Sunday, 29 June 2014

Tickets, Barcelona




There are a few restaurants in this world whose reputation precedes them to the extent that the desire to eat in them is surpassed by the feeling that you, in fact, already have. The Fat Duck, for me, is one; The Hand and Flowers another. And outside of the UK, that restaurant, for me, was Tickets. I had digested so many reviews, read so many articles and seen so many photos, that it nearly felt like I had eaten there - without, of course, the pain of shelling out a couple of hundred euros in cash.

...but everyone said, "Go!", "You'll love it!", "It's amazing!". Given the two month waiting list online, and the fact that it was now just a couple of weeks 'til we set off on our jollies, I didn't believe we'd, er, be partaking in a spherified olive in our time in Barcelona. We'd debated trying for a walk-in, but by the fifth night of our stay in the surrealist city, we'd found so many other places we were dying to try (and one that we even wanted to visit twice), we'd crossed it off our list.

Cue charming waiter, who delivered the best service we've experienced at a restaurant, and a suggestion he could bag us a table for a couple of night's time. Well, it sort of felt rude to turn down such an offer.

Two days later, we sat outside the restaurant on a bench, watching staff mill between Tickets and its neighbour, 41 degrees. The anticipation was building and we began to let ourselves get excited. It was Jamie's birthday and I was excited to treat him to a meal in a restaurant that had seemingly nailed mass-market molecular gastronomy.

And, we found, it had. More or less. The food - for the most part - was pretty perfect. Spherified olives with a skin you could barely taste - explosive flavours of brine and garlic hitting the roof of your mouth. Watermelon infused with Sangria - a dish I really didn't want, but that Jamie did - and y'know, it being his birthday an' all. Well, it was... watermelony. Like, the best watermelon with a hint of red wine.

There were the Manchego cheese puffs we painstakingly watched a chef compose. Like Quavers on acid, I could eat a Grab Bag of these things (it might cost 40 euros for the pleasure, but man, I could eat them... coming to a Spanish petrol station near you, soon!).

The little nori-wrapped cone of tuna made me feel like a baby mermaid (would a mermaid eat fish? Hmm.); the anchovy with a film of olive oil was deliciously flaunty, the superficial skin being just that. Octopus with a take on kimchi didn't live up to the tentacled creature we ate at Suculent on the first night of our trip, and the accompanying salad to the crab cannelloni was something we could have made at home (though the crab wrapped in avocado itself was pretty divine).

The mollettes (a sort of soft bun, containing pork and mustard) were wonderfully comforting (and thank fuck they were, after waiting 25 minutes for the buggers) and the basil macaroni was, perhaps, one of the best 'pasta' dishes I've ever eaten. It was almost worth the visit just for that last dish.

But why did the service feel like we were being waited on by dancing bears, kept captive in a circus they wished to be no part of? Like teenagers given detentions in the heat of summer, few staff members seemed to want to be there, let alone permitted to experience fun. With stern-faced managers and steely sous-chefs watching over everything with distaste, it felt difficult to really enjoy the experience - which, I had hoped, would be the main point of this restaurant. A small break-through came when I dipped into the 'cortado', and a chef spotted the smile on my face - visibly pleased at the delight of a diner; and later, again, when the bored waiter made a crack about the 'broken' espresso cup (the crockery was intended to have its side cut away).

The manager appeared to care less that I found the service so dire it impacted upon our experience. Why should he care that we holidaymakers were shelling out a substantial amount of cash on a visit when they had an American TV crew in, filming? Perhaps if they'd mentioned this at the start of the visit, we might have empathised a little more. However, it was hidden from the customers - apart from, of course, the fact that the producers were sat behind us throughout the meal, with earpieces in, demanding shots of Albert Adria through the lobster tank.

Yes, really.

I don't wish to impart upon you the feeling you've already been to Tickets, especially because I wouldn't really wish my experience of Tickets on anyone, so I've gone easy on the photos and light on the description. I'm sure if you go, your dinner will be more fun than mine, and the food is undeniably skilled and tasty; though, if on entering, you spot anyone with a battery in their back pocket, let the curtains fall and exit stage left.

Tickets
Avinguda del Paraŀlel 164, 
08015 Barcelona, Spain

Bookings via the website here.

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

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Drunken Butcher: goes posh with Sous Vide

Duck breast, confit duck leg, mash and cavolo nero
Whilst Iain Devine, aka Drunken Butcher, is well-known for his mammoth supper club feasts, encouraging a family style sharing of dinner, he's perhaps less known for 'poncy food'. Just because he doesn't often showcase it though, doesn't mean he isn't a dab hand at it.

Iain joined forces with Sous Vide tools to put on a night demonstrating the versatility of two of their key products: the Sous Vide water bath and the Polyscience smoking gun. Whilst this was obviously a sophisticated ploy to get us all thinking about purchasing the equipment, it didn't really work on Jamie and I: they were preaching to the converted. We already own and use both of these items; useful if you're cooking in large numbers or - let's be frank here - just really love making your own smokey old fashioneds!

To begin, the dainty canapes of mackerel and apple were delicate and pretty, already alerting us to the fact that this wouldn't be a typical Drunken Butcher supper club!

Next up was a smoked salmon dish served in a kilner jar (to retain the smoke), followed by a take on bouillabaisse. Whilst these dishes were lovely, there's no denying the star of the night was the duck breast main. The confit duck leg was artery-destroying delicious, with a rich and perfectly balanced jus (see main photo). If you've been to one of Iain's supper clubs, you'll know that he is the bloody king of sauces (no pun intended!). Iain being who he is, couldn't resist the opportunity to feed and also brought out steak and triple cooked chips. The latter being one of my favourite items of food, I did well to keep the bowl near my side and managed to sneak the crunchy bits out at the end.

A pear cooked in red wine with ice cream came next, followed by another winner of the night: smoked cream cheese with shredded carrot. SMOKED CREAM CHEESE?! Who knew? Imagine, quite simply, eating smoked salmon and cream cheese together and that's what's happening in your mouth. If you're feeling like a pauper just before payday or are without our fishy friend (but handily have a smoking gun), it's a seriously tasty alternative.

As ever, all of the dishes were cooked beautifully, and Iain even managed to prove to us all that he can do poncey! Whilst sous vide machines are exceptionally handy if cooking in large numbers, they don't come cheap, so think carefully before investing. We probably wouldn't have bought ours if we didn't hold supper clubs - and find them much more useful for meat than fish: fish cooks quickly but cools down even quicker. Smoking guns are a good fun tool, and, priced considerably lower, would ultimately be a rather good present for any serious foodies! Our advice? Do your research, shop around, and if you buy one: use it!

Iain invited us over to showcase these products in partnership with SousVidetools.com. Whilst we didn't 'pay' for our seats in the same way we would at a regular supper club, we were asked to make a contribution towards Iain's time. 

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Baltic Bakehouse, Liverpool



Bread, it's simple stuff, isn't it? Well, it sort of is. It also sort of isn't. Ever tried making it? I'll be honest, I haven't - fortunately for me, Jamie is a dab hand at making it (see here). We're also rather lucky: living round the corner from Trove it's easy to get hold of a good loaf. We'll still travel for a well proved roll though - hence our recent journey to Baltic Bakehouse in Liverpool.

I've been admiring them from afar for some time, on the ol' Twittersphere. Their cakes and bakes look completely delectable - so much so that when we found out they were still closed for the Christmas break on the Friday we planned to visit Liverpool, we delayed our visit until they were open again the next day!

We weren't to be disappointed - my only gripe being that bread is, of course, rather filling - and so we couldn't actually try as much as we would have liked to.

First up - a simply toasted mozzarella, tomato and pesto sandwich. Rich in its filling (no skimping on the cheese here, thankfully), the bread was thickly sliced, holding the lot together without seeping molten hot cheese lava onto my hands (like mine often do at home).

There was a reasonably sized selection of Chelsea buns, pear tarts, croissants, pain au chocolat - but this pretty little chocolate and walnut tart caught our eye. Rich without being overfacing (perhaps because we shared: January austerity was thinking of our waistlines), the pastry was Mary Poppins-esque (y'know, practically perfect in every way!).

There's no espresso machine here but they do serve up excellent HasBean cafetiere coffee - complete with timer, ensuring you're brewing it right. Served in camping mugs, my only complaint was that the enamel kept the heat so well, it was hard to drink for a while.

Everything we'd consumed thus far was so good, I couldn't resist leaving without trying one of their croissants. Much better than anything you'll get in a supermarket, Jamie (modest as ever) compared them to the ones he made for our brunch club supper club, a little while ago.

The menu is short but sweet: a changing daily selection of sandwiches, breakfast stuffs including bacon and sausage butties and granola. Oh, and toast of course - you can even DIY at the table. Located in the 'Baltic Triangle' it might seem a little out of the way, but it's en route to the Tate (and there's an intriguing looking antiques shop nearby) - a perfect stop off before an afternoon exhibition. We even spied another couple at both places who seemed to be making the same journey around Liverpool as us. Anyway, go eat bread. They sell loaves to take home with you too!

Baltic Bakehouse
46 Bridgewater street, Liverpool
L1 0AY

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Neon Jamon, Liverpool

Neon Jamon wasn't intended for my first blog post in 2014 - I've been meaning to write up a trip to the Clove Club since early December. It's failed to materialise thus far, and since Jamie kindly took my iPhone for a swim in my handbag, there's little chance I'll have photos to compliment the post, should I ever get round to writing the meal up.

Anyway, surely it's nicer to start the year with a restaurant I love - not one I mildly despise (sorry, CC). Neon Jamon had been recommended a little while ago by Pedro, a beer and food lover we met at Liverpool Food and Drink festival. Regularly pining for the little dishes I've enjoyed on several trips to Barcelona, a day trip to the 'Pool to dissipate January blues seemed the perfect excuse to visit.

A little way from the city centre, a black cab journey took about 15 minutes and was under a tenner. We arrived early, around half 6, as there's a no bookings policy - except for larger parties (I'd like to think in a very Spanish way, rather than in a 'that London' way). It's a narrow space, with tables over two floors. A convivial atmosphere, complemented by an excellent playlist (Joy Division, Elvis Costello, the Black Keys), if tables weren't so in demand, I'd have happily stayed there all night - I know: I'm selfless, right?

In true Spanish style, all four Cavas are served by the glass - not a one over four quid. A lovely aperitif - accompanied by a generous portion of plump boquerones nardin (anchovies in olive oil, garlic and parsley). Seeing huge plates of pan con tomate drift past made it hard to resist the beloved staple - but I knew I'd be hard pushed to eat everything I wanted to if I filled up on dough first.

We could easily have spent the evening devouring the charcuterie and cheese platters - and I'm fairly certain we'll be back to do just that - though on this occasion we chose a small plate of the Trevelez IGP jamon. The menu explains the meat is cured at altitudes of over 1,200m; I'm no curing - or altitude - expert, so can't quite tell you why this is done - but it has a sweet depth of flavour which left Jamie and I fighting over the last pieces.

L-R: bravas, padron peppers, ribs
Padron peppers and patatas bravas practically order themselves as soon as we step foot in a Spanish restaurant - and the latter are usually a good judge of the kitchen's standards. For the first time in my life, we both finally experienced a flippin' spicy Padron. They say eating these fried capsicums is a bit like Russian roulette, as supposedly around 1 in 5 should blow your head off. On this ratio, I feel sorry for the folks who've been eating my mouth-burning share, as the meal at Neon Jamon was the first time I'd ever tried a truly hot one. I think I preferred life mild.

Patatas bravas were crisp and salty, topped with a rich, smokey tomato sauce. Lemon alioli was served on the side and eaten so indulgently one would have thought we'd been starved of decadence over the Christmas period. The Malaga style little squids were perfect little fishy bites, used to mop up the garlicky mayonnaise as if gravy at the end of a roast.

Malaga style little squids with lemon alioli
The only dud dish was the left-field ordering of Iberico pork ribs in membrillo & sherry vinegar. Though not unpleasant, some proved tough to eat and the sauce tasted too heavy on rosemary for my liking. A slower cooking time and using smoked ribs could improve the dish tenfold, I reckon.

There was also a specials menu, which we were saving for the end. I tried to persuade Jamie to share the cheese platter (I'm tempted to resort to veganism as an escape route for my affair with dairy), but he sensibly suggested choosing only the semi-hard goats cheese (name forgotten, possibly La Flor de la Hiniesta), accompanied by a Moorish chutney (raisins, apricots, spices, you know the score). Possibly the star of the meal, the waitress's suggestion of a Manzanilla La Goya, a dry, light and nutty sherry complimented the cheese wonderfully and served to ensure the meal ended as perfectly as it begun.

The service at Neon Jamon is friendly and knowledgeable. Despite our visit taking place on the first weekend in January the restaurant was heaving, demonstrating the popularity of this place. Prices are reasonable - though certainly not as inexpensive as tapas bars in Spain - and their wine list shows real attention to detail. I drank a beautiful Catalunyan white with my meal, which I'm desperate to seek out again! From my sole dining experience here, I'd suggest Neon Jamon is as authentic as they come in the UK. If you're used to the tapas of La Tasca or - at the other end of the spectrum - Tickets, this place might not be for you, but if simple and well executed floats your boat, then get eating.


Neon Jamon 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

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

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Mughli, Rusholme: it's time to say goodbye.

Possibly lamb nihari with a definite side of okra.
We have lived in Rusholme now for almost one year; in this time we have discovered more cuisines than we could ever have hoped for in that narrowly named 'Curry Mile': falafel, shawarma, lamb chops, naan breads bigger than our heads, fried chicken, chips fried in chicken fat, bountiful salads, and lots and lots of rice. Having grown up in Manchester, I was already au fait with many of the Mile's 'Indian' restaurants before moving to the area, including the old Mughli. I've watched the curry scene change: from the faithful British Indian cuisine of my childhood (at places like Jalal's in Burnage and Khandoker's in Parrswood) to a more modern yet nostalgic vision complete with street food influences, fusion, and a focus on regional dishes (think East z East, Zouk and Mughli).


Samosa chaat: uttar pradesh topped with chickpea, potato,
sweet tamarind, yoghurt & crispy sev.
Of those latter restaurants, Mughli is most firmly planted in the present day. Whether it's the iPad-wielding staff or the chilli okra fries, the surprisingly decent cocktail menu or the engaging Twitter presence, this neighbourhood Indian has not rested on its laurels. We've heard how, following a particularly scathing review, the family called a meeting to discuss how to step up their game. Whatever the conclusions were from those talks, they have obviously paid dividends. There's been a favourable review in the Telegraph, near unanimous praise from bloggers, and even an endorsement from Matt Tebbut. The place, it seems, has never seen busier and while people flock to nearby Lahore to be seen (we assume - from our visit, it can't be for the food), it's the food that draws the punters to Mughi.

If you thought after all this I might be setting Mughli up for a fall, I'm not. It's merely time for us to say goodbye - although, we rather hope it's more of 'a bientot' - as we move to the more suburban area of Levenshulme. There'll be no more Friday night hungover trips - although it seems Anna is thankful of this, as she began to worry the owner thought her an alcoholic, or last minute Sunday night "let's make the last little bit of this weekend last" visits.


Ignore the bright colours - Far Far: better than popadoms!
While there may be curry houses in Manchester producing more 'traditional' dishes, that's not entirely the point. Among the trendy Tava rolls and Far Far, the usual suspects are lurking, the CTMs and the Kormas, but what matters is that the food is consistently good and delivers on flavour. And it has done every time we've been since they got back on track (I'm holding back a Railway Curry pun). Mughli has in my estimation overtaken the once exemplary Great Kathmandu which has been steadily declining of late and outclasses its city-centre competitors (although, you must still go - just to meet the Scouse waiter, he's a legend in his own right).
       
Mughli has recently updated its menu. And we've tried a tiny, weeny bit of it. Truth be told, I'm not a big fan of telling people what I've eaten and what I thought of it. Sometimes I deem it necessary, especially when justification is needed to back up a critical review, but most of the time I'd like to say go try it yourself. So do. 


However... if you'll excuse my hypocritical self for a moment, I do have a couple of recommendations: the Machil Masala is rich, deeply satisfying fish dish, while lamb-on-the-bone dishes like the Nihari and the Lahori Karahi are must-haves. I can testify to the quality of the Kati rolls and the Samosa Chaat too. If you've had better (in Manchester!, fuck it - the UK) then please let us know. A side dish of okra is also a must, and fellow bloggers Where To Feed and Bacon on the Beech also proclaimed the gunpowder chips and aubergine mash near-items of beauty.


Machli masala - or whatever it was called before the menu change!

So if you're thinking this place sounds too good to be true, what are the criticisms? Well, they are few and far between and mostly down to their own damn good business. If you're trying to bag a walk in - if it's Friday or Saturday night - then buy a bottle of wine at the bar, and maybe by the time you've drunk it all, there'll be a free table: this place fills up fast. Booking is more than advised. And their naan isn't my favourite in Manchester - but how could it be after I've met breads bigger than my head?!

We couldn't leave without one last meal in the restaurant that is no more than 500 yards from our front door - so Anna has arranged her leaving do from her current job there on Sunday night. Why? Because if you find a restaurant that makes you sad to move, you share it with others. Go. 

Mughli 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

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

V Zátiší Restaurant, Prague




I consider myself to be a fairly liberal sort of person: I read the Guardian, eat hummus and don't set vulnerable people on fire. I vehemently disagree with prejudice but of course, would fight to the death someone's right to be an ignorant racist. I've realised lately, however, that I have a prejudice of my own. I say have - fortunately several restaurants Jamie and I visited in Prague earlier this year have managed to correct that - I can now proudly say HAD; I had a prejudice of my own.


"So what's the prejudice?" I hear you cry, pleading with me to tell you (read: bumping up our bounce rate to 99%). Well, until recently, I was under the impression that Asian food was never very good on the continent. If you read our post on Sansho, you'll know how wrong I was. Perhaps it was that lemon chicken I ate in Amsterdam, forever associated with an entirely horrific rite-of-passage 'Dam experience, maybe it was the millions of photographs of horrific-looking plates of south Asian food I'd seen advertised in tourist areas, or the fact that Asian restaurants in Europe seem to assume that no-one can handle any level of spice outside of the Balti triangle. Whatever it was, I made a judgment. A bad judgment. And I'm pleased to say, I'm pleased to admit to y'all here today: AH WAS WRONG, my brothers and sisters, I was wrong.


So where was it that proved me wrong? Well, I should really stop pretending to be readers asking me questions, particularly ones with answers that are based in the title of the post. As you may have guessed it was a rather posh ol' place down a quaint back street in Prague: V Zátiší (meaning cosy and peaceful - it was both of those things save a lone American tourist asking, "what the hell is turboh?"). Part of a group of fine-dining restaurants, this place clearly knows what it's doing: an opulent building, plush interior, perfect service and damn tasty food is always going to be an equation for a successful business operation.


Look at the size of those salt flakes!
I was initially drawn to the restaurant as I spotted they offered tasting menus - but not just that, they offered MIX AND MATCH tasting menus. Those with an affinity for spending vast sums of money on small plates of food and wine kept out of arm's reach (myself included) will be aware that this is practically unheard of. Next to a tasting menu description, you'll usually see the words "to be ordered by the entire table". One person alone may not enjoy a tasting menu, nor an experience different to that of their companion. The rules associated with tasting menus is, perhaps, a discussion for another day.

Anyway, I was excited: this meant that Jamie and I could each have a different menu and try more food. Hurrah! Oh, and then it got interesting. There are three choices of tasting menus: one, which I suppose consists of the classics of the restaurant; one made up of modern-Czech dishes; and one from "our visiting Indian chef's menu". Jamie went for the first, and I the latter.


In retrospect, maybe Jamie should have opted for the Czech menu as the 'menu degustation' he opted for whilst *ahem* positively delightful, was nothing really special, just very well cooked food. There was the unctuous foie gras, served with an orange puree and brioche, the pretty-as-a-picture asparagus salad (and heaven knows what else was on there now, this was back in July, but it tasted as fresh as it looks), and the perfectly-pink steak seasoned as if Jamie had poured the salt shaker on it himself. 


Curry & Mash. I'll never understand.
And, whilst the Indian menu was by no means flawless, there were some delicious dishes: the tomato and lentil soup with green pea and "tiki croquettes" - the latter like little fish-roe explosions of flavour - the mustard tandoori tiger prawns, which I will try and recreate until my dying day, and the tandoori chicken makhani, as good as any you'll find in Mughli. The lamb-lime curry was also delicious but far too rich for the fourth course in the meal, and I'm really not sure what they were thinking when pairing it with saffron and mushroom mash. The potatoes, entirely delicious on their own, would have been lovely with a stew but with an Indian lamb curry? No no no no. The blueberry kulfi with gulab jamun balls has even seen me attempt Indian sweets at home since.

By the end of five courses, we were full to say the least. At first it felt like an expensive bill - and I think it was for Prague - but paying around £45 each for the quality of cooking and service back in the UK would have been more than reasonable. I'm not saying you should rush and book a table if you're planning a trip to the Czech Republic, but if you fancy a taste of the curry mile whilst you're there, and have a fussy bunch of eaters who are hard to please, then V Zátiší is the place for you. It was worth it for me, if only to cure me of my prejudice.

V Zátiší
Liliová 216/1, 110 00 Prague 1
Reserve online here.

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.