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Sunday, 30 March 2014

Zizzi at Manchester Piccadilly: A Tale of Two Pizzas

There's been a lot of talk in the last couple of weeks about blogger integrity. This began with an interesting piece from Jay Rayner about whether it was possible to be honest and impartial in reviewing a free meal, and ended in a bit of a free-for-all in which bloggers were pretty much presented as a bunch of slavering hyaenas, rampaging the streets of Manchester in search of free food and booze and generally turning up at the opening of an envelope etc etc. My own policy has always been a/ honesty, whether it was free or not, and b/ only to go to places I think I would probably have gone to anyway as a paying customer.

And so, when the invite came through to attend the launch of the latest branch of Italian chain Zizzi in Manchester's Piccadilly Gardens, my first thought was to say no. There is a Zizzi in Didsbury not ten minutes from my house, and I have never been; a little hypocritical, then, to go to a freebie at one in town. But the reason I've never got round to going to my local Zizzi is my inability to see beyond my fervent love of Gusto Didsbury - also part of an Italian chain and one of my very favourite places to eat. And, if I'm being perfectly honest, the invite talked of live music and plenty of Aperol Spritz and just sounded, well, like really good fun.

And it was. First impressions were excellent - we ate downstairs and were very impressed with the look of the new restaurant. The high, arched ceiling prevents the space from feeling claustrophobic, and there are some thoughtful touches here, from the beautiful wall panelling to the tins of olive oil on each table. The staff also couldn't have been more helpful, coping superlatively well with a restaurant full of hungry people all sitting down to eat at the same time and still finding time to chat - there is a really friendly, welcoming atmosphere that bodes well for this restaurant's future.

The food itself wasn't quite so perfect, although we did find much to enjoy. We chose from a limited menu, and were brought a generous sharing platter to fight over amongst the four of us as a starter - calamari rings, garlic bread with mozzarella and caramelised balsamic onions, mixed olives, tomato and pesto bread and Italian cured meats. The standout here for me was the garlic bread, which offered exactly the right balance of stink-inducing garlic, mild melty cheese and sweet, soft onions - I really enjoyed this and ate a great deal more than my share. We felt the meats could have been of a slightly higher quality, but I think a slight toughness to the texture was probably a result of getting so many platters ready ahead of time leading to some of it sitting about for a while.

Mains were patchy but with some flashes of quality. I had the linguine ai gamberi: king prawns and courgette ribbons in a hot roquito chilli, tomato and lobster sauce, and found it a pretty pleasing dish - good pasta, cooked al dente and served with generous amounts of courgette and prawn in a nicely spicy sauce. I couldn't taste much lobster going on, but the sauce did have an excellent texture that perhaps reflected its presence if not its flavour. Elsewhere on our table, the dish of choice was the intriguing-sounding Rustica Pizza Pescatore, one half topped with king prawns, courgette, mozzarella, roquito chillies and creme fraiche, and the other with crab, baby plum tomatoes, parsley, capers and rocket. Sounds good, doesn't it, and it looked really good too when it arrived. Unfortunately, both of our pizzas were cold - and although the staff explained that the crab topping was meant to be cold, the prawn half and the entirely of the base was also scarcely above tepid. To be fair, this was instantly put right, and new pizzas brought - we were assured these were fresh out the oven and they were certainly much warmer, although still not perhaps the temperature we would have liked.

Dessert was a sexy trio of chocolate tartufo, tiramisu and lemon meringue sundae, and certainly looked the part. I couldn't try the tiramisu as I don't like coffee and found the lemon dessert a little overly sweet; the tartufo was beautiful though, lovely dark chocolate mousse, not too sweet and with just the right texture. We also had a chocolate fondant-style dessert from the allergens menu for the dairy intolerant member of our party, and this was pronounced superb by everyone on the table, including the dairy lovers.

So am I glad I went? Yes. The menu has some interesting options on it, and some of the dishes suggested that it would be possible to have a pretty good meal here without spending a fortune - particularly in view of the high numbers they were catering for on Friday night. I reckon I will give the Didsbury one a whirl sometime as I'm interested in trying from the full menu - I'm desperately hoping I don't get a taste for it though. Two good Italian chains in such close proximity to a greedy person's house spells nothing but trouble...

- Zizzi Piccadilly is at Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, M1 1LU; tel. 01612 368855. We ate as guests of the restaurant, but then you already knew that :)

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Things to Do in Manchester now Spring has Sprung: The Great Didsbury Bake Off, Clarins at Hard Rock and Liz Kershaw in the Northen Quarter

Now, truth be told, I am pretty fond of Winter. I like that I have a birthday in November, for example, and that throughout December the presence of Christmas makes virtually any amount of louche behaviour perfectly acceptable. I like putting the heating on, and drinking red wine, and eating mashed potato in the knowledge that no-one will see the full extent of my thighs for several months. I like watching television with a fleecy blanket over my knees in the manner of someone several hundred years old, and one day, sometime soon, I hope to own an electric blanket which will cause me to go to bed ever earlier each night.

Still, Spring is pretty good as well. Travelling to and from work in daylight, for one thing, and not having to get up extra early to scrape several tons of ice off the car. Going out in the evening without having to apply fifteen layers of clothing, many of which will find themselves left, forgotten, in an ale house somewhere. Today is the first day of Spring, and I for one have a number of enticing events booked in my diary over the next few weeks to celebrate this cheery fact. To wit:

1. This Saturday 22nd March marks the occasion of the inaugural Didsbury Community Craft, Vintage and Local Products Fair at Parrswood High School. Nothing spells out the imminent arrival of Summer like a local fĂȘte, and this one pretty much has the lot - over 50 stalls including face painting and tombola, a pop-up restaurant from no less than former Mark Addy chef Robert Owen Brown, and, best of all, a Bake Off. And who is judging this Bake Off, I hear you cry. Well, it's the best, most random line-up since someone thought to team Mary Berry up with Paul Hollywood: Robert Owen Brown, Tina O'Brien (aka Sarah-Louise Platt off Corrie), Emma from Heaton's Cakes and....ME. Full details of how to enter are here on the website, but essentially - and I think I've got this right - you make and bring the cake, I eat the cake, I nod wisely and look thoughtful whilst pretending I don't have a face full of crumbs, somebody wins. Although clearly, the real winner here is me.

2. Beautifying Clarins treatments at The Hard Rock Cafe. Whilst these bright sunny days are all well and good, it's easy to feel like poor old Blanche DuBois emerging warily into all this harsh daylight, blinking blearily and wishing we too could festoon every lightbulb with a paper lantern to disguise our pasty winter skin. Clarins seem to realise this, and will be on hand at The Hard Rock Cafe in Manchester's Printworks on Tuesday 25th March between 6 and 8 to administer samples of their new ‘radiance plus booster’ - the name alone makes me feel slightly better about my too-much-mashed-potato complexion. I'm a big fan both of Clarins and of Hard Rock, who do great cocktails and some pretty fine burgers, and as this free event offers a welcome cocktail, a selection of food from the new menu and Clarins goodies, I'm pretty sure you'll spot me there.

3. Lovely Liz Kershaw launches her new book at Twenty Twenty Two in the Northern Quarter. People called Liz are nearly ALWAYS lovely, but this Liz is culturally important as well, and will no doubt have lots of interesting stories to tell when Clint Boon interviews her about her new book, The Bird and the Beeb, on Monday 7th April. Liz's autobiography - which came out on March 12th - promises to spill the beans on her long and eventful career on BBC Radio, a medium in which women are still under-represented. I would also like to know how she keeps her fringe under such immaculate control, although it is unspecified whether the book deals with this thorny issue. Doors open at 6.30, with Clint and Liz in conversation and some of Liz's favourite tunes between 8 and 10.30. There will then be a Q & A, a book signing, and more music until late - and all for a fiver. Tickets are available from the venue, or here via Bop Local Productions.

So hurrah for Spring - it's surely only a matter of time before the ice cream van is doing its merry rounds once more. In the meantime, I've got cake judging to prepare for and am off to find my roomiest pants...

Monday, 10 March 2014

Manchester Drinking Classes: Don't Shoot Tequila at Cord Bar, Northern Quarter

Never let it be said that I am not a true professional. Not content to educate eager young minds all day, every day during the week, I choose to further my own education at weekends by taking part in erudite, mind-improving activities - only last Saturday, for example, I was to be found eagerly studying in the downstairs bar at Cord. True, the subject of the lesson was tequila, a spirit with which I already have more than a passing acquaintance, but anything calling itself Drinking Classes is clearly highly educational - and just happens to include alcohol as well.

Drinking Classes operate in over twenty cities throughout the UK, and offer 90-minute experiences on five different spirits: Vodka, Gin, Rum, Whisky and Tequila. Most of the Manchester events are presented by Neil Garner, a personable and highly knowledgeable soul who has been a bartender for 18 years - you might know him as one half of Bar Wizards, who dazzled us with their shaking skills on Britain's Got Talent a few years ago. Saturday afternoon's class was Don't Shoot Tequila, aiming to persuade us that tequila is a fine and subtle drink deserving of slow sipping rather than reckless necking - I need no convincing of this, and nor did my companion Didsbury Girl, who we both agreed probably had no need of classes teaching her to drink either.

We started with a good, entry level tequila blanco in the form of Calle 23. We were also given a generous shot of sangrita, a spiced, peppery tomato juice that is traditionally drunk alongside tequila blanco in Mexico and which was absolutely delicious. We drank our tequila from a champagne glass, in order to better appreciate its aroma and flavour, and whilst I am aware this has resulted in a series of near-identical photographs, I have at least tried to vary the angle for entertainment and variety purposes.

The second tequila we tried was our favourite of the night. The Olmeca Reposado has been aged in ex-bourbon casks, and we could really taste this in its sweet, woody notes - even the non-tequila sippers (and yes - there were plenty in attendance) liked this one.

Next up, Curado agave-infused tequila - a surprisingly fruity, jaunty little number. Neil also brought out a dish of worms at this point, and was - I think - a little taken aback by how swiftly they were devoured by the marauding masses. I declined, as did the gentleman sitting next to me - after worriedly asking me what was inside a worm. Didsbury Girl suggested "guts", I suggested "praline", but in the end we agreed a worm was probably a bit like a Revel - if you were lucky you might get caramel, but on other nights it might be an unlucky orange or coffee worm.

Shot number four was my second favourite - Tapatio Anejo, another warming, aged tequila. Whilst the heat in Mexico means that tequila can't be left to age for too long - the inevitable evaporation would result in too great an angel's share - we did feel that you could taste a much better flavour in those that had been left to rest awhile.

Finally, it was cocktail time, and Neil demonstrated how to make the perfect Margarita before gamely allowing each of us to have a go ourselves. Obviously the one made by Didsbury Girl and myself was outstanding - you see her here giving it her all and displaying her fine wrist action, as well as a few shots of Neil showing us all how it's really done.

All in all, we very much enjoyed our first brush with Drinking Classes - they're not cheap, but Neil is a great host and Didsbury Girl and I both learned a few things as well as sampling some really good tequila. The class was really well attended and had a great atmosphere despite being at 3.30 in the afternoon - turns out it's perfectly possible to enjoy 40% spirits at pretty much any time of day. In the interests of professionalism and thoroughness we'll be trying a few more classes over the next few weeks (it's this kind of attention to detail that's got me where I am today) before presenting our full and considered report. In the meantime, you can find out more about them and book classes here on their website. Next stop - whisky...

- We were invited to the class as guests and were not required to pay for our places. However, we were not asked to say anything positive, and genuinely had a lovely (if slightly drunken) afternoon.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Opera North Bring Verdi's Macbeth to Manchester's Lowry

Now, I like lying on the sofa in my pyjamas eating fish finger butties (extra ketchup please) as much as the next person. And often, after a day at work pontificating in pretentious fashion about literature, this is all I want to do, perhaps with a few crisps thrown in for good measure - it takes quite a lot to get me out the house and into Manchester on a week night. Fortunately, one of those things is Opera North, that estimable company based just across the Pennines in Leeds, and who have yet to put on a duff performance (if you hang around, I can probably work that up into a really great "MacDUFF" joke). Last night they brought Verdi's Macbeth to The Lowry, and it was probably my favourite Opera North performance yet - even perhaps eclipsing my own impassioned delivery of Shakespeare's version to somewhat less-impassioned GCSE students.

This was a fairly traditional staging by Opera North's standards - they are consistently sexy and innovative in their performances, but this time the astonishing quality of the soloists and the sheer power and beauty of Verdi's compositions were allowed to shine through unencumbered by frippery. The cast was uniformly excellent, with Bela Perencz convincing in the lead role - note perfect right to the end and veering between guilt-stricken and power-crazed - and Kelly Cae Hogan a pleasing combination of ambition and blouse-ripping hotness. Indeed, the sexual nature of their partnership is emphasised as they celebrate their murderous deeds in the marital bed that had earlier served as the site of King Duncan's slaughter, before being pushed off-stage by the ever-present witches.

The re-imagining of the witches as three household servants is inspired; at first, floor-scrubbing skivvies doesn't seem a frightening enough guise for these malevolent souls (no green faces; no warty noses), but it actually means they are always there, lurking within the castle walls, keeping an eye on procedings as the Macbeths career helplessly down the path they have predicted, casting their shadows literally and metaphorically over the stage at almost all times. Lighting is well-used throughout - the trees that later form the boughs of Birnham Wood marching on the castle cast their broomstick-like shadows and create a particularly menacing atmosphere when Banquo and his young son are attacked in a scene that genuinely had me reaching for my fair companion's hand. And we BOTH wiped away a surreptitious tear when Macduff, played by a marvellous Jung Soo Tun, tunefully swore vengeance on his dead children in a powerful solo.

Opera North are ALWAYS good. But this is the first time I've ever been to the theatre after work and not once looked at my watch - we were both utterly captivated from start to finish, and left feeling genuinely emotionally affected. It's on again tomorrow (Saturday 8th March) and if you can get a ticket then GO - otherwise, Opera North will be back in Manchester in May with La Boheme, and I for one can't wait.