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Saturday, 29 November 2014

New Menu at SoLIta - Cheeseburger Spring Rolls Spawn a Dangerous New Obsession

So, another blog, another post in which I eat too much at SoLIta - you've heard it all before. This time though, I'm at the Didsbury branch, which Franco and co. thoughtfully opened just a hop skip and a jump away from my house earlier this year (Franco jokes I was listed in his business plan when outlining the viability of the Didsbury site - or at least, I hope he's joking). And this time, I've brought along a vegetarian.

We're here to try out the new menu, having respectively spent most of the week eyeing up photos on Twitter of the Cheeseburger Spring Rolls (me) and the Halloumi Burger (my fragrant date, who had never been to SoLIta before due to its rather meaty reputation). SoLIta Didsbury is based in what was Cibo on School Lane - a building scarcely recognisable from its previous sorrowful occupancy. Now it's all Stanley Chow artwork and neon signs, with a buzzy atmosphere that Cibo could only dream of and a fleet of young, chipper staff ready to ply you with the good stuff; in fact, it's very like the Northern Quarter outpost, only a/ better and b/ nearer home.

Obviously, for starters I have the Cheeseburger Spring Rolls. When you've essentially spent the day drooling over a photograph of something in a Homer-esque way, there's always a very real worry that reality will be a let down; not so here thankfully. These spring rolls are as ridiculous and as amazing as they sound - with burger steak wrapped in proper yellow plastic cheese wrapped in pastry and then deep fried, they are essentially the very greedy person's version of an enigma wrapped inside an enigma. Meanwhile, my veggie date has one of my most favourite SoLIta starters, the Lucky 7 - so called because of its layers of guacamole, re-fried beans, sour cream, salsa, cheese, lettuce, olives. She loves it so much she snarfs the lot - lucky only for some, it appears.

For main, I have The Schnitz - a previous special that proved so popular it's muscled its way onto the new menu (and deservedly so - chicken breast schnitzel topped with home smoked shredded bbq chicken and apple slaw and then served with fries is fairly hard to say no to). I'm a sucker for any form of fried chicken anyway, and it makes a nice change from the ubiquitous pulled pork to find it topped with shredded chicken rather than pig. It's the apple slaw that really makes the dish though, adding a freshness and crunch that works well against the sweetness of the bbq sauce. The Veggie has the Hallou Me? Burger - charcoal grilled halloumi, Portobello mushrooms, red pepper and house sauce; she enjoys it, but feels it would benefit from a lightly toasted bun. To be fair though, she has to order it without the mushroom as she is allergic (yes, I know, a veggie allergic to mushrooms - it's a wonder she manages to eat out at all), and thinks that the dish would be fairly perfect had she had this element. On the side we have some cornmeal fried jalepenos and some deep fried pickles - the latter are particularly magnificent, and are fought over to such an extent that we have to actually cut the last one in half.

We are full by now, but share a dessert in the form of the Peanut Butter Chocolate Fudge Brownie served with Oreo ice cream. They know we want to share and helpfully cut the brownie in half before it arrives - either they are exceptionally thoughtful here or (perhaps the more likely) they simply witnessed the unseemly pickle tussle and wish to avoid further public disturbances. The brownie has an excellent texture, managing to be both light AND sticky - our only comment is that we could both handle a bigger hit of peanut butter (but then again, we are both the kind of people who eat it directly from the jar when we think no-one is watching). I do still mourn the deep-fried coke, but feel that I can bravely make do with this until Franco sees sense (/caves to pressure) and brings it back.

Any drawbacks? Well, I honestly think the portions are on the big side, but as the vast majority of the population have better self control than I do, they would probably just stop eating when they were full. Someone also commented via social media that they thought SoLIta prices a little expensive, but I'm not sure this is fair criticism - everything at SoLIta is big enough to share, and the burger prices have actually come down a pound or two thanks to the restaurant passing on discounts from suppliers. And yes, we didn't pay on this occasion, but I estimate that I have been to SoLIta NQ maybe twenty times as a paying customer and to SoLIta Didsbury already about five, so I am more than happy to part with my cash here. And even The Veggie says she wants to go again - high praise indeed, although I doubt very much I'll ever convert her to the delights of the cheeseburger spring roll...

- SoLIta Didsbury is on School Lane, M20 6RD; tel. 0161 434 4884.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Bangers and Bacon's Chef's Table at Guerrilla Eats: Street Food Gets Classy

OK, look - I'll keep this brief, as it's essentially me talking about sausages again and I can already hear some of you sighing at the prospect of more of my porcine wittering. I do think I get special dispensation with this one though, as this is no ordinary sausage post - this is the amazing Bangers and Bacon five course Chef's Table feast at Guerrilla Eats, on for four Saturdays only and therefore pretty much the hottest ticket in town.

It seems remarkable that no-one had thought of taking the concept of the Chef's Table - where diners sit alongside the kitchen so they can watch the chef(s) prepare and serve their food - out of the fancy restaurant and into the street food arena before now. It's an idea that makes perfect sense and was even better in practice when it debuted last Saturday night in a drafty Ancoats warehouse, where six of us sat at a proper table with a proper tablecloth and with proper crockery and proper cutlery and had the following:

- Pig, Pickle and Pate Platter. So, the first of five dishes, billed as "slightly smaller than courses" - and a clear indication that, with each board serving two people, Bangers and Bacon have a fairly generous definition of portion size. They bought a couple of new smokers recently and frankly can't leave their new toys alone, hence this generous platter of smoked meats, pate and - best of all - bacon jam. This was quite simply the best bacon jam I've ever had - it had all the flavour you'd expect from the purveyors of the best bacon in Britain, but with a looser, meatier texture than many I've tried. They should take it as a compliment that I left with the half jar we couldn't eat in my handbag.

- "Spaghetti", Pumpkin and Smoked Bacon Chowder. A more sensible portion size this time - a dinky little glass of beautifully smoky, creamy soup that went down a treat. Personally, I would have left out the little chunks of pumpkin "spaghetti"; otherwise, I would happily have this every day (or at least until every single button had popped off my trousers).

- Trio of Snags Du Jour. As the good folks at Bangers and Bacon are also Team Bobby's Bangers, a sausage course was no surprise. What was surprising was the daintiness and finesse of the whole thing - Richard trained at some of Greater Manchester's best restaurants and his fancy-dan background was clear to see in his exuberantly cheffy piping of three different types of mash. The garlic mash came with an equally garlicky Toulouse sausage; the sun-dried tomato mash with a lovely fennelly Italian; the plain mash with my all-time favourite banger (the Christmas one with the bacon, sprouts and chestnut); and the whole lot was served with a punchy red wine jus. Lovely.

- It Mush Pea Love. A pared down version of my favourite Bangers and Bacon dish: fresh, minty peas (I'll overlook the fact that this token healthy element was clearly at least half butter and cream), mixed with bacon and topped with beetroot crisps, served on a crouton. I'm not too proud to admit I ate the leftover mushy peas out the pan; as I already had a half-eaten jar of bacon jam in my bag by this point, pretensions to decorum seemed pretty futile.

- Treacle Bacon and Chocolate Brownie. I wasn't sure whether I would like this - and it turned out to be the highlight of the night. A gorgeously sticky chocolate brownie containing chewy chunks of sweet bacon and served with a fruit coulis and a marscarpone cream, this would have been worthy of any posh restaurant - and once again, the presentation was beautiful (until I mauled it).

The Chef's Table has three more Saturdays to run and is selling out very quickly, despite the fact that they've now put on two sittings to accommodate demand. Future menus will vary slightly, but the price remains at £15 a head - frankly ridiculous for five exquisite courses, so I suggest you handle their tips jar with generosity. And before accusations of blogger bias start up, yes James, Heather and Richard are my friends, but we paid for our places and I wouldn't have written this had I not genuinely loved it. Add the fact that Guerrilla Eats run a pretty well-stocked bar and that the DJ was playing Stone Roses and New Order, and I'm not sure it could be bettered. Keep an eye on their twitter feed @bangersandbacon for links to ticket sales - and be quick about it if you want to bag a seat at the best bargain of the year.

- Guerrilla Eats currently reside at Blossom Street, Manchester M4 5AF.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Opera North's La Traviata at The Lowry: Passion in Paris (via Salford)

Now, whilst I am painfully aware that I am no longer in the first flush of youth, I do still consider myself at least relatively young. I have never been on a cruise; I do not own a tartan shopping trolley; and I do not (yet) say "aaaaaaah" after my first sip of a cup of tea. I do, however, like the opera - something which still prompts some surprise in those who clearly regard opera as the preserve of the posh and the elderly rather than someone who is prone to drinking too much Prosecco and falling over on a night out. The always-magnificent Opera North are on a bit of a mission to prove that a night at the opera is a wonderful thing no matter what your age, and specifically set out to attract a new audience in the spring with La Boheme (a huge success - more than half of the Leeds audiences were new to Opera North). That mission continued this week at Salford's Lowry, with another crowd pleaser set in Paris and perhaps the best-known opera of the lot: Verdi's La Traviata.

As is typically the case with opera, the story is a straightforward one: girl meets boy and sings a beautiful duet with him (in this case, it's a courtesan named Violetta and a handsome young man called Alfredo); circumstances break them up (here, it's Alfredo's father, Giorgio, who convinces Violetta to leave Alfredo as she is besmirching the family name and preventing his daughter's chances of marriage); love wins through (hurray!); then finally a heartbreaking ending (I hope I'm not ruining any surprises when I suggest you take note of the nasty cough Violetta has from Act One). The story isn't the point really - and indeed, its simplicity is a blessed relief for those of us whose Italian is a bit ropey and who would rather not bother reading all the subtitles that pop up on the screens in front the stage. The brevity of the plot leaves you free to listen to the beauty of the music - and La Traviata is packed full of familiar tunes that pretty much everybody will know, most notably perhaps "The Drinking Song" (which someone was rude enough to point out on Twitter that I was bound to know).

Being Opera North, the staging is slick and modern and clever, from the lengthy trip round Violetta's lungs at the beginning to the breathtaking night sky that provides the backdrop to a glorious party near the end. The cast are as good as we have come to expect from Opera North, with Hye-Youn Lee particularly charismatic as Violetta and putting in an extraordinarily powerful vocal performance that I failed utterly to reproduce in the car on the way home. The only thing I didn't like about the whole production was the fact that there were two intervals. This broke the performance up too much for my liking, although to be fair there is no obvious halfway break due to the second of the three acts having two scenes. Still, it did provide double the amount of opportunities for the consumption of wine, so it's a very minor quibble.

Next time Opera North are back in Manchester it will be with something a bit more cheery - Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Keep an eye on their website for further details - and don't forget to leave your shopping trolley at the back...

- photos taken from the Opera North website - photo credit: Richard H Smith.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Grandad's Sausages: Putting the Bang into National Sausage Week

Right - no sniggering at the back, but it's National Sausage Week, and the excitement generated on Twitter about this simple fact is the type of thing that makes Britain great: even normally high-functioning highbrow folk have been enjoying a meaty innuendo or two in celebration of banger week. My love of sausages is well-documented - I was the first graduate of the Bobby's Bangers Sausage School, and often man the Good Ship Sausage on their behalf at Levenshulme Market, where appreciative crowds jostle to admire my meat-handling skills - but whilst a good banger is a thing of utter joy, a bad one is a sorrow indeed. As Nigel Slater once said, there's no joy in a dry sausage - nor in a limp, flaccid one or a nasty flabby fatty one (those last words are, perhaps obviously, mine rather than Nigel's). I was forced to buy supermarket sausages the other week (mentioning no names *whispers* Debbie and Andrew's) and they were terrible - so much fat came out of them, they set the grill on fire and I had to be quite extraordinarily brave to avert a major catastrophe.

So when Grandad's Sausages asked if I'd like to try their sausages, I said yes (obviously), but not without some trepidation - although to be fair, any company with the slogan "putting a smile on Grandma's face for over 50 years" doesn't really need to enlist the help of local bloggers in stirring up a flurry of sausage innuendo. Grandad's Sausages (@GSausages) is a locally-based family business from sunny Bury, now run by brothers Matthew and Michael in memory of their Grandad Bernard, who founded the company more than 50 years ago (and was presumably the reason for Grandma's cheerful demeanour). They also make terrible banger-based jokes on Twitter, where their avatar is a pig in a top hat - if you can find anything here not to like, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.

Anyway, there are ten different flavours and they sent me a party pack of seven to sample: Traditional British Pork, Olde English, Lincolnshire, Cumberland, Pork & Welsh Leek, Pork & Somerset Apple and Pork & Fiery Chilli. Being a single girl of, ahem, modest appetites, I've not tried them all yet - but the ones I've had so far have been suitably meaty with a good strong flavour and not too much fat coming out during cooking. You see the Pork & Leek and Pork & Apple here - and yes, that IS a sexy bed of sprouts they are reclining on. I look forward to trying the rest - and whilst I remain a Bobby's Bangers girl through and through, there's always room for a bonus banger in my fridge.