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Sunday, 24 August 2014

Chaophraya, Manchester: Tasty Thai Cheers Up a Miserable Wet Monday

Sometimes, you mean to go to a restaurant for ages and yet somehow never get round to it - and for no discernible reason. Chaophraya has long been such a venue for me - great-looking menu, handy city centre location, never heard anything about it but good things...and yet never been there.

All of that has now been put right, and frankly I was a fool not to have done it earlier. The place was packed on a wet Monday evening - perhaps with people taking advantage of the excellent value Early Bird offer whilst seeking refuge against the weather in this plush haven - always a good sign I think, particularly when those customers range from large groups to couples on a romantic night out (and greedy bloggers). We wanted to try a number of dishes and therefore chose to eat from the set menu list - there are different options here at a range of price points, but we went for a middle ground option with the "Set Maenum Yom" at £35.50 per person. Being of a greedy persuasion, we started with some good prawn crackers and some excellent Prawn Tom Yum soup - a little pricey perhaps at £8.95, but with just the right level of chilli and generous amounts of mushrooms and king prawns. This particular Tom Yum was thickened with coconut milk, giving it a lovely creamy texture that our waitress explained was more typical of the Northern regions of Thailand and which we felt heightened the traditional hot and sour flavours of the soup.

On to the set menu then, which began with a sharing platter of pork spare ribs, chicken satay, steamed dumplings, prawn and chicken toasts and deep-fried pork marinated with honey and Thai herbs. This offered a nice combination of appetisers and was flawless in its execution - all the different flavours stood out despite the variety of tastes and textures on the plate; my favourite was the sweet, sticky pork strips, but I would happily eat any of this again.

Main courses were equally varied, offering full portions of four different dishes: Four Seasons Duck Curry, Crispy Pork Belly with Thai Basil, King Prawns with Ginger and Beef in Black Pepper Sauce, served with egg-frid rice. The only disappointment here was the beef dish: the sauce was satisfyingly fiery but the meat mysteriously tough and chewy - a real shame, as earlier we'd particularly admired the scent and sizzle of this dish as it made its way past us to another table. The others were lovely though, particularly the rich and comforting duck curry; we also loved the contrast between the fatty, sticky pork cubes and the fragrant Thai basil-infused sauce.

They sensibly recognise that most diners are likely to be pretty full after this lot but may still fancy something sweet to finish off their meal - the fresh fruit and chocolate fondue was perfectly judged in terms of size and content (and as I hadn't noticed it on the menu also came as a very welcome surprise). Another pleasant surprise at Chaophraya is the wine list - we had an excellent Gewürztraminer that we thought very well-priced at £24.95, the slight sweetness coping well with both the spiciness and delicacy of the dishes we tried.

So, a very good meal in a place with lovely staff and a great buzz. Obviously Chaophraya is part of a chain (albeit a small one), and with the lovely Siam Smiles in Chinatown attracting so much attention at the moment for its cheap and authentic Thai food, it would be easy to dismiss Chaophraya as rather expensive and comparatively Anglicised. This is unhelpful - the two places offer completely different dining experiences and I count myself lucky to live somewhere which offers the choice. I will definitely be back for the Early Bird evening menu - now I've finally made it to Chaophraya I'm very much looking forward to going again.

- Chaophraya is at 19 Chapel Walks, Manchester M2 1HN. We were invited to try the menu and were not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but both agreed we would be more than happy to go again as paying customers.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Botanist Comes to Deansgate, Manchester: Mini Wheelbarrow-Sized Handbags at the Ready

So, first things first: does Manchester city centre really need another Living Ventures venue? Whilst I have a lot of time for a number of Living Ventures restaurants, a quick look at the online menu for the new Botanist on Deansgate ahead of the launch do last week left me thinking that maybe we didn't, particularly as the food menu here is very similar to that of the nearby Oasthouse just down the road at Spinningfields. In the former Label premises at what people of my age might class as the "wrong end" of Deansgate, the decor at the new Botanist is, by all accounts, the same as others in the Botanist stable (I hadn't been to one before but know a few people who are regulars at the one in Alderley Edge). So really, what's the point?

Well, two things. Firstly, perhaps being at the "wrong end" of Deansgate, in an area packed with uninspiring chains and bars beloved of hen dos and stag parties, is a pretty clever decision - true, some of it might be based on nostalgia (the restaurant is located on the site of Living Ventures boss Tim Bacon's first Manchester bar, JW Johnson’s, back in the 90s), but there is simply nowhere else in this part of town that I, a lady of increasingly advanced years, can imagine going. There is live music every night, usually piano- or guitar- based, and featuring songs of an appropriate mood and vintage for someone who likes to pretend that time has frozen somewhere around 1997 - a definite bonus in my opinion.

Secondly, there is the cocktail menu. In recent years I have become heartily sick of the cocktail and increasingly choosy about both where I drink them and which ones I am prepared to drink - too many are sweet, sickly, over-priced concoctions that just don't interest me at all. The cocktail menu at the Botanist is quite simply the best I have seen for years - at first, it looked off-puttingly lengthy, but on closer examination I found I was pretty keen to try almost all of them (and, to be fair, I did have a noble attempt at this). My favourite so far is the Apple and Rosemary Sling, recommended by our knowledgeable waitress as a good palate cleanser for a girl too full for pudding - and the combination of rosemary, Olmeca Blanco tequila, Hayman’s Sloe Gin, apple juice, sugar syrup and lime juice was indeed perfect: long, refreshing, not remotely sweet and with the taste of decent tequila coming through very strongly. Second place went to the Peach and Basil Margarita with its fresh basil, peach purée, Olmeca Blanco tequila, lime juice and apricot liqueur, but I enjoyed everything I tried - I can't pretend that at typical city centre cocktail prices of £6.95 - £7.95 a go I could afford to drink many on a night out, but I would go back just for these alone (and have already been inspired to raid my herb garden to knock up my own Botanist-style drinks at home). And yes, you will notice a markable decrease in the quality of the cocktail photography - in itself I reckon this is a glowing testimony to the generosity of spirit content.

Food-wise, the place is more than decent. I'm not sure I would go here just to eat, but would definitely end up being tempted if I was in for drinks. The food is beautifully presented - my starter of Chicken liver and rum pâté with plum and apple chutney (£5.95) arrived with the pâté in a little plant pot with ginger crumb "soil" on the top and the chutney in the world's cutest mini wheelbarrow. It's easy to knock this kind of styling as a little contrived but I rather like the commitment to the theme shown here - and whilst the pâté could have done with a little more oomph flavourwise, I thought this was a great dish for the price. For main, I had half a chicken, fresh from the rotisserie, served in a crate with BBQ sauce and "properly seasoned" chips; the chicken was lovely (I want to use the words succulent, tender and moist but can't quite bring myself to use such a combination) and the extra sides I greedily chose (deep-fried onion "petals" and mustard seed and red cabbage coleslaw) were both excellent. Again, a good value dish at £9.95 - my only complaint being that the chips were a little salty even for me. I still ate them all though, and that is of course the only reason I drank so many cocktails afterwards.

- The Botanist Manchester is at 78 Deansgate, Manchester M3 2FW. I was invited to the press lunch and was not asked to pay for my food or drink, and have yet to dine there at a peak time - but service was excellent and I would be happy to pay the prices on the menu on another occasion.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Trafford Centre: Where Dangerous Peanut Butter Milkshake Habits are Formed

When I decided to accept an invitation to the newly refurbished Gourmet Burger Kitchen in Manchester's Trafford Centre, I was fully aware that I was ticking all the boxes for "Things Most Likely to Annoy Twitter": a freebie, at a chain outlet, in a soulless location, specialising in something that has apparently overstayed its welcome. To be fair, I rarely visit the Trafford Centre, but I have nothing against chains per se, and will actively defend the burger until the end of time - it is one of my favourite food items, and the one on which I am most likely to gorge at barbecues and other social gatherings involving men and fire.

And actually, GBK is pretty good, particularly for a lunchtime catch-up with a friend who works at the Trafford Centre (and who often eats at GBK) - with its canteen-style decor and the requirement to order your food at the bar I can't imagine coming here in the evening, but as a daytime venue it works well. Having never visited before, I couldn't really comment on the refurb, but my friend is a regular here and was impressed - she thought it much brighter and lighter (always a challenge for Trafford Centre restaurants), and we both liked the upstairs eating area and balcony.

We both have a burger (naturally) - I have The Taxidriver cooked medium-rare (American cheese, an onion ring, Cajun relish, smoked chilli mayo, dill pickle and salad on a brioche bun) whilst Miss Lucy has the Kiwiburger cooked medium (beetroot, fried egg, pineapple, aged Cheddar, house mayo, relish and salad). I am pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy the burger - it is pink in the middle but with a satisfyingly tasty crust on the outside, and strikes the right balance of being moist without being too sloppy. A Manchester diner doesn't necessarily want to be eating "beef from South West counties", but a lack of local product sourcing is a familiar issue with many chain restaurants and I know that individual outlets are generally powerless to do anything about it.

The side orders are a little more variable. My skinny Rosemary Fries are just TOO skinny for me, whilst the Sweet Potato Fries (which come with baconnaise) are excellent; Lucy's Blue Cheese Slaw is just a little claggy for me, whilst my GBK Homeslaw (cabbage, spring onions, carrot, celeriac and vinaigrette) is light, fresh and a perfect foil for a fat meaty burger. Pudding comes in the form of milkshake - there are very few sweet options available at GBK beyond frozen yoghurt, but we both have a child-sized glass of dairy goodness in lieu of dessert. As you can see from the photos, GBK's idea of "child-size" is a generous one - and I could develop a serious addiction to the Peanut Butter milkshake, a simple but literally heart-stopping combination of peanut butter, ice cream and whole milk.

Would I go again? Yes, but I would order carefully - the fact that sides cost extra means that it's pretty easy to run up a substantial bill here with really realising it. There are plenty of offers available though (see website for more details), and it's worth remembering that this NZ brand has been around since 2001 - long before burgers became so ubiquitous.

- GBK is at 117 The Orient, Trafford Centre, Manchester M17 8AA; tel. 0161 749 8465. We were invited in as guests of the restaurant and would like to thank manager James (a man who clearly enjoys his job) for making us so welcome.

Friday, 1 August 2014

New Guest Post: ManCoCo Coffee Arrives in Manchester

Now, as an exceptionally greedy person who wishes to maximise all eating and drinking opportunities, there are few foods I actively dislike: celery, Bounty bars and blackcurrant. My list of drinks dislikes is even shorter: coffee. I consider this evil brown liquid to be the devil's own drink but understand I am in the minority with this - witness the lovely Nicole's delight at the following torturous evening...

An Antipodean at heart (especially when New Zealand are playing rugby, or netball), I love nothing more than exceptionally good coffee. It's something we pride ourselves on, and one of the things I miss most about Aotearoa. Lucky for me then, that Manchester now has its very own artisan coffee roaster. Even luckier that I was invited to ManCoCo, located just off Deansgate, to sample a selection of their single origin coffees, roasted on the premises.

The roastery itself, located in a railway arch, is suitably authentic, with ManCoCo's sustainable and ethically sourced Arabica green coffee beans proudly displayed in burlap sacks identifying their widespread origins, and a world map with pins locating each specific source. We started with a tour of the roastery, and a talk by one of ManCoCo's passionate and knowledgeable roasters. We were introduced to ManCoCo's roasting machine, and the whole process was explained. I must admit to being rather naive to the intricacies of coffee bean roasting - I didn't realise what an involved process it is. Like all the best things in life, coffee bean roasting is an intriguing combination of art and science.

We moved on to the tasting area, to experience the cupping method of coffee tasting, a way to evaluate the flavour and aroma profiles of different coffees. We arranged ourselves carousel-style, in front of a tasting station and the demonstration began. Once the ground beans were topped up with water just off the boil, and brewed for a length of time, we all had the opportunity to try our hand at 'cupping' using two spoons. It is much more technical than it sounds, and I am reliably informed that this method is exactly as importers would experience, when they visit coffee producers to source beans.

Moving around the tasting stations gave us the opportunity to sample six of ManCoCo's most popular single origin coffees, and one of the lovely ManCoCo Men explained that we would just know when we tasted The One - that is, the coffee whose flavour and aroma profile matched perfectly with our tastebuds. I love the idea of a 'personalised' coffee, but I wasn't sure if my tastebuds would be able to discern the subtle differences in each sample. Although I felt like I was speed-dating each coffee rather than spending quality time getting to know it, remarkably I did 'just know' when I tasted Number 4, Sumatran Jagong Village. It was rich and strong, while also managing to be smooth and chocolately. The One.

It turns out that my One is also many other people's One, as Sumatran Jagong Village is ManCoCo's best-selling coffee. I can't decide if this means I'm frightfully common, or that I have frightfully good taste. Either way, ManCoCo were right - we all found our One, and each coffee was unique in its flavour and aroma, and each of us were unique in the tastes we experienced. Coffee tasting is as sophisticated and nuanced as wine tasting, but without the hangover. PS - it's polite to slurp, nay, expected.

Good coffee is hard to find. Very good coffee is even more elusive, but I think I may have found it at ManCoCo. If you too want to find The One, visit ManCoCo for your own coffee sampling session. ManCoCo sell their beans direct from the roastery and via their website Look out for their stall at local speciality markets and country fayres.