or, you know, just go and visit them.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Monkey Shoulder Cocktail Bootcamp at Apotheca, Dancing at NoHo and Dinner at Bem Brasil: Newly Skilled Local Girl All But Explodes With Excitement

I'll be honest: this may be a shorter blog post than normal. It may be shorter than normal, because I am tired. I am tired because of Monkey Shoulder, an exceptionally palatable blended whisky which forced me to have the time of my life last night. And as the subject of this possibly-shorter-than-normal blog post is Monkey Shoulder, the whole arrangement has a rather pleasing symmetry about it.

"But Liz!" I hear you cry, if I listen very hard and use my imagination quite a lot. "What on earth can have happened to undermine your normally peerless standards of professionalism?"

Cocktail BOOTCAMP, that's what. There was I, innocently expecting a good, wholesome, healthy workout; instead, THIS is what happened.

4pm: arrive at the super-cool Apotheca bar in the Northern Quarter, whose basement area will be hosting tonight's cocktail class. Two charming men from Monkey Shoulder - Dean and Olivier, both of whom have berets a-poking from their back pockets: we ask not why - are all apologies: they are running a little late and the start of the class will be delayed. Can we bear to sit upstairs in Apotheca a little longer whilst they bring us complimentary Monkey Shoulder cocktails? Although disappointed that our physical exercise is to be delayed, we agree and I put my sweat bands and my sports socks back in my bag.

5.20pm: we are taken downstairs to behold the classroom of our DREAMS - we each have our own, fully equipped place at tables set with shakers, chopping boards, measuring beakers, glasses, sugar syrup, oranges...oh, and there appears to be a full-size bottle of Monkey Shoulder whisky per TWO people. A hushed reverence falls over our previously giddy group (those complimentary cocktails upstairs went down a treat) and we each start silently calculating just how dangerous this might be.

5.21pm: the Monkey Shoulder ambassadors put on their berets (ah - NOW we get it), pick up their megaphones and begin an hour and a half lesson on all things cocktail. We watch and learn how to make three drinks - the Old Fashioned, the Jam Sour, and a spur-of-the moment creation called the Monkey Swizzle involving pineapple and mint - it really couldn't be more hands-on, and we are encouraged to mix proportions according to our own tastes (why else would Mr Liz's whisky bottle go down quicker than anyone else's?) and learn from our own mistakes. I am most pleased with all three of my efforts, particularly the Jam Sour - who knew that such a fine creation could be concocted from lemon juice, whisky and a few scrapings of Bonne Maman? Dean and Olivier are quick to answer any questions, and when Dean proclaims my Monkey Swizzle better than his own, I almost fall off my chair with pride (or, on reflection, it could have been the whisky). At the end we all applaud loudly and lustily (and, quite drunkenly), and make a mental note to cross out "milk" from our shopping lists and replace with "large bottle of Monkey Shoulder".

6.58pm: sprint back upstairs to the main bar to order some excellent Mojitos before Apotheca's splendid "two cocktails for £9" offer ends at 7.

7.30pm: we brave the rain and are rewarded with an empty NoHo. This is my favourite bar in the Northern Quarter - not least because when it's quiet, the DJ will let you bully him into playing your choice of music. We spend a happy hour or so gracing the enormous dancefloor to the hip, up-to-the-minute sounds of The Smiths, Electronic, David Bowie and The Happy Mondays - this is what hard-working whisky bartenders DO when they've finished their shift, and we were pleased to be able to get our promised exercise after all.

9pm: after all that hard work, it was only right to replace all those burnt-off calories by eating our own bodyweight in meaty goodness at the Northern Quarter branch of Bem Brasil. I have nothing but good things to say about a restaurant that gives you a disc of card that you place alongside your plate, with the green side upwards for "yes! please bring me MEAT, as much as you can carry, and carve it at my table from its skewer into my hungrily waiting mouth" and the rueful red side facing up for a regretful "no thank you - I fear there is a serious possibility I may explode. But ask me again in three minutes and you may well find my card is green again." The food here is of great quality and variety: different cuts of steak as well as lamb, sausages, chicken in bacon, ham, garlic bread and - worth the price of admission alone - the hot cinnamon pineapple served up as afters. Even better, one of our party had not encountered a Bem Brasil before - always fun to watch a newbie pile their plate high from the salad counter before they fully comprehend quite how much meat will be brought.

?????: taxi home; bed. One of the most splendid nights out I have ever had - so splendid, in fact, that it seems to have written itself into a pretty long blog post after all. Thank you Monkey Shoulder - long may your most excellent programme of educating the nation's youth continue.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Competition Time: Win a Pair of Tickets for Rat Pack Live at The Lowry, Salford in September 2012

One of the very nicest things about getting older is that you're allowed to like whatever music you want, without fear of recrimination. This is particularly true if you spend your daylight hours in the company of people in their late teens, who are uniformly so amazed that you can walk and talk under your own steam that they are in danger of passing out altogether should they discover that you shop at TopShop and have a passing familiarity with what I believe is known in modern youth vernacular as the Hit Parade. Even better, as in their heads you are approximately 115 years old they gape in sheer astonishment as you admire their Joy Division or Blondie t-shirt, or comment sadly on your inability to get hold of Stone Roses tickets.

However, whilst it's wholly acceptable (and indeed admirable) to cling fondly to the songs from your 80s and 90s teenage years, it is also entirely permissable to mock your long-suffering husband for listening to Old FM in the car. I have long since enjoyed this pursuit, soundly haranguing poor Mr Liz for his love of what can only be described as "music off of black and white" - until recently, that is. I have gradually come round to his love of Frank Sinatra (particularly the big New York, New York type numbers, which lend themselves so splendidly to singing along at the top of one's voice in the confines of a car, much to the delight of the person unlucky enough to be driving at the time) and Dean Martin, whose Volare simply DEMANDS to be belted out in an authentically sultry Italian style.

So it is with little reluctance that I am accompanying an excited Mr Liz to see Rat Pack Live at The Lowry on Friday 7th September - a brand new show featuring the music of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr which brings the stars from the West End hit Rat Pack Live from Las Vegas to the altogether more glamorous surroundings of Rat Pack Live from, erm, Salford. You can find out more about the show here, on The Lowry website, but - even more excitingly - you can win a pair of tickets to see the show HERE. Over to the experts...

Things to do in Manchester has teamed up with the producers of the Rat Pack Live concert show to give a lucky reader the chance of winning a pair of tickets to see the spectacular production at the Lowry Theatre, Salford on Friday 7th September 2012 at 7.30pm.

It's the ultimate tribute to legendary Fifties and Sixties phenomenon the Rat Pack – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr. They were the definition of cool during their Fifties and Sixties Vegas heyday – just ask Mr Liz. Combining the full sound of big band swing with charisma, panache and swagger, the trio – collectively known as The Rat Pack – had attitude to spare.

Join the UK’s original Rat Pack concert show, featuring stars of the West End smash hit Rat Pack Live from Las Vegas:

Following his triumphant portrayal of Dean Martin in London’s West End, Mark Halliday went on to tour the USA, Europe and the UK with the famous production. Other credits include two years in the States creating the role of Hades in Disney’s new musical Hercules plus lead appearances in runaway touring hit shows Girls Night Out and Aspects of Love.

The evening’s Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr boast similarly impressive credentials including, respectively:
· Starring roles with the BBC Concert Orchestra, Passadena Roof Orchestra and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra plus appearances with the likes of Sandie Shaw, Sophie Ellis Bextor and Mica Paris
· National tours portraying Sammy Davis Jnr with the West End Rat Pack and Nat King Cole in Strictly Swing.

Together the talented trio combine superbly. . .spectacularly. . . swingsationally in The Rat Pack Live. Featuring all the patter and razzamatazz of the Rat Pack’s infamous live stage show, join the UK’s number one Frank, Dean and Sammy live concert extravaganza. Prepare to experience the definition of cool…courtesy of

To win tickets please answer this simple question: The Rat Pack Live features tributes to Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr and which other famous Fifties and Sixties crooner? The first entry drawn will win a pair of tickets to the show.

Send your answer by email to with your name, address, email address and daytime phone number before the closing date of midnight on Sunday 1st July 2012. First prize will go to the first entry randomly drawn on this date. There is no cash alternative. Usual rules apply and my decision is final (I LOVE saying this).

To buy tickets contact The Lowry Box office via their website or by calling 0843 208 6000 between 9.30am and 8pm Monday to Saturday or 11am and 6pm on Sundays.

Good luck...and I'll leave you with this publicity shot of the cast, winningly entitled "New rats" - I'm off to practise my a-swinging and a-crooning.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Jim White at The Lowry, Salford: Local Girl Now Transformed into Hard-Drinking American Broad

Now, in my (almost) five years of writing this blog, I have discovered it to have two key advantages. Firstly, it is an excellent displacement activity for all kinds of undesirable tasks such as housework, exercise, doctoral work etc; indeed, if ANYONE approaches you with a request for which you care little, all you need to do is furrow your brow, peer intellectually at the screen of the laptop, mime furiously efficient typing movements and hiss "I'm WORKING" and the chances are that person will respectfully back off. Secondly - and some might say more importantly - writing a blog encourages you to try things you might not otherwise have considered, or known about; take my recent conversion to whisky, for example, at the behest of the charmingly persuasive Liquorists, documented in all its hazy debauchery here.

And it's entirely in keeping with my new persona as a glamorously down-at-heel whisky drinker (it's important here that you picture me sitting alone somewhere, late at night, with a sad yet worldy-wise expression on my face, drinking whisky and smoking a cigarette in the manner of Marlene Dietrich or similar, rather than the actuality of me slurping tea in my pyjamas and watching the football highlights) that I have also broadened my musical horizons. For on Sunday night I was invited to review the Jim White gig in the intimate Quays Theatre at The Lowry; I'd never heard of him before, but a quick listen to a few of his songs on You Tube convinced me that this talented singer-songwriter from the deep south of America would be the perfect accompaniment to my new incarnation as wronged yet exquisite late night whisky drinker.

Obviously, you can listen to his songs yourself - and indeed you should. The current album, Where it Hits You, is a fabulously beautiful record - wistful and emotional, it's best listened to in a mildly somnolent state where you simply let the sound wash over you (but more of this later): my favourite tracks are the first two - Chase the Dark Away, which you can listen to here, and Sunday's Refrain, which I will hum for you if you give me a call when I'm not busy. What's harder to put into words, though, is just how entertainingly odd a Jim White gig turns out to be. First of all, the support act - the Belgian twosome Stanton - are also his band; he produced their new album, so they all sang some - excellent - songs from this debut for 25 minutes before trooping off for half an hour (presumably to allow the audience to sneak in a bonus gin and tonic). Then they were back, this time with Jim centre-stage, for an hour and a half of singing and what can only be described as story-telling - If Jesus Drove a Motorhome is preceded by a very funny story about Jesus impersonators in his own hometown, and the irritatingly catchy Newspaper is put movingly into context with a tale of illness, near-death and redemption through criminals with amusing names. He promises that we will be able to read all these stories and more in his forthcoming book - if he ever gets round to finishing it.

The new album has received almost whole-heartedly postitive reviews since its release - Uncut awarded it "Americana Album of the Month", whilst The Independent on Sunday rightly commented "there's always room for the real thing, and you'll know it when it hits you" - but it really comes into its own once you've seen Jim White live and can feel the personality behind the songs. If I got the opportunity to go again, I would - particularly as, due to circumstances beyond my control, I was unable to attend Sunday's gig in quite the persona I would have liked. Was I lolling in my seat, drunk on hard liquor and tired from one too many doomed love affairs and perhaps some late nights reading the latest Don DeLillo? Nope - I was lolling in my seat, drunk on the equally heady combination of a gin and tonic, some heavy duty cold and flu meds and a head full of snot; still, I'm hoping that the overall effect to any interested onlookers was pretty much the same...

- you can hear more tales from the South on Jim White's MySpace page; please insert your own nose-blowing sound effects where required.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Things to Do in Manchester in June: Drinking, Mostly...

Now don't get me wrong - I like a four day weekend as much as the next person. More, possibly, if that next person is a responsible, grown-up sort of individual. But it's all too horribly easy to get a little bit carried away with the whole laissez faire, anything goes sort of atmosphere that tends to pervade these occasions: a barbecue here, a house-warming party there, a quick beer festival to tide you over...and before you know it, those cute little denim shorts you purchased in a flush of summery optimism last week are starting to look distressingly unfeasible. And that's before we even start considering the damage done to your loyal, hard-working liver: yes, Pimm's MAY taste like pop, but apparently it counts as alcohol (so they say, anyway: I'm not sure I'm having ANY of it).

The sensible thing to do, then, is to have a pure, virtuous few days to undo all that damage, and emerge like a gorgeous sparkly butterfly from its grumpy, puffy-eyed, muffin-topped chrysalis at the end of it. And that's precisely why it's SO UNFAIR that a whole raft of lovely, shiny, booze-fuelled events are offering themselves up, slinkily and seductively, for my attention over the next couple of weeks. Here are just a few of the temptations that have been so cruelly strewn in my path:

1. First up, it's Whisky Month at Selfridges between June 8th and 24th; not quite a month, admittedly, in my understanding of the word, but as events are taking place at both the Trafford Centre and Exchange Square stores then perhaps each day counts twice. There are various tastings and events scattered alluringly across June, including a Glenmorangie tasting on Saturday June 9th (ironically, these tastings will be FULL of thirsty boys who already know EXACTLY what each of the whiskies on offer tastes like *looks pointedly at Mr Liz, who is looking at the ceiling and whistling innocently*) and a special Jura cocktail-making event at Exchange Square on Thursday 21st June with Willie Tait, Global Brand Ambassador for the Jura Single Malt. Full details available in store - I think Mr Liz is simply planning on dividing the remainder of June equally between the two stores and sampling whatever gets in his way.

2. But here we have our first alcohol pile-up: Thursday 21st June is also wine tasting night at Manchester's Castlefield Rooms - indeed, more wines than you can shake a stick at, for it is the 50 Great Portuguese Wines Tasting Event. The wines have all been selected by Master of Wine Julia Harding, who was awarded Portugal’s Journalist of the Year in 2011 and who has been tirelessly scouring the country for prime wines to set before us ever since (brave...SO brave). Tickets are a mere £10 but must be booked in advance - further details from

3. And speaking of Thursdays, the excellent "Series" of events continues at The Avenue, Spinningfields, with each achingly desirable shop taking it in turns to host a soiree with complimentary drinks provided by the Yacht Club. Last week's pop-up art exhibition in Flannels was just stunning, and although unfortunately tomorrow's event has had to be postponed, keep an eye on the website for details of next week's - I already know what it is, and I can confirm I am EXCITED.

4. So finally, after all that boozing, it's only right that I've enrolled in boot camp...*dramatic pause, smug trickster face, Alan Partridge tone of voice*...ha ha, that's right - COCKTAIL boot camp. Now this really does look like the sort of exercise I might be very good at - the team behind Monkey Shoulder Whisky will be strenuously putting us through our paces and cracking the whip as we learn how to make a range of drinks including the imperious Old-Fashioned and the exciting-sounding Jam Sour. We each get our own shaker, stirrer and swizzle stick (here's guessing that Mr Liz's shaker will be empty long before boot camp leader Dean Callan is even halfway through his instructions) and get to play at being Tom Cruise for a full hour and a half before anybody will think to step in and stop us. I for one can't wait for this one, as I'm always ready to leap at an, ahem, educational opportunity. The Monkey Shoulder Boot Camp arrives in Manchester on Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th June, with a 4pm session on each day at Apotheca - places are free but must be pre-booked by emailing beforehand.

Still, never mind - there's ALWAYS July...

Sunday, 3 June 2012

May's Gourmet Evening at The Mark Addy, Salford: Local Man Still in Recovery from Unexpected Experience

Now, there are a number of expressions in the English Language that hint at the retributive nature of justice: "you reap what you sow", for example, or "what goes around comes around". This is why something nice will surely happen to you if you help an old lady across the road, or rescue a sad kitten from a tree, or crochet a blanket for someone who is cold. And this is why you should never, EVER joke with your work colleagues about how Robert Owen Brown will probably feed you squirrel testicles at that evening's Mark Addy Gourmet Evening; frankly, you deserve everything you get. And, this is what we got; Mr Liz is still recovering from course number three, but we'll get to that in a minute.

1. Buttered English Asparagus. Not much to say about this one, other than simple perfection: fresh fat spears of England's finest charred and softened and served swimming in a sea of butter and black pepper - hard to improve on this dish really, although Mr Liz IS distracted by the thought of what's to come.

2. Baked hand dived scallop glazed with Lancashire cheese sauce. Again, no problems here: a single plump, quivering scallop - with the coral, the tastiest bit in my humble opinion, still attached - served in its shell covered with a thick blacket of tangy cheese sauce (essentially a scallop mornay but done the Lancashire way rather than the French). Delicious, delicious, delicious - although the ridges in the scallop shell DID mean a finger had to be employed to really get out every last bit of cheesy goodness *puts on best ladylike face but fears this may be too little, too late*.

3. Pan Roast Lamb's Fry with Capers. Sounds pretty normal, doesn't it - every one likes capers, after all, and lambs are tasty fellows. The pallor that instantly drained all trace of colour from Mr Liz's face when Chef Owen Brown explained that "fry" = "testicles" was quite something to behold; I swear his bottom lip may even have trembled slightly. In the end, of course, they looked nothing like one might have expected: tender slices of pillowy-textured, intensely savoury meat in a buttery sauce so tasty that even Mr Liz managed to clear his plate, along with lots of other brave and hungry boys. Would I order this particular delicacy again? Probably not, but I AM a big believer that if you're prepared to eat animals then it's wrong to turn your nose up at certain cuts of meat, and it DID provide me with enough material for around half an hour of smutty banter with a passing History teacher the following day.

4. Slow Braised Grey Squirrel. So, my premonition had been proven half right - rather than the envisaged squirrel nadgers, instead we were presented with a dainty dish of rodent haunch, slow roasted and served atop the potato version of Table Mountain. I'm a big fan of squirrel - it's lean, it's tasty, and were I a little more enterprising I could harvest a seemingly almost inexhaustible supply from my own garden - and although it can be a little fiddly, the gamey flavour totally rewards the patient diner. Much easier to let a chef get most of the bones out of the little blighters for you though.

5. English Strawberries Three Ways. This month's dessert was a triumph - I don't have a massively sweet tooth, so this combination of fresh and freeze-dried berries, pretty pink strawberry soup, and custard-filled sponge cake was right up my street. The soup was the star here - essentially a posh smoothie, I could feel it physically cleansing my system of all the calories I had previously consumed; at least, that's what I like to hope was happening.

6. Selection of Cheese. Once again, my eyes were bigger than my stomach - no mean feat considering that by this point of the evening my stomach was the size and heft of a small bungalow - and we had to have our cheese foil-wrapped to go. It's hard to express quite how satisfying it is to leave a restaurant clutching a shiny package that you know is filled to bursting with brie, grapes and crackers - even if your stomach IS full of balls.

- The Mark Addy is on Stanley Street, Salford M3 5EJ, and the next Gourmet Evening will be on Wednesday 27th June.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Opus One at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel Manchester: Local Girl's Dreams of Basil Fawlty Cruelly Shattered by Top Dinner

As someone born in the 1970s, and brought up in the 1980s by a father with a heartfelt love of great British comedy, I understandably grew up with a pretty clear idea of what a hotel restaurant should be like: a plain, functional, beige sort of room, largely populated by confused German people and staffed by a small Spanish man (look, I was young - it took me a LONG TIME to accept that Andrew Sachs was not, in fact, of Mediterranean descent) and a tall, shouty man with a silly walk. My first actual visit to a hotel restaurant as a teenager, in the company of my parents and some of their friends, did nothing to dispel my illusions: the men were all wearing tweed jackets, and we were served melon balls, some of which were dropped into a man's lap by a nervous waiter with comic timing that even John Cleese would have envied.

It has therefore been one of the greatest discoveries of my adult life that, actually, hotel restaurants can be gloriously glamorous affairs, with talented chefs turning out memorable dishes and attractive young staff competently topping up your wine glass without spilling so much as a drop. And it turns out that Opus One, the on-site restaurant at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Manchester Hotel, is just such a place; situated in the Free Trade Hall just off Deansgate, I must have walked past it hundreds of times before, entirely ignorant of the treasures lurking behind its elegant facade. The occasion of our inaugural visit was to sample the new summer menu created by Head Chef Neil Armstrong: the restaurant, although busy at weekends, is currently relatively quiet during the early part of the week, and they are keen to spread the word that Opus One is a desirable destination in its own right.

And true to form, I pretty much desired everything on the commendably short menu. Here's what we had:

Appetiser: watermelon gazpacho with roof terrace mint. This arrived unbidden, a fresh burst of flavour in a dinky shot glass, crowned with mint grown in the restaurant's own roof terrace garden. I do like the idea that in the midst of the dirty, crowded city a brave gaggle of plants and herbs are gamely pushing their heads above the parapet (although to be fair, even I can grow mint - I think it's because the giant slugs who patrol my garden are not partial to it).

Starters: the starters are always my favourite section of any menu, and I was particularly impressed with the selection of interesting dishes available. In the end, I went with the hand dived scallops served with a broth of crab, sweet corn & scallions whilst Mr Liz chose the layered duck & foie gras pancake with crispy duck skin & stornaway Aioli. Neither of these was a cheap option (in fact, mine was comfortably the most expensive starter on the menu at £10.75), but this is clearly a place that believes in offering value for money through generous portion sizes. These were the largest scallops I'd ever had - three plump fellows cooked to perfection with a slight sticky crustiness on the outside and a melt-in-the-mouth texture on the inside, and the accompanying broth was a revelation: a deceptively dense soup packed with the rich, buttery flavour of a healthy amount of crab meat. Mr Liz was also beyond pleased with what could only be described as a wedge of pie made from pancakes, layered up with the gamey flavours of duck and foie gras and satisfying enough to make him regret the second bread roll he later admitted to secretly eating while I was in the loo. Both starters were extremely rich - this is not the place to go if you're on any kind of diet, and even I felt that the garlic mayonnaise served with the pancakes, delicious though it was, went a step overboard in adding another unctuous texture to what was already a highly luxurious dish.

Mains: the menu offers four meat, three fish and two vegetarian mains, and I could happily have eaten any one of them. My dish of choice was the Cheshire beef fillet served with Cumbria & ham fritter & potato puree cannelloni, whilst Mr Liz plumped for the barrel of Cheshire lamb gremolata with neck hot pot & Appleby’s rarebit fondant. My steak was excellent - a fat parcel of tender meat cooked perfectly pink as requested and served with some interesting accompaniments including a superlative mashed potato and a dinky little cannelloni (of which I could easily have eaten about thirty, not least because this would have removed the worry about whether the singular of "cannelloni" is indeed "cannelloni"). Mr Liz's main was perhaps even better, with the mini lamb hot pot proving the star of the show, its intense savoury flavours providing a welcome contrast to the comforting succulence of the sliced lamb alongside. There's a lot going on with both these dishes, but for us the variety on the plate was one of the strengths here, with every component thoughtfully chosen to complement the others...I could have eaten more mashed potato but then, to be fair, I can ALWAYS eat more mashed potato.

Desserts: obviously, I wouldn't normally have pudding, but such is my devotion to bringing you a thorough review that I bit the bullet and had a bit of everything. There are four desserts on the menu: Mr Liz, a proud Northerner through-and-through, chose the Taste of Manchester iced Vimto parfait, with Manchester Tart, warm Eccles Cakes, clotted cream & a Manchester Smoothie. That left three puddings vying jealously to be the chosen one; ever-mindful of equality for all, I asked nicely and was rewarded with an exciting hybrid, a kind of highlights package: the rhubarb fool and rhubarb crumble brulee from the Textures of Rhubarb dish (this is the one I would go for next time) along with Morgan’s Rum soaked baby pineapple and a marbled iced chocolate parfait served with a dinky skewer of flamed cognac marshmallows. And yes, I AM greedy, but you KNOW you would have also licked the plate clean if presented with such an embarrassment of riches. Mr Liz pronounced his dish a triumph, with the world's cutest Eccles Cake particularly tickling his fancy (and indeed providing me with much amusement as I watched a large man attempt to eat a cake the size of a pixie in a delicate manner).

Any downsides? Well, not with the food, no, which was uniformly excellent; nor with the service, which was relaxed, friendly and efficient. There is a slight whiff of the old-fashioned about Opus One though which is at odds with the high standards they have obviously set for themselves: the red lighting, for example, which you may have noticed has stained my normally immaculate photographic offerings a flattering shade of brothel. The presentation of my main was also a little 90s - I don't really care for food served on boards, and I won't even say what an esteemed friend calls the technique of presenting food in a smear (although the phrase she uses pairs "smear" with another word beginning with "s", no doubt for the pleasing sense of sibilance thus created). Similarly, my splendid scallops were presented marching across an expanse of slate towards a dolly-sized copper saucepan containing the broth; really, I like my food served on a PLATE, and the fact that the spoon provided was too big to get to the bottom of the pan meant I had to slurp the dregs in a most unladylike fashion when no-one was looking. These are minor quibbles though, and I will reserve judgement on the decor as the restaurant is closed for the next week for a refurb - apparently there are plans for a new cocktail and champagne bar. But don't worry - they promise that these two are staying; I'm hoping the handsome one on the right is going to buy me a drink next time. Opus One is a welcome discovery for me, and I will certainly be back.