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Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Tomfoolery at 34, Alderley Edge: Don't be Fooled by the Fun - this is Fantastic Food

I am not, by nature, an adventurous person, despite my wishes to the contrary. I would dearly love to be the type to spontaneously throw a few items into a bag and find myself in Paris two hours later, but I am not - and thus you shouldn't mock when I say that getting on a train and travelling to Alderley Edge last week was really quite an exciting turn of events. I was off to meet a friend (a seasoned Alderley Edger, adept at identifying various footballing WAGs out and about in their enormous cars) for dinner at Tomfoolery at 34, a new bar/restaurant on the main drag in Alderley headed up by chef Brice Moore, previously of Manchester House, Gidleigh Park (two Michelin stars) and Paul Ainsworth at No 6 in Padstow (one star). With such a pedigree, you'd be forgiven for expecting a grown up, sophisticated type of place, particularly considering its location - one imagines whippet-thin waifs idling delicately with a morsel of beautifully manicured lettuce and perhaps a couple of lightly steamed green beans.

This is quite magnificently not the case. Tomfoolery at 34 is an astonishing place, full of mismatched chairs, and clashing wallpaper, and chandeliers, and upside-down lampshades, and old arcade machines, and Muppets serviettes, and menus just begging to be coloured in with the crayons helpfully provided for that very purpose. It sounds a little contrived, and indeed, I was wary as soon as I saw the rather studiously wacky website - I'm not always keen on things that purport to be "fun", and Tomfoolery looked as if it might be trying just a little too hard. In the flesh, however, it works: the effect is interesting and charming rather than off-putting, and I did find myself colouring in my menu before too much of the evening had passed, pausing every so often to admire my efforts.

It would be a shame if the decor overshadowed the food, so I will say no more about the interior and confirm that the food here is excellent. Everything is handmade in house, using locally sourced ingredients as far as possible, and whilst the menu is limited, this attention to detail and quality was apparent throughout our meal. We started with a dish we hadn't ordered - Brice sent us out the Truffled Baby Carrots from the Sides menu, and we were very glad he did as quite frankly, we'd never had such alluring veg. Tiny, dainty carrots roasted with truffle oil and toasted seeds and then topped with creamy, salty goats' cheese, these were so good that we practically scrapped over the last one, and I'm virtually certain I have never fought over a carrot before. Food at Tomfoolery comes out as and when it's ready, and the two sides we'd ordered as starters came out with our mains, creating a pleasing if impractically large smorgasbord of goodies; I'd have preferred them to come out first, but let's not pretend that I'm not perfectly capable of eating several different courses at once.

The starters/sides in question were the Totally Winging It chicken wings and the half rack of BBQ lamb ribs. The first dish was exemplary, a little bowl of meaty wings in a hot, spicy sauce and then drizzled with a piquant buttermilk and blue cheese dressing, whilst the latter was the only bum note of the whole meal. I'd never had lamb ribs before and would be wary of ordering them again - the taste was rich and hearty, but whilst one of lamb's great joys is the fattiness that creates this flavour, these were fatty to the point of flabbiness. We mentioned this to Brice at the end of the meal; he'd already had similar feedback from other diners and is looking at rectifying the situation.

Mains were excellent. The "Gone Fishin'" burger was my idea of a perfect dish - the meaty piece of delicately cooked cod served in a homemade squid ink bun with deep-fried calamari, salad and red pepper mayo was a great combination of flavours and textures, and I would happily eat it all day long. The "Swayze" burger was similarly well-received - a homemade steak patty served with beef bacon, Emmental cheese, dill pickle, onion, lettuce and tomato. The patty was fat and pink, the in-house sourdough-brioche bun as light as a feather, and we felt that Emmental was an unusual but good choice of cheese as it retained its texture rather than melting into a formless mass. Prices are very reasonable - each of these came served with a very generous portion of fries at £11 and £12 respectively; you can upgrade to Parmesan and truffle fries for an extra £2 (no-one will be surprised to see evidence of said fancy fries alongside my "Gone Fishin'").

We were too full for dessert, which on reflection may have been a mistake; I've since heard great things about their cakes and puddings. We did manage a bottle of truly lovely Jackalberry Sauvignon Blanc, and both agreed we haven't had many nicer £20 restaurant whites; we did have to pour it ourselves from time to time depending on which server was around, but on the whole service was very good throughout the night.

I really hope Tomfoolery wins over the good people of Alderley Edge - it was quietish for a Friday night, and based on my very limited first impressions of Alderley, this is something a little different for the area. They're still finding their feet however, tweaking the menu in response to customer feedback, full of enthusiasm for the new venture, and with a chef at the helm who really knows what he's doing and who has completely the right attitude towards food and cooking. I'm already looking forward to going back for tea and cake...and anyway, I've got some very tricky colouring in to finish.

- Tomfoolery at 34 is at 34 London Road, Alderley Edge, Cheshire SK9 7DZ. We were invited to review and were not asked to pay for dinner or drinks, but we liked it so much we bought drinks in the downstairs bar after our meal.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Great Chefs, Great Causes at Iberica, Spinningfields; or, an Excuse to Eat Great Food

Now, much as I love social media, it does sometimes lead to tidal waves of hype and hyperbole - particularly where new bar and restaurant openings are concerned. And much as I love tapas, my ridiculous appetite does sometimes lead to colossal restaurant bills as I order more and more pixie-sized dishes (often until physically restrained or under pain of death by overdraft). These two factors combined is the only possible explanation why I hadn't visited Iberica at Spinningfields until last week - I think I was worried it would disappoint me, that it couldn't possibly live up to all my expectations, that it would take a month's wages to fill me up and that it wouldn't be worth it.

Well, I'm a fool, and Iberica is a simply wonderful restaurant. We were invited in to eat from the Press Menu, which I know in many ways doesn't necessarily mirror the average experience, but all the dishes we had are available on the normal menu and in many ways it was a relief to have the food chosen for us - there are so many items here I would like to eat that I would have found it hard to know where to start. I would know exactly where to start next time - the Trio of Iberico Hams and a board of the Cecina (air-cured beef). Both of these were simply perfection - the beef was a revelation, managing to be sweet, smoky and salty all at the same time, and whilst the ham platter may seem expensive at £22, each of the three meats had such a completely different taste and texture from its brethren that I think the whole thing can be classed as a worthy educational experience. Served with a portion of toasted bread with tomato, this really was a stunning start to the meal.

Time for a soup course, and being Iberica this came in the form of Salmorejo (a thick gazpacho) with green apple & basil granita and sun blushed tomato. I loved this - it was cleansing and refreshing and full of softly rounded flavours (although I didn't taste the apple as much as I would have expected). This also looks a great value dish at £4. Milhojas de escalivada with smoked and roasted aubergine and red peppers was a suitably earthy dish - essentially a savoury millefeuille, this made for messy eating but repaid the effort. I'm never sure about a smear on a plate but as I made a far less attractive job of dismantling the dish I'm not really in a position to complain.

On to the fish dishes then, and the first of these was the only minor misfire of the evening. The Brandada (confit of cod) with olives and white grapes was simply too salty - the fish confit on its own was fine, but when its inherent brininess was coupled with a fierce saline olive paste the overall impression was of too much salt, with other components such as the grapes and tomatoes not coming through at all. We also felt the textures were a little too similar in this dish, with a morsel of toast providing the only contrast. The other two fish dishes were perfectly balanced, however; the fresh mackerel with orange and saffron escabeche offered beautifully cured fillets in a fresh yet rich sauce and the fresh hake with hollandaise sauce and lettuce water was a firm, lightly flaky piece of fish with the most refreshing accompaniment I can recall having for some time - lettuce water is somewhere between the kind of drink you want to quaff on a summer's day and the kind of sauce you want to run your finger round the plate for.

Next up were the unexpected highlight of the evening for me: Ibérica’s Serrano ham croquettes. Hot, sultry, crispy lozenges filled with molten cheese and salty ham, these should be sold in paper bags as takeaway for me to purchase every time I'm within a two mile radius. The other meat dishes were also exemplary - I wasn't too excited at the thought of the Ibérica burger with secreto pork loin and Piparra peppers (how good can a burger be?) but was forced to eat my words along with this slider-sized stunner and its mustardy dip. It must have been good as it held its own alongside one of the most revered dishes on the Iberica menu - the grilled Ibérico pork “pluma” in moruno marinade with baked aubergine. Pluma iberico is pork loin cut from the shoulder - it has more fat, and therefore more flavour, and Iberica have very sensibly not really messed with it other than to pop it in a sweet, smoky marinade that really brings out its texture and flavour. This is one of the dearer small dishes at £9.50, but bearing in mind there are only two of these per pig I think this actually seems pretty reasonable.

This signalled the end of the savoury dishes on the press menu, but we did make room for the dish of the week from the "Great Chefs, Great Causes" campaign. This is an exciting collaboration between Iberica and 14 of the world’s best Spanish, Portuguese and Latin-American chefs (as listed on the recently announced World’s 50 Best Restaurants) - essentially each chef is allowing Iberica to produce their signature dish for one week at a time until September 8th. This is a great idea, particularly as the profits from the sales of these special guest dishes will be shared equally amongst the chefs' chosen charities; the one we tried was the mango, beer & black pudding, signature tapa of Spanish great Juan Mari Arzak. Quite simply, I've never eaten anything like it - rich, rough, almost gritty black pudding daintily wrapped up in a slice of sweet, cooling mango, I frankly consider it a privilege to have been able to try it.

Desserts brought the meal to an end, with two to try: “Tocinillo de cielo” - egg yolk custard flan with cinnamon & lemon zest milk foam and salted caramel ice cream, and the chocolate mousse with herbs cress & red fruit salad, yoghurt, vanilla oil and cider gel. I'm not really a pudding person, and had feared that both of these sounded a little on the busy side with perhaps one component too many; the chefs, of course, know better, as both of these were an excellent balance of different tastes and elements. We didn't really explore the extensive drinks menu as we were brought the restaurant's choice of apéritif (a mug of Sangría Cava - lovely) along with a glass of white and then red wine; this is an impressive wine and cocktail list though, that surely merits a visit in its own right. Service was outstanding throughout the meal, and as we sat, warm and full, in the heated enclosed terrace whilst a typically Manchester storm raged outside, it was hard to think how the evening could have been much better. Iberica, you and I have a lot of catching up to do.

- Iberica is on The Avenue, Spinningfields, Manchester M3 3HF. The meal and drinks were complimentary, but although this would not have been a cheap meal it would have been worth every penny (and you could get away with eating a lot less than we did) - a friend went on Sunday having seen my photos and was similarly bowled over.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

New Italian Restaurant for Manchester as Prezzo Opens on Deansgate

The food world can be a snobby place, and never more so than when faced with a blog post about a restaurant or bar that's part of a chain; I still recall the fallout in certain quarters from my admission that I'd enjoyed the nachos at Chiquitos. It's naive, however, to pretend that chains don't exist and that some of them aren't doing a pretty good job - and Italian restaurant chain Prezzo are clearly doing something right as the new branch on Deansgate is their third Manchester opening in as many years. I was a little wary of a brand that has more than 200 branches, but they've done a great job of refitting the old Cafe Rouge building - the space is sleek and modern, with an open kitchen, well-spaced tables (and a handful of booths, which will no doubt be much sought after), sexy black and white chequered flooring and, best of all, a wall of wine showcasing Prezzo's own label red, white and rosé (more of which later).

It's always difficult to judge the quality of food at a restaurant launch night, but we were actually pleasantly surprised by what we had. A number of taster portions were sent out for us to try, starting with our favourite item of the night - the crab cakes with garlic mayonnaise were a lovely example of their breed, all crisp coating on the outside and soft subtle fishiness on the inside. The staff were fantastic all night - young and cheerful and friendly - and when I unconvincingly pretended there was an extra person at our table who'd also be wanting a fishcake, our waitress helpfully said she'd put the extra one on MY plate for safekeeping. We also enjoyed the king prawns in a nicely sweet pomodoro sauce livened up with a good hit of chilli, and some excellently thin and crispy flatbreads with various toppings, my favourite being the pesto tomato one (I liked these so much I pleaded for the extra ones off the platter). We felt the antipasto plate was a little generic - nothing bad on there, but nothing that really stood out and called for attention either; still, a pretty high hit rate on the starters.

Mains also hit the mark more often than not. My friend felt the Wild Mushroom Girasole was a little underseasoned but I really enjoyed this dish; he was, however, full of praise for the al dente nature of the spaghetti served up in a fresh tomato sauce with chicken and buffalo mozzarella (although I personally would have preferred the chicken to be rather more integrated into the dish and for the mozzarella to have slightly more oomph). We also tried a selection of the pizzas - once again, these had lovely thin bases and generally the right amount of topping (plus I'm a sucker for rocket on pizza, lending as it does an air of healthiness to the proceedings). We also tried the cheesecake and the gelato from the desserts menu; the dainty sliver you see here disappeared in a matter of seconds and will need to be ordered again in a full size portion before too long. All of this was accompanied by generous pourings of the house wine - I was on the red, a juicy Sangiovese that seems very good value at £4.35 a glass and which I would buy again, particularly as there are surprisingly few options along Deansgate for a quiet glass of wine at a normal sort of price.

So, would I go again? Yes, I would - in fact, I had a quick pot of tea outside there today (a lady sitting nearby was having the crab cakes, and I was tempted to mug her of them), and whilst I can't pretend there aren't other Italian restaurants I wouldn't go to first (Salvi's being an obvious example), we did like the venue, and the atmosphere, and most of the food. Prices look reasonable for this part of town, especially as there's 25% off until the 24th August if you download a voucher from the website. I await the backlash, but I quite liked it here, and I'm not one little bit sorry about it.

- Prezzo is at 82-84 Deansgate, Manchester M3 2ER. This was a press launch which is why I'm reserving full judgement until I've eaten there properly, but we were not asked to blog the event and I have been honest in my views.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Cooking with Cheese - The Great Lactalis McLelland Cheese Challenge

Anyone who knows me even vaguely will be aware I have more than a passing interest in dairy products, and in fact consider cheese to be my very favourite food group. I very rarely get round to cooking with it though, unless I can count cheese on toast; instead, my preferred modus operandi when eating cheese is to consume it standing up, in chunks, every time I pass the fridge, or - if I'm feeling particularly exotic - to pop it on a cracker.

Exciting, then, to be given a bag of cheesy goodness by Lactalis McLelland and instructed to come up with a recipe making use of some of their products. You may think you haven’t heard of the French-based Lactalis Groupe, but they are actually the largest dairy products group in the world and produce a whole range of dairy goodies, many of which you are likely to have had in your fridge at some time or another. The bag included some Brie and some butter from the Président range, Galbani Mozzarella and some products from the Seriously Strong Range (Extra Mature Cheddar, Vintage Cheddar and the Spreadable, which I have already consumed slathered over toast - presumably this does not strictly count as a recipe though). The cheddar has been used to make mac & cheese, but as my recipe of choice belongs to the Drunken Butcher I won't even try and pass it off as my own; instead, here's one I *did* make up myself!

Buttered Summer Veg Risotto with Red Wine and Brie

This came about from a fortuitous combination of items I had that needed using up - some of my mum's homegrown vegetables, herbs from my own garden, and an open bottle of red that had somehow failed to be consumed on the first pass. I would, in truth, have used white wine had I had some handy, but red also works really well and lends a pleasing colour to the whole arrangement. I ate this all to myself but it would feed two if you added a bit more rice.

So, I started by finely slicing a leek and gently sautéing for a few minutes in a frying pan with a good knob of the Président butter before adding a handful of arborio rice and turning the heat up to toast the rice a little. I then poured in a good glug of red wine and allowed the alcohol to bubble off before starting to gradually add my vegetable stock. You do have to keep stirring as you add the stock, but this is actually very therapuetic, particularly if you address any red left in the bottle during this time period.

Meanwhile, I thinly sliced some small courgettes and a baby squash into rounds and added half to the risotto pan once the rice had been cooking about ten minutes. The remainder I popped in a small frying pan with a bit more butter and fried gently to go on top of the finished risotto (nothing nicer than butter-fried courgettes in my opinion). Proving that women really *are* excellent multi-taskers, as well as stirring my risotto, adding more stock, and keeping my eye on the courgettes, I also popped out to the garden and cut a sprig of fresh tarragon. Towards the end of the risotto cooking time (which will vary according to which rice you've used - mine took about 20 minutes, but keep tasting to check when the rice is cooked - you'll also notice the rice grains fattening out once it's nearly ready), I chopped the tarragon into the rice along with a good handful of frozen peas and a little cubed Président Brie and continued stirring - the cheese should melt into the risotto and make the whole thing beautifully creamy and thick. Check for seasoning - I usually add quite a lot of pepper but not much salt, as the stock and cheese will have added flavour.

Serve up in a bowl, topped with the fried vegetables and a little more Brie, thinly sliced. And yes, I know this isn't the most precise recipe you've ever seen, but the whole point of a risotto is that you can add whatever you have to hand - as long as you keep stirring, and adding stock when the rice has absorbed the previous amount, you won't go far wrong.

And the rest of the Brie? I'd like to say I made something else with it, but unfortunately it was discovered by a hungry boy and devoured with crackers in front of the TV - proving once and for all that cheese really is the most versatile of ingredients.

- I was given the ingredients free of charge by Lactalis McLelland but I do regularly buy some of these products anyway, including the Brie and the butter that I have used in this recipe.

Monday, 10 August 2015

New Cocktail Menu at Vega Lounge, Manchester 235

I am not, by nature, a gambler. I like to be confident of the exchange rate I'm getting - for example, £5 = one glass of wine - rather than not knowing exactly what (if anything) I might get back, so whilst I can see the excitement one might get from doubling, trebling or quadrupling (or more) one's money, it's a risk I am very rarely prepared to take. Thus I am not a frequent visitor to casinos - which is a shame, as the Vega Lounge that sits in the heart of the Great Northern's Manchester 235 is actually a pretty nice place to spend a couple of hours, with lovely staff, a very well-stocked bar and a spanking brand new cocktail menu that has been designed with some thought for doing things a little bit differently.

Last week I was allowed behind that very well-stocked bar (which is, admittedly, perhaps a little less well-stocked now than before) as part of a masterclass designed to showcase some of the new drinks on the cocktail menu. Our affable (and very patient) host for the night was the lovely Filip, who bravely permitted us to come behind the bar one by one and have a go at whipping up a cocktail or two - the first few were chosen by Filip to demonstrate the range of interesting ingredients and flavour combinations on the menu, and included Twinkle Star, a dazzling concoction of gold dust, Smirnoff Vodka, elderflower cordial and orange bitters topped up with Prosecco. I enjoyed this cocktail which, unusually, actually allows the taste of the vodka to come through alongside all the other ingredients - Filip explained that the elderflower works to enhance the flavour of the spirit (plus, this drink looks VERY pretty with all its sparkle). A couple of the other opening cocktails - the Melon Gumtini and the Miss Vega, pictured above along with newly expert mixologist Louise - were a little on the sweet side for me, but you really can't fault the care and attention to detail in the presentation here (bravo, James from Rate a Restaurant).

My turn then, and I chose to make a Mojito. Filip suggested the X-Pear, and was right to do so - this was one of the best and most unusual Mojitos I've had in a long time, not because I made it but thanks to the addition of Xante pear liqueur. I'm not usually a big fan of adulterated Mojitos, but would definitely order this one again (I'll let an expert make it next time though). I got to make a Smokey Old Fashioned later in the evening as well, which involved grappling with an expanse of black rubber hosing as we tried to get the smoking gun to work (not pictured here for your own peace of mind) - alas, it was not to be, but the Old Fashioned was still my favourite drink of the evening (but then, it's probably my favourite drink of all time).

Other drinks made on the night included a very good Pornstar Martini made by Miss Pond, a pleasingly tangy Southern Bee (which was nowhere near as sweet as I thought it would be), a Toffee Apple (Smirnoff Apple Vodka, lemon and apple juice, shaken together with caramel syrup - I would order this again), some excellent Strawberry Daiquiris and a couple of rich, dessert-style cocktails. The first of these, the Lemon Cheesecake, was a marvellously extravagant, over-the-top affair - Limoncello, Ketel One Citroen Vodka, Licor 43, lemon curd and mascarpone cheese, shaken and served in a saucer glass rimmed with biscuits and garnished with cake; the second, the Tiramisu, looked pretty fantastic too (although I didn't try this one as I dislike coffee and, as you can see, it was made by Simon Binns). We were also provided with some real, non-liquid food throughout the evening - the fish goujons you see here were particularly good.

All in all, a very enjoyable evening with some excellent cocktails and lovely hospitality. I can't say that Vega will become a regular haunt for me, purely thanks to my non-gambling proclivities, but I do like the leather booths and the slightly seedy atmosphere that comes from being slap bang in the middle of a casino (in a good way - think dim, flattering light; beautiful ladies perched elegantly on bar stools etc etc). And I must admit, I did eye up the blackjack tables on the way out, so maybe a Sharon Stone-inspired evening might be on the cards after all...

- Vega Lounge is part of Manchester 235 and can be found at Great Northern, 2 Watson Street, Manchester M3 4LP.