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Friday, 29 May 2015

The Smithfield Social at Bluu - Big Portions and a Boozy Bourbon Basement - BRAVO

In a city so constantly changing, there's something nice about coming across a Manchester institution, somewhere that has weathered the vagaries of public taste, found its niche and continued to fly in the fickle face of fashion. Bluu has occupied a corner in the Northern Quarter for years, long before it became fashionable and saw an influx of bars and restaurants and beards, but has not been without its wobbles - I stopped going in there a good few years ago when it became clear that I was approximately double the age of the average punter and that the atmosphere here just wasn't for me anymore.

A chat with manager Callum Winspear at Cocktails in the City a few weeks ago persuaded me that Bluu was worth a return visit though - Callum was here years ago, when it was good, and is back at the helm now, and promises it is good again. And it is. First up, there is a speakeasy bar downstairs now called The Smithfield Social - hiding behind a heavy blue curtain we discover a magical world with metal-panelled walls, and sexy lighting, and a lovely man called Mark waiting to make us cocktails and show us his smoking gun. Here we sip cocktails from 1920s-inspired metal glasses, and pretend we are in The Great Gatsby - I have a Gingerbread Man-hattan which packs a quite astonishing punch with its bourbon-smoked ginger liqueur (smoked before my very eyes) and its hefty double shot of Woodford Reserve. Meanwhile, my friend is getting in one of his 5-a-day with the Queen Mary - a take on a Bloody Mary made with smoked bacon vodka and hickory smoked celery sticks. We love it so much down here that we try another cocktail - a sweet and smoky Rosemary and Rhubarb Daiquiri for me and a Butter Beer for my sweet-toothed companion. Billed as a dessert in a glass, this features salted caramel vodka, cream soda and homemade butterscotch cream and is fairly amazing - although I imagine had he known the amount of food that was to follow he would have chosen slightly less filling cocktails. The Smithfield Social is clearly still a work in progress (there's talk of extending the wine list, for example) but is a bit of a hidden treasure that we plan to return to before very long.

We drag ourselves away with some reluctance, but our stomachs are rumbling and it's time to try the menu upstairs at Bluu. It's much busier up here but we bag a secluded booth and cast a hungry eye over a menu that describes itself as "an ode to British meat" but using cooking methods inspired by the southern states of America thanks to an imported smoker that is clearly their pride and joy. We elect to share a crate of the chilli and caramel chicken wings to start; these come in portions of 10, 15 or 20 so being modest, restrained eaters we order the smallest one. When our waitress explains that these come cut in half so that they absorb more of the sticky glaze and will therefore look like 20 rather than 10 we clearly don't realise the full extent of what is to come - the quantities are simply gargantuan. The wings are delicious though, and we eat the lot - I burn my fingers not just on the first one but on my first three, so low is my resistance to what has been placed in front of me. This is also a restaurant that believes in a decent condiment (as, indeed, do I) - we are given six different bottles (House BBQ Sauce, South Carolina BBQ Sauce, Smoky Ketchup, Chilli Vinegar, Chipotle Mayo and Bastardo Sauce) and predictably douse our already-laden plates with all of them except the last one, which proclaims itself as HOT HOT HOT and frightens us off. We consider the meal to have got off to a superlative start.

For mains, I have the St Louis Slab Ribs, which come with a choice of sides for £14. They arrive and are the size of a bus, and thereby present something of a dilemma - I am not normally one to be defeated by a plate of food, but it soon becomes patently obvious that on this occasion the final result will be Ribs 1, Liz 0. This is a shame, as they are very good - tender, smoky meat with a nice sticky glaze and some really excellent fries. The weakest note of the meal is my friend's Bluu Smoke Stack - a very-promising sounding burger topped with pulled pork, smoked cheddar and chipotle mayo that doesn't quite deliver on all fronts. The toppings go down well but the burger itself (which sounds lovely on the menu, made with a mix of minced brisket, flank and beef marrow) is overcooked and a little dry as a result; we also feel that, at £13, this dish doesn't offer such good value for money as the wings and the ribs. We each have a glass of wine from a smallish selection - a glass of the Faultline NZ Sauvignon and one of the El Camino Argentine Malbec, both of which come in tumblers rather than wine glasses. We like these glasses until my companion comes perilously close to accidentally pouring water into his still half-full glass; we feel his advancing meat coma easily explains this temporary stupidity however.

Service is excellent throughout, and overall our night suggests that there are plenty of reasons to visit Bluu these days. The pictures I put up on Twitter even prompted some discussion of whether one could successfully attempt the "Wings and Ribs Challenge" if a friend helpfully hummed the Rocky theme whilst the attempt was in progress - sounds like a great idea to me so I'm just off to have a batch of "Meat Contender" t-shirts printed...

- Bluu is at Smithfield Market Buildings, Thomas Street, Manchester M4 1BD. We were invited to review the menu and were not asked to pay for our food or drink.

Monday, 25 May 2015

New Guest Post: Catherine Flies High with Boeing Boeing at Oldham Coliseum Theatre

You are probably all familiar with the old saying, if you want a job doing properly then send a better, sensible person to do it for you. Hence on Friday 15th May, whilst I was hanging round the alcohol at Cocktails in the City, the lovely Catherine went to press night of Boeing Boeing at Oldham Coliseum. Here's what she thought - beware though, she wrote this in a giddy mood after watching Eurovision, so there are a LOT of puns. DON'T SAY I HAVEN'T WARNED YOU...

Boeing Boeing touched down last week at the Oldham Coliseum Theatre for its opening night after originally flying into the West End for a seven year run during the 1960s. The play navigates the confusing love life of Bernard (Robin Simpson), a Parisian architect who has not one but three air hostess fiancés. Set during the early 1960s when a jet set lifestyle was still in its infancy, Bernard is able to take advantage of international scheduled flights to plan out his love life and create a dating system he describes enthusiastically as being mathematical “perfection”.

Luckily for Bernard his three fiancées all have names beginning with ‘G’: there’s Gloria from America (Laura Doddington), Gabrielle from Italy (Maeve Larkin) and Gretchen from Germany (Sarah Lawrie). All three also wear colour-coded clothing that makes it easy for not only Bernard, but also the audience to identify his different fiancées. The play takes off without a glitch as the coordinated comings and goings of Gloria, Gretchen and Gabrielle are as hassle-free as a place in first class. However, Bernard’s dating system soon meets turbulence when stormy weather and faster planes conspire to bring his system into free fall.

The first half of the play really begins to pick up the pace when Gloria takes off for America and Gabrielle flies in from Italy. Not long after this, Gretchen touches down in Paris from Germany and Bernard faces the uneasy prospect of entertaining both fiancées at once in his apartment - without either knowing about each other’s existence. From this moment on, the farce soars and things soon start to unravel faster than a transatlantic flight on Concorde. Bernard enlists the help of his best friend Robert (played by Ben Porter) who is visiting from the provinces, to act as a comic foil. He also needs his housekeeper Bertha (played by Gilly Tompkins) to help keep his love life airborne.

Because the action unfolds in one room, some elements of the plot are a little implausible at times. Gloria, Gretchen and Gabrielle would definitely be able to hear each other in the apartment and they would also be able to hear Robert and Bernard’s high-pitched, Carry-On-esque outbursts during the closing scenes. But this is a farce, and by its very nature should not be taken seriously. What prevents Boeing Boeing from becoming farcical is the on-set choreography as the different actors coordinate their moves seamlessly between the seven doors of the Parisian apartment. The energy of the choreography and comic performances by the cast are exciting and engaging throughout. The set itself is also impressive, with a convincing view of the Eiffel Tower illuminated in the background to remind the audience that this is Paris in the swinging sixties.

Boeing Boeing has been adapted for Oldham Coliseum Theatre by director Robin Herford from Swiss-born Frenchman Marc Camoletti’s play written in 1960. The original was a huge hit and it appears in the Guinness Book of World Records for holding the title of the most-performed French play ever. It’s well worth watching this classic hit at the Oldham Coliseum theatre before it’s Boeing Boeing gone.

- Boeing Boeing is at Oldham Coliseum Theatre until 6th June. Photos used in this post are courtesy of Joel C Fildes.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Art of Blending with Chivas Whisky, where I am unexpectedly revealed as a MASTER BLENDER

As I have said before, I am a fairly recent convert to the world of whisky, and whilst I like it very much - with all its whiff of old books, and leather armchairs, and hard-drinking, ball-busting ladies who probably keep a small pistol in their brassiere - I am still an enthusiastic but ignorant amateur. Left to my own devices, I tend to revert to a well-known brand of bourbon that is frequently on offer at the supermarket; I say this not with pride, but with the knowledge that there is a much wider world out there and that I want IN ON IT.

Thus I find myself at Gorilla on Whitworth Street, sitting in a room set up like the most exciting Chemistry lab you've ever seen (I would certainly have enjoyed lessons more at school had they been more like this), waiting for the Chivas "Art of Blending" event. Chivas is the third-best selling Scotch whisky in the world, with a bottle sold every two seconds, and despite the fact that it takes around 40 years to become a Master Blender, we are all here to have a go at producing something drinkable in around 90 minutes. So great is my whisky ignorance, I had some kind of idea that blended whiskies were inferior to single malts, no doubt haunted by ill-advised bottles of Bell's hastily and erroneously purchased from the duty-free; this misconception is gently corrected by brand ambassador Rachel Macdonald, who tells us that over 90% of Scotch whisky sales worldwide are of blended whiskies, and that the whole beauty of a blend is that it allows you to find a whisky that fits your own taste perfectly. Makes sense.

So, we all get to work on blending our own perfect whisky. On the table in front of us (as well as the mixing beakers, tasting glasses etc) is an exciting array of whisky bottles, each bearing a generic label - we have Grain, Lowlands, Highlands, Islay and Speyside, and the idea is to taste them all and then decide which proportion of each we want in our own blend. I am at a table composed enirely of gentlemen, who take their sweet time over this; I take a business-like, decisive approach and briskly taste each before deciding on my percentages and knocking up my own, personal 250ml of whisky, which I name the "Manchester Malt". To my surprise, it is very good, and I sit smugly basking in my own glory until Rachel brings us each a shot of Chivas Regal 12 and 18 and I realise that I am probably better off leaving it to the experts after all.

This is, of course, blending made easy - all the whiskies on the table in front of us are good quality brands in their own right, so we can't really go wrong. The evening is tremendous fun though, as Rachel (pictured above) is friendly and knowledgeable (as well as being young and female in what must surely still be a male-dominated spirit world) and the shared mixing tables are sociable and generously loaded with whisky that you are encouraged to drink (even if there is more than a whiff of competitive testosterone about my table). This was a press preview, but I plan to go back when the event returns on May 26, 27, 28 and 29 May - tickets are a ludicrous £10, which includes your own 250ml bottle of whisky to take home. Tickets can be purchased here via Eventbrite, and more information about the Chivas brand can be found here.

And as for the Manchester Malt? It was - quite unfeasibly - deemed a winner, netting me a bottle of Strathisla whisky as well as a real sense of pride (and luck). So if you were one of the people on the 143 last Thursday evening who sensibly avoided sitting next to the rather excitable girl clutching a large and a small bottle of whisky to her victorious breast, you have missed your chance to make the acquaintance of a Master Blender...

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Urban Cookhouse: Bringing a Little Style to Manchester's Princess Street

I do try very hard not to be the sort of person who judges a book by its cover. Like many others, though, I must confess to often making fairly instant decisions about whether a bar or restaurant is "my sort of place" - these are often pretty arbitrary, but in a city offering so many options there really is such a thing as too much choice. The nice thing about blogging is that you're sometimes invited to a place you wouldn't normally go and you find that actually, you like it - and such a place is Urban Cookhouse. I would probably never have got round to eating here, based on a flimsy combination of never really going out in this part of town (Princess Street) and not being quite certain about their Twitter bio, which pitches them as "styled on a New York loft" and as being a "downtown restaurant, bar & lounge" - despite being slap-bang in the middle of Manchester.

Actually though, we went on Sunday and it was pretty good. It's a nice space they've got here, up on the first floor in a converted shipping warehouse with lots of natural light and an open kitchen - we did feel that some of the smaller tables were positioned a little bit close together, but as the couple sitting next to us didn't actually speak to each other more than about twice during the course of the meal it didn't turn out to be too much of a problem. The menu is a wide-ranging one, positioning itself as serving "eclectic fusion dishes" but encompassing some more traditional options as well - I could happily have ordered pretty much anything from it, but we agreed instantly that the Crispy Cod Cheeks starter with Asian slaw and chilli and lime jam was a must. This was an immensely satisfying dish - three hefty cod cheeks battered and served with a nice tangy salad, although if I'm being very picky I'd have liked the batter a bit crispier and a little less red onion in my slaw. Alongside this we shared the much daintier Scallops served with black pudding crumble and a pea puree and foam - a classic dish, well executed. Our only quibble here was that the black pudding slightly overpowered the delicate flavour of the scallops - it's admirable to provide three scallops for under £8 at city centre prices, but I think the dish might work better with two larger, meatier scallops that could stand up to the earthiness of the black pudding with a little more defiance.

The mains provided an absolute stand-out dish that sounded a winner the moment we read its description - Sea Bream with coconut rice, tom yum sauce, lime foam and a crab spring roll. This was a perfectly put-together combination of textures and flavours, with the softness of the fish, the stickiness of the rice and the crispness of the spring roll complementing each other beautifully. The sauce was subtle and delicate rather than overpoweringly spicy, and the lime foam provided another layer of freshness to the flavours of the dish rather than just being the annoying frippery that foams are sometimes guilty of. My cannon and neck of lamb served with carrot and swede fondants, Boulangere potatoes and a port wine jus couldn't quite live up to the perfection of the fishy joy across the table (for alas, the sea bream was not *technically* mine) but was very enjoyable nonetheless, offering two very different textures and flavours in the meat and the very best roast carrots I have ever tasted.

On to desserts then, and the one I wanted (the Caramel Trio) wasn't available. This was a shame, as that left only two other sweet options or a cheese course for afters - something of a restricted choice. What they lacked in choice, they made up for in size - the Chocolate Torte with vanilla bean ice-cream, pistachio crumb and red pepper taffy was roughly the size of the National Deficit, perhaps something to do with it being towards the end of service on a Sunday night but a little overfacing all the same. Still, it was proclaimed suitably dense and heady, and it was only with some regret that some of it was left uneaten. My Carrot & Orange Cake with lemon meringue panna cotta was an interesting and inventive dish - I'd have preferred a little more filling sandwiching my two dainty circles of cake together, but the cake itself was moist with a good flavour, and the little cubes of lemony panna cotta were a revelation. None of mine was sent back to the kitchen.

Drinkswise, there isn't anything lagery on draft, so my date drank Budvar whilst I toyed elegantly with a couple of bucket-sized glasses of decent Tempranillo. Service was prompt and friendly, and the restaurant had a nice buzz about it - largely due to there being a Living Social deal running, but encouraging for a Sunday night all the same. All in all, we were pleasantly surprised by Urban Cookhouse - we were invited in to review the food and were therefore not asked to pay for our meal, but despite a few very minor shortcomings in the meal (that probably reflect the fact that the place hasn't long been open), we were impressed. There are plenty more things I want to try on the menu - but on my first return visit I will be asking for a table for one so that I can order that sea bream and not share it with a soul.

- Urban Cookhouse is at 54 Princess Street, Manchester M1 6HS; tel. 0161 235 8768

Monday, 4 May 2015

Gusto Didsbury: New Spring/Summer Menu Highlights

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate the coming of Spring. The long, light evenings; the cherry blossom bobbing merrily on the trees; the relaxing sounds of leather on willow along with the promise of Pimm's in the garden; the new series of Game of Thrones. And, of course, the new Gusto menu arrives, with its sexy new dishes and updates to old favourites on what is already a pretty difficult menu to decide what to have from. Still, we can but try, so last week I found a Gusto virgin and took him along to the Didsbury branch to have a look.

This is always a cheery place to visit - it's always busy and bustling and has a great atmosphere and lovely staff (who do, to be fair, recognise me a little too easily these days). I've eaten most of the things off the menu before, so I went for one of the new starters - Deep Fried Salt Cod Ravioli - whilst my friend stared in wonderment at the massive menu for so long that we had to have a cocktail while he chose. In the end he decided on Home Cured Salmon Tartare with Quail Egg, Creme Fraiche and Red Gazpacho, and it turned out to be quite the prettiest dish of the night, with a delicate but punchy flavour that entirely lived up to its head-turning good looks. My ravioli were sturdier than I had imagined - it's a clever idea to use pizza dough but it had lost a little of its softness during the deep frying process. Still, the salt cod filling was excellent in taste and in quantity, and the feisty tomato and caper dressing made this a most enjoyable dish.

On to the mains, and the only real issue of the night. I am a long-term admirer of the Gusto Roast Lamb Rump, which is always served perfectly pink and with just the right amount of crispy fat to give the whole thing both texture and flavour. This incarnation was no exception, and I was also very taken with the new summery accompaniment of buttered soy beans, asparagus and trofiette pasta (also available as a side) - a very good dish indeed. The Gusto virgin wanted steak, and when his 6oz chargrilled fillet steak with garlic butter, roasted vine tomatoes and fries arrived, it certainly looked the part. Alas, his first foray found that the steak was well-done rather than the requested medium. This was dealt with immediately and impeccably - the offending steak was whisked away and replaced as soon as one could reasonably expect with a perfect medium version, and the manager came over to apologise as well. It's an unfortunate thing to happen, especially if there's only two of you, as you essentially each end up eating your mains solo in a kind of food relay - but I'm also a big believer in judging restaurants by how they deal with mistakes and our waiter Nick couldn't really have been more helpful than he was during the entire course of our meal.

We decided to share the new Chocolate Fondue dessert - this is billed as being for two, and - unusually for a sharing dessert - there was actually more than enough for us both. The fondue was the right thickness and not too sweet, and came with little jug of Frangelico to stir in - a great idea for adding both some extra flavour and that certain something that only a good hit of booze can give. Speaking of drinks, Gusto is normally very good for cocktails, and this was certainly the case with the two we had - my friend described his Hazelnut and Fig Martini (fresh fig, lemon juice and hazelnut syrup shaken with Fratello and Martell VS) as "almost chewy, in a really good way", and my Bourbon Old Fashioned was right on the mark as usual. I usually have something Italian from the wine list but we felt the meatiness of our mains required something a little heftier, and the Don David Malbec from Argentina (£27) was perfect - I will definitely order this one again. My only criticism of the Chocolate Fondue dessert is that we'd both have liked more fruit - a lot of the dipping items provided (such as the chocolate brownies) were actually quite rich enough on their own without then dipping them into chocolate sauce as well. This may well be the first and last time I have ever called for more fruit in a pudding, but a few more strawberries wouldn't have gone amiss.

So, not a flawless evening on this occasion, but it's much to Gusto's credit that actually, our overall dining experience was still excellent - as evidenced by the fact that the Gusto virgin is already planning which pizza he wants on his next visit...

- Gusto Didsbury is at 756 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury M20 2DW; tel 0161 445 8209. We were invited in as guests of the restaurant and did not pay for our food or drink on this occasion, but I am a regular here and am happy to hand my dosh over to them at least every few weeks.