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Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Mark Addy Gourmet Night: A Tale of Two Ducks

On the whole, Manchester is a pretty sleek, sexy, sophisticated sort of city. It has all the pre-requisites to qualify as a grande dame of the very highest order: a smoky, turbulent past; art and culture beyond reproach; a fleet of interesting places to eat and drink; clever, witty inhabitants with an eye for a short hem and an excellent shoe - everything that a thriving, cosmopolitan sort of place should have. And yet there's no getting away from the fact that many of Manchester's excellently shod urban foxes will spend a large portion of tomorrow - Good Friday - freezing by the side of the River Irwell cheering on a number of small plastic ducks as they drift haplessly towards the finish line; and yes - I will be one of them, for Friday 29th March sees the return of the annual Manchester Duck Race. You can read more about it here, and it's not too late to buy yourself a duck or two; just be aware though, that my duck has had a sniff of the fact that the top prize is Kurt Geiger vouchers and has therefore promised me that it will be first across the line.

Anyway, one way of keeping warm whilst watching our tiny plastic friends do battle is to shelter inside the ever-welcoming Mark Addy, whose window seats offer an excellent view of the whole shebang. Talking of the Addy - and of ducks - we were there last night for March's Gourmet Night, the monthly six-course extravaganza that sees chef Robert Owen Brown unleash a succession of unusual animal parts upon excited diners for the bargain price of £30. Take a look at this lot and tell me it isn't a wonder to behold (well, as much as one can behold ANYTHING in the Addy's rather intimate lighting):

1. Duck Egg with Broad Beans, Sea Salt, Parmesan Crisp and Bearnaise Sauce. We used to get duck eggs very occasionally as a treat when I was a kid, and I find they have lost little of their allure - far larger and richer than the poultry (sorry) offering a hen can produce, this course was a joy from start to finish.

2. Wild Garlic, Manchester Mascarpone and Beetroot Salad. Soft, white cheese and fat, earthy beetroot is a winning combination at any time; when that cheese is a richly dense, homemade affair and you add handfuls of rampant greenery that would have any vampire running for the hills however peckish they might be, it becomes positively sublime.

3. Crab and Shellfish Pie. Joint best course of the night for me: tiny crabs and other sea-based brethren swimming merrily in a rich broth - thoughtfully topped with puff pastry (seen here both top on and top off, a little like a convertible) to stop them escaping anywhere other than into my mouth. I'm a little ashamed to say that there was a spare one of these, and it was me who ate it *waits for cries of surprise*

*still waiting*

4. Savoury Duck. Don't worry, little plastic friends - this was not a real duck at all, but a gloriously big fat meaty faggot topped with a fetching toupee of sweet onions. I have two observations here: firstly, I like how the darkness of this photo makes the faggot look a little threatening as it swaggers meatily into shot; and secondly, the beautiful Lucy Hope, chanteuse extraordinaire, shimmied in from a singing job at this point, resplendent in sequinned evening gown and full make up, and proceeded to trough three of these fine fellows in all her exotic finery *nods approvingly*.

5. Roast Rabbit Loin. Simple but good, this one - tender bunny served alongside the spoils of his own vegetable thieving.

6. Eccles Cake with Lancashire Cheese. If you've never had cheese with some kind of baked good, I suggest you try it immediately - this dainty little Eccles cake soon found itself astride a great wedge of cheese and looking a whole lot less prettily dignified. It did not mind, however, for it knew that its sweet, jammy fruitiness could only be improved by such a holy union.

So, one of the best yet? I would say so - and I'm very much looking forward to being back at The Addy tomorrow to cheer my very own little duck, savoury or otherwise, over the finishline.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Damson Media City: Local Girl Embraces Change (and Meets Petra)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't like change. Mr Liz never ceases to mock me mercilessly about this (quite unfairly, considering that I have never taken his name in vain IN MY LIFE), finding it funny, for example, that I like my tea from particular mugs depending on the time of day - despite this being perfectly normal behaviour. Thus I had reservations about the new Damson restaurant at Media City, which opened to such universal acclaim a few weeks back: yes, of course I was pleased for the mighty team of Steve Pilling and Simon Stanley at landing such an impressive flagship, but equally, the Damson I know and love is in Heaton Moor, and this fancy new upstart needn't think it would be turning my head any time soon.

Well I went today, for lunch - and my head was turned so much it virtually fell right off. This is a simply gorgeous space, sitting proudly on the edge of the Piazza right next to the BBC and overlooking the Blue Peter garden. "Look," said Steve, casually gesturing out of the window next to our table, "there's Petra" - little realising how exciting it would be for a child of the 70s to eat their lunch in sight of their second-favourite-dead-dog-from-yesteryear (after Shep, of course). Inside, Damson Media City is exactly the same as Damson Heaton Moor - the same colours, same comfortable seating, same enticing wall made entirely of wine - but bigger, and newer, and better: I'm already in discussion with all my female friends about pretending it's someone's birthday sometime soon so that we may book the chef's table that you see here.

But of course, we've come for the food, not to loll about on velveteen banquettes (tempting as this may be) - Chef Stanley had tweeted the previous day about the set price Sunday lunch (£15.95 for two courses, £18.95 for three) and with typical suggestibility I'd been thinking about it all night. The menu changes regularly (a sample one is up on the website), but for my starter today I had creamed puy lentils with roasted Jerusalem artichokes & salsify, crispy egg, potato and truffle foam. It has taken me considerably longer to type that than it did to eat it - lentils and Jerusalem artichokes are amongst my favourite things, a list to which I now add "crispy egg" - you see it here before I broke through its crunchy coating and allowed its perfectly runny yolk to saturate the already rich lentils. It's this kind of almost casual skill that makes Damson so special, particularly as they serve all of this up in portion sizes that even Mr Liz approves of. He was most impressed with his potato & parmesan gnocchi (a relief, considering that he whispered to me "what exactly ARE gnocchi?" once the waiter had taken his order), served with sauteed wild mushrooms with parsley & garlic, slow cooked egg yolk, salted crushed hazelnuts, potato & truffle foam. Yes - he ordered it deliberately, knowing that I would have to type all that out later.

For mains, we both went for a traditional roast - I had the roast leg of lamb, and Mr Liz had the 28 day aged roast Cheshire beef. Both arrived in a generous pile of thick, pink slices, served with Yorkshire pudding, duck fat roast potatoes (three of), seasonal vegetables (including, excitingly, some kind of creamed sprouts) and Simon's superlative gravy. These options both attract a £3 surcharge on top of the set price menu but I would suggest they are worth every penny - and the rest of the restaurant's diners seemed to agree, as I couldn't see a single person who wasn't sat behind a giant globe of batter, emitting small noises of unfettered joy at discovering it to be filled with parsnips.

These two peerless courses came in at £56, including two pints of lager, a gin and tonic and a glass of wine - there are undoubtedly slightly cheaper places in Manchester to have Sunday lunch, but I would venture there are none better. And yes, that's right - TWO courses, as I daintily declined dessert on the grounds of having the appetite of a tiny bird. If only I hadn't eaten a thickly buttered hot cross bun as soon as I got home...

Damson Media City is above Prezzo on the Central Piazza, Orange Building, MediaCity, Salford M50 2HF; now I've found them, I fear they may never be rid of me.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Hard Rock Cafe, Manchester: The Legendary Burger Fights Back

When I was eleven, I went up to London for the day with a friend and her father. We had, of course, been breathlessly excited about the trip for weeks, poring over our Just 17 pull-out guide to London like country mice who had been invited to dine with the Queen, and planning outfits that would have the whole of the city agog at our flair and elan, utterly undaunted by the small fact that our wardrobes consisted largely of C & A jeans and Chelsea Girl blouson jackets. And I would love to say that the highlight of the trip was something erudite, and cultural, and academically enlightening - the V & A, perhaps, or The British Museum - when actually the best moment of the trip (if not of our entire lives up until that point) was eating at The Hard Rock Cafe.

The intervening years since these heady, youthful days have seen Manchester get a Hard Rock Cafe of its own, one of the few jewels in the crown of the largely unloved Printworks development that opened its draughty doors more than a decade ago, and actually the largest Hard Rock in the UK. And of course, I used to go - we all did. But more recently, my head has been turned by other, newly fashionable parts of the city, with their jam jar cocktails and their dirty, filthy burgers and their ironic chickens in baskets, and I have visited Hard Rock no more. Now, quite rightly, the venerable giant has decided to remind us all that actually, Hard Rock have been making burgers in the UK since 1971 and are pretty good at it too, by throwing down the gauntlet and declaring their legendary burgers the best in town. Did I want to investigate this further? Hell yes.

The place is quiet when we arrive soon after 6 on a freezing cold Tuesday night, but we are soon safely ensconced in an all-American booth, located under a very 80s Bowie suit in a glass case - fittingly, considering that the great man has gone to number one in the hit parade the previous day. I am accompanied by ace cocktail reviewer The Liquor Chick (more from her later), and Mr Liz, who has heard the word "burger" and invited himself along: for we are here not only to try the cocktails but also to sample mini versions of all nine of the burgers on the Hard Rock menu. They arrive in three sets of three, irresistably arranged on original long players very much in keeping with such a musically themed location (Mr Liz is saddened to eat from Simply Red in round one; I am triumphant when Whitney arrives bearing my final platter): here they are, listed in order of my preference:

1. Hickory BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger, basted with Hickory Bar-B-Que sauce and topped with caramelised onions, crisp seasoned bacon and melted Cheddar cheese. If there's one thing I like, it's summat moist on my burger; if it's the sweet-yet-punchy Hard Rock Bar-B-Que sauce then so much the better - and the onions are perfectly sticky as they meld with the gooey cheese. We all like this one, very much.

2. Red, White & Blue Burger, laced and grilled with spicy Buffalo sauce and Cajun Seasoning, then topped with crumbled blue cheese and a crisp fried onion ring. I'm a bit of a sucker for blue cheese, but even Mr Liz (a confirmed blue cheese sceptic) enjoys the combination of the salty, tangy cheese and meaty burger.

3. California Burger - a toasted bun brushed with Ranch dressing, fresh cucumber slices, lettuce, tomato, freshmade Hard Rock Guacamole and topped with Monterey Jack cheese. A surprise bronze medal here - I like the hint of healthiness from the salad and the coolness of the Ranch dressing (and again, lovely and moist).

4. S.O.B. Burger, basted with spicy Chipotle Pepper puree and topped with Montery Jack cheese, served on a buttered-toasted bun with Hard Rock Guacamole & grilled onions. Nice and spicy, this one - the S.O.B. officially stands for "South of the Border", although it seems that customers have been suggesting alternate meanings for the acronym attached to this saucy fellow.

5. Mushroom & Swiss Burger, smothered with sautéed mushrooms and topped with two slices of Swiss cheese. A classic combination - it shouldn't (and doesn't) go wrong.

6. Local Legendary Burger. All Hard Rocks offer a burger unique to their particular location; for Manchester, it's a deconstructed lamb hotpot - aka a lamb burger topped with carrot and onion (and photographed here in all its topless glory).

7. Legendary 10 oz. Burger, topped with seasoned bacon, two slices of Cheddar cheese, a crisp fried onion ring, lettuce, tomato, and pickles. This famous old fellow is languishing slightly towards the bottom of the leader board PURELY because it's so traditional - it is delicious, and would be higher if my head headn't been turned by fancy blue cheese et al.

8. Veggie Leggie - a grilled patty topped with a grilled Portabello mushroom, courgette, yellow squash and roasted red pepper. Apparently, vegetarian customers sometimes try to send this back because it's so satisfyingly meaty tasting, and the vegetables that come with it are stunning - one of my favourite things of the night.

9. The Big Cheese, topped with three thick slices of American, Monterey Jack, Cheddar or Swiss Cheese. This one is last for me purely because I find it slightly dry - Mr Liz, who prefers less sauce to me (in pretty much every sense) very much likes it.

Now I must obviously point out that we were invited in to try these special mini versions of the main menu as guests of the restaurant - the 10 oz. monsters from the full menu will obviously be very different from what you see here (although presumably no less delicious). We were privileged enough to have a chat with Head Chef Anthony, as well as try an exclusive new cocktail (The Liquor Chick is going to tell you about this in a moment), but every customer in what is a full restaurant by 8 is clearly having a very excellent time too - we are particularly impressed by our lovely server Jo, who is happy to chat burgers with us at every opportunity. I have already been trying to decide which full size burger I will be trying first when I go back as a paying customer, as I'm pretty sure I can't manage nine of the 10oz ones (although I fear this is the kind of thing Mr Liz will view as a healthy sort of Man v. Food challenge). Truth be told, though, it's no real surprise that Hard Rock do a good burger; what we ARE pleasantly surprised by is the quality of the cocktails. So with no further ado, I'll remind you that Hard Rock Cafe Manchester can be found on Exchange Square, M4 2BS, and hand you over to my knowledgeable friend...

*wavy lines on screen, different voiceover starts*

The fear with an iconic brand like Hard Rock is that it’s been around so long it would be all too easy to fall into the same old routine and keep things ‘ticking along’ as they are, using the term ‘retro’ as a means of attempting to appear ‘trendy’ when it really means ‘we’re too lazy to change anything’. But NO, unlike a lot of iconic chains, Hard Rock IS trendy and IS exactly the type of thing we need in our cosmopolitan city centre lifestyles.

Gone are the days of the Harvey Wallbanger and cocktails with simple flavours and the same old ingredients, Hard Rock knows how to keep it fresh. NOW, we have the Raz Rita. A gorgeous twist on the traditional Margarita, with Jose Cuervo Gold Tequila, triple sec, Monin Raspberry and fresh raspberries *in love*. We were also lucky enough to try the Gini Hendricks, showcasing the immaculate taste of Hendricks gin, made on our very doorstep by one of Manchester’s Hard Rock Cafes Bartenders (take a bow, Nathan) and going global in the next few months *proud*.

And it didn’t stop there, we also tried a number of other cocktails including the Raspberry Lemonade, Southern Rock, Hurricane, Mixed Berry Lemonade, Pomegranate Martini, Purple Haze, Triple Platinum Margarita and the Mosh pit. And there wasn’t one I didn’t like *plans to return and consume all 28 cocktails on the menu*. Want to know the best thing of all? With an array of different Gins, Rums and Tequilas (to mention just a few), you won’t find them using all the same brands of spirit time and time again *permits oneself a few extra cocktails for the sake of ‘trying out’ a few more spirits* . The cocktails are all reasonably priced and you can even pay for it to be served in your very own Hard Rock souvenir glass.

Don’t get me wrong, this place still has all the things that make Hard Rock one of a kind; the rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia and the classic American diner feel that the owners set out to achieve over 40 years ago. It’s got a chilled out rock ‘n’ roll vibe with a unique city centre atmosphere. EVERYTHING you could possibly ask for in a social hub like this and more importantly... great drinks *in heaven*.

Monday, 18 March 2013

New Peroni Vivi in Stile App: Local Girl Goes to Carluccio's, and Browns, and Discovers is TECHNO WHIZZ

Now, whilst I like to think I can turn my hand to most things, I am not necessarily the first person you would think of as your go-to girl for anything to do with technology. I can count on one hand the pieces of kit I have properly loved over the years: my 1980s Sony Walkman, with its squeaky orange foam headphones and voracious battery-devouring habit; the Sky Plus box and the fact that I don't think I've sat through a single TV advert since falling for its charms; and, most recently, my iPhone. I am quite ashamed how much I admire and cosset the last item on this list - I've stopped short of buying it a sparkly outfit, but only just, and I have apps for pretty much everything I never needed to know.

Still, despite these new-found shallows, it was still something of a surprise to be asked to give my opinion of a new app - a pleasant surprise obviously, indicating that someone somewhere had finally realised that I am more than capable of writing about clever and important things, things other than food, drink, shopping and generally gadding about. Until, of course, I noticed that the app - Vivi in Stile - is by Peroni, an excellent beer with which I have more than a passing acquaintance, and aims to provide the hungry and thirsty gadabout with information on the best places to eat, drink and shop in Manchester. Did I want to download and try the app, and report back on it? Well, as such a proposition seemed to involve some selfless eating and drinking in Manchester, I decided to broaden my horizons and push myself to the limit by giving it a go.

First things first - to download and have a look at the app. The content is largely but not exclusively Italian, and offers a list of recommended restaurants, bars, museums, galleries and boutiques in Manchester along with a brief write-up of each one by such local luminaries as Ruth Allen and Katie Popperwell - places are helpfully listed in order of those nearest to your current location. We elected to go with the Italian theme for our first foray by visiting Carluccio's in Spinningfields, although I questioned this at first: surely we should go to new places, that we'd never been to before? Indeed, replied Mr Liz, sporting his best hangdog expression, but I have NEVER been to Carluccio's - you always go with your friends, and leave me at home, and come home stinking of red wine and garlic *sad, mournful face*.

So we went to Carluccio's on a Saturday lunchtime, and found it packed to the gills with a cheerful cross section of the Manchester population - Carluccio's seems to appeal to all age groups, no doubt due in equal measure to its no nonsense Italian food and its pleasingly well-stocked deli section. We shared the Antipasto Massimo at £11.95 - triangles of good, salty focaccia bread, Napoli and Milano salami, roast ham, stuffed chicken, green bean salad, caponata, roast vegetables and olives spread seductively on a bed of slate. We followed this up with Fritto Misto (me) and Bistecca di Bue Con Patate (Mr Liz); or, in English, a massive dish of fried crispy calamari, whitebait, prawns and sea bass fillet served with garlic mayonnaise, and a chargrilled 8oz ribeye steak with rosemary potatoes and pepolata red pepper sauce. The food here is always good, the wine list is pleasingly Italian and the service professional and friendly; I have always liked it here, and now Mr Liz also likes it, and is even sadder he hasn't been before.

In the interests of us both trying somewhere (sort of) new, we also paid a visit to Browns, that venerable old establishment at the top of King Street which began life in 1902 as a banking hall. Last time I came here it was the Athenaeum, a big old smoky pub full of big old smoky people; its new identity as a sophisticated brasserie suits it much better, and although prices seem to have headed skyward since the old days, an hour spent in here listening to a nice man playing the piano and sipping on a glass of good red (me, not the nice man playing the piano - that would be a different talent entirely) is a pleasant one indeed. We were a little taken aback to be charged £9 for a pint of lager and that aforementioned (small) glass of red, but we were impressed with the quality of our plate of bar snacks. These are classy snacks indeed - you choose as many as you want from the chalk board and are charged accordingly; we went for six, including picante peppers stuffed with goat's cheese, salmon, smoked haddock and lobster croquettes, and - best of all - crab crostini. These were all exemplary, but not cheap at £19 for the selection you see here; still, you get what you pay for, and you can always eat Pringles on the couch at home the following night to redress the economic balance.

So, now the review is done, will I use the app again? Yes, I will - it's succinct and well-chosen in its recommendations, and lists a number of interesting-sounding shops that I plan to visit in the near future. The links to each location's own website are also useful - you can browse the list to see what you fancy and then click through to look at menus etc in more detail. I do have to stress that I was under no obligation to be nice about the app, and I would query the rather random inclusion of a few places in the suburbs (for example, one in West Didsbury, one in Chorlton, one in Whalley Range) - surely the app should either be City Centre only, or go the other way and include a more comprehensive list of suggestions for slightly out-of-town places? Still, this is a minor quibble - this is a nice app that would be useful for visitors to the city but also offers up a few new suggestions for the locals. You can download it here for Apple and here for Android; meanwhile, I'm off to add "Techno IT Wizard" to my Linked In profile...

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Cake and Bake Show comes to Manchester: Local Girl Starts Working on her Buns

I think we all understand the benefit of a healthy, balanced diet. Our bodies are temples, and deserve nothing less than to be given a range of the right nutrients, those essential building blocks that help us operate at peak levels of fitness and efficiency at all times. That's why I'm careful to keep an eye on what I eat, and am never less than vigilant when incorporating at least one item from each food group every single day: Prosecco, crisps, cheese and cake.

So it is with great delight (and not a little greedy anticipation) that I note that Manchester is soon to welcome the Cake & Bake Show, the UK's biggest experiential baking event, and one previously reserved for cake-loving London folk only. As someone who has to put life on hold once a year in order to pay full attention to The Great British Bake Off, not only admiring the skills on show in the marquee but also providing a live Twitter commentary on the state of the contestants' buns, this is exciting for me: ALL of the 2012 bakers will be there (including lovely local winner John Whaite, who I reckon would probably be a good friend of mine and rustle up baked goods on my behalf, if only he knew me) as well as Paul Hollywood. Other top names appearing at the show include local boys Simon Rimmer and Andrew Nutter, as well as Eric Lanlard (attractive AND good with pastry) and Dan Lepard - one of the judges on the Australian Bake Off show and therefore hopefully to be tempted into a spot of arm-wrestling with Mr Hollywood in order to settle once and for all who rules at the noble art of baking. A full listing of events can be found here - the show runs from Friday 5th April to Sunday 7th at Manchester Central (just THINK how much cake can be accommodated at this venue), and adult tickets cost £14.50 in advance or £18 on the day (concessions are available).

Anyway, I'm off to practise my Victoria Sponge - I'm sure I won't be the only one trying to impress Lord Hollywood with a slice of something in a Tupperware box...

***disclaimer***I do have to confess that Airy Fairy Cupcakes made this cake, not me - although I reckon I COULD have done it, if only I possessed any actual baking skills.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Nyetimber Sparkling Wine Evening at Aumbry: Local Girl Lured to Deepest, Darkest Prestwich

By and large, I am most content with life in South Manchester. I could swear blind that the temperature drops by at least two degrees when I travel northwards for work every day, we have some pretty decent restaurants, and when we go on holiday I can get a taxi to the airport without making too much of a dent in the cocktail fund. And yet of late, one or two things have been afoot in North Manchester that have made me mutter a little, and suck my teeth in an unattractive manner, and curse a whole raft of far-reaching tales of great bars and unmissable restaurants that have had the temerity to trade at an inconveniently distant location from my own house. And the prime offender? Aumbry.

You'll probably have heard of Aumbry. It's the pocket-sized restaurant that has been quietly garnering awards and accolades since it opened its doors in 2009; last year it was named Restaurant of the Year at the Manchester Food & Drink Awards, and more recently you might have seen head chef Mary-Ellen on The Great British Menu (more of which later). So, undeniably desirable, but in my head many light years away - perhaps down the end of some dirt track, possibly in a distant field, just to the left of "back of beyond" and slightly past "middle of nowhere".

Of course, this is nonsense. Aumbry is in a perfectly lovely converted cottage just off the M60 and right next to the tram station, and provided a gorgeously twinkly haven on Wednesday night when it welcomed me in for a four course menu plus canapes matched with Nyetimber sparkling wine. Here's what I had:

On arrival I was ushered upstairs with a glass of Nyetimber Classic Cuvee, where I sat leafing through a pile of cookbooks (I can pay Aumbry no greater compliment than by confirming that splatters on the pages suggest they are the ONLY people who have actually ever cooked from their copy of Heston's Fat Duck book) and graciously accepting a selection of canapes. My favourite of these was the Bury black pudding scotch egg, made with a still-runny quail's egg and served with homemade mushroom ketchup and tomato sauce: perfection (and yes - it WAS dark upstairs).

Then downstairs to the small but perfectly formed dining area, for potted crab, cucumber jelly and crab bisque pearls served with Nyetimber Rose 2008. I love crab in ANY form, but the real revelation here was the cucumber jelly: tangy, luxuriously glutinous, and perfectly matched with the creamy pink bubbles alongside. One friend has suggested that it looks a little like snot, but I can promise this was not so; and indeed, Mary-Ellen has confirmed this was NOT her intention.

Next, the fish course: a seared, hand dived scallop, served with Granny Smith apple, smoked bacon and lemon thyme foam. The scallop was enormously large, plump and firm, sweetly caramelised on the outside and sexily topped with a piece of crispy bacon, whilst the accompanying 2005 Blanc de Blancs was my favourite wine of the night. The only element I didn't care for was the lemon thyme foam, which sligtly overpowered the other flavours of the dish but was easily pushed to one side, where it ruminated quietly on the error of its ways.

Then, the main of slow cooked wild rabbit, served a-hiding under some braised lettuce with carrot seedlings and English truffle. This arrived with a rich, slightly sweet Blanc de Blancs 2003, which perfectly matched the earthiness of the truffled rabbit. And I loved the Peter Rabbit-esque presentation: lurking under the lettuce in Mr McGregor's vegetable garden certainly didn't stop me from finding him and polishing him off in double quick time.

Finally to dessert, and a Cox's Orange Pippin tart, served with almond and bay and a dainty dollop of frozen yoghurt laced with Heaton park honey. This dense, sweet pastry was paired with the Nyetimber Demi Sec NV, their first non-vintage wine and apparently a runaway success - and no wonder. Over the last couple of years I have been increasingly seduced by English sparkling wines, and I will be seeking out Nyetimber in future - all of the wines served were elegant, approachable, and streets ahead of many of the champagnes on offer in supermarkets across the land.

Last but not least, Petits Fours and an appearance from Mary-Ellen herself. She smiled patiently as I burbled on about the perfection of her food, and looked non-committal as I claimed that all future meals should be free on account of me having taught her charming assistant manager A-Level English a few years ago. If I have one criticism, I would have to acknowledge that if Mr Liz had been allowed to accompany me rather than being callously abandoned at home with a ready meal, he probably would have left slightly hungry. Even I, notorious for having the appetite of, ahem, a tiny bird, had to call for more bread at one point (although, to be fair this happens at most meals - hollow legs). The quality of the food is flawless though, being both inventive in its flavour combinations and perfect in its execution - and it would probably be unfair to judge portion sizes on what was essentially a taster menu. Clearly I'm going to have to make that arduous journey up to deepest, darkest Prestwich more than a few times in the future, just to really, really make sure; indeed, I rather wish that I was going to be there next Friday, the 15th March, for Aumbry are holding a Comic Relief fundraising dinner to showcase all four of Mary-Ellen's Great British Menu dishes. In case you've been living under a rock, Mary-Ellen's witty menu was as follows:

Starter: Baked Bean Bath Tub

Fish: Northern Sole

Main: Milk Fed Goat with Pearl Barley, Cauliflower & Fresh GoatCurds

Dessert: Chamomile Lawn

The charity evening has - unsurprisingly - already sold out, apart from two pairs of tickets that are to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. You can bid for them here, and quite simply if you can afford it, you should. Yes, you'll get to eat exquisite, interesting food designed and cooked by a top chef; yes, you'll feel that warm glow of having done something good, and generous, and noble. But to cap it all? You can't put a price on missing an evening of Lenny Henry on your TV screen...

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Special Match of the Day Highlights Package...only with Damson, The Mark Addy and Bobby's Bangers in Place of Lineker and, erm, the Other Ones

Now, I must make it totally clear from the start that everything you're about to read about in this blog post is ABOLUTELY deserving of its own, individual write-up. The reason they are all sharing is as a kind of service to you, the reader, who has a busy life to negotiate and will surely appreciate the time efficiency of one, glorious foodie package; think of it as a kind of Greatest Hits tape, or an episode of Match of the Day. It is NOT - and again, I must make this totally clear - because I only have the time to write one blog post this weeked; no, definitely not that. At all. You're welcome.

Anyway, last Wednesday was Gourmet Night at The Mark Addy, most usually notable for the all-day discussion it prompts among my colleagues: what part of which animal will Robert Owen Brown be fricasseeing tonight for Liz's delectation? This time, though, Mr Liz and I had a hot date with Royton sausage royalty in the form of Mr and Mrs Bobby's Bangers (otherwise known as James and Heather), and the highbrow conversation du jour naturally revolved around exactly what kind of sausage I was likely to be slipped under the table (Italian and Mushroom & Garlic, if you're interested). Truth be told, we had feared for our lives a little - ROB had promised us an adventurous menu, and it did indeed seem a serious possibility at one point that a whole head of Shergar might appear and we would be forced to chow down on a raw banger or two instead. Of course, the menu was amazing - six splendid courses for thirty of your English pounds, with the standout dish being the Kentucky Fried Squirrel that ROB had put on especially for me after my epic sulk at missing out on the KF Rabbit last month.

1. Hand Dived Scallops with Sea Urchin:

2. "KFC" Style Cheshire Grey Squirrel with Dandelion and Burdock Dipping Sauce:

3. Glazed Red Mullet "Gazpacho" Style:

4. Truffle Roast Squab Pigeon:

5. Warm Ramshackle Curd Cheese (baked inside aniseedy bread to resemble a sea urchin, albeit the biggest sea urchin the world has ever seen):

6. Vanilla Bean Custard Shortbread:

After this feast, I didn't eat out for two whole days; luckily my friend celebrated her birthday last night by having dinner at Damson in Heaton Moor, thereby preventing a dangerous hat trick of nights in. I don't have any pictures here I'm afraid as the evening was far too classy to be let down by a woman snapping away on her frankly very unprofessional iPhone camera; instead, you will have to use your imaginations to decide exactly how nice a starter of grilled scallops, slow cooked middle white pork belly, Bury black pudding croquettes, spiced apple puree and golden raisins might look. I've yet to have a less-than-perfect meal at Damson - the food is really quite special, and the well-chosen flavour combinations mean that I quite literally want to try EVERYTHING off the menu. I eventually settled on the slow cooked lamb with herb crust, served with creamed flageolet beans, roasted garlic and dauphinoise potato, and it was a joy.

I am going to move away from Damson now and hopefully leave you with the impression that my meal ended with that lovely lamb dish, for if it transpired that I actually managed a further two courses then the visit I have just paid to Royton Real Food is going to look more than a little gluttonous, and inaccurately convey the mistaken image that I am a big fat lardy greed face. Royton is my very favourite of all the food markets - it takes place on the first Sunday of every month, and as none of the stalls sell the same items you can do your food shop confident in the knowledge that you won't pay eight quid for a thimbleful of humous at the first stall you come across and then find something much better a few rows down. For my lunch I have just eaten this splendid pulled pork roll with home-made coleslaw and bourbon source from Castro (modelled here by Mr Liz, before being swiftly ripped from his eager hand); indeed, I still have a considerable amount of it on the sleeve of the pale grey Angora cardigan I so prudently selected for such an activity.

We also bought eggs, bread, cakes, and a selection of meaty goodness from the wonderful Coddy's Farm - they alone are worth the drive up to Royton. And this is where this post comes full circle, and I leave you with the image of a man trying to slip me a sausage - only this time, he slipped me a burger as well, but that's a whole other story...