Sunday, 16 February 2014

Dogs 'n' Dough, Manchester

Carefully coiffured males sit cheek to cheek, Gosling-esque arms emerging from their tight V-neck tees, not a trace of five o'clock shadow in sight. Removed from the constraints of their daily lives, these men are here to indulge, to submit themselves to their inner desires - free from judgment and guilt. They speak not of their time here above ground: these men have Tyler Durden's well known rules ingrained into their souls. 

Only, this isn't Fight Club. Nor is it a coming-out story, masquerading as a soft porn webzine.

This, my friends, is Carb Club.

...or at least that's what it felt a little like. Dogs 'n' Dough, an underground, side-street bar and diner, for some unknown reason, appears to be most heavily frequented by preened young men; metrosexuality personified. In my cinematic daydreaming, I came to the conclusion that these fellas must be here to feast as part of a secret society. Gym fiends by day, carb connoisseurs by night.

Whilst these flippant notions are yet to be confirmed, if such outfits do exist, Dogs 'n' Dough would be the meeting venue of choice. The menu, once short but sweet, has now taken a Hulk-like approach to the humble hot dog. Intending to keep punters coming back for more, there's now near-on twenty variations of the things. Personally, I'm a purist - but we happily took a gamble on the Philly Cheese Steak version. It came loaded with peppers, pieces of beef and cheese sauce. The sausage itself is one of the best frankfurter-style ones I've tasted - and that, for me, is why I'll keep it naked next time. I want to taste that meat, not cover it up. If, however, you're somewhat more adventurous than I, then you'll likely be jizzing all over your seat when you see the creations coming out of this kitchen.

'Nuff said on the dogs. Let's not forget the reasoning behind the rest of this joint's name. The dough. No, the staff don't bring out plates of cash - man, what a concept that would be! - but pizzas served straight outta the box, takeaway style. I'll precis this with the fact that over the last few months, I've been treated to pizza cooked in a homemade pizza oven by a man on a mission to perfect the humble slice (a.k.a Bailey of Good Gobble Blog). So, I've eaten a lot of damn good pizza, and sadly, this stuff didn't quite deliver. 

Somewhere, there was a lack of seasoning: hard to work out whether it was the sauce or the base. Another couple of minutes in the oven wouldn't have hurt either. This wasn't a traditional style pizza, and nor, I suppose, is it trying to be. It's not quite the Americanised version either though. Toppings were fine - Jamie chose the Caribbean Dream. I'd like to see how their Margherita compares next time. See: the purist in me pops out, yet again.

Ron Burgundy's the gent on the right. 
The BBQ beans were tasty, although I'm not sure they were homemade. The coleslaw definitely was, and I could eat theirs by the bucket, though a touch less salt here might have my made my liver feel a little happier.

One part of the menu these guys have completed nailed is their cocktails. I was gleeful at spotting the return of an old favourite (from their Corridor days), the Matinee. Unfortunately, they were out of one of the ingredients; no complaints here as I'll happily work my way through this menu. Favourites were the Miss Kitty (rhubarb, lemon, butterscotch), and the Ron Burgundy (Johnny Walker Red, peach bitters, apricot brandy, cinnamon). Yes, it did go down, down, down into our bellies. There's also a decent selection of beers, and the Kona rep was in to give us a full run-through. Their pale ale was my fave - and at less than 6% shouldn't leave you too shit faced. A careful consideration for beers these days.

Dogs 'n' Dough serve food 'til 11pm every night, except Sundays (when it's 'til 9), and have pitched the tone of their offerings just right for punters who fancy a late night bite to eat. Whilst I'm not a massive fan of their pizzas, I seem to be in somewhat of a silo, as others were mighty happy chowing down on these mammoth offerings all night. Hey, you can't please everyone: besides, the dogs 'n' drink are more than enough to keep me going back.

Props to the team for having my favourite looking bar - and menu - in Manchester. These guys know design.

Disclaimer: yup, we were invited for a freebie. Nope, this didn't make me say anything different than if I'd been paying. And I said it to their faces anywayz. Besides, this place is such good value (all pizzas and dogs under a tenner and cocktails at £4.50 in happy hour) that you should make your mind up on it for yourself.

Dogs n Dough on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Alchemist, New York Street

Let's start with a confession. I don't really like The Alchemist.

I don't imagine I'm alone in this view. In fact, the thought of giving my patronage to any of Living Venture's establishments rarely crosses my mind. If that sounds harsh, I don't mean it to be. We all have different tastes; The Alchemist simply doesn't press my particular buttons. This is no reflection on the staff (most of whom do an excellent job), rather on LV's aesthetic and attitude.

So when we were invited to review the menu, I'll freely admit I wasn't expecting to be impressed.

It was a Sunday, the day after our American supperclub, and one too many bourbons the night before had left both Anna and me with mild hangovers. Hangovers are like an amplifier to bullshit; things you might ordinarily overlook become irritating.

We are sat near the entrance, directly behind the host, which makes us feel a little uncomfortable, as though any tiny criticisms of the food or service might be overheard and relayed. Living Ventures is Watching You. That turns to be an irrelevant concern, as we realise no one actually seems to know we've been invited for a review. Our position is also annoying because it is a hub and a thoroughfare for other staff members.

To kick things off, Bloody Marys and some edamame beans. A mostly meat-based diet over the previous week has left us with a craving for something green. And, also, you can't really fuck up edamames. They come sprinkled with sea salt, a bowl of soy sauce and sesame oil for dipping. Check: salt craving satisfied.

The waiter had asked how spicy we wanted our Bloody Marys, which is encouraging, but upon tasting we find out that Tabasco is pretty much the only flavouring. I would venture to say it is the blandest cocktail I've ever had. Bloody Mary's are a personal drink, I get that. Some people like a little more Worcestershire sauce, some a good punch of lemon juice. But to send them out almost unseasoned is asking for trouble.

It's easily corrected: the manager spots us adding pepper from the shaker, in a bid to elicit more flavour, and asks us if we would like more seasoning. Anna says yes; I'm now happy with mine.

Starters are a small portion of the chicken caesar salad, which is perfectly adequate though missing a good anchovy kick, and chicken and spring onion pot stickers, which are rather nice, as good as I've had in all but the better Japanese places in Manchester.


Not that I need more red meat in my life, but I opt for a the 255g Ribeye next, as doing a decent steak is something LV have a reputation for, what with their Blackhouse restaurants. I choose to have it medium, as any less and I find the generous fat doesn't soften and render enough. The steak comes cooked to perfection, and I am thoroughly pleased. The chips are a little on the dry side, and serving a whole roasted tomato is just tempting the Gods of Food-related Accidents. A blunt knife, enough pressure, and a jet of molten-hot tomato juice and you've got a potential lawsuit on your hands. Halve them and you're safe.

No, it's not an apple on the side of the plate.
























Anna goes for a smoked salmon bagel, which she regrets, mostly because she's staring at my steak. There wasn't enough cream cheese for her liking (but this, she concedes, is not really a criticism, as the bagel is brimming with smoked salmon) and the inclusion of lettuce in the bagel is a bit perplexing. Other than that, it's not bad.

We are too full for desserts. Post-prandial cocktails, however, are a different matter. I choose the chocolate orange Sazerac and Anna the white Cosmo. She had wanted the smokey old fashioned but finds the Alchemist's incarnation too sweet. The waiter tells us it's pre-mixed that way. Too bad. The white Cosmo is pretty in an Outer Space sort of way, but the ice globe bomps her nose. It didn't stop her from drinking it all, however.

My Sazerac is good, although (ex-bartender alert!) I don't think the recipe is open to interpretation where the Absinthe is concerned. Just a dash of the green stuff is obligatory. I like the cookie flavour of this iteration, which reminds me of a gingerbread Old-fashioned I once had.

There is no faulting the place's hospitality. Bearing in mind our servers hadn't even realised we were doing a review, ergo no schmoozing, they were all friendly and eager to help. The Alchemist's USP is not its fancy, show-stopping cocktails, nor its unpretentious service, but rather a desire to please everyone. It is the apotheosis of the phrase: Jack of all trades, Master of  none. And that, I suppose, is the best compliment I can give.

Disclaimer: we were invited to review, and even though it took the team a little while to cotton on we were there for a freebie, a freebie it was. It should be fairly evident from comments made above that this - in no way - affected our honesty.

The Alchemist on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 28 November 2013

SoLIta

Cap'n Manchester

I'm pretty sure we all know SoLIta by now. So I'll skip the preamble and get down to it.

We were invited by Franco Sotgiu ostensibly to try out the new chicken wings menu, and as such were not asked to pay for any of the below.

Let's talk about the good things first.

Now, I'm a wing aficionado. It's a fact Anna can testify to, having watched me devour them by the hundreds - Chinese-style, Korean-style, Jamaican-style, deep-fried, BBQ-d, Buffalo-d, you name it. When Janelle Monae sings "But we eat waaangs [yeah I know what that sounds like] and throw them bones on the ground", she talking about me and her on a night out. I'd say, without exaggeration, that somewhere in my hypothetical last meal there would be some variation on deep-fried chicken wings. You get the picture.  

Ain't no thing but a PB & J chicken wing
SoLIta's wings are good. The range of 'toppings' is far beyond the usual scope of the spicy (read doused in Frank's Hot Sauce) and the sticky barbecue variant that most establishments limit themselves to. Sure, Solita do those too, but they've also got PBJ (Peanut Butter & Jelly), Kiev, BMW (Bacon & Maple), and the Naga-based 'Cry for Help' amongst others.

Anna went for the PBJ and I for the BMW. The skin of the wings had taken on a lovely, uniform golden-brown hue and a gelatinous quality that I love. The meat pulled away from the bone easily, which is more than can be said for a lot of the fried chicken joints I've visited. Despite most of the sauce pooling at the bottom of the bowl, the flavours were still evident and well executed. It's messy work but that's always been part of the charm for me. The peanut butter and jelly isn't as wacky a wing flavouring as it sounds, coming out tasting like a sweetened satay sauce. The BMW had me thinking of american pancakes. In a good way.

My burger was thoroughly tasty too. I opted for a special, the Captain Manchester, on the basis of the photos I'd seen on Twitter. Two mighty patties, lancashire cheese, and a horseradish and ketchup sauce (so Russian dressing without the mayo). It was a beast. I'd expected to manage it all but could only stomach three-quarters. It comes with a free comic too, and you can't say that about many burgers in town. 

Now for the not so good...

Unevenly cooked and bloody steak
We've had issues with steak here in the past: a hanger that had been quite rudely treated, overcooked and unrested. This time Anna ordered the 10oz Prime Rib on the recommendation of a fellow blogger-diner in the hope of a better experience. The waitress informed us it was quite a thickly-cut steak and was probably better served medium. All fine there. Unfortunately, when it came and Anna cut in, it was evident the steak had seen too much of the grill for its slender frame. To call it medium-well would have been kind. With credit to the staff, when this was pointed out a new one was swiftly ordered. However, the kitchen, in their haste to get another one out, didn't rest the steak, leaving the plate swimming in meat juices. Good for dunking chips in, not so good as a salad dressing.

Now this pains me most not because the steak should be cooked correctly, not even because this might happen to plenty of other customers who might otherwise keep quiet. It pains me because it's wasteful. 

Much like last time, the trip has left us in two minds.

The best conclusion to draw is that they do burgers very well. And wings. Despite the Inka grill - the steaks aren't this joint's USP from our experiences. As good as the grill is, the chefs using it need to get a grip with their steak cooking, if we're to consider dropping £16 pounds on one in the future.

The service was friendly, without any of the aloofness which is rife in this part of town (and that was evidenced in our observation of tables other than our own). Atmosphere-wise, I suppose it doesn't help that the place was full of groups as everyone gears up to Christmas. Our feeling is that it's a great place to take your mates, rather than have any intimate, post-work catch-up with a partner.

From all our dealings with Franco, he has been nothing less than accepting of criticism, always keen to get to the root of any problem. And I've always liked SoLIta for not seeming as try-hard as Almost Famous. We'll be back, just not for a steak. 

SoLita on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Seasons Eatings Supperclub, Trove

Venison, oyster, beetroot, gin

Oh, supper clubs; how I love thee. You feed me well for little money and introduce me to food I'd never normally eat and places I never normally visit. Sure, sometimes you may leave me in the middle of nowhere with no public transport home, having stayed for a few too many whiskeys after, or with a rip-roaring hangover after dancing in kitchens in West Didsbury with marrows 'til 3am, but you're always such fun. You're such fun that you made us start our own! And yes, ours have been fun, and we've even tried to get a bit fancy making our own croissants or canapes that take 3 hours from start to finish... 


...but then you go to one that casts a shadow so large over every other supper club, you wonder whether you (meaning us!) can really charge people for what you're dishing up when there's ones like this out there. You know: like the ones you've read about, like the ones they have in - *whispers* - that London, ones that would definitely be called 'pop-up restaurants' if they were south of Droitwich. 


If you haven't already guessed, I'm talking about Seasons Eating, brainchild of two fabulous female chefs, Suzy and Isobel, who have taken residency once a month in our new favourite place, Trove, a bakery housed on the A6 in Levenshulme. The dedicated duo, both chefs by professional, create restaurant-standard menus for very reasonable prices.


November's saw us chow down on course after beautiful course - every dish plated up with precision, with flavours to back up the presentation. The evening begun with a warming spiced apple soup with bay leaf foam and thyme jelly - evidence already that this was no ordinary supper club. The next dish, a sous vide poached egg, with black pudding 'crumb', pickled enoki mushrooms and shallots, finished off with watercress. Almost a take on a full English, though I'm not sure that was their intention - the dish was light and tart enough to awaken the palate for the next course.

The menu stated that there would be venison, oyster, beetroot and gin; in reality there was tempura oyster sitting atop perfectly pink venison, beetroot pearl barley, slices of beetroot, deep fried onion and gin jelly. I wasn't a huge fan of the gin jelly to begin with, but by the time it melted it slipped into the background and didn't overwhelm the other flavours. A teensy bit more salt on the meat would have been lovely (though anyone who has read this blog before will know we are salt FIENDS) but when eaten with the juicy, sea-borne oyster and the deep fried chopped onion, it was perfectly balanced. A dish worthy of any fine dining establishment.


Finally, the dish we were admittedly apprehensive about: szechuan, mandarin, brown butter. To be honest, the unusual pairing of ingredients was one of the main reasons we'd booked on to this supper club: I couldn't wait to see what they were going to do. Chefs always seem to say that desserts should be playful and leave diners with a smile on their face - well this certainly did. Szechuan pepper infused curd filled light, mini doughnuts with segments of mandarin as well as a gel, all finished off with the most delicious ice cream I have ever tasted. It was so good, I'd happily buy tubs of this ice cream every weekend if it were on sale. 

Look: if you like food, and you like championing the 'little guys', book yourselves on to their next supper club before they bag themselves a restaurant and a star to boot. They're hosting one at Fig and Sparrow in Manchester city centre on the 14th December - £30 for four courses and a cocktail - its up there with the best food Manchester has to offer at the moment. Follow them on Twitter to find out more. I should point out that we paid for our tickets - this write-up sounds so positive that I'm worried someone will think we've been paid in gold to say what we have, but it's all blummin' true!

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Hunan, Chinatown

Clay pot lamb belly - our favourite dish!
It's been so long since I've written a blog post about food that I feel like I've forgotten how to, um, write about food. Unfortunately, the photographs I have to accompany this post certainly ain't the best, so I'm really going to have to pull my socks up if I'm to keep you engaged for the next 5 minutes. We've been a bit sloppy with the ol' blog writing recently - Jamie's been busy dividing his time between two very different writing jobs and I've been preoccupied with finding a new job, and then starting it (oh, and then starting another one too - apparently one just ain't enough no more). We've also managed to move house in the last month; cue silent weeping as we say goodbye to our Swedish show-home style kitchen and hello to a pokey little space so small that we're currently hanging our pans from a curtain pole (supper clubs will certainly be interesting here!).

In celebration of starting aforementioned new job, we thought we'd make the most of my last weekend before entering back into 'normal' working hours and try a new restaurant. I, slightly hungover, really craved Chinese. The only problem was choosing where to go: my knowledge of the cuisine in this city is pretty limited, save a few dodgy takeaways and the delicious seafood in XO sauce from Laughing Buddha in Didsbury village. Thank God then, for Twitter, or more accurately for Aka Hige (Paul) who suggested Hunan in Chinatown. 

Braised taro in chilli and garlic
Hunanese food is apparently known for its plentiful use of chillies and garlic - SOLD. Despite the multitude of both in all of the dishes we had, each plate still managed to differentiate itself from the rest. The menu is extensive so it was difficult to choose, although Paul had recommended the braised taro. Not something I'd ever come across before, we were more than happy to give it a go. Taro is a root vegetable (not dissimilar to a potato) and when braised took on an almost dumpling-like consistency; it came flecked with chilli and spring onions, and turned out to be even better when reheated the next day. 

Our favourite dish was easily the clay pot lamb belly - hot without being overtly spicy laced with the deep, warming spice of star anise, the tender meat fell from the bone (mostly! this was chopped very small, so sometimes it was a case of sucking the meat from the bone...). Lamb belly is a favourite of ours, which we've only recently discovered after making the equivalent of Moroccan ribs with the underused cut - but please don't tell everyone, lest its arrogance overtake its beauty, like the fate of its now-expensive cousin, pork belly.

Duck gizzards ('glandular' stomach) with white chillies
We also - bravely - opted for duck gizzards with white chillies as well as 'fragrant and hot crab'; the latter, something the restaurant draws attention to on its website in the Hunan cuisine section and so we assumed it would be a dish done well. Unfortunately not. Though the crab came with the accompanying tools to extract the salty flesh it proved to be a time consuming task which was not entirely worth the wait. When I finally managed to get hold of enough to eat with the sauce, though generally tasty, I would have guessed the crab were cooked from frozen, and was certainly overdone. The leftfield choice of poultry stomach, though not something I would necessarily order again, was enjoyable and amongst the spicier of the dishes of the night - Jamie was fairly certain it contained salted chillies, which added an extra dimension of heat!

We ploughed our way through four dishes over the course of an hour (as well as a few beers) and landed up with a bill under £40. We're keen to head back to Hunan to try some more of the menu - I think the pork with smoked tofu, five spiced pigs intestines and one of their dry-pot dishes (a speciality of Hunan cuisine) are next on our to-do list. It's worth mentioning that the portions are large and cheap (average price is around £8) so it's an ideal place to visit with friends who enjoy sharing! 

Well, if you managed to make it to the end of this post - thanks for bearing with me as I meander back into food blogging and I promise to try harder next time! No gold stars for me I think, but at least there's one for Hunan.

Hunan Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Manchester House

That dish
Fine dining restaurants in Manchester are a bit like buses. You wait ages and they all come at once. 

Hot on The French's heels is Manchester House, the collaboration between Chef Aiden Byrne and Living Ventures. In the words of LV's CEO, Tim Bacon, it's a restaurant that the city can “potentially be very proud of”. A modest admission for a man who has made no secret of his intention to give Manchester its first Michelin Star.

Bacon is someone who acknowledges that there has been a “lack of traction with fine-dining in the city”, so the £3 million he's invested  in this venture will seem to many as pure extravagance; and a cynic might say that he is trying to buy greatness. It’s a lot of pressure, also, for Aiden Byrne. "Dancing to the Michelin drum" as Marco-Pierre White puts it, has been many a chef's undoing.

To have hope of winning over the Michelin inspectors, the food will have to be better than anything on offer in  Manchester. So what of it? Well, to analyse the dishes in too much detail would be superfluous. This, after all, was no ordinary service. It was well orchestrated 'press lunch' (i.e. complimentary); everyone on their best behaviour for the BBC's cameras. We all ate the same seven-course tasting menu. There were no slip-ups in service, save for a bit of pea in the pea juice ("It's supposed to be clear", the waiter explains, rushing to fetch a fresh one).

The offending pea juice
Better to judge the food at a later date, during normal service. Though, for those on a writer's wage, it's going to be a long time before the next tasting! First impressions were unanimously positive with the food impressing in many areas; and letting down in other respects. It's perhaps telling that the 'WOW' dishes like those from Byrne's Great British Menu repertoire (the paleolithic beef dish and the 'prawn cocktail') were outshone by the breads: the first, a bun filled with oxtail and served with oyster mayonnaise; the second, a bacon brioche served with pea butter and pea juice.  

The decimated prawn cocktail

The trickery of the prawn cocktail's melting passion fruit sphere seemed a time-consuming effort for a dish that didn't have its desired impact. Too much of the fancy maltodextrin powder, and not enough flavour. The beef dish was lovely but, at £58 for two people to share, it wasn't that lovely. The sea water and soil distillation that smoked out of its bed of false grass failed to hit its multisensory target.

Sea water and soil distillation 
The pigeon dish with black cherries and pistachio was, however, a standout: the one plate that could please the gods of Michelin. So good was it that Manchester Confidential's Gordo prematurely named it 'Dish of the Year' in a fit of shameless self-publicity. But one plate of that calibre won't be enough to achieve Tim Bacon's dream. Nevertheless, there's no doubt that Manchester House is a restaurant that can get better with age; Byrne won't allow it to be otherwise. 

Perhaps, more interesting than any food was to hear what the two collaborators had to say about their vision for the restaurant.

During the post-dinner Q & A, Byrne came across as simultaneously humble and ambitious, eager to get the point across that he wanted to challenge himself. Reinvention was born out of boredom: “I wanted to throw away my recipe book.” Strange then that a couple of the dishes we tried were well-known dishes from his time on The Great British Menu. One guess as to whose decision that was.

The award-winning pigeon dish

Byrne was preoccupied but took the time to stop at tables and have a chat. It’s evidently been a tiring year and already a tiring day – Byrne and his team have been here since seven in the morning and last night’s shift finished at 2am. Maybe that accounts for the negative language (the word frustration is scrawled on my notepad/menu in huge caps); maybe its the whispered troubles he's had with Tim Bacon. Perhaps it's competition with The French that worries him. He made a point of distancing himself from Simon Rogan: "Simon's product and mine are a million miles from each other." Here's hoping that these worries won't consume Byrne and he can put his full attention into making the food truly exceptional. Easier said than done, with £3 million riding on it.    

Sitting next to Byrne, Tim Bacon took a different tack and endeared himself to the common folk: first by talking about how Byrne phoned him whilst on holiday in the Maldives, and later by reminding us that the “combined turnover of [his restaurants] would blow your mind.” Well, customers aren't going to be thinking about turnover when they're eating at Manchester House and the only thing they want to blow their mind is the food.

Tim Bacon's got the money and believes Manchester can give London a run for its money; and Aiden Byrne was the youngest chef ever to win a Michelin star. So, perhaps they're a match made in heaven. I'm not so sure.

Manchester House on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 31 August 2013

On the Virtues of Fried Chicken



To get things underway we have an excerpt from Fried Chicken by the American rapper Nas:

Don’t know what part of you I love best
Your legs or your breast
Mrs. Fried Chicken, you gonna be a nigga death
Created by southern black women to serve massa’ guest

Well put, Nasir. In less than 140 characters he ruminates on which part of the beloved bird is the tastiest, the implications of fried chicken consumption for the health of Black Americans, and makes a barely disguised reference to slavery. Take that, Twitter generation!

The song is part pop at America’s dietary habits and part farcical metaphor for a lustful relationship with a woman (“You in your hot tub I’m looking at you salivatin’/Dry you off I got your paper towel waitin’”). I implore you to give it a listen, if only to hear Busta Rhyme’s hilarious closing lines on the dangers of ham hocks: “Who cares if the swine is mixed with rat, cat and dog combined/Yes, I’m a eat the shit to death.”

As is plain to see, fricken is important enough to write a song about. And Nas’ ode is probably the best example of a food-inspired song (if you discount Funkadelic’s Fish, Chips and Sweat). But what’s so great about fried chicken? I’m a self-confessed addict, but I often find, as with many things in life, the expected high turns out to be guilt-ridden disappointment, like a greasy one-night-stand. Guilt-ridden because my moral sensibilities tell me it’s not okay to keep stuffing myself with poultry that’s lived a life only marginally better than a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Disappointment because my ‘freshly’ fried chicken has inevitably been sitting on a warming rack for hours and thus taken on the consistency of the fused tentacles of a very dry mop.

So, what advice can a Manchester fricken junkie give? Well, I’m inclined to agree with Will Self when he says, in a clever inversion of the old rat story, “you’re never more than a few feet away from some disjointed portion of poultry carcass.” That is to say, there are plenty of options in this here city. What follows are some tips/recommendations that may or may not (especially if you don’t eat chicken) come in handy:
-          
  •       Avoid anywhere near Piccadilly or Portland St. And the Dixy Chicken at Shudehill. The one on Deansgate is acceptable. Beware of a greater than usual vibe of “I don’t give a fuck” on employees’ faces. That is, if you are in any fit state to be so aware.
  •             In theory, I’d question the kitchen practices of all chicken shops but I can’t bear to look at their Food Hygiene Ratings and suggest blocking it from your mind, preferably with alcohol.
  •           The best chicken wings are in my opinion to be found at Chunky Chicken and Chicken Cottage in Rusholme and Finger Lickin’ Chicken in Withington. They’re a (un)healthy size with the right amount of spice and a slightly less crisp coating (which I prefer for wings). If you like ‘em spicy, Finger’s the default. If you like shards of batter, then stick to KFC.
  •           I now only rarely order my old fave, the 2-piece combo, as I find that wherever I go the quality of chicken borders on the foul (bum-dum-tsh!). Unless we’re talking Southern Eleven’s chicken dinner, although I think they take the colour of the batter a little too far. More brown than golden. Stick to wings and burgers where poor quality is less evident.
  •           When you enter a joint, ascertain the quantities of chicken pieces, wings, and burgers on the warming racks. If they’re low on a certain thing you might be able to get some freshly made if you order enough. Failing that, just ask for it to be made fresh as we’ve established the price of eating stale fricken.

A word on KFC . If you like your service efficient and your options plentiful then it’s definitely worth seeking one out. As much as I try to avoid the global fast-food chains, I can’t fault their turnover of customers, their marketed-to-death specials, and the internal temperature of the food served. Sometimes when I enter any one of the number of ‘fake KFCs’ I often wonder (a) whether the my bowels are going to hate me for this in the morning (sorry!) and (b) why the most incompetent member of staff is serving and the other four are collectively managing to make one mini-fillet burger and a portion of chips. I think there should be a joke along the lines of: “How many Dixy Chicken employees does it take to make a bargain bucket? Five, plus the manager, and the delivery guy, and some guy they roped in off the street. And it still took two hours.” Yeah, I’ll grant you, it’s not very funny. And another thing:  why do KFC still refuse to salt their chips? Surely one salt shaker is cheaper than hundreds of individual sachets. Is it a way of limiting customers’ salt intake? If so, I don’t think it’s working.


Right, I’ll stop myself before I get too much into rant territory. Thanks for taking a foray into the crazy, mixed-up world of a fried chicken addict. It’s great to finally open up about my vice. But writing about it, far from helping in some cathartic way, has just made me want to get hold of a bargain bucket. Dammit!

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Chobani dinner, at Room Restaurant

It's easy to be a bad PR person: send e-mails addressed to the wrong name; write press releases littered with spelling errors; jokingly nudge and wink whilst saying "give us a good review" (this actually happened. I'll name no names, but I will say they were not written about after that). There are so many ways to do PR badly, so when - as a blogger - you come into contact with a lovely PR person who takes a genuine (or appears to, anyway!) interest in you, it's a refreshing change.

We were lucky to be invited to a dinner by those who fell into the latter category last week. Perhaps it's something to do with working client-side (as opposed to in a PR farm aka 'agency'), or the fact that both were food bloggers themselves: the representatives of Chobani - Amy and Christine - were glowing examples of how to do PR well. 

So, you might read on and think "oh but they were schmoozed, that's why they're writing about this brand", so I'll be honest: I bought in to the brand. Buying into brands - despite working in marketing - practically defies my entire value system. But I did it: I bought it. Read this story and tell me you haven't bought into it a little bit too. 

Chocolate Marquise, Hazelnut, Yoghurt Puree
I was also impressed by the way Chobani chose to market their yoghurt to us (if you didn't click through to the above link, that's what Chobani is by the way, a yoghurt company): instead of sending us a few free samples, which might have warranted a tweet at the most, they worked with Room restaurant to create a dinner using their range of yoghurts. 

To begin, we were treated to yoghurt cocktails. Slight problem for me as - unless it's a White Russian - I'm not a 'creamy' cocktail kind of gal. The option I chose used their apple yoghurt, almond milk and honey vodka, and slipped down pretty easily. I even had another. I couldn't see a whole night spent on these, but it was much better than expected.

Now, I've said it before and I'll say it again: Room's prawn cocktail starter is pretty much my favourite starter in the history of Manchester. They tweak it ever so slightly with each menu change, but the use of tomato jelly, tempura prawns, spiced crab and an apple crisp always makes its appearance in there somewhere. It's SO GOOD. I would sincerely recommend visiting Room just for this dish.... and to give it a 'Chobani' theme, they created guacamole with the brand's yoghurt. There was literally just a dot of this so I can't really comment further on how the yoghurt worked here. There's no picture so go see it for yourself!

Please could I have some more watercress?
The yoghurt played a much bigger role in the next dish however, as the Bearnaise sauce to accompany the Sirloin steak had been made with Chobani instead of butter, I assume. I rarely eat Bearnaise sauce as I find it far too rich, so making it with yoghurt really worked for me; for the exact same reason, it didn't work for Jamie. I think it's safe to say that Chobani will take a lot of sales from those who want a lower calorie option (this ain't J!). 

For pud, I definitely had food envy: Jamie's treacle tart with Chobani yoghurt parfait was delicious, and the best use of the yoghurt in the menu. My 'Chocolate & Milk' (marquise, hazelnut, Chobani puree and ice cream) was indulgent and most definitely enjoyable, but I don't think ice cream works with chocolate ganache-style desserts. For me, ice cream should melt into a soft base: the two textures working together - but with something like a marquise, I find that when combined with ice cream the textures end up battling against each other. Not unpleasant, but not the best pairing.

Treacle Tart (so-so) with yoghurt parfait (AWESOME)
So, the lucky ladies at Chobani are continuing their brand activation with a series of these dinners across the UK, simultaneously rolling out the brand to supermarkets, er, near you. It's a tough market for the company here - when Hamdi Ulukaya began Chobani back in 2007, there wasn't a lot in the way of competition - but the same can't be said here. Judging by his status as Ernst & Young's World Entrepreneur of the year, I can't see him (and his passionate colleagues) letting that stand in their way.

P.S. Anyone else think that yoghurt is a weird word? I've got that thing when you write a word too many times and it just starts to long misspelled however many times the OED tells you otherwise.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Gincident 2013, by The Liquorists

Awesome photograph taken by the talented  Pete Sheppard of Tone Photographer


The notion of a 'booze cruise' first entered my consciousness at the tender age of thirteen, on a family holiday in the Greek islands. Having previously developed a taste for melon flavoured 20/20, it probably would have been right up my street, had my parents been reckless enough to allow me out of their sight long enough to get cast away. Fortunately the days of teenage holidays with parents are long gone, my penchant for alcopops has developed into a full-blown love affair with good quality spirits, and the concept of a 'booze cruise' has a brand new meaning, thanks to the Liquorists 'Gincident'...
Messa-GIN a bottle. CHORTLE.

By no means seasoned Liquorist trailers, we did once before experience the delights of copious amounts of educational booze on the Ceylon Arrack trail. Though a fun-filled evening, the hopping from bar to bar left us feeling older than our years, and so the idea of a nice long sit down accompanied by gin delights left us experiencing sheer delight that we could both booze and wear slippers.

As soon as we stepped on board the good ship Liquorists, a very fine G&T was thrust into our hands. The boozy tour guides impressed upon us the importance of the Fever Tree tonic. None of that Schweppes shit here, ladies and gents, only the finest on one of these ol' trails. It is actually pretty damn good, and when I'm feeling a little flush I splash out on the good stuff. If it's good enough for Ferran Adria, it's good enough for me. Oh and the G in that tree was Martin Miller's. He does hotels too. Gin and hotels? OF COURSE.

Cured salmon and cucumber. Saved me from a hangover.
We were eased in gently to a night of gin, ensuring we had a good ol' feed. All of the food was served 'sharing style', which was surprisingly tidy considering we were on a floating vehicle, and was also bloody delicious. The best dish of the night was a juniper-cured salmon, served with a delectable cucumber and dill salad. It was so good, the braver-than-I Good Gobble stole a portion from the next table for me. Thanks guys! We also devoured posh chicken wings and a couscous dish served with ham hock, which universally appeared to be the best couscous dish anyone around our table had ever eaten.Whilst it's certainly not about the food on a Liquorists trail, it's good to know it's a whole lot more than an afterthought, and we were ready for our boozing completely sated.

For the uninitiated, the Gincident cruise takes place on a barge, meandering around Manchester's canals. Floating on the water, the cocktails - ya know, the reason why we were here! - are a tasty accompaniment or distraction to the weather out there, so it's worth a trip come rain or shine. We were lucky to be on board on one of the nicest days of the year. OH YEAH, THE COCKTAILS...

Hogarth's Fizz
First up was Hogarth's Fizz. IT WERE REET GOOD. Sorry, that must have been the um, Northern sailor in me. (No, no, not Alan). Something akin to a gin fizz, using Plymouth gin, it was given the Liquorists treatment with an addition of camomile syrup. Now I'm more used to drinking the earth apple (I totally didn't find out that's its other name from Wikipedia. Nope. Not me) before beddy-bos, so I wasn't sure how it was going to slip down in a gin cocktail. The taste, however, was reasonably subtle, and this fella proved to be one of my favourites of the night.

Next up was the um, wittily named Message G-In A Bottle. These guys, they don't just know booze ya know, they know WORDS TOO. And are obvz massive Police fans. Winning all round really. They'd gone to a fair amount of effort with this one, making me feel like the poshest hobo there ever was, drinking out of my specially branded paper bag. It didn't even taste like White Lightning - extra points! Sincerely, it tasted pretty awesome - they'd gone to great lengths to create their own ginger beer, if my memory serves me correctly, mixed with more of the hotelier's gin and a little taste of the Orient with a whisper of Jasmine tea. They don't do things by halves, these boys.

La Floraison D'Etre
Other very drinkable delights came in the form of a Sitting in an English Garden - essentially a better version of here's-one-we-made-earlier using Bloom Gin, with added strawberry liqueur. They'd also got their hands on an even better version of Fever Tree's tonic - this one with elderflower. Basically my favourite edible flower, so I drank this in double quick time...... leaving me not quite so forthcoming when it came to the Blossom Will Be. A pretty little number, using G'Vine gin - but perhaps the addition of white wine didn't sit so well in my delicate-as-a-flower tummy. That was fine though as my table partners happily indulged in extras.

The last cocktail of the night, and the one I'd most been looking forward to, having heard that Jamie Jones - one of the Liquorists moonlighters - had pretty much been crowned the KING OF GIN for was La Floraison D'Etre. G'Vine Floraison - as opposed to their Nouaison used in their earlier cocktail - is mixed with egg white, lemon, olive oil and pink peppercorns. The G'Vine products are a French-style gin; they are therefore made with grape spirit and each of the two have distinctly different flavours. The one in question here offering a more 'floral' and, I suppose, wine-like quality to it, marrying beautifully with the spice from the pepper and the unctuous oil. I expect the cocktail we were served up on the night wasn't quite the same recipe as that which won Jamie Jones the gin crown, but it was a well-balanced drink that was worth the wait.

We were invited on the trail and thus drank for free. Gin can't buy my love though it can buy Jamie's (that's my other half not the gin king), so in the interests of fairness I was tasked with writing up this booze cruise. At £55, it might not sound 'cheap', but I reckon it's bloody good value: five expertly mixed cocktails, a G&T (or two!), food to line the tummy and a tour of the world-renowned (ahem) Manchester canals. Thank God I never did embark upon one of those Ouzo-filled boat trips as a naive teen: good things do come to those who wait...

Go on, book on...who could say no to that jacket? Clearly not the gin king.
The Liquorists have got loads more of these Gincident trips planned. You can book on here!

All photos provided by Tone Photographer (he's alright innee?!).

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Phetpailin, Chinatown

Pla Chu Chee - creamy, spicy richness with crispy lime leaves.

We've banged on about Phetpailin a fair bit since writing this blog - we featured it in our 'Top Ten Cheap Eats' back in January and mentioned it as the 'place to keep going back to' on Wow 247. We even had the pleasant surprise of recommending it to someone on Twitter and later realising they were sat at the table next to us when we last visited!

I'll start by warning you the photos don't do this place justice, and it doesn't help that the lighting's bad and they were all taken on my iPhone. Also important to note is that this joint is BYOB. Yes, that's right ladies and gents: it's free reign to get as pissed as you like for under a tenner. Or, as sometimes occurs, when we're feeling a little more flash, it's an opportunity to splash out on a fancy bottle from a decent wine shop like Reserve - as we did on this occasion - for the same price you'd usually spend on a bottle of the house in a licensed restaurant.

It's easy to spot: you'll see Long Legs on George street, a huddle of bouncers and dodgy looking fellas outside, sometimes even sitting on the steps to the entrance of Phetpailin - so squeeze past them and slip into this little gem of a Thai restaurant.

Knowing that I was going to be treating Jamie for some seriously good pan-Asian cuisine in Prague in the form of Sansho, I wanted to give him a little taster of things to come on his actually birthday and so booked us a table at 8pm on a Wednesday night. It was surprisingly busy, and there was just one waitress to manage the whole place - whilst service wasn't speedy per se, considering she was on her own, it was perfectly efficient and well, just generally inoffensive.

Tod Mun Pla (Thai Fishcakes)
I won't beat about the bush with this one: the food is decent, reasonably priced, and as already mentioned, it's bladdy bring yer own innit guv?!

Having previously sampled the deep fried platter of Thai starters - a bargain at £5.95 p/p - we weren't sure we could face it this time, so just opted for the Thai fish cakes. With a completely rubbish carrot salad on the side, the fishcakes themselves are fragrant, spicy little bites of um, fish. And other bits. According to their website, there's green beans in them but I didn't notice any. Though rubbery to touch, they're almost as light as marshmallows, but with a slightly crisp coating. Essentially, I'm telling you that for £5.50 they're worth a try. The accompanying sweet chilli sauce is fair too, less gloopy than the stuff out of a bottle and I assume it's made on site.


Mains were pretty much predetermined. We managed to sample a good majority of the menu when our mates had a leaving do there (they left us for Australia, sob!) and discovered our faves: Tamarind Duck and Pla Chu Chee. The duck dish is a slightly sweet and sour one due to the inclusion of tamarind (also found in HP and Worcestershire sauce, don'tcha know?). We loved the use of cashew nuts to vary the texture, and there were plenty of veg. It would be great if they'd cook the duck pink, though perhaps if you specified they would. Regardless of the colour of the meat, it's still perfectly tasty. We tried to recreate this at home later - we got the duck bang on but couldn't quite recreate that lovely sticky glaze. The Pla Chu Chee is in another league, although I can't work out if my palate is hardening to spice or they've cooled it down a bit over the years, as I definitely remember not being able to manage more than a mouthful a few years ago due to the chilli heat. This time I was more than capable, hurrah! They use tilapia, a cheap white fish, though it doesn't really matter that it's nothing posher here as the rich red curry paste sauce, mixed with coconut milk and deep fried lime leaves is an unctuous delight alone.

Our bill came to just over £25, we'd drunk a bottle of wine we'd probably have paid in excess of £40 if bought in a restaurant, and left stuffed. This place isn't going to win any awards for fine dining or innovative cuisine, but I've never had a bad meal here, and it's a great place to visit, whether you're a couple or group of mates. I'd advised booking, particularly on the weekend - and they even have a fancy website you can do it on!

Phetpailin
46 George Street, Chinatown
Manchester, M1 4HF
0161 228 6500

Phetpailin on Urbanspoon

Monday, 10 June 2013

SoLita, Northern Quarter

My favourite thing about Solita is their bio on Twitter: "Manchester's 150th best restaurant according to Tripadvisor." Bad news fellas, you've moved down in the world: you're now 172nd. I'm sure the restaurant owners are quaking in their boots... In all seriousness though, many of my favourite food bloggers seem to bloody love SoLita; since it's been more than a year since Jamie and I visited, we decided to remind ourselves what all the fuss is about.

The first time we bobbed in for their seemingly bargainous lunch deal. For £5.95, there's a selection of hefty sounding sandwiches, one salad and a chilli. Though I was seriously tempted by the pulled pork toastie, given that I still hadn't overcome my own toastie machine bereavement, I went a bit healthier and chose the 'Charcoal grilled Caesar chicken salad'. Well, it would have been healthier if I hadn't developed serious food envy from their Twitter account repeatedly posting delectable looking images of their nduja spiced baked beans inside a portion of mac'n'cheese.

Heaven on a plate? Little bit.

I could eat a portion of this right now. Perhaps every day. It was good. I'm even going to say the mac'n'cheese might be better than Jamie's. Only might be, because I quite like being his girlfriend and I don't want him to give me the heave for saying such things. It was a little tepid, and I do quite like dishes such as this steaming hot but I'll forgive them this time.



The chicken Caesar was nice: croutons made from the same bread J's sandwich was served on, and appropriate amounts of dressing, but where were the anchovies?! I know Caesars don't always have them but that salty hit of my favourite fishy friends belong here in my opinion. Just four of them maybe? Please?



J was happily munching away on his SoLita whilst I debated combining the Caesar salad with aforementioned side order. (I didn't, phew!). He did comment that the bread was a little dry, but also that it had a good flavour and he wondered whether it had even seen a little herb garden at some point - though perhaps this scent was coming from elsewhere. For the uninitiated, a SoLita is the restaurant's own take on a Reuben: warm Salt Beef, Emmenthal cheese, Big Manc sauce and chow chow slaw. Jamie had a side of fries, which I can also verify were of the tip-top variety.

We enjoyed our good value lunch meal so much so that several weeks later, after the success of our second supper club, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner here with our earnings. I must start by saying that in their defence, we did rock up at 8:45 on a warm Sunday night, and were told they served until nine. 

We were served by the same waitress both times, whom I found to be generally friendly and efficient. Given that there were only two other tables in the restaurant, we were seated and served speedily. J had a bottle of  Brooklyn (pretty good value at £3.50), and I, a small glass of the house red, a Merlot (£4.75). 

As Hanger steak has recently become my favourite cut of beef, I wanted to see how an Inka grill could improve an already awesome meal. Jamie went for the KFB burger, involving: melted Monterey Jack cheese, jalapenos, BBQ sauce, and kentucky fried bacon.

When the waitress took our order, she didn't ask how I wanted my steak. I naively assumed this was because she - and the chefs - knew that there's no point in having a Hanger steak anything other than rare. It's a tough cut of meat, and if you cook it past this juicy bloody mess, it just ain't no good. Unfortunately, it seemed this wasn't the case.

Poor cow, it died in vain :(

My steak was a huge disappointment. The meat was overcooked, I'd say medium at best. It also hadn't been left to rest so my fries and salad were swimming in a pool of bloody juices. Maybe this was a good thing as the salad had just been dumped on the plate, undressed, so this at least stopped them from being as dry as a Ryvita (no offence, crackers).

As often seems to be the case in such circumstances, all the staff seemed to disappear at the moment you actually want to talk to them. There was no check back, and so no opportunity to correct this miserable meat. Granted, I could have said something at the end of the meal, but given that we were now the only table left in the restaurant, I really didn't want to cause a fuss when it was evident the staff wanted to get out of there, and so did I...

Jamie's burger was fine. He ate it all up. No complaints there. And I really should add that despite the sorry state of my plate of food, the actual flavour of the Hanger was still pretty good. I just had a sore jaw by the end of it.

So, I'm undecided. One decent trip and one disappointing. The latter was near closing time, and I probably ought to have said something; I just assumed that a restaurant famed for its Inka grill would either ask how a customer likes their steak cooking, or cook it right. As I said before, other bloggers such as Hungry Hoss and Food Geek seem to really enjoy SoLita and I trust their opinions on dining, so I say not to just listen to me, but make up your own mind.

NOTE: Since publishing this blog post, the owner of SoLita - Franco - has been in touch and asked when we dined so he could look into it. He seemed accepting of the - we hope - constructive criticism. What's that? A restaurant owner who listens to feedback? Well, he'd have no place on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

SoLita
Turner Street, Manchester
M4 1DW
0161 839 2200

SoLita on Urbanspoon

Monday, 13 May 2013

3twentyone: smokehouse, serving the best onion rings in Manchester

Best retrospective restaurant order ever made.

I've finally realised the purpose for writing this blog: to tell readers where to go for the best onion rings in Manchester. Not to downplay the other virtues of the newly opened smokehouse, 3twentyone, but damn, they were some good onion rings. We nearly didn't try them: when ordering, I told Jamie to stop being such a fattie and make do with chips. However, when he later spied them on a neighbouring table, he couldn't resist and quickly added them on to the order. Possibly the best move he's made in our entire relationship. Wonderfully crisp specimens, we managed to devour the lot of 'em, save a Siamese pair, which Jamie decided should be worn as goggles. Lottie Moore has the evidence (bet she was glad she shared a table with this unsophisticated pair!).

So 3twentyone officially opened to the public today, but we were lucky enough to visit on their soft opening, receiving a fantastic and complimentary meal. I cheekily e-mailed them when I saw a tweet asking for opening night visitors; they didn't know we wrote a food blog (unless they did an internet stalk) so we had intended to go for a night out, without thinking about what we'd write later. Turns out, the meal warranted a write-up because other people definitely need to know about this joint.

It would only have been appropriate to have cocktails in a 'joint' like this.

And it does have a feel of a "joint": the staff are suited and booted in 1930s style uniforms, with braces and all. The deep mahogany of the furniture, jazz tunes and beautiful back bar feel a world apart from the Deansgate pub, which is situated beneath the restaurant. It does make for an interesting experience when having to shimmy between a large group of football lovers when in need of a trip to the loo, but it hardly hinders the experience.

We started with cocktails: for Jamie, a sweet Manhattan, and I opted for the 3twentyone signature Martini. I just saw the words 'gin' and 'elderflower cordial' and was sold on those grounds, stupidly not realising it was going to basically be a gin martini. Despite Jamie suggesting it smelt like lime cordial, it was the first gin-no-juice-Martini drink I've managed to finish, so I say hats off to them! Top notch glassware too.

Rather fancy chicken wings, them.

To start, I really wanted the boneless, smoked chicken wings. Unfortunately, as Jamie is 'king of the wing' in our house, he got first dibs. I was bloody jealous when I tasted them too: the flavour was divine. My only disappointment being that they were boneless... sucking chicken juices off one's fingers is half the fun (oo er).

Excuse the shoddy photo quality here!

Instead, I opted for Mr. Holden's Manchester Egg. Not usually a fan of black pudding, the stuff here was bloody gorgeous, not cheap or 'gritty' tasting at all. I was slightly disappointed that the yolk was overcooked, but this was easily forgiven (because I was staring so hard at Jamie's wings).

He didn't look happy about being eaten.

You don't usually see a choice of four different kinds of fish on a 'smokehouse' menu. Some may say that it would be foolish to choose one of them when meat is clearly the speciality here, but I bloody love fish, and the idea of it cooked on a smoker style barbecue had me sold. It was incredibly tender, stuffed with dill and shredded fennel. It was served whole, but we were also informed that it could be served filleted if desired, perfect! They also offer salmon, mackerel and swordfish. We had balsamic roasted candy beetroots which were pretty tasty, and 'twice-cooked chips' to accompany our mains; the latter were average: maybe they'd been sat on the pass for a while. I hope they're usually better as you gotta have great chips with steak!

This was gone in about twenty seconds.

Jamie went for the rib-eye, medium rare. I'll assume he enjoyed this as his usually chivalrous self made a dash for the nearest exit (fortunately located nearby) and he neglected to offer me a taste until he was down to his last mouthful! He later tells me that it was slightly overdone, but this obviously didn't hinder his experience at the time. There's a selection of sauces to choose from at an additional charge (£1.25) and J opted for the chimichurri. Jamie later managed to make room for a blueberry cheesecake, which was also gone in seconds. Jesus, that boy can eat.

Looking at the menu I'm already planning a return trip (on my own, so I can have the chicken wings all to myself with a side of onion rings). They have a great selection of steaks including ones at lower price points (both the flat iron and hanger are just £11.95), and the burgers are all under a tenner. They're not doing anything crazy or particularly different, but they're doing 'normal' rather well, in my opinion.

The interior is quite swanky for a restaurant above a pub, and they also have a gorgeous looking roof terrace. Our waitress was brilliant, and even Jamie admits that it was amongst the best service we've had in Manchester. All that, and it was only opening night? I've worked an opening night in a restaurant before, and it didn't bloody go like that! If that's how things have started at 3twentyone, then I'm looking forward to seeing more of them very soon.

3twentyone (up the stairs in the Deansgate pub),
321 Deansgate, Manchester

3TwentyOne on Urbanspoon