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Saturday, 24 October 2015

Brick or Treat and Spooky Seas: Half Term Fun at Legoland Discovery Centre and Sea Life Manchester

By and large, I am not envious of people who are parents. It does have to be said, though, that there are some pretty amazing things out there for kids to do, and I am occasionally envious of these. So here's guest blogger Tim to tell us about two frankly brilliant places to take your children this half term...

Certain principles of mine have been realigned after becoming a parent. Some were strengthened; spending money, for example, requires a more disciplined approach, as does alcohol consumption. Certainly on weekdays. Other principles might, for the sake of my child's pleasure and sleep, benefit from a little loosening. Take Zoos; any qualms about the wellbeing of proud, exotic, noble giant cats born and raised in Lancashire captivity are put aside in favour of my daughter's spellbound smile. My objection to clothes produced in ethically questionable conditions has retreated at the advance of a toddler's growth rate and tendency to return from nursery covered in paint, mud and spaghetti hoop juice. Concessions must be made to ensure a bundle of joy's happiness. And cleanliness.

So it was that I, amoral and standard-free parent of one, found myself journeying to the Trafford Centre on a Saturday morning. Another principle forgotten. Another "I'll never do" done. And why? For the entertainment of my two year old daughter and her best friend. Truthfully, there are few better reasons.

Our first port of call was Sealife, Manchester's primary (I think only) centre dedicated to the wonders of marine biology. I've always found it a bit strange that Manchester, a city that resorted to building a huge canal to bypass the fact it was very much inland, should host a Sealife centre. We've actually visited it before and enjoyed it but wanted to take the opportunity to go back with our daughter a little older and to check out the Halloween displays which form part of this week's Spooky Seas event.

The experience began with a lovely talk and display about turtles and the conservation efforts around them. The scene was beautifully lit, with effects that enchanted the girls and made them (even more) excited for the day ahead. The bulk of the centre is, of course, based on various tanks full of weird and wonderful fish. Now, even though the girls didn't (and still don't) know their stingrays from their sticklebacks, they charged about enthusiastically and did spend lots of time observing the amazing creatures on show, faces pressed against the glass, genuinely intrigued. Our toddlers were too young to fully appreciate the scope of fish on show, and the educational accessories, but they really enjoyed the environment and the older children there were obviously fascinated by the place. As well as the fish, stingrays, crabs, seahorses (the girls' favourites) and sharks, there were Halloween themed colouring activities, a spooky, I'm a Celebrity inspired tombola, generous goody bags and a soft play area that went down very well. The staff were great, very enthusiastic and welcoming and in all Sealife is a place well keep going back to, confident that our daughter will be more engaged each year. Until she reaches the age where everything is rubbish. But I don't want to think about that right now.

Legoland is just a couple of doors down the way and was very popular, with queues coming out of the door at 10.30am. We'd never been before and didn't really know what to expect, besides Lego. The start of the visit was similar to Sealife - you have your photo taken and then proceed to a short talk by a young, enthusiastic and fun expert. This was less esoteric than its marine counterpart and offered kids the chance to shout, jump up and down and get a free Lego brick. Ticking many boxes.

The next step was a ride. It's a bit like a ghost train except you're taken through a castle landscape that's being attacked by orcs, giant trolls and some resurrected skeletons. Fear not though, your train is equipped with laser pistols with which you are able to fend off said green skins. It's fun, it really is and, to my slight surprise the girls weren't scared but at the end simply yelped the affirming word "Again!"

We pressed on though, through a Mini-World exhibition that, while impressive, was not really suitable for our girls. Certainly not at that time when they just wanted to climb into the display, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the mini-Eiffel Tower my daughter darted towards. Older, more rational children were much more suitably appreciative.

The main room of Legoland boasts several activities, such as go-karts and another soft play area that our two darted for feverishly. By this stage they were in that familiar toddler state: tired, shattered, mardy but having so much fun the suggestion of going home was met with howls and sitdown protests. As a result we missed out on many of the activities available but there was a great buzz about the place, with kids clearly having a huge amount of fun. It was the kind of place you could easily spend a day in, with several hours worth of play arenas to choose from and a restaurant at hand. There was also ample seating for adults, which I imagine was entirely necessary given the cheerful chaos of the room.

Ultimately the fun was all too much for our little ones, who we coaxed back to the car via the Legoland shop, nude statues, fountains and a tasty round of croissants at a nearby cafe. Predictably, they weren't long in the car before they were asleep in their seats, sprawled out, gently snoring, perhaps dreaming of boisterous Lego orcs or serene seahorses. Either way, it was the sleep of satisfied children and not for the first time since becoming a dad, my hitherto held principles had been disproved.

Spooky Seas and Brick or Treat are both on until November 1st at Manchester's Trafford Centre.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

INCA Pop Ups presents Robert Owen Brown's 5 course menu at Chapter One Books: Locals Rejoice whilst Animals Quake

If I were forced to pick my two greatest passions in life, I would choose food and books. My house is filled with books (I reckon I have around 3000) and I spend my working day pontificating pompously on another dozen or so - stopping only to come home and investigate one of my two fridges in order to find out what's for tea. It would therefore be something of a dream come true to go to a pop-up supper club hosted by one of my favourite chefs in a bookshop - and yet miraculously, this admittedly rather specific vision of utopia is now within my reach as former Mark Addy chef Robert Owen Brown sets up stall next month at Chapter One in the Northern Quarter to bring us a spectacular five course menu.

Rob is the master of the five or six course menu - I used to eat all sorts of unusual animal parts on a monthly basis at his Gourmet Nights at the Mark Addy, and I've also attended a couple of pop-up events he's done with Bangers and Bacon that have been pretty special (again, as long as you don't think too deeply about what part of Larry, Percy et al you might be eating at any one time). The menu for the Inca Pop Ups events on Saturday November 14th looks amazing, running as follows:

Welcome Drink (not sure what this will be but presume it will be something suitably stiff to brace us for what is to follow)

Wild Rabbit Consommé with thyme dumplings (brilliant - LOVE rabbit)

Tea smoked Wood Pigeon breast with sweet chestnut & crispy parsnip salad (can find no fault with this - nice, seasonal ingredients, perfectly autumnal)

Roast grey leg Partridge with wild mushrooms & caramelised baby orbs of joy (yep, sounds good...oh, wait. Orbs of joy? Remember advice re: not thinking too deeply)

Bitter dark Chocolate tart with ginger nut ice cream (back on safe ground here)

White port soaked Garstang cheese (yep - lots of this one for me please)

Espresso or Loose leaf White Tea (to help prevent accidental napping on the way home).

This looks to me like a proper, classic Rob menu - and excellent value at £40 a head (including a £20 deposit). I've already booked my places and you can do likewise (insert your own sophisticated punnage here about booking/books etc - you're welcome) via eventbrite. Animals, it's time to hold on to your privates again!

Monday, 5 October 2015

PLY Manchester - Bringing Italy to the Northern Quarter

I need to start by holding my hands up and admitting to being several miles behind the curve on this one, because I'm going to tell you how good PLY in the Northern Quarter is. You of course already know this - you've been posting photos of their sourdough pizzas all over social media for months, and like it so much you voted it Bar of the Year in the recent Manchester Food & Drink Awards - and last weekend I finally got round to trying it for myself. Rest assured I have been posting photos of sourdough pizza ever since.

We went last Sunday evening when it was quietish and we could appreciate the impressive nature of the space they've got here - it's an open, capacious affair but has been skillfully carved up into separate sections so that it feels cosy rather than stark. Despite it being a Sunday night, the small raised eating area was pretty full and apparently they'd been rammed all weekend - so much so that they'd run out of a few items. This is always disappointing but fortunately they had everything we wanted (although to be fair, I wanted everything), and we liked the straightforward nature of the menu - they sell satisfyingly Italian-sounding antipasti, and pizzas, and that's about it. I had the Aubergine and Burrata antipasti as a starter, and it was exactly as promised (but better) - marinated and chargrilled slices of aubergine, a whole fat creamy burrata, rocket and chilli flakes. It was a masterclass in understated simplicity, as was the Bresaola and Rocket across the table; thinly sliced bresaola piled high with rocket, radicchio, parmesan and caperberries tossed in a simple lemon dressing. This was some of the nicest food I've eaten outside of Italy - just good ingredients served with respect and integrity by people who know what they're doing.

Next up, PIZZA. These actually came while we were still tackling the giant antipasti, something that tends to annoy me in restaurants, as I'm quite a slow eater and like to linger over each course before the next one shows up. Our waitress explained that this is all part of the bid for authenticity; the antipasti are not designed as starters and thus the pizza will come whenever it is ready - fair enough, perhaps, and the pizzas were excellent. The bases are homemade sourdough and a little on the thick side for me, but then I do like my pizza insanely thin; otherwise, they are perfect, with generous toppings and just the right amount of smoky charring from 90 seconds in the wood-fired oven imported from Napoli (goodness only knows what the Italians would make of its cheery disco-ball facade). I chose the Artichoke and Pig's Cheek and loved it - nicely fatty cubes of smoked pig along with good chunks of artichoke, tomato, mozzarella and a sprinkling of chilli flakes. My date had the Salami of the Week and was impressed by the number of slices of proper, tasty salami along with tomato, mozzarella, basil and parmesan; he ate the lot, and then managed the last slice of mine too. We washed all this down with a couple of pints of Dortmunder (the only draught beer they had left) and had a quick browse of some of the artwork - the current Doodle Wall display is by Myro Doodles and is suitably Mancunian in theme; in fact, we thought it did a great job of summing up what's so good about PLY - this is real Italian food served up in a venue that's undeniably Manchester in mood and style. PLY is a clever fusion and I love it - it'll certainly do me until I can get back to Italy again.

- PLY is at 26 Lever Street, Manchester M1 1DW. We were invited in to review and did not pay for our food or drinks but I will be back as a paying customer; in fact, next time I'm meeting someone in town I'm going to be deliberately early so I can wait here, in Book Corner.