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Monday, 30 September 2013

Manchester House: Living Ventures Bring Aiden Byrne to Manchester Spinningfields

Now, in the six years I've been writing this blog, I've acquired something of a reputation for being pretty quick off the mark to get things written up and onto the site. Some kindly souls attribute this to a fierce sense of efficiency or - amongst the particularly naive - sheer professionalism, rather than the simple fact that if you eat as much as I do, you need to write it up virtually instantly before another ten meals or so cloud your memory. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that it is now nearly a week since I ate at Manchester House, the new Living Ventures showpiece which has set up shop in Manchester's Spinningfields with Aiden Byrne at the helm - the longest gap between eating and writing I can ever remember. So, after six days of pondering, this is what I made of it all.

First things first: from the outside, the venue doesn't look that promising - a nondescript office block perched on the edge of Spinningfields. We were greeted by two ladies in the foyer - the first of about a million (charming) staff we encountered during the course of the evening - and ushered into a lift that took us up to the twelfth floor bar. Here we each ordered a Smokey Old Fashioned - Woodford reserve bourbon with maple syrup and Jerry Thomas bitters, smoked with oak chips and served in its own mystical, smoke-filled bottle. The idea is, of course, to leave the bottle as long as possible for maximum smoky flavour; I managed roughly twelve seconds before I could resist no longer, but this was still one of the finest and most interesting Old Fashioneds I've ever had. The views from the bar are stunning, and on such a balmy night we took advantage of one of the lavishly appointed smoking rooms that line each outer wall of the bar: the roof was open and the leather seating far, far too the point it was almost an imposition to be told our table was ready and be taken back down to the second floor restaurant.

There have been one or two slightly negative comments that the restaurant is a bit "Living Ventures" - whatever that means - but we very much liked the open nature of the kitchen and indeed probably spent more time staring transfixed at Chef Byrne working than actually talking to each other. We ordered from the a la carte menu, but were first brought a complimentary pre-starter of pea butter served with brioche and a shot of chilled pea juice, a dish that has not pleased all of the food bloggers but which was exactly to my tastes. The butter was very rich but in a dainty enough portion to avoid being cloying, and the pea juice was a revelation - sweet and fresh, and probably something I can't easily recreate at home by whizzing up a bag of frozen legumes in my much-neglected salad spinner.

A very good start then, and a standard easily maintained by my starter - the already-famous dish of Squab pigeon with cherries, pistachio and violet mustard that Manchester Confidential so boldly declared their dish of the year at the recent press tasting. Nor was it hard to see why - the pigeon was moist and pink, and complemented by the rich pistachio cream and the sprinkling of dried cherry (which is actually applied at table by the gentleman who has just cooked the very dish for you), making the textures and flavours in this dish spot-on. And I'm sure you all know by now that one of the cherries turns out to be made of foie gras, which I'm delighted to now be able to class as one of my five-a-day. Meanwhile, across the table there was a pretty impressive smoke show going on with the Sea and Soil with Oxtail dish - a little garden housing a beetroot-infused oyster, a dinky doughnut filled with oxtail, and a dish of oxtail consommé. This was deemed not quite as exciting in terms of taste as the mighty pigeon dish, but was still excellent all the same.

For mains we went meaty, and shared the Belted Galloway Rib-eye steak and the fire-roasted lamb rack, pine stock and sheep’s cheese. The rib-eye was quite simply the best steak either of us had ever tasted and I can say no more about it than that, other than to offer the fairly low-brow comments that the portion was huge (as you would expect for £35) and the accompanying chips were delicious and caused some inelegant squabbling over their fair division. The lamb was served very simply, pink and pert on its own naked plate with just a trickle of jus, but with a dish of broth on the side in which I was excited to find a couple of lamb faggots and some balls of sheep's cheese. In fact, the mains were the very antithesis of the starters, in which a fair amount of culinary showing off was involved - these were deceptive in their simplicity, allowing the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the chef to take centre stage.

Finally, to dessert. The cheese selection was entirely personalised - we went for a combination of goat's and sheep's cheeses - and we also shared the Szechuan, lychee and rose dessert, which was helpfully brought in two separate dishes to accommodate my friend's need to avoid dairy. Once again, real thought had gone into combining flavours and textures here, although the need to divide up the dairy and non-dairy elements meant that the full dish would be far more impressive than you see here. We stopped for a pretentious, fan-girl type chat with Aiden on our way out and he couldn't have been more charming, telling us that the reason for the rib-eye's astonishing flavour and texture is due to the Big Green Egg on which he cooks them - I've been campaigning for one of these ever since I first saw them at The Artisan Meat Company in Mottram, and now I've got real evidence that I actually NEED one, just as soon as I can raise the thousand or so pounds they cost.

I do have a couple of negatives. Firstly, the tables are too big and the lighting too bright - whilst no-one wants to be cramped for room on a tiny table, when a table gets so wide you have to lean right across it to talk to your friend and get slightly dazzled by the lights hanging over your head, it does become problematic (and let's face it, also makes swiping other people's food from across the table far more difficult). The other issue is a more serious one: the cost. As should be pretty clear from what I've written above, I have no issues with the quality of the food here, but questions have been raised whether a meal at Manchester House is really worth it, with the tasting menu coming in at £95 per head before any drinks or service have been added. Two days after eating at Manchester House, I went to Mr Cooper's House & Garden, the more casual Rogan outpost at The Midland - and whilst I understand that the two operations are pitched at completely different levels and price points, the lamb dish I had there was in its own way just as enjoyable as the one I had at Manchester House and cost an awful lot less at £15. The verdict then? Yes, a really enjoyable night and a pleasure to be cooked for so attentively by such a great chef - but maybe save it for a special occasion.

- Manchester House is located in Tower 12, 18-22 Bridge Street, Spinningfields, Manchester, M3 3BZ; tel. 0161 835 2557. We paid for our own drinks (a very good Brazilian red at £39) but were not asked to pay for our food.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Nido Tapas Restaurant Brings Some Spanish Sunshine to a Grey Didsbury

If you cast your mind back to Sunday just gone, you will recall it was nothing short of a stinker. Torrential rain and strong, gusty winds: the kind of day when you draw the blinds and the room remains just as dark as it was before. Tempting to stay indoors, obviously - whereas of course what one ACTUALLY needs to do in such a situation is to venture bravely outside to seek sunshine in the form of tapas.

Now, Didsbury village does not really have much of a track record when it comes to tapas. Yes, Casa Tapas is pretty good, but the tapas I have had at the new(ish) Expo Lounge has been very mixed in quality, and I doubt that many mourn the late, unlamented La Tasca, where I once had a meal so oily it actually made me sick. So we welcome Nido, Didsbury's newest tapas bar, with welcoming but cautious arms, wary of disappointment whilst also willing them to succeed. And on the evidence of Sunday's launch party, the signs are promising - although it is admittedly hard to judge properly when all the furniture is pushed to the sides of the room like a wedding disco and the food comes in the form of a constant, unfettered taster buffet.

Still, a jug of Sangria is EXACTLY what you want to be greeted with when entering ANY premises, and the staff couldn't be more charming - this is clearly a highly family-oriented operation, and I reckon that when the tables are set out normally the atmosphere would be pretty convivial. As far as the food goes, the dishes we tried were perhaps a little on the predictable side, but were generally done extremely well - and to be fair, catering for a constant stream of grazers over a four hour period is never going to show the true abilities of any chef. Stand-out dishes included an excellent tortilla and some properly gooey croquetas de jamon; they also served up a very tasty sausage and a very good Jamon Iberico that I am already looking forward to trying again. The only real disappointment was the paella, which was a little bland and on the claggy side - and the aioli served on the side was delicious at the time but was so strong that when I met my friends later at the pub they refused to speak to me and made me stand outside with some old men. Well, metaphorically speaking, anyway. We also tried a couple of desserts, including a superb torrija - essentially a gloriously eggy, custardy piece of fried bread. I assume it was just mine that had a distinct aftertaste of garlic.

Nido opened in August and has seen a slow start to trading, perhaps because no-one really knows they're there yet - and apparently some of the customers they have had in have failed to notice the change of ownership from the Istanbul Grill and been disappointed when they've tried to order a kebab. On the basis of what I tried on Sunday, I will definitely give Nido a re-visit - if only for the amusement of trying to order a kebab and then laughing heartily at my own hilarity...

Nido is at 786 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, M20 2DR; tel 0161 4489503 - you can check out the full menu here. We were invited as guests of the restaurant and not asked to pay for any of our food and drink.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Chicago Comes to Oldham Coliseum Theatre: Murder and Sequins Ahoy

It's an unavoidable fact of life that we all have our weaknesses. Most of mine are food or drink related - cheese, crisps and a Friday gin and tonic (or seven) all feature strongly on the list of things I am not good at saying no to - but not exclusively so: for I must also confess to a certain guilty pleasure in a musical, ideally one I know well enough to sing along to in exuberant and slightly tuneless manner whilst looking forward to a glass of pink wine at the interval. In fact, Chicago fits the bill perfectly, and as luck would have it Roxie Hart and co. arrived at Oldham Coliseum Theatre on Friday for a month-long residency of murder, high-kicking and over-sized white gloves.

You probably know the story: Roxie Hart, married to boring Amos, murders ANOTHER man, goes to prison, meets fellow murderess Velma Kelly, does some singing and dancing, appoints celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn, does some more singing and dancing, gets off, puts on small sparkly outfit, does some more singing and dancing. It's all marvellous, of course - and even more excitingly, the Oldham Coliseum Theatre production is a new and original one, the first since 1997. Whatever updates have been made, all the songs will be there - I'm already warming up for my own personal big number (All That Jazz, obviously) and am very confident I can drown out the 18-strong cast if it comes to it.

I'm going later this week, but in the meantime you can read more about it here. The production runs until Saturday 12th October, with ticket prices between £11.50 and £21 - bagsy be Velma...

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Mr Cooper's House & Garden: New Simon Rogan Bar & Restaurant Woos Tree-Hugging Girl

Now, anyone with even a passing interest in a/ food and b/ Manchester will have noticed a recent influx of well-known chefs to our sunny climes (well, if three counts as an influx, which I'm not entirely sure it does). James Martin will soon be taking time away from judging omelette challenges and so forth in order to open his own restaurant at Manchester 235, but in the meantime, two heavyweights are already here in the guise of Aiden Byrne and Simon Rogan. The former opened the newest addition to the Living Ventures stable, Manchester House, on Thursday, with a press lunch which I was unable to attend due to - outrageously - my presence being required at my actual day job; I'm going in a few weeks though, so more to come on that. The same evening saw Simon Rogan launch Mr Cooper's House & Garden at The Midland, a more casual bar-and-dining addition to the already phenomenally successful operation at The French.

Of course, Manchester was very much up for this, despite the inclement weather - with the result that 86,000 people (approx) found themselves crammed into the new venue on Thursday night, trying to look polite and aloof whilst actually converging on the nearest drinks tray (the trick, by the way, is to stand near Thom Hetherington, who claims that any alcohol in the room is magically drawn to him by osmosis - I believe this to be true). The astonishing number of people made it a little difficult to fully admire the space here, which stands on the site where Manchester businessman Thomas Cooper's house and gardens used to be and is divided into different areas such as study, library and garden in tribute to this fact. Indeed, Simon's welcome speech was given from underneath a tree in the garden area of the restaurant, where the prime seating already looks to be the gazebo table.

I have already booked to come back and try the food properly, but the samples that were circulating the room suggested the high standard one would expect from Rogan. We particularly enjoyed the samples of Nick's Meatballs from the starters menu - dainty lamb balls with a beautiful tzatziki foam - as well as mini skewers of grilled fig, ham and rocket with a morsel of spicy popcorn balanced on top. I also tried one of the cocktails, Mr Cooper's Autumn Punch, which went down a treat with its refreshing notes of apple and mint - you see it here, perched in front of the library where some people were playing us some jazz; I like to think I won't type a more middle-class sentence than this all year. There are no photographs of the food, as if I'd paused for even a second then somebody else would have whipped my prize from before my very eyes; it's every man and woman for themselves at these kind of things, and the tolerant staff did remarkably well to keep smiling even whilst under siege from greedy bloggers practically rugby tackling each other to get at the goodies.

So: great space, great atmosphere, great staff, and of course a really great chef at the helm - Mr Cooper's looks like being a welcome and well-priced addition to Manchester. I look forward to a more thorough exploration of the menu in a couple of weeks - in the meantime, I shall be drooling over it here.

- Mr Cooper's House & Garden by Simon Rogan is at The Midland Hotel, Peter Street, Manchester M60 2DS; tel. 0161 2363333.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Mullen Bartending Launch the M-League at Cord: Tequila All Round and a Win for Apotheca

If I've learnt one thing about myself over the years (other than the fact that sherry + brandy + red wine is not a combination I handle with aplomb), it's that I don't have a competitive bone in my body. Indeed, I actively avoid competitive situations - I can't watch quiz shows because they make me anxious, and I'm certain it's no coincidence that my favourite sport takes place over 5 leisurely, gentle days with a clear focus on tea intervals and visits to the Pimms tent rather than too much actual aggression.

I have, however, made some kind of breakthrough in the arena of competitive pursuits, particularly those of a gastronomic bent: it appears that being a judge is something I can cope with, requiring as it does little more than the ability to taste various food and drink items with enthusiasm and then arrange one's face in a vaguely knowledgeable expression. I was a real ale judge last year (where I was pretty much the only female present), I am to be a cheese judge next year, and last week I added a further impressive credit to my CV as a cocktail judge. The occasion was Round One of the M-League, a new (highly alcoholic) competition in which representatives from different bars around Manchester create their best cocktail from a specified spirit and brand before passing it to a greedy judge who snarfs it and then awards it marks out of 5 for appearance, aroma, taste and creativity.

This is the brainchild of Sean and Chris from Mullen Bartending, with two leagues (Northern Quarter and Deansgate) each consisting of eight participating bars who take it turns to host each round. The first event was at Cord in the Northern Quarter with Excellia Tequila, hosted by the ever knowledgeable Drinks Enthusiast (seen here talking SO enthusiastically parts of him are just a BLUR) and eventually won by the lovely Veronika from Apotheca with her Old Excellence (seen on the right in the first photo below) - essentially a tequila Old Fashioned that was voted a unanimous winner (and no bias here despite the fact that most weekends I can indeed be found in Apotheca, as we had no idea who had made each cocktail). Round Two takes place this Wednesday 18th September at The Whisky Jar, where the spirit of choice will be Monkey Shoulder whisky - follow @MBartending on Twitter or check out their Facebook page for more details. In fact, once you've mocked my low-quality photos of the night (although they do all have the lovely Lady Sybil in the background, just as hers all have me lurking behind the cocktails), you might want to look at the rather more professional ones here whilst I go off to perfect my *knowledgeable whisky face*...

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Artisan, Spinningfields: Sensational Scallops and a Girl Made Almost ENTIRELY of Salt

Now, for someone who likes to go out a fair bit, I'm surprisingly poor at coping with crowds. Too many people in one place make me anxious - too much noise, too much pushing, too much queueing at the bar followed by too much possibility of your drink getting spilled...the potential ramifications are little short of devastating. So when I went to the launch party at Artisan a couple of months ago, there was no review because I didn't stay - I simply took one look at the 26 million people already there and decided it wasn't for me, and went home and drank tea instead.

By all accounts it was a pretty good do though, so it seemed only fair to go back and have another look, perhaps at a time when half of Manchester wasn't also there. And actually, even early doors on a plain old Thursday evening it is pretty busy - the little bit of empty space I've photographed here is the only section of the massive 12,000 square foot loft-style venue that isn't buzzing when we arrive, and even this is populated by the time we leave. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the design here - we like the 20ft bar (obviously), the art work on the walls, the openness of the kitchen area (from which bursts of flames can be seen from time to time), and our booth with its giant pendulum light that makes me feel a little like a poker-playing dog. This is a giant space that has been carefully carved into more intimate seating areas, and I like it far more than I thought I would.

More importantly, we also like the food. We start with some very good olives, just to soak up our pre-dinner drinks: I go for The Artisan signature cocktail, a fruity number made with Green Mark vodka, Aperol, pomegranate, mint and apple juice - it is lovely, although even better is the Smokey Lynchburg with Jack Daniel’s, Cointreau, fresh lemon juice, hickory smoke flavouring and a splash of coke (thereby entirely vindicating my behaviour the night I mixed some fancy whisky or other with coke at my friend Matt's house, although he has never totally forgiven me). Then on to the starters. I am most partial to a scallop, and tend to order them as my default starter of choice - I do the same here, although I am not entirely convinced I like the sound of them served with curry butter and cauliflower. I am of course completely wrong, and am forced to eat my words along with every last smear of what turns out to be a simply perfect combination - plump, coral-on scallops, dainty cauliflower florets, smooth cauliflower puree and, best of all, a slightly salty, slightly sweet, slightly spicy curry oil that I have to wipe up with my finger just to make sure I don't waste a single scrap. I love this, and will return just to encounter it again.

Across the table, though, something a little different is happening. Whilst I eat my posh scallops, Mr Liz has spotted a word he knows and loves and gone for the slice of cheese and onion pie with Piccalilli dressing. There are two issues with this: firstly, it's more of a quiche than a pie, and secondly, it's a little on the rustic side - it really is a slice of pie/quiche, on a plate, with some salad. It is, incidentally, absolutely delicious, just not really demonstrating the same level of creativity shown by my scallop winner, and it strikes me that the menu is perhaps a little unsure about what it wants to be. Apparently there is a bit of a revamp on the horizon following early feedback, so perhaps the menu will have a slightly clearer direction when Mark Two appears (but please keep the scallops, PLEASE KEEP THE SCALLOPS).

For my main, I have the salt baked whole sea bass, seen here being expertly extracted from its rocky environs by a young lady SO skilled she is even managing to smile while she forages. The fish is delicious, perfectly cooked and subtly flavoured from the rosemary within and the salt jacket without. Equally good is the 12oz rib eye steak on the bone, with a satisfyingly chewy texture (in a good way, rather than in a like-eating-a-tyre way) and the additional flavour that comes from the presence of the bone. However, these come in at £17.95 and £18.95 respectively: absolutely fine until you start adding on the side dishes, which push the cost up considerably. We have the crinkle cut chips (minus the crinkles, because apparently the crinkle chef isn't in), the salt baked new potatoes, a peppercorn sauce, and a little pan of spring greens - all excellent, but with the greens alone coming in at £3.75 it's worth keeping an eye on what your meal is actually costing you. Lots of restaurants do this, so I'm not specifically griping at Artisan in particular but more having a general moan - and yes, we were there as guests of Manchester Confidential and didn't have to pay this time, but I think the point still stands.

By this time, the lights have dimmed (as you can tell by the slight murkiness of this picture) and we have a DJ playing some frankly superb music of the type enjoyed by old people like myself. I eat a lovely salted caramel baked banana with salted caramel ice cream (yes - I fear I may have been approximately 90% salt by the time I finish eating) - you see it here in front of a very sexy Champagne jelly - whilst listening to Lullaby by The Cure and feeling really very pleased with life indeed. Remember that rusticity from earlier though? It's back, in the form of a whopping great sturdy ice cream wafer served alongside the dainty jelly, and puts me in mind a little of the pairing up of Mark Benton and Kristina Rihanoff on Strictly last night.

These are quite small gripes though. Food and service is very good throughout, and there is a great atomosphere - nice to see the lovely Anthea doing such a sterling job here as manager after getting to know her when she ran Gusto in Didsbury. Some muttering has gone on in a few quarters about Living Ventures' continuing colonisation of Manchester - and Spinningfields in particular - but with Manchester House finally opening next week, that domination looks set to continue. And actually, I don't mind a bit.

- Artisan is on Avenue North, 18-22 Bridge Street, Manchester M3 3BZ.