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Saturday, 26 January 2013

Livebait, Manchester: Grand Old Lady of Albert Square Back on Form

Now, if you have even a passing interest in a/ food and b/ social networking sites, you have probably noticed that Manchester's food bloggers have been out in force recently. And every single one of them seems to have been to Livebait, that venerable old fish restaurant that perches (sorry) so elegantly on one corner of Albert Square. You may well have mixed feelings about this - "oh," you are perfectly entitled to think whilst steeling yourself once again for a timeline full of of fishy finery, "I see another blogger has been for a free meal - how nice for them." On the other hand, there does seem to be a great deal of interest in how Livebait is currently doing - this used to be one of my favourite restaurants, and the affection I still feel for this classy dame is clearly shared by many others. It did undeniably go downhill a few years ago - I had a bad experience there with both food and service, and many others have reported similar problems - but I do think there is a general feeling of wanting Livebait to be back on top where it belongs. And after last night's visit, I am pleased to report that it very very nearly is.

The flurry of blogging invitations has been issued courtesy of Manchester Confidential, who have been proclaiming for some time that the new management (the Edinburgh-based Cafe Fish) and new chef (David Spanner) have made Livebait a must-visit dining destination once more. Certainly the restaurant was pretty busy last night considering the weather - the snow had finally hit the North, and I don't think I'm exaggerating one iota when I say that I now fully understand how Captain Scott must have felt when he ventured into the snowy wastes in search of adventure, immortality and a decent restaurant reservation. And indeed, the starters are just stunning, and fully justify the visit on their own: we go for a half dozen tempura oysters, the salt and pepper squid with chilli dipping sauce, and the deep-fried whitebait with aioli. I am happy to eat any kind of oyster served in any kind of way, but these - in a light batter with a sexy lemony pickle hiding underneath - prove particularly husband-friendly (he is from Wigan, and considers there are few foods that cannot be mightily improved by being battered and deep-fried), particularly when the thoughtful waiter brings over some Tabasco just to make them even more piquant. Mr Liz feels the whitebait could be a touch crisper but I disagree - they have a perfect dusting of crisp crumb and a beautiful flavour, as do the salt and pepper squid, which we agree are pretty much spot on. So far, so excellent.

Then on to mains. What I really want is the lobster, but even I don't have the brass neck to order the most expensive dish on the menu when on a freebie (and I fear for the safety of the rather nice LK Bennett dress I am wearing should I start wrestling with a large, potentially splattery crustacean). Instead I go for another dish which sounds just lovely - the tagliatelle with clams, served up in a tomato, garlic and chilli sauce. This is a tremendous disappointment. It's not that it's bad - it isn't: I eat it and wouldn't dream of sending it back. But it's bland, lacking the bite that should come with any chilli-spiked dish, and the ratio of clams to pasta is a little on the mean side. Meanwhile, across the table, Mr Liz - who I had mocked for what I considered to be a low-brow choice of line-caught haddock, deep-fried in batter and served with enormously fat chips and tartare sauce - is having the last laugh by devouring every scrap of what is a simply superb piece of fish, beautifully cooked. I am jealous, and behave badly by eating his side dish of excellent mushy peas while he is chivalrously topping up the wine glasses.

Fortunately, the final course cheers me up again. We share the £7 dessert tasting plate, recommended by our waiter and consisting of fairly generous portions of vanilla cheescake, lemon posset and chocolate pave: they are all very well executed, although why restaurants serve desserts in pots that are too small to fit your big greedy spoon into is beyond me. I also cannot resist trying the cheese board - for £10 you can have a chunk of each of the four cheeses on the menu, with each one accompanied by its own individual chaperone: lemon chutney with the Brie de Meaux, candied almonds with the oak smoked cheddar, beetroot chutney with the Stilton and a pleasingly alliterative membrillo with the Manchego. I think this is a great idea and am quite ridiculously excited by it - all the pairings work beautifully, and even the cheddar (of which I am not normally a fan) is interesting and distinctive in flavour. All of this is washed down with a bottle of stunning Sicilian white, the peachy Planeta Cometa Fiano at £37 - recommended by a friend and something I would definitely buy next time.

So, overall the signs for the new-style Livebait are more than promising. Prices are good, with most starters around £6 and many mains available around the £12-£15 mark (although Mr Liz will have to start saving for that lobster), and the restaurant clearly has faith in the quality of their food and cooking to be brave enough to invite in great hoards of greedy bloggers. Disappointed about my meh main? Yes, undeniably. But I'm also pleased to see an old friend getting its act together again - and I'm already planning whether I can justify a lunch consisting entirely of oysters and cheese...

- Livebait is at 22 Lloyd Street, Manchester, M2 5WA.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Manchester's Whim Wham Cafe Offers Warming Winter Welcome to Intrepid Arctic Diners

Now, before you turn away in boredom and petulance, I will make it clear from the start that this is NOT a blog post about the weather (nor will there be any horse jokes, but that's a whole other story) - we've all seen quite enough pictures of cheery-cheeked souls having tremendous fun sledging, having snowball fights etc etc whilst we weary Manchester folk go about our normal business in our traditional annual millimetre of wintery precipitation. I do have to remark, however, that it was quite ridiculously cold last night, with the sort of biting, icy wind that makes you want to curl up on the sofa, in pyjamas, with some kind of hot beverage; certainly the sort that gets you wishing that you didn't have a restaurant reservation, booked during the comparatively balmy climes of last weekend.

So I thought, briefly, about cancelling. But there are a handful of bars and restaurants that I would brave any kind of weather for, and one of them is The Whim Wham Cafe on Manchester's Whitworth Street West - so, thankfully, the booking survived. I've written about this charming little gin saloon many times before: it offers a small but perfect selection of dishes made from proper, artisan ingredients (local where possible), a number of lovingly crafted gin cocktails, live music, and an owner - Alix - who is never less than impeccably turned out (I note in passing that Mr Liz was also extremely well-turned out last night, and put this down to "the Alix effect" - an added bonus).

We started last night with a swift gin cocktail. There are two long, spritzer-style drinks on the menu, so I had the Gin Wham (gin, ginger wine, ginger ale - and remember, ginger is a star food *healthy, virtuous face*) while Mr Liz had the Cherry Lips (gin topped up with a frisky, fruity combination of cherry and blackberry *healthy, virtuous etc etc) whilst we perused the menu (which I actually know off-by-heart, but had to peruse again in order to justify cocktail). There are always nice things to be had on the Specials Board, and the Potted Wild Rabbit called seductively to me from the Small Plates specials (not literally - rabbits are not really ones for much talking, particularly once potted). This turned out to be a great choice - gamey, shredded meat packed into a ramekin and served with bread and the Whim Wham's legendary homemade Piccalilli. Mr Liz went for the Baby Leaf Salad of Mrs Kirkhams Smoked Lancashire Cheese and Balsamic Bacon with Chilli Marinated Beetroot (yes, I HAVE copied and pasted all that) and this also proved a surprisingly wise option on such a cold night, with the salady ranks swelled by generous amounts of good, salty cheese and bacon and warmed by some pleasingly fiesty beetroot.

On to the mains (or Big Plates, in Whim Wham parlance), and for me there was no looking beyond the Shredded Pork in GB Sauce, served with baby baked potatoes, bread and apple and fennel coleslaw. The GB Sauce is described as "A blend of Great British ingredients, including ginger beer, cider, honey & Worcester Sauce", and mighty fine it is too: fruity, sweet, tangy and - reluctantly - shared with a waiting Mr Liz. Meanwhile, he went straight to the Page of Pie and chose the Classic Cheese and Onion - these are supplied by one of our favourite Pie Men (Neil at Great North Pie Co) and are all terrific, particularly served up with the satisfyingly wintery mound of mash and peas seen here seconds before being converted to the kind of fuel required to get us safely home in such cold conditions.

We shared a pudding, not because we were in any way still hungry, but because a/ the Sticky Toffee Pudding at the Whim Wham is ace, and b/ for an extra pound they will serve it with a scoop of ice-cream from another of our favourite food producers, Gingers Comfort Emporium. We like the Salted Caramel and Peanut Butter Ice Cream - aka Chorlton Crack; it is even nicer than it sounds, and perfectly acceptable even in Arctic conditions.

Food prices are pretty reasonable at the Whim Wham, with Small Plates around a fiver and Big Plates mostly between £10 and £12 - portions are generous, and it's worth keeping an eye-out for pre- and post-theatre dining offers. And the best thing? I don't know whether it was the welcome, the food, the gin or the wine, but our journey home was DEFINITELY less cold - I reckon with the application of just one more wine jacket, I'll have this winter weather sussed...

- The Whim Wham Cafe is at Arch 64, Whitworth Street West, Manchester, M1 5WQ.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

SoLIta's Big Manc Burger: Guilty Pleasures Just Got CLASSY

Now, whilst my body is normally something akin to a temple, I must admit to the occasional guilty pleasure. I still, for example, have a craving for Butterscotch Angel Delight from time to time, despite the fact that a/ it is no longer 1986 and b/ I am now old enough to know better; similarly, Mr Liz marked my departure for a holiday to Italy without him one year not by filling the house with scantily clad ladies but by purchasing and furtively consuming a Fray Bentos pie. Surely the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures, though, is *whispers* the dreaded M-word, the place with the golden arches; NOTHING good can come of a visit here, and yet somehow, it continues to exert its pull over most of us on an at least occasional basis - often on those dark, grey days when perhaps too much wine has been consumed and some kind of emergency fat/protein/carbohydrate package is required, urgently.

Anyway, in a completely unrelated train of thought, SoLIta - that estimable purveyor of all that is good, and tasty, and can be slapped on an Inka grill - has a new burger. It's called The Big Manc, and Mr Liz - quite a Big Manc himself - wanted it the second he saw it, pictured here in all its mighty glory one morning on the SoLIta Twitter feed, towering over some other, clearly inferior burger:

So we had one each for Sunday lunch last weekend, and it was amazing. Two six ounce beef patties, nicely charred on the outside and blushingly pink on the inside, shredded ice-berg lettuce, home-made pickles (the gherkin always was my favourite bit) and generous amounts of the richly addictive "Big Manc" sauce, all served up in a light, sweet brioche bun brushed with smoked butter and then sprinkled with toasted seeds. Oh, and some of SoLIta's almighty fries on the side, just in case one remained still hungry afterwards. It was quite simply the most enjoyable burger I have ever had, and although on the edge of too expensive for a burger at £14.50, I enjoyed every last, heart-stopping (perhaps literally) mouthful of it. Indeed, when the waiter took my plate away he at first refused to believe it had ever held a Big Manc burger - "that's the best I've seen a girl do" he said, bringing about my proudest moment of 2012 without a doubt.

The Big Manc burger is a special, and as is the way of SoLIta, it is unclear how long it will remain on the board of glory - to be on the safe side, you'd better go and have one this weekend. Now, if I can just persuade them to serve up Butterscotch Angel Delight for pudding, I think I'll really have found my guilty food nirvana...

- SoLIta is on Turner Street in Manchester's Northern Quarter, M4 1DW; tel. 0161 839 2200.