Got something lovely, shiny, gorgeous or sparkly to share? Join the twitter feed @ThingsToDoinMcr, or get in touch at

Monday, 27 July 2015

Italy in Manchester: Dinner at Salvi's and Exciting Plans for new Corn Exchange Venue

At the risk of prompting sarcastic mimes of sorrowful violin playing, I'm not going away this summer. I just can't afford it this year, and must remain stoic whilst being simultaneously taunted almost hourly by various friends posting photos of themselves enjoying their first airport pint of the day on social media. So it was an absolute pleasure to be transported to Italy for a couple of precious hours last week for an event at Salvi's, that estimable deli and restaurant that does such a good job of bringing some Mediterranean sunshine to our sometimes rather grey Mancunian climes.

The event was to unveil Salvi's expansion plans - the original Salvi's Mozzarella Bar in the Corn Exchange will be back bigger and even better when the development re-opens at the end of August, with their original outdoor spot overlooking Exchange Square extended to 40 covers and a huge new deli space downstairs. This is exciting news for anyone who has experienced the delights that owner Maurizio sources from his native Naples and surrounding areas - the new deli space promises joints of cured Italian hams, an entire counter of Italian cheeses (including the splendid Mozzarella made by Maurizio's brother Emiliano), a wide range of anti pasti, Italian wines and plenty of other goodies (although this is, of course, bad news for anyone prone to greed when in close contact with any or all of these items).

Last week's event was a typically Salvi's affair, with the whole clan on hand to celebrate the expansion of this friendly, family-run business - although I must remember that my Italian is not good enough to converse with Maurizio's lovely mum, especially after several glasses of a very good Primitivo. There was also a giant (and delicious) mortadella on show (which prompted much witty, sophisticated talk of big sausages, are you just pleased to see me etc etc), an impressive display of cutting a whole wheel of Parmesan, and the chance to try some of Salvi's excellent pizzas and pasta dishes (my favourite being a quite extraordinary bowl of truffly, mushroomy joy). The new Salvi's Corn Exchange will offer far more seating than previously, with an open kitchen and a much bigger dining area; there will also be - gasp - a Wine Room and a Mozzarella Room, both offering tasting sessions as well as being available for private hire (although, presumably, they will not welcome someone who actually wishes to move in to one of these premises).

Not everyone is thrilled with some of the businesses that plan to open in the Corn Exchange, but I've not spoken to a single person who has anything bad to say about Salvi's or who isn't genuinely delighted at the thought of them reopening their original outpost. I will be there, and I will be taking a *very* large shopping bag with me...

- Salvi's Cucina is currently open at 19 John Dalton Street; the new Salvi's Mozzarella Bar will be at Unit 22b The Corn Exchange, and will be open 10am-11pm every day. I was invited to this event and was given complimentary food and drink but that has not affected the ludicrously high regard in which I already held Salvi's.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Cheshire Cookery School: Paella, Tapas and, erm, Balls

Despite appearances, most evenings I do actually stay in and cook. This is both for pleasure (in the preparation and the eating) and necessity - my shameful propensity for greed when eating out renders it imperative that I cook properly, from scratch, with healthy ingredients when at home, lest I end up the size of a bungalow or small country. Despite this, I'd never actually been on a cookery course until a couple of weeks ago; I'm not entirely sure why, but I think I was worried that it would all be pretty intimidating, with knife-wielding experts doing that showy-off cheffy thing with their onion chopping and then triumphantly presenting their plated-up works of art to a terrifying, Masterchef-style judge whilst I was still haplessly trying to find my ingredients in the fridge.

Well, I've been on two courses now thanks to Cheshire Cookery School in Altrincham, and obviously they aren't like that at all. The first of these was a full-day course called "Forgotten Cuts of Meat" that I won in a Twitter competition run by Taste Today; its name, coupled with the fact that our genial guide for the day was Robert Owen Brown, formerly of the Mark Addy and never one to hold back when it comes to persuading people to put unusual animal parts in their mouths, made it fairly clear that this was to be an offal-based extravaganza - confirmed by the enormous bag of lamb testicles that greeted me on my arrival at the school. This was certainly a case of being thrown in at the deep end - Rob preferred to just get on with cooking rather than have us watch him demonstrate any of the dishes, and within minutes we were each rustling up our own terrine of Lavender Scented Duck Liver Pâté with Honey Roast Pear (which we took home), swiftly followed by Roast Bone Marrow with Parsley & Caper Salad (which we had for lunch with a glass of wine), Lambs Fry with Nut Butter (which we had for tea, with more wine) and Madeira Tripe (there is not enough wine in ALL THE WORLD to persuade me to eat tripe, so I gave mine to chef to take home for his tea - the sauce was delicious though). It was a splendid day with one of my very favourite chefs (and people), and I went home tired and happy even if my hair did smell really quite unpleasantly of tripe.

Apparently my behaviour had indeed been satisfactory (I had been tempted to throw testicles at chef, but had nobly desisted), for I was invited back the following week to a shorter evening class - the three hour Tapas and Paella course, this time hosted by experienced chef Kurt Thomas. This was a bigger class, with sixteen of us divided up to work in pairs, and far more demonstration of the recipes and processes involved; indeed, the first dish - chorizo in red wine - was cooked purely for demonstration purposes, although we did get to eat it afterwards (I will pass over the undignified scrummage that took place at this point in proceedings). Kurt then showed us how to make a Spanish tortilla with onions and potato and a tomato salsa followed by chicken and chorizo paella, before letting us loose on our own workstations. I was lucky enough to be working with Claire Thomas of Good Egg Foodie blogging renown, and we turned out to make a pretty good team, working with professionalism and efficiency (as is clearly seen in at least one of the photos below).

The food we dished up tasted pretty good too - our tortilla had a surprising amount of flavour for such a simple dish, and our paella both looked and tasted quite impressive (if we do say so ourselves) when we sat down to snarf it with a well-earned glass of red. Once again, there was plenty to bring home as well (where the leftovers met with great approval from an impartial judge). In some ways, this class was more manageable - three hours is a nice length of time, although I would have preferred slightly less time watching demonstrations and more time cooking, and perhaps a wider variety of dishes to make. It certainly wasn't as stretching as the full day offal course, but Kurt makes for a very entertaining and knowledgeable guide (there was some particularly useful stuff on knife skills), so it was no less enjoyable - just different.

The facilities at Cheshire Cookery School are stunning, with plenty of workspace, enviably sharp knives and swanky high-tech appliances, and the people who run it are just lovely - essentially they will have a laugh and a chat with you whilst also surreptitiously clearing up your workspace with you, thereby setting impossibly high standards for any future suitors. I'll be quite honest - I wouldn't have booked a course had I not had the chance to try one first, as full day courses are £150 and half day ones £75, which I think is a lot to pay if you're uncertain whether you'll enjoy something. I can categorically say though that the courses are great fun and offer good value for money, so much so that I have already selected at least one more I want to go on in the next couple of months as a paying customer. Masterchef, watch out - I'm newly enthusiastic in a kitchen AND I can now do that cheffy chopping thing with an onion.

- The Cheshire Cookery School is at LM Business Park, Norman Road, Altrincham WA14 4EP; 0161 928 5120. They run corporate events as well as a wide range of cookery courses, and also do gift vouchers (which I'll be hinting at pretty strongly come Christmas).

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Common, Northern Quarter: Never Mind the Refurb - the New Menu ROCKS

For a generally innovative and forward-thinking sort of bunch, the good people of Manchester are often strangely, stubbornly resistant to change. For many of my friends and acquaintances there have been two key talking points in our fair city over the last couple of months - the closure of the Cornerhouse and the subsequent opening of Home (verdict: suspicion), and the refurb at Common (verdict: suspicion, with a hint of grumble). I think it's fair to say that the new look decor in this Northern Quarter stalwart has not gone down well with everyone, with many finding it a bit too "faux-Scandi" and that in losing some of its endearing scruffiness it's also lost a little of its charm and atmosphere.

To be fair though, if the food on the new menu remains as good as it was last week then I'm more than happy to overlook the decor. We tried the dinner menu, which basically takes a "small plates" approach by offering a range of dishes that allow the greedy diner to eat both widely and substantially - we were expecting tapas-sized dishes but most of what we ordered was more generously portioned than that (so essentially it's NOT OUR FAULT that we over-ordered slightly). Top picks were the Goats Curd served with honey and rye bread, the Korean Fried Chicken with satisfyingly spicy Gochujang sauce and dangerously moreish kimchi slaw, and the enormous Cauliflower Cheese Croquettes (although my tip would be to eat these last, as my final one was tepid by the time I got round to it and the cheese sauce had solidified in a most pleasingly thick and sticky manner). We also had a very generous plate of bread (provided by the legendary Trove and served with both butter and oil/vinegar), some well-cooked and well-flavoured Salt & Pepper Squid, and some super-sweet Popcorn Cockles, which might just be my new favourite snack.

We left a gap before our next course - I'd seen a number of burgers go past our table and felt reluctant to leave without having one. This was a wise move - the Reuben burger, served with salt beef, emmental and sauerkraut pickle, was a big, pink, meaty, cheesy stack of unadulterated joy and I loved it. It's maybe on the pricey side at £9.50 without fries - I ordered these as an extra but probably wouldn't bother next time as the burger is so hefty on its own. My friend fancied another couple of the small plates in lieu of a main, and went for the Cured Mackerel with gooseberry sambal and the Quinoa with courgette and tofu served with walnut vinaigrette - he found this latter dish a little one dimensional and felt it could have benefitted from an extra kick of flavour. The mackerel he thought had the opposite problem, finding it over-cured and rather rich and slightly at odds with the sambal; I disagreed though, and thought this was a well-balanced and interesting dish (and would have eaten the lot had my own selection not been the size of China).

The only minor irritant of the evening was that they'd run out of doughnuts - I'd been eyeing these up on Twitter all week and almost had a small, sulky cry when there were none to be had. Apparently they sell out pretty early each day, so I'll just have to make a return trip at some point - no great hardship really, and to be honest we were both too full for pudding anyway. We had a couple of glasses each of a decent Malbec from what we felt was a slightly limited and pricey wine list; service was helpful and prompt and tap water was replenished throughout the night.

Overall? No, I'm not keen on the refit, finding it a little soulless at the moment, although as with anything I'm sure we'll get used to it. The food is great though - interesting, imaginative, varied and generally not shy on flavour, and the small plates in particular offer good value at £12 for three. I'd like to pretend that next time I go back it will be purely a doughnut mission - but surely it wouldn't hurt to have a small plate or three (or six) while I'm there...

- Common is at 39-41 Edge St, Northern Quarter, Manchester M4 1HW. We were invited in to review the new menu and were not asked to pay for our food; we did pay for some additional drinks.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Sunday Roast at Beef and Pudding: Lovely Meat but WHERE HAVE ALL THE DECENT ROASTIES GONE?

One of my very favourite things about British people is their absolute commitment to the roast dinner. Yes, we like to flirt with fire by having an impromptu barbecue or two at the first sign of sun (or indeed, the first break in the black clouds), but ultimately we remain prepared to sit down to a good, sturdy plate of animal, vegetable, potato product and gravy at pretty much any time, whatever the weather. I am certainly no exception, and thus found myself in one of the leather booths at Beef and Pudding on Sunday - a thoroughly beautiful, sunny day - eschewing the normal menu in favour of a big fat roast dinner in the company of many others who had seemingly chosen to do the same.

Beef and Pudding has had its ups and downs during its time in Manchester - I've had some very good meals there but some slightly less impressive ones too, with the general consensus seeming to be that there is an air of inconsistency that could do with being stamped out. I remain inherently fond of the place though - it's a great venue with lovely, knowledgeable staff and a menu full of things I want to eat, and thus I was willing Sunday's roast to be bang back on form. And mostly, it was - with one important, carbohydrate-based caveat which I will come back to later. The set menu (which changes slightly from week to week) certainly offers good value, with two courses for £14.95 or three for £16.95, and the restaurant also has an excellent wine list that does its best to avoid unreasonable mark-ups - we loved the Granfort French Merlot at £16.95 a bottle. We also enjoyed the boar pâté that we both chose for our starter - good coarse texture, strong punchy flavour, decent chutney and a sensibly-sized portion. So far, so good.

The meat was also excellent. I went for the lamb option while my friend chose the beef; this latter offers the option of well done or rare, and did indeed arrive pleasingly pink - something of a rarity in pub and restaurant roast dinners. In both cases, the meat was generously portioned, thickly sliced, tender and full of flavour - we liked, very much. The veg and gravy were also good, as was the large homemade Yorkshire pudding that came with the beef. BUT. One of the greatest joys of a roast should be the potatoes, particularly at a restaurant that proudly tweets every Sunday that Aunt Bessie isn't welcome here - hers might, in all truth, have been preferable. These were floury and a little flacid and had none of the crispy joy one gets with roasties done at home; I appreciate that it must be difficult to keep such items in prime condition during an all-day service and indeed, now I think about it, I can't remember the last time I had really great roast potatoes in a restaurant. I had also been very excited to see that roasts came with Bubble and Squeak, one of my all-time favourite dishes and a proper Boxing Day treat; what arrived though, was slightly lumpy, slightly tepid mash with a couple of flecks of carrot in. We didn't send it back as we had plenty of other nice stuff to eat, but still a shame.

There were no issues with desserts - the Sticky Toffee Sundae was an enjoyable combination of cake, cream, ice cream and marshmallows (although I could have handled a bit more sticky), whilst across the table the accompanying pipette of mimosa shot perfectly cut through the richness of my companion's chocolate mousse. Overall, we enjoyed our visit very much, and felt that apart from Potatogate the roast had been very good - still, it has made me think I need to go on the hunt for the best roast potatoes in Manchester. Any suggestions, please let me know via the comments box below and I will nobly check them out, whatever the weather...

- Beef and Pudding is at 37 Booth Street, off Fountain Street, M2 4AA. We were invited in to try the roast and were not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but we took two other friends and paid for everything they had - I have left them out of the review in the interests of not making things too complicated, but the opinions here do reflect the consensus of the whole table.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

New Menu Launch at Rosylee, Northern Quarter, Manchester

It's pretty hard to keep up with the Northern Quarter these days. Whilst it is of course a pleasure to see a previously unloved section of the city centre totally rejuvenated, there seems to be a new bar or restaurant opening every ten minutes or so - which means that it's all too easy to lose track of what's going on and miss nice places that really you would like to go to very much indeed. I can think of no other reason why I hadn't been to Rosylee until the new menu launch a couple of weeks ago; I'd heard lots of good things, and frequently walked past remarking how cute it was, and had even had cocktails upstairs at the lovely Fitzgerald - but never actually got round to calling in. In fact, it's taken me so long to call in that it's already changed its identity, dropping its original "tea room" tag and evolving into a pretty grown-up bar and restaurant without me even knowing.

That's all rectified now of course. The new menu launch took place on one of those glorious evenings that mark the start of summer, and the outside seating (unusually plentiful and spectacularly sunny for the Northern Quarter, whose nod to al fresco drinking often extends only as far as a shady bench popped outside the front door) was packed with cheery drinkers enjoying the sun. We were HUNGRY so went straight inside to our table; there were some complimentary cocktails available but we elected to order from the full menu and very much enjoyed our choices of Rhubarb and Gin-ger Sour and a Rosylee Cobbler - both refreshing and striking the right balance between sweet and sharp (plus, LOOK AT THE SUPER CUTE HEARTS ON THE TOP OF MINE). We had some disgracefully moreish Inka Roasted Nuts with these - for yes, Rosylee now has an Inka grill, and is keen to impart its fabulously smoky flavour to everything they can (more of this later). For our starter proper, we shared the Fisherman's Board, a jaunty combination of seaside goodies including smoked salmon and scampi. All very tasty, although we felt the quantities were slightly out of balance thanks to the large pieces of battered fish that, whilst lovely, dominated proceedings a little; we also thought this maybe a little expensive at £15.50 when so many other restaurants in Manchester do something equivalent for less money, particularly as there was a lot of bread here too.

On to the mains then, and clearly - as it was easily the hottest day of the year so far - we went for some nice, hearty, wintery dishes. My charming companion can never resist a pie and tonight was no exception - his beef and mushroom pie was notable for its excellent peppery gravy and winning presentation in its cast iron pan; generous quantities too, even if it did make him complain about being too hot. I went for the duck breast cooked on the Inka grill - a happy combination indeed, producing pink meat with a thick layer of crispy, sweetly smoky fat. This chargoal grill is one of only three in Manchester city centre and new head chef Chris Byron has clearly had fun designing the menu around this prized new toy, with a whole range of meats, cuts and skewers available from the grill. You get to choose two sides with the Inka grill dishes - I went for chips (obviously), which were very good, and cauliflower cheese, which was a mistake. This was a very small portion indeed, and next time I would choose a sauce instead as the overall dish ended up a little on the dry side and would definitely have welcomed a little moisture.

We didn't really need desserts but had them anyway. My sticky toffee pudding was perfect in every way apart form being totally unsuitable for the weather, whilst my too-hot friend cooled down with a Strawberry Daiquiri Eton Mess which he felt was a little heavy on the cream and a little light on meringue (something which is actually often the case with the restaurant version of this dessert). We had a glass of house wine each and excellent service throughout the night, particularly from the lovely Chloe who was helpful and friendly whilst also remaining professional. All in all, it added up to a very enjoyable evening and despite a couple of minor isses with the food we would be inclined to go back - although definitely on a weekend so we can take advantage of the Fitzgerald's smouldering presence upstairs afterwards.

- Rosylee is at 11 Stevenson Sq, Northern Quarter, Manchester, M1 1DB. We paid for our cocktails but not our food.