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...