Thursday, 9 May 2013

Italia, Manchester

Business is booming

It's a gloriously sunny Wednesday evening in Manchester city centre. The unexpected rays have sent the populace into a booze-fuelled frenzy (yours truly included) and everywhere with an inch of outside seating is rammed. Lurching from one over-capacity establishment to the next, we eventually stumble half-cut into an almost deserted Italia. To a soundtrack of Blink 182, we are seated by an authentic-sounding waiter, complete with 'ragazzi' and 'ciao'. So far so swings and roundabouts. Looking past the empty tables, I spy a trio of chefs staring out from the pass, visibly willing us to order pronto just to have something to do. The boredom is palpable; the atmosphere is slim to none; and as Mark Hoppus chimes in with "What's my age again?", I think "Shit! What have we let ourselves in for?"

When it came to writing this review, I took out my notepad to find that I'd only written one 'sentence' consisting of two acronyms: 'AC/DC WTF?' A helpful reminder that the conversation mainly revolved around the mind-boggling music choices. Driving down the highway (to hell) in a convertible and an Angus Young guitar solo would be just the ticket; in a quiet Italian restaurant, not so much. And pop-punk from the early noughties? Maybe at 42nd Street. I can only assume the playlist was dreamt up by the alarmingly young staff members; it felt as though the boss had gone off to sun himself and left the kids in charge. Italian kids with a penchant for rock.

Wine will save us. The waiter recommends a Chianti Classico from the specials board. I'm on a bit of a Chianti trip at the moment (thanks Dr. Lecter) so take his advice to save any faffing around. It hardly seems worth mentioning at this point that service is quick (I think there are five other diners) but it is also friendly without the machismo that you get at San Carlo, where I feel less like I'm being waited on and more like I've walked into mating season at the zoo, where the gorillas have just revolted, got hold of some suits and then decided to make some (delicious) pasta. Long-winded metaphor, I know. Anyway, the wine is a great example of a Chianti - bone-dry with plenty of acidity and ripe fruit flavour. Things are looking up.

Nduja pizza

And when the food arrives my worries are laid to rest. My dining companions are hungry so we order a starter of polpette (pork meatballs in a rich tomato sauce) to see us 'til mains. Yielding, moist, and flavourful, they fit the 'just like your mama used to make' bill; if only we were Italian. Anticipation for the main courses is now anxiously high. I fancy a pizza and opt for the 'Nduja' with spicy Calabrian sausage and peppers while the others go for pasta in the shape of Arrabiata and the seafood linguine (calamari, shrimp, tuna?!) special. The pizza is easily one of the best in Manchester and a must if you want to eschew the chains. The pasta dishes were confirmed to be nearly as good - though mussels would certainly have worked better than tuna in the special - and, considering the dishes were all around £10, the portion sizes are generous.

Sated and pleased with the food, the initial misgivings are far from my mind. The food at Italia has had its plaudits and rightly so (even though the influential Franco Sotgiu has since parted ways with the business) but they really do need to sort that music out. Maybe Bacon on the Beech can give them some tips.

40-42 Deansgate
0161 834 1541

Italia on Urbanspoon

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Drunken Butcher

Drunken Butcher. It Sounds like it could be the title to a comedy horror film: think Hostel and The Hangover meet Masterchef.

Thankfully, in fact, it's the nickname of Ian, our supper club host for a night of porcine pleasure: The Joy of Pork. The first image to spring to mind was of a sauced butcher clumsily wielding a cleaver before accidentally chopping his own fingers off. I'm glad to say there were was no trip to A&E! 

After two bus trips and a short walk, we find ourselves in Sale much too early and, like icy vultures circling a dead hog, we walk around the block until it seems reasonable to approach. Ian's home is mercifully warm and there's a wonderful smell emanating from the kitchen. 

Tania from DineInOut greets us with a whisky prosecco and cherry cocktail and as other guests arrive we are treated to the lightest, most delicate pork scratchings (or chicharrones) and some insanely good soy pig cheeks - meltingly soft, rich and salty. The joy of pork indeed. 

We take our seats and, faced with the menu, can see Ian's commitment to using as much of the pig as possible: if you're going to eat meat then this is the sort of reverential treatment you should give the animal. Head, cheeks, skin and so on. If it's edible, use it.

Torchon of pig's head
The starter of torchon of pig's head is a great example of this philosophy. It's a unctuous combination of slow-cooked meat and fat (from the head) coated in breadcrumbs and fried. The accompanying cherry sauce and mustard helped cut through the richness with their sweet,tart and bitter notes. 

T-Bone, tenderloin and crackling
Ian is most certainly a perfectionist. His devotion to cooking is evident in the sheer volume of cookbooks on his dining room shelves. And, of course, in the food. The main of T-bone and tenderloin of pork was wonderfully cooked with the best crackling I've had in recent memory and a cauliflower gratin that was a (rather delicious!) meal in itself. It all met with unanimous praise.

Home-made Oreos
By this time we're all one or two sheets to the wind (Ian is rather generous with his between-courses shots!) and very full indeed, after second and third helpings of mains. The Scandinavian-stye pudding of plum and raisin soup with cinnamon icecream is a welcome refreshment - light and cooling and reminiscent of mulled wine. 

It just about gave us the much-needed boost to finish with the home-made Oreos and a bourbon milkshake. Ian made an impressive stab at recreating the popular American cookie; the milkshake was for me a creamy step too far after so much food though I would happily drink it again if I hadn't already eaten 3 courses!

But it's nothing a few untouched shots of bourbon wouldn't remedy. Somewhow Anna and I managed to be the last to leave (and miss our last bus in the process, doh!) - a testament to our host's welcoming nature and a very enjoyable evening. Ian even gave me a parting gift of some super fiery home-made hot sauce!

The Drunken Butcher will be running many more supper clubs in 2013 and you can find more events at DineInOut's EventBrite page.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The French by Simon Rogan - Opening Night

Ox tartare, coal oil, pumpkin seeds, kohlrabi

Bowing my head to the plate and inhaling the aromas of raw ox and coal oil, I immediately break into a smile and think, “Simon Rogan, you’re a bloody genius!” 

On the back of our menu Rogan is quoted as saying “The city is definitely ready for it”. From many people's point of view this couldn't be more of an understatement. I and countless others have decried the lack of fine-dining options in Manchester for some time; but, no longer. 2013 is shaping up to be a game-changing year and Simon Rogan is spearheading the move to put Manchester back on the culinary map.

Upon entering The French, the first thing to note is that this is not a restaurant, it is a dining room. The kind of dining room people of my generation have rarely, more likely never, eaten in. Decor, though, is the least of my concerns, suffice it to say that I quite like it - the colour scheme and comfortable furniture do a good job of mitigating the opulence of the otherwise formal setting.

However, we were here for the food and it was a foregone conclusion to choose the 10-course tasting menu at £79 (there was also a 6-course option (£55), and 3 courses (£29) will be offered, I imagine at lunchtime). £79 will seem excessive to many; but it is interesting to note that five years ago Jay Rayner was paying £70 a head at The French for what he termed a 'gruesomely expensive' and at times 'authentically bad' meal. 

Under the guidance of Rogan and Adam Reid, there will be no such worries. This is unequivocally the best meal I've had in Manchester; full of subtleties, surprises, and damn good cooking. I can't think of a single ingredient that wasn't perfectly prepared, bar the couple of fragments of shell in the crab dish. So, I'd rather not bore people with gushing descriptions of each of the 10 courses and, furthermore, I don’t want to spoil the surprise; but I will dip into some of the highlights reel.

The amuse bouche of onion cracker with eel and onion ash was a delicious assault of smoke and umami, once you got over the fact that it looks like someone's stubbed a fag out on it. 

I never thought I'd see the day come when I spooned black pudding mousse into my mouth with a seaweed twig. You'd feel like you were being secretly mocked if it wasn't so good. 

The ox tartare with coal oil might well become a 'signature' dish. The oil is infused with burning coals so that the aroma of barbecue hits you as you lift the tender rib-eye meat to your mouth, the blackened pumpkin seeds add texture and more charred notes, the kohlrabi spheres and sunflower shoots refresh and mellow it all. Multisensory heaven. It's worth going for this alone.

Early spring offerings
Early spring offerings was a salad of incredible depth. I had seen Simon Rogan make this salad at the NRB show last week and he used more than 30 ingredients if my memory serves me well. The range of textures and flavours is extraordinary, from the charred leaves to the silky purees, to the flower petals and crisp turnip. A compositional tour de force.

The larded veal with split peas and beetroot jus was an exceptional main. The lean veal is studded with fat so it appears moister, richer, and altogether more flavourful. The ingredients were in rich, earthy symphony.

Larded veal with split peas and beetroot jus
I'll stop...there was overall very little to dislike. The homemade cola at the end was a little to sweet and the razor clam and scrambled egg dish a bit too rich. But that's being picky and only my personal preference. The wine list was reasonably priced for a hotel restaurant, with some definite bargains in the Pinot Noir and the Tasmanian Sauvignon.

I imagine Simon Rogan will now set the trend and others will follow, not so hot on his heels, for it will take a supreme effort to usurp The French even on first impressions. The menu was pitched perfectly, the cooking near faultless and the service was smooth for the most part, except one waiter who was prone to saying “thank you very much” with the alarming frequency of an erstwhile Elvis impersonator.

It was disheartening, as Rogan pointed out on Twitter, to see two no-shows, especially on opening night. It highlights the fact that it may not be plain sailing and it will take some time to win Mancunians over to the style of food and distract them from the price-tag, even with the big name attached. We've been without this kind of thing for so long that it'll perhaps be re-embraced slowly. I for one, to parody Greg Wallace, am giving it a great big hug!  

The French by Simon Rogan on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner

Lovely Beagle branded glasswear sporting Buxton's Dark Nights and the Kernel's London Sour

Never have truer words been spoken than the title of this post. Spotting The Beagle's Chicken In A Basket night - chicken served three ways - our pulses raced as it was confirmed that fried would indeed be one of the ways it would be cooked. Then I stupidly decided to give up fried chicken for Lent (yes, it has got that bad). Cue moral dilemmas. Being agnostic I'm not really that strict on the whole Lenten abstinence, and decided, for the sake of democracy - as Jamie's analysis of fried chicken is only going to end in one answer: "good!" - to go and eat everything anyway.

I will ashamedly admit that we had never before visited the Beagle. Though it had most definitely been on our to-do list since I picked up a mysterious flyer promising a beer house with dining room (bastards! I shouted, they've stolen my concept!) at IMBC, we had failed to make the lengthy two bus-rides journey over. Whilst we have an array of chicken eateries on our doorstep, this journey proved we will travel far and wide for our land-burdened feathered friend. On entrance, the bar made me feel a little like I was in a very sophisticated German beerhouse - and even reminded me a little of Die Henne in Berlin (chicken on the brain or what?!) - though on moving into the restaurant area, it felt a little more like I was in a super stylish granny's living room.

Though we would be provided with beer as part of the deal, we opted for something different as an aperitif, and Jamie wisely selected us a half of the Kernel London Sour (at 2.3% perhaps one of the lowest ABVs I've seen on something actually drinkable!), and another of the Buxton's Dark Nights (4.6%) - an American style Porter. Having acquainted my palette with a rather less sophisticated Irish porter in an attempt to enjoy beer as a young girl, I ended up becoming rather good friends with it, and so the Dark Nights was right up my street. Whilst I could appreciate the er, aperitif style of the Kernel (it certainly got one's mouth watering!) the barman's description of it tasting like salt & vinegar crisps couldn't get out of my head, and I passed this on to Jamie. Good news all round as he's loving the Cantillon brewery at the moment, whose Geuze beer isn't altogether dissimilar to the Kernel's offering. I should also take this opportunity to award Jamie with a small round of applause for managing to refrain from any puns on its name given what we were here to eat...

The most perfect scotch egg in the world. 

We were given a couple of morsels to begin: a perfectly cooked scotch egg (look at that yolk!), and something lovely and buttery on brown bread. I had to ask the waiter what it was who replied "just potted cheddar". Now to he who works there, and probably is lucky enough to pinch a bit every day of his working life (late at night, when going for a 'fag break' but secretly going on a fridge scour - that's what I used to do), it may just be potted cheddar, but to me, it was one of the most delicious things I had ever eaten on bread before EVER. Even with the chicken still to come, this decided it: the Beagle was my new favourite restaurant.

Now, I can't say I'm altogether taken with this new fad of serving things in a basket (think burger bars), but I was going to let this slide for tonight, and was more than pleased when I spotted that the Beagle had carefully sourced lovely stylish baskets for the evening. Despite that, chicken in a basket ain't ever gonna look pretty so there's no photo, but you do get to hear my comprehensive description! First of all, my guilt re: Jesus' death subsided as the fried chicken was 'popcorn' style, and therefore not even what a fricken aficionado would term fried chicken due to its lack of grease. The coating was light and tasty and easily popped! into the mouth. The spicy Buffalo wings were seriously spicy (though I'm only one step up from a Korma kind of gal) though didn't set my mouth on fire as much as the ones we tried at the Bird in Berlin (more of what they're about here). Fortunately, the sides offered blue cheese dip which made them easily manageable for someone as wimpish as me. We were also given a purple cabbage slaw and crudités of carrots and celery (the chef's Mum had clearly taught them that you must always get at least one of your five-a-day in your evening meal!).

BBQ Beanz & blue cheez dip
Back to the chicken, as we still had a breast and a leg of chicken each to get through... My guess is that they might have been cooked sous-vide and then finished off in a pan as they were so wonderfully tender. Or they're just really good at cooking their poultry to perfection too! We were also given the best chips ever: perfectly seasoned with what I can only imagine was crack-salt as I am still craving more of them now, a whole week later. There was so much food we had to ask for a doggy bag to bring half of the chicken home, which I thoroughly enjoyed in a club sandwich the next day.

We were, of course, also given matched beers with the chicken with a choice of either Quantum's American Amber Ale (5.3%) which I really enjoyed; not overly hoppy and therefore a great choice for me. We were also served Magic Rock High Wire (5.5%), which - to be honest - I don't remember at all, but beer ratings websites seem to score very highly so it's probably not bad!

This would have small children crying with tears of joy
Dessert was still to come and took the form of a retro ice cream sundae. The ice creams were phenomenal - the strawberry even better than a Mini Milk (what high praise!), and I would hazaard a guess that the other was a dark chocolate sorbet. All served up with strawberries, bits of brownie and honeycomb, and topped - slightly too high, for my liking - with whipped cream (the proper stuff) - we manage to get through most of it, as we were worried it might not transport so well in our doggy bag.

All in all, a highly successful evening! I think that's evident from the number of seemingly superfluous statements I've made in this entry, but it's all true. My only criticism would be that when I heard 'matched beers' I thought there would be set beers provided to compliment each of the courses and had dreams of some sort of treacly dark beer to go with the dessert. Nevertheless, booze was enjoyed, food was demolished and even better, it was a bargain! £20 per person for a pint, a nibble, pracitcally an entire chicken, sides and dessert. I hear other great themed nights are on the cards, so please Beagle, reserve us a spot now, because I can't wait to see what you'll do with a prawn cocktail...

The Beagle
456-458 Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton
Manchester, M21 0BQ
0161 881 8596

The Beagle on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 26 February 2013


A spate of engagements (all food and drink related naturally!) has recently meant a brief hiatus from blog posting.

When I say engagements I mean hangovers. After the Liquorists Ceylon Arrack trail and The Drunken Butcher's supper club (posts to follow), I could have taken a good shot at sousing herrings in my own stomach. Ergo, writing was not at the top of my priority list

The first was one of many visits to Gorilla and this time we'd set our phasers to 'review'. That's the first and last attempt at referencing Star Trek.

Nothing before had given me the impression that they would disappoint and indeed Gorilla is up there with Kosmonaut as one of our favourite new bars.

To find out more about what we thought take a look at our review over at Social & Cocktail.

Though the review here focuses on their drinks selection, I can heartily also recommend the burger, sticky chicken wings & halloumi (the latter two an absolute steal!).

54-58 Whitworth Street, Manchester
M1 5WW
0161 407 0301

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Fire & Salt BBQ, North Carolina Supper Club

Mal: a man passionate about everything barbecue
Despite having talked incessantly about supper clubs, and enviously looked on at the multitude of their occurrences in - to quote Stephen Lee - that there London, it was only on the 8th February that Jamie and I eventually got round to dining in a stranger's home for the first time. I say stranger, but I had already heard and knew lots about Mal and his obsession for barbecue, after chowing down on his amazing riblets at IMBC last autumn. Listening to Mal's passionate history lesson on this age-old cooking technique almost left me digging up my own back garden to build a pit. Alas, I'm not yet on the property ladder and didn't fancy being sued by my kind landlords.

The evening began somewhat nervously, as Jamie and I sat down at a table occupied by two others, and several empty seats. I initially worried we'd actually been booked in for some sort of double dating reality T.V. programme (think Wife Swap meets Come Dine With Me). Fortunately, several minutes later a group of five showed up and the quiet calm of the dining room soon turned into a clattering hubub of introductions. We were generously welcomed with a shot of bourbon, infused with cocoa nibs and vanilla, finished with a spring of mint, a delicious chocolate Sazerac-like aperitif, wonderfully created by Mal's girlfriend, Laura**.

The mini jam jar bourbon shot
First up came the opportunity to try a variety of the barbecued pork: naked; with a vinegar style sauce; and with a more BBQ-esque version - with or without tomatoes (apparently barbecue chefs have nearly killed each other over the tomato debate*). Without wanting to reveal too much about my personality, naked turned out to be my preference. The flavours in the meat were pretty incredible, though I did my best to resist eating too much as I already feared the amount of food on offer might have been too much for my newly 5:2 shaped stomach.

To start, came the Brunswick stew, and I'm not sure I can sum it up much better than their very own description - 'this stew is what happens when small mammals carrying ears of corn fall into BBQ pits'. I have to say, that didn't sound particularly appetising but this was a little bowl of comfort. Next time I'm ill, Mal, if you could drop me some of this round, that would be great! I can't remember what exactly was in it, but I'm sure one of the aforementioned small mammals was a rabbit...

Brunswick stew
Up came mains, with the pulled pork taking centre stage, and the sides staggered to ensure our plates kept filling. Barbecue joint black-eyed beans were my favourite of the lot, as apparently there wasn't enough protein in the several million kilos of piggy on my plate, but deep-fried okra came a close second. Okra, that vegetable so feared by small children due to its pseudonym, was beautifully textured with its cornmeal crust. The hush puppies weren't for me, I'm afraid, though not suggesting that's anything to do with Mal's cooking as I've never had them before so I can't possibly compare!

With an event such as this, I fully expected the real showstopper to be the barbecued meat. In no way do I mean this as any discredit to that slow-cooked little piggy, but the winner of the night - and possibly the food that has most made me question my existence (pure sugar delirium, it was) - was the Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding. That's right, goddamn American donuts cooked with eggs and sugar and butter and all things evil. There's a lie on the Fire & Salt BBQ website though: it says it was served with ice cream. It wasn't - this buttery heart attack inducing dessert was served with MORE BUTTER. Bourbon butter to be exact. Nobody on the table could be tempted with 'ice cream'. Why, came the cries, would I want anything less than a fully saturated fat on my dessert which probably already contains my daily allowance of calories?! Oh Mal, you predicted us all so well.

The artery-busting Krispy Kreme pudding
The night was a success, the food left us full, the bourbon cabinet envious, and the concept filled with glee at the prospect of things to come. I couldn't help but think: perhaps if James Hitchen (Southern 11) had an ounce of the passion that Mal has, his one million pound restaurant might be nearly as good as the food served up by this fella, out of his terraced house in Chorlton.

*This might be a slight exaggeration, but I hear it's pretty fierce.
**Special mention also goes to Laura for managing to successfully co-host the supper club, despite requiring a nurse to pop round and bandage up her finger mid-proceedings.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Food For Thought

We are hosting the second of our monthly ‘Food For Thought’ quiz on 18 February at 7.30pm in the back room of the Gas Lamp.

If you’re a self-confessed food geek, it’s a great chance to test your food knowledge while enjoying craft beers from around the world and home-made bar snacks provided by us.

First place will take home a delicious foodie hamper - treats last time ranged from artisan cheese to a Cadbury’s Yule Log!

Entry is £1 and team sizes are preferably of three or more (but we won’t be too strict on that!).

Follow us on twitter (@mcrfoodies) for updates on the next quiz.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Épernay Champagne bar

Despite having worked within hospitality in Manchester for a combined total of nigh on 14 years, both Jamie and I have - somehow - managed to totally bypass Épernay. I think this is in part due to my false belief that it was associated with a Birmingham bar of the same name, where I once had the er, pleasure of having an interview with the most socially awkward manager I've ever met. Fortunately, our wrongs have now been righted, and we visited last Thursday for a lovely evening of champagne & cocktails.

To find out more about what we thought take a look at our review over at Social & Cocktail.

Épernay Champagne bar

Unit 1A, The Great Northern Towers
Watson Street, Manchester, M3 4EE
0161 834 8802

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Livebait, Manchester

I bought Jamie a copy of Giles Coren's How To Eat Out before I really knew who he was (Coren that is, not my other half), and - rather naughtily - ended up reading it before Jamie knew he'd been bought it. It is anecdotal with snippets of advice littered throughout, and despite agreeing with Ramsay's comment on the cover, I rather annoyingly enjoyed it. The best - and I suppose most obvious - piece of advice he gives is: "Always order the fish". A delicate specimen, best eaten on day of purchase, it makes sense to let restaurants do the hard work - filleting, scaling, pinboning, and, of course, cooking. I therefore felt very content to accept the invitation of Livebait via Manchester Confidential to dine at their restaurant as a guest, and do nothing other than order the fish. Apologies for photo quality - we couldn't find our camera charger so had to make do with the iPad!

Jamie and I had actually eaten at Livebait not that long ago, and it holds the special place of being the first Manchester restaurant we reviewed on our blog. Whilst we had a thoroughly enjoyable time before, we were disappointed at how empty it was. We returned on another Wednesday to a slightly busier restaurant - though this might have something to do with its 50% off deal during January - and were acknowledged as soon as we entered, despite the manageress being on the phone.

We were offered an aperitif and the manageress knowledgeably recommended Tanqueray 10 with grapefruit juice (I remembered from my earlier years as a bartender in a posh hotel that this premium gin is supposed to have notes of the citrus fruit in it; I say supposed as all I get is GINGINGIN, but that's my unrefined palette for you). This proved to be a great aperitif as the bitter fruit perfectly prepares the palate for the dinner to follow. I, however, am not a fan and boringly opted for a Hendricks.

We were recommended the bread and homemade dukkah to begin, which was a surprising delight despite popping whole coriander seeds in the mouth in one go. Jamie commented that it reminded him of Modernist Cuisine's fish spice mix, and once we dissected the individual spices realised how clever it was of them to serve this unusual accompaniment: all of the individual spices in dukkah (hazelnuts, coriander, sesame, cumin, fennel and poppy seeds) compliment the flavours of seafood.

 We cheekily decided to start by trying a selection of the oysters - 3 tempura'd (that's definitely in the dictionary) and 3 natural. All were delicious, but I particularly enjoyed the deep fried ones, accompanied with a cucumber pickle. The waitress told us they used to do a crab and pickled cucumber spring roll but took it off the menu. Bring it back! Please! Having since read that 75% of raw British oysters contain norovirus, you've got carte blanche to stuff your face with the deep fried morsels. Get in!

J decided to go old-school and opted for the prawn cocktail. The waitress was very serious in letting us know that there was nothing fancy about this: like Ronseal, it does what it says on the tin. It was a pleasant enough dish, though I found it slightly odd that they served extra Marie Rose on the side of a sauce-heavy dish. I opted for the anchovy and tomato bruschetta as I can't get enough of those salty little sea monsters and will happily eat them by the bucket-load when I can get my hands on the fresh ones. These were delicious and plentiful so I was pretty happy, though felt the dish slightly off-balance. I wanted to taste the anchovies more but felt a harsher acidity was present - perhaps from an addition of red wine vinegar? Jamie, however, poo-poo'ed my suggestion and said that he thought the dish was perfectly balanced. (That's me told.)

Most of the mains sounded delicious and I was struggling to decide between the plaice and the bass. Suddenly my stupid brain went left-field and opted for the scallops. Five little beauties, served in the shells with a piece of chorizo on top of each. They were cooked beautifully, though I would have loved the coral to have been served with them, but I never understand why chorizo and scallops are served together. Maybe it's just me but I think the strength of the sausage is too overwhelming for the delicate seafood to fight against. I ate most of them without the piece of meat, and found that the hint of fatty spice from the chorizo's juices worked well. If it were me, I'd consider serving them with just a chorizo butter (or foam as Jamie suggested: he's been reading too much Mugaritz). I'd been forewarned that they came as they were, but I couldn't help feel that a little more effort could have gone into making the scallops into more of a dish. Maybe I'm just talking rubbish though, and I'm just trying to turn a more than decent seafood restaurant into something it's not.

Or maybe it's just because I had serious food envy of Jamie's sea bass, which I'd originally wanted. It came with a sorrel and garlic sauce and potato galette. It was so good. I would actually go back just to have this dish. The skin was crisped to perfection - maybe they'd read my last write-up! ;) - and you could taste the beautifully browned butter on the delicately cooked fish. We accompanied the dishes with chips, because we're heathens, and the waitress made us feel good about doing so, so she gets brownie points too. Having recently been disappointed with neighbourhood's excuse for fries, I was very happy with these. Being something of a chip aficionado, I'm going to make a bold claim and say these are probably my favourite fries (very different from chips though, please note). They actually surpass the old-style Burger King ones and take pride of place in my fried potato hall of fame.

Our meal was accompanied by a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet, a recommendation from the waitress. We'd told her we usually went for an Albarino when eating seafood, and had suggested this as an adventurous alternative. A fairly dry white, it complimented all of the courses well and would happily opt for this again.

Dessert saw us share the trio of puds - something chocolatey with delicious salted caramel, a fresh cheesecake with homemade honeycomb, and something lemony. All pleasant enough, though nothing to steal the spotlight away from the oyster tempura and the sea bass.

All in all, the meal and service were definitely good enough to say that I would go back, and I was glad to see that they'd corrected the fatal flaw of floppy skin from last time! Obviously we were guests, so one would hope our experience would be good, but everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves and their food as well. I have to say, it's such a wonderful space that I really do wish Mancunians would try it out more, as I would absolutely love to see it buzzing. I'm not sure what the plans for 2013 are for the restaurant but I hope they give a nod to some of the current food trends as several are made for this place.

I think my only criticism is of myself, for not listening to Giles. Instead of opting for shells, I should have heeded his advice and ordered the bloody fish...

22 Lloyd Street, Manchester
M2 5WA
0161 817 4110
Livebait on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 17 January 2013


Tequila has a bad rep.

And I’ll freely admit that until recently I was among its detractors. I’m betting most people’s impressions of tequila are associated with the cheap stuff reserved for shooting - the stuff that leaves a foul taste in your mouth, even if you omit the obligatory salt and lime. I, for one, not so fondly remember drinking far more tequila than any 15-year-old should, looking deeply into my then girlfriend’s eyes and promptly throwing up all over her lap. The experience put me off this Mexican spirit for the next decade; but now all that’s changed.
5 years ago if you’d scanned the back bars of the better-stocked establishments in town, I can guarantee there would have only been a limited selection of tequila. Fast-forward to the present day and more and more tequila is making its way across the ocean as consumers outside of Mexico and America are realizing how deliciously sophisticated this spirit can be. The aged tequilas easily rival single malts, cognacs and bourbons in their complexity and flavour profiles.
Tequila is made from the hearts of the cactus-like blue agave plant and produced in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. The agave hearts, which can weigh as much as 45kg, are steamed then mashed with water before being fermented. The resulting liquid is distilled and bottled or aged for various lengths of time as you will see below. When aging tequila, producers might use barrels that once contained bourbon, wine or scotch in order to impart different flavours to the base spirit. Combine these flavours with the distinctive agave taste of tequila and you’ve got a very diverse product, which sits comfortably between ‘white’ and ‘brown’ spirits.   
So what should you look out for when choosing tequila? Look out for 100% agave or agave azul on the label (although this isn’t necessarily a signifier of quality, take Jose Cuervo Tradicional for example). In the UK, you’ll usually only encounter three types of 100% agave tequila:

Blanco – usually bottle immediately after distillation or aged for less than 2 months and clear to straw-coloured in appearance.

Reposado – aged for at least 2 months but no longer than a year in primarily oak barrels giving a darker appearance and a smoother more developed flavour.

Anejo – Aged for over a year but no more than 3 in small oak barrels giving an amazingly complex dark brown spirit.

There also exist extra anejo tequilas which tend to be rare and prohibitively expensive. Blanco tequila has a distinctive flavour with light aromas of charcoal, flowers and vanilla. It takes on bolder characteristics as it matures and, depending on the types of barrel it’s aged in, can resemble a fine, unctuous white wine or a bold, fruity cognac.     

So if you want to break free from the salt, lime, and shots here are my recommendations:

3 Straight-sippers
If you glimpse these behind the bar, order one of these straight up if you can take it, or on the rocks if you want to soften the blow.
El Jimador Reposado
Tapatio Reposado
Don Juilo Anejo

3 Cocktails in the city
Beginner: for the tequila initiate, why not try Sandinista’s ‘Zapatista’. This is a tequila-based take on an espresso martini using Patron silver and Patron XO Cafe. The tequila is subtle enough that a newcomer won’t be put off but holds its own against the coffee background.

Intermediate: wanna go a bit further? Try Corridor’s take on a ‘Fool’s Gold’. I’m not sure if it’s still on the menu but I can testify that the bar staff will happily make you one...or three. This is not lengthened as much as the Zapatista so expect more tequila but balanced harmoniously with chocolate and orange (or at least that’s what I get!).

Advanced: if you can handle a real tequila hit then opt for The Gaslamp’s Margarita. The classic combination of tequila, cointreau (or other orange liqueur) and lime is lifted by using a very good reposado tequila and increasing the level of booziness. If you like this, you’ll be hooked! 

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Top Ten Cheap Eats in Manchester

Need I bother with an intro? You know the score, it's January, we're broke, the weather's pants and we're getting sick of staying in. Given that the Guardian's version of Manchester cheap eats is hideously outdated, we'd thought we'd do the chivalrous thing and provide you with a selection of places to dine when dealing with a 5 week wait from one pay day to the next. The numerical order is simply for ease of reading purposes, and in no way is meant to resemble a reverse Top of the Pops. I ought to also pop in a disclaimer that as Rusholme residents, places listed are generally within easy reach of our natural habitat.

1. Yuzu, 39 Faulkner street, China Town

Chloe Sevigney supposedly claimed Yuzu served the only decent food in Manchester whilst working here. Having been both for lunch and dinner, I can verify her claim (though would contest the rest of the hip New Yorker's outlandish statement). Their lunch menu ranges between £5.95 and £7.95, with classic Japanese dishes such as tonkatsu and sashimi all served with rice and miso soup. We'd already checked out dinner and though disappointed at their lack of fish (on a seafood-based menu) I can confirm that their gyoza and karage are the best you'll get in Manchester and their ponzu dipping sauce takes fried chicken to a whole new level. Special mention also goes to showing China Town how to do ambience with simple and relaxing jazz tunes.

Yuzu on Urbanspoon

2. Al Jazeera, 22 Wilmslow road, Rusholme

Ty, the doorman at Jamie's work, really set our expectations high when he told us this place does the best rice in the whole of Manchester. Not comparable to the sticky white rice of Japanese cuisine, their offerings are just as honourable: flavoursome and perfectly separated grains. We've yet to arrive early enough for the Qabili Pulao (spelling varies) but I could eat their kobeda kebab time and time again. The chicken's not bad - flavoursome enough - but slightly dry when I tried it, though who's complaining when £4.50 gets you a half chicken with rice. I'm bold enough to proclaim they do the best naan in Manchester: lovely blackened edges and thin enough to stop the bloat. This caff, pretty it ain't (nor warm, keep your coat on!) but it's worth a trip for the kobeda kebab alone.

3. Frankie's Fish Bar, 178 Burton Road, West Didsbury
NOTE: This place has now been overtaken by 'Fishbait'. I'm yet to try their deep fried delights!
Posh fish and chip shop, Frankie's deserves a mention; at least for making it feel acceptable to eat deep fried food not just on Fridays (disclaimer: I am not condoning daily consumption). Haddock, chips and (at lunchtimes) a complimentary side comes in at £6.50. They regularly offer mackerel as a special for £3, as well as sweet potato fries if you want to mess with traditionalism. Their sausages are from Axon's down the road if saveloys were never your thing (personally, I miss them), and thankfully, they're not too posh for pies. It's not exactly buzzing with atmosphere but it makes a nice change to see a chip shop championing sustainability in fishing, and at a reasonable price, even for Burton road. Coca-cola in glass bottles adds a nice touch for kids (and Jamie), although you should obviously be keeping them away from fizzy drinks and fried food (I do try, but at 5'11 it's hard to store them out of his reach).

Frankies Fish Bar on Urbanspoon

4. Kyotoya, 28 Copson Street, Withington
I was apprehensive about this place for a while before I tried it. It was hard to believe that there could be another Japanese cafe in Withington, and that it would be any good. I'd already been let down by little Samsi, so I was hoping that Kyotoya would be my sushi savior when in need of a healthy hangover cure. I was pretty happy when it lived up to expectations. Talking cheap eats, you need to get the deal for 2 for £22. For £11 each, you share the following courses: miso soup, sushi, gyoza, chicken teryiaki and beef kimchi, served with rice. The first time we went, I asked if I could swap the gyoza for tempura (I was an uninitiated fool having never eaten gyoza before). Chef wouldn't hear of it and insisted I try the gyoza and the tempura for no additional cost. The main dishes also came with Chinese greens, and we had plenty left over for lunch the next day. Service has greatly improved over recent months as they seem to be more prepared for how busy they're likely to be, and on our last trip our party of eight were given complimentary ice cream "because it's a hot day". Nobu it ain't, but for Withington, it may as well be; this really is one of those 'hidden gems' you always hope to find... and now you have!

Kyotoya on Urbanspoon

5. Jaffa, 185 Wilmslow road, Rusholme

If ever a place could sum up Rusholme so well, it's this one: a total melting pot of ages, genders and nationalities. From students to families to business men in smart suits, Jaffa attracts everyone. A little apprehensive on my first visit as there didn't appear to be an orderly queuing system (how British of me!), but the friendly staff soon sorted me out. Within minutes I was munching happily away on a chicken schwarma, accompanied by a plate of mixed mezze (around £7 in total). Having seen some of the teenagers gorge on pizza-looking things, I was determined to go back to try the fatayer (the Middle East's answer to a steak bake). Personally, I don't think they're for me - slightly too stodgy, but Jamie enjoyed his, and so I still recommend you see for yourself. I was much happier with my falafel and another portion of mixed mezze; their hummus is beautiful and I love the chick peas in the spicy tomato sauce. They also usually have a special, for example lamb pilau with soup for £4.50. More please!

Jaffa on Urbanspoon

6. Phetpailin, 46 George Street, China Town
Most of the eateries on the list so far have been closer to the cafe persuasion, usually not offering alcoholic beverages nor being the kind of place you'd want to drink one. Phetpailin falls into the former category, but is one of those rare breeds of non-Indian dining establishments that every city needs - it offers BYOB. Though the menu itself isn't 'cheap', it isn't expensive, and being BYO, it certainly drives down the cost of a meal, thus justifying a dinner out in the bleakest of current account months. It's also great for groups - our friends had a leaving party here where we paid £18 p/h for a selection of starters and mains, and pretty much tried every dish on the menu (the tamarind duck and the panang curry being stand out dishes in my mind) with leftovers for everyone. A meal for two comes in at around £35, with two courses, though I suggest you attempt to skip the first course as the portions are generous (this is harder than it sounds: the mixed starter selection is a variety of deep-fried delights). Special mention also goes to Jamie's favourite, Choo Chee Pla, a tender tilapia fillet cooked with red curry paste, coconut cream and lime leaves; it's a little too hot for me to handle, but even Jamie - as adventurous as he is - chooses it every time.

7. I am Pho, 44 George Street, China Town
George Street, it appears, is faring well. Nestled next door to our above entry, we have I am Pho, another welcome addition to Manchester's China Town. All I've heard is good things about this place; unfortunately we didn't give the menu as comprehensive a seeing to as Hungry Hoss & Manchester Confidential (click for reviews). This Vietnamese basement cafe boasts brilliant pho (Jamie was thrilled when the waiter told him his pronunciation was 'spot on'!) in a variety of flavours as well as other Vietnamese classics such as summer spring rolls and Banh Mi. Jamie went classic (beef), and I opted for the prawn and pork; both delicious, and with the option to spice it up as much as you liked with fresh chillies on the side (as well as Thai basil, coriander and beansprouts). Our noses running, we were happy and most definitely full. I'd wanted a starter though had managed to resist as I had heard how large the portion sizes were. Jamie couldn't resist the Vietnamese chicken wings and can confirm that these are up there with his fried chicken favourites.

I Am Pho on Urbanspoon

8. Antalya Cafe, 78-84 Wilmslow Road, Rusholme

Another great Rusholme find, as recommended once again by Ty. Jamie couldn't get over how good his chicken schwarma was - stuffed to the brim with salad, chilli sauce and garlic yoghurt - all sat comfortably on a huge, soft piece of Turkish bread. It's £4 whether you sit in or take out, and it's worth sitting in as you also get chips with it if you do. There's not much to say about this other than it's the best schwarma we've had on the Curry Mile, and was worth every penny. I can't wait to go back for the marinated & barbecued sea bass, served with chips and salad. The price? A mere £7.

9. Seoul Kimchi, 275 Upper Brook Street, Victoria Park

Seoul Kimchi - a hybrid of Japanese and Korean cuisines - serves up great one bowl dishes that will see you through to your next meal time just as well as Shreddies, though it's hard to resist their other offerings (the gyoza nearly as good as Yuzu's). On various trips, we've managed to try their sushi, donburi, bibimap and bulgogi. The tastiest (and most expensive of dishes tried) was definitely the latter, experimenting with Korean surf and turf in the form of pork and squid; I developed serious food envy. The eel donburi was also delicious though I felt they were a little tight with their fish (though having recently seen eel on sale for £30 a kilo, I can see why). The prawn bibimap was also short on our fishy friends, though complimentary sides of kimchi and miso helped bulk up the meal. Expect to pay around £10 per head, and a little less for takeout at lunchtime.

Seoul Kimchi on Urbanspoon

10. Dosa Xpress, 19 Copson street, Withington
Having never actually set foot inside, I suppose this review ought to be taken with a pinch of salt, though I would argue that food which can survive the transit from Withington to Rusholme is likely to be even better on its home turf. Gobi Manchurian was the stand out dish in my mind, somehow feeling meaty despite its vegetarian status. The paneer chilli dosa was equally as good, and the individual pots of chutneys and sambars complimented it beautifully. I'm not well informed enough to be able to differentiate them all, but the one that tasted like South Indian pea soup was heavenly. The daal and butter chicken were also good, though I wasn't so keen on the Oothappam dosa; I'm happy to blame this on my ignorance as I was expecting something more like the traditional dosa, rather than an Indian take on the Spanish tortilla. This place is a bargain - £24 fed two of us over two meals, both times stuffed to the brim. A unique place with great home delivery!

DosaXpress on Urbanspoon

We make no claims that this list is all encompassing and would love to hear what other purse-friendly favourites you have to share with us; this is but a small selection of cosy and cheap eateries where we have enjoyed several meals, and hope you might too. Recommendations tell me that Vnam Cafe on Oldham Road, and This & That in the NQ are also worth a trip. If you want to taste the best falafel wrap you've ever had then Go Falafel at the start of Rusholme is the place for you, and at just £2.50 - with regular free falafel if you're waiting a while - it's healthily nudged its way into my favourite hangover food.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Q & A with Eddie Shepherd

Eddie Shepherd

Eddie Shepherd is the author of Modernist Vegetarian and, it would be fair to say, one of the most pioneering vegetarian chefs in this country. I met up with him in Chorlton to gain an insight into his culinary background, his influences and his thoughts on modernist cuisine. You can download a copy of Eddie's book at the Modernist Vegetarian website and see a slideshow featuring his beautiful and innovative dishes on Youtube.

Jamie: Did you consciously decide to become a chef or was it something you fell into? 

Eddie: It was something that I wanted to do. I was doing a philosophy degree in Scotland and working in kitchens as a pot-washer initially; but I was a very enthusiastic cook at home. At first, it was just lucky circumstances - a chef left and the guys saw some potential in me as I'd been helping them out already. As soon as I got my first chef's jacket I knew that's what I wanted to do!
I was 20 then so I learnt the basics there (I was a vegetarian by that time but still working in restaurants that served meat) then moved around a few restaurants until I got to work in a vegetarian restaurant in Glasgow where I moved up to sous and then acting head chef. Then I moved down to Greens and spent a couple of years there.

Jamie: Was it an aim of yours to work at Greens because it is such a respected vegetarian restaurant?

Eddie: Well, I initially came down to work with Simon [Rimmer] for a week and they offered me a job at the end of it - I wanted to keep learning and progressing within the vegetarian cooking scene and it seemed like the best place to be at the time. I also went and did a week at Terre A terre [in Brighton] around the same time. At Greens I got the chance to do more "restaurant-y" vegetarian food for the first time.

Jamie: What made you become a vegetarian?

Eddie: It was a mixture of things. I'd become vegetarian at uni in part because I was studying a philosophy degree - it wasn't a particularly ethical decision but the philosophy raised enough questions that I didn't feel entirely comfortable eating meat. I didn't really enjoy it any more. I think it's more that it suited me.

Jamie: Do you find it limiting being a vegetarian chef or does it have the opposite effect?
Eddie: Initially it did seem limiting to me as a chef but having some sort of constraint can actually be quite useful - very few places try to cook all types of cuisine: places like Noma will only cook with food that comes from within a small radius of the restaurant - that fuels their creativity. It forces you to work hard with your ingredients.

Jamie: Obviously you are somewhat of a spokesperson for modernist vegetarian cuisine so how did you get turned on to Modernist cooking methods in the fist place?
Eddie: Being vegetarian, I was trying to find interesting ways to do new things with vegetarian cooking. A lot of the modernist techniques are to do with creating different textures and finding new ways to serve the same ingredients. The first time I used modern techniques was when I was asked to a veggie version of a dish that used gelatin, so I had to start researching that. I was at the same time getting interested in Ferran Adria and what he was doing at El Bulli. I went to a festival in Madrid called 'Madrid fusion' and saw Grant Achatz [chef/owner at Alinea], then bought the Alinea cookbook and was blown away. It changed the way I thought about food.

Jamie: Your book, Modernist Vegetarian, as well as being ground-breaking, is very artistic. Is art part of your food philosophy?

Eddie: For me, flavour and texture are paramount. It takes a while to work out the finished version of the dish, what it will look like on the plate. I really wanted to get away from this 'brown stuff in a bowl' type of veggie food, which is the negative stereotype - that it's all the same colour and mushy! I wanted to get so far way from that! People can have quite a strong preconception of what a vegetarian meal will be like so you can really play with their expectations.

Jamie: When did you first think about writing your own cookbook?

Eddie: It had been in my head for a while that I wanted to do a book at some point and it was only earlier this year that I started to focus on freelance stuff and had more time to research and try new dishes. I would love to do a print version one day but an ebook is easy to publish and you can sell it at a more reasonable price. I'm glad it's out there, it's no good having all these ideas in my head!

Jamie: What's the reaction been like from your peers?
Eddie: I was really pleasantly surprised. I had good feedback from chefs, especially Marc Poynton from Alimentum, which got its first michelin star this year. He wrote a review saying how much he liked it. Things like that are fantastic.

Jamie: Through the likes of Heston Blumenthal, foodies are being exposed to more modernist cooking methods and ingredients. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of the modernist movement?
Eddie: I think these things are tools like anything else and now we just have a larger range of tools to work with as chefs. I'm a huge fan of sous-vide and I use hydrocolloids a fair amount but only when necessary. I think there's a danger of chefs using them purely for effect without understanding them. More and more I like the idea of presenting a plate of food like Ferran Adria and ReneRedzepi do - it looks natural but a lot of modernist techniques and technology have gone into it. It's much more hidden, not necessarily shown on the plate. I would never do the caviar which has become such a cliche!

I’ve been asked before whether I think sous-vide technology de-skills chefs – I think the opposite is true. If you know that you don’t have to worry about that one element of your dish and can leave it in the water bath, it gives you time to do lots of extra things for a dish.

Jamie: Are there any cookbooks that have particularly influenced your cooking style?
Eddie: Certainly, there have been a few that were very important to me. There Noma’s, The Fat Duck's, Alinea's. I just got Sat Bains’ new cookbook which is beautiful. Those are the important ones.

Jamie: So at the moment are you just freelancing? 
Eddie: One of things I've been doing for a couple of years is working with a company called Cream Supplies who sell all this modernist cooking equipment. I do development work with them - when they get new equipment or new ingredients they send them to me and I figure out what they can be used for. I’ve had a chance to use equipment before it goes into professional kitchens – like an ultrasonic homogenizer. It’s like a stick blender without the blades [and works through ultrasonic vibrations] I played around with it for a few weeks then it went to L’enclume! Simon Rogan is such an inspiring chef in terms of modern cooking.

Jamie: Being a chef, are you a picky diner? And are there any restaurants you rate highly in Manchester? 
Eddie: I try not to be fussy as a diner. If something’s done definitely wrong then you can spot it. You set your expectations to where you’re going, so I’m quite easily pleased. I liked The Rose Garden in West Didsbury. Looking to next year, there’s some really exciting things with Aiden Byrne and Simon Rogan opening restaurants. Another place just outside Manchester that I rate is Aumbry.

I tend to cook at home a lot but I don’t live in a vegetarian household – my girlfriend’s not vegetarian. I practice new dishes at home and I try to keep my eye in with things like making pastry and fresh pasta, which are simple things you need to practice

Jamie: Finally, have you got any good cooking tips for our readers?
Eddie: Something in the modernist vein which i like to do is make a fluid gel, which involves setting a gel then blending it so make a smooth puree or sauce. It gives you so much control over flavour as you can start with a juice – so you can make a puree out of, say, apple juice and get that pure apple flavour or make gels out of ingredients that don’t lend themselves to being pureed. The other thing that’s good for vegetarian cooking is the different ways to add the ‘umami’ flavour to dishes – you can get a meatiness from kombu seaweed and dried shiitakes by adding them to stocks or to the actual dishes. Vegetables have a lot of flavour but not necessarily that depth of flavour you get from meat.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Aumbry, Christmas Dinner

The pass at Aumbry

To quote Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian circa 2010, ‘Aumbry is not the kind of place you’d expect to find in Prestwich, the suburb’s suburb.’ I would go further and venture to say that Aumbry is not the kind of place you’d expect to find in Manchester.

With the exception of the Wine Glass at Etrop Grange, Manchester doesn’t boast a wealth of restaurants where the chefs have honed their skills at the Fat Duck. Nor does it boast many restaurants that have garnered national acclaim: Mary-Ellen McTague won Up and Coming Young Chef of the Year in the Good Food Guide 2011.

With this in mind, Anna and I had high expectations of this small but much-lauded neighbourhood restaurant. It had been on our ‘to-go’ list for some time and then all of a sudden came an invite from Echo PR to attend a Christmas dinner.

We took the tram and found ourselves, fashionably early, sipping champagne and snacking on some wonderful smoked almonds in the upstairs reception area. A light snow, the first this winter, had just begun to fall and, as I eyed the Christmas decorations and the 9-course menu, a sense of contentment washed over me. I felt as though we were in for a real treat.

The reception area
Right, overblown rhetoric out of the way, let’s talk food.

To whet our appetite we are given bread accompanied by an ornate bowl of beef dripping and roasting juices, cleverly masquerading as oil and balsamic. The conversation turns on the idea of beef fat solidifying in your arteries. It’s so delicious that no-one cares.

The amuse-bouche was pig’s head terrine – a delicious morsel that it is hard to say much about, so I shan’t.

Pig's head
The obligatory smoked fish dish was an undeniable favourite. The mackerel was so delicately cured; it makes a nice change to see it cold-smoked. The garnishes of pickled beetroot and mustard cream were, albeit standard, perfectly judged. The presentation, too, was spot on (we're still wondering whether the beetroot was the most perfect puree I've ever seen or a spherification).

Smoked mackerel
Heston’s influence shows through in the next dish – Bury Black Pudding Scotch Egg. Anyone who watched the How to Cook Like Heston series or owns a copy of Heston at Home will be familiar with his warm scotch egg hiding a perfectly runny yolk in the centre. It is a tricky feat to pull off but so satisfying – bursting a perfectly cooked yolk always seems to elicit quasi-sexual moans from diners. No wonder this dish has become a signature at Aumbry.

Black pudding Scotch egg
The celeriac soup which followed will become the stuff of legend, the story passed down from generation to generation about the origins of the world’s greatest soup. Prestwich in the 2020s will be full of well-heeled types mumbling to themselves: "celeriac, truffle, chestnuts.." Never have I heard such ecstatic praise for a bowl of soup in all my life. And it wasn’t even superfluous. Perfectly seasoned, light yet rich celeriac soup with a perfect amount of truffle oil and some meltingly soft chestnuts at the bottom. Go and try it!

Celeriac soup
Everyone is in high spirits as we move on to the main courses. The Royal Roast consists of a ballotine of duck, pheasant and partridge with bread sauce, stuffing, roast potatoes, and brussel sprouts. There was some speculation in the taxi home as to whether the meat had been cooked sous-vide. It was exceedingly tender but the texture of the duck in particular was strange. To my surprise, the highlight was the brussel sprouts, thinly shredded and cooked with bacon and chestnuts. Mental note to try this at our Christmas dinner and to recreate the seriously flavoursome stuffing. Anna was a little disappointed with the roast potatoes - not quite as good as ours!

Three-bird roast
The Lyme Park venison stood out for me as the richest and most savoury of the dishes. The medium-rare, scarlet loin paired with slow-cooked haunch, sweet parsley root and woody, bitter brussel sprout tops – close to perfection! This is the kind of dish I long for. This was served with a Austro-Hungarian wine, Meinklang 'Konkret', a bold red with soft tannins which complemented the venison perfectly.

By now I will admit to being sated and not at all in need of dessert. My memory also becomes hazier the more wine I drink. Funny that. The sherry trifle etched itself into my consciousness with the mandarin and thyme syllabub that accompanied it. A flavour combination I don’t recall having before. The Christmas pudding was notable for the sheer amount of dried fruit it contained. And the mince pie was, well, a very good mince pie. I have admittedly glossed over the desserts but I do think although appropriate on a Christmas menu, they were never going to have the impact that the savoury courses did. A special mention goes to the 2009 Chateau Jolys, a buttery wine with hints of honey and peach, it worked well to enhance some of the slightly more bitter notes of the syllabub.

Christmas pudding
I’ll end on a note about service. I wish I had noted down the name of our waitress because throughout the nine courses she gave a masterclass in how to wait on a table. Her timing, knowledge, humour and the right degree of formality made the whole meal flow beautifully - not to mention that she also doubled as a fantastic sommelier. I hope Mary-Ellen reads this review and gives her a Christmas bonus!

Christmas is a time of year for comfort and decadence, yet it can sometimes prove difficult to merge these two feelings. Aumbry have managed to grab hold of both of these feelings and delicately transformed them into a beautiful tasting menu. At £45 for seven courses, it is exceptional value. We were lucky enough to be guests of the restaurant, but would have gleefully paid this amount for food of such quality. I have it on good authority that dishes of such high standard aren't just a Christmas treat for Aumbry visitors, and look forward to returning in 2013 to see what else I can be simultaneously soothed and seduced by.

2 Church Lane, Prestwich
M25 1AJ
0161 798 5841

Aumbry on Urbanspoon