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Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Splendid Sausage Company, Manchester: No Wieners, Just Splendid Sausages

Now, I am of course a mature and sophisticated woman, with erudite tastes and a highbrow outlook on the world. Yet I find it very hard not to snigger at the word "sausage". Since I started helping out on the Bobby's Bangers stall at Levenshulme Market, I have been able to amuse myself on a fortnightly basis by using phrases such as "manning the sausage stall" and "meat handling skills" without fear of reprisal, and now a whole new opportunity for puerile punning has presented itself with the opening of The Splendid Sausage Company on John Dalton Street in Manchester.

The fact that the restaurant is pretty much full on a Friday lunchtime suggests that Manchester likes a tasty banger as much as I do, and we are lucky to bag one of the cute wood-chipped booths, as designed by the very talented Si Astley (otherwise known as @moregeous - she is a woman of many talents who is also excellent with both cake and cocktails). The menu is at first a little daunting - there are eleven different sausages to choose from, including a gluten-free and a veggie option, to which you can add your own toppings. Easier though to turn the menu over and take a look at the Combos - favourite combinations pre-chosen on the grateful diner's behalf (although even these can be customised) and piled high on a brioche roll. The helpful staff guide us through our options, and eventually I decide on the J.Y.D - the splendid (traditional pork sausage‎ with mixed herbs, pepper and garlic) topped with chicken bites, chilli, bacon, fried onions, sauerkraut and three cheese mix - while my friend goes for the equally dainty All Day Breakfast (the splendid topped with a fried egg, bacon, hash browns, crumbled black pudding and tomato relish).

They are both amazing. A tasty, high quality sausage in a soft, buttery roll hidden under a positive quilt of tasty toppings - indeed, when I post these pictures on Facebook a friend asks, not unreasonably, where the actual sausage is. I particularly enjoy the chicken bites on the top - I remove these and eat them separately, largely because I want to try the homemade peanut butter mustard and BBQ sauces and am a little short of unadorned surface area upon which to squirt them. Clearly sides are unnecessary with this amount of food; clearly this makes no difference to us and we order some anyway. The Eggs Benedict fries are as good as Gordo has been saying - two perfectly poached eggs and a rich Hollandaise atop a mound of bacon and fries; just as good, though, are the Bacon, Buffalo & Blue fries, which offer exactly the right amount of salty moreishness. A passing friend who claims "not to be hungry" has the Splendid Fries and loves every mouthful (EVERY mouthful - we get NOTHING from this plate) - different flavours of sausage cut into pieces and served with bacon and gravy over a pile of fries, a little like an exciting sausage lucky dip. In fact, my only negative about the whole meal is that I'm not keen on eating out of little plastic baskets - but as someone who eats both burgers and hot dogs with a knife and fork, I'm aware that morally I'm not allowed an opinion on this.

Suffice to say, we eat the lot and are too full for puddings. Nor do we try the cocktail menu, sticking to a couple of beers instead. As far as I'm concerned though this just gives us every reason to hurry back - this is a cute, quirky venue run by lovely people with a relaxed atmosphere and great prices (about £8 for a combo; £4-5 for a side) - and here, at least, there's certainly NOTHING funny about a lovely juicy sausage.

- The Splendid Sausage Company is on John Dalton Street, M2 6WH; tel. 0161 833 1016. We were invited in to try the menu and were not asked to pay for our food and drink, but frankly (no pun intended) we'd been itching to go anyway and will definitely be back.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Bowling and Burgers: Manchester's Dog Bowl Gets It Right (But Team Liz Loses)

I am of course known for many things, not least my sporting prowess and elite athleticism. Only a couple of weeks ago I walked both to and from the public house, and last Sunday I exceeded even my own high standards of activity by not only watching the Manchester 10K (and doing some enthusiastic cheering and glass lifting) but then also refereeing a fiercely competitive few games of bowling at Dog Bowl (and doing some more enthusiastic glass lifting etc etc).

The reason for all this exercise was, of course, food-related - we'd been invited in to try the new menu at Manchester's Dog Bowl, and it seemed foolish not to stretch our bowling arms just a little while we were there, although due to a bad back I had to draft in a male friend to play on behalf of Team Liz. This was a fiercely contested bout, with Team Liz unlucky to go down 2-1; indeed, there was great excitement at one point when Team Liz achieved two strikes in a row - one more, and the next round of bowling would have cost a penny a head. Meanwhile, I was amusing myself amidst all the male grunting and chest bumping by sampling the excellent cocktail menu - I very much enjoyed my sexy Maple Bourbon Smash (essentially Bourbon with dark maple syrup, fresh orange juice, lemon juice and Angostura bitters), which had just the right level of sweetness. You see it here alongside a perky Passionfruit Tequila Mojito, which I was also able to sample extensively due to its owner's foolishly competitive focus on the bowling.

Having built up quite an appetite from all this sporting endeavour, the three of us bagged a prime table in the window and tried out some of the new dishes. For starters we shared the Pulled Pork Tacos (£5) and the Sonoran Chilli Nachos (beef chilli, guacamole, cheese and sour cream at £5.50). These went well together, the dainty tacos elegantly executed alongside the rather sturdier spiciness of the chilli nachos, which were generously topped and had the correct crisps-to-dip ratio. For mains, we each went for a burger - the new veggie offering Green Meany (chick pea patty with lime, coriander, pickles, slaw and smoked paprika mayo), the Beef Dip (smoked brisket and jack cheese, dipped in hot beef stock) and The Deep South (smoked bacon, dill pickle, jack cheese, slaw and Alabama white bbq sauce). All came with fries, but after all that exercise it was deemed necessary to also order sides of onion rings (which were excellent) and Pit Fries (I'm hanging my head in shame as I type that this is a double portion of mixed fries with cheese, gravy, pulled pork, brisket, smoked chicken, bacon, bbq sauce and chipotle sauce). All of these were well-executed, with the exception of the Green Meany which had a lovely flavour but was fractionally on the dry side - a little more of the mayo would have sorted this out. The two meaty burgers were lovely and juicy however, and the brisket was tender and moist with an excellent flavour. My favourite dish, predictably enough, was the Pit Fries - my latent trailer trash tendencies pushing themselves to the fore once again and meaning the boys hardly got a look-in with these.

So, another enjoyable visit to Dog Bowl, which combines a stylish venue (just look at those little dogs on the tray paper) with big fat greedy food and good-value bowling - games are £6 a head, or £4 any night after midnight (when I imagine my bowling skills would be an even lower standard than they normally are). We were invited in to try the new menu but paid in full for our third guest and for all our drinks except for the two cocktails - and I can confirm that a rematch (to be paid in full) has already been arranged to try to salvage some pride for Team Liz...

- Dog Bowl is at 57 Whitworth Street West, Manchester, M1 5WW; tel. 0161 228 2888.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

New Menu at SoLIta, Northern Quarter: Girl in "Not for Girls" Burger Controversy

Truth be told, I have not yet fully recovered from the news that broke a few weeks ago: that the good people from SoLIta would be packing up their spare Inka grill and opening a restaurant in Didsbury, approximately 8 minutes' walk from my house (although admittedly, it often takes slightly longer on the way back due to weight increases incurred whilst in the village). This new mecca of local temptation looks all set to be open for the summer, but in the meantime we have the new menu at the original SoLIta in the Northern Quarter to enjoy - even though this, quite unreasonably, involves a twenty minute tram ride.

Franco is not one to rest on his laurels and is also not afraid to cut favourites from the menu - there are quite a few new starters to choose from, some of which have already been tried and tested at Friday Food Fight. Sensing our indecision (and no doubt wanting to take an order some point before midnight), our helpful waitress suggested she get the chef to make us up a selection of the new options for us - a masterstroke of mix-and-match inspiration as it turned out. My favourite of the starters was the one I would have gone for anyway had I been forced to choose: the charcoal grilled jalapenos, filled with cream cheese, wrapped in bacon and served with Jack Daniel’s sauce were sultry, moreish little numbers, even if there was a bit of an incident which left some cream cheese stranded in the dinky pot of sauce. Runners up spot went to the tender baby squid, lightly fried and served with the legendary Big Manc sauce; we also very much enjoyed the buffalo chicken pot stickers, deep fried and served with blue cheese dip, and were surprised by the depth of flavour offered by the modest-sounding hot spinach and artichoke dip. In fact, the only starter we weren't bowled over by was the soft-baked Pretzel bites - we loved the jalapeno cheese sauce dip, but found the bites almost impenetrably chewy. Still, these were apparently a huge hit at Friday Food Fight, so maybe ours had just been waiting around too long for the other items on the taster plate to finish getting ready.

On to the mains, and it had to be BURGER. SoLIta do all sorts of interesting things involving steak, chicken and fish, but I am a creature of simple tastes and even more predictable choices, and can never see beyond the lure of the humble burger. Not that SoLIta burgers are ever humble; indeed, one of the new ones - Big Trouble in Little Italy - is a toweringly magnificent behemoth that comes with an advisory note regarding the number of calories it contains ("over 2500", apparently - although having seen the size of it I fear there may be a nought or two missing here). I'd been eyeing this up ever since seeing a photo of it on the SoLIta Facebook page along with the warning that it wasn't suitable for girls thanks to its 3 x 6 ounce beef patties, 3 lots of cheese, red onions, tomatoes, Jack Daniel’s sauce, and 6 slices of bacon.

Well, you may as well wave a red flag at a bull as suggest there is some kind of food item that I cannot conquer - and I can state quite definitively that had I not eaten a load of starters, I could have totally taken this gobby, swaggering beauty down a peg or two. As it was, I shared it with my friend along with the Gaucho Burger - a winning combination of beef patty, Chorizo, rib eye steak, chimichurri and Monterey Jack cheese that was so popular as a special it has now made its way on to the full menu. It's pretty easy to see why - the thick slices of charred chorizo lend a smoky flavour and the steak is thin and tender; I could have handled a little more chimichurri, but then I always prefer things on the moist side and could have pretty much handled unlimited chimichurri.

Ever the professional though, I did not ask for unlimited chimichurri, and I also left a goodly amount of burger bun so that I might sample dessert. We shared the Toffee Waffle Pudding off the specials board, and whilst this was not exactly what we expected (we really couldn't see where the waffles might be), we very much enjoyed what was essentially a light, superior sort of sticky toffee pudding - extra marks for the white chocolate shavings on the top. It arrived in that slightly broken state by the way, which for once is nothing to do with me and my over-eager spoon. So, did we like the new menu? Of course we did. SoLIta continues to serve up witty, imaginative dishes that challenge even the very largest of appetites, and the sooner they open their doors in Didsbury, the better - that 8 minute walk home must account for at least 2500 calories, surely...

- We paid for drinks and service, but ate as guests of the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our food. You know I'd still have taken that burger down though.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Forever Living: Say "Aloe" to Lovely Skin (Sorry)

Now I am not, in truth, much of an expert when it comes to beauty products. I spend far more time thinking about what food and/or drink items I can put into my face than about the actual state of the face itself; indeed, if it remains sauceless throughout the course of a meal I take that as a win.

That's not to say though that I don't sometimes wish to make more of an effort, and was therefore pleased when an exciting parcel came from Forever Living addressed to the "newest beauty blogger on the block". Forever Living are a huge American company specialising in Aloe Vera products - they have over 9.5 million distributors worldwide, although the only one we need concern ourselves with here is the lovely Marie, who tweets from @ForeverLivingMB. I met her at a boozy do a few months ago (yep - now we're back on more familiar territory), and it was she who sent me the goodies to try. These included a full size Avocado Face and Body Soap - and whilst I have no doubt she sent me this because it's made with 100% pure avocado butter and is therefore more or less a food item, it has certainly sorted out my skin, which had become a little bit dry due to prolonged exposure to gin and burgers. It lathers up beautifully and moisturises as well as cleansing; it also smells amazing, which is always a bonus for someone whose natural aroma is a combination of red wine and garlic.

I've not needed to moisturise so much since using this soap, so the first of the sample sachets I've tried has lasted me ages. The Aloe Moisturizing Lotion with collagen and elastin has been a pleasure to use - it sinks in easily and the name alone makes me feel that my skin looks younger and plumper. I've still to try the Aloe Propolis Creme, a blend of Aloe Vera Gel and Bee Propolis extract that promises to improve skin tone and texture, the soothing Aloe Vera Gelly and the Aloe Vera Toothgel (I'll wait until I've eaten something really stinky so I can properly put it through its paces). Essentially though, if you see me in the next few weeks, please refrain from mentioning that there's gravy on my chin, and instead compliment me on my youthful glow...

- You can link to Marie's website here to find out more about the product range and how to order. She sent me the products to try but did not specify I say anything complimentary - but I've loved everything I've tried so far, and at only £5.40 I'll definitely be buying the soap again.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Caorunn Gin Review, in which a New Spirit Earns its Place in My Drinks Cabinet

Now, it's no secret that I think social media is a fine and useful thing, allowing you to talk to interesting people and find out about good stuff of which you would otherwise have been ignorant. It has, however, exacerbated a condition to which I have always been prone: FOMO - or, Fear Of Missing Out. Over the Easter weekend, I was lucky enough to spend a few days in South Wales: it was perfect, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Twitter was quick to remind me though that every single other person in the whole world (or so it felt) was living it up on cocktails at the Caorunn gin tasting at Manchester's Redbank and having a very jolly time indeed.

Turns out however that Caorunn Gin are kindly souls: a couple of weeks later, an envious postman brought me this little lot and I was able to stage my own gin masterclass with an unappreciative cat (who was, nevertheless, the perfect audience due to his lack of interest in drinking any of my precious gin). Caorunn Gin (which takes its name from the Gaelic for rowan berry, the main Celtic botanical in the gin) is handcrafted at a whisky distillery in the Speyside region of the Scottish Highlands, and as well as rowan berry contains four other local botanicals: dandelion, coul blush apple, bog myrtle (if I ever have a daughter, this is what I plan to call her) and Scottish heather. Combined with more traditional botanicals such as juniper berry and coriander seed, this produces a crisp, fruity taste that I really enjoyed: Caorunn sensibly suggest serving your gin and tonic with a slice of red apple to bring out the botanicals, although as my garden offers more in the way of dandelions I might start pushing this as a serving suggestion instead.

Caorunn sent me a tasting kit which included a glass (already one of my most treasured possessions) and a little 5cl bottle of gin, but I genuinely enjoyed it as a change from my usual favourites of Hunters or Hendricks and will purchase more (as you can imagine, 5cl doesn't last long round here, even allowing for a gin-hating cat). Caorunn was launched in 2009 and remains small batch distilled, but is widely available at places such as Tesco, Sainsbury's and Oddbins. They also sent me an exciting scratch 'n' sniff style coffret containing the five Celtic botanicals, so if you want to pop to Sainsbury's first and get us a bottle then you're very welcome to come round for the full sensory experience - minus the coul blush apple, which I'm afraid I've eaten. It was almost as delicious as the gin, which you can find out more about here.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Opera North's La Boheme Brings a Parisian Winter to Manchester's Tropical Climes

So, summer has finally hit Manchester. Sitting outside Lime at The Lowry last night, sipping a glass of wine and demolishing a basket of bread, one could almost have been in Barcelona rather than Salford, with the sun beating down and a general air of bonhomie pervading.

All the greater testimony, then, to the skill of Opera North, who last night began the first of a four night run of Puccini's splendid La Bohème at The Lowry Theatre. Within minutes, were were transported to Christmas Eve in Paris' poor Latin Quarter, and an attic apartment so cold that its occupants are forced to burn pages of a playscript in order to keep warm - no mean feat when at least half the audience are in sandals and sundresses. Into this apartment wanders beautiful Mimi, the lovely seamstress who lives next door and whose candle has blown out on the stairs (I plan to use this cunning ruse myself at some point); equally penniless writer Rodolfo lights it, hides her key (perhaps don't try this one - this would make me cross rather than make me move in) and a great love affair is born.

The remaining three acts chart their struggles with the usual relationship woes (no money, quarrelling, flirting with other people, jealousy etc etc), with Mimi and Rodolfo's relationship mirrored by that of Marcello and Musetta (he is a poverty-stricken artist; she is a gloriously vampish, leopardprint-wearing Amazonian goddess on whom I plan to model myself in future) - it seems that the course of true love can never run smoothly in this particularly Bohemian area of Paris. I won't spoil the ending, but true love does eventually prevail in a way that only the very hardest of hearts could fail to find romantic.

This being Opera North, the staging is witty and inventive and the cast uniformly young, sexy and talented - although I do feel that the central pairing of Rodolfo and Mimi are slightly upstaged by the ridiculously charismatic and gorgeous Duncan Rock and Sky Ingram as Marcello and Musetta. Phyllida Lloyd's direction is slick and seamless, and the orchestra as flawless and powerful as one would expect from an outfit as professional as Opera North. La Bohème is on at The Lowry until Saturday 17th May - I highly recommend you get your overcoat back out the cupboard, find your discarded gloves and go and experience a Parisian winter with this beautiful young cast.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

New Menu at The Beagle, Chorlton: Bigger Choice, Bigger Portions, Bigger Trousers Required

For some time now I've been a fan of The Beagle in Chorlton which, along with other hostelries such as Font and Proof, represents all that is good about this particular suburb - an interesting bar with a great range of drinks and a good atmosphere no matter what time of day you visit. Until recently, The Beagle also had the lure of Margo & Rita's Mexican food, but Mark and Diane have now packed up the van and set off for a summer of streetfood and festivals, despite me threatening to cling on to one of the rear tyres in a bid to stop them going.

But gone they have (it's OK - I only suffered a few scrapes, and they're healing now), so it seemed only right to call in one Saturday afternoon and see what's going on now with the food menu. The first thing you notice is how much it's grown - many of the dishes remain the same or similar to the Margo & Rita days (think tacos, burritos, burgers, fried chicken) but there's now a lot more choice. We eventually decide on a couple of things we've not seen on The Beagle menu before: the Homeslice Chicken Bucket at £10 (three pieces of fried chicken, four wings, slaw, fries and a couple of sauces) and the Popcorn Shrimp Cocktail Salad at a pound less, and sit back with a pint or two of Veltins Pilsner while we wait.

The service on food at The Beagle hasn't always been the quickest, but on a busy afternoon the wait is a lot less than it has been whenever I've visited before, meaning that we only see one small child launch themselves down the stairs which separate the dining area from the bar before our food arrives. The portions are huge, and the Popcorn Shrimp Salad looks particularly impressive with its hollowed out avocado filled with moreishly bitesize crispy shrimp piled on top of a dish of lettuce, avocado, red cabbage and tomatoes. Indeed, I am most taken with this dish - I fear the Popcorn Shrimp could become ridiculously addictive, and the presence of all those salad items help you believe you're eating healthily despite all that batter and all those Veltins. Not so the fried chicken, which is unashamedly trailer trash in all its greasy, sticky-finger-making glory: it's delicious, offering a pleasing mix of chicken both on and off the bone, and some nicely spicy sauces in which to dip one's fries (this activity, incidentally, leads to the accidental ruining of a new dress - ask them for extra napkins if, like me, you are blessed with the co-ordination of an ape).

So will I continue to eat at The Beagle? Yes. This is straightforward food done well and served up at reasonable prices; it's not ground-breaking or gourmet (or even, in my case, very dignified), but it is pretty tasty, not to mention an excellent way of mopping up all that Pilsner...

- The Beagle is at 456-458 Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton, Manchester M21 0BQ. We were given £20 towards the cost of our meal (so effectively ate but not drank for free) and asked to email feedback in exchange - I was not asked to blog the meal but I enjoyed it, so I have.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Gusto Didsbury: New Menu, Same Old Greed

If you were anywhere near any kind of media channel a couple of weeks ago, you can hardly fail to have heard talk about Tim Bacon and his Living Ventures chain. All of this was sparked by Restaurant Wars, a BBC2 series about Manchester's pursuit of a Michelin star featuring Aiden Byrne's Manchester House, the big shiny behemoth that is effectively the flagship of the Bacon Empire. Whether this particular restaurant is your cup of tea or not, plenty of viewers seemed to think it was all a bit over the top - not least because Northerners were presented as some kind of sub-species who wouldn't know fine dining if it picked up a plate of cabbage and ribs and whacked them over the head with it.

The thing with Living Ventures though is that if you don't like one restaurant in the chain, there's a pretty good chance you'll like one of the others. The one that I eat at all the time is Gusto, partly because there's one in Didsbury, and partly because it's unpretentious and friendly and good value for money - plus, they do the best pizzas around. In fact, the pizzas are so good I rarely get round to trying anything else, so when we were invited in last week to sample the new menu it seemed a good chance to have a go at something else. Whilst most of the old favourites have survived the cut, the menu has had a pretty substantial overhaul: many of the starters are new, and have a lovely summery feel about them - the crushed pea, mint and chilli bruschetta that we dabble with as a pre-starter is a good example of the mood of the new menu.

For our starters proper, my dining companion has the sardine fillet wrapped in Prosciutto ham with spiced tomato compote and rocket and lemon while I have a half portion of saffron risotto with white crab salad. Mine is perfection, although even I would struggle to get through a main course size portion - the risotto is rich and creamy whilst retaining that essential bite, and the crab in the salad surprisingly generous in quantity (and because crab and salad are both healthy items, I feel perfectly justified in having additional Parmesan grated over the top of a risotto that is clearly already 50% dairy). Meanwhile, the sardine has a beautiful flavour and is well-complemented by the compote - the only issue is the amount of bones in the fish. Sardines are bony little fellows, and if you wrap them in Prosciutto then you essentially have to de-assemble the dish in order to get them out - which seems a shame when it all looks so pretty on arrival.

For mains, I have the roast lamb rump cooked pink and served on a courgette, aubergine and tomato galette with a salsa verde dressing. It's hard to find fault with this really - two generous slabs of lamb, charred and caramelised on the outside and pink and tender on the inside, served on a bed of soft, sweet vegetables sticky with lamb juice. I order some of Gusto's always-excellent fries on the side, and congratulate myself on making the perfect choice. Humiliatingly though, my friend has gone for something even better - the seared tuna steak, marinated in balsamic and soy and served with a fennel and orange salad and green gazpacho is a rare combination of quality and quantity, with the fatty richness of the tuna superlatively paired with the fresh, zingy salad. In fact, we both agree that the salad is the highlight of the whole meal, and it's not often you hear me say something like that. The green gazpacho is similarly refreshing, although we feel the flavour of the soy marinade needs to be a little stronger to make itself known against the punchiness of the salad. This is not a cheap option at £18.95 (particularly if you are greedy and add a side order of fries) but is worth every penny.

My dessert is the only thing we order that isn't one of the new dishes: I just can't see past my usual plate of Bombolini – home made mini doughnuts, dredged in sugar and served with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I love these, and as usual they are amazing; yet, unbelievably, across the table I have been trumped again. The new Gusto Bellini is surely the dessert of the summer: peach and Prosecco jelly with a Prosecco foam, served with a biscotti on the side and absolutely perfect in its light simplicity. It tops off what has been an excellent meal - I've yet to have a substandard one at Gusto, but I think there has been a certain upping-of-game here, not in a showy, Manchester House sort of way, but in a quiet, value-for-money, we're-confident-in-our-chefs sort of way. The service is also excellent throughout, particularly from waitress Fiona, who patiently talks us through the new dishes when we can't decide what we want.

And even better - a ten minute walk and I'm home. If you're one of the people knocking all things Bacon, I suggest you try eating at a few different places in the Empire before you make your mind up - and Gusto Didsbury would be an excellent place to start.

- Gusto Didsbury is at 756 Wilmslow Rd, Didsbury M20 2DW; tel. 0161 445 8209. We were invited to try the new menu, so whilst we paid for our drinks we were not asked to pay for our food.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Opera North Bring Puccini's La Bohème to Manchester's Lowry Theatre May 2014

Now, one of my very favourite guilty pleasures is Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. Last time I saw it was during a movie night at The Didsbury Lounge, but I really prefer to watch it on my own at home so that I may sing along loudly to my heart's content, with my vocal performance audibly increasing in nuanced skill and range the further down the bottle of wine I get.

I do understand that this is wrong, however, and am delighted to be able to redeem myself in a week or so by going to see an altogether more highbrow Parisian romance. Yep, the wonderful Opera North are back in town, this time bringing one of my all-time favourite operas: Puccini's La Bohème, which tells the story of the penniless Rodolfo and his beautiful but equally broke neighbour Mimi set against the backdrop of the Latin Quarter. This is a pretty romantic story anyway, but I have yet to see an Opera North performance that is anything less than brilliant, witty and sexy so I have high hopes with this one (particularly when I see the photos of this beautiful cast). The sets and staging are always inventive and performances uniformly excellent, and with acclaimed director Phyllida Lloyd at the helm it's hard to imagine this will be any different.

I have taken a succession of opera virgins along to Opera North's previous productions, and every single one of them has emerged a convert to this most moving of genres - if you think opera is stuffy and inaccessible and elitist then I can't recommend Opera North highly enough to change this perception. And, as a knowledgeable opera goer, I'm not ashamed to throw in a bit of technical parlance and suggest that La Bohème would be an excellent starter opera because it's full of right lovely singing and has some tunes you will recognise. Opera North's La Bohème will be at The Lowry Theatre between 14th and 17th May with tickets from £27 (although the tissues you'll need will cost you extra).

Sunday, 4 May 2014

The River Bar & Grill at Manchester's Lowry Hotel

I imagine that running a hotel restaurant is not always the easiest job in the world. For one thing, I - and no doubt many others - have seen I'm Alan Partridge too many times to keep a straight face at the thought of a hotel buffet to which one might bring one's own Big Plate in order to consume more food at one sitting. For another, anyone who has been watching Restaurant Wars about Simon Rogan's efforts at The French at The Midland will have encountered the splendid Mrs North and others of her ilk - long-standing guests who regard the hotel restaurant as their own, and object to the introduction of anything swanky to their beloved, play-it-safe menu.

Hats off then to The River Bar & Grill at The Lowry Hotel, which seems to have cracked it with its new menu. As the first 5-star hotel in Manchester, The Lowry has a duty to provide "fine dining" facilities - trouble is, "fine dining" in a hotel can too often mean an over-fussy, over-starched, over-priced sort of experience, with all the fun sucked out of it and the very terrifying prospect of being thrown out for using an inappropriate piece of cutlery. No such worries here: the waiter sits us down, fetches us each a gin and tonic (presumably I have the kind of expression that can communicate "I need gin, and I need it now" without words), and repeatedly brings back the bread basket without question when it looks really very likely that I plan to eat its entire contents. Stuffy it isn't.

My starter is fantastic: the Hand Dived Scallops with Pork Belly is the dearest option on the menu at £14.50 but is perfect in its simplicity. Plump scallops, translucent in the centre and lightly caramelised on the outside, served alongside cubes of sticky pig - it's a combination I will just never tire of. The pickled baby red onions and teeny tiny diced carrots give the dish added crunch and tang, and elevate the whole ensemble to something really special. Meanwhile, across the table I am delighted to find it is circa 1977 with the arrival of the Dressed East Coast Crab - I mean it in a good way when I say this looks like something out of a gloriously retro cookbook that is amongst my most treasured possessions. The generous circle of finely flaked white and brown crab meat is topped with an exuberant squiggle of rich, mustardy dressing; the lemon half is wrapped in muslin; and the little triangles of bread and butter have the crusts cut off - I feel like we should be celebrating the Queen's Silver Jubilee. More importantly, it tastes magnificent - although right in the very last mouthful my friend does come across a little bit of shell that really shouldn't be there in a restaurant of this calibre.

For mains, we both try something meaty off the Josper Grill. I am always excited to come across one of these grills; indeed, the arrival of the Josper is the reason the restaurant has been renamed The River Bar & Grill. My rack of lamb is a shining example of what the Josper can do - the high temperatures mean the lamb is perfectly pink and juicy on the inside but crisp and sticky on the outside, and the closing door on the grill means that all little Larry's flavour stays in the meat rather than escaping into the ether. That said, Larry is not so little - I am beaten for quantity here, which is not a problem I often have in a restaurant. The rib-eye steak across the table is similarly delicious, and comes with a rich, eggy Bearnaise sauce that I purloin to dunk my fries in a most unladylike manner. The grill dishes all come with fries and a choice of sauce but we also try a selection of side dishes. Considering they normally retail at £3.50, these are a mixed bag: the spinach is lovely, and the rocket, Parmesan and pine nut salad is the best I've ever had, but the asparagus is over-cooked and served in a sea of hollandaise that overpowers its delicacy anyway. Our lovely waiter Filipe assures us that the asparagus is normally served far more al dente, and as he has selected and decanted a beautiful 2001 Spanish red for us to accompany our meal we are inclined to believe anything he says.

I don't technically have room for a pudding, but am persuaded (all too easily) by the promise of a perfect dessert wine if I can manage one. Filipe is unerring in his judgement once again - my dark chocolate fondant would be pretty sensational on its own, but paired with a lightly chilled red dessert wine, a little like a light, fruity Port, is nothing short of stunning. I have never had a red dessert wine before but plan to seek this out and purchase it immediately; I tell Filipe that people mock me for keeping Port in the fridge, but he assures me that I am right to do so and should ignore the naysayers. My friend has Brett's Cheesecake (Brett being Brett Pistorious, the restaurant's pastry chef), and finds its rich texture is perfectly cut through by light citrus flavours, thereby avoiding the sad claggy cloyingness of some lesser cheesecake specimens - the accompanying Muscat also works a treat.

I have to acknowledge that we were invited to try the menu and were not asked to pay for our meal, and as usual some people will say it's not possible to review honestly under such circumstances; as usual though, I have tried. We had a really lovely evening - the location overlooking the river is beautiful, the food is reasonably priced, and the staff couldn't be friendlier or more helpful. This is definitely somewhere I will visit again - particularly as the plates here are already so big there is simply no need to take your own...