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Sunday, 27 April 2014

Didsbury Gets Desirable: The Stoker's Arms Leads the Way for the New-Look Wilmslow Road

There's been a growing consensus over the last few years that, whilst Didsbury remains a pretty nice place to live, it doesn't necessarily have much to offer in the way of a good night out. Yes, it has some Old Man Pubs of indescribable charm, but sometimes, just sometimes, you want to go to a venue where you don't lower the average age range of the clientele by about thirty years the second you walk in. And yes, I love Gusto, but in the face of not much competition it has become very clear to me that girl cannot live on pizza alone.

Recently though, signs of improvement are afoot. Didsbury Lounge has been around for a year now, and is soon to be joined by Chalk Bar and Grill and - thrillingly for greedy girls - Northern Quarter behemoth SoLIta, which is all set to take over the old Cibo site on School Lane. We also have a new pub, The Stoker's Arms, which has replaced the not-really-much-lamented O'Neill's on Wilmslow Road. There was a soft launch and - naturally - Didsbury Girl and I were amongst the first to have our big thirsty faces pressed up against the window; in the end, they gave up and let us in.

The new space is hardly recognisable from its O'Neill's days - all the nasty internal partitions and glasswork has gone, and the place feels twice as big and ten times as light as a result. The drinks list is also very much classier than before; drinks here are not cheap, but I'd rather pay an extra quid or so and be given Hendrick's gin with Fevertree tonic (and a slice of cucumber without even asking for it) than slum it at Wetherspoon's - although this attitude does admittedly become more relaxed the closer I get to payday and to the very bottom of my bank account.

The food also looks promising. Bearing in mind this was just the soft launch, we enjoyed our meal very much - my salt and pepper squid could have done with more oooomph in the seasoning but was a massive portion for £5.25 and had that perfect combination of crispy outsides and tender insides: no excess chewing needed here. Didsbury Girl very much enjoyed her tomato and red pepper soup, and would apparently have licked the bowl had she been at home - this is exactly the kind of high-end, knowledgeable comment that gets us invited to these things in the first place.

For mains, I had the pork & chorizo burger with caramelised red onion & fries - a satisfyingly hefty burger with an excellent flavour thanks to the chorizo and some good, crispy, salty chips. Across the table Didsbury Girl was finding that the veggie options were limited (although more are promised) but had no complaint with her bean burger and homemade coleslaw. The dessert was the real star though - we shared the salted caramel & chocolate tart with clotted cream and barely managed to refrain from actually fighting over it, particularly the precious salt crystals lolling so seductively amidst the caramel layer. If you ever see two girls fighting on the pavement on Wilmslow Road it will undoubtedly be either over a man (who won't deserve it) or this dessert (which does).

So, The Stoker's Arms looks like being a great addition to Didsbury. The staff and management are young and beautiful and charming, and food prices are reasonable - the weekday fixed price menu at £11 for three courses looks a real winner. Whether the burgers we had could compete with SoLIta, I'm not entirely sure, but I think both venues will work together to attract a whole new crowd to an increasingly desirable Didsbury. Just make sure please there's always room for us locals...

- We were invited as guests of The Stoker's Arms and were not asked to pay for our food or drinks. Nor, however, were we asked to write or blog about the place - just to give our honest feedback.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Chiquito in Manchester's Printworks: A Pleasant Surprise (and a VERY Sticky Chin)

We all have our weaknesses. One of mine is cheese, although to be honest this has now gone so far as to be regarded as a way of life rather than a weakness; a lifestyle choice, if you will. Another is Tex-Mex, that oh-so-irresistible hybrid of American portion size and Mexican flavours that can wreak such havoc on one's waistline and, on particularly shameful nights, one's chin. So when I was invited to try the new menu at Chiquito it was hard to say no - it was quite simply full of things that I wanted to eat, so I went.

And I'm very glad I did. This is not a chain I've ever thought to visit, particularly as the one we were invited to is in The Printworks - a dark, cavernous, scary sort of place that I've never found very welcoming and have always been, frankly, quite snobby about. Once inside, the restaurant has a slightly "generic Mexican" feel about it, with its bright colours and patterns and sombreros left lying casually about - this is not a place I would come to on a Friday night, when it's all too easy to imagine those sombreros being sported by squawking hen parties and over-excited kids. But on a Monday lunchtime it's all very restful and welcoming indeed - good, salty popcorn immediately appears (I eat the lot, which serves my friend right for being a millisecond late in arriving) and I order a Margarita that is deliciously sour and has only half the rim dipped in salt - my absolute preference in these matters. A word of advice though - order it without ice, which takes up wasteful portions of the glass that could more usefully have accommodated more tequila.

For a starter, we share the Fully Loaded Nachos. I'm going to come right out and admit that these were perfect, and some of the nicest I've had anywhere. Yes, this isn't high-end cooking, but the tortilla chips are good quality and there isn't a duff one amongst them - too often with nachos there are a few heavily laden beauties that everyone fights over and then a million sad, dry, naked ones skulking around the edges of the dish. That simply isn't an issue here - Texan cheese sauce, jalapeno peppers, melted cheese, guacamole, sour cream, homemade salsa and spicy chicken is liberally slathered over the whole lot and it soon becomes very clear why they've given us a little handwipe for afterwards. This costs £10.95 and I would come back just to eat this.

Mains don't quite live up the standard of the nachos, but are decent nonetheless. From the vast menu I have the Southern Fried Chicken and BBQ Pulled Pork from the Tex Mex section - Southern fried chicken breast topped with BBQ pulled pork and melted cheese, served with skin-on-fries, corn on the cob, onion rings, homemade coleslaw and BBQ sauce (and as you can from the photos, some of this was pretty randomly arranged on the plate). The corn cob is overdone and the BBQ sauce a little sweet, but the coleslaw and onion rings are excellent and the chicken and pork both have a good flavour (even if I can feel my arteries clogging as I eat them). My friend has "The Border" from the Hot Baked Wraps section - strips of crispy southern fried chicken, lettuce, ranch dressing and smoky BBQ sauce in a soft flour tortilla and served with the same fries and coleslaw as my dish. She enjoys it very much, although is glad she asked for the BBQ sauce on the side as, like me, she finds it a little sweet.

So: I'm not ashamed to admit that I enjoyed this meal more than I thought I might. Prices for mains are - in my opinion - approaching the dear side, with mine coming in at £14.95, but I notice they offer a 25% student discount (I always knew that doctorate would come in useful for something) and a well-priced lunch menu. Go ahead and judge me if you want, but I ate at Chiquito's, and I liked it: I'm pretty sure there's a song in there somewhere...

- We dined as guests of the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our food or drink. I was however pleasantly surprised by the whole experience and have tried to reflect that honestly in this review.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Holland's Pies Launch New Flavours at Manchester's Albert Chop House; Southern Girl Allowed to Stay Up North a Little Longer

There are few things in life so satisfying as a really good pie. Indeed, whilst I would like to make bold claims that my defection from the south to the north was closely linked to matters of education, history and culture, it's probably more to do with the fact that - in my opinion - nobody appreciates the beauty of a pie more reverently than someone from the north of England.

Thus when the word "pie" appeared in my email inbox, closely affiliated with other words such as "Holland's", "tasting", "Guinness" and "Albert's Chop House", it was clearly a cause for immediate pastry-based celebration. Holland's are a proper local brand, based in Accrington and esteemed purveyors of pies for over 150 years - and the top floor of the Chophouse in Albert Square was unsurprisingly packed last week for an official tasting of the new Guinness range that launches at the end of this month. Holland's are also seemingly not a company to let people go hungry, for here is what we had:

Steak & Guinness Pie; Steak & Guinness Pudding; Steak & Guinness Top Crust Pie. We start with a mighty triumvirate of the new flavour combination - and very lovely they all are too. My favourite of the three is the pie, which has lovely crisp pastry and a gravy so thick that even when cut in half it remains staunchly contained within its pastry shell. You can really taste the booze as well - I'm not a big fan of Guinness on its own, but when cooked it has the most beautiful sweet flavour and it certainly comes through in each of these pies. The pudding, made with a non-suet crust, is a big hit with my dining companion and we both enjoy the Top Crust Pie. This is virtually a health option, as it has added vegetables and just a small disc of pastry on the top; it has to be said though that it probably only counts as healthy if you don't eat it following half a pie and an entire pudding.

Pub Classics Chicken & Ham Pie. This is one of two new flavours being added to the Pub Classics range and is also my favourite pie of the whole night - large chunks of chicken and ham hock in a creamy sauce with a sprinkling of dried thyme on the top. Indeed, I have just eaten another one for my tea tonight, and am starting to worry that people might begin calling me "Pie-head" - with some justification.

Limited Edition "Heroes" Pie. This is probably the most divisive pie of the night - designed to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, this is essentially corned beef and vegetables all minced up together. I was brought up on corned beef and therefore quite enjoy it, although I think it needs more seasoning. My friend is, however, not so au fait with 1970s British dining habits and is slightly frightened by the whole thing. Something of an acquired taste this one, it seems.

Pub Classics Peppered Steak Pie. If the "Heroes" pie doesn't have quite enough, this one is MAGNIFICENT in its liberal application of seasoning - chunks of steak in a thick dark peppercorn sauce with even more black pepper on the top. This is the other new flavour in the Pub Classics range - it is lovely, and I'm pleased to say there is one of these in my fridge ready to eat another day (as long as everyone promises not to call me "Pie-head".

It's easy to be sneery about a mass-produced product, but I was genuinely impressed with the pies I tried - the pastry is excellent and the fillings tasty and generous. Yes, I'll continue to buy pies from smaller producers (such as the lovely Bradley's Bakery, who make their debut at Levenshulme Market this Saturday), but I'm happy to give a place in my eating schedule to these as well. After all, excessive pie consumption is one of the terms of the visa that allows me to remain in the north - even if it does look suspiciously like I have written it on myself with crayon...

- This was a free event hosted by Holland's Pies, during which written feedback was requested on each of the new flavours. I was not asked to write a blog about the pies but I enjoyed them, so I have.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Beef and Pudding, Manchester: Yep, it's THAT Pudding Again

There are many, many things I love about Manchester. I consider it to be absolutely the perfect size, for example - large enough to have lots of interesting things to do but small enough to walk from one part of town to another (well, in theory, if it's not raining) and to run into someone you know en route. Social media has, if anything, made Manchester feel even smaller - in both good ways and bad. A new restaurant can create a real buzz on Twitter before it's even opened - it really did feel last week like everyone was talking about Beef and Pudding, the new "urban pub and kitchen" in Manchester city centre from New Moon Pub Company founders David Mooney and Paul Newman. This is of course a good thing, but do you all really need ANOTHER photograph of what is already the restaurant's signature dish, that beef and venison suet pudding?

Well no, you probably don't. Last week saw a "soft launch" period in which people on the mailing list were invited to dine for half price; everyone went, and everyone had the suet pudding. But as several people have asked me for my highly esteemed and considered opinion on the place*

*expressed incredulity that I wasn't one of the first with my face in the trough

here are a few thoughts on the two visits I have already made.

Soft Launch:

We went on Tuesday, and found it hard to believe this wasn't a well-established restaurant - the staff are young, confident and friendly, and Nic Duncan seems to have already made the kitchen her own, turning out food that is both innovative and comforting in the generosity of its portions and in its focus on simple, tasty flavours that most people will be very interested in eating. The presence of Gordal olives on the menu and the quality of the bread basket tells you all you need to know really - the king of olives served in a pretty cool tin and a mountain of fresh bread served with both butter and olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

On to the starters, and the only misfire of the night. The "Blanc" sounded fantastic - fresh crab from the North Wales coast with pink grapefruit and coronation mayo - but the balance was all wrong, with the delicate crab totally overwhelmed by the astringent grapefruit and no taste of the mayo at all. This is the point of a soft launch though, and so I would be tempted to try this again next time - in the right proportions, this would be a stunning dish. The Dublin Bay Prawn Thermidor with spinach and garlic toast is already a stunning dish - large, succulent prawns in a rich cheese sauce that I would eat every day were it not for minor inconveniences like the need to fit in my clothes.

The mains were great. I don't think much more needs to be said about The Pudding: beef & Barbon Fell venison suet pudding with horseradish paste, served with stockpot gravy, mash and black peas. This was quite simply the best pudding I've ever had - the suet crust was crispy on the outside yet soft and fluffy on the inside, packed with tender meat and sitting on a bed of superlative mash, with the black peas adding both taste and texture. I would have liked to have tasted more horseradish, but then I have been known to eat this particular condiment straight from the jar so I perhaps have rather specialist tastes. Across the table the Flattened English Rump Steak with shoestring fries barely touched the sides, with the citrus rub imparting just the right flavour and the chips pronounced an excellent example of their species.

For dessert, it had to be the Pudding Plank, offering generous tasters of the Sticky Toffee Pudding, Chocolate Tart, Cheese Glazed Eccles Cake, Bakewell Pie and Banoffee Cheesecake along with custard, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Looking at this photo, I appear to have scored a bonus Chocolate Brownie - this was one of my highlights, along with the peerless Sticky Toffee Pudding. We washed all of this down with an excellent Zinfandel from what is an interesting and well-priced wine list - although not all of them had been delivered on the night we went.

In short, we loved it so much, we went again at the weekend for Sunday lunch. This looks set to be one of the best-value deals in Manchester, with two courses for £12.95 or three for £14.95 from a set menu. Three of us had the pâté, served in dinky little buckets that yielded a hidden apricoty treasure at the bottom, whilst the other two had the prawns and smoked salmon with Bloody Mary dressing. The pâté was by far the most successful of the two dishes - the smoked salmon was lovely, but the dressing was on the hot side and the prawns, although plentiful, were small and tasteless. Bearing in mind the good-value ethos of Beef and Pudding, we both felt we'd rather have had fewer prawns of better quality.

No issues at all with the roasts though. Four of us had the Roast Rump of Mature English Beef, cooked through or pink and served with homemade Yorkshire pudding, duck fat roasties, vegetables and gravy - this was delicious, and left two boys unable to finish their potatoes, so generous were the portions. The Roast Pork was even better, offering perfect crackling that caused something of an unseemly scuffle at an otherwise decorous table. We were too full for pudding - although before you feel too sorry for us, bear in mind that two of us had already been to the Cake and Bake Show as a warm-up to this gluttonous feast.

So is Beef and Pudding perfect? No, not yet - but it's been properly open for less than a week and I am already booked in for my third visit. Although, this does admittedly say as much about me as it does about them...

- Beef and Pudding is at 37 Booth Street, off Fountain Street, Manchester M2 4AA: go there, immediately.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Cake & Bake Show Returns to Manchester Central 4-6th April 2014: Comfy Pants at the Ready

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be a judge at The Great Didsbury Bake Off, a position for which I felt I had been in training my entire life. In practice, it was everything I've ever dreamed of - a sea of cake requiring my immediate consideration. A sea of almost fifty cakes, in fact, which left me washed up, adrift on the shores of gluttony, and swearing that I would never eat cake ever, ever again.

Well, all that's out the window now, for it's almost time for the return of the splendid Cake & Bake Show. This year's show looks to be even better than last year's, running at Manchester Central from 4th-6th April and offering the following:

- Celebrities at the show include Rosemary Shrager, GBBO winner John Whaite, Simon Rimmer, Eric Lanlard, Britain's Best Bakery's Mich Turner & Peter Sidwell as well as this year's Great British Bake Off winner Frances Quinn along with other familiar faces from the show: Kimberley Wilson, Glenn Cosby and Christine Wallace.

- A 'Welcome to the Jungle' cake installation, the largest cake installation the UK has ever seen - a walk in jungle created by CakeBomb. Everything will be edible, from the leaves and the grass to over 1700 handcrafted flowers and animals including a life-size baby elephant. It has taken a team of 20 over 6000 hours to create ahead of the show - which of course leaves me thinking that I will go blundering clumsily in with a million shopping bags full of cake purchases and knock the lot flat in seconds. You can see a sneaky preview here alongside some fine acting skills from John Whaite.

- A Nielsen-Massey Cupcakes and Cocktails Bar with cupcakes made by Cake Boy (aka Eric Lanlard, aka hot Frenchman) and cocktails created by VANILLA.

- Experiential stands from companies such as Billington's as well as live cake decorating.

- Hands on free modelling sessions with Renshaw - I need this class, as I have some Renshaws icing in my pantry (not a euphemism) and have not the slightest idea what to do with it.

- Hundreds of stands offering the latest sugarcraft and baking equipment as well as delicious cakes, breads and pies - my advice is to go to Bradley's Bakery for one of their mighty pies early doors, as they sold out early last year and I had to have a little cry behind some macarons.

Tickets are a very reasonable £14.50 - see The Cake & Bake website for more details. And if you want a flavour of what the show is all about, here's an, ahem, most informative blog post all about last year's show. See you there - I'll be the one in the roomy cake-eating pants...