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Saturday, 27 October 2012

Italia Manchester: Local Girl Goes Back to the Seventies, in a Good Way

Now, I am by and large a staunch defender of the 1970s. I suspect that this is mostly due to me being born in this particular decade (which obviously does much to make it a special time for us all), but not actually really remembering any of it: thus, my mental image of the 70s is a confused but confident melange of all that is glamorous and good in the world. Look! Here's Bianca Jagger in a pair of white jeans much like the ones I have upstairs; she is accessorising them with a nice wedge, and talking to Jerry Hall, who is wearing a jump suit with all the insouciance of a six foot Amazon with hair like a crinkly blonde waterfall. Over here, David Bowie is looking beautiful and aloof - people stare at the make up on his face, as he ponders the release of the greatest run of albums ever known to man; in a moment he will light Bryan Ferry's cigarette for him, although I have not yet decided whether Bry is sporting gold lame, or that whole tuxedo look he does so well.

Of course I know, in my heart of hearts, that the 70s were not really like this. I have seen pictures of the Bay City Rollers, and I have flinched; I have heard tales of the food that restaurants used to serve, and I have flinched again, relieved that at the time I desired nothing more than a bigger helping of butterscotch Angel Delight than my sister. Take Rustica, for example, that venerable old Italian restaurant on Deansgate: you know it - it's that big white building on the corner, near Harvey Nichols, that has been open since 1977 but which you have never been in as it all looks a bit too retro, a bit 70s-in-a-bad way - an idea supported by even the briefest of glances at the reviews on Trip Adviser.

All of that is set to change, however. Franco Sotgiu - who many of you will know from SoLIta, his brother Dom's Northern Quarter burger den - has got his hands on Rustica and is gradually changing its identity to Italia: same building, same sense of history...just with fresher, updated menus offering more of a focus on traditional, high quality ingredients. Italia is currently in its soft launch period, and as such menu details may change, but the meal we ate last night should give you a feel of what the new venue has to offer once it is fully relaunched.

Pre-starter Starter: yes, yes, I know, but Franco sent these fellows across for us to try and frankly I was powerless to resist them - this is the finest plate of bruschetta I have come across in Manchester (and look how well he knows us - he has sent us a plate each, understanding that sharing would be impossible and no doubt wishing to avoid a scene). Highlights here included the fresh tomatoes, piled so high that spillage was inevitable, and the tangy grilled cheese with anchovy; the only one we weren't keen on was the pate one - it seemed a little warm, a little grainy, and there was also far too much topping in relation to bread (and it's not often I say that).

Starters: Mr Liz had the Calamari, because Mr Liz ALWAYS has the Calamari; this does allow for consistent judging across restaurants, and he proclaimed this plate of polenta-dusted beauties to be prime examples of their ilk - tender, flavoursome and not remotely chewy. I went for the gamberetto - four fat, pink, shell-on prawns in a rich cream sauce that really allowed the flavour of the fish to come through; my only teeny criticism was that the dish could have done with a piece of bread or similar to help mop everything up - I'm sure they would have brought one if I'd asked, but even I realised this would be folly after such a plate of bruschetta if an embarrassing explosion situation was to be avoided.

Mains: we shared a couple of mains - the Fritto Misto di Mare (fried mixed seafood) and the Parparadelle Ragu di Cinghiale (pasta served with 12 hour braised wild boar ragu). The second of these dishes was flawless - properly sticky, meaty sauce adhering to the slippery wide pasta, studded with chunks of tender, flaking boar: perfection. The Fritto Misto was well executed, but lacked something - the lightly battered prawns, squid rings and courgette slices were all competently handled (although the courgette could have been a little crisper) but somehow failed to work together, resulting in what felt more like a dish of exquisite nibbles rather than a coherent main. I also felt that £15.95 was a little much for such a dish, even allowing for the evident quality of the ingredients and the city centre location.

Desserts: Oh my. We left ourselves in the capable hands of the charming waiter for this one, and he chose well - he brought Mr Liz an enormous slice of tiramisu served with coffee gelato (all the ice-creams are freshly made on site) whilst I toyed modestly with* the great fat slice of Ferrero Rocher cake seen here with its side portion of hazelnut gelato. These were simply superlative, and I can all-too-well picture myself stopping for a slice of this cake whenever I'm passing - this should certainly be something that stays on the menu, encapsulating as it does the whole approach at Italia: a fond nod to the past but updated in a way that people actually want to eat. All the time.

*troughed in seconds

A few teething problems were evident - the place was absolutely packed when we arrived around 6.15, and once seated it was a considerable wait until our menus were brought and even longer again until the first food arrived. I spent much of this period watching as the queue of hungry people waiting for a table grew gradually longer and sadder, and whilst a line of diners hoping to get in speaks well of the quality of the food being served up, it certainly seems that Italia are still getting their heads round how many staff might be needed at particular times. Once the restaurant got a little quieter, the service was peerless, so the right team is obviously in place and these initial problems will no doubt be resolved. The friendliness of the place can be summarised by an incident that took place towards the end of our evening - an elderly gentleman, dining alone, was asked if he wanted to sit with Franco and (god help him) Gordo Manchester to eat; he did, and was blatantly having the time of his life when we stopped by to say hello. I can't promise you that you will have your "cold hands" carefully warmed by a charming old fellow when you eat at Italia, but it certainly seems like the kind of thing that could only happen here.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Liquorists' Tequila Trail, Northern Quarter, Manchester: Local Girl Remarkably Unscathed

Now, I'm a pretty trusting sort of person. I like to see the good in everyone, and believe that most people tend to act from the best of motives, without recourse to lying, or exploitation, or rudeness, or unkindness (although even I have started hanging up on that company that rings me EVERY DAY to try to sell me loft insulation). Having said that, though, it's taken me a while to really fully trust The Liquorists when they so proudly swing around that promise of theirs about "no hangover guaranteed"; I have had hangovers in the past from one glass of wine, so the concept of five different shots of the same spirit, accompanied by five different cocktails, followed by no regret, is one that I have found hard to buy into. Still, last night I successfully completed my fourth Liquorists trail, and today is my fourth hangover-free-following-a-trail day - a remarkable clean sweep that fully vindicates the trust placed in the ever-genial Tom and Jody and their merrily alcoholic jaunts across town. This week and next week's trails are devoted to that most divisive of spirits: tequila - a particular favourite of mine, but one that I know prompts sad, juddering memories in others. Still, the point of these trails is to introduce you properly to a spirit you may be suspicious of, and I challenge ANYONE not to have a love of tequila after this little lot...

We start at the Liquorists HQ, the less-secret-by-the-day 22 Redbank in the Green Quarter. Here we are served our starter shot of Jose Cuervo Traditional - you can tell I enjoyed it by the fact you see only its empty receptacle pictured here alongside our first cocktail, a classic margarita. I love a margarita, which is always one of my go-to options in any cocktail bar, and this one was right on the money - expertly mixed by Jody, with a zingy tartness and controversial layer of salt round the rim of the glass (Tom hates the salt, and says people only have salt with tequila to take away the taste of BAD TEQUILA). We also eat here - tasty fish tacos, nachos with salsa, guacamole and sour cream, and some corn cobs that I eat in a graceless, strands-stuck-in-teeth sort of manner.

Then we leap into a fleet of waiting taxis (transport is thoughtfully provided when there is a bit of a walk between venues) and make our way to stop number two - Apotheca, one of my favourite bars in the Northern Quarter. Here we have a classy tequila indeed, the Don Julio Reposado, which has "rested" for a year or so in bourbon barrels (this is indeed Mr Liz's kind of resting). It is smooth and flavoursome, although a little drowned out in the accompanying cocktail - our mango and rosemary margaritas are delicious, but taste a little like Soleros and certainly don't taste as if they are alcoholic in any way.

Next up is the ever-entertaining Socio, where we switch our attention to white tequilas in the form of El Jimador Blanco. I am already starting to feel the hit of alcohol here, as you can see by my attempts at what I considered at the time to be arty, moody photography rather than some alcohol-ridden girl randomly, hopefully, snapping at things with her iphone camera. The cocktail is a simple one, a Paloma, which is essentially tequila topped up with Ting, a grapefruity Caribbean soft drink that is like Lilt, only better. I will not reproduce here the analogy used by Tom to describe how good Ting is; not even its essence, for it is FILTH.

Fourth stop is Hula Tiki Bar, a regular stop on the Liquorists Rum Trail, and now pressed into service to provide us with Herradura Tequila Blanco and Tommy Margaritas, served icy cold in winsome tin mugs. This cocktail is most people's favourite of the night - it really is a margarita in its most pared-back form, made with just good-quality tequila, lime juice and a touch of sweetness. Those tin mugs do get pretty cold though - I'm currently typing one-handed as mine from last night is still frozen to my fingers.

Last stop is the newish Kosmonaut Bar, which prides itself on its extensive beer and wine list but also serves up a very moreish cocktail in the form of the Tapatian, a long, sweetish drink offering the unusual combination of tequila with a little cassis, and aptly named due to the presence of our final tequila, the deliciously smooth Tapatio Anejo. We like it in here and Mr Liz has already put in his request to return, perhaps for a beer trail, albeit with just the one stop.

Just a quick word about food; as well as your stomach-lining repast at 22 Redbank, you will also get food pairings at each of the bars you visit - due to teething problems these were not available last night. I promise this is true and it is not that I ate the lot before they could be photographed. In the absence of nibbles, Mr Liz and I rounded off our evening in superlative style with a piece of perfect pizza from Slice Pizza on Stevenson Square - I like to think that the fact that mine was an authentically Italian aubergine slice meant I retained my classy look even as I ate it whilst running for the train.

So, if you've not been on a Liquorists trail before, then you have the rest of this week and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of next week to get yourself onto the Tequila Train - prices start from £30 for a Wednesday night, and although they do get dearer as the week goes on, this is the first time I have placed myself in Tom and Jody's hands on a week night and everything seems to be fine (I assume Mr Liz is safely at work also, rather than lying in a skip somewhere). Maybe it's the fact that you stick to the same spirit rather than mixing your drinks, or maybe it's just the quality of what is served - all five of the tequilas we had last night were 100% agave, which makes then good and pure in the same way that, ahem, organic wine is also good for you. Whatever the reasoning behind it, these men tell the truth: NO HANGOVER, GUARANTEED.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Amba Restaurant and Bar: Local Girl's Intrepid Adventuring Goes Well-Rewarded

Now, they say that a change is as good as a holiday (or some other such worthy nonsense); I'm far more interested in the rather hurtful claims made by certain individuals that I am somewhat set in my ways, spending my time flitting between favourite haunts in Didsbury and a handful of places in the Northern Quarter, living on nothing but fancy-dan burgers, Aperol spritzes and cocktails served in jam jars. Obviously there is NO TRUTH WHATSOEVER in all of this, but just in case there is, I can offer up clear and incontrovertible proof of my adventuring ways. For last night, I went all the way to Hale.

Now, there is no need to be alarmed here: in recent years I have become most fond of Altrincham, its nearby sister - although we are not currently on speaking terms since the recent (and still painful) closure of the wondrous Brew House bar. Hale itself is smaller, but beautiful - I am already picturing myself decorating an enormous, Victorian-style Christmas tree in the bay window of one of the highly desirable houses that line the streets here; and I would particularly like one on Ashley Road please, as that seems to be where all the restaurants are, including last night's destination: Amba Restaurant and Bar.

First impressions are very, very good: on what is clearly a quiet night in Hale (all the other restaurants we pass are empty, some with waiters in the window sadly eyeing up the deserted streets), Amba is full - literally every table in this welcoming, bustling little place is occupied or has been occupied by the time we leave. Amba is about to celebrate its tenth birthday, and I suspect that the locals are wise to the excellent value set menu, available 6pm - 10pm from Sunday to Friday and offering two courses for £15.50 or three for £18.50. We decide to order off the full a la carte menu (in the interests of thorough research, obviously), and choose the following:

Pre-Starter: yes, yes, I know - I am now at the age where I fear I will NEVER learn my lesson about cramming another course in under pretence of needing time to study the menu; in fact, the whole tenor of this post will revolve around the familiar theme of my eyes being bigger than my stomach. Still, as long as a restaurant offers a dish of mixed vegetable crisps for £1.95, and as long as I have spirit in my soul and breath in my lungs, I will order them. And beat Mr Liz's eager hands with the drinks menu when he tries to share them.

Starters: Now these were good. I had the chicken liver parfait at £5.95, a PROPER parfait, with that perfect texture that is somewhere between artery-stopping richness and light-as-air, whipped softness; when I say that it has a light sheen of meaty sweat on its glistening surface I mean it as the greatest possible compliment. The orange-onion marmalade served on the side is a suitably sweet-yet-tart accompaniment, although the tiny kilner jar it is served in is reluctant to yield up its treasures to my clumsy, giant knife. Mr Liz has a crispy duck salad with pink grapefruit and pomegranate seeds, and considers that the zesty zing of the fruit is a perfect foil for the rich duck in its sweet dressing. Our only criticism is portion size: they are simply enormous, and I am happy to acknowledge that Mr Liz and I are two of the greediest people who ever walked the planet. Yes, it's perhaps better to err on the side of generosity, but I lack self-control and hate leaving food; you may wish to start preparing yourselves for the soon-to-be-unleashed revelation that Mr Liz has to leave some chips from his main course - he has been dreaming of them all night, and is STILL regretting this out-of-character action this morning.

Mains: Speaking of mains, one of the things I liked best about Amba was the seasonal specials section on the menu, clearly ever-changing to reflect what is particuarly fresh and good at any particular moment. From this, I choose the pheasant cooked with sour cherries and served with roast parsnips, kale and celeriac mash, a suitably Autumnal-sounding dish that doesn't disappoint. Pheasant can go a little dry, but this lucky individual is perfectly cooked and served with crispy skin (the best bit) still intact; the sour cherries are a nicely tart touch, although the quantity of meat provided (half a pheasant, methinks) perhaps requires one or two more fruits to really make the most of this classic combination. The star of the dish is the celeriac mash, which seems roughly one part healthy vegetable item to three parts butter and two parts salt: exactly the way I like it, in short. Some would find this too rich, too salty, but for me this kind of mash is a real restaurant treat, as the soullessly wholesome versions I make at home are lucky to see even a splash of skimmed milk. Meanwhile, Mr Liz is embarking upon a plate of steak and chips roughly the size of the Titanic - he has gone for the 280g rib-eye at £22.50, and it is a prime specimen indeed, with that beautiful marbling of fat that makes so much difference to the flavour and texture of this cut. The steak comes with baker chips, mushrooms and tomatoes - no additional side dishes needed here, although the fiery peppercorn sauce he fancies does come as an extra. To our shame and sorrow, though, Mr Liz leaves several of the excellent chips and I even abandon a little of the pheasant - I really feel I have let you all down and these are not the standards of eating you expect from me.

Desserts: but surely you'll try a pudding? cries the lovely lady who has been bringing us these gargantuan dishes, with all the innocent menace of a waiter offering a wafer-thin mint to a dangerously full diner. I am ready to explode, but do manage a spoonful of the shared white chocolate and raspberry creme brulee (I argue weakly for the lighter-sounding fruit and sorbets platter, but Mr Liz is having none of it). This is perhaps a little heavy a choice in view of what we have just eaten, but I like the unusual flavour combination, and the pert raspberries do help to cut through the richness of the white chocolate. We do not drink much with dinner as we have the car with us (yes, I realise that Dora the Explorer would have shown us up here, by finding some way of navigating her way to the far-off terrains of Hale without a motor vehicle), but I do manage to sample the Hendricks Fizz from the new gin cocktail menu and it is sublime; in fact, the drinks options here are impressive full stop, with a wide selection of wines, gins and cocktails as well as Belvoir soft drinks for those remaining compos mentis.

In short? A lovely restaurant, with a menu full of things I'd like to eat, friendly staff and great cocktails. I do think the portions here are on the hefty side, but we perhaps didn't help ourselves by ordering some of the heavier options - I shall certainly try to choose more judiciously next time (for we will certainly come again)...or maybe just ask for a doggy bag, for I could really just fancy some pheasant and chips round about now...

- Amba Restaurant and Bar is at 106 Ashley Road, Hale, Cheshire WA14 2UN; tel 0161 928 2343. We were invited here to review the restaurant and were therefore not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but we will definitely go again as paying customers, even though it is ALL THE WAY AWAY IN HALE.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Opera North Go Wild at The Lowry for Local Girl's Birthday: Faust, Don Giovanni and The Makropulos Case all in November

Now, on the whole, having a birthday in November is a largely undesirable situation. I understand, of course, that it's not as bad as being born just before Christmas and thereby receiving only one set of presents as well as having to compete with celebrations for somebody else's birth, but nevertheless it really does mean a pile up of festivities at one end of the year and then very little else for 11 months - woe betide the November baby who runs out of Jo Malone mid-March, for example *voice of experience*.

Still, this November I shall be celebrating my birth in style by going to not one but THREE new productions at The Lowry Theatre by the wonderful Opera North; it's as if they knew that I would never be able to choose just one to go and see, and have handily arranged matters so that I may justify the whole rip-roaring, roof-raising lot of them. First up is Faust, with performances on Tuesday 6th and Friday 9th November; this got a pretty good write-up in The Sunday Times last week, with the observation that "Opera North bring Gounod's cheesy fable forcefully and cleverly up to date". Anyone who has seen an Opera North performance before (particularly the trailer-trash version of Carmen that visited Manchester last year) will know that this kind of modern approach is one of their strengths, even if they do manage to upset the odd traditionalist from time to time, so this bodes well indeed.

Alongside Faust, Opera North are also bringing Mozart's Don Giovanni (on Wednesday 7th and Saturday 10th November) and a Janáček opera that I am not familiar with called The Makropulos Case on Thursday 8th. Both of these deal with love, the former telling the story of an inveterate pleasure-seeker (based, of course, on Don Juan) as he cuts a seductive swathe through the hearts of all he lays eyes (and more) upon, and the latter posing a more romantic conundrum by asking us whether we would wish for immortality even if our endless life was one without love (answer: maybe, possibly - not sure; would depend on supply of chocolate digestives and American TV box sets).

Anyway, full details can be found here on the Lowry website, and I will leave you with some tempting images from Don Giovanni. Remember though, you might wangle permission to see one or all of these, but you ONLY get ice-cream at each and every interval IF it is Birthday Month...

Friday, 19 October 2012

New Autumn Menu at Linen Restaurant, Manchester 235: Local Girl is Pudding Convert

It is sometimes said - a tad uncharitably, in all truth - that certain individuals would turn up to the opening of an envelope if they thought there would be a free glass of wine involved (present company excepted of course - NO sniggering at the back). Indeed, a couple of weeks ago it looked splendidly as if a number of local luminaries would be turning up to celebrate the opening of a door - the long-awaited portal that now allows direct entrance into the Manchester 235 Casino from the AMC Great Northern Complex on Deansgate.

We stayed at home for the great door unveiling, but did venture out last night for the launch of something far more exciting - the new Autumn menu from Manchester 235's impressive house restaurant, Linen. Mr Liz and I ate here at the end of July and liked it very much (you can read the full review here), so we were excited to see what the new season would bring - although it does have to be said that the welcome cocktail served on arrival by the legendary Drinks Enthusiast was pure summer in a glass: G'Vine Gin's superlative Flouraison with gomme syrup, fresh lemon juice and more fresh basil than I managed to grow in my garden all year. Still, it was delicious, and I'm fairly certain I can easily recreate this at home, only perhaps without the gomme syrup. Or the fresh basil. And with a lower quality gin. And, I might just slice the lemon. Still, similar though, eh.

Anyway, on to the food. A selection of dishes were brought to the table for us to share (fortunately I was seated next to The Hungry Manc, whose general all-round good nature and sense of gentlemanly honour slows down his fork speed considerably), and although this does of course not accurately reflect a normal dining experience at the restaurant, we were assured that the portion size and so forth seen here IS exactly the same as you would receive if you ordered from the menu. We sampled three starters, three mains and three puddings, many of which I would order again - here are the highlights.

The best starter, for me, was the sauteed pigeon breast served with beetroot hummus and red wine jus, seen in extreme close-up here as I try to shield it with my body so The Hungry Manc doesn't see it. The meat is pink and tender on the inside and stickily caramelised on the outside; I also enjoy the contrast between the warmth of the meat and the cool, aloof sweetness of the earthy hummus alongside. This is a smallish portion at £7.95 a go, but the pigeon is rich and filling, and remember, you won't have to share with TWENTY others. Second place goes to the rustic pork and pistachio terrine, a sturdy slab of nicely chewy, flavoursome meat - this would have won, actually, if it weren't the kind of starter I order pretty much every time I go out, so in fairness this is more my fault than the terrine's. Third place for the home smoked salmon and beetroot salad; I like the salmon, and I like the beetroot, but I'm not terribly sure they flatter each other in this particular partnership.

On to the mains, and I reckon the first is the best - great meaty Cumbrian lamb chops, residing stickily amongst a sultry crowd of roast garlic confit, potatoes forestiere and truffle jus. Even better, the lovely Hungry Mrs - with whom I am also dining - passes on her chop and I swoop on it with all the restraint and decorum of a seagull approaching a particularly lucrative-looking dustbin. Joint runners up spot is awarded to the fish dish - seared fillet of bream with saffron sauce - and the roasted wild boar steak with chorizo. The latter of these two would have been a clear winner with a little more sauciness - the meat was moist, but the jus was reduced to little more than a sticky glaze, and when a side order of hand cut chips arrived they took the whole dish to the wrong side of dryness. This problem is easily rectified however, and this is another dish I would order again. We also had a very good side order of cauliflower cheese - pricy, perhaps, at £3.95, but flawlessly executed, the thick, creamy sauce stylishly removing any trace of worthy healthiness on the part of the vegetable item.

And so to dessert. I am categorically NOT a pudding person, and for this reason the marbled Bailey's and chocolate cheesecake and raspberry rippled Baked Alaska - although both good-looking AND tasty - are largely just decoration at the end of the meal. But the first dessert served up, the toffee apple creme brulee, is a revelation: soft, mildly tart apples adding some welcome texture the smoothness of the creme brulee, the warmth of the accompanying cinnamon shortbread just crying out to be used as a tasty weapon to break through the crisply burnt topping...and the cute little toffee apple on the side? I'm afraid we actually fought over it. This is one of the few desserts I have ever had that I would actually adjust my menu choices in order to accommodate - it really is wonderful.

We were also extremely honoured that Head Chef Jarda (previously of Smoak fame) came out to explain each dish to us; he is engaging, and passionate, and clearly excited about the food he is serving up - we listened to him politely, attentively, interestedly, whilst secretly longing to start devouring his dishes. Linen is definitely an asset to Manchester's fine dining scene and a worthy destination for any special occasion - even better, you can now take your night out to the next level by going through that lovely new door...

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Grinch Wine Bar, Manchester: Local Girl Rediscovers Long-Lost Love

Now, I have always thought of myself as an exceedingly loyal person. I am proud to say that I have known many of my very closest friends for upwards of fifteen years; I have been with the same mortgage lender for longer than shiny-faced Cameron has been in power; I even get a personally-addressed Christmas card from my local Indian takeaway. And yet, in the past twelve months or so, I fear I have been grossly disloyal to one of my oldest and dearest restaurant friends: Grinch. As long ago as February 2008 I waxed lyrical about the lustrous charms of its meaty goodness - it has appeared many times on these pages over the years, and always with the same result: fatness, happiness, mild tipsiness. It was, quite frankly, the perfect relationship.

And then, somehow, I stopped going. I think it was a rush of fancy new places that did for me - they turned my head with their fashionable locations and their own delicious meaty goodness, and some of them will indeed be keepers. But coming back to Grinch tonight was like finding an amazing pair of favourite shoes that have somehow got lost under the bed - they make you feel fabulous, and you wonder how you have done without them for so long.

At 6pm tonight, the place was packed; luckily we had booked, and were rewarded with the favoured table under the lady with the impressive feathers - if you don't know what I'm referring to, your homework for the week is to go to Grinch and find out. Even better, it was still happy hour, meaning that all cocktails were £4.50 and all pizzas £6.50; I fear I had finished my first Amaretto Sour before my dining companion had even got off her train. Once she arrived, we polished off a shared starter of nachos, seen here piled high with guacamole and sour cream, and then shared the Oriental Duck Pizza and the Special Fried Chicken served with fries and homemade barbecue sauce.

My friend - a Grinch virgin - had been perusing the menu on the train and had been sceptical of duck on a pizza, but soon realised that actually, it makes perfect sense; a beautifully thin, crispy base, covered with shredded duck and hoisin sauce, then scattered with thin slices of cucumber and spring onion - it's very probably my favourite pizza in the whole of Manchester. And the chicken? Grinch have been perfecting this recipe over the last 19 years and it shows - moist, tender strips of white flesh (sorry, the lady with the feathers may have made me a little smutty) contrasting nicely with the crispy crunch of their coating; I know this coating is good, as there was a little bit left on the plate that had lost its chicken, and I even ate that. You should also know that Grinch do perfect fries here - never, EVER offer one to any boy diner you may be with, as he will eat the LOT *voice of experience*.

Best of all, though, is the price. Two cocktails, four glasses of Prosecco, a massive starter and two mains came in at £51, in the centre of Manchester, on a Saturday night. Grinch, I'm so sorry I've been away for so long - I certainly won't be making the same mistake again.

- Grinch is at 5-7 Chapel Walks, Manchester, M2 1HN; tel. 0161 907 3210.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

101 Brasserie at Manchester's McDonald Townhouse Hotel: Local Girl Turns up Unexpected Gem and Longs for More Days in the Eating Week

Over the last few years, there has been something of a trend (often, it has to be said, most clearly voiced by London-centric food writers) for criticising the Manchester restaurant scene. Not only do we have no Michelin stars, we also apparently lack anywhere even half decent to eat, no doubt leaving Southerners to imagine an ugly scene in which hollow-cheeked Mancunians queue wanly outside Greggs in order to fight over the last crumbs of a pasty or two, before stopping for a pint and some black pudding flavoured crisps on the way home.

I have a different issue with Manchester restaurants: I think they are just too good. Bearing in mind that there are only seven days in each week (and I am expected to spend a worrying proportion of at least five of these engaged in gainful employment) and only one size of jeans in the drawer, this leads to some difficult decisions over where to eat on a night out; decisions not helped when you discover ANOTHER restaurant turning out really classy food that you were previously unaware of. For me, the restaurant revelation of the week has been the 101 Brasserie, attached to the McDonald Townhouse Hotel on Portland Street; as a Manchester resident, hotels in the city centre barely even register with me, and Portland Street tends to be somewhere I hurry along, head down, lest I accidentally make eye contact with a Yates' Wine Lodge.

All that is set to change, however, with the discovery of this little gem on the corner of Princess Street. 101 Brasserie is a small, muted affair, tastefully (too tastefully?) decorated in the subdued colours and style that so many hotels go for in the hope of appealing to all tastes. What the environs lack in oomph though, the food delivers in spades: good, strong, gutsy flavours with a traditional slant to the dishes in terms of ingredients and presentation. Take Mr Liz's starter, for example (I did in fact try very hard to take it, but he defended it in staunch manner by building a wall of condiments around it and emitting an occasional growl) - his Free Range Eggs Benedict was a sturdy yet elegant dish generously piled with flavoursome crispy bacon and thick, creamy Hollandaise: it would make an excellent lunch dish if you're ever passing during the day. My Slow Cooked Yorkshire Duck Leg was a small pile of tender, gamey meat flaked and served with shallots and a touch of orange, and was a delight from first mouthful to last - it wasn't quite as generously portioned as the Eggs Benedict, but the staff were MOST forthcoming with a basket of excellent bread with which to mop up any last remaining morsels.

These starters were, for us, the highlight of the meal, but quality remained impressive with our mains. An Autumnal nip in the air meant that there was one clear choice on the menu for me: Highland Venison served with red cabbage, dumplings, sweet potato and juniper. The meat was tender, juicy and pink, and went well with the sweetness of the cabbage and the potato; my only (minor) grumble was that I would have liked a little more cabbage. However, a side order of buttered samphire more than made up for this small shortcoming - there was so much of it I even permitted Mr Liz an exploratory foray, although he was altogether distracted by his own side of proper, fluffy-on-the-inside, golden-crunchy-on-the-outside chips. These he scoffed alongside a 21 Day Matured Scottish Ribeye Steak, perfectly cooked and packed with flavour. We did find ourselves wondering whether the chef couldn't perhaps use some ingredients from closer to home; this may of course be out of his hands as part of a hotel chain, but it's a shame nevertheless, particularly as the standards of cooking are so high.

Pretty full by now, we had planned to share one dessert but ended up with two - I really fancied the Peanut Butter Parfait, whilst the staff all recommended the Warm Layer Cake with caramel parfait and poached pear. We enjoyed the cake - a dainty square of moist sponge alongside soft, sticky fruit - but preferred the peanut butter parfait: there's something about that combination of salty and sweet that does it for me every time (insert your own double entendre here if you must - personally the desserts were too classy for that if you ask me).

Service was cheery, friendly and enthusiastic - the staff are clearly proud of the food they are serving up, and are happy to discuss any of the menu items. Rather than follow the same dishes offered by the other McDonald hotels, at 101 Brasserie the chef has chosen to design his own menu, and this little streak of individuality shows: true, there is nothing here that would change the face of gastronomy, but there ARE plenty of things I would like to eat, over and over again. And that, to me, is worth a DOZEN of your Michelin stars.

- We were invited to try the brasserie and were not asked to pay for our meal. However, we were under no obligation to be nice, and our server was not aware that we were there to review. And we will definitely go again - value is good for city centre with starters around the £6.50 mark and mains all under £20.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Royton Real Food Market: Local Girl Explodes with Middle-Aged Excitement (Organic Cloth Bags at the Ready!)

Now, technically I am not quite middle-aged. And yet I find I can accumulate an increasingly long list of evidence that would suggest otherwise - and the interesting thing is, I find I don't even really mind. To wit:

- a definite sense of excitement that today I'm going to nip to Boots and pick up the Christmas catalogue. I will turn straight to the food section, and draw rings around hampers of jam, biscuits etc that I am hoping people will buy me.

- increasing reliance on the heady high provided by knowing there are clean bedsheets to get into. Sometimes, if I know there are clean pyjamas too, I start angling to go to bed around 6pm. I note in passing these pyjamas are often of the fluffy, heart-stoppingly unsexy kind.

- an interest in going out sometimes for a nice walk. I have always done this, of course, but this walk no longer needs to terminate with a visit to a pub as its ultimate destination.

- a belief that a quality night out (which still offers all the essentials of good wine, good company, good food, a quick burst of table dancing etc) will ideally end with a chapter of a nice book in bed before midnight.

And the most damning evidence of all? Entire weekends spent in pursuit of the Food Market/Food Festival/Farmers' Market, each of which may as well have a gentleman on the door beckoning me in and whispering seductively "welcome to the pleasure dome" - I can think of no other environment that offers so much potential pleasure within such a small, safely confined area. Last weekend I went to two, both in Ashton - Tameside Food Festival on the Saturday and Ashton Farmers' Market on the Sunday. Other middle-aged readers will share the sense of joy I felt when I won a box of organic vegetables on the Saturday, courtesy of Mossley Organics - I honestly couldn't have been more excited by my prize, which you see here in all its muddy, middle-aged glory. The quality was superb, by the way - I would definitely buy from them in the future if I lived within their delivery area.

And tomorrow's food market of choice looks something pretty special, for Sunday sees the second outing for a new monthly greed-fest called Royton Real Food. This has been brought to my attention by James from Bobby's Bangers (yes - he was the man who brought a bag of sausages to The Mark Addy for me once, although sadly this does appear to have been a one-off, albeit a thrilling one), for his wife Heather (he insists she has no objection to being called "Mrs Bobby's Bangers", but I privately have my doubts about this) has been heavily involved in organising the whole thing with help from the market manager. There is a tremendous list of stall holders set to appear tomorrow (I have included it below so that you can judge for yourself how many middle-aged cotton bags you'll need to take with you, but do beware this is a SHORTENED version), and the main draw for me here is that no two stalls will be selling the same produce - much as I like the occasional cupcake, no-one needs twelve different companies selling them on the same market.

Royton Real Food will be on in Royton town centre between 11 and 3 tomorrow - I'm going to try to get there early as apparently plenty of people sold out last month, no doubt leading to middle-aged tantrums as ladies craving a Mrs Love-itts scotch egg or similar threw themselves disconsolately wailing to the ground. Fortunately there will be two brass bands on hand tomorrow to provide such tantrums with a suitably melodic accompaniment. I'll leave you with some of the suppliers and a glimpse of Chimney Stack Cakes - you'll definitely be seeing me hanging around here tomorrow before I head home to my clean bedsheets...
Coddy's Farm - home reared pork and lamb
Keith Gaskell- Highland beef
Carefully Crafted Cakes
Paul's Fish
Two Roses Brewery - micro brewery
Sue's Spring Rolls
The Tiny Takeaway - authentic Indian spices
Jenny's Cheese
Olivicco - olives, hummus etc
Simply Veg - vegetables (obv)
Mrs Love-itts - pies and scotch eggs
The Eatery - home made biscuits & fruit pies
Hog Roast (you'll prob see Mr Liz hanging round here)
Bobby's Bangers - amazing sausages
Bobby's Bangers Baps *smirks* - as above but cooked
Yorkshire Drizzle - pressed rape seed oils
RS Ireland Black Pudding- Rick Stein's food hero
Yummy Nuts- flavoured nuts
Bridge Street Bakery - bread
Scallion Soups and Sauces
Chimney Stack Cakes (see pic)
Dimitri - Greek wraps

You can follow @roytonrealfood on Twitter for all the latest updates.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Competition Time - Win a Manchester Spa Day with I Need Pampering: Local Girl Gets to Play Noel

Toss your hat in the air and shout "huzzah!", for 'tis competition time again - and it's a good one. And, truth be told, I'm particularly excited about this one as it has a whiff of Noel's Christmas Presents about it - I'm already picturing myself all twinkly-eyed, sporting an unpleasantly-patterned sweater and a sinister little beard, benevolently bestowing goodies upon the deserving people of this world.

For this is a competition which invites you to nominate someone deserving of a treat, some pampering, some spoiling - perhaps your mum, or a work colleague, or a friend, or even your favourite blogger, who toils tirelessly and selflessly on your behalf, round the clock (oh no, wait - I'm Noel, aren't I - scrap that last bit).

So here's how it works. Manchester based gift experience company, I Need Pampering, have launched a competition for our readers here at Things to do in Manchester, giving away a fantastic spa day experience from a selection of their Manchester spa days gifts. The winner may spend up to £100 on a spa day of their choice - I Need Pampering have loads of different experience days and gifts in and around Manchester, as you can see via the attached link.

I would like to know who deserves a fantastic day out in a luxury spa, who has done something amazing this year regardless of how large or small? Is there someone in your life who has shown an incredible amount of kindness this year? Someone who has suffered this year and is deserving of a fabulous day out? Or, ahem, just someone who will make your life a misery if you don't nominate them?

You need to send me your nominations to the normal email address (, making it clear who this person is and why they deserve to win. At the end of October I will choose a winner, who will win a complimentary spa day with spa treatments included to be used at any time over the next 12 months. My decision is final, and may well be based on who makes me cry the most into my reindeer-patterned sweater (note - I will NOT then provide an "additional" surprise in the studio in the form of a pile of toys, car, do up your kitchen whilst you're out etc etc). I can however promise you infinite amounts of good karma if you're the person who nomintes the eventual winner (or they'll owe you a bottle of wine, at least).

So thanks again to I Need Pampering for this lovely prize - now go get nominating! *hankies at the ready*

Monday, 1 October 2012

The Thrill of the Chase at The Liquorists: Local Man Runs Amok at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival

A few weeks ago, pretty much the unthinkable happened: Mr Liz was not only allowed out unsupervised, but was also allowed to write about it, here on these very pages. And, turns out you LIKED him, although not as much as he liked himself - he has, it seems, got quite a taste for seeing his words in print. So, due to popular demand (and me having a stomach bug over the weekend), here's Mr Liz's report on his visit to The Liquorists' Thrill of the Chase...

Now it has been said that I am a man of simple tastes. Food, drink and some form of sporting event is usually enough to keep me happy. And this year I have been a happy man indeed, what with the Olympics, the Paralympics, the Champions League, the Ryder Cup, Andy Murray actually winning something that matters - twice (not Wimbledon though) and the most tightly fought Premiership season for many a year.

Unfortunately due to the combination of a great summer of sport and my love of food and drink, I have recently found my waist reaching a level where it was just too uncomfortable shoehorning myself into airline seats. This has led to serious attempts to lose weight, which is why the annual Manchester Food and Drink Festival has come around at exactly the wrong time for me: a plethora of enticing food and drink events, that I am simply not allowed to visit upon pain of an overly tight pair of trousers.

What can I say other than I am weak. On what was one of the wettest Sunday evenings I can remember, where I had every reason to stay home and batten down the hatches, I surrendered to my base desires and turned up at the Green Quarter HQ of The Liquorists for an evening of Chase Vodka.

For both readers of the blog who haven't heard of The Liquorists, they are a fairly recent addition to the Manchester Food and Drink scene whose mission is to give you an education in inebriation. As any veteran of their Whisky, Rum and Gin trails knows the format is straight forward. Top quality alcohol, followed by cocktails made from the self-same alcohol and a small snackeral of food designed to complement the drink interspersed with the story of the drink.

You're not drinking; you're learning...which makes it OK.

At this stage I must admit that the educational elements have occasionally passed me by, but I did manage to note down some snippets of information that stuck in my mind:

1. Chase Vodka is made from potatoes, which is apparently unusual because it's difficult to make and adds to the cost of the spirit, but tastes particularly nice. So potato based Vodka = good.

2. Apparently all of the ingredients of the Vodka (and Gin) that was on offer is sourced from the same farm. This means that the food miles associated with the distillery are in the single digits, which means you can sit down and enjoy your drink while thinking of how much good you are doing for the environment. Probably.

Now, Vodka is the base for some absolutely iconic drinks, such as the Bloody Mary or the Vodka Martini. And I like both of them, but I’ve never been too convinced with Vodka as a neat drink. But if there were ever a bunch of guys who can convince me otherwise, their name is The Liquorists.

And so onto the drinks.

In order of drinking they were: Chase Vodka, John Collins, Chase Gin, a cocktail with no name, Smoked Vodka, a Vesper based cocktail (this containing Chip Dry White Port in place of Kina Lillet - which is substantially better tasting than the name would suggest), Marmalade Vodka, Marmalade Bagliato (which was a mix of prosecco and Marmalade Vodka) and finished off with a bonus Apple Vodka. All served with a variety of canapés specially chosen to complement the drinks and enhance the flavour.

Now that is a great selection of drinks, all of which were very much enjoyed. Yet if I were to rank them in order of preference, the Vodkas with the more intense flavours won out over the base Vodka every time, with a particular mention going to the Smoked Vodka and the Marmalade Vodka.

Even after all of this I’m still not convinced about Vodka on its own. I drank some neat Vodka that was substantially better than the majority that have passed my lips over the years, yet the cocktails were also improved by a similar margin. Sorry guys, but my neat tipple of choice will remain the Whisky until further notice.

Obviously, just to be on the safe side, I may have to sample some more Vodka at a later date*. I know I’ve got a bottle of Marmalade Vodka occupying shelf space at home right now and I suspect that this won't be the case for much longer.

So great evening, great company, great food, great Liquor, not so great weather. Well you can't have everything. I can't personally wait until the Tequila trails hit Manchester later this year: perhaps someone can tell me what the point of the worm in the bottle is.

* For Educational purposes, so that makes it alright

So, thanks to selfless Mr Liz, although I feel duty bound to remind him that the bottle of Chase Marmalade Vodka at home is MINE, and offer in passing the casual observation that, judging from his photos, he doesn't seem to have moved from the bar all evening. You can find out more about the lovely Liquorists here, and the delicious Chase Distillery here.