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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Manchester Gourmet Club at Didsbury Parsonage: Robert Owen Brown and Kate Goodman Make Some LOVELY Pairs

A few weeks ago, I wrote about chef Robert Owen Brown's latest food venture - a six course taster menu matched with wines chosen by Kate Goodman, under the name Manchester Gourmet Club. And Manchester got very excited - not by my blog post unfortunately, which was as lowbrow as ever - but at the thought of the majestic titian one once again cooking up unusual animal parts for our delectation. The inugural Manchester Gourmet Club, held at Didsbury Parsonage last Saturday, sold out completely - and here's why...

Aperitif: Perles de L’Angelier, Sparkling Muscadet (Loire, France). I've never had a sparkling Muscadet before, and it was quite simply a revelation - slightly off dry and easily as good as many champagnes on the market. Kate (pictured here in the middle of telling us something clever about wine, to which we are not fully listening because we are all drinking wine) sells this in her splendid wine shop Reserve Wines at £12.50 a pop, and I envisage this is something I will end up buying on a pretty regular basis.

Jerusalem Artichoke Soup, with Fernando de Castilla, Manzanilla (Jerez, Spain). Always tricky to match soup with wine: two lots of liquid, no matter how nice, just make for a sloshy stomach. Kate circumvented this problem by matching the sweet velvety soup with a dainty glass of crisp dry sherry, a combination that we all thought worked surprisingly well.

Game Terrine of Wild Rabbit Sweetbread, Pigeon, Truffle Chutney, matched with Selbach Oster, Zeltlinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese. 2008. (Mosel, Germany). This was my favourite course and wine of the night - a coarse, gamey terrine packed loosely into a dinky kilner jar and served with a deliciously truffley black emulsion (tip - sit next to someone who doesn't like truffle, then you'll get theirs as well). The Riesling was just stunning, although at £23.50 a bottle I simply daren't let myself get a taste for this.

Cockles, Mussels & Morecambe Bay Shrimps with Chive Cream, matched with Coto de Gomariz Blanco. 2011 (Ribeiro, Spain). A classic Robert Owen Brown dish, although the wine was my least favourite of the night - for me, it just failed to quite cope with the sweetness of the seafood. Still drank it, mind.

Earl Grey Smoked Duck with Parsnip, Beetroot & Mead, matched with Porter Mill Station, Pinotage. 2013 (Swartland, South Africa). The only red of the night, and it was a good one, its slight smokiness perfectly complementing the earthiness of the root vegetables, the sweetness of the mead and the rich pinkness of the duck. Even better, this one is a bargainous £8.99 - we all agreed it tasted as good as many far more expensive examples of this grape.

Roast Rhubarb with Butterscotch Cream, matched with Chateau Cerons. 1998 (Cerons, Bordeaux). I'm not normally big on dessert wine, but this one was fresh and peachy rather than cloyingly sweet, and therefore didn't overwhelm the delicate, slightly sharp rhubarb. This dish looked beautiful, like a gorgeous greedy present, although we weren't entirely sure whether we were meant to eat the decoration or wear it as a snappy corsage.

Blue & Goat's Cheese, matched with Butler & Nephew, 20 Year Old Tawny Port (Douro, Portugal). Due to a late change to the advertised cheeses I can't give you any more detail here other than, in the words of our chef, "one of 'em's French". I can add to this, "they were both very nice", "I bloody love Port" and "my word, the person I'm sharing this plate with can certainly snarf blue cheese very quickly".

The overall consensus - bearing in mind that we'd just drunk seven wines - was that Rob was marvellous, Kate was lovely and really terribly clever about wine, and that we'd all been most excellent company and had had a splendid night. I can't recommend highly enough that you sign up to their mailing list here on the website and watch it LIKE A HAWK for the next one - I certainly will be.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Breakfast at Spinningfields: Steak and Cocktails at The Alchemist, Manchester

I've never really understood people who don't eat breakfast. For me, it is simply one of the highlights of the day, and often the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning - after a tiresome ten hours or so of not eating ANYTHING, I literally cannot wait to break my fast and begin a new day of gastronomic pleasure.

Thus I was most interested to be invited to try the breakfast menu at The Alchemist; I didn't even know they did breakfast at The Alchemist, better known for its cocktail menu than its sausages, but they do - every day at the one on New York Street and at weekends in Spinningfields. Now, I'm not a massive fan of the Spinningfields outpost - it's an odd-shaped space and gets far too full for my liking, but I'd only ever been in the evening before and found yesterday morning that I much prefer it as a daytime venue. All those windows mean the place feels far more light and open than it does at night, and although still very busy, the atmosphere was one of relaxed bustle rather than deafening hubbub - and yes, I'm fully aware I sound about ninety years old when I say all of this.

Anyway, on to the food. If there's one nation that properly embraces the concept of breakfast it's the Americans, and the influence of our hungry friends across the pond is clearly apparent in the Alchemist menu. In other words, you couldn't eat it every day without quickly becoming the size of a house, but once you've been allowed steak for breakfast your sad little slice of Marmite toast will evermore appear wildly unsatisfactory in comparison.

You see my steak here - a 5oz sirloin cooked pink and served with two fried eggs and some hopelessly cute mini hash browns. This was a very generous piece of meat, and was well-flavoured, tender and beautifully cooked, with just a little of the tasty fat left along the side. The eggs were just as I like them, with crispy frilly edges but soft, runny yolks, and an obliging waiter let me pour tomato sauce over the whole lot without once intimating that this might be a little uncouth.

My dining companions were just as impressed with their own choices: respectively, The American (Belgian waffle with two eggs, bacon and sausage, plus hot maple syrup and butter), Eggs Florentine (two poached eggs, spinach, English muffin and hollandaise sauce) and Eggs Royale (as the Florentine but with salmon rather than spinach). No-one could find any fault with anything - the waffles were particularly commended for their fluffy-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside armadillo qualities, and the hollandaise was thought to be be superlatively thick and glossy, In fact, our only criticism of the whole menu was the relative lack of vegetarian options - our charming waitress explained that dishes could be adapted, but we still felt a veggie sausage or two would add more choice to the menu in this regard.

The menu is also to be applauded for its encouragement of a fortifying early morning drink in the form of a breakfast cocktail. All four of us loved the Breakfast at Tiffany's - a heady combination of gin, Cointreau, lemon juice and sugar, made into an entirely acceptable brunch item by the addition of marmalade. We also enjoyed the non-alcoholic passion fruit and pineapple smoothie, seen here with some pink grapefruit juice and a cup of coffee that was declared excellent (and which did arrive full - you see it here after it had been tested and declared excellent).

So, great food and drink, cheerful and helpful service and a convivial atmosphere. The only drawback I can see here is cost - we dined as guests of the restaurant, but it would be very easy to get carried away and run up a large-ish bill, as although the food is pretty reasonable (my whopping steak was £9.95), all those drinks would start to add up. Still, as an occasional treat it would be lovely; indeed, we are already planning a return visit. Just remember not to drink too many cocktails and then pop round the corner to LK Bennett, or it turns into a VERY expensive breakfast indeed...

- The Alchemist Spinningfields is at 3 Hardman Street, Manchester M3 3HF, tel: 0161 817 2950. Breakfast is served between 10am and 1pm on Saturdays and Sundays, when the sun is surely over the yard arm somewhere.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Guest Blog Post: Local Girl Drinks Prosecco at the New Look Piccolino’s

Now, I'm pretty good at eating and drinking. I can sometimes even be in two places at once, particularly if it involves, um, eating and drinking. Not even I, however, could manage to be at both Red's True BBQ in central Manchester AND Piccolino's in Bramhall last Wednesday night - step forward selfless guest blogger Caroline... *screen goes wavy; harp music; new voiceover begins*

Now as a local girl, who loves a good Italian, I was delighted to be invited to review one of my regular eating haunts, Piccolino’s Bramhall, particularly as it’s had a ‘new year, new look’ make over. And what a make over it is! The interior has been revamped and boasts a tantalizing new menu.

Food is the main event here and we were treated to a varied sample from the newly introduced tapas menu which is handily available to eat in the bar area and offers a more relaxed and informal dinning experience, and, let’s be honest, probably more boozy too. This is where we comfortably sat, joined by two more friends who are frequent visitors, which had the distinct advantage that our glasses where not even allowed to become half empty before they were swiftly topped up with complimentary Prosecco by the smiling bar staff! Wooden starter platters were then distributed amongst the guests at regular intervals. We greedily enjoyed the gamberoni, consisting of delicious morsels of sweet king prawns beautifully sautéed in chilli, garlic and parsley butter and the new Sardinian pecorino, a personal favourite, with its delicate sliver of sweet pear and salty pecorino cheese on top of a super crispy Sardinian flat bread. Other morsels included Coppa di parma, Bruschetta al pomodoro, and sweet little meatballs in a tart tomato reduction which were all equally delicious.

At the heart of the makeover is a new kitchen that boasts a charcoal and wood-burning oven, and the beautifully displayed produce that is dotted around the restaurant’s periphery that closely resemble the deli counters in Selfridges. From this guests can choose from a wonderful selection of fish, such as Cornish sea bass; shellfish (the native lobster looked particularly inviting); and meat, such as 28 dry aged fillet steak, with the addition of separate counters for a variety of beautifully displayed continental salamis and fine Italian cheeses.

The pastas are made daily on site from using premium quality ingredients, and going from previous experience the pasta dishes have always been especially good here and offer good value. The house specials menu also looked very attractive and I look forward to tasting these in the very near future. The 35-day Hereford and limousine prime rib, served with house cut chips, lemon, rocket and Parmesan costing £45.00 for two on Mondays as opposed its normal £55.00, particularly caught my eye.

The atmosphere as always was relaxed and friendly, with both the restaurant’s staff and the genuinely charming Giovanni providing a convivial environment that let the winter storm that was raging outside fade soothingly into background.

The evening was rounded off with a spectacular display from the pizza chef who wowed us with pizza twirling antics. So all in all there is something here for everyone, from an impromptu tapas at the bar with friends, to a reasonably priced but delicious pasta dinner, to an altogether more upmarket and special occasion treat. This is sure to keep Piccolino’s on the map as the eating destination of choice with this local girl anyway.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Red's True BBQ Comes to Manchester: Meat Lovers Rejoice

When I was about fifteen I had a brief brush with vegetarianism. Not, I'm sad to say, from any worthy ethical considerations - animal welfare, depletion of earth's natural resources, etc etc - but largely because vegetarianism was frankly de rigeur for any moody teen in the '90s, and because Morrissey would clearly never consent to be friends with a meat eater.

Thankfully, I soon came to my senses, and am thus able to share the general sense of excitement that Leeds institution Red's True BBQ has this week ventured across the Pennines and opened a brand spanking new restaurant in Manchester, in the old Livebait premises on Albert Square. I can already tell this big, shiny behemoth won't be to everyone's taste, with its evident fondness for neon and loud music and the no-doubt-inevitable queues snaking across the Town Hall cobbles, but I have already fallen slightly in love with Manchester's newest Meat Palace.

Wednesday night was Press Night, and the place - unrecognisable since its Livebait days - was packed despite the storm raging outside. Inside, no-one could give two hoots about the weather - the meat was a-smoking, the burgers were a-flipping, the staff were a-dancing, and I (predictably enough) was a-sniffing out a most excellent whisky sour at the bar. This is a much bigger venue than the Leeds outpost, seating around 185 and offering several different dining areas - they don't take bookings for fewer than eight people (and not at all at weekends), but the clever use of space here hopefully means that the queues will be smaller than those faced by our friends in Yorkshire (we don't have flat caps to keep us warm, for one thing).

The menu is quite simply a meat lover's paradise. It's the 2000 calorie Donut Burger that's been grabbing all the headlines - two hefty meat patties sandwiched between two sweet glazed dougnuts with a substantial amount of bacon and cheese squeezed in for good measure. I tried this during a sneaky preview visit last Saturday (when I was also lucky enough to have a look round the kitchens in the very enjoyable company of Clint and Scott, two of the three owners) and must admit to preferring the Pit Burger, its more savoury cousin: designed to showcase Red's range of smoking talents, this is a burger piled high (and I mean high) with sliced brisket, pulled pork and streaky bacon along with cheese, pickles, salad and sauce. It's pretty special, and easily holds its own against the much-lauded burgers of a couple of other Manchester restaurants who have had this market pretty well boxed-off until now.

On Wednesday night I resisted the call of the Pit Burger and instead turned my fickle affections to one of the Combo plates - in my case, "Combo Four", offering a thrillingly sexy union of Texas beef brisket and pulled pork. Everything is lovingly cooked onsite in one of the restaurant's three enormous smokers, meaning that even tough old brisket becomes both tasty and tender - mine here was served with pickles and a lovely tangy coleslaw, whilst the pulled pork was in the company of some fine crackling and a pot of apple sauce. You can choose your own sides - I went for the twice cooked skin-on fries and the giant onion rings, supposedly "humble" sides but clearly not so. Meanwhile, across the table my friend was up to the elbows in a Bucket O' Bones, a lucky dip where every prize was a rib - tips, baby back, St Louis and beef long. They were all good, but the latter was stunning, accidentally falling off the bone and into my waiting mouth with suspicious regularity. I also like that every table comes equipped with a selection of squeezy sauce bottles so that you can choose how hot and how plentiful you would like your BBQ sauce to be - these are all made in-house, and frankly I'd be happy to eat most of them on their own.

Obviously, I didn't need a dessert. Equally obviously, I had one. You see my Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake here bathed in disco lights and enjoying every second of its brief spell in the neon limelight. Speaking of neon and disco, whilst the food here is something special the atmosphere won't be to everyone's taste - the tables are closely packed, the lights are bright and the music is LOUD. Personally, I loved it - about 80% of what they played might as well be straight off my iPod, and anywhere that plays Bowie, Gorillaz, Jean Knight and Dolly Parton in one thrilling half hour spell has my vote. Even better, you can kid yourself that a bit of a dance round your table will take care of the 50 million calories you have just consumed - just as well, I reckon, as Red's might just become a dangerously fattening habit...

- Red's True BBQ Manchester is at 22 Lloyd Street, Albert Square, M2 5WA; tel 0161 820 9140. We were invited as guests of the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our food or drink; we were not, however, asked to write anything positive (or indeed, anything at all).

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Former Mark Addy Chef Robert Owen Brown Brings the Manchester Gourmet Club to an Excited Didsbury

It's a sad fact of the restaurant trade that places come and go. Some of them depart almost entirely unmourned, whilst others cause a genuine ripple of sadness when their closure is announced. When the kitchens of The Mark Addy pub in Salford failed to reopen after the Christmas break, people were sorrowful, recognising that a Manchester institution was no more - most people who have lived here for a decent length of time will have fond memories of sharing a cheese and pate board or a gargantuan plate of fish and chips on the banks of the Irwell. Even worse, the closure of the Addy kitchen looked set to deprive us of one of our most interesting chefs in Robert Owen Brown, who flew the flag for seasonal local produce and head-to-toe eating long before it was fashionable, and performed the minor miracle of getting me to eat tripe, testicles, lungs and brains (thankfully not all in the same memorable dish). The monthly Gourmet Night was one always one of the highlights of my dining calendar; some of my favourite dishes are dotted seductively about this page just to remind us all what we've been missing.

Fortunately for us all, the flame-haired one is back. Manchester Gourmet Club is a new occasional dining experience that will travel to different locations around our fair city, combining the talents of King Robert of the Kitchen and Queen Kate of the Wine Cellar - aka Kate Goodman of West Didsbury's Reserve Wines, currently to be seen every week on BBC2's Food & Drink programme. Better still - for me - the first one is to be held at Didsbury Parsonage, within staggering distance of my house and a beautiful location in its own right, even when not filled with lovely grub and booze.

The first menu is pure Robert Owen Brown, and looks excellent value at £45 a head for six courses and all wine matches. The details are as follows:

Perles de L’Angelier, Sparkling Muscadet. (Loire, France)

Jerusalem Artichoke Soup
Fernando de Castilla, Manzanilla (Jerez, Spain)

Game Terrine
Wild Rabbit Sweetbread, Pigeon, Truffle Chutney
Selbach Oster, Zeltlinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese. 2008. (Mosel, Germany)

Cockles, Mussels & Morecambe Bay Shrimps with Chive Cream
Coto de Gomariz Blanco. 2011 (Ribeiro, Spain)

Earl Grey Smoked Duck with Parsnip, Beetroot & Mead
Porter Mill Station, Pinotage. 2013 (Swartland, South Africa)

Roast Rhubarb with Butterscotch Cream
Chateau Cerons. 1998 (Cerons, Bordeaux)

Burt’s Blue & Leagram’s Organic ‘Ramshackle’ Cheese
Butler & Nephew, 20 Year Old Tawny Port (Douro, Portugal)

And if you can wait until 7.30 on Saturday 22nd February to eat and drink all of that, you are frankly a stronger person than I will ever be. Further details, including how to book, are available both on the Manchester Gourmet Club's website and on Rob's own site. Welcome back Rob - we've missed you.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Olive Manchester: A Warm Welcome from a Tasty Italian Gem

If I were asked to choose my favourite country (although tragically, I never have been asked), I think my answer would be Italy. I'd like to pretend this is entirely due to erudite, highbrow reasons - the architecture, the art, the culture, the sense of history lurking round every corner...and of course, these all play their part. But when I look back on the three holidays I have taken in Italy, I must confess that every single one of my most vivid memories is something to do with food. From eating the freshest imaginable squid in a square in Sorrento to snarfing a superlative anchovy pizza at the base of Vesuvius whilst admiring a fleet of young men on Vespas, Italy has everything the greedy traveller (me) could wish for.

Eating Italian food in Britain is never going to be quite the same (fewer hot Italian men, for one thing), but there are some decent places in Manchester to keep you going until back in warmer climes. Many of these are independents, such as the lovely Azzurro in West Didsbury, but I have long been a fan of the small Gusto chain, part of Living Ventures and with a restaurant in Didsbury that I frequent most regularly. Olive Bar & Restaurant on Lloyd Street in central Manchester is also one of this tasty Mediterranean family, and was pretty packed on a freezing cold Tuesday night - perhaps due to its very reasonably priced pre-theatre set menu. We wanted the full works, however, and put away the following:

Pre-dinner warm-up: marinated olives and baked rosemary focaccia with olive oil and balsamic vinegar; glass of Prosecco. Cruelly robbed of a passeggiata opportunity by the gales and icy rain outside, instead we sat snugly in the window and watched the world go by with some excellent olives and some well-flavoured, nicely textured bread: far more civilised.

Starters: homemade chicken liver pâté with red onion & cranberry chutney; slow cooked duck and pistachio rigatoni. I consider pâté to be a good benchmark in judging an Italian restaurant - it's not difficult to make, and therefore in any decent place should be a joy. This certainly passed the test, with a layer of butter on top and rich, garlicky, perfectly pink pâté underneath. AND they brought enough toast, which almost never happens, often leaving me to surreptitiously scoop up remaining pâté with rocket leaves that are rarely up to the task. I also approve of menus that allow half portions of pasta for a starter - the duck ragu was nigh-on perfect, clinging seductively to the slinky pasta and reminiscent of a similar dish I once had in the middle of nowhere at an Italian family's kitchen table. Good start.

Mains: Tagliatelle with prawns, garlic and sweet chilli tomato sauce finished with fresh lime and rocket; 6oz chargrilled fillet steak with roasted air dried tomatoes and fries. I nearly always have pizza when I go to Gusto, and therefore took the chance to try something different. The pasta dish was delicious, hiding a generous number of fat crustaceans in a nicely sweet tomato sauce, although I didn't think the rocket added much to the overall effect - it was presumably there for variety in texture but it didn't really work for me and I would order this dish without it next time. The rare steak was well-flavoured and suitably bloody, with the tomatoes adding a note of sweetness and the fries proving utterly irresistible with both sides of the table. Staff were more than accommodating in removing the garlic butter from the dish at our request and replacing it with a beautiful red wine and beetroot reduction in a separate jug. In fact, everyone we encountered all evening was utterly charming, and if they noticed me whipping all the fries in an unladylike manner, they certainly didn't acknowledge this fact.

After this little lot we were far too full for dessert, although I have my eye on one or two things I've mentally lined up for my next visit - the bombolini mini doughnuts, for example, that I've had before at Gusto Didsbury and very much want to meet again. The wine list is well-priced and pleasingly Italian in nature; we had a beautiful Frappato Nerello Mascalese, which was bold enough to cope with the pâté and the steak but didn't overwhelm the prawn dish.

So, no - eating at Olive is not the same as perching on a bar stool in the middle of Florence, or eating fresh fish by the sea in Sorrento. But if there are many more pleasant ways of spending a wet Manchester night, then I'd be very pleased to be introduced to them.

- Olive Bar & Restaurant is at 4 Lloyd Street, Off Deansgate, Manchester M2 5AB; tel: 0161 832 9090, and will be rebranding as a Gusto restaurant later this year. We were invited as guests of the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but we both thought the menu was good value and eat from this chain regularly.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

FitSteps Comes to Salford: Super-Fit Guest Blogger Nicole Puts the Rest of Us (Me) to Shame

As someone who always starts the new year with the best intentions, but somehow falls off the Dryathlon bandwagon, this time I'm determined to stick to my 'New Year, New Me' regime. This year, like some kind of extreme Gym Barbie, it involved the purchase of a rainbow of new gym apparel and some jazzy trainers, a strict no alcohol-no sugar mantra (well, for January at least), and started, rather alarmingly even for me, with a three day juice cleanse. This year, I am continuing with my pre-dawn gym sessions, no matter how much more miserable it is making an already-miserable January. So, this year, you can imagine the excitement when I discovered a form of exercise that is guaranteed to work up a serious sweat, yet is ACTUALLY FUN. The exercise class that can claim this description is none other than Fitsteps - the new dance fitness craze created by stars of Strictly Come Dancing, Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe, and launching this month in Salford.

Each Fitsteps class is 45 minutes long (before you ask, 45 minutes is plenty long enough), and there are seven classes available across Salford: Irlam and Cadishead Leisure Centre, Fit City Ordsall, Fit City Worsley and the newly-refurbished Swinton and Pendlebury Leisure Centre. You don't need to be a member of the facilities, and anyone can attend a class, even solo, as no dance partner is required (no excuses then!).

So what of the class itself? Well, as a regular gym goer, and all-round fitness afficionado, I can report that it is a great cardio workout (perfect for shifting all those extra Christmas-pudding induced pounds), and will train you to improve your posture - something that most of us struggle with due to the typical desk-bound working day. The difference with Fitsteps is that you are able to learn the basic steps of all the classic ballroom dances - cha cha, tango, paso doble, quickstep and samba, among others - but with no need for a dance partner (listen as most of the men in Greater Manchester breathe a sigh of relief). And who needs them anyway? It's super-fun and the perfect activity for a group of girlfriends. See for yourself here.

Part of the 'New Year, New Me' regime involves me trying new things. So I'm donning some legwarmers and heading to my nearest Salford Community Leisure gym. Sequins not included, Brendan sold separately.

- You can find your nearest FitSteps class here. And for anyone finding Nicole's healthy lifestyle too sickeningly pure, I can confirm that I witnessed her snarf at least three peanut butter cookies today with nary a leg wrmer in sight - so there's hope for us all.