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Friday, 20 December 2013

Festive Afternoon Tea at Opus One, in which Guest Blogger Nicole Scales a Mountain of Cake and Reaches New Heights of Gluttony...

For someone who becomes ridiculously excited at the thought of Christmas, yet equally cannot bear the early-onset hysteria that brings Christmas decorations to stores in September, I was more than ready to start the spirit and sparkle mid-December. However, as my friends and family have learnt the hard way, I do not permit the consumption of seasonal baked goods out of season, and therefore did not partake of my first mince pie until Saturday last. With my rather tardy start to the season of indulgence, what better way to ramp up the excitement than to enjoy the Festive Afternoon Tea for two at Opus One at the Radisson?

Tardy in life as I am tardy in my foray into the festive season, I arrived in a fluster and was immediately impressed with the calm manner of the lady who took my coat and whisked me to my table. After a moment to settle into one of the squashy cushioned chairs (the clever people at Opus One must choose these deliberately, as there was no way I was leaving quickly after sinking into it), we were offered a pot of tea from the extensive selection; being traditional, I opted for Earl Grey whereas Liz went for Assam. We agreed both were delicious, and the generous-sized teapots were refilled part way through our afternoon.

Then for the treats. The waiter came bearing a suitably traditional tiered plate laden with goodies. Despite eyeing up the cake items at the apex, as all greedy girls would, we decided it was only right to begin at the bottom and sample the array of finger sandwiches, eight fillings in all. Amongst the more traditional afternoon tea flavours of smoked salmon and cream cheese, and egg and cucumber, nestled the roast turkey, cranberry and stuffing, and the honey roast ham and mustard. The turkey was moist and the cranberry sweetly sharp, but it was the ham that stood out for me. It tasted just as a Christmas ham-on-the-bone should - tender, slightly salty and perfectly complemented by the vinegary twinkle of the wholegrain mustard. As greedy girls, we enjoyed sampling all the festive flavours, and we were happy to share and cut each sandwich in half in order to do so; however we felt that two of each of three different fillings would have been sufficient.

On to the middle layer, where the most delightful treasure was unearthed: fruit scones with clotted cream and jam. The scones were perfection - warm, light and fluffy, and with little nuggets of sweetness courtesy of the currants, cranberry and orange. The dried fruit was not overpowering though, which was a jolly good job, as I certainly tried to overload my scone with cream before Liz alerted me to the need to reserve some for my second scone. I would have liked a little more clotted cream, particularly as there were four scones to divide it amongst, however on reflection, the less greedy of you would probably manage. The dinky jars of gem-like jam preserve appealed to my love of all things miniature, and we reasoned that the fruit points accumulated probably eliminated the calorific cream.

Having eaten our way up the mountain of morsels, stopping for fortifying sips of tea on the way, we finally reached the summit. The cake selection was plentiful, and included a mini chocolate fudge cake, a cream-filled cornet and a triangle of fruit cake. Perhaps I was spoilt by the scones, but I was slightly disappointed by the cakes. Although beautifully presented, they didn't quite match up to the home-made deliciousness of the scones, and I found the cream horn cloying and a little dry. We decided that we could probably manage the winter berry jelly, which was cool and refreshing after so much sweetness.

By this stage our eyes were certainly bigger than our bellies, and we had to ask for the remaining cakes to be boxed up to go. The waiter was charmingly obliging, and on reflection, had probably witnessed this very same reaction before. And this is probably indicative of the value of the Festive Afternoon Tea - at £18.95 per person you certainly get your money's worth - it was even too much for two self-proclaimed greedy girls. Obviously, we managed to find room later in the evening, particularly as the festivities continued with a celebratory cocktail. So thank you Opus One, for being the gateway to my Christmas conviviality.

- Opus One is at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel, Free Trade Hall, Peter Street, Manchester M2 5GP. We were invited as guests of the restaurant, and were not asked to pay for our meal.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Cheese and Wine at Hickson and Black's Deli, Chorlton: Festive Faces at the Ready

There are a number of highly excellent advantages linked to the run-up to Christmas, and the festive period in general. For one thing, it is entirely permissible to accept and consume a small sherry at any time of day or night should the opportunity present itself; equally, entire afternoons may be safely passed in the watching of a succession of low-quality festive films, often featuring brave canines, small children lost in dangerous snowscapes or - ideally - a combination of the two.
It is also entirely to be expected that those with an already high level of cheese consumption may push the dairy boat out still further, embarking upon a whole new array of Christmas cheeses which - by law - must be consumed with an appropriate wine pairing. To this end, I was pleased to be invited to Hickson and Black's deli in Chorlton for a cheese and wine tasting (no finer combination of words in the English language than these four in my opinion) in order to showcase some of the wines already in stock and dangle a couple of possible new ones for our opinion. Now, barely a day goes by on Twitter without some smug Chorltonite crowing about the magnificence of the Hickson and Black's sandwich they have just snaffled (bacon seems particularly popular) and I have bought cheese here before from their excellent selection, but I had never really thought of it as a place to buy wine. I now stand corrected on this matter - here's the sampling list, with my favourites clumsily highlighted in non-wine expert manner:

The Whites

Statti 'Feudo dei Baroni' (Greco) Calabria 2012

Ciconia 'Branco' (Anton Vaz, Viognier, Verdelho) Portugal 2012

Domaine Patrick Vauvy 'Sauvignon de Touraine' (Sauvignon Blanc) Loire 2012 - this was a favourite with most people. I am suspicious of Sauvignon Blanc, particularly in non-summer conditions, finding it often a bit acidic and rather tasteless. Not so with this one - soft, fruity and pretty exquisite with a sliver (/slab) of goat's cheese. I think this was £12.95 but as measures were fairly generous I'm afraid I cannot be completely certain on this matter.

Levenwacht 'The Tin Mine' (Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne) South Africa 2011 - another favourite, with an unusual minerally taste and a blend of grapes that really works. Not currently stocked at the deli, but SURELY it should be.

The Reds

Cours la Reine 'Saint-Chinian' (Syrah, Grenache Noir) Languedoc 2012

Tierra Segrada 'Antigua' Tempranillo, Garnacha) Carinena 2006

Devil's Corner 'Pinot Noir' (Pinot Noir) Tasmania 2012 - in truth, I enjoyed all the reds, but this was my standout favourite. Although I did, ahem, have to try it several times, just to be really sure.

Chateau Les Rochers Mirande 'Montagne-Saint-Emilion' (Mainly Merlot) Bordeaux 2006

The Extra Blagged One

Niepoort 'LBV' Douro 2007 - I am only a very recent convert to Port, but as a room full of wined-up people were baying lustily to try this, it seemed churlish not to join in. I think I have been put off Port previously by exposure to nasty, cheap, supermarket stuff; this one is in a whole different league and worryingly easy to drink, particularly when someone has foolishly placed a plate of blue cheese right by you on the counter. Hickson and Black's sell a half bottle for - I think - £12.50, and I am keen to procure one for my Christmas drinks cabinet (which is, in truth, only a metaphorical cabinet, but is none the worse for that).

All of this booze was ably soaked up by a selection of cheeses, pâtés and meats from the deli counter; the range and quality of cheeses here is particularly impressive, as you will see if you have a little browse of the website here. Thanks to Jay and Steve for their excellent hospitality; now all we need to do is start a campaign for Hickson and Black's to have its own dedicated tram stop for those of us who wish to cart their wine back to the wilds of East Didsbury...

- Hickson and Black's is at 559A Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 8AN; tel. 0161 881 2001.

Friday, 29 November 2013

New Menu at SoLIta: Greedy Girl Vanquished by Giant Schnitzel in Manchester's Northern Quarter

I should probably start by confessing that for a food blogger, I'm pretty set in my ways. Yes, it's nice to try new places for the blog, but if I'm choosing somewhere to eat rather than being invited to review, you could probably count my regular haunts on the fingers of one hand. I like to think of this as incredibly noble loyalty rather than the utter predictability it actually represents; dependability rather than a fairly shameful resistance to change.

One of these regular haunts is SoLIta. Indeed, when I turned up on Wednesday night to have a try of the new menu, my very charming server stopped mid-way through her speech about the possibility of upgrading fries to sweet potato when she stopped and noted that I would know that anyway, having been in just last week. Really, the only way to cling on to the remnants of your shattered dignity in this kind of situation is an aloof perusal of the specials board and some murmured assurances of the existence of an exceptionally greedy twin sister.

And truth be told, great swathes of the new SoLIta menu are not actually new at all - most of the old favourites are still on, joined by a few new faces jostling and pushing at each other for the honour of making me fat. The most likely front runner for this priviledge is the new soup, so often a healthier choice on a restaurant menu but - reassuringly - not so at SoLIta: I can confirm that the Loaded Baked Potato Soup would comfortably sustain a family of four through a hard winter (or me, through a cold night in the Northern Quarter). This is a thick, creamy, buttery affair, studded with large pieces of potato and topped with cheese and crispy bacon pieces; I mixed the whole lot together and simply applied my face to the bowl. Meanwhile, across the table, my dinner companion was investigating the biggest change to the menu - the arrival of a ten-strong selection of chicken wings, graded from "Smilin'" (the Sweet BBQ) to "Screamin'" (the Cry for Help, which I've had before, and which did indeed make me cry). We went for the PBJ from somewhere in the middle - satisfyingly meaty wings coated in a really moreish combination of peanut butter, jelly and soy that reminded us of chicken satay. Beware though that much of the sauce had collected in the bottom of the dish - you may wish to take steps to rectify the distribution curve here, unless you want to end up like the shameful party who had to use their fingers to consume the last of it.

On to mains, where I must admit to deviating from the new menu at the sight of the legendary Parmo on the specials board. I've had this before and loved it - breaded chicken schnitzel topped with bechamel sauce and melted cheese, and served with meatballs, marinara sauce, fries and garlic mayo. Sounds pretty greedy doesn't it, perfect for a girl with a healthy appetite who never willingly leaves a scrap of food on her plate (and allegedly snarls if someone even attempts to remove any item from said plate). Well, greedy doesn't begin to cover it: this is how it arrived...

...and although I battled bravely, I was vanquished, and had to send more than half of the chicken back uneaten. (And yes, OBVIOUSLY I woke up the following morning wishing with all my heart I'd brought it home with me.) There was simply too much food for one person here, and whilst it was delicious, it was wasteful, particularly as it costs £16.90 - it could be scaled down, or billed as a sharing dish (and believe me, I don't use the words "sharing" and "dish" in the same sentence lightly).

The Black Angus grain fed prime rib steak caused similar problems, although I DO have only limited sympathy for someone who orders the 14oz rather than the 10oz and then complains it is too big. This was a beautiful piece of steak, full of flavour and cooked perfectly rare as requested, but the sheer size of it meant it went cold very quickly. To be fair though, this was more our fault than SoLIta's - I would order this done medium next time (and, not so big).

Clearly there was no chance of us managing pudding, so instead we had Old Fashioneds from the excellent cocktail menu and called it a night. Service was flawless and friendly, and the food was as ruinously tasty as ever - still though, if I'm leaving food then something has gone seriously awry with portion sizes. I'm going to sit here and think carefully about what I've done. And then, no doubt, order just as much again next time...

- SoLIta is at 37 Turner St, Manchester M4 1DW. We were not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but I eat here all the time and may as well pay large portions of my salary direct to Franco, so you know I wasn't swayed by the freeness.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Celebrate Christmas in Manchester - But Not Until December Please

Now, I've overheard some debate in recent weeks about when exactly it is acceptable to begin celebrating Christmas. The general consensus appears to be December 1st, and I must concede that even I - that most fervent of festive supporters - considered the playing of Mariah Carey in Debenhams last weekend a little on the premature side. So in keeping with this general mood of restraint, here are a few Christmassy things I have my eye on for December...

1. Christmas Extravaganza at Oddest, Chorlton - Sat 7th December. I've become very partial to Chorlton since the powers-that-be so obligingly extended the Metrolink, and I am most interested in an all-day shindig that offers me a hog roast (which will be slow roasting all day on the terrace, and served up with rum plum chutney, cider sage and apple sauce) as well as live music from a number of acts including Jo Rose and Walk, Christmassy cocktails with names like Bailey's Bauble, hot cider and mulled wine, and winter ales. The free winter festival starts at 1pm and appears to have no official end time, suggesting it carries on until all the booze has gone or the majority of customers have fallen over, whichever comes the sooner.

2. Breakfast with Santa at Hard Rock Cafe, Manchester - Sat 14th December, 9-11am. If you can't wait until the big day, Hard Rock are promising a visit from the big man a full 11 days ahead of schedule along with a full English breakfast and party games, all for £7.50 per child and £9 per adult. They are also doing a three course Thanksgiving dinner for £25 on November 28th, but I'm not allowed to mention this due to the pesky December curfew thing.

3. Levenshulme Christmas Market - Friday 20th December. I'm a big fan of this independent market - it offers a range of food and gift stalls and has a lovely feel to it. I've been to the November one this morning, and purchased some pork, bacon, sprout and chestnut sausages from Bobby's Bangers (which are even better than last year's, following advice from a sprout-loving girl that they required more of the green stuff), bread from Robinson's Bakers, and cheese and butter from Winter Tarn Farm - and, shamefully, have already eaten most of it. The next market will be an evening affair, which means ideally I need someone to pick me up and transport me there so that I may drink mulled wine and warble winsomely along with the Christmas carols - interested chauffeurs may apply via the normal email address.

4. And finally, just when you think Christmas is over and all the fun has been had, you remember about the Bop Local Not Quite New Year's Eve party at Chorlton Irish on 28th December. Resident DJ Phil Beckett will be welcoming Inspiral legend Clint Boon as his guest DJ - past experience suggests we will all drink too much, and cry a bit when we do the singalong with Clint when he plays This is How it Feels (or maybe that was just me, I can't quite recall). Advance tickets £8 from the Bop Local website or from Chris at Chorlton Irish. There is also a Bop Local Christmas party in Prestwich the night before for any particularly hardcore boppers who can manage two nights out in a row.
- Oddest is at 414 – 416 Wibraham Road, Chorlton M21 0SD; Hard Rock Manchester is in the Printworks on Exchange Square; Levy Market can be found on the carpark of Levenshulme Train Station; Chorlton Irish Club is at 17 High Lane, M21 9DJ. And by the way, I lied - all that stuff about waiting till December is nonsense, and that's precisely why I've consumed two mince pies during the writing of this post.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Christmas at Spinningfields, in which I conquer the ice (sort of) and enjoy a lovely big sausage

When I was about 7, I went to an ice skating party. These were very much the fashion for birthdays at the time, and were something of a living nightmare: a bunch of faintly vicious pre-adolescent girls, hyped-up on sugar and rivalry, vying to be the queen of the ice and not afraid to spike a fellow competitor in the process. Think Mean Girls but with lethal blades and you're pretty much there; indeed, as someone who possesses neither a competitive spirit nor any sense of balance, I've remained highly traumatised by the whole experience ever since.

So when an invite came to try the ice rink at Spinningfields last night, I was pretty tempted to say no. Still, it's amazing what you'll agree to once you've got a few drinks inside you, and after a couple of glasses of red and a splendidly-girthed hotdog at The Long Bar (in its new winter guise as Bierhaus, a Bavarian-style beer hall), I found myself teetering on a large expanse of frozen water as my far more talented friend (and let's face it, a load of very small children) sailed off confidently and gracefully into the distance. And actually, although I was rubbish, and held onto the edge most of the time, it was really quite a lot of fun - no-one pushes or goes too fast, AND there are plastic seals and penguins that the less talented Torvills among us may cling onto for dear life.

I was also very impressed with The Long Bar, or Bierhaus as it now is - I was never really keen on this pop-up in its summer form, finding it a little lacking in atmosphere and rather full of suits for my liking, but the venue has been transformed into somewhere snug, welcoming and friendly, with good music (on the evidence of last night) and a roaring trade in pies, frankfurters and pretzels. There is no pretence here - the hotdogs come out of a shiny foil packet and the sauerkraut from a jar - but you can't really argue at £4.50 a pop (and an extra quid for the pretzel necklace that I proudly wore and consumed on the bus on the way home, much to the envy of my fellow passengers). Indeed, had it not been a Wednesday night, my friend and I agreed that we could have essentially remained happily ensconced here until physically ejected at the end of the evening.

In fact, Spinningfields looks as if it's really got its festive act together this year, as tomorrow sees the launch of the Spinningfields Christmas Market, which will run every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the run-up to Christmas and will rotate an impressive roster of 82 traders as well as featuring street food collective Guerilla Eats. There is also a helter skelter which looks fun, but as I have a fairly irrational fear of my bottom proving too big for the slide and me becoming wedged halfway down as a result, I won't be going on this any time soon. After all, these lifelong fears can only be conquered one at a time, and whilst I feel the ice may still have the upper hand, at least I didn't fall flat on my backside in front of a load of sneering children...

- Full details of Christmas at Spiningfields can be found here on the website. I received a free drink at The Long Bar and a free skate session, but paid for everything else I ate and drank. I'll just leave you with another picture of, ahem, me showing them all how it's done.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Mullen Bartending Cocktail League Round 5, in which an excited Didsbury Girl runs amok at Walrus...

Now, being a cocktail judge is amazing. You get to go to great places with lovely people and try interesting cocktails for free, and I would never wish to sound ungrateful about this fact. Trouble is, whilst free cocktails are all well and good, I've been having trouble convincing the mortgage company that a cheeky little gin number might serve as an acceptable equivalent for this month's installment - turns out that, in thoroughly antiquated fashion, they are still looking for actual cash money payments. So, while I was at work last Wednesday, the ever selfless Didsbury Girl was drafted in to replace me for Round 5 of the MLeague - here's how she got on...

Round 5 of the Mullen Bartending MLeague: Remy Martin at Walrus

When Liz (owner of this blog and famous for her bird-like appetite and very restrained attitude to alcohol consumption) asked me to step into her sling-backs and take her place at a cocktail judging, I was honoured. The more I thought about it, I realised it was a role I was born for and had long been in training for.

The cocktail du jour was Remy Martin. This cheered (and warmed) me up no end as I'd arrived soaked and shivering, desperately in need of a brandy to fortify me against the typically seasonal Mancunian weather.

During the next hour, five very different cocktails were placed before us for scrutiny. Some were magnificent, some were innovative, some were pretty, but they all without exception contained delightfully generous quantities of Remy Martin.

Kicking off the evening in style was The Centaur made by Ollie from Walrus. A deliciously puddingy drink, served with shards of dark chocolate which when eaten with the cocktail, were joyfully reminiscent of a chocolate orange.

This was followed by the Loic Remy from Cord. This is apparently the name of a footballer (see I knew this cocktail judging would be an education) and was for me one of the prettiest drinks of the evening. Cheekily fruity, it was definitely a cocktail you could drink any number of in an evening without being sick (I think you're beginning to sense my level now).

Next up was Eaux-de-vie made by Adam from Tusk Bar, this was another pretty little number. It felt almost like a boozy health drink. I love pomegranate juice so this was right up my Champs-Élysées. I do prefer a more bitter cocktail rather than sweet, but I'd have happily polished this off without complaint.

The next cocktail drew appreciative gasps from the judges when it was brought to the table. The Remy Martina made by Veronika from Apotheca was just beautiful. My picture could not do it justice (damn you crappy Samsung camera phone), but served in a tall glass with pretty pink rosebuds on it, with a little stack of Turkish delight to nibble on, we agreed that it was perfection. The Turkish delight perfectly complimented the flavours in the cocktail. Amazing.

Lastly we sampled the East from Simple, this was a fuzzy orange concoction. Prettily, but simply presented, looking like a big foamy orange sherbet. It was good too, but the orange swamped the Remy Martin a touch too much for my tastes.

So, cocktails judged we retired to consider our (unanimous) verdict. And the winner was.... The Remy Martina made by Veronika from Apotheca. It was very pretty and pretty prefect, not to mention probably the best cocktail I'd had in a very, very long time.

It is with regret that I hand my cocktail judging hat back to Liz, I did have a thoroughly enjoyable evening, tried and loved some cocktails I probably would never normally have ordered and I've made some new friends. Until the next time then, santé!

Jane normally blogs at Hodge Podge Days - go visit her there, or simply go into any pub in Didsbury and you're likely to come across her at some point.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Jon Parker Lee: New Exhibition Comes to Manchester's Northern Quarter

Oh Manchester. SO much to answer for. Little did I think when I arrived here as a rosy-cheeked undergraduate clutching a new pencil case and some laughably unformed literary pretensions that I would still be here one hundred years later, and still so much in love with your sexy, rainy, grimy beauty that I really couldn't consider living anywhere else (except maybe Paris, if anyone's offering - I don't like snails, but can speak French and am pretty good at working a ballet pump).

So I'm looking forward to a new exhibition opening later this month at 2022NQ, a venue that seems able to turn its hand to most things and where I have had some thoroughly memorable nights out in recent months. Jon Parker Lee is celebrating ten years as a freelance photographer with an exhibition looking back over his time in the business - a period which has seen the move from film to digital (largely a good thing, obviously, although resulting in the posting by certain souls of several hundred near-identical look-at-me, I'm-on-a-top-night-out and I've taken loads of photos to prove it pictures), as well as social shifts such as a change of government, gay marriage, and somebody else FINALLY winning the Premiership.

All of this and more is documented in Jon's exhibition, and as he is a Manchester-based photographer there will be plenty of pictures of our fair city - in both its most pictureseque and, erm, less salubrious guises: “You get to see all kinds of lives, from people living on sink estates where the burglars are stealing the roofs from over their heads, to back stage with the world’s biggest selling music acts; and the latter isn’t generally much more glamorous than the former.” The exhibition runs from 22nd November to 8th December, and promises to be well worth a look if the following images are anything to go by.

- 2022NQ is on Dale Street, and the exhibition will be open Fridays 12 noon - 12 midnight and Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays 10am – 5pm.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Laugh Local at Chorlton Irish Club: Friday 8th November

About twelve years ago I went to a comedy night in Manchester. I won't say where it was (although you can probably guess), but it was horrific: full of baying stag parties and hyped-up office nights out, with nasty overpriced drinks and a selection of comedians who were not only unfunny but were downright vicious to those unfortunate individuals sitting near the front. I cowered unhappily at the back, vowing never to set foot in such a testosterone-filled bullring ever again.

However, there are certain people whose judgement I trust, so when the lovely Alison (of mighty Bop Local repute) says that Laugh Local is an entirely different kettle of fish, I believe her. First of all, it's at Chorlton Irish Club, which - to the best of my knowledge - is not specifically known as a popular stag night destination. Secondly, the night is compered by Justin Moorhouse, who simply looks too cuddly to be unkind or vindictive (although I have been wrong about this kind of thing before). Thirdly, for this Friday's Laugh Local, anyone who works for the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service can get in for the reduced price of £7.50. This is not only generous, heartwarming etc but should also mean that the place is packed with handsome types who could rescue a kitten from a tree in the blink of an eye should the situation arise. Fourthly, there's a bit of a disco afterwards from the Bop Local DJs. And finally - and this is what really sold it to me - you get a pasty supper as well.

This month's Laugh Local features Archie Kelly, Caimh McDonnell, Ben Lawes and David Stanier, with tickets costing £13.50 from the Bop Local website or from Chorlton Irish Club. I'm actually really looking forward to it...although I will still be making sure I sit safely at the back...

Monday, 28 October 2013

Didsbury Lounge: Impressive Wine List, Tasty Rice Balls AND Close to Home

In recent months, I'm afraid I have been a shamefully poor Didsbury resident. The village has just seemed less interesting of late, with fewer nice places to go - and whilst I love the Fletcher Moss with all my heart, sometimes you just fancy going somewhere you won't bring the average age of the clientele down by thirty years or so. As a result, I've been taking full advantage of the Metrolink and heading to Chorlton or Manchester, eschewing the delights on my own doorstep.

So when Didsbury Lounge invited a few bloggers in for a wine tasting evening, it seemed like a good opportunity to try out somewhere I had heard good things about but never really been, apart from a quick drink one night after work. The venue is one of those slightly unpromising long, thin spaces - but to be fair, they've done a pretty good job with it: the glass-roofed atrium makes it feel light and spacious, and the spiral staircase is beautiful - even if a trip upstairs to the loo after a few glasses of wine is a little (a LOT) on the dangerous side.

The wine tasting was hosted by Noel Reid, the wine and spirits manager at Robinsons (there's a dream job if ever there was one) and a winning combination of being very knowledgeable about wine AND very generous when pouring samples. Didsbury Lounge prides itself on its high quality wine list, and let us try eight different wines plus their house Prosecco, looking for feedback on what should make the cut from the following selection:

Frederico Pinot Grigio Collezione
Finca Los Alijares Viognier
Verdicchio Dei Castello Di Jesi Manciano Bonci
Sancerre Blanc Serge Laloue
Durius Reserve Syrah 2007
Rolling Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot
Tiasta Malbec Reserve
Casarena Single Vineyard Perdriel Malbec
Montelvini Asolo Prosecco Millesimato Extra Dry

Of the whites, the Viognier and Sancerre were by far my favourites; I would buy both of these - and indeed, the excellent Sancerre is already on the wine list, priced at £30. I enjoyed all of the reds, particularly the Spanish Syrah, which is also already available at Didsbury Lounge priced at a ridiculous £24.50 - go and buy this please, as I want it to stay on the list. Finally, the Prosecco is excellent, and is available in family-sized magnum bottles for just £25 on Saturdays - the reason why my diary now has DIDSBURY LOUNGE crayoned in every weekend for the forseeable future.

We also tried some of the food, with platters of some of the most popular items from the Grazing Menu. Food bloggers are never very good at sharing ANYTHING, and there was almost an unseemly scuffle over the last Sticky Rice Ball and the final Falafal - these were both pretty perfect examples of their ilk, and I'd be quite tempted to just order a vast dish of these two items on my next visit. Because there will, without doubt, be a next visit - a great local bar with classy wines, interesting food, lovely staff...and just a few minutes from my house. Didsbury, I re-embrace you - if you'll have me back?

- Didsbury Lounge is at 43 Barlow Moor Road, Didsbury, M20 6TW (opposite Emmanuel Church); tel 0161 434 2408.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Christmas Comes Early, Part Two: In Bloom Becomes Hibernate and Lock 91 Gets a Visit from Santa

A couple of weeks ago, I had some Port and Stilton at Albert's Chop House, and got myself quite ridiculously giddy as a result - ready to bypass the rest of October and all of November and proceed directly to Christmas. So really, the very last thing I needed was further encouragement in the form of a very festive night out on Friday, firstly at the new Hibernate pop-up bar at Spinningfields and secondly at the Winter Food Party at Lock 91 - a Christmas party in all but name.

First stop, Hibernate, which is not strictly new but is in fact the winter version of In Bloom. I very much liked In Bloom, which had great cocktails, a nice meaty barbecue, an ivy-covered wall decorated with yarn-bomb flowers and a prime summer spot overlooking The Lawns; now the outdoor section has been largely panelled in and filled with heaters and throws so that we may enjoy it here all year round. It's all very cute, and was indeed very snug despite the Manchester monsoon raging outside; even better, it has set down a marker for future years that mulled wine is perfectly acceptable in October. My first impression is that I'm not quite as keen on Hibernate as In Bloom, but then it's not entirely fair to make this judgement on the back of a flying visit on launch night, so I will be a true professional and go back another time so that I may review it more objectively.

Next stop, Lock 91, a place about which I have heard good things but have never previously visited due to my general aversion to most of the bars along Deansgate Locks. I knew there was to be food on the terrace but hadn't expected a full-on Christmas party - we sat on the sofas in the downstairs grandma parlour and watched Elf on the big screen, and listened to Mariah Carey, and ate strudel, and sampled the delicious new Christmas cocktails (my favourite being the Christmas Pud), and wore reindeer antlers upon our heads. We received a visit first from some carol singers and then from Santa himself, surprised to find himself working so early in the year no doubt, but lugging his traditional, erm, bin bag of presents all the same. I sat on his lap and pretended to have been good this year and was given a selection box as my reward - in fact, it was all too much excitement for one night. I'm not sure a night out at Lock 91 could ever be as much fun again, but I will definitely be back to find out in the near future - and if it was you who had to sit next to the carol-singing girl wearing reindeer antlers on the Didsbury tram round about midnight - well, you know who to blame now...

Margo & Rita at The Beagle, Chorlton: Mexican Street Food, but with SITTING DOWN

A few months ago, I had my first encounter with those purveyors of superior Mexican street food, Margo & Rita. This took place at the lovely Levenshulme Market and unfortunately, whilst I very much enjoyed my burrito, my almost entire lack of ability to consume food in an elegant manner whilst standing up means I have little natural affinity with street food - much of my burrito ended up in my hair, with the remainder evenly distributed between the front of my dress and the floor.

The good news for incompetent eaters like me is that whilst Margo & Rita continue to sell from their lovely purple van at markets and festivals, they are now also resident chefs at The Beagle pub in Chorlton - where they have tables, and chairs, and cutlery and everything. They've been there a few weeks now and I've already been in a couple of times, but last Tuesday saw them bravely open their doors to a hoard of hungry bloggers and distribute Monopoly money to be exchanged for exciting spicy goods. The lovely Lady Sybil and I arrived quite late, having already been to a wine tasting at Didsbury Lounge (more of which another time), but were quickly provided with a tray of Mother Clucker Chicken Suckers: fried buttermilk chicken wings served with tortilla chips and salsa. These lasted about fifteen seconds, they were so good.

For mains, we pooled our ten pound Monopoly notes and went for a Burrito with ground beef and beans, and a Pasadena Mother Clucker Chicken Burger - spicy fried chicken in a brioche with chilli mayo and jalapenos. The burrito was just as good as I remembered it being, although with the added advantage of being consumed sitting down, with cutlery, and therefore remaining almost entirely out of my hair (almost - you have to acquire these kinds of skills gradually, after all). The burrito itself was a large, satisfying affair, properly crispy on the outside and packed generously with beef; the accompanying refried beans and crema salad also went down well. I preferred this dish over the chicken burger which, although tasty and pleasingly lavish with the mayonnaise, just seemed slightly less substantial and, at £7.50, definitely needed the side order of seasoned fries at an additional two quid.

Still, this remains an excellent menu that I would be happy to eat pretty much anything from - especially the Fish Tacos, which were on as a special but which I resisted because I had them recently at the Indy Man Beer Con. I include a picture of them here so that you may admire the full gorgeousness of Margo & Rita's food in daylight, and as an apology to the lovely Mark and Diane for taking such murky photos of my dinner last week. One day, we will have it all - clean hair AND bright photos; for now, I can but dream...

Margo & Rita can be found at The Beagle, Chorlton every day except Monday - you can lust over the full menu here. We were not asked to pay for our food (well, we were, but with pretend money that we had been given) but would have done so, gladly.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Round 4 of the Mullen Bartending MLeague: White Whisky and Doggy Treats at Tusk

Over the last couple of years I have become an increasingly enthusiastic whisky drinker. The process began when I was persuaded to take part in a Liquorists whisky trail, and although there are still plenty I don't like - namely those nasty ones that smell like TCP - I would now consider whisky to be one of my drinks of choice (particularly if it's bourbon, or has ginger ale with it).

Turns out that I'm not quite ready yet for white whisky though. The spirit of choice for round 4 of the Mullen Bartending Northern Quarter cocktail league last Wednesday was Buffalo Trace White Dog, an unaged whisky weighing in at 62.5% ABV and frankly a little much for a panel of lady judges who all had work in the morning. The competition was hosted by Tusk with six bars taking part - and they had all clearly been working hard on their creativity, as the following pictures will show. My favourite presentation of the night was the Stag, Maple and Moonshine, which arrived with a selection of what we thought looked a little like dog treats (fittingly, considering the name of the brand) but which turned out to be candied bacon - you can see the judges' doggy treats in the third picture here. We also very much enjoyed the marmalade on toast that came with number four, the Cowboy's Breakfast, although this is perhaps now starting to say more about the greed of the judges than their whisky-judging credentials. The winner on the night though was the White Cookie, made by Simple, and an unsurprising favourite considering the blatent bribery tactic of stuffing it full of Oreos - it's the second picture here.

Overall, we felt that all the bars had done well with what was a pretty challenging spirit, and thanks must go to Tusk for hosting what turned out to be a pretty splendid (and raucous) night. The next MLeague round is on Wednesday 6th November at Walrus, and as the spirit of the night will be Remy Martin VSOP, I'm looking forward to it already...

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Opus One Bar & Restaurant: Afternoon Tea Menu Proves that Local Girl is no Gentleman

When it comes to food, I am not easily beaten. Nor do I believe that women should be expected to pick at their food as if they were tiny, hungerless woodland creatures, purely on account of being female. So when I was invited to try the Afternoon Tea menu at Opus One, the standalone restaurant housed in the Free Trade Hall at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel, there was really only one option for me. Yes, the venue is stunning (more of that later); yes, there was a lovely jazz band making beautiful music; yes, I did have a pretty nice dress on. But did I want the Gentleman's Afternoon Tea rather than the Traditional? Oh yes - it's easy to forget you're a lady when there's pies to be had.

To be fair, both looked pretty tempting. The Traditional Afternoon Tea offers a pot of tea, a selection of finger sandwiches, mini cakes (today's were banoffee tart, an individual carrot cake and a dinky little chocolate eclair), and two homemade scones (one plain, one fruit) served with clotted cream and strawberry jam - all well and good, until you see what is on offer to Manchester's gentlemen. The scones and pot of tea remain the same (I had an excellent loose leaf Earl Grey), but the dainty sandwiches are replaced with a more "rustic" offering and the cakes are replaced with a hot Yorkshire pudding filled with beef and gravy, a warm pork pie and a small dish of fish, chips and mushy peas.

Most of it was as good as it sounds - I particularly enjoyed the pie (which was so good I took my non-pie-loving friend's home in a box thoughtfully provided by the lovely staff), the Yorkshire pudding was pleasingly crispy, and the scones were about as fresh as could be, still warm from the oven. In fact, the only mild letdown was the sandwiches, which were a little unexciting - I was brought cheese (rather thin on, erm, cheese), ham and beef, and next time would specifically ask for what I wanted in order to pre-empt the crushing disappointment of there being no egg one. Elsewhere there were one or two tiny glitches; the food took a long time to come (even allowing for the fact that we had ordered items specifically stated to arrive warm), and our table was missing tongs for the sugar and a knife for the scones - little details, admittedly, but ones you'd expect a 5* hotel to get right.

Still, the venue is lovely - the Free Trade Hall has been an important part of Manchester since it was built in 1853, and Opus One is nothing if not opulent, with the red velvet walls and black gloss of the main restaurant and the slightly more pared-back comfort of the terrace area where we partook of our manly feast. And here, I must hang my head in shame - I was beaten by the sheer quantity of the food and was forced to leave several items (much to my chagrin), obviously on account of my dainty ladylike appetite. Bearing this in mind, I think the Afternoon Tea Menu offers good value for money at £18.95 - particularly as you can snaffle the Traditional for a mere £12.50 until October 27th (details here).

So, a lovely afternoon, and one that proved I am indeed a lady. Well, if only I hadn't stopped for a quick pint at Brew Dog and then snarfed a pork pie on the tram on my way home...

- Opus One Bar and Restaurant is in the Free Trade Hall, Peter Street, Manchester M2 5GP; tel 0161 8358904.