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Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Grand Pacific, Spinningfields: A New Winner from Living Ventures

Now, not everyone is a fan of Living Ventures, Tim Bacon and Jeremy Roberts' wildly successful bar and restaurant operation. Some Manchester residents find them a little too ubiquitous, particularly in the Spinningfields area, whilst others have had a rogue experience in one of Living Ventures' many brands (Artisan, for example, has attracted some very mixed reviews, and Alchemist Spinningfields is simply not for me - although I do like the New York Street one). The cachet of landing Aiden Byrne's Manchester House has, however, given the brand a real boost amongst people who are serious about good food, and if my experience at Grand Pacific earlier this week is anything to go by, this new pocket-sized bar and restaurant looks sets to attract further plaudits.

Grand Pacific, although it has a clear identity in its own right, is an extension of the underground Australasia restaurant, offering some much-needed outdoor space in the form of a fully covered heated terrace that looks just perfect for dining in pretty much all weather. We chose to sit inside, in the small but perfectly formed colonial-style restaurant with its overhead fans and oversized chairs; indeed, we far preferred the laid back atmosphere of Grand Pacific over the rather more opulent glamour of big sister Australasia. Of course, the quality of the food is what really matters, particularly as Grand Pacific is not the cheapest place to eat in town. The restaurant aims to combine "modern Australian cuisine and Pacific Rim flavours"; indeed, we felt we could have happily eaten pretty much anything from the extensive menu and found it hard to restrict ourselves to a non-embarrassing number of choices.

In the end, we went for the 14-piece mixed Sushi and Sashimi selection followed by something (or, ahem, things) from each of the Tempura, Robata Grill and Small Plates sections. The selection platter was flawless: eight different sushi varieties including California rolls, and six perfect slivers of sashimi, all beautifully presented in a manner that caused even me to pause for a second before ruining it with my amateurish chopstick skills (only a second, mind). It tasted as good as it looked - peerlessly fresh and each packed with flavour. My only criticism is that I feel most people would order this platter to share, and whilst there were two slices of each type of sashimi, each of the sushi was unique: this obviously allows the greedy diner to sample a wide variety, but makes for difficult division of food items when both of you want to try everything.

Our helpful waiter suggested the rest of our food arrive in two waves, with the slightly lighter dishes arriving first. The soft shell crab tempura was a prime example of this most obliging of crustaceans, encased in a light and crispy batter, whilst the tuna tartar was one of the standout dishes of the night - beautifully fresh chopped fish served very simply with a soy reduction that added a salty edge to the fatty blandness of the lovely tuna. An unexpected star of the first wave was the gado gado salad - crisp lettuce, crunchy croutons, whole peanuts and a rich satay-style dressing. Apparently, not many people order this - a fact which made me want to weep, and run my finger round the dish to eat up every last scrap of dressing in support for this lovely dish (I did, in truth, complete the second of these actions; the gado gado remained quiet, but clearly appreciated my show of solidarity).

The second wave included our meat choices, along with a roasted aubergine dish that had a real chilli kick to it. The pork wontons were the highlight here - three glutinous glories where the wrappers were every bit as tasty as the porcine filling; I try not to use the word "unctuous" too often, rationing myself to perhaps once or twice a month, but here I have really no option. We also enjoyed the Szechuan salt and pepper beef skewers and the Teriyaki beef - the latter in particular really showcasing the joy of simply-seared meat in a sticky, salty sauce.

We were too full for dessert but I did fancy something sweet - so I went for the Banana Pancakes cocktail, complete with cookie (now that's my kind of garnish). This is quite simply my new favourite thing, although I now know that too much slurping of creamy, fruity, coconut milky goodness leads to brain freeze - this mistake did admittedly have to be repeated several times before the message got through. The cocktail menu here is a joy - essentially classics and old favourites with an Asian twist - you see here, for example, the superlative rose and lychee Martini alongside my splendid behemoth. I literally can hardly wait to come back and try the rest.

Any drawbacks then? Yep - cost. We were lucky enough to eat as guests of the restaurant (although we were not required to be positive - we really did enjoy the food this much) but under normal circumstances I simply wouldn't be able to afford to eat from the full menu on a regular basis. I have, however, already arranged to come back for cocktails with some girlfriends, and there are a couple of offers running that would make for a reasonably-priced repast. The lunch menu runs until five and offers four dishes from a tempting selection for £20, and the Asian High Tea also sounds good value at £25 a head, particularly as this includes a glass of fizz. We also felt the wine list was very well priced, with prices from £18 for an excellent Sauvignon.

And after this classy meal? We went to the Oast House, and listened to a man play Beatles songs on an upright piano. Manchester, I couldn't love you MORE.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Good Gobble Blog's Inaugural Colombian Supper Club: Rum, Shorts and Ceviche Bring Sunshine to Rainy Manchester

Unsurprisingly, I'm a pretty keen supporter of the supper club, at pretty much any time of year. The concept is simple: someone who likes cooking and has a house with a decent dining space devises and prices up a menu, sells places to guests - friends or otherwise - online in exchange for a deposit, cooks aforementioned menu for said guests, passes round envelopes for remaining balance, shoos guests from property, collapses on sofa - although I'm assuming the last bit, as I have always been shooed from the property by that point of the evening. It's frankly a perfect arrangement - you get to eat lovely food with interesting, like-minded people whilst drinking your own booze in the comfort of someone else's (always very tidy) house, and then swan off without doing the washing up.

And let's face it - this kind of arrangement has even more appeal on a filthy wet and cold Manchester night, combining all the advantages of going out with all the benefits of staying in (it's surely only a matter of time before people are permitted to take their pyjamas along to such events). Last night saw the trial run for a new supper club by the nice folks at Good Gobble Blog, whom you may have encountered trading as Arepa!Arepa!Arepa! at Levenshulme Market, selling their fiendishly tasty Columbian flatbreads to an easily-addicted populace. As Jules and Bailey are 25% Columbian and have spent a great deal of time there, it's no surprise that they have chosen to cook this kind of food for their new supper club, which will offer various dates in February to make up for Levy Market selfishly taking its winter break. So, I donned my denim hotpants (yes, really - I did have tights on though) and joined some charming fellow bloggers in snarfing the following at Jules and Bailey's Levenshulme home - apologies for the quality of photographs, which perfectly capture the intimate, candle-lit atmosphere at the minor expense of you actually being able to see what we ate.

¡Guayaba!¡Guayaba!¡Guayaba!: a cool guava cooler pepped up with ginger, rum and lime. No picture of this as girls wearing hot pants in January need to apply a layer of warming alcohol pretty quickly.

Coctel De Camarones: shrimp ceviche served on saltine crackers with a zinging hot sauce.

Tamales De Pescado: steamed sea bass on a bed of spiced masa mix topped with an achiote chilli butter, all wrapped in a banana leaf and accompanied by a side of fresh lime and corn salsa. You see it here as a before and after - any imperfections in the latter are entirely due to my feverish excitement in extracting the fish from its wrapping, Christmas Day style.

Bandeja Paisa: Colombia’s national dish - pan fried spiced belly pork, slow cooked pinto beans with ham hock, chorizo, ground beef, baked ripe plantain, fresh avocado, stewed tomato and onion sauce ‘hogao’ served with rice and topped with a fried egg, with a mini arepa on the side.

Torta Negra Colombiana: a traditional Colombian celebration cake made with molasses and boozey fruit, served with a cherimoya ice cream.

Colombian coffee & panelita: aka Colombian fudge.

Yep - I ate the lot, and had seconds wherever possible. Everything you see here was even nicer than it sounds, and the slickness of service made it hard to believe that this was simply a trial run. There might be a few tweaks when the menu is announced for real, but essentially these are high quality ingredients lovingly cooked by people who know what they're doing and are also excellent hosts. I can't recommend highly enough that you keep an eye on their Twitter feeds (@goodgobbleblog and @ArepaArepaArepa) for forthcoming announcements, as I've a feeling these will sell out pretty quickly...

- As this was a dry run, Jules and Bailey invited us to make whatever contribution we felt appropriate, which they plan to donate to charity. I was briefly tempted to write them a bad review for not letting me keep the glass with the cat on it, but my better nature has prevailed.

Monday, 20 January 2014

New Brunch Menu at SoLIta: Evil Genius Franco Plots to Seduce Manchester with his Steak Eggs Benedict

Now, by and large I consider it a good thing to follow bars and restaurants on Twitter, or to like their pages on Facebook. For one thing, you can keep up to date with offers and special deals; for another, you can enter competitions to win stuff just by retweeting or clicking "like". All good then.

Well, nearly all good. For a greedy person like myself, one's timeline can become a constant stream of temptation, as clever restaurants post pictures of the sexy daily special or their big fat Sunday roast, often causing the poor defenceless consumer to throw aside their sad little bit of Marmite toast and rampage it into town to consume half a pig and a side of fries before you can say "sucker". One of the worst culprits for this is SoLIta, already a regular weakness of mine, who have become most adept at flooding my timeline with photos of ever-sexier burgers that I am simply powerless to resist. Take the Burger Wellington, for example - a 6oz fillet steak burger topped with pâté, mushroom duxelles, Madeira sauce and housed in a bun-shaped puff pastry case. Within hours of this handsome fellow pitching up in my line of vision, I had recruited a dear friend - and SoLIta virgin - to go there with me for lunch, not least because I had heard the current Krabby Patty special was on borrowed time and not likely to be with us much longer.

Both were as good as we'd hoped - although my friend feels he has let us all down by removing the puff pastry top in this photograph and therefore not showing us the overall burger-bun effect. The burger was beautifully rare and we felt that the combination of ingredients here was really clever - it was exactly like a Beef Wellington, but cooler, and more fun, much like ourselves. He felt the layer of pâté was thicker than it needed to be, but that may well be down to what he had already consumed - more of that in a moment. Meanwhile, my Krabby Patty was ace: a whole soft shell crab battered and deep-fried, and pretty damned cross about it - just look at him here, angrily waving his army things at me and accidentally dipping them in the ketchup as a result.

We did well to eat them both, as Franco had promised in that breezy way of his to send out a couple of samples from the new brunch menu before our mains for us to try - turns out that Franco's idea of a taster is actually a plate of food that would feed a family of four for a week (or, me, for a good hour at least). The brunch menu launches this Friday and will be available Friday to Sunday until 1pm; the full line-up was being finalised today along with portion size and pricing. However, if the rest of the menu is as good as the two dishes we tried, I can guarantee Manchester will love it. Here you see the Steak Eggs Benedict - two slabs of beautiful rib-eye steak along with capers and the usual poached eggs, muffins and hollandaise sauce. This was honestly one of the tastiest things either of us had ever eaten - the sauce was nicely vinegary and the capers added another layer of acidity to the excellent quality and flavour of the meat.

The second dish we tried was the artery-busting buttermilk fried chicken served with sweet waffles and a rich sausage gravy, a dish so filthily good it ought to be immediately banned, for all our sakes. We found ourselves defeated by the sheer size of carbohydrate, but loved the combination of crunchy-coated tender chicken and sweet waffle, as well as the gratuitous but entirely welcome presence of the creamy, sausage-flecked emulsion adding those vital extra calories.

As with much of what SoLIta does, the new brunch menu looks set to be a winner - classic dishes with just a little bit of Northern Quarter wit and invention. Go there hungry and/or hungover, and leave feeling like a champion - Manchester, I am already crying tears of joy and gratitude on all our behalfs.

- SoLIta is on Turner Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester M4 1DW; tel. 0161 839 2200. We were not asked to pay for our brunch samples but if you look at those pictures you'll know I'm not faking any enthusiasm here.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

James Martin Manchester: Patchiness and Perfection at Manchester 235

I always have the very best of intentions for Saturday mornings. Nominally, they are ear-marked for "general household duties": cleaning the bathroom, perhaps, or changing the bed sheets. What of course inevitably happens is that - like, I suspect, most of the population of Britain - I end up eating lots of toast and watching Saturday Kitchen in my pyjamas.

The popularity of said show amongst people who are meant to be elsewhere cleaning bathrooms goes some way to explaining the high level of interest in Saturday Kitchen's genial host James Martin coming to Manchester and taking over the old Linen restaurant within the 235 Casino. Now, I very much liked Linen, and always felt it was criminally underpopulated - perhaps as a result of people not knowing of its existence as a standalone restaurant not requiring casino membership. However, anyone who uses as much cream and butter in his cooking as James Martin immediately has my attention, and although the demands on his time mean he is not often at the Manchester restaurant, I was still pretty excited to see what delights the six course taster menu would bring.

What it actually brought was a mixed bag. From the six courses served up, I felt three were outstanding, one was good, one had good elements but was off-balance in its combination of ingredients, and one was almost inedible (I say almost - this is me we're talking about, after all). Here's what we had:

1. Cauliflower and truffle veloute, toasted rice. This arrived almost as soon as we'd sat down, and made a very pleasant - if uneventful - starter. The soup was perhaps a little overwhipped for my taste - I prefer a little more substance - but the flavours came through clearly and the accompanying basket of bread was generous.

2. 45 degree confit salmon, Yorkshire forced rhubarb, pickled mooli. Now, this one sounded pretty good - and it looked beautiful when it arrived at the table. The salmon was perfectly cooked - moist and slightly oily, just as it should be. However, this dish was wildly off-balance - the rhubarb added little to the salmon, and the pickled mooli was not sharp enough to cut through the rich sweetness of the dish. Even more ill-advisedly, the dainty white blobs you see here forming a circle around my salmon Stonehenge are vanilla mayonnaise - overly sweet, very cloying, and totally mismatched with the salmon. A shame.

3. Smoked cod cheeks, braised short rib, red wine tartare dressing. Another exciting-sounding combination - I am particularly fond of cod cheeks and was excited to see them on the menu. Unfortunately they were overcooked to the point of rubberiness, and virtually inedible due to their saltiness (and in fact my friend, being less greedy than me, did actually give up on theirs). When the waitress (who was otherwise charming) asked about our meal, we mentioned the saltiness - to which she cheerfully replied that people often said that, and that the short rib was very salty. It seems a little strange, then, to keep offering this combination in the face of such feedback - another disappointment.

4. Herdwick lamb, roasted rump, slow cooked belly, Jerusalem artichoke. This needed to be good - and it really was. Each lamb component was beautifully cooked, and was complemented by the rich, nutty pearl barley risotto on which the whole dish was balanced; I'm also a sucker for Jerusalem artichokes, and very much enjoyed them here both roasted and pureed. One small criticism was the lack of green vegetables thus far - I'm not saying I was expecting a trough of sprouts and cabbage (although I'll never say no), but so far the only bit of green we'd witnessed was a little samphire atop the cod cheeks - and even I know that when a vegetable is battered and deep-fried, it doesn't really count.

5. Yellison goat's curd, beetroot, anise poached pear. Whilst the previous course was excellent, this was simply extraordinary - one of the best combination of ingredients I have ever eaten. Beetroot has a natural, earthy sweetness, and serving it up with tangy goat's curd, soft spicy pears and a smattering of salty peanuts was nothing short of inspired. If I had a Michelin star in my handbag (I don't), I would pin it upon this dish in a heartbeat.

6. Dark chocolate, sable, yoghurt sorbet, pistachio. I'm not normally a fan of dark chocolate desserts, often finding them too heavy, rich and cloying. However, this dish was a perfect example of foods that flatter each other (vanilla mayonnaise please take note), with the sharp tang of the yoghurt sorbet and the earthy nuttiness of the pistachio balancing out the dish and eliminating any potential for clagginess. I ate all of this with pleasure, something I rarely say about chocolate puddings.

All in all then, a mixed performance. When it was good it was really outstanding, but I can't help thinking that diners visiting a restaurant bearing the name of such a well-known chef will expect greater levels of consistency. That said, I would go again, particularly as the six course taster menu is available throughout January at a very reasonable £30 per head, which includes a drink as well. The staff are lovely, the wine list is well-chosen and reasonably priced (we had the Boomerang Shiraz, which was excellent value at £21 a bottle), and the restaurant had a very healthy buzz about it on a filthy wet Sunday night. Oh, and we were lucky enough to go as guests of the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our meal - it's just a pity I "re-invested" it all at the Blackjack table on my way out...

- James Martin Manchester is at Manchester235, Great Northern, 2 Watson Street, Manchester M3 4LP; T: 0161 828 0345; E:

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Drop Dead Chocolates Revisited - with Same Predictably Greedy Results

I'm sorry. It's the 4th of January, and I know from Facebook and Twitter (not from real life obviously, as I've not been out my pyjamas for at least a week) that many of you are a short, painful way into a healthy eating phase or - even worse - a dry January. How any of you find this possible is beyond me - I am still living in an eerie parallel universe where one has a fridge full of cheese and eats smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast every day, with a Toblerone at tea time and a handful of After Eights before bed just for good measure.

And if you are one of the many currently enjoying a nice cup of chamomile and a couple of dry Ryvitas, then I'm afraid I'm quite possibly going to compound your woes by writing about the nicest chocolates I have ever had. I've been lucky enough to sample a box of Drop Dead Chocolates before, and as chief chocolate honcho Jonathan Danby (or JD as we so wittily call him, revealing our alcoholic tendencies at every turn) is one of the nicest men around he kindly suggested I try another box containing some of his brand new flavours (reasoning, no doubt, that the house of an exceptionally greedy food blogger always has room for a few more goodies at this most gluttonous time of the year).

Now to be fair, I'm quite a hard sell when it comes to chocolate. I do not have a naturally sweet tooth - a fact for which I thank my lucky stars on a daily basis, for it is all that keeps me from being the size of a comfortable family bungalow. I would often honestly rather have a sprout than a chocolate, and find most confectionery too sweet - but one of the joys of Drop Dead Chocolates is that you can make up your own selection by filling a box with only the ones that you like (ergo, no unwanted orange creams or Turkish Delight ever again). If I were to make up my own box it would consist almost entirely of Salted Caramels - the box JD gave me included four of each of the new flavours, and these four were wolfed within the space of approximately 30 seconds. For some, they would perhaps be too salty, but for me the combination of dark chocolate, salt crystals and soft sweet caramel was pretty much as good as it gets. You can see one of these fine fellows here in its sultry death throes:

Other highlights included the Tequila Slammer - every bit as decadently boozy as you would hope, and once again benefitting from a few choice grains of salt - and the Dark Chocolate Praline with Caramelised Nuts, a sexy, sturdy bullet of thick dark chocolate studded with sweet, crunchy shards. JD has also introduced a number of unbearably cute chocolates shaped like mini macarons - I found these a fraction too sweet for my tastes but did admire how each actually tasted of the fruit it was flavoured with and particularly enjoyed the Green Apple Ganache variety.

Good chocolates don't come cheap, but I would treat myself to a box of these any day over a bagful of mass-produced nonsense. The boxes look beautiful and fit perfectly through the letterbox, and the company (and JD in particular) is lovely to deal with - professional, friendly, and always happy to talk rubbish on Twitter. Have a look at the Drop Dead Chocolates website here; if you can resist buying the lot, you're a better person than me. JD gave me this box for review purposes, but I bought loads of stuff from him for Christmas presents and can offer no higher recommendation than this! And to be fair, after a dry January of cabbage soup and green tea, you know you'll deserve a big fat box of these...