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Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Guest Blog Post, in which Matt (and his Hat) Tries the New Menu at Don Giovannis, Manchester

I was excited to be offered the chance to go and review the new menu at Don Giovannis, so braved the cold and sleet with my trusty new red hat (somehow I lost 10 black hats last year...anyway, that is beside the point).

I must admit I've never been before and walking through the door was struck by how warming and welcoming it was (especially the fish specials board!) We were led through to the new refurbished function room where the imposing white tables greeted us, beautifully dressed (them, not us). Now I'm not a massive fan of weddings but for an intimate gathering for a reception this would be ideal.

Hungry as always, we were eager to see what was going to appear. First though was the wine, and whilst I like most forms of wine it's a typical bugbear of mine, the concept of 'house wine'. In most restaurants it is overpriced, lacking in fruit or depth and ill chosen. However, the Trebbiano served to us was a surprise and a delight. Crisp, plenty of good stone fruit and a mellowing sweetness. I could see this matching with most of the food we were going to get.

First up was what I would call 'Dough Pillows', accompanied by olives and a light herb dressing. They were moreish to say the least, with enough salt so as to not be overpowering, and they complimented the olives nicely. I do love good Antipasti and was very happy to see three large plates descend on our tables. The cured meats were high quality which was nice to see (in a lot of Italian restaurants I've had bog standard antipasti and as a general rule of thumb do not order it, so was pleased with our offering here). My favourite things on the plate had to be the pickled green peppers, roasted courgette and artichoke hearts. The pickling was top drawer, light and delicate. The artichoke hearts were not smothered in oil and still had some leaves on them making them really tasty. Overall a great plate of classic Italian flavours.

Next up was 'Insalata di Polpo' (Warm Octopus Salad with Potato, Celery, Red Chilli and Lemon Juice). I was told by my esteemed friend that she would be jealous if this was served so was happy to send her some pictures! The dish overall was good but a little inconsistent as part of the octopus was a little soft and overcooked but the crisp bits with the chilli were delicious.

With the Trebbiano coming into its own the 'Ravioli Di Spinaci' (Spinach Ravioli with a Butter Sage Sauce) was presented to us. Well cooked pasta (I never get it right!) with a light sauce and smooth filling (a tiny bit under seasoned for my liking but I am a salt fiend).

Onto my highlight of the the evening, 'Capesante Casereccie' (Seared King Scallops with Pea Puree and Red Chilli). I'm a massive fan of pea puree and will have it with most dishes I cook for myself and this one did not disappoint. Smooth and wonderfully seasoned and a fantastic accompaniment to the perfectly cooked, caramelized King Scallops.

Our final savoury dish of the evening arrived and invited us to tuck in: 'Tagliata di Manzo' (Sliced 10oz Sirloin Steak with Rocket and Parmesan Shavings). Rocket, Steak & Parmesan are a classic combination, however I thought with this salad it needed to be dressed more and have more Parmesan. Maybe this was because it was served to us on big platters so some of the ingredients got lost. The steak was cooked perfectly rare which I can't fault but just needed something extra to give it that rounded feel.

I suppose Tiramisu to the Italians is like Bread and Butter Pudding to us, everyone has the 'best' recipe. Anyway, it was a colossal bomb-like pudding and a great spectacle to end the night with. As it should be, rich, creamy but light and airy.

And so our night came to a close. The function did what it was designed to do perfectly: got everyone together, talking and generally having a really good time. I think my overall view, not having been before, was that they could have showcased some more dishes, maybe some fish specials and other pasta dishes. When I read the menu before going I was impressed by the variety and depth of the dishes they had on offer so would have been keen to sample some more of what the menu had to offer. Having said that, from what I had would go back and enjoy a long Saturday lunch in the company of some very friendly and hospitable staff.

- Don Giovannis can be found at 1-2 Peter House, Oxford Street, Manchester, M1 5AN; telephone 0161 2282482.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Guest Blog Post: Susan Hill's The Mist in the Mirror at Oldham Coliseum

So, I've been a bit off-colour the last few weeks, and have had to hand over the blogging reins to some trusted souls - including the lovely Catherine, who has been to Oldham to see the premiere of The Mist in the Mirror, based on the novel by Susan Hill and adapted for the stage by Ian Kershaw. Here's what she thought of it...

Oldham often bears the brunt of the wintry weather in Greater Manchester and there was definitely a strange chill over the town on Tuesday evening, when Oldham Coliseum Theatre hosted the world premiere of Ian Kershaw’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Mist in the Mirror.

Avid fans of the Gothic tradition will not be disappointed with this chillingly entertaining production as Kershaw’s adaptation retains all the terrifying plot elements of Hill’s Gothic novel including: orphaned hero, terrifying villain, lots of thunder and lightning, eerie old houses, and even the Yorkshire moors.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, The Mist in the Mirror follows orphaned hero James Monmouth (played by the affable Paul Warriner), as an ‘honest’ gentleman on a quest to trace his family history. James travels from Africa, where he was sent to live at the age of 5, back to his native England. One gloomy evening he finally arrives in a Dickensian-like London that is smothered in fog and harbouring secrets down every alleyway.

It is at this moment that the production really brings the dark magic of the play to life. Whilst the narrator of the tale (played by Jack Lord) starts to recount the journey, a steamboat lurches into view and words appear to write themselves around the interior rim of the set. Actors pull wings from the blackened stage, and the dark set is suddenly transformed into an inn, then it morphs into a London street, and then an antiquarian bookshop. The list of set transitions and locations is copious, and all morph within the blink of an eye.

The stunning video and light projections are perfectly choreographed to every actor’s movements. Even the act of holding a lamp or candle is visually arresting in this play as the glow creates creeping shadows on the walls, illuminates a door that definitely wasn’t there a second ago, and allows the audience to glimpse the terrifying epitaph of the play’s arch-villain, Conrad Vane. Some of the set-pieces of the video projections include Monmouth’s spine-chilling amble around a library in search of Vane’s demonic writings, and a journey on a steam train to Yorkshire, complete with moving landscapes and falling snow.

A Gothic tale couldn’t be ‘gothic’ without exaggerated pathetic fallacy and Kershaw’s production brought the first audible gasps of fright from the audience with a huge crack of lightning that rippled across the backdrop. Further gasps and jumps were created by the lingering spectre of an unknown boy with a cloth sack for a head, who haunts James Monmouth throughout the play, and it’s a spectre that isn’t a video projection. This makes his appearances all the more terrifying and it will be impossible to look at a scarecrow in the same way ever again.

So, whilst the wintry mist still lays thick over Oldham, go and see The Mist in the Mirror before it descends on another town as part of its nation-wide tour., I think we can all agree Catherine is too professional by half and has put me to shame somewhat - gald she enjoyed it though (said through slightly gritted teeth). I'm keen to see this (despite having embarrassed myself when I saw Susan Hill's The Woman in Black at the theatre by being openly and audibly terrified) - luckily it's on until 21st Feb: full details here.

(All Mist in the Mirror production shots: credit Joel C Fildes)

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Makers Market Didsbury and Makers Market Knutsford; Fridge May Never Be Fully Empty Again

I'm a big fan of a local market. At their very best, these are pretty much the perfect day out - stalls full of interesting crafts and delicious local food and drink produce, manned by the very people who have so lovingly made the goods, and often accessorised with live music, beer tents and nice sociable dogs who jump up at you, tails wagging, at the very whiff of a sausage. Not all markets are like this though, offering instead a few desultory tables of over-priced tat and sub-standard fare that people still buy just because it has the word "artisan" appended to it; these leave me saddened and frustrated and in need of the pub.

Not so the Makers Markets, which I have recently discovered and now salute as a shining example of all that is good and right. These are monthly events across four locations - Cheadle, Didsbury, Knutsford and Middlewich; I went to Didsbury last Sunday and have been to Knutsford today (which did in fairness leave me in need of the pub, but only because it was so cold). Didsbury is by far the smaller of the two but does score additional points for being near my house and for having the best live acts (I've seen Badly Drawn Boy and poet Mike Garry there amongst others), while Knutsford today was simply a revelation. Here's what I came home with...

Orchard House Pâté. I'm a sucker for pâté and have thus come to know the lovely Danielle quite well - she makes simply gorgeous creations that are (unfeasibly) both dairy free and low fat (most of the mini pots come in somewhere just over one hundred calories each, meaning that one may comfortably eat three or so at one sitting with no fear of losing a button). There are lots of different flavours - my favourites include the chicken liver with tequila and orange, the mushroom and walnut and the cashew nut, lentil and sun-dried tomato but they're all good. I think I've tried them all now (including some incredible luxury ones she made for Christmas) and they merit their own blog post, so you'll hear more about them soon.

Bobby's Bangers sausages. You know all about these fine purveyors of pork products by now - their sausages are quite simply the best around. I was pretty restrained today, limiting myself to some pork and haggis and some of the award-winning Bombay Banger. Oh, and a black pudding.

Fatjax Chutneys. Paul is another delightful person who I've got to know through admiring his pickles at various food events over the years; I've just done a count and between the pantry and the fridge I currently have nine different varieties on the go. They're all addictive but the fruity ones are particularly irresistible, as are the chilli ones. Oh, and the spice mix sachets are really good too. The next house I buy will definitely need a bigger pantry.

Nom Nom Bread. This man knows how to make seriously good bread, in lots of interesting flavours. Today I bought a honey and sunflower seed loaf, and have already eaten half of it, smeared thickly with pâté. This may, arguably, offset the low fat, low calorie nature of the pâté to some extent.

Hemingways Pesto. I hadn't come across these people before; they make homemade sauces, pesto, gnocchi and pasta and appear to be very good at it judging by the lovely fresh pesto I sampled today. It's surprisingly rare to find a pesto that tastes properly of fresh basil and parmesan but this one has both in spades; when the nice man told me it would keep in the fridge for a month I'm afraid I found it hard not to laugh openly whilst prising the lid off it there and then.

I would have liked to have stayed longer, but it was really very cold and my purchases were getting on the heavy side - next time I go, I'll be the one with the extra-large tartan shopping trolley. Didsbury is the last Sunday of every month and Knutsford the first - full details are here on the website.