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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Restaurant Review: Annie's, Manchester, which charms us despite its flaws

For various reasons, I didn't have a great week last week. And as is so often the way when you're not having a great week, I clung on to the promise of a Friday night out with good friends as the raft that would rescue me and carry me over to a better, brighter week (don't worry - I've exhausted myself now as well as the metaphor, so there will be no more to trouble you). And as is also so often the way, Manchester came up trumps with a frankly splendid night out - even if the centrepiece of the evening, dinner at Annie's restaurant, was a slightly haphazard experience.

If you've heard of Annie's restaurant before, it's probably because of the involvement of Coronation Street star Jenny McAlpine - it's almost certainly not because you've happened to wander past. Annie's is tucked away on Old Bank Street, between Cross Street and St Ann's Square, and unlikely to attract much passing trade despite its city centre location - which might explain why the upstairs bar was completely empty at 8pm on a Friday night. Downstairs in the restaurant it was slightly busier - we were shown to some comfy, mismatched armchairs and perused the menus whilst admiring the paper doilies, which we liked, because they reminded us all of our grandmas' houses. There was also a pianist/singer who plays live every Friday and she was excellent, warbling her way through a number of classics in a heartfelt manner which prompted one of my companions to remark that a single girl "could have a really good cry in here on a Friday over a few cocktails". He meant this as a compliment, but the recently single should consider themselves warned. It was also very dark downstairs in the restaurant, hence the poor quality of photos - as my flash has the ability to make even a long-dead piece of steak look startled, I've gone with murky as the lesser of two evils.

Foodwise, the menu is a cracker, full of pub classics that perhaps don't push the envelope (sorry - but that is more of a cliche than a metaphor, so I'm having it) but which are a tempting sight indeed for a girl who's only eaten two Ryvitas and an apple all day. Whilst I could happily have eaten the lot, execution was a little inconsistent - my starter of scallops with Bury black pudding and minty peas was an enjoyable version of this classic combination, with plump, perfectly seared scallops (although for £8.95 I would have preferred an extra scallop and a little less black pudding), whilst the Lancashire Rarebit (toasted bloomer topped with cheese, mustard and ale accompanied by homemade chutney) was tasty and satisfying, if a little inelegant. The corned beef hash cake was rather under-seasoned though, and the accompanying poached egg was hard - a careless mistake to make in a restaurant that wasn't that busy.

With the mains, I came up trumps again - my fillet steak was a beauty, cooked very rare as requested and with excellent texture and flavour; the accompaniments (large flat mushroom, tomato, hand-cut chips, a really good Bearnaise sauce) generous and tasty. The medium-rare sirloin was similarly impressive, and offered particularly good value at £18.95 including choice of sauce. The vegetable hot pot (seasonal vegetables topped with sliced potatoes and served with homemade red cabbage) was also deemed a success, offering a good selection of different vegetables and a properly crunchy topping. The issues were with the Cheese and Onion Pie, served with hand cut chips and Annie's baked beans, and one of the restaurant's signature dishes - but also very dry (as can be clearly seen even through the gloom of my low-grade photography) and almost completely lacking in flavour. It wasn't bad enough to send back - it was just heartbreakingly inferior to the other dishes on the table. Maybe it was just an off-night - this pie is apparently the dish which receives the most positive customer feedback, so perhaps another sampling is due.

Rather unfairly, I also had the best dessert. My sticky toffee pudding was a vast slab of light-as-air cake drowning in a sea of butterscotch sauce, and was delicious; Didsbury Girl's spotted dick and custard (ordered primarily for juvenile reasons) was also very well-executed and reminded us all that the 70s did give us something of note after all. The Mint Chocolate Indulgence (homemade minty chocolate mousse with mint chocolate chip ice cream, dark chocolate sauce and crisp minty chocolates) was fine, although deemed a little heavy on the ice cream. The Fizz Bomb was a disaster though - billed as a "chilled chocolate treat", this was essentially an inpenetrably hard ball of ice cream that remained inedible even after the rest of us had finished.

Despite these issues, we did like Annie's. The staff were helpful and obliging, the portions were generous and some of the cooking excellent. It is frustrating though for a meal to be so inconsistent when it could be outstanding - I would award my three courses a good 8.5 out of ten and would happily have paid for it, but this was not the case across the board. We also would have liked the singer to play on past 9pm on a Friday night - there was no music at all after she'd finished, which in a quiet restaurant produces a strange, flat sort of atmosphere. Next time, I've threatened to bash out a few tunes myself, so Annie's really do need to think twice about whether they want that...

- We were invited in as guests of the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our food, although we did pay for some of our drinks and for service.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Tampopo, Exchange Square: Manchester's Latest Pop-Up

On the whole, it seems that Manchester is fond of the pop-up. Perhaps it's the sense of novelty that a temporary bar or restaurant provides; perhaps it's the combination of the innovative and new with the reassuringly familiar that some of these temporary installations offer; perhaps it's just that we like to maximise our eating and drinking opportunities by having even more places to choose from. Either way, Manchester has embraced the pop-up with some enthusiasm, and I would be surprised if the endearing little Tampopo venue (the Tam Pop-up, of course) that has appeared in Exchange Square isn't a big success over the coming months.

This is a pop-up with a practical purpose behind it as well - as its former home, The Corn Exchange, is currently undergoing a massive refurbishment, Tampopo have moved back onto the streets until this is all completed early next summer. And it works well - Tampopo's street-food inspired menu translates well to the casual environment of the new venue, offering a pared-down menu that I would happily polish off in its entirety (and I had a pretty good go at doing this at the launch party the other week). My favourite dish of the evening was a new one - Tampopo's first Bahn Mi, a Vietnemese pork baguette that lends itself perfectly to being eaten in one's fingers (even if it is quite hard to hold one's wine glass at the same time); even better, 50p from the sale of each one will go to Mines Advisory Group, a landmine clearing charity. Other standout dishes included an excellent Nasi Goreng, an Indonesian rice dish packed with flavour and served with addictively crunchy onion flakes, and there is also a good range of decent beers and wines to wash everything down with.

The venue itself is both cute and functional, with room for up to 35 diners at its little plastic stools and tables as well as a takeaway service. You can watch them cook your food in the open kitchen, and the glass roof protects from the Manchester elements - apparently heaters will be installed as winter approaches. I for one can think of few things I'd rather do than escape the crush of the Christmas Markets and come down here for some fresh Thai food - with the arrival of the temporary Aumbrey restaurant this week as well, the Manchester pop-up is clearly alive and well.

- Tam Pop-up is on Exchange Square, and is open from noon till 9pm every day (and perhaps a little later on weekends).

Monday, 15 September 2014

Foraging in Rochdale with Caorunn Gin and Discover the Wild: A Grand Day Out Despite the Rain

Now, I am not by nature a particularly outdoorsy girl. I like the idea of the countryside very much indeed, but only a highly sanitised version - ideally one without wasps, or mud, or bad smells. I have not been camping since I was a child and consider it, on the whole, perfectly possible to admire the beauty of nature through one's car window on the way back to a comfortable dwelling with central heating, a roof and hot water on demand.

Thus I was as surprised as anyone to find myself tramping through the countryside somewhere near Rochdale in the pouring rain (and I mean pouring), looking at wet leaves and contemplating ruefully the hitherto-undiscovered non-waterproof nature of my trainers. Yep, last weekend - the only wet day in recent weeks, naturally - I went foraging, and it's a glowing endorsement of our charismatic and engaging guide David Winnard of Discover the Wild that I had a fabulous time despite the weather. The whole event was the brainchild of Caorunn Gin, a Scottish brand which I tried for the first time a few months ago and have since purchased on a regular basis, with the idea being to take a busload of bloggers out into the wilds to look for the five Celtic botanicals used in the gin (and bring the bloggers back again, no doubt contrary to the wishes of those who would rather they simply be left there to fend for themselves).

The first botanical we (OK, David) found was dandelion - to be fair, even I have a fair idea what these look like thanks to my poor gardening skills and their fondness for my lawn. David also showed us some rowan trees loaded with the beautiful red berries that give Caorunn its name, an apple tree (not technically the Coul Blush variety that Caorunn uses as they only grow in Scotland, but near enough), some purple heather, and finally - down a secret, very muddy path - some bog myrtle. This last one is much sought after, and is the reason I'm not allowed to say exactly where we went (even if I knew, which I don't on account of being too busy chatting to look where I was going whilst on the bus). David showed us lots of other things as well, including elderflower, rose hips and sloe berries - we were all pretty impressed by how many edible and interesting plants and flowers we came across in our 90 minute stroll.

After all this healthy, wholesome outdoorsy stuff, it was back to Manchester and more familiar territory - lunch and cocktails at The Lawn Club. Here we were welcomed with a Wild Urban Bramble Cocktail (specially developed with Elixir to mark the Forage to Glass events) and a lovely buffet lunch as well as a bag of goodies to take home and make our own cocktail with (including some elderflower syrup and rowan and apple jelly made by David's fair hands). So yes, it was a very gentle introduction to the world of foraging, leading a number of rather churlish friends to rather uncharitably remark that I had essentially been foraging for cocktails, and lunch, and that it was little wonder that someone with my track record for such things had managed to sniff them out. I did learn a lot though, and have indulged in a number of rosy fantasies since whereby I become the kind of woman who puts her wellies on, pops out and forages for a number of tasty items, and then comes home and makes jam etc rather than just buying it at Sainsbury's. Whilst this may admittedly still be some way off, I do plan to book David for a full day foraging trip, particularly as it's now mushroom season - have a look at his website here if you'd like to do the same. I'll be the slightly mardy one at the back in unsuitable shoes...

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Diplomatico Rum Tasting at Manchester House: Views, Canapés and Cocktails Make for a Glamorous Wednesday Night

Now, I must admit to being a fairly late convert to the dark, sultry charms of rum; unless of course you count the Barcardi and cokes I used to force down as a student in the interests of swift and efficient inebriation. Like many late converts though, I am somewhat evangelical about my chosen subject - there are some truly outstanding examples of this versatile spirit out there, and none more so than Diplomatico, who last week hosted a rum tasting evening in the bar at Manchester House with matched canapés by Aiden Byrne.

The twelfth floor bar at Manchester House is perfect for this sort of event, with its stunning views of the Manchester skyline providing an ideal backdrop for the equally beautiful selection of rum brought along by Skippy and Mark for the occasion. Diplomatico is a Venezuelan rum and as such is subject to strict rules and regulations: all the sugar cane used must come from there, and all production and ageing must take place in Venezuela - the rum must also be at least 40% ABV and aged for a minimum of two years (hence there are so few white rums from Venezuela). All of this makes for something pretty special, particularly as Diplomatico use sugar cane honey as well as molasses, leading to that sweet, rounded mellowness that makes a really good rum so irresistible.

We began with a Mai Tai cocktail and a shot of the Anejo, the Diplomatico entry level rum. Skippy described this as good for mixing but I also found it more than acceptable on its own thanks to its 5% sugar cane honey and four year ageing process. The Mai Tai was exemplary (as it should be, with its name meaning "out of this world"), and was followed by a tot of the Diplomatico Reserva that had gone into it. The canapés were also starting to come out by this point, with each one designed by Aiden Byrne to complement its partnering rum - the chocolate lychee, Szechuan and rose was a work of art in its own right but went perfectly with the sweetness of the Anejo, and the cherry filled with foie gras mousse and served with palm sugar (a Manchester House classic) provided an indulgent pairing with the Reserva.

Next up, the Blanco (which had far more flavour than any white rum I've ever tried before, and is certainly the only one I've ever been able to drink neat), a killer Daiquiri and a canapé of crab and curried papaya - along with a visit from Chef Byrne himself. Rum number four, and we were starting to get to the good stuff - the Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva is 80% heavy (much like myself by this point of the evening); in other words, it is 80% sugar cane honey and thus a perfect match for the spiced bread and pressed plum.

The final two rums were ones to savour, as they would both be way out of my price range in real life. The Diplomatico Single Vintage 2000 is a 43% heavyweight and is aged for 11 years; it also came with most people's favourite canapé of the night - a roasted scallop with white chocolate and truffle risotto (this is currently on the lunch menu in the restaurant, and would quite frankly merit a trip to Manchester House on its own). Last but definitely not least was the Ambassador, aged for 12 years in Pedro Jimenez sherry casks and quite simply one of the nicest things I have ever put in my mouth (no sniggering at the back please). The same goes for the cured foie gras, spiced banana and speculoos biscuit, and the final cocktail of the evening, a twist on an Old Fashioned called The Treacle.

All in all, this was one of the most enjoyable couple of hours imaginable, and offered quite ludicrous value at £30 for six rums, three cocktails and canapés. The cocktails at Manchester House are something special anyway, but Business Development Manager Emma Cottam says they're planning to host more of this type of event in the future, and to get the chance to sample some of Aiden Byrne's creations as well was an added bonus. Keep an eye out for the next one, as it's likely to sell out in the blink of an eye - and I'm willing to fight in the most unladylike manner for a place.

- Manchester House has streamlined its impressive cocktail menu and made it more user friendly, with a helpful contents page separating the different options into their base spirit and making suggestions for variants on old favourites. You can, ahem, see from the pictures below just how frightening user-friendly I found the new menu when Emma invited me in to try it. Some of these are from a paid visit, some from a comp - but I loved them all equally.