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Saturday, 29 December 2012

Tops World Buffet Restaurant, Manchester: Local Girl Wants to Live off Teppanyaki for Rest of Life

Now, I'll start this review with a confession: the concept of an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant has never sat easily with me. For one thing, I simply cannot be trusted with it - my eyes are far, far bigger than my belly (hard as this may be to believe), and my plate generally ends up a rather random assortment of items that in no way go together, and often piled so high I can barely navigate my way safely back to my table. I also have a problem with pacing: starters are my favourite part of any meal and as a result the mains often go untouched - this is of course sometimes for the best, as I have in the past been somewhat frightened by the sight of tray after industrial tray of brightly coloured gloop plopping and gurgling away as they stretch miles into the distance, before disappearing into a shimmering haze of their own monosodium glutamate.

So you'll no doubt all agree that I was both brave and professional to give the whole concept another chance when we were invited to try Tops, a world food buffet restaurant on Manchester's Portland Street which opened in June of this year and promises the hungry diner up to 300 global dishes (presumably not all to be consumed in one sitting, although Mr Liz does starve himself during the day of our visit so that he might have a go). You pay when you go in, and already a queue is starting to form at the cash desks - little wonder, as when we visit the Christmas party season is in full swing, and at £14.99 per head on a Friday or Saturday night the value here is hard to beat. Unless, of course, the food is terrible - my worry with any restaurant offering so many dishes from so many different cuisines is a potential case of "jack of all trades, master of none", but the steady stream of customers from a huge range of different nationalities filing into the cavernous dining area suggests that something a bit better than that might be going on here.

And, it is. There are plenty of those scary ranks of stainless steel counters, but the stuff contained within them is, on the whole, pretty good. My starter plate (which you see here in all its random finery - and yes, I do really like Chinese "seaweed", so no snarky comments please) is largely good quality and I particularly enjoy the satay chicken and the large plate of crispy duck that Mr Liz helpfully goes and fetches afterwards for us to share; one or two items are more mediocre (the prawn toasts are nothing special, and Mr Liz feels that his otherwise delicious crispy shredded beef is a little on the cold side), but a first visit to this kind of restaurant is often best seen as an exploratory mission, a kind of recce if you like, to find out what to fill your plate with next time you come. Anyway, I have by this time caught sight of the sushi conveyor belt, and whilst the selection of dishes is not enormous at the time of our visit I do enjoy what there is, and take extra pickled ginger to make up for it.

But the main courses are where Tops really comes into its own, and are the reason I will definitely be coming back. I avoid the dreaded trays because I have my eye on something else, but Mr Liz tries a selection of meat from the Indian mains and enjoys them all - rice is obviously available, but he has a chocolate fountain in his sight-line for the duration of the meal and has clearly decided to start skipping empty carbohydrates). Meanwhile, I am at the Teppanyaki grill, one of a number of food stations around the edge of the room - here, a charming man lets me choose two items (I go for calamari and king prawn) and cooks them while I wait, tactfully turning a blind eye as I slaver hungrily onto his lovely cooking surface. The fish is a revelation - hot, tender, salty from a liberal application of soy sauce; when I come back, I am tempted just to have this, over and over again. I also make time (and space) to visit the seafood counter, where I greedily load my plate with fresh crab and shell-on king prawns - simple but utterly, utterly delicious.

Whilst I attempt to rip the heads off prawns in a graceful manner, Mr Liz (crack squad that we are) is checking out the desserts. There is a huge selection - profiteroles, Eton Mess, mini cakes and puddings of all varieties...but Mr Liz likes the chocolate fountains best, dipping a number of sweets into their molten rivers before finishing the whole lot off with a self-serve Mr Whippy ice-cream. Yes, I agree that it is truly remarkable that he wasn't sick on the bus on the way home.

Obviously, this kind of restaurant will always provide a certain kind of experience - the table is only yours for an hour-and-a-half, and there is a certain element of pile it high, stuff it in, and leave with a sore tummy bemoaning your lack of self control. We do, however, feel that most of the food here is of a far-better-than-average standard, and are impressed with the service, which is fast and efficient (although they do like you to have your cash ready when the drinks arrive at your table: woe-betide a pocket fumbler here) - dirty plates are quickly whipped away so that you can pretend that you've not eaten a thing yet and go and load a new plate up with something else. Tops have taken a difficult concept and raised the bar a good notch or two here, and we will definitely be back - next time, though, I might just bring a doggy bag...*drifts off into enjoyable reverie, picturing casual consumption of whole crab on journey home...*

- Tops Restaurant is at 106 Portland Street, Manchester M1 4RJ; tel. 0161 2371000. Do not, repeat DO NOT, eat anything before you go.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Didsbury Wine Club Christmas Dinner at the Grosvenor Casino, in which I eat, drink and make like Sharon Stone

Ah - the Christmas party. Absolutely rife at this time of year, and probably anticipated with roughly equal measures of excitement and dread: if you are lucky enough to get on really well with your colleagues, like I do, and go to a really lovely venue, like we did (Whim Wham Cafe on Whitworth Street if you're interested), then the Christmas party is a thing of much joy. Others are less fortunate, however - I don't have to look too far afield to spot a man who recently spent several torturous hours in Revolution bar on a Friday night, largely thanks to the fact that his work do had been organised by someone approximately half his age. Indeed, you can't move in Manchester at the moment without falling over (often literally) an overexcited party of people wearing ill-fitting sparkly clothing and believing they are Mariah Carey: as Band Aid so chillingly prophesised, it is indeed a world of dread and fear out there.

Much better, then, to attend a Christmas party in the company of people with whom you share a natural affinity, as witnessed at the Didsbury Wine Club Christmas Dinner at the Grosvenor Casino on Wednesday night. I have spoken fondly of this merry band of imbibers in previous posts - they meet monthly to sample various wines and nibble daintily on canapes under the tutelage of Omar, David and Kate in different Didsbury locations - but this was my first experience of the DWC Christmas shebang; and to my surprise, considering the night consisted of wine, food and free bets, I found it was right up my street.

We begin the night with a welcome warmer in the shape of David's own-recipe mulled wine, made using a light, fresh red with the addition of muscavado syrup, cinnamon bark and - apparently this is what makes all the difference - a few bay leaves. The wines for Didsbury Wine Club are usually supplied by West Didsbury's Reserve Wines, but everything tonight has been purchased from the nation's favourite supermarkets, in order to prove that high-street bargains are plentiful. Indeed, the Tesco Beaujolais that accompanies our starter of venison pate is most acceptable - the lighter, flintier brother of the better known Pinot Noir grape, this is fresh, gluggable and (best of all) currently on offer at £7.99. It is a brave but effective foil to the coarse meatiness of the pate; in fact, the whole thing briefly transports me back to Paris in August, where I lived on pate and Beaujolais for three days and then made the mistake of weighing myself when I got home.

*hides scales, to be brought out again mid-January, or perhaps never*

Next up is the fish course, a magnificently retro affair consisting of yellow fin sole stuffed with crab meat and served with parsley sauce. This is served with my favourite wine of the night - the Las Moras Pacha-Mama Torrontes, all the way from Argentina, or, more locally, the Co-Op for a frankly astonishing £6.99. I am not really a lover of white wine, but this is a revelation - it has sweet lychee notes jostling alongside the crisper, drier tones of elderflower, and it cuts through the richness of the fish dish perfectly. Pleasingly, this new wine discovery makes me feel I have learned something, and can mark the whole evening down as "educational"
*underlines this in notepad*

The main course is a rib-eye steak with peppercorn sauce, accompanied by a French Malbec from Tesco. I am normally very partial to Malbec, but this wine is the only disappointment of the night for me - I find it rather vinegary, and a touch harsh on the throat. Omar encourages us to try it with the food and it DOES taste much better after a mouthful of lovely rare steak; still, I won't be buying this one. The wine train immediately gets back on course with the next offering though - the perky French Gewurztraminer that arrives alongside our dessert of lemon tart is honeyed enough to cope with the food pairing but has none of that cloying sweetness that puts me off of more traditional dessert wines. An inspired choice this one, and another wine I shall be buying (£8.99 from M & S if you wish to do likewise).

A shot of Baileys comes and goes (I don't like Baileys, Mr Liz does - I shan't spoil the plot line for you), and then it's time to grab our final wine of the night (a £9.99 Prosecco from M & S - I am already familiar with its work, and have a bottle of it in the fridge as we speak) and hit the gaming tables. The casino have laid on a "how to play session" which we have attended before, and a free £5 bet is also included in the Christmas Dinner ticket price - I treble mine at the Blackjack table before I remember it is a school night and I am not ACTUALLY Sharon Stone (too sturdily clad, for one thing) and go to cash in my winnings. Grosvenor Didsbury is a good place to go if you fancy a quick flutter but are a little intimidated by the thought of visiting a casino - the staff are lovely, and happy to explain things to you slowly and patiently; the food served in the restaurant is also far better than you might expect - we very much enjoy our four courses, although are a little surprised when great dishes of sprouts and roast potatoes appear to accompany the dainty little fish course pictured earlier. Still, never one to turn down a sprout opportunity.

Excess sproutage aside, if you live locally it's well worth getting involved with the Didsbury Wine Club, or one of their other outposts in Chorlton, Hale or Manchester. They are really friendly, enthusiastic people who are in it for the love of it rather than the money - the six wines, four courses, shot of Baileys and £5 bet come in at a total cost per head of just £35, and I honestly think that Omar might cry a little when I tell him I am going to buy some of the Torrontes. And remember, it's all *checks notepad* EDUCATIONAL, so even if you're planning a dry January, you can attend the Wine Club with a clear conscience (sort of). And me? I'm off to blow my £15 winnings on a couple of bottles of wine - see you all in January.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Guerrilla Eats Street Food Initiative Comes to Manchester: Not a Wasp in Sight

I feel I must begin with a confession: I am not someone who is naturally drawn to the concept of eating outside. Obviously I've attended some excellent barbecues, but on reflection these have largely consisted of me lolling on the swing seat or other comfortable equivalent whilst assorted menfolk bring over charred offerings with all the loving pride of a thoughtful cat bringing you a half-eaten mouse, before going inside at the first sign of a chill and putting on a pair of nice warm socks. Similarly, I cannot think of a picnic where I wasn't troubled by a/ damp grass; b/warm wine; c/hungry wasps anxious to share; or d/all of the above.

So I'm quite clearly not an obvious candidate to have my head turned by the thought of Guerrilla Eats, a new initiative being brought to Manchester by a collective of passionate food producers who want to prove to prefer-it-in-the-warm people like me that actually, street food can be brilliant. Until recently, my own personal experience of food purchased and consumed on the street would have been limited to the hideously claustrophobic annual ordeal of trying to eat half a pig stuffed in a bun at the Christmas Markets whilst an actual million other people make it their business/sport to try to push you over, an experience often followed up with finding that you have apple sauce on your chin only when you catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror in Top Shop some three hours later. Having conducted extensive research*, however, I am aware that a healthy and - dare I say it - tempting range of street food has been available in London Town for some time, so it seemed only fair to give Manchester's new initiative a quick look.

*watched those bits on the Lorraine Pascale programme where she goes and menaces various street food sellers

I do not get off to a promising start when I can't find it. Eventually a kindly/despairing man from Port Street Beer House takes pity on me and points me in the right direction - and indeed, in a little car park at the top end of Port Street I suddenly espy some stalls that seem to be laid with the most tempting of food items (and also, Sarah - who has invited us - is standing there with a clipboard, waving - this provides an additional clue). The collective currently consists of seven traders (although more are set to come on board), and the idea is for them to pop up in various locations all over Manchester - there was a recent, small-scale trial run but this is their first full weekend of trading: hence we have been invited to a sneaky preview to see what it's all about.

And I'll be honest with you - it's cold in the car park, and it's raining a little bit, but the welcome is warm and the food is spectacular. We try cupcakes from the Sugar Bun Sisters (yes, they ARE sisters, and yes, they ARE the girls who made those amazing vodka cupcakes that I once ate about 15 of in Almost Famous); extraordinary rump steak burgers served up by The Barnhouse Bistro from their corrugated iron-clad trailer; traditional Indian street food from Chaat Cart, who give us samosas and samples of dosa that are SO good that I think Mr Liz completely fails to notice they are all vegetarian; chorizo and spicy, garlicky patatas bravas from Las Paelleras; chilli dogs from Dirty Dogs that prove that a hot dog doesn't have to consist of sad, mechanically recovered meat scrapings (although I do find it hard to eat this daintily, and get chilli on my chin); pulled pork from Fire and Salt BBQ, where we marvel at Mal's ability to coolly demonstrate the pulling apart of the meat (seen here, before being set upon by pack of hungry bloggers) whilst simultaneously running around trying to sort out the lighting for the car park; and finally, for dessert (yes, I know we started with cake) some Chorlton Crack (salted caramel and peanut butter ice-cream) from the legendary Ginger’s Comfort Emporium van - they are old hands at this street food lark, having won ‘Best of the Best’ and ‘Best Dessert’ at the British Street Food Awards 2012.

And do you know what? Despite the cold, the rain, the encroaching darkness and the chilli-chin incident, it is all wonderful. Look out for Guerrilla Eats popping up in all sorts of places in the New Year, but if you're quick you can catch them today (Sunday 9th December) between 11am and 4pm - I'm seriously thinking of going back myself. There is a covered seating area in the car park, or you can even buy your food from the stalls and then go and eat it in the warmth of the nearby Port Street Beer House...unfortunately no-one told me this until AFTER my fingers had frozen themselves to my tub of Chorlton Crack.

For full details on each of the traders involved, visit their websites/twitter feeds or - better still - go and chat with them this afternoon!
Fire and Salt BBQ
Sugar Bun Sisters
Barnhouse Bistro
Chaat Cart
Las Paelleras
Dirty Dogs Hot Dogs
Ginger's Comfort Emporium

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Scottish Steak Club Restaurant at the MacDonald Manchester: No LONGER Just for Hotel Guests

Now, I have lived in Manchester for many, many years. And yet it never ceases to amaze me by yielding up something new; some hitherto unexplored little street, or some old favourite venue into which new life has unexpectedly been breathed. And on Tuesday night, I found out something little short of amazing: when you come out of Piccadilly train station, you can turn LEFT as well as right. Nah, you say - that's just the London Road, there's not much down there except maybe a hotel or two; well, one of those hotels - The Macdonald Manchester Hotel and Spa - has a restaurant which is frankly too good to remain the preserve of overnight guests a moment longer, and now I know it's there, I WANT IN.

The Scottish Steak Club Restaurant (yes, I know - the name IS promising - more of that later) is pretty busy on a filthy wet Manchester night, and although there are plenty of lone diners busily reading their Kindles at a table for one (the classic stereotype of a hotel restaurant), there is actually a nice buzz about the place thanks to a number of parties who are clearly already in the know about the left turn out of Piccadilly. Christmas music plays softly in the background, and the view of traffic on the London Road through the rain-smeared window actually makes me feel pretty cosy and - dare I say it - festive. I also very much like that from my seat I have a variety of interesting things within my sightline: I can see into the open plan kitchen, and am able to keep a close eye on a table piled high with fresh bread that is sliced on demand whenever someone (mostly me, truth be told) orders a plate of wheaty goodness served with balsamic vinegar and oil at a reasonable £2.50. I can also see Mr Liz, with a bit of sauce around his mouth, but I choose to largely ignore this and keep an eye on the chefs and the bread and the rain instead.

For starters, I go with the chicken liver parfait served with fruit chutney and toasted brioche. The pate itself is very good, although I'm not really a fan of brioche as an accompaniment - the soft sweet bread fails to provide the contrast needed to cut through the richness of the meat, but this problem could be easily circumvented next time by asking for different bread (yes - I am still gazing longingly at that table). Meanwhile, across the table Mr Liz has come up trumps (thankfully not literally) by ordering the haggis, neeps and tatties with whisky sauce. This comes as a pretty tower of different layers, with the haggis stratus just seen here peeking coyly from its moat of rich cream sauce, and whilst some might feel this is a rather gentrified version of what is essentially a sturdy, rustic sort of dish, it's actually far less polite than it looks, and we both love it.

As the name suggests, the restaurant specialises in Scottish steak, and although the menu is actually extremely wide-ranging and includes plenty of non-steak options, we both decide to try the main attraction - not least because all the steaks are cooked on a Josper charcoal grill. If you've never tried steak (or indeed anything) cooked on a Josper, I can assure you it's a revelation - this is essentially a giant indoor barbecue, but because it's being manned by experts rather than someone's slightly inebriated husband in a comedy apron, the food comes out perfectly moist and with a delicately smoky taste that a man full of beer in a back garden will never get close to. I elect to have the fillet steak, which is on the edge of pricey at £27.50 but is just stunning - charcoally, slightly caramelised stripes on the outside but perfectly rare in the middle - and comes handsomely equipped with some very good chips. Mr Liz goes for an enormous rib eye off the specials board and enjoys its strong, earthy flavour - he reckons he can taste more than a hint of unami, and decides that the accompanying onion marmalade forms an unusual but inspired foil to its savoury notes. I also order an entirely unnecessary side, also from the specials board - cabbage with bacon and cream, which provides a peerless lesson in the art of taking a healthy vegetable item and turning it into a decadent frenzy and is absolutely delicious, albeit a little on the rich side.

We are pretty full by now, but Mr Liz's eyes light up at the sight of someone else's Knickerbocker Glory and he bravely finds a small spare corner of his pudding stomach to try his own. I'm a big fan of retro desserts appearing on sprightly modern menus, and this is a good example of how to take a 70s staple and make it just a little more sophisticated - plenty of fruit, plenty of good quality ice cream and jelly and - thankfully - two chocolate sticks, so that an unseemly squabble does not develop. The service throughout is spot on - friendly and helpful without being intrusive, with staff happy to offer advice and recommendations - they even bring a little sample of the "secret sauce" for us to try when we are trying to decide what should accompany our steaks.

We were invited to try the menu as guests of the restaurant and therefore were lucky enough not asked to pay for our meal - if I have any criticism of the Scottish Steak Club it is that a meal for two here with steak and wine would soon mount up cost-wise. You do get what you pay for, however, and knowing the quality of the steak and the cooking I would go back, especially as special offers run on certain nights and there are plenty of lower-priced items on the menu. And Manchester? PLEASE don't show me any more nice places to eat - there aren't enough days in the week, and these jeans are frankly getting really a bit tight now...

- The MacDonald Manchester Hotel and Spa is on the London Road, Manchester M1 2PG; tel 0161 272 3200.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Festive Christmas Menu at Manchester's DoubleTree by Hilton: Local Girl Thrilled with Bonus Turkey Dinner

It will come as no surprise to many of you that most meals are of interest to me; indeed, my Twitter timeline consists almost entirely of people who I follow purely because, like me, they are prone to listing details of whatever they have just consumed, ideally with a photograph or two. My very favourite meal of all, however, stands head and shoulders above all others: Christmas dinner, shining like a lovely sprouty beacon at the end of a long wintery corridor; a sturdily shimmering mirage lighting the way through the dark months of the year. I love everything about it: the oft-maligned turkey, the goose-fat roasties, the fruity stuffing, the chipolatas, the honey-roast parsnips, the gravy, the sprouts...oh, especially the SPROUTS. I even like the bit where I sleep fatly on the sofa afterwards: I literally look forward to this meal all year.

So when the email arrived from DoubleTree by Hilton inviting us in to try the new Festive menu, a small corner of Didsbury might just have caught a glimpse of me, running about excitedly, full of the thrilling possibility of an additional, bonus turkey dinner - in NOVEMBER. There are of course plenty of set menus about at this time of year, but the one at DoubleTrees's City Cafe outpost is pleasingly traditional, allowing the hungry and festive diner to choose from the following:


Parsnip and apple soup
Mosaic of guinea fowl, pistachio, cranberry, plum chutney
Poached salmon , caviar, lemon crème fraîche
Beetroot tarte tatin, goats cheese fritters, balsamic dressing

Main courses
Roast turkey, apricot and chestnut stuffing, roasted vegetables, cranberry sauce
8oz rib eye steak, horseradish mashed potato, onion frites, truffle sauce
Pan fried sea bass, Lyonnaise potatoes, fennel puree, creamed leeks
Chestnut and mushroom pithivier, cranberry chutney, roasted vegetables

Cheese cake, hazelnuts, marshmallows
Traditional Christmas pudding, brandy sauce
Dark chocolate ganache, cherry cloud, cherry sorbet
Selection of English cheese, fruit chutney

The restaurant is quiet when we visit on a freezing cold Tuesday night - just as well really, as our table has thoughtfully been set with crackers which we pull loudly and excitedly before squabbling noisily over the prizes (remember this is a full three days before the launch of the Christmas menu on November 30th); it is with no little sorrow that I resist donning my paper hat in a jaunty manner.

And the food is excellent. I start with the soup, which arrives - rather thrillingly - as a pile of grated apple in a dish with the jug of soup on the side; the two are then united at table before my very eyes. This is no mere theatre: keeping the raw apple separate from the hot, creamy soup until the last possible moment means the fruit retains its sweetness and its crunch, cutting through the comforting velvet of the liquid in a manner that leads me to think that I shall do this at home from now on whenever I make soup. Meanwhile, Mr Liz is hoovering up a substantial piece of lightly poached salmon served alongside a little pile of satisfyingly piquant potato salad topped with caviar - a most classy dish, although obviously it would have been made classier still had he put his party hat on.

(NB In this narrative I have omitted the part where Mr Liz stage whispers - with some trepidation - to enquire "whether he can eat the flowers".)

For main, I have the turkey, of course. This is everything this misunderstood bird should be - moist, thickly sliced and nestling in a sea of sticky gravy, and flanked by crunchy roast potatoes and a lovely fruity stuffing. There is even a sausage on the top and a dish of cranberry sauce on the side - perfect. Well, almost perfect - come on DoubleTree, THREE sprouts? I normally serve myself in the region of twenty (although I have, at times, come to regret this). Mr Liz has the steak, which is obviously the more sophisticated dish - tender pink meat with a rich sauce, served with perfect, thin, crunchy onion rings and a pile of horseradish mash. I am amazed that on such a reasonably priced set menu this dish does not come at a supplement - it is quite simply great value. I would have put a little more horseradish in the mash, but that is because I have been known to eat creamed horseradish straight from the jar, so my opinion probably doesn't count here.

We are by now pretty full, but Mr Liz makes room for some Christmas pudding - a spicy little number in a pool of boozy sauce - whilst I toy coquettishly* with a handsome selection of cheese.

*stuff face wildly in the manner of a person who has not eaten for weeks

Head chef Michael Campbell comes out for a chat; he is rightly proud of the menu he has designed, although he did say he might make a few tweaks here and there before the full launch, so it's possible your dinner might differ very slightly from what you see here. All in all, it would be hard to beat this in terms of quality and value for a Christmas do - the menu ends with coffee and mince pies, and costs £19.95 at lunch and £22.50 in the evening. We also felt the wine list was approachable, with an excellent barrel-aged Tempranillo at £21.50 and plenty of others around the same price mark (although I did not permit Mr Liz to look at the prices towards the bottom of the pages, lest he keel over clutching his chest).

So, a good night to really get the festive season underway, and even raise the exciting possibility of squeezing in at least five turkey dinners before the year is out. Although, looking at this, I can't help thinking it would serve me right if they just give me sprouts and horseradish next time I go...

Doubletree by Hilton Manchester is at 1 Piccadilly Place, I Auburn Street, Manchester M1 3DG - just across the pedestrian bridge leading from the train station. The set menu runs until December 23rd.