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Monday, 28 October 2013

Didsbury Lounge: Impressive Wine List, Tasty Rice Balls AND Close to Home

In recent months, I'm afraid I have been a shamefully poor Didsbury resident. The village has just seemed less interesting of late, with fewer nice places to go - and whilst I love the Fletcher Moss with all my heart, sometimes you just fancy going somewhere you won't bring the average age of the clientele down by thirty years or so. As a result, I've been taking full advantage of the Metrolink and heading to Chorlton or Manchester, eschewing the delights on my own doorstep.

So when Didsbury Lounge invited a few bloggers in for a wine tasting evening, it seemed like a good opportunity to try out somewhere I had heard good things about but never really been, apart from a quick drink one night after work. The venue is one of those slightly unpromising long, thin spaces - but to be fair, they've done a pretty good job with it: the glass-roofed atrium makes it feel light and spacious, and the spiral staircase is beautiful - even if a trip upstairs to the loo after a few glasses of wine is a little (a LOT) on the dangerous side.

The wine tasting was hosted by Noel Reid, the wine and spirits manager at Robinsons (there's a dream job if ever there was one) and a winning combination of being very knowledgeable about wine AND very generous when pouring samples. Didsbury Lounge prides itself on its high quality wine list, and let us try eight different wines plus their house Prosecco, looking for feedback on what should make the cut from the following selection:

Frederico Pinot Grigio Collezione
Finca Los Alijares Viognier
Verdicchio Dei Castello Di Jesi Manciano Bonci
Sancerre Blanc Serge Laloue
Durius Reserve Syrah 2007
Rolling Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot
Tiasta Malbec Reserve
Casarena Single Vineyard Perdriel Malbec
Montelvini Asolo Prosecco Millesimato Extra Dry

Of the whites, the Viognier and Sancerre were by far my favourites; I would buy both of these - and indeed, the excellent Sancerre is already on the wine list, priced at £30. I enjoyed all of the reds, particularly the Spanish Syrah, which is also already available at Didsbury Lounge priced at a ridiculous £24.50 - go and buy this please, as I want it to stay on the list. Finally, the Prosecco is excellent, and is available in family-sized magnum bottles for just £25 on Saturdays - the reason why my diary now has DIDSBURY LOUNGE crayoned in every weekend for the forseeable future.

We also tried some of the food, with platters of some of the most popular items from the Grazing Menu. Food bloggers are never very good at sharing ANYTHING, and there was almost an unseemly scuffle over the last Sticky Rice Ball and the final Falafal - these were both pretty perfect examples of their ilk, and I'd be quite tempted to just order a vast dish of these two items on my next visit. Because there will, without doubt, be a next visit - a great local bar with classy wines, interesting food, lovely staff...and just a few minutes from my house. Didsbury, I re-embrace you - if you'll have me back?

- Didsbury Lounge is at 43 Barlow Moor Road, Didsbury, M20 6TW (opposite Emmanuel Church); tel 0161 434 2408.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Christmas Comes Early, Part Two: In Bloom Becomes Hibernate and Lock 91 Gets a Visit from Santa

A couple of weeks ago, I had some Port and Stilton at Albert's Chop House, and got myself quite ridiculously giddy as a result - ready to bypass the rest of October and all of November and proceed directly to Christmas. So really, the very last thing I needed was further encouragement in the form of a very festive night out on Friday, firstly at the new Hibernate pop-up bar at Spinningfields and secondly at the Winter Food Party at Lock 91 - a Christmas party in all but name.

First stop, Hibernate, which is not strictly new but is in fact the winter version of In Bloom. I very much liked In Bloom, which had great cocktails, a nice meaty barbecue, an ivy-covered wall decorated with yarn-bomb flowers and a prime summer spot overlooking The Lawns; now the outdoor section has been largely panelled in and filled with heaters and throws so that we may enjoy it here all year round. It's all very cute, and was indeed very snug despite the Manchester monsoon raging outside; even better, it has set down a marker for future years that mulled wine is perfectly acceptable in October. My first impression is that I'm not quite as keen on Hibernate as In Bloom, but then it's not entirely fair to make this judgement on the back of a flying visit on launch night, so I will be a true professional and go back another time so that I may review it more objectively.

Next stop, Lock 91, a place about which I have heard good things but have never previously visited due to my general aversion to most of the bars along Deansgate Locks. I knew there was to be food on the terrace but hadn't expected a full-on Christmas party - we sat on the sofas in the downstairs grandma parlour and watched Elf on the big screen, and listened to Mariah Carey, and ate strudel, and sampled the delicious new Christmas cocktails (my favourite being the Christmas Pud), and wore reindeer antlers upon our heads. We received a visit first from some carol singers and then from Santa himself, surprised to find himself working so early in the year no doubt, but lugging his traditional, erm, bin bag of presents all the same. I sat on his lap and pretended to have been good this year and was given a selection box as my reward - in fact, it was all too much excitement for one night. I'm not sure a night out at Lock 91 could ever be as much fun again, but I will definitely be back to find out in the near future - and if it was you who had to sit next to the carol-singing girl wearing reindeer antlers on the Didsbury tram round about midnight - well, you know who to blame now...

Margo & Rita at The Beagle, Chorlton: Mexican Street Food, but with SITTING DOWN

A few months ago, I had my first encounter with those purveyors of superior Mexican street food, Margo & Rita. This took place at the lovely Levenshulme Market and unfortunately, whilst I very much enjoyed my burrito, my almost entire lack of ability to consume food in an elegant manner whilst standing up means I have little natural affinity with street food - much of my burrito ended up in my hair, with the remainder evenly distributed between the front of my dress and the floor.

The good news for incompetent eaters like me is that whilst Margo & Rita continue to sell from their lovely purple van at markets and festivals, they are now also resident chefs at The Beagle pub in Chorlton - where they have tables, and chairs, and cutlery and everything. They've been there a few weeks now and I've already been in a couple of times, but last Tuesday saw them bravely open their doors to a hoard of hungry bloggers and distribute Monopoly money to be exchanged for exciting spicy goods. The lovely Lady Sybil and I arrived quite late, having already been to a wine tasting at Didsbury Lounge (more of which another time), but were quickly provided with a tray of Mother Clucker Chicken Suckers: fried buttermilk chicken wings served with tortilla chips and salsa. These lasted about fifteen seconds, they were so good.

For mains, we pooled our ten pound Monopoly notes and went for a Burrito with ground beef and beans, and a Pasadena Mother Clucker Chicken Burger - spicy fried chicken in a brioche with chilli mayo and jalapenos. The burrito was just as good as I remembered it being, although with the added advantage of being consumed sitting down, with cutlery, and therefore remaining almost entirely out of my hair (almost - you have to acquire these kinds of skills gradually, after all). The burrito itself was a large, satisfying affair, properly crispy on the outside and packed generously with beef; the accompanying refried beans and crema salad also went down well. I preferred this dish over the chicken burger which, although tasty and pleasingly lavish with the mayonnaise, just seemed slightly less substantial and, at £7.50, definitely needed the side order of seasoned fries at an additional two quid.

Still, this remains an excellent menu that I would be happy to eat pretty much anything from - especially the Fish Tacos, which were on as a special but which I resisted because I had them recently at the Indy Man Beer Con. I include a picture of them here so that you may admire the full gorgeousness of Margo & Rita's food in daylight, and as an apology to the lovely Mark and Diane for taking such murky photos of my dinner last week. One day, we will have it all - clean hair AND bright photos; for now, I can but dream...

Margo & Rita can be found at The Beagle, Chorlton every day except Monday - you can lust over the full menu here. We were not asked to pay for our food (well, we were, but with pretend money that we had been given) but would have done so, gladly.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Round 4 of the Mullen Bartending MLeague: White Whisky and Doggy Treats at Tusk

Over the last couple of years I have become an increasingly enthusiastic whisky drinker. The process began when I was persuaded to take part in a Liquorists whisky trail, and although there are still plenty I don't like - namely those nasty ones that smell like TCP - I would now consider whisky to be one of my drinks of choice (particularly if it's bourbon, or has ginger ale with it).

Turns out that I'm not quite ready yet for white whisky though. The spirit of choice for round 4 of the Mullen Bartending Northern Quarter cocktail league last Wednesday was Buffalo Trace White Dog, an unaged whisky weighing in at 62.5% ABV and frankly a little much for a panel of lady judges who all had work in the morning. The competition was hosted by Tusk with six bars taking part - and they had all clearly been working hard on their creativity, as the following pictures will show. My favourite presentation of the night was the Stag, Maple and Moonshine, which arrived with a selection of what we thought looked a little like dog treats (fittingly, considering the name of the brand) but which turned out to be candied bacon - you can see the judges' doggy treats in the third picture here. We also very much enjoyed the marmalade on toast that came with number four, the Cowboy's Breakfast, although this is perhaps now starting to say more about the greed of the judges than their whisky-judging credentials. The winner on the night though was the White Cookie, made by Simple, and an unsurprising favourite considering the blatent bribery tactic of stuffing it full of Oreos - it's the second picture here.

Overall, we felt that all the bars had done well with what was a pretty challenging spirit, and thanks must go to Tusk for hosting what turned out to be a pretty splendid (and raucous) night. The next MLeague round is on Wednesday 6th November at Walrus, and as the spirit of the night will be Remy Martin VSOP, I'm looking forward to it already...

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Opus One Bar & Restaurant: Afternoon Tea Menu Proves that Local Girl is no Gentleman

When it comes to food, I am not easily beaten. Nor do I believe that women should be expected to pick at their food as if they were tiny, hungerless woodland creatures, purely on account of being female. So when I was invited to try the Afternoon Tea menu at Opus One, the standalone restaurant housed in the Free Trade Hall at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel, there was really only one option for me. Yes, the venue is stunning (more of that later); yes, there was a lovely jazz band making beautiful music; yes, I did have a pretty nice dress on. But did I want the Gentleman's Afternoon Tea rather than the Traditional? Oh yes - it's easy to forget you're a lady when there's pies to be had.

To be fair, both looked pretty tempting. The Traditional Afternoon Tea offers a pot of tea, a selection of finger sandwiches, mini cakes (today's were banoffee tart, an individual carrot cake and a dinky little chocolate eclair), and two homemade scones (one plain, one fruit) served with clotted cream and strawberry jam - all well and good, until you see what is on offer to Manchester's gentlemen. The scones and pot of tea remain the same (I had an excellent loose leaf Earl Grey), but the dainty sandwiches are replaced with a more "rustic" offering and the cakes are replaced with a hot Yorkshire pudding filled with beef and gravy, a warm pork pie and a small dish of fish, chips and mushy peas.

Most of it was as good as it sounds - I particularly enjoyed the pie (which was so good I took my non-pie-loving friend's home in a box thoughtfully provided by the lovely staff), the Yorkshire pudding was pleasingly crispy, and the scones were about as fresh as could be, still warm from the oven. In fact, the only mild letdown was the sandwiches, which were a little unexciting - I was brought cheese (rather thin on, erm, cheese), ham and beef, and next time would specifically ask for what I wanted in order to pre-empt the crushing disappointment of there being no egg one. Elsewhere there were one or two tiny glitches; the food took a long time to come (even allowing for the fact that we had ordered items specifically stated to arrive warm), and our table was missing tongs for the sugar and a knife for the scones - little details, admittedly, but ones you'd expect a 5* hotel to get right.

Still, the venue is lovely - the Free Trade Hall has been an important part of Manchester since it was built in 1853, and Opus One is nothing if not opulent, with the red velvet walls and black gloss of the main restaurant and the slightly more pared-back comfort of the terrace area where we partook of our manly feast. And here, I must hang my head in shame - I was beaten by the sheer quantity of the food and was forced to leave several items (much to my chagrin), obviously on account of my dainty ladylike appetite. Bearing this in mind, I think the Afternoon Tea Menu offers good value for money at £18.95 - particularly as you can snaffle the Traditional for a mere £12.50 until October 27th (details here).

So, a lovely afternoon, and one that proved I am indeed a lady. Well, if only I hadn't stopped for a quick pint at Brew Dog and then snarfed a pork pie on the tram on my way home...

- Opus One Bar and Restaurant is in the Free Trade Hall, Peter Street, Manchester M2 5GP; tel 0161 8358904.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Cheese and Wine with Old Amsterdam and Albert's Chop House: Christmas Comes Early to Manchester

I am sorry. I have let you all down, and you can rest assured that, since Tuesday night, I've been sitting here quietly, thinking about what I've done. For since Tuesday night, I have been feeling festive, despite it barely being mid-October.

The finger of blame must point squarely at the cheese and wine matching event I attended last week, hosted by the dream team of Chris Chisnall of Bradbury Cheese and George Bergier, sommelier extraordinaire from Albert's Chop House. The idea was to let us sample a range of cheese, and suggest some wine matches for each one - perhaps some less obvious pairings that you wouldn't normally think of (particularly if, like me, you simply eat lumps of cheese whenever you pass the fridge, and wash it down with whatever comes to hand). Here's what we had:

1. Old Amsterdam with Three Choirs Coleridge Hill. First up, Old Amsterdam - a 12 month-matured Gouda that has a pretty permanent residency in my fridge. I tend to use it in cheese sauces and the like, but found it also most acceptable eaten neat and washed down with a zippy little number from Gloucestershire. The very slight sweetness of the wine worked well with the saltiness of the cheese, and proved - thrillingly, for a Somerset girl - that the West Country can produce something more than cider, and The Wurzels.

2. Belton Farm Red Fox with Kleine Zazle Chenin Blanc. I am normally a little suspicious of anything that looks remotely like a Red Leicester, considering its dry blandness a waste of calories and stomach space, but this was a revelation - Red Fox is matured for 14 months, and the result is a creamy, full-flavoured cheese that looks like a Red Leicester but is a hundred times better. The high acidity of the South African Chenin cut through this creaminess with aplomb - another successful pairing.

3. Quickes Mature Cheddar with Kleine Rust, Stellenbosch. A good strong Cheddar this, matured for 12 months wrapped in muslin (and, according to Chris, smeared in pig lard - not entirely sure if this is true, but I include it here purely because I can think of at least one person who will boak when she reads it). The wine worked beautifully, a slightly smoky blend of Pinotage and Shiraz from one of my very favourite wine regions - I could drink a lot of this.

4. Brie de Meaux with Fortant Sauvignon Blanc and Mamaku Savignon Blanc. This was a proper Brie - the sort that smells of sprouts and cabbage, and has to be physically scraped from plate to mouth in one sticky-faced swipe. There was some disagreement over which of the wines best matched the cheese; I thought they both coped well with the pushy ripeness of the Brie, but I tend to prefer a New Zealand Sauvignon over a French, and that was the case here. By the way, in the picture you see here, Chris is just about to teleport the whole lot into his mouth - or was perhaps just in the middle of telling us about it, one or the other.

5. Cropwell Bishop Stilton with Grahams LBV (2007) and Royal Tokaji. And this was it - the moment Christmas came to Manchester: a strong, creamy Stilton with a lovely big fat glass of fruity Port. This, to me, is one of life's perfect combinations, and although some people preferred the pairing of the Tokaji dessert wine, for me there was no contest. Seriously, if I'd had one to hand, I would have put the Christmas tree up when I got home, so festive was I feeling.

I had to cut my cheese evening slightly short to run across Albert Square for a Manchester Literature Festival event at the Town Hall - but I did at least have the satisfaction of sitting amongst an erudite, literary audience secure in the knowledge that I was probably the only one there with a piece of Old Amsterdam in her handbag...

- Albert's Chop House is in The Memorial Hall, Albert Square, Manchester, M2 5PF; tel 0161 834 1866. Bradbury Cheese is based in Buxton, and you can admire their cheesy wares here.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Black Dog Ballroom NQ: Beer, Pool, and Being Beaten By a Burger

Now, I like a posh night out as much as the next person; more, possibly, depending on whether that next person also shares a weakness for fiddly things on fancy plates and shoes they can't really walk in. I had a pretty posh time on Thursday at the Vogue Fashion's Big Night Out, for example, involving drinking champagne with Nicky Clarke and then eating an entire platter of Australasia sushi amongst all the whippets at the Emporio Armani party - all the while teetering precariously in a pair of hot Victorian urchin boots that raise me to the height of 6'3". One cannot spend one's life, however, eating finger food and sporting ludicrous footwear, and thus you are equally likely to find me somewhere like Black Dog Ballroom - where, in fact, I was last night.

The original and best Black Dog is in the Northern Quarter, underneath Affleck's Palace - an unlikely setting, but one which works, managing to be both pretty spacious and pleasingly dingy (as you will see later in the less pleasingly dingy photographs, which look as if they have been taken at the bottom of the sea, by a particularly unskilled marine creature, with a particularly ancient model of iPhone). Anyway, last night it was pretty quiet there, with most of Manchester seemingly at home in its pyjamas watching the football; here's why everyone should have been at Black Dog Ballroom NQ instead:

1. The food here is quite astonishingly good value. True, the menu is pretty straightforward, offering burgers, pizzas and salads for mains and some carb-laden, deep-fried items for starters, but sometimes this is exactly the kind of food you need, particularly when it's cold outside - I'm pretty sure I burned off several hundred calories simply by dint of waiting at the tram stop for ten minutes in an unsuitable outfit. For starters, I had the potato skins with cheddar cheese, bacon and sour cream, whilst the ever-lovely Didsbury Girl went for the deep fried Mozzarella sticks with salsa dip; both good examples of their ilk, but both easily big enough to count as a main if you added a side order (perhaps of sweet potato fries - the couple at the next table had these and they looked lovely - the fries, not the couple).

The mains were even bigger, although to be fair, I had ordered what was clearly the biggest item on the menu. The £12 Half Pound Hound promises a half pound burger with bacon, Philly steak, cheese, onion rings and a side of coleslaw - and that's exactly what came, although with (I think) six onion rings rather than the couple I expected. The burger was perhaps a little TOO meaty, and I would have preferred it a little moister, but the fries were good, the onion rings excellent, and the overal effect more than satisfying. Meanwhile, Didsbury Girl's spicy bean burger with garlic mayo, salad and Black Dog relish was also on the big side - and she will not thank me for telling you she took half home in her handbag and has apparently consumed it with much pleasure this morning as a breakfast item.

2. The drinks are also pretty reasonable, particularly if you make it in for Yappy Hour on a Monday to Friday between 4 and 7pm, when a carafe of house wine is £5, a bottle of San Miguel Fresco is £2.50 and selected cocktails are £4. We had just missed this, but ordered a couple of cocktails each from the menu - first up a Passionfruit Tequila Mojito (made with El Jimidor Bianco, passionfruit, mint and lime) and a Long Island Iced Tea. Both of these were excellent - tons of mint in the Mojito and a nice sourness to the Long Island Iced tea. For our second round, we had a French Martini and a Bramble - both well-made but perhaps a little on the sweet side.

3. The music is great. We walked in to Gorillaz Feel Good Inc and never looked back.

4. The pool tables. We had every intention of taking advantage of the four red pool tables beckoning to us enticingly from the back of the bar, but my ill-judged (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to eat the entire Half Pound Hound rendered this idea both impractical and unwise. Next time, though - tables can be booked for £5 per hour, and I reckon there is pretty much no limit to how many times I could lose heavily in such a time period.

5. An actual Black Dog. Yes, Black Dog Ballroom NQ DOES have a semi-resident black dog, who patrols the bar and keeps an eye out for trouble-makers - he is nice, and I would have tried to smuggle him home in Didsbury Girl's giant handbag had it not already been filled with spicy bean burger as depicted here for illustrative purposes:

- Black Dog Ballroom NQ is in the basement of Affleck’s Palace, on the corner of Tib Street / Church Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester M4 1PW; tel: 0161 839 0664. We were invited as guests of the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our food or drink, but as the spicy bean burger has now fed Didsbury Girl for her last two meals at a cost of £7.95 we feel it to be excellent value.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Vogue Fashion's Night Out Comes to Manchester...and Reserve by The Liquorists Arrives on King Street

So. Just because I'm a teacher, doesn't mean I don't have a passing interest in fashion. True, I spend most of each day in the company of those for whom a crop top, a day-glo legging and an Ugg boot is not only sartorially desirable but compulsory; true, I am partial to a cardigan and a ballet pump, and indeed essentially wear the same fleet of small dresses all year round but simply adapt them for winter with the addition of some tights and a nice chunky rib knit; true, I am nearing the age of ninety five now anyway, and will soon be too old for anything other than a bed jacket and matching socks. But I am still pretty excited that next Thursday 10th October sees the first time that the annual Vogue Fashion's Night Out has dared to pack its bags and move North for the evening - a night that essentially sees all my favourite shops not only open late for bonus shopping opportunities, but also with added sparkle, and booze, and glamour, and things on sticks. There's stuff going on all over the city, but I've got my eye on Spinningfields, where I plan to do each and every one of the following:

- drink champagne at Mulberry whilst having an Essie manicure
- drink Aperol at Emporio Armani whilst hob-nobbing with Vogue Fashion Editor Francesca Burns
- dash over to Flannels for further hob-nobbing, this time with Matthew Williamson, who will be waiting there to guide me through his Autumn-Winter collection (hope there's cardies)
- drink more champagne, this time at Nicky Clarke, whilst having an intelligent discussion with the man himself regarding the benefits or otherwise of Argan oil
- and all of this secure in the knowledge that the fashionable whippet waifs prowling the stores will have absolutely no interest whatsoever in any of the food, thereby allowing me to make off with every passing tray of canap├ęs.

Finally, as if next Thursday wasn't exciting enough, it also sees the opening of Reserve by The Liquorists, a new shop-cum-bar popping up on King Street for the next three months - during which time they will take most of my money and all of my soul. Their event for Vogue Fashion's Night, sponsored by Grand Marnier, starts at 6pm - and luckily, as I'll no doubt be in a nice ballet pump, I might just have time to nip there between hob-nobbing...