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Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Joy of Pork: an Evening of Piggy Goodness with DineInOut and The Drunken Butcher

Now, ANY event that has an amazing name runs a serious risk of not living up to its title, of bringing nothing but disappointment to its attendees. So when I booked my places on DineInOut's Joy of Pork evening, I was both excited and slightly trepidatious about what the night might bring: a man who makes sausages for a living suggested a glass bowl might be provided for the exchange of car keys; a linguistically-minded friend enquired, bravely, whether this was "pork" as a noun or a verb; other, less-linguistically minded friends merely sniggered and tittered.

Anyway, I'm pleased to confirm that last night's porky celebration was a good one, with not a glass bowl in sight and porcine goodness provided only in its noun form. The evening was hosted by Iain Devine - aka The Drunken Butcher - at his home in Sale; as you've probably guessed by the name, DineInOut arrange nights of restaurant-quality food cooked and served in the chef's own house. You pay a deposit and an envelope is then passed round at the end of the night for further contributions, an idea I plan to introduce at my own gatherings, for whilst my friends invariably turn up with excellent wine I can't help noting that no-one has ever actually coughed up any cash money. Still, I can't lay claim to ever having provided anything like the following for my own dinner guests:

Welcome drink of prosecco, whisky and cherry: a sweet, sparkling affair that I noticed all the boys in attendance drank eagerly despite its alarming pinkness.

Amuse-bouche of chicharrons (fried pork rinds) & chilli, and pork cheeks with soy: these did indeed amuse my mouth most pleasingly, particularly the dark, sticky pig cheeks.
Starter of torchon of pig's head, served with cherry sauce and mustard: I always try to eat pig head as often as possible, simply due to the fact that the very MENTION of such an item sends a particular friend into apoplexy, and this was delicious. As far as I can ascertain, a torchon is a dish cloth in French and refers to a method of cooking foie gras, so I am unsure how this relates to the delicious crispy disc of tenderly pulled meat we were given; I would have asked Iain, but he was making menacing noises with knives in the kitchen at the time.
Main of roast T-bone and loin of pork served with roast potatoes, cauliflower gratin and rosemary & thyme gravy: ah, turns out those knives were to carve us this little pile of piggy joy - the platter you see here was for just four of us. The crackling was spot on, the loin was moist and tender and the gravy was perfect - I would have liked an extra vegetable item such as plain cabbage to cut through the richness but others simply scoffed at such blasphemy, so that's obviously just me. I ate all of my cauliflower gratin and then all of someone else's in a show of greed most unlike me, so that just shows you how good it was.

Pudding of spiced plum and raisin soup served with cinnamon ice-cream: or, as the wise Lady Sybil so accurately described it, mulled wine soup. This was suitably light after the preceding pig mountain, and I could have eaten more of the lovely cinnamon ice-cream that melted so luxuriously in the middle of its fruity ocean.

Finishing dish of homemade Oreo cookies served with a Jim Beam milkshake: every bit as good as it sounds. I'm not keen on Oreo cookies but these were a revelation and far, far nicer than the shop-bought variety; the accompanying milkshake was thick and sweet and good, particularly for a canny Mr Liz who had appointed his loyal wife designated driver and was helpfully on hand to drink her Jim Beam for her.

The DineInOut evenings are BYO, and tap water is provided for those who have drawn the short straw in the ongoing whose-turn-is-it-to-drive argument. This makes them excellent value, particularly as Joy of Pork was ours for just a £10 deposit each and then a further minimum donation of £10 each on the night (we chose to pay more). Iain made for an excellent chef/host, proving particularly adept at wielding knives whilst plying guests with drink, Tania from DineInOut was on hand all night to chat, top up the glasses and generally keep the evening running smoothly, and it goes without saying that the company on the night was superlative. There are more events planned for the DineInOut/Drunken Butcher partnership (and I hear a rumour there might be one place left for tonight's Joy of Pork if you're quick) - you can book via Eventbrite here. And having heard some of the names for events in the pipeline, I can forsee more smut ahead, particularly for the chicken night...

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Fruit 2 You and Lovepickle: Unexpected Eat-at-Home Food Recommendations from Inveterate Gad-about

Now, I'm uncomfortably aware a general perception exists that I am out on the tiles every night, putting away a three course meal here, a tray of cocktails there - and indeed, once a week or so, this may actually be the case. But all the other nights I cook, from scratch (no Findus horsey pancakes here), and have long been an advocate of the smug middle-class vegetable box - for years now I have rushed home on a regular basis to unpack my lastest treasure trove of muddy legumes with all the excitement of a child unwrapping a bike-shaped present on Christmas Day. I'm quite demanding when it comes to vegetable items though, and as a result have already parted company from the big two of the veg box world - one was too mean, one was too inflexible in terms of adapting the box contents (and BOTH were too muddy if we're being brutally honest - it got to the stage where peeling the veg became something of a lucky dip, with the household gathered round eagerly waiting to see what mystery item would finally be - literally - unearthed).

So for the last few weeks I've been dabbling with a new provider, Fruit 2 You. An unfortunate touch of language snobbery means that I can't usually bring myself to purchase from companies who employ letter or number homophones in their names, but this is a local business already used and recommended by several people I know (and trust), so I decided to give them a go. And thank goodness I did. I'm all for eating seasonal, local produce, but the sheer JOY of arriving home from work to a bright jaunty box including a pineapple, an avocado and some peppers made me want to skip round the kitchen singing some kind of hastily-composed song entitled "Mwah-ha! No more muddy parsnips for mee-eee" (although there were some nice, clean vegetable items along with the fruit and the salad). Prices are good for the amount you get (£12.75 for the essential mixed box you see here), and they're nice to deal with - so for now, they've got my custom.

Whilst we're talking about food (and, more specifically, my culinary ability - I'm aware some of you still don't believe me about this), have a little look at this...
The cheeky fella underneath is a chickpea fritter (made by my own fair hands - very easy, from BBC Good Food mag I think), and the reason he is looking so pleased with himself is the fact he is sporting a substantial hat fashioned from a blob of Lovepickle, a spicy Indian chutney made from tomatoes, chillies, ginger and garlic. I must sound the freebie-alert klaxon here and flag up that Lovepickle, an independent business based in Leeds, were kind enough to send me a couple of jars to try - there are four strengths of pickle and I received the mild and the hot (they also do a medium and a - gulp - extra hot). The mild is perfect - all the lusty saltiness of that lime pickle you get in curry houses but without the scary texture or overpowering tang; instead you get the sweetness of the tomatoes, the heat of the fresh chillies and a texture so smooth you could easily, I believe, utilise it as a dip as well as a pickle.

*pretends has not spent the week dipping Pringles straight into pickle jar every time walks past*

The mild packs quite a serious punch, meaning that the hot is a little on the spicy side for me - it has a hefty afterkick that Mr Liz has become most partial to, although even he thinks that the extra hot might be a step too far. Have a look at their website here - I shall certainly be buying from them in future. Now, if I can just find a way to combine this pineapple and these nice clean parsnips with my Lovepickle, I'm on to a winner...

Friday, 8 February 2013

Neighbourhood Restaurant, Spinningfields: Southern Eleven's Little Sister Does the Family Proud

Funny things, families. In theory, if you like one family member, surely you should like them all; and yet, anyone who remembers childhood traumas of being gawped at by a friend's squinty brother or sneered at by her hoity toity older sister will know that this is not necessarily the case. So whilst it sounds like good news that Southern Eleven - one of my favourite casual restaurants in Manchester - has a stylish new little sister just a stone's throw from its own Spinningfields location, those childish fears are not far from the surface: what if the new place - Neighbourhood - is too swanky? What if its size - 200 covers - means it lacks the intimate atmosphere of its pocket-sized relative? What if those higher prices are not matched by a step up in quality from the already excellent food served up with Southern Eleven's very own brand of good-value, stylish hippery?

Well, thanks to an invitation from Manchester Confidential, I met the new family member of James Hitchen's stable on Thursday night, and I can confirm that she is very cool indeed but friendly with it, like someone who's been studying fashion in New York but then remembered her roots and headed back to kick up her heels in her old home town and show the rest of us how it's done. Inspired by the Meatpacking district, Neighbourhood offers a menu that is big on seafood and steak in a location that is pretty breath-taking - the mirrored tables and low-hanging glass lights have just the right combination of bling and insouciance, with the whole thing underpinned by the best playlist I've yet heard in a Manchester restaurant. Honestly - New Order's Bizarre Love Triangle, Human League's Don't You Want Me, Debbie Gibson's Shake Your Love AND Tiffany's I Think We're Alone Now in one heady half hour period? It's like being in that hoity toity older sister's bedroom, and playing her record collection whilst being allowed to apply her lipstick and try on her shoes - only BETTER.

And luckily, the food and drink more than matches up to the high standards set by the location. The prices here ARE considerably more expensive than at the bargainous Southern Eleven, but this is high-end stuff: even the cocktails come with added swanky extras, with my 5th Ave Oppulentini (an opulent martini, of course) arriving chaperoned by a supremely classy crab-fried oyster (yes - an oyster stuffed with generous amounts of spicy crab meat, then covered with crisp breadcrumbs) which sits fatly, smugly, awaiting my attention - and it is sublime. My dinner date chooses the Broadway - a chilli margarita accompanied by a meaty, mustardy toast sidekick - and proclaims the combination to be a triumphant one: these come in at £9.50 a go but are almost a small meal in themselves - a fact which makes the following procession of dinner items even more shameful.

For starters, we toy with the Artisan Board - a hefty assortment of cheeses and cured meats served with sourdough toast, onion pickle and tomato chutney - and a plate of Lobster Tacos, of which I have been dreaming since approximately 8.30 that morning. The Artisan Board is generous and well-executed, with particularly fine chunks of Brie and Stilton, but the Lobster Tacos are in a league all of their own: four soft flour tortillas, each packed with avocado and slaw and then topped with a jaunty beer-battered lobster tail and a drizzle of sweet red pepper sauce. These are quite simply spectacular, with the flavour of the lobster accentuated rather than overpowered by the freshness of the accompaniments; we politely eat two each, both fully aware that either one of us would betray the other in a heartbeat should any sign of weakness or slow-lobster-eating become visible.

The mains are just as exciting. We share a Baked Lobster Mac & Cheese and it is everything we hope it will be - rich, creamy comforting piles of fat-laden carbohydrate punctuated with generous nuggets of lobster and topped with a gloriously runny egg; there's a bit of baby spinach in there as well, just to ensure it remains a healthy and balanced dish. We also try the 8oz Fillet Steak, served rare with a greedy slab of blue cheese on the top and Neighbourhood Fries on the side; this is a stunning piece of meat, fat and quivering and quite ridiculously easy to cut through with our sparring knives - the veneer of polite civility is beginning to wear quite thin in the face of such desirable food. If I'm being picky, I would have preferred the cheese to be crumbled as promised on the menu rather than presented in a single, thick piece; I also think that these extra toppings are a bit steep at £3 a go when you've already paid £22 for your steak and another £3.50 for your fries. Still, we feel the value elsewhere is good considering the quality and the portion sizes. The wine list offers a number of reasonably priced options by the bottle and the glass (we go for an excellent Flagstone South African Pinotage at £27.50), the luxurious Mac & Cheese is £15 and the two starters combined (which, in all fairness, would have fed four people rather than two) come in at £21.

We make a similar mistake, portion-wise, when it comes to dessert.It seems obvious NOW that a pudding that costs £15 is likely to be the approximate size and heft of a small bungalow; and indeed, when the Sweet Tooth Pizzetta - chopped brownies, toasted pecans, marshmallows, ice-cream and caramel sauce atop a frisbee-sized pancake - arrives, we realise that even we have bitten off more than we can chew. We manage about two-thirds of this epic feast, and feel proud when our charming waiter tells us that six old ladies had attempted a similar feat the previous week and managed less than we did (sadly, he had no photographic evidence of what must have been a quite remarkable sight, so we must picture the row of tartan shopping trolleys waiting patiently whilst the six spoons do battle). Service is pitched at just the right level all night - friendly and helpful while remaining entirely professional, no mean feat when the urge to dance along to The Human League must be strong.

So far from letting the family down, Neighbourhood is a triumph. We ate as guests of the restaurant but will go back as paying customers; indeed, a friend is already planning a trip there tomorrow thanks to my lobster-related ravings. I really can't wait to meet the next sibling in this hip, happy family.

- Neighbourhood is on Avenue North in Manchester's Spinningfields.