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Sunday, 29 March 2015

Byron: Patty Meltdown at Manchester Piccadilly Gardens

There has been plenty of chuntering recently that Manchester has too many burger joints; that the market has in fact become somewhat saturated (there is surely a laboured joke to be had here involving saturated fat, but I will forgo it on the basis that I'd feel even guiltier about what I ate on Thursday night). I consider this to be total nonsense; I frankly can't get enough of a decent burger, and as restaurants tend to offer what people want, it seems that plenty of fellow Mancunians feel the same.

I had, however, been a bit sniffy about Byron. What need have we of some London chain, coming up here with its fancy Southern ways and trying to take business from our proud independents? So even though I heard lots of good things when it opened on Deansgate, I didn't go. Now there's one in Piccadilly Gardens too, and as it last week played host to the Byron Burger Club, a one-night only set menu cooked up by head chef Fred Smith, this seemed as good a time as any to check it out.

The venue itself is a bit canteeny for my liking, with small tables crammed pretty close together, but it does have a great view of the Manchester Wheel (well, for the time being anyway) and the staff are pretty ace. The idea of the Byron Burger Club is to offer a handful of items created especially for the event - this time, £15 got us spiced popcorn, a Patty Melt served with sweet potato fries and a sticky toffee rum hard shake to finish - things not normally on the Byron menu. This is a shame, as I would gladly eat any of them again and could indeed develop an embarrassing addiction to the Patty Melt - two slices of rye bread with caraway seeds fried in butter, sandwiching a loosely-ground beef patty, topped with slow-cooked red onions and Swiss cheese, grilled in a heavy-duty iron griddle. It's essentially a cross between a cheese toastie and a burger and is therefore to be applauded heartily - we all thought it very impressive too, with plenty of cheese and a really good quality burger served perfectly pink in the middle. The fries were great and the rum shake pleasingly boozy and thrillingly calorific.
Byron also offers some interesting drinks options, with a good range of bottled and canned craft beers as well as a couple on draft - we had the very refreshing Camden Hells Lager. The beer isn't cheap mind, and I can see how you could easily rack up a bit of a bill in here bearing in mind that most burgers are £9-10 and that sides are extra - not everyone will want to pay this in a canteen-style restaurant. On Thursday's evidence though the food is worth it - we were invited as guests of the restaurant but I was sufficiently impressed to want to go back and try one of the burgers as soon as humanly possible (in fact, I fear that every time I just miss a tram from Market Street I'll find myself in there). As for the Patty Melt, Northern Quarter institution Home Sweet Home has been doing a similar cheeseburger toastie for years and Manchester loves it - so fingers crossed it returns as a permanent menu item (I'm having the placards made up as we speak).

- Byron is at One Piccadilly Gardens Manchester M1 1RG and 115 Deansgate Manchester M3 2NW.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Ex-EMF Frontman James Atkin Comes to Manchester's Ruby Lounge (Don't Mention THAT SONG)

I imagine that fame can be a tricky beast, particularly for those known for one really, really famous thing. You don't want to bite the hand that feeds you, but you'd really rather move on now and do something else - we might perhaps call it Victor Meldrew Syndrome, or the Coolio Curse.

I'm pretty sure that James Atkin, erstwhile singer with EMF, feels the same about Unbelievable, a song which dominated the UK charts in 1990 and was a huge hit in the States the year after. It's a truly, truly great song; indeed, as an impressionable schoolgirl I was very taken with the whole album, Schubert Dip, and still have it on tape somewhere (although, alas, not the wherewithal to play it). I can still remember a sketch on The Mary Whitehouse Experience where Newman, Baddiel, Punt and Dennis came off stage as a sweaty, post-gig EMF, listening in astonishment as the audience demanded an encore and asking each other whether they had any really massive hit singles under their belts that they could play. You may mock, but if you don't remember the heady days of the early 90s you really don't know what you were missing.

James has a new album out, A Country Mile, which I've been listening to this week. It's very good indeed - an electronic, dancey album with a slightly aggressive edge and some memorable tunes, topped by James' distinctive vocals (which in themselves are enough to take me back to a time when I was too young to drink and considered Brookside to be the viewing highlight of my week). James has released all sorts of successful songs over the years, but this is the first time he's put his own name to a new collection of songs and they are (to my inner-schoolgirl-self's relief) no disappointment.

As I am now thankfully old enough to drink I'm looking forward to hearing the album played live next Friday at Manchester's Ruby Lounge - in fact, the whole line-up looks good, with The Narrows, Demons of Ruby Mae and Villiers also on the bill. I certainly can't imagine you'll find better value for a tenner anytime soon, and if you're too young to remember James from the first time around this looks an excellent chance to become acquainted with his music. And if you were listening to Xfm this morning at about half past seven you might, like me, have heard the opening riff to Unbelievable and shouted aloud in triumph before, like me, singing lustily along as you drove down Didsbury Road - best moment of today by a country mile.

- James' gig takes place at The Ruby Lounge, Northern Quarter, Manchester next Friday, 20th March 2015 from 7.30pm. Advance tickets £10 from, &, and you can download the album from itunes here.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

New Menu at the Beagle, Chorlton; even the TOFU is Tasty

Despite being a Didsbury girl, I spend a fair old percentage of my time in Chorlton. And being a creature of habit, much of that Chorlton time is spent either in Font, enthusiastically drinking my way through the cocktail menu, or over the road at The Beagle. This latter venue tends to be my default meeting place - it's a nice, roomy pub (particularly since they built the lovely glass extension on the front) with decent beer, good food and a dog-friendly policy that always leaves my dog-loving friend feeling distinctly broody and me fearing he will dog-nap one and make off with it under his arm before I can stop him (Chorlton - LOCK UP YOUR DOGS).

Last week saw the launch of a new food menu, so I trammed it over the border to have a look. The menu in all honesty doesn't look vastly different from before and still offers its laid-back selection of tacos, burritos and burgers; there is a new pick and mix starters section though that looks very promising indeed. These can be bought individually or you can choose any three for £9.95, and although they're billed as "snacks" each is fairly substantial (and this is coming from a girl whose idea of a snack is a couple of rounds of cheese on toast at the very least). We were given a selection of four to try on the launch night - deep-fried pickles, sweetcorn and jalapeno fritters, fried courgette "wings" and crumbed chicken strips. We enjoyed them all, although my girly friend found the sweetcorn fritters too spicy - these were probably my favourite item though, so his loss = my gain (always best to take a picky plus-one as then you get to eat more than your share).

The next course was the highlight of the night - a selection of tacos (Baja Fish, Korean Tofu, Carne Asada and a Popcorn Shrimp lettuce cup). I am a big fan of The Beagle's Popcorn Shrimp and so was confidently expecting to enjoy this or the chargrilled steak the most from this particular platter - but the Korean Tofu (barbecued and served with kimchi, sriracha & crispy shallots) just edged it. Again, this one was very spicy - but was so good even the heat-averse friend had to eat it. Tofu has honestly never tasted this good to me - must be something to do with being in Chorlton maybe.

On to the mains, although by this stage we were pretty full and couldn't fully do them justice. I was bad and had the Homeslice Chicken Bucket despite it not being a new item on the menu - I am generally powerless to resist the lure of this cheery vessel of crumbed buttermilk chicken (three pieces of chicken, four wings, fries, slaw and a couple of sauces to make a mess with) and it proved the case yet again. Our other choice was the only misfire of the evening - the Nacho Maximo (nachos, melted cheese, cheese sauce, refried beans, pico, crema and jalapenos) was a toweringly generous plateful with a good balance of toppings, but the beef brisket we added as an extra was quite astonishingly salty. You can't see it in the pictures as it's lurking underneath, but there was lots of it and its integration into the dish made parts of it pretty inedible - and that's coming from someone who really, really likes salt. To be fair, I'm sure they would have changed it had we asked, but we had eaten so much by this point anyway we didn't ask them to.

There was the usual chuntering on Twitter about free food blah blah blah, but I spend a good percentage of my salary here anyway and we paid for all our drinks on the night aside from a welcome margarita. In fact, I'm fairly sure it was only the saltiness of the brisket that drove me to order and neck that very good, quite expensive Sauvignon Blanc (this is my story, and I plan to stick to it)....

- The Beagle is at 456-458 Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton, Manchester M21 0BQ. Food is served every day (except Monday) until 10.