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Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Spinningfields Rotating Menu: Five Restaurants, Five Courses

When the new Michelin stars were announced last week, it was no great surprise that once again there were none for Manchester. Equally unsurprising was the Mancunian reaction, which was predictably defiant and can largely be summed up by "you can keep your poxy stars - we have an amazing restaurant scene and we're perfectly happy as we are, thanks". It's certainly true that Manchester has a wealth of great restaurants and that some nights it's difficult to decide where to go - hence the genius of last Sunday's Rotating Menu event at Spinningfields. Part of Manchester Food & Drink Festival, this promised to be a culinary roadtrip around some of Manchester's best venues, with a different course in each of Manchester House, Ibérica, Australasia, Fazenda and The Alchemist - an ambitious plan, made all the more so by the fact that there were five sittings from 1pm onwards.

We were booked on the final one at 5pm, which began at one of my favourite restaurants - Manchester House, which is normally closed on a Sunday but had opened specially for this event. Here we were plied with sparkling rosé and had our first course of the night - the Squab pigeon with cherries, pistachio and violet mustard. This dish has been on the menu right from the beginning and is probably their signature dish; the foie gras cherry is still a very splendid thing no matter how many times you've had it.

By this point we were all enjoying a game of "guess which restaurant is next", and many of us were correct by anticipating a fish course at Iberica. I reviewed here a few weeks ago and loved it, so was excited to go back; even more excited when this course turned out to be octopus. Served very traditionally with potatoes and a very garlicky pimenton mayonnaise, this dish initially caused some consternation at table - many had never had octopus before, and were a little startled by the suckers (a few even cut them off). I love octopus and would order this dish every time - and even the doubters ate and enjoyed it.

For the main course it was always going to be Fazenda. I am wildly partial to this meat lover's paradise and eat here regularly - the staff are utterly welcoming and charming, the unlimited salad bar is spectacular and the all-you-can-eat meat is of the very highest quality and always perfectly cooked. For this event, they'd selected four of their signature cuts - the rump steak, the chicken hearts (to which I am utterly addicted), the pork belly with honey sauce and the minted leg of lamb - and essentially kept bringing them round until we could eat no more. They let us have unlimited runs at the salad bar, and kept topping our wine glasses up, and chatting with us about Portugal, and bringing us extra chips; we didn't really want to leave. Reckon I'll be back here again within the week.

Dessert had to be at Australasia - the puddings here are exquisite, and the one they'd chosen for us was no exception. The Chocolate Dome with Salted Caramel and Blackberries was a show stopper, brought to the table as a round chocolate ball over which the staff then poured hot caramel sauce, melting away one side to reveal a beautiful nutty ice cream in the middle. Unfortunately our time here was marred by an issue over a nut allergy that could have had the most serious of consequences and which was badly handled by one of the members of staff; luckily all ended well but it did rather take the gloss over what would have been a really lovely course. We also had one of their excellent lychee martinis, which I often have here in lieu of a dessert, thereby giving me a pleasing feeling of having had not one but TWO puddings.

By this point some of us (me) were definitely waddling, not least due to the cute but cumbersone gift of a plant potted up by David Wayman (who has a lovely shop on The Avenue) that had been waiting for each of us on arrival at Australasia. Fortunately we had to walk only as far as The Alchemist, where our final course consisted of our choice of cocktail from their ridiculously extensive menu. My raspberry Mojito was excellent, although the venue was a bit on the busy side for me (on a Sunday night too - clearly the whole of Manchester had last Monday off) and I'd in truth have liked perhaps a sliver or ten of cheese to properly consider this a course; still, they were probably just saving me from myself.

I ended up booking on to this event quite late, as I'd originally been put off by the price tag - at £80 a head this was not a cheap night out. I consider it was worth every penny though - the food was all pretty flawless, and each venue was generous with the booze (particularly Manchester House and Fazenda). I really hope the idea catches on - it's a great idea to be able to visit several different places in one night without committing to a full meal in any one of them, and it was also nice to sit on communal tables and chat with like-minded people. Roll on the next Rotating Menu; in the meantime, you'll find me at the salad bar in Fazenda with my extra large plate.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Beauty Personal Shopping at Selfridges, Manchester - Help for the Hopeless

Whilst food is undoubtedly my biggest passion, I also have a slightly shameful fondness for make-up counters, which I view as the adult equivalent of the pick and mix sweet selections I used to lust after as a child - row after row of seductively packaged goodies calling to me to empty my coffers so I might take some of them home. Unfortunately though, I'm a complete dunce with make up, and thus have a whole house full of incorrect purchases - nasty sticky glosses whose sole purpose in life is to entice all of my hair to stick to my lips within two minutes of leaving the house, and garish lipsticks that make me look like a clown face crayoned by an untalented child.

Thankfully, help is now here for the incompetent shopper in the shape of the new Beauty Personal Shopping service at Selfridges Exchange Square. I was a little nervous about meeting beauty expert Charlotte Ingram when I went to try out the service on Sunday afternoon - after an accidental night out the previous evening the black bags under my eyes were looking at their most spectacular, and my fringe was doing its favourite party trick of pointing in several different directions at once. She is lovely though (even if her fringe is perfect), and has her own little room (pictured below, along with her box of favourite products) where she chats with you about what exactly you're after - whether this be how to get rid of black bags (my query), how to wear an orange lip without looking ridiculous (mine again), or just "oh my god, what can I buy my wife for her birthday PLEASE HELP ME" (not mine, although apparently a common one).

Having discussed the pitfalls involved in sporting a bold lip, Charlotte led me round the beauty hall making a recommendation here, a suggestion there - she works for Selfridges rather than any one beauty counter, and is on a wage rather than on commission. Her choices were spot on - a sexy burnt orange lipstick by MAC and a lovely brick red lip crayon by NARS are two of the items I will be back to purchase after payday (she put absolutely no pressure on me to buy anything at the time). Her focus is on building relationships and on repeat business rather than forcing a quick sale - pretty refreshing when you consider that most make up brands are not cheap and that even a lipstick represents something of an investment. She also made me aware of some products I've not heard of before, and was just as enthusiastic (if not more so) about the less expensive brands.

I tried this service free of charge, but it's free for everyone - anyone can book an appointment and Charlotte will allocate different lengths of time depending on what you want to discuss (I was with her about an hour). The service has been running about six weeks and is apparently just as popular with men as with women - I will definitely be back after payday and for another appointment if - IF - I get any birthday money come November. I think this is a great idea - the Selfridges Beauty Hall houses over 50 brands, and Charlotte knows them ALL. She can also walk at speed in five inch heels as well as having a perfect fringe, but I liked her so much I'm willing not to hold this against her.

- You can book an appointment with Charlotte by calling 0161 8380610, and you can also chat with her via Instagram at Selfridges_Beauty. Even better, Selfridges are also hosting a week-long celebration of the shoe (another of my weaknesses) at the moment - it's called Sole of the Party and includes a visit from author Camilla Morton on Wednesday 23rd Sept as well as other shoe-themed activities - full details can be found on the Selfridges website (

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Manchester Food & Drink Festival 2015: Highlights So Far

So, it's September, and despite the general feeling of back-to-schoolness, the days are still sunny and - joy of joys - it's time for the annual Manchester Food & Drink Festival. I look forward to this celebration of all that is great and good in the world for pretty much the whole year; indeed, when each new brochure is released my natural inclination is to run at it with a giant marker pen and start drawing rings round things in much the same way as I do with the Christmas Radio Times. This year's festival has been on for less than a week, and I have already done the following extremely splendid things:

1. Launch Night. This took place at the newly re-opened Corn Exchange, and whilst, in truth, it's not quite finished yet, it's clear to see what a great space this will be once all the units are fully open. Already in residence are lovely newcomers such as Wahaca, Mowgli and Pho, as well as returning favourites like Salvi's and Tampopo - all of whom had set up inside the dome of the Corn Exchange and were handing out samples. After the opening speeches the party moved up to Albert Square which, as usual, is the home of the Festival Hub and which - less usually - was dry and mild for the start of the festival. Albert Square always has a great atmosphere for the Food & Drink Festival but seems bigger and better than ever this year, with a huge beer tent courtesy of the Wainwright Ale Trail Bar, a Fevertree gin & tonic bar, and plenty of street food traders lining the edges of the square. I had a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich from The Cheese Truck followed by an outstanding crab patty with avocado and samphire from Crabbieshack - both London-based vendors, but both worth overcoming some good old Northern parochialism for. A really great start to this year's festival; indeed, I only went home when it became physically impossible to consume any more gin.

2. Big Indie Wine Fest. I love a wine festival, and I love this one more than most, offering as it does the chance to try lots of interesting wines from small, independent producers and traders whilst nodding earnestly and pontificating pompously about mouthfeel. If you've not been to one of these before, essentially your entry fee earns you a wine glass which you then run excitedly about with, profferring it to anyone standing behind a table which bears wine you would like to try. The Town Hall is a perfect venue for this, being both spacious and gracious, and the exhibitors really had brought along some great wine to try. My favourite white was a lovely Albariño from Chorlton Oddbins, but I also sampled some great reds from West Didsbury's Reserve Wines and from Salut, itself nominated for "Bar of the Year" in this year's awards. We left just before the end and wandered into the Festival Hub for some food to soak up all that wine - this time I had some of Splendid's wondrous fried chicken, with another grilled cheese sandwich for afters.

3. Taste on Two at Harvey Nichols. This is another of my favourite annual events, at one of my favourite food retailers (with surely the best views from its food hall and restaurant). Taste on Two is a lovely evening where some of the producers whose food and drink graces the shelves at Harvey Nics come together throughout the Food Hall to offer samples and talk you through some of their products. It was great to see some old favourites there - Burt's Cheese, Woodall's Charcuterie - as well as some exciting new ones. Gin was particularly well represented - I sat in the Hendrick's gin chair and was sprayed with aromas of rose and cucumber (this earned me a gin and tonic, and was therefore time well spent), and also particularly enjoyed newcomers Forest Gin and Manchester-based Thomas Dakin. I left clutching a goodie bag and a cake from Jelly Tots & Dolly Mixtures Cupcake Company, still wearing my Harvey Nichols apron and altogether over-excited by the chance to talk to so many enthusiastic and totally dedicated producers.

It's all change tomorrow, with a whole new shift of street food traders taking up the mantle in the Festival Hub and events continuing until Monday's Gala Dinner and Awards. Still PLENTY of time for at least another three visits I'd say - for the full programme, have a look at the MFDF website (marker pen optional but recommended).