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Thursday, 6 April 2017

Restaurant Review: Michelin Dining at Fraiche (erm, near Manchester)

Until this week, I had only dined at three Michelin-starred restaurants. I don't say "only" out of some over-inflated sense of privilege, but because for someone whose whole life revolves around food I think this is on the low side, particularly as one of those experiences was an ill-fated first date at Altrincham's Juniper around the turn of the millennium and is definitely best forgotten. For one thing, Michelin-starred dining doesn't come cheap; it's largely beyond my budget, and doesn't always seem to me to warrant the additional money when there is so much good stuff around for less. And for another, as we all know, Manchester doesn't have a Michelin star, and thus we need to affect nonchalance and pretend we don't care for all that nonsense anyway.

Thus today's post strains the limits of being a thing to do in Manchester, for we're off to Birkenhead to sample Marc Wilkinson's Fraiche. This tiny restaurant - just eight covers - has been widely recommended to me by many people whose opinion I trust; it's a real labour of love for Marc, who still does pretty much everything himself, and who has held that coveted star for nine years running. It's easy to see why; service is exceptional from the moment you walk through the door, the attention to detail is astonishing (see the music and fragrance lists below), and the spiced pecan nuts that we delicately fight over whilst drinking a bespoke gin and tonic made by the terribly knowledgeable Tom set the tone for the largely excellent food that follows (with one or two caveats). Our table of four all has the £85 tasting menu with the "salt" rather than "sweet" option (despite what you see on the menu below), which essentially means you get cheese rather than dessert; three of us also have the splendid wine matching at £45 a head (well - in for a penny, in for a pound).

All of this is largely successful. None of us is that keen on our pre-cheese course of figs and feta, which features a green granita that renders the dish rather watery, and I don't enjoy the rhubarb crudite or the fizzy grapes, although everyone else loves them and I think it's just the texture I don't care for. Standout courses include the duck (the nicest I've ever had), the turbot, the carrot starter and the extraordinary "blue cheese and cabbage", a dainty little dish of frozen cheese that proves beyond doubt that cheese ice cream should be a thing. And the cheese course itself is spectacular - five well-chosen examples of full-flavoured cheeses, each served with its own specially-made accompaniment. There is also a petits fours trolley, a contraption of unspeakable excitement from which we are each allowed to choose five things (fennel shortbread the star for me). All in all, I have a memorable evening - great company and generally exceptional, unshowy cooking that doesn't require you to go for an emergency burger to fill yourself up afterwards (as was the case at a previous Michelin-starred experience). And where else gives you a bag of muesli to take home so - in their words - you can think of them at breakfast the next day? As if I've thought of anything else since.

- Fraiche is at 11 Rose Mount, Birkenhead, Prenton CH43 5SG; successful booking requires persistence, luck or a clever friend who is quick off the mark when the reservations are opened every month.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Zouk Cookery School, Manchester: Best Bhajis in Britain

When your day job is teaching, normally just the very mention of the word "school" is enough to give you palpitations and necessitate a quick lie down. Not so when preceded by the word "cookery" and located at Zouk, the much-lauded Pakistani and Indian restaurant tucked away at the top end of Studentville; indeed, so exciting was the prospect I willingly got up early on a Saturday morning and headed there in search of education, knowledge and new skills (and the prospect of a substantial luncheon).

I'd never been to Zouk before, but pretty much everyone I mentioned it to had already been and already loved it - although were surprised to learn of their regular cookery schools, so the restaurant perhaps needs to shout about this a bit more. Classes start at 10am with a welcome talk and a cup of masala chai; there are thirteen of us in all, including lots of people on their own, and everyone gets on immediately - united in our greed and enthusiasm for Indian food. The course I attended was "British Favourites", which promised to show us how to make all those anglicised dishes that everyone secretly really likes - Seekh Kebabs, Onion Bhaji, Chicken Tikka Masala, Lamb Rogan Josh and Channa Masala, along with rice and naan - but which never come out quite the same at home and which are so often garishly coloured and profoundly disappointing from one's local takeaway.

This is a refreshingly laid-back type of cookery school - we are given the recipes but told we won't need them, and we gather round a few tables in the restaurant area that have been pushed together and covered with tempting pots of herbs and spices. Much of the course is demonstration-led, but there is plenty of hands-on participation too: we are each given a metal tray filled with sliced onions and are at liberty to season at will (my bhajis are pleasingly heavy on the garlic and the coriander) before learning how much gram flour to use - this is the crucial bit - and how to combine the ingredients in such a way as to incorporate plenty of air. Our fledgling bhajis are then whisked away; next time we see them, they are sizzling away happily in the restaurant kitchen. Seconds later, most of them are in my mouth, hot from the fryer and quite simply the best bhajis that any of us has ever tasted (genuinely, and I've tasted a LOT). We also get hands-on with the chicken tikka, and whilst my tray of raw chicken might not look that appetising, its transformation once grilled on long skewers over (very) hot coals is quite something.

Much of the rest is handled by the chefs. Ali, our tutor, shows us how to make the seekh kebabs, which we enjoy along with some more bhajis and the chicken tikka over a very welcome tea break (well, Coke/beer break - soft drinks are on the house and alcohol can be purchased at the bar). Then - thrillingly - he lets us loose in the kitchen, where we run amok and, truth be told, everything gets a bit chaotic. It's fun though, with the three different main dishes on the go as well as the largest pan of rice I have ever seen. We are allowed to supervise, and stir, and taste, and ask questions, and generally make a bit of a nuisance of ourselves - the chefs are genial and tolerant, however, and I learn lots of new things, including how to make an extraordinarily good Channa Masala. The real surprise, though, is the Chicken Tikka Masala (seen below in its massive vat, which I was hoping was all for me) - a dish I normally avoid for its bland creaminess but which is quite simply a revelation in these expert hands.

Perhaps the nicest touch of all is that the budding chefs are each allowed to have a guest join them at the end of the course, to help eat all the food they have made. I had forgotten this until someone mentioned it during the morning, and it is to my friend's great credit that she responded so nobly to my late call, bravely hotfooting it across town despite a code amber hangover in order to admire our handiwork (she decreed her race against time well worth it). Each course is individually priced but the average is around £80-90 - not cheap, but this seems good value for the time and attention you receive and the generosity with the food you've helped to make. I was given a complimentary place on my course for review purposes but will definitely be booking more as a paying customer: full details can be found here on the Zouk website. In the meantime though, I now know how to make the world's best bhajis, so if anyone fancies popping round and helping me slice some onions, you'll be more than welcome.

- Zouk Tea Bar and Grill can be found at Unit 5, The Quadrangle, Chester Street, Manchester M1 5QS; tel 0161 233 1090. They won the Best Restaurant Award in the Manchester Tourism Awards in 2012 and I can see why, so it's to my great discredit that I'd never been before (an error I intend to atone for on a regular basis).