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Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Mark Addy Gourmet Evening, May 2013: "The Squizza's Demise"

There are many things I enjoy about the monthly Gourmet Night at The Mark Addy: the excellent food, of course, and the element of surprise in not knowing what your six seasonal, local courses will include, and obviously the chance to see all the charming folk at this venerable Salford institution. Truth be told, though, probably my favourite bit of my regular Addy visits is posting the menu on Twitter and Facebook, going off and stuffing my face, and then coming back to look at the trail of comments, which normally veer wildly between jealous approval and open-mouthed horror. And without fail, the course that always prompts the most concern is squirrel.

Why this should be, I'm not entirely sure. Some complain they are vermin; others - perhaps thinking fondly back to the waistcoat-wearing, mystery-solving squirrels of their childhood story books - think they are just too cute to eat. Me? I just think they are delicious - small but with a gamey taste that makes them far more interesting than many blander meats - and so does Robert Owen Brown, for he often puts them on his menu in various inventive guises. Last night it was a squirrel pasty - but you'll have to wait until course two to meet him. Here's the full rundown of what we had:

1. Crispy South Coast Sand Eels with Saffron Mayonnaise. Don't be frightened by the slightly scary-sounding name here - these little fishy friends had just been lightly dusted and then fried in the manner of whitebait, before being served up with a ludicrously thick and sexy mayonnaise for dipping. Portion size was - as you can see - very generous for course one of six; just imagine how greedy it would have been if there had been a spare one, leading someone to eat TWO portions! I know - pretty hard to even picture such gluttony.

*moves swiftly on*

2. Grey Squirrel Pasty. Aha - here is that controversial course, and I think it might just have been my favourite of the night. Tender morsels of tasty, waistcoat-wearing vermin, slow-cooked and then served up in a thick gravy within a sturdy pastry crust - I would have eaten ten if I could.

3. Roasted Arctic Char with Lemon and Chive. Now, the fish course is often the highlight of Gourmet Night for me, but not this time. Yes, this cold-water fish, found in little pockets around the country including Lake Windermere, was perfectly cooked, but I found the flavour a touch on the muddy side and the accompanying sauce a little oily. I still ate it all, mind.

4. Lamb Cutlet with Roasted Shallot. Can't go wrong with this, surely - a fat pink chop served with an equally fat roast shallot in a gravy SO good I was forced to run my finger round the dish just to get every last bit.

5. Strawberry Tart. They do a good pudding at The Addy and this was no exception - a crisp pastry shell filled with cream and strawberries and topped with an exuberant flourish of spun sugar.

6. Farmhouse Cheese. Now, I don't have a picture of this, as I was busy telling Clare Howarth of designsixty4 all about the forthcoming Gastro Club menu at The Addy, but you will all have seen cheese before, so no matter. Suffice to say there was no soft or stinky cheese on this month's platter, and as a result I simply ate thick slabs of excellent butter on my crackers instead, clearly in the belief that I had perhaps not eaten quite enough for one night.

By the way, thanks for the title of this post must go to lovely (vegetarian) Jules from the estimable Good Gobble blog, who has been enquiring worriedly about the squirrel's welfare on Twitter all morning. "Was there a little squirrel inside the pasty?" she enquired tremulously - well yes, Jules, there was, and I ate him, waistcoat and all. I'm afraid rumours of his demise have, in this case, not been greatly exaggerated.

- The Mark Addy is on Stanley Street in Salford, Manchester, M3 5EJ.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Atlas Bar, Deansgate: Local Girl Enjoys the Terrace and Gets to be Debbie Harry

If there's one thing that Manchester enjoys, it's sitting out in the sun. Take yesterday, for example: everywhere with outside seating was packed full of cheerily pink, beer-drinking Mancunians - with my own choice of outdoor fun being the Great Northern Summer Cider Garden, where I was lucky enough to get to play with Tom Sneesby's dog (not a euphemism, incidentally) - but those without outside seating were not to be left out either, and I very much salute the two enterprising souls on my road who had simply moved their dining chairs onto the front step in order to take the air.

By and large, though, it is perhaps more civilised to take advantage of a venue with a garden, or a terrace, that is likely to offer both comfy chairs and the promise of regular cold beer - like the one you see above. This is the covered, heated terrace at Atlas Bar, that iconic old stalwart located under the Deansgate railway arches where I have drunk many a pint over the years; now, though, it's all refurbished, and shiny, and pretty sexy looking - as a friend of similar vintage to myself remarked on seeing the terrace photo, it really has changed.

Whether the changes are for the better will be a matter of opinion, of course - those with fond memories of its slight seediness may find that some of the atmosphere has been lost, particularly since it might attract a different crowd from now on. The south-facing terrace is a huge plus though, and food is back on the menu, and the range of interesting drinks is - if anything - wider than ever, with a particular focus on gin (more than 50 to try - hurrah) and world beers. I also very much enjoy going through a toilet door only identified by a large, gorgeous picture of Debbie Harry (the boys get Michael Caine), which is a huge ego boost to a slightly faded blonde such as myself (I went through the door! It was the right one! Ergo I AM Debbie Harry!) who has had a few drinks.

And if any doubt remains that the old heart of Atlas Bar is still beating safe and sound beneath the refurb, I can confirm that they certainly know how to throw a party. Last Thursday night I danced to 90s tunes, ate pork pies and pickled onions, kissed Bez (who, mysteriously, seemed convinced that Mr Liz was one of his oldest and dearest friends) and drank Aperol Spritzes - which, incidentally, Atlas plan to run an offer on over the summer, with prices looking likely to be set around the £4 mark for a limited period. AND you get to be Debbie Harry or Michael Caine, even after all that gin...

- Atlas Bar is at 376 Deansgate, Manchester M3 4LY; tel. 0161 834 2124.

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Albert Square Chop House: Carlos the Charming Sommelier Enlightens Ignorant but Willing-to-Learn Wino

Now, I think we're all pretty much aware these days that certain wines go harmoniously well with particular foods - even if it's a slightly sketchy knowledge garnered from the wine matches served up on Saturday Kitchen, which are of course tempered anyway by the fact that the (often unknown) celebrity guest has to knock them back at ten in the morning. Still, whilst I might have the best of intentions where food and wine matching is concerned, I'm lucky if I can manage to serve red with steak and white with fish - I just don't run the kind of organised kitchen that has the perfect wine ready to be lined up with its appropriate partner, and am often distracted by the simple fact that I enjoy drinking Prosecco with more or less anything.

Little wonder, then, that the newest addition to the Manchester Chop House family on Albert Square is keen to publicise the excellent sommelier service it offers to all diners. We were equally keen to try it when invited to do so by Manchester Confidential, as we are both big fans of the original Chop Houses - Sam's in particular - with their emphasis on superlative pub classics and remarkably sensible portion size. However, if we were expecting more of the same from The Albert Square Chop House (we were) then we were wrong - this airy new reinvention of the classic 1866 Memorial Hall is streets away from the warm, dark corners offered by its more established brethren (and completely unrecognisable from its last incarnation, when it was the Square Albert Pub). There is a bar upstairs and a large dining area downstairs, the two separated by a floor that appears to float gracefully across the middle of this thoughtfully converted space; there is also an open kitchen and - even better - a lovely smiling sommelier called Carlos. But more (much more) of him later.

First things first: the food. The menu is something of a departure from the other Chop Houses, and for that reason will perhaps disappoint die-hard fans of the brown onion soup or the legendary corned beef hash. Still, we found much here that we fancied, with Mr Liz nobly going for his second choice (the braised ox tongue with parsley, radish and shallots) as his wife (whose blog it is, after all) pulled rank and bagsied his first choice from under his very nose - the seared scallops with slow-cooked belly pork. I thought the scallops were a little on the small side (some form of karmic retribution, perhaps, for insisting on first call), but they were nicely caramelised on the outside and were flattered by three perfect cubes of dense, sticky pork belly. Mr Liz, meanwhile, was delighted with his enforced choice - a serious amount of sliced tongue (which, done right - as this was - is delicious, and should be tried even if the very idea makes you feel a bit squeamish) served with a nicely complex salad with plenty of radish to pep up the comforting blandness of the ox tongue. After we'd ordered, but before the food arrived, the lovely Carlos - a young man from Madrid, in Manchester via Holland - came over to discuss his suggested wine matches with us. I approved whole-heartedly of his recommendation for me, a perky white made from 85% Moscatel and 15% Gewürztraminer with just the right level of floral off-dryness to cut through the rich fattiness of the pork belly without overwhelmimg the scallops. His choice for Mr Liz was inspired, and showed us up for the wine peasants we truly are - my automatic thought for the thick meatiness of ox tongue would be a red, but Carlos' decision to match the radish rather than the meat by partnering it with the Flagstone Noon Gun, a blend of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, proved that actually you should be guided by the dominant flavour of a dish rather than whether it is meat or fish.

On to the mains, then, and Mr Liz's normal go-to dish - the 8oz, 28-day aged Sirloin Steak served with chips and an additional peppercorn sauce. I always choose an Argentine Malbec to go with steak and - hurrah! - Carlos agreed, bringing over a glass of 2011 Etchart Privado. My whole roasted lemon sole, served with Morecambe Bay potted shrimps and a chicory and orange salad, very much enjoyed its brief relationship with the delicious La Croix Chardonnay; I much prefer Old World Chardonnay to New World, and this complemented the delicate fish whilst coping well with the strong citrus flavours of the salad. Both mains, by the way, were excellent, and my picture here of the lemon sole doesn't really do it justice - for one thing, the generous portion of salad arrived seconds after I had deftly but messily filleted my fish and therefore does not appear here; the chips you can see had been greedily ordered as an extra, and turned out to be entirely unneccessary. Mr Liz proclaimed his steak tasty and tender, and praised the proper pepperiness of the accompanying sauce - whilst the menu might be more refined here than at the other Chop Houses, the reliance upon good, strong flavours seems a common factor in their approach to the food that they serve.

Next to desserts, and Carlos could barely contain his sorrow when I ordered the rhubarb and sherry trifle - a difficult one to match, to be sure, and one that I normally partner with whatever is to hand when I eat it once a year on Christmas Day. In the end, he came up with not one but two matches for me to try. The first, a Hungarian dessert wine called Royal Tokaji, coped manfully with the trifle but was just a little too sweet for me; the second was a triumph, an off-dry French Grenache that I would never have thought to put with trifle but will henceforth pair with everything. Mr Liz's Chateau du Seuil had a very pretty label and - perhaps more importantly - acted as a sexy, honeyed foil to his custard tart (he also drank up my Royal Tokaji, which also presumably acted as sexy foil etc, although this was not specified - probably took all his concentration to juggle the two glasses AND the pudding spoon).

The Albert Square Chop House won't be for everyone, but we thought it was the most enjoyable city centre meal we'd had for some time; perhaps rather than compare it to the existing Chop Houses we should embrace the fact that there are now two different dining options within the same stable - one more casual and pubby, the other slightly more refined (although not actually that much pricier). We were not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but I can see how buying recommended wine by the glass could add up over the course of a meal. Still, Carlos' wine choices definitely added to our enjoyment of our food, and he is only the assistant sommelier - one can only imagine how knowledgeable advanced sommelier Marcin Oziebly (who was away competing in the UK Sommelier of the year competition) might be. We've already made plans to return for one of the restaurant's tasting menus, which run Monday to Thursday and offer six courses for £39 plus the option of matched wines for an additional £17.40 - perhaps after I've nipped to Sam's to satisfy my corned beef hash cravings that is...

- The Albert Square Chop House is located in The Memorial Hall, Albert Square, Manchester, M2 5PF; tel 0161 834 1866.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Real Radio Brings Blue to Manchester's Hard Rock Cafe: Guest Blogger Parties Like it's 2002

Anyone who reads all this nonsense on a regular basis will have a fairly shrewd idea of my age: born in the 70s, a child in the 80s, a leggings-wearing moody teenager in the's fairly easy to chart my progress through life purely from the scattered references to unwise clothing choices and generally indie-based musical proclivities. By the time we entered the new millennium, I was already over a hundred years old, and fit for nothing but a little light gardening: that's why, when pretty popsters Blue arrived at Manchester's Hard Rock Cafe last Wednesday for an intimate concert hosted by Real Radio, I knew the very person to wield the metaphorical pen and tell us all about it. You've met her before: please welcome back the lovely Olivia, who has - I think - just about calmed down now from Wednesday's excitement...

At 28, I’m no spring chicken. So, when I was offered the chance to go and see a band that would make me feel 10 years younger I OBViously jumped at the chance *throws hands in the air at the prospect of being an 18 year old student again, “woop, woop, can I get a rewind?”*

Coming from a diverse music background and being brought up to dance and play a little guitar and piano, it’s not surprising that I love a broad range of music. One of the best things about Hard Rock is that, believe it or not, they do showcase a number of different styles of music. Finally, a place where there’s something for everyone *hurrah*. Rock, Indie and Pop are just a few of the things I’ve heard here recently, and for that reason Real Radio couldn’t have picked a better venue to hold one of a number of small, intimate and exclusive gigs...

It’s a Wednesday night, I’m tired and I’ve come straight from a day's worth of lectures. How on earth was I going to step into my 18 year old youthful glamorous self? Well, thanks to Hard Rock Manchester, I have to admit that it wasn’t that hard. Ok, maybe I wasn’t that glamorous on a school night but I definitely felt youthful! *cue rendition of ‘Teenage Kicks’*

As I arrived and stood in the queue with all the excited Real Radio competition winners, most of whom were old faithful fans of the band, I felt a buzz in the air that proved that there really is an inner teenager in all of us *gets out pen and paper, starts to write “Olivia loves...” (I’ll let you fill in as appropriate)*

Blue performed a number of their hits, including All Rise, Fly By II, Back in My Life, U Make Me Wanna and One Love. They also treated the audience to two of the songs from their new album, Roulette: Break my Heart and their new single Hurt Lovers *pretends at least one of these was performed and sung directly at me* #teenagedreams. The boys proved that they’ve definitely not lost it and why they still deserve to be in the music industry, they’ve still got the moves and they can sing live (an unusual skill these days).

After a few G&Ts during the show I, of course, couldn’t leave this place without trying a few cocktails while we waited for our transport home (any excuse). The lovely talented bartender Nathan (mentioned in previous posts as the creator of the lovely Gini Hendricks cocktail) looked after us and proved that the cocktails at Hard Rock are ever consistent in their production and taste.

Hard Rock Manchester hosts a number of live events, such as the world famous Battle of the Bands competition, Friday Night Live and a number of gigs where they hold performances from many different bands (The Fun Lovin’ Criminals being just one example) and a number of exclusive concerts in conjunction with Real Radio. As the venue is small and intimate, but holds enough people to create a great atmosphere, it is perfect for watching live bands as it really feels like you’re up close and personal. As even some of the smaller music venues in Manchester find it hard to achieve this, I’ll definitely be returning to watch some live acts here in the future.

- Manchester's Hard Rock Cafe can be found at Exchange Square, Manchester M4 2BS; tel. 0161 831 6700.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Fiesta del Fuego: Chilli-Based Fun Hits Manchester's Northern Quarter this Bank Holiday Weekend

By and large, Mr Liz is a man of simple but definite tastes (except in matters of wife choice, obviously, where he is a man of sophisticated but definite tastes). He likes beer, for example, and he likes just butter on his toast, nothing fancy, and when I abandon him for an evening he likes nothing more than for me to defrost a mystery item (often a stew, or similar) from the freezer and leave him to eat it poured over chip-shop chips. There is little deviation from this pleasant but immovable Man Routine; indeed, I find the predictable nature of his requests enjoyably reassuring. And when it comes to food, when Mr Liz is allowed to choose he always asks me to make the same thing: chilli.

It is hardly surprising, then, that our kitchen calendar has a huge red ring metaphorically crayoned around the date of Saturday 25th May, with the words "Chilli Festival" carefully marked in excitable boy writing. For next weekend sees the arrival of Manchester's inaugural Fiesta del Fuego in the Northern Quarter, a celebration of all things chilli which will see High Street transformed into our own, homegrown version of a Mexican street festival (I know it's homegrown, as I have to append the very Mancunian words "outside the Fish Market" to the location descriptor). There will be stalls selling chilli products, a Mariachi band, and a piñata pit which promises to let a papier-mache chilli take the heat rather than the more traditional long-suffering donkey - but the real attraction looks to be the Chilli Smackdown: six familiar NQ faces competing to cook the best chilli and become "Fuego Champions". The full line-up has now been confirmed, and features Home Sweet Home, Kosmonaut, Liquor & Burn, Pancho’s Burrito, Kahlúa Coffee House and Soup Kitchen; entry to the event is free, but for £10 you can be a chilli judge and taste all the chillies as well as snaffling a cocktail from Kahlúa Coffee House - your last chance to try one before they disappear again as swiftly as they came.

The event runs from 12 noon, and full details can be found here. Still, as Mr Liz has his chilli-judging place already confirmed, he is happy to proclaim himself the real "Fuego Champion" in all of this...

New Venetian Restaurant for Didsbury: Local Girl Fears Cibo will be her UNDOING

Now, let me start by saying that I am not necessarily anti-chain. Indeed, there are a few chain bars and restaurants I have a fairly high regard for: I rather like Carluccio's, for example, as well as Gusto and All Bar One, because they are reliable, and sell things that I like to eat and drink, and have consistent levels of service regardless of what time you pitch up, and how many of you there might be. Still, some chains exemplify all that is bad, and bland, and soulless about the concept of a load of identikit venues scattered across the country, all selling whatever the head office (probably in London) tells them to - and for that reason, I can't imagine that too many people in Didsbury would have mourned the demise of the Warburton Street branch of La Tasca, no doubt feeling that if they wanted tapas, it would make a lot more sense to go the independent - and much nicer - Casa Tapas just across the road.

With La Tasca safely gone, the way was clear for something far more interesting to move in. The promise of a new Venetian-inspired restaurant called Cibo has had the locals (including me) getting hungrily excited for the last couple of months, and now it's finally open I can confirm that it does pretty much live up to the hype. The premise is simple: rustic cuisine, drawing upon a range of Italian regions but mostly from the North of the country, and based on the earth-shattering idea that if you cook simple dishes from fresh, high quality ingredients then people will very probably want to come and eat it. And - surprise surprise - at 8pm on a Friday night the place was absolutely packed with contented people, happily pretending they were in more Mediterranean climes rather than overlooking a very grey Didsbury carpark.

Cibo offers a selection of cicchetti - small, Venetian snacks - at £2 each or six for a tenner, or a longer menu of slightly larger dishes. We chose to eat from the latter, which is not divided by starter and main, but by such tempting sub-headings as "Meat", "Fish" and "Pasta"; you can ask to stagger the arrival of your dishes or, as we did, have them all arrive together as one big greedy feast. Some beautiful fat olives in a shot glass and some fresh bread and olive oil arrived as we were pondering our choices; the bread was delicious, carrying the light scent of rosemary and studded with what looked like red pepper - although when I asked our waiter, he said he didn't know what it was. The food arrived swiftly and was mostly excellent - unlike the quality of the photographs you see below. I am uncomfortable photographing my food in restaurants at the best of times, and as we were quite closely placed to the table next to us, I'm afraid I withered a little under their scathing looks and just snatched a couple of quick pictures.

Both of Mr Liz's choices were superb, particularly the fillet steak served sliced on a bed of rocket, Parmesan and aged balsamic vinegar. He also enjoyed the richly fragrant slow braised ox cheek with black peppercorns, and left me some on the dish to try - our waiter did try to take this away though, and had to be asked to bring it back so I could actually verify Mr Liz's high opinion (which did turn out to be entirely correct). I went for two dishes from the pasta section - a superlative lobster ravioli served in a rich cream, tomato and prawn sauce, and some very good fluffy gnocci with a venison ragu - and we shared some Focaccia filled with Mortadella and Caciocavello (the poshest, most exciting cheese and ham toastie you will ever have). We also ordered some entirely unnecessary but very good sides - a giant pile of zucchini fritti for me (in size rather reminiscent of the giant alien from the eponymous films - you can just see one of his tendrils in the photo, reaching across the lobster ravioli), and some lovely rosemary roast potatoes for Mr Liz.

We enjoyed it all - this size of portion, somewhere between a tapas and a proper main, is just right for me, as I'm too greedy for tapas but like the idea of being able to order several different dishes to share. We made room for pudding and were glad we did - Mr Liz's Cannoli Siccilian was filled with sweet ricotta and nicely boozy cherries (although was mysteriously singular, when even my low levels of proficiency in Italian suggest it should have been plural), and my Passion Fruit Pannacotta slipped down a treat. We washed the whole lot down with an excellent Dolcette d'Alba chosen from a suitably Italian list, and which our very charming waiter was genuinely excited that we had chosen *dons slightly fraudulent knowledgeable wine face*

Was it perfect? No - the service is still a little random, with the table next to us receiving the wrong order, the waiter spilling our wine and not clearing it up, someone else asking us if we needed cutlery after we'd eaten, as well as the amazing disappearing ox cheeks. These are all issues that can be ironed out however; the point is, Cibo is already packed to the rafters with people appreciating Martin Cordwell's approach to cooking and eating - he was at Stock for five years, and his talent and experience is more than evident here. We were invited to dine by Manchester Confidential and were not asked to pay for our meal, but as this is effectively our new local restaurant I've already got a horrible feeling I'll be sporting a generous Venetian food tummy within a matter of weeks...

-Cibo is at 12 Warburton Street, Disbury.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

3 Twenty One, Deansgate: New Manchester Smokehouse Serves Great Steaks and Allows ECCLES CAKES for Starters

Let me start with an apology, directed at anyone who follows more than a handful of Manchester food bloggers on Twitter. Perhaps, like I am wont to do, you were watching some nonsense on television last night, and desired to find out what the Twittersphere thought of it; perhaps, your other half was watching the football, and you turned to Twitter in search of witty, pithy conversation to see you through the darkness of the second half. Sadly, what you actually got was a timeline cluttered with pictures of people who eat out more than is good for them, eating more than was good for them, and posting a series of near-identical dinner photos. For last night was the soft launch of new smokehouse restaurant 3 Twenty One, and the bloggers were out in force - mostly eating steak and ribs, but more of that later.

First things first: location. 3 Twenty One is located above the Deansgate pub, next to the Hilton tower. You have to walk through the pub and up the stairs to get to the restaurant - an interesting experience when half of Manchester is downstairs watching the FA Cup Final, but once I'd clambered across the laps of one or two gentlemen (who to their credit, never once took their eyes off the game) and made it up the properly-pub-style-carpeted stairs, the restaurant couldn't have been more of a contrast. This is a lovely modern open space, flooded with light and with a dinky terrace out the back that will be irresistible once summer returns - in fact, I can already envisage leaving Mr Liz in the Man Creche downstairs whilst I pop up to the terrace for a cocktail or two.

Foodwise, the menu is generally what you would expect from a smokehouse, with pate, ribs and chicken wings among the starters and a range of steaks, fish and chops for mains. The most interesting items on the menu for me were the Sharing Boxes - five different selections priced at £15, with the standout option being The Mancunian Way. The thought of ordering Manchester in a box was too much to resist, so I donned my flat cap and enjoyed a culinary tour around my adopted city in the form of a Manchester Egg, an artisan steak pie, an Eccles cake paired with Lancashire cheese and vimto, plum and red onion chutney, Manchester Caviar (aka a fine pea and mint puree) and a selection of breads. Now whilst slightly barking (Eccles cake for a starter?), each component was very well executed, particularly the pie - although the butter-rich pastry was so thick that my attempts to cut through the crust sent a chunk hurtling dangerously close to food legend Neil Sowerby's head. There was too much bread (and some of it was a little dry), but otherwise we liked this very much, and I can already envisage this forming the cornerstone of many a happy lunch date.

Then on to mains. The menu does include burgers, pizzas and salads, but we both wanted to try the steak, aged for a minumum of 35 days and available in a variety of cuts - I chose the 8oz Sirloin at £18.95 whilst Mr Liz went for the cheaper 10oz Rump. The price includes your choice of side from a pretty wide range - a refreshing change from restaurants who assume you will always want chips with your steak, although Mr Liz did of course want chips with his steak and went for the twice-cooked variety. Meanwhile, I maintained my reputation for healthy mind, healthy body (temple etc etc) by having the chargrilled vegetables - these were lovely, a really hefty portion of peppers, aubergine and sweet potato, and went perfectly with a steak that was pinkly rare on the inside and striped with chargrilled caramelly goodness on the outside. It's possible I may have dented my reputation for healthy mind, healthy body (temple etc etc) by ordering blue cheese sauce as an extra and drenching my plate with it, but I'm pretty sure selecting veg as a side still overrides any such minor indiscretions.

It's also possible that I may have managed to force down a smidge of dessert - just in the interests of a full and thorough review, of course. My chocolate Oreo mud pie with white chocolate ice cream was every bit as dense and dark and squidgy as it sounds, while Mr Liz's apple and toffee crumble pie was perky and fresh but might just have been nicer served warm.
For an opening night, service was remarkably smooth - there seems to be a good team in place here, both in the kitchen and front of house. Our one regret is that we didn't try the cocktails - sitting here looking at last night's timeline extolling the virtues of their Mojitos, Juleps and - gasp - Chilli & Watermelon Collinses makes me feel I missed a trick here. Still - always good to have a reason to go back...

- 3 Twenty One is at 321 Deansgate, Manchester M3 4LQ; tel. 0161 839 5215. We were invited as guests as the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our meal - but I'll pay next time, as I'm not a fast runner and remember there are lots of drinkers downstairs to hurdle on the way out.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Dog Bowl, Manchester - local girl enjoys cocktails whilst her friends throw their balls about

Now, whilst I like to think I do have SOME talents, it may come as no surprise that the sporting world is not one in which I have ever really excelled. At school I was quite good at netball, but as this was purely on the strength of me being taller than all the other girls I'm not sure this really counts - I was passable at the high jump for the very same reason. I do not in fact have a competitive bone in my body; I have to leave the room if people playing a board game start becoming a little aggressive, and can't even watch quiz shows on television - I had to follow Manchester's recent triumph on University Challenge via Twitter, occasionally posting the plaintive request "are they still winning?" to a largely very helpful timeline.

So when the people behind Black Dog Ballroom announced that they were opening the cunningly-titled Dog Bowl on Whitworth Street West, promising Black Dog bar brilliance combined with five ten-pin bowling lanes, my initial thought was something along the lines of "oh - has Cocotoo's gone? That's a shame." I have been bowling once before, but found that it broke my fingernails, and that I didn't like putting my feet in those funny shoes, and - most tellingly - I was poor at it. Where I lack talent I often lack enthusiasm - thus the review you see below of the actual bowling bit has been contributed by Victoria, a more competitively-minded friend. I'll be back in a minute, with some dinner...*screen goes wavey, voice over fades in*

Never let it be said that I am unaware of my faults. Indeed, as soon as Liz invited me to attend the review of Dogbowl, I knew why. I don’t have a competitive streak as such; it’s more of competitive CORE.

When we arrived at the bowling desk, full of anticipation and giddy from the huge cocktails we had just devoured, the first thing I noticed was a small black and yellow flyer. A postcard sized challenge! “Three strikes in a row and a game for you and three friends FREE!” I could not stop myself envisioning the moment I achieved ultimate bowling glory (I believe this feat is called ‘a turkey’ by the professionals). I could just imagine the whole of Dogbowl rising to their feet in rapturous applause of my bowling prowess. Alas, it didn’t quite work out that way, but I had a marvellous time anyway and here’s why.

Those of you who have visited the big, gaudy bowling chains will know that the most trying part of the night is setting up the electronic scorer; at Dogbowl the delightful staff do all that for you. The lane area is spacious and yet you are never far from the ball release machine. The balls themselves are giant pool balls decorated in spots and stripes and as you would expect the balls come in a variety of different weights, so there will be a weight to suit you. As a dainty, girly type I mostly threw the ‘6’ ball which was the lightest ball there, but sufficient enough in power to allow me to get one strike (Hurrah!).

The game proceeded smoothly and we didn’t encounter any of the technical hitches that seem so common when you visit one of the bowling chains. I didn’t win, but for once that didn’t really matter as I knew I was on to a winner having discovered this gem of a place, and after all that exercise I was STARVING! *harp music ends; camera goes back to the studio*

There's a lot more to Dog Bowl than bowling - so whilst my competitively-minded friends all amused themselves by chucking ball at some small sticks, I was drinking an excellent Porn Star Martini from the enticing cocktail menu. At just £7, this was considerably cheaper than those available elsewhere in the city centre - and it was better: sweet and smooth without being sickly, with a jaunty flaming passionfruit on the top and a cheeky shot of champagne on the side. Meanwhile, my bowling reporter was drinking a Big Kahuna, a cocktail SO TALL that she actually had to stand up to drink it - in the photograph you see below I have had to adopt a squinty angle just to fit it in.

We also liked the food. The four of us shared three "small plates" as starters - the pork crackling with spiced apple sauce, the Southern fried dill pickles, and the BBQ shrimps, each priced at either £3 or £4 and thereby offering excellent value. Pretty much everyone's favourite was the pork crackling, a generous portion of crisp, piggy goodness with a perfect (and very loud) crunch, but as it is difficult to justify this nutritionally, I shall swiftly move on - not that our mains were any healthier. The non-Mr Liz male of the party couldn't take his eyes off The DB's, a mighty burger featuring a 1 lb beef patty, pulled pork, beef brisket, smoked bacon, onion rings, BBQ sauce and fries - he ate it all, and was applauded for being a REAL MAN. Mr Liz, meanwhile, was very much enjoying a portion of boneless fried chicken wings - obviously he had ordered these with the ‘Barking Mad hot sauce, lest his masculinity be called into question by the burger exploits going on elsewhere on the table. The two ladies both went for the three piece fried chicken meal served with Texas toast, creamed potatoes and gravy: the chicken was good and the creamed potato excellent, but I thought the gravy a little thin - and the Texas toast seemed to be a slightly unnecessary presence, lurking on the plate in all its threatening, bready heft. On the side we shared some Elvis Fries - a double portion of mixed potato and sweet potato fries with cheese, gravy, chilli peanut butter and bacon jam which simply defies words - the kind of thing you have to keep eating, even though you know it's wrong. Victoria even found room for pudding, a Bourbon pecan pie that she praised most highly, just before her arteries packed up for good.

The food here is good value and very well done, and despite my lack of bowling enthusiasm I would come here again for the food and the cocktails (although perhaps not that often - one would have to play a LOT of games just to burn off a MOUTHFUL of Elvis fries). Dog Bowl allowed two of us to bowl for free and contributed towards our meal, but did not require us to say nice things - in practice, we paid for much of our meal ourselves, and felt that prices were very fair. Will you see me a-flinging myself down a lane anytime soon? Probably not - but you might just see me at the bar with a VERY tall cocktail...

- Dog Bowl is at 57 Whitworth Street West, Manchester, M1 5WW; tel. 0161 228 2888.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Abba Forever Comes to Manchester Opera House Later This Month: Local Girl Rejoices, and Sings Along, quite Loudly

I've written before about my startling capacity for over-estimating my own likely mental ability on any given evening, with a long and predictable history of booking heinously intellectual activities on week nights. Would I like to review a six-hour staging of Ibsen's more obscure works, performed backwards and entirely in Peruvian, in three weeks time? Why yes! An experimental musical evening where the works of someone I've never heard of are performed only on items found in a cutlery drawer? Please! The trouble with booking things a long time ahead is that anything seems possible; then you get to the evening in question and all you want to do is go home from work, put your pyjamas on and admire Romola Garai's tailoring in The Hour, whilst drinking tea.

Well, finally I have learnt my lesson. For on Thursday 16th May I will be casting aside my highbrow pretensions and going to see something I actually want to see: the Abba Forever tribute show rolls into town, offering a joyously uncomplicated evening of Swedish melody and exuberantly-styled hair, with singing, and dancing and - probably - an ice-cream at half time. The Abba Forever show has been running since 1998 and has a reputation for being one of the stand-out tributes to the Nordic giants, with totally live performances and a focus on tight musicianship; they also - worryingly - promise to take audiences "on a journey back to the 1970s". Hopefully this means in joy of spirit rather than by re-creating the fetching pudding bowl haircut and crocheted baby outfits I would actually have been sporting during this dubious period.

So, if you're giving the Ibsen a miss, I'll no doubt see you all at Manchester Opera House on the 16th; I want it completely understood though, that as reigning Abba Singstar champion, I shall be playing the part of Agnetha - albeit from the comfort of my chair.

- Abba Forever is at the Manchester Opera House on Thursday 16th May, and begins at 7.30. Tickets priced from £17.50 - 19.50 are available here.