Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Phetpailin, Chinatown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phetpailin on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Sansho, Prague

Soft-shell crab slider with wasabi mayo

Halfway through our meal at Sansho the owner, Paul Day, passes by our table and asks us how we're enjoying the food. Anna promptly replies, “It’s really good.” I've just had a mouthful of some seriously tasty Beef Rendang and blurt out, “It's amazing!” Without a second thought, Day says, with genuine sincerity, “It's not amazing.” And with that he carries on his way.

Maybe it's modesty. Maybe it’s the high standards he expects of himself after working in Michelin-starred establishments. Maybe, just maybe, the Thai food he creates cannot, in his eyes, come close to the ‘real deal’. Whatever the case - for us - the whole experience was unexpected. Thai food in Prague? And good Thai food at that.

It’s not as strange as it sounds, we later found out. The Czech Republic has a huge Vietnamese population, over 10,000 of whom live in Prague according to the 2011 census. They are the country's largest immigrant community; so it stands to reason that Pan-Asian cuisine is something Prague-dwellers are familiar with. However, it's perhaps not at the level of sophistication that Day brings: soft-shell crab sliders, pork and watermelon salad, and that 12-hour Beef Rendang.

Pork and watermelon salad
Opened in 2011, Sansho is Day’s first restaurant; and judging by the turnout on a Tuesday evening, it's not doing too badly. Admittedly, it is high tourist season - we're flanked by a large group of Australians on one side and an American couple on the other - but the buzz about the place seems to have stayed strong. It's sparsely decorated and staffed with easy-going, somewhat Bohemian Czech twenty-somethings.

Paul Day was senior sous-chef at Nobu and worked under legendary David Thompson at Nahm, the world's first Thai restaurant to gain a Michelin star - so, despite what he says, the food is very good. He offered to choose our courses for us, presumably to showcase the best of Sansho, although judging by the other dishes we saw flying past us, I'm not sure there'd be any dud courses in this place.

Beef Rendang

The meat dishes are the real treat. Given Day's background, it's no real surprise. Raised in Stafford, he was working in a butcher's shop at the age of 13; a shop which he ended up owning then selling when he was 18. With the proceeds he moved to London and started as a butcher in Chinatown, working in various restaurants as well. It's a passion he has brought to the restaurant and the city: he's started his own butcher's shop called the Real Meat Society (superbly branded, by the way) which provides all the meat used in our dishes. He's also committed to improving local farming practices and confessed in a radio interview his interest in "changing the Czech palate." You can see what he means: the pork belly is cooked five different ways in a three-day process and the rendang contains 21 different ingredients. The beef salad featured some incredibly tender steak and a complex array of non-native herbs.

The seafood was surprisingly good, considering the Czech love of meat (in particular pork). The Soft-shell Crab Slider is sensational: the delicate bun giving way to deep-fried crustacean with a hint of a heat from the wasabi mayo. They're deceptively simple and so good you immediately want another. The slider, along with the clams in an aromatic broth and salmon sashimi, were fine examples of less Thai-inflected cuisine that Sansho is capable of. 

Sansho - Interior. Like some hip New York gallery.

The only letdown was the desserts. Sticky toffee pudding and baked cheesecake could be staples of Thai kitchens for all I know; but I seriously doubt it. It's not that they were bad necessarily, it's just that on a sweltering summer's evening, we craved something with coconut, mango, and lime. Thankfully, they'd mixed some refreshing cocktails, a cucumber collins and a watermelon cooler, that did a good job of staving off the heat.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, I can say that rarely have I ever been as satisfied with a meal as I was with the tasting menu at Sansho. This may be down to my 'sunny' holiday disposition but I'd like to think that my critical faculties were still intact. Don't trust me? Then, there's only one way to find out.

Petrska 1170/25
110 00 Praha (Prague)

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Proof's 'Liquid Brunch'

Oysters: hangover-cure in a half-shell

Brunch. While there's some debate as to the origins of this portmanteau, there can be no debate that it's one of the most overlooked of mealtimes. Originally, brunch was a cure for 'Saturday night carousers'; something not as heavy as a full-on a Sunday roast for the hungover hordes. Though there was no shortage of boozehounds back then, there's just plain more of us now, waking up at the weekend with throbbing heads and rumbling stomachs, looking for the ideal brunch spot. But, where to go? Well, if you live in Chorlton or its environs (hell, even further afield - it's worth the journey) then Proof have stepped up to plate with their Liquid Brunch.

Beet 'n' Bloody
A drawback of most places that offer brunch is the lack of decent liquid refreshment. Sure, you've got your coffee and your fruit juices (maybe, a Bloody Mary at a push and a side of scowl from the bartender) but for those who like to treat their hangovers with more of the devil drink, the options are few and far between. But not at Proof. Thanks to the crack cocktail team, you can get back on the wagon in style with a selection of no less than six brunch-inspired concoctions. From the Margarita-based Holy Guacamole and a twist on the classic Bloody Mary, Best 'n' Bloody, there's something for all manner of ailment. So you don't have to listen to me prattle on about the merits of each one and list their ingredients, I've kindly added a copy of the menu below. Suffice it to say, that Proof have been mixing some of the best drinks in Manchester for years now, and their Liquid Brunch doesn't disappoint.

And it's not all liquid. They serve up three different bagels that will please meat-eaters, pescatarians and vegetarians alike. If you're brave enough, they also do a platter of oysters with all the trimmings. They're keeping it local too with bagels coming from the ever-popular Barbikan and oysters coming from the guys at Out of the Blue. If that doesn't tempt you, the price most certainly will. With a cocktail and a bagel costing just a tenner, or two cocktails for 12 quid, you won't feel to guilty about loosening those purse strings again after a heavy night.

We were guests of Proof and between each member of the group we managed to sip and scoff our way through the entire menu. Pairing a bacon and roasted tomato bagel with a souped-up Bloody Mary is a must; the Holy Guacamole with, you guessed it, homemade guacamole was a surprise hit; and if you like something less savoury the Brunch Martini is a sophisticated alternative. 

Liquid Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 12-4pm.

30a Manchester Road
M21 9PH

The menu: get browsing

Monday, 10 June 2013

SoLita, Northern Quarter

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

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

Heaven on a plate? Little bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor cow, it died in vain :(

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

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

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

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

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

Turner Street, Manchester
M4 1DW
0161 839 2200

SoLita on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Byron hamburgers, Waterloo

This mouth won't wait for no photo.

Unfortunately, this isn't a post about the brand spanking new Byron hamburgers in Manchester city centre, but it is a post about Byron hamburgers on the Cut in Waterloo! A trip to London for bank holiday weekend saw a total of three burgers consumed, a feat I have not achieved since living above GBK for near on a year (OH, I miss those days).

Sitting on the sunny Southbank, drinking a bottle of Veuve my clever friend spotted in a local offy mispriced at £15.99, saw us very quickly in need of some grub. I remembered there's a supposedly decent gastropub nearby in the shape of the Anchor & Hope, but sadly found it closed. Lo and behold: Byron hamburgers sat directly opposite.

I've been to Byron before and happily found this visit as pleasant as the last. The interior is bright, the service speedy and friendly, and the food pretty damn good. I'd been to Meat Market the same weekend, and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my double patties, I was secretly quite pleased to find a more refined affair. I can never resist a burger with cheese and bacon (as the bite mark in my photos evidences), and this one was as delicious as usual!

Burger, open. (2013) Please note: this image is due for submission in the Turner Prize 2014.

Possibly my favourite thing about Byron burgers is the MASSIVE gherkin that accompanies them beef things (saying burger over and over is getting repetitive). The piece of pickled cucumber you see before you is actually only 1/20th of the entire thing*. Immense. I think the burger was probably slightly more cooked than I would have eaten at home, but it was actually so tasty - slathered in mature Cheddar and bacon - that I didn't really notice. (Oh, and the booze again might have had something to do with it...)

Chips innit.
Skin on chips are usually a delight, and these were no exception. My friend and I shared a portion along with our burgers, and if your tummy has been filled with bubbles prior to eating, I'd say this is plenty. However if you're more of a Big Ma(n)c kinda guy or gal, then you might want a portion to yourself.

Not to forget this delightful bottle of house red, named on their list as "good" (the wines range from good to best, so the one we had was essentially their worst). At £14.95, it may be a little pricier than some expect for a burger joint, but it went down a treat. Having shared this bottle with just one friend, I'd perhaps recommend others don't: 375ml is quite a lot to consume with just a burger for company, and it resulted in me nearly missing my train back up north... The online menu suggests a great selection of bottled beers, which is music to my ears. Next time, I'll skip the overwhelming amount of red juice and opt for a Kernel instead.

The Byron I visited is located on the Cut, so it's a perfect spot for pre or post-theatre dining if you're visiting the Old (or Young!) Vic, and it's also handily located within walking distance of Waterloo - bypass the overpriced Upper Crust and get yourself a real meal if you've got time to kill round here.

I know Byron may not be as cool or trendy as some burger bars, and is probably a tad overpriced when you factor in fancy toppings like er, spicy BBQ sauce at £1.25, and chips at £3.25, but I like this place: I can visit Byron and enjoy a burger in a grown-up environment, without worrying about the sexist undertones of the menu. I also hear their milkshakes are winners (must work on increasing stomach capacity), if feeling adult ain't always your thing.

I'm yet to visit the new Byron site in Manchester, and sincerely hope I won't be disappointed. From reading Bacon on the Beech's write-up, it sounds like I'm safe. Phew!

*Note: this may be a slight exaggeration. I was suffering from cheap champagne induced sunstroke at the time.

41-45 The Cut
London SE1 8LF
020 7633 9882

Byrons on Urbanspoon

Monday, 13 May 2013

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

Best retrospective restaurant order ever made.

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

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

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

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

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

Rather fancy chicken wings, them.

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

Excuse the shoddy photo quality here!

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

He didn't look happy about being eaten.

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

This was gone in about twenty seconds.

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

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

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

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

3TwentyOne on Urbanspoon

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

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Dog Bowl, Manchester

Jamie and I were recently invited to enjoy lunch, drinks and a game of bowling at Black Dog's new venture, Dogbowl. I've always been a fan of Black Dog's late night burgers & deep fried gherkins, so was keen to find out whether the bowling alley's grub would be up to standard in the middle of the day. Given that we were booked in for 2pm on a Wednesday, the venue was hardly booming and it certainly lacked atmosphere, although I imagine this is easily rectified once evening falls and beers - and bowls - are sunk.

Having read good things about the quesadillas from Bacon On the Beech, we opted for the veggie version with onions, potatoes and peppers to start, as well as some of their BBQ Shrimps from the little plates section. When these arrived, we started to worry. Up 'til now, the service had been of the hipster calibre (see Good Gobble's description for background reading), and these 'starters' weren't doing much for us. Though the portion humungous, the tortillas were a little bland; I really felt they would have benefitted from a dollop of salsa or guacamole on the side. Perhaps we should have gone for one of the meat options, though as these are the 'base' recipe, I would have expected them to be decent. I'm also not sure what was 'BBQ' about the shrimps, but all we could taste was ginger - perhaps our palates were fooling us, but these weren't particularly good.

Feeling altogether uncomfortable with our awkward/hipster/hungover service and average food, we concentrated on our drinks, which at least, were better. I'd opted for a Mint Julep (bourbon, crushed ice, mint & sugar), and Jamie for a Maple Bourbon Smash (essentially bourbon & orange). Heady stuff for a Wednesday lunchtime, but it felt in fitting with the heavily American menu.

On to the mains and Jamie decided to go out-and-out gross with a Sloppy Joe. We've all heard of these on American sitcoms and shows set in high schools, though up 'til now, I'd never actually seen one. Fortunately, it was light on the 'slop', and was actually pretty tasty: served on Texas Toast (essentially extra thick white bread), the chucked beef 'chilli' was a little on the sweet side, but when eaten with the smoked brisket and beef gravy, it was all pretty good. Excellent chips too!

I've been meaning to make short ribs for a while, but have been lazy about sourcing them, as they don't seem to be an item available in most butchers (probably just because they're actually called something different over here - still trying to work out what that is!), so when I saw them on the menu, I ploughed straight for it. One huge rib, tenderly cooked and dry smoked in the house rub, this was one tasty beast. It came with both chilli and blue cheese sauces, though I would have just preferred more of the gravy that was dripping off the top of it - that was tasty. With fries as well, I struggled to finish this, but it was a tasty main.

Barely able to move after consuming all that food, we managed to burn (almost no) calories with a game of bowling. It'd been bloody ages since I'd last switched my loafers for a pair of bowling shoes, but sipping on a Tijuana Sling (tequila, cassis, ginger ale), I felt as confident as my 12 year old self when the bumpers were first taken off. By the end of the game, I realised not playing for 10 years doesn't result in improvement - though I did manage a strike - and Jamie had me beat by thirty points! The lady on the bowling desk was lovely and a great improvement on our waitress whilst dining. I should add that whilst she was by no means rude, she just wasn't very friendly and I've had much better service elsewhere. Overall, I'm sure many people will visit Dogbowl and have a great time with their mates, nipping in to the restaurant as an add-on to their bowling night out. Certainly, when I compare the Wimpy in the bowling alley I went to as a kid, the food here is much better (though I did love their spicy bean burgers), I just wouldn't recommend making a trip to the restaurant without a game of bowling planned.

Oh, and just in case it wasn't clear, this whole thing was a freebie, but I think it's pretty obvious that we haven't been paid to be nice, just honest!

57 Whitworth Street
Manchester, M1 5WW
0161 228 2888

Dog Bowl on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Koya, Soho

Minimalist Japanese canteen interior at Koya

When Jamie and I recently visited London for our three year anniversary, we found ourselves disappointed by the restaurants we had been looking forward to the most. Koya, nestled in our dining itinerary between Michelin star dinners and over-hyped neighbourhood restaurants, ended up being our favourite meal. Having received recommendations from the foodie fountain of knowledge, Hoss, and the similarly wise chap whose blog writing I miss, FTTBYD, we were pretty confident it would be a winning lunch.

Knowing that ramen is suddenly all the rage in central London, I was concerned we'd have to wait for hours to get a table. Fortunately, my usually reliable sense of direction meant we ended up further away from Koya than we were in our original starting point, so we arrived not long before the end of lunch service, when the hipsters had already been fed. We had a brief wait but managed to bag a table right by the door. A note on doors: if I am ever lucky/foolish enough to open my own drinking/eating establishment, I may abolish doors. Lately, I find myself always placed at the table nearest them (which obviously means the owners think I look like a trustworthy person, or are taking bets on whether I'll do a runner). I get cold easily and sometimes I don't wear enough layers when eating out, as I naively expect restaurants to be warm. Any suggestions as to how punters will enter my bar/restaurant would be greatly appreciated as I am quite adamant that doors are a no-no.

Moving away from my ramblings - which Jamie will surely edit out - and on to the more important matter of the food. This was a toughie: we would be dining again in around 6 hours but I wanted to eat everything on the menu. Bloody rational Jamie prevented this, which I still hold against him, as I now have to wait 'til my next trip to London to eat more of that beautiful Japanese food. We started with one of their specials: char sui pork with apple and fennel salad. This was sooo beautiful, I could have eaten this ten times over. The salad perfectly balanced the fattiness of the pork although the carparccio-like slicing stopped it from feeling too artery-cloying, perfect!

Next up: I managed to persuade Jamie to go for the fried tofu with spring onion udon. I succeeded in this by initially suggesting the udon with mushroom and walnut miso then downsizing to tofu. (Despite being the most knowledgable non-chef person I know when it comes to food, Jamie has a child-like approach to mushrooms: "ew!" he screams when I try and put them near him). I wanted to try one of their simpler dishes to see whether it was still delicious: it bloody was! Their noodles took noodle to a whole 'nother level. (I'm not talking Dane Bowers' first band).

Super pink and juicy - just how I like 'em!

We also opted for another of their specials: (our favourite!) Hanger steak with juniper berries and pickled wild garlic. This was perfectly cooked and really tasty. Eaten with plain white rice, it was delightful. As hanger steak has a gamier taste than most other cuts of steak, the juniper - a traditional accompaniment to venison - worked really well and the pickled garlic was... green. And pickly.

Unfortunately, there's no more food for me to talk about. Again, blame Jamie. Despite being half his size, my eyes are definitely twice as big as both of our bellies, so they left feeling disappointed that they hadn't been better fed, though my stomach was feeling pretty sated. The service was generally attentive and discrete, and I absolutely LOVED the host who continued to seat people with 30 seconds to go before the kitchen closed. I know this because he kept telling people, "yes, you can come in but you have to order within 3 minutes... 2 minutes... 1 minute... you can't even look at the menu, you just have to order now!". He was brilliant.

If you haven't been to Koya and you're planning on visiting central London some time soon, GO!! Jamie and I loved it so much we immediately went in search of the nearest Japanese supermarket (which, incidentally, is only about a five minute walk away), and bought ourselves a huge packet of bonito flakes just so we could make our own udon broths at home. (We did, and they were good, but not as good as Koya...)

Cute dog running to Koya to get his lunch.

49 Frith Steet, Soho
London W1D 4SG
020 7434 4463

Koya on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 7 April 2013

John Salt, Islington

John Salt, perhaps one of the most talked about restaurants of the last year. Notorious for the sudden departure of Ben Spalding, but quickly snapped up by Neil Rankin, former Pitt Cue Co. chef, turning that notoriety into excitoriety (is that a word? no?). Having read ample reviews by respected London bloggers and journalists singing its praises, we happily killed two hours in a nearby pub waiting for an appropriate time at which to eat dinner. I later realised that despite never having lived in London, I have managed to frequent said pub with every boyfriend I've had since I was 17. Irrelevant detail, but I'm not sure how this has happened: it's a pretty average pub. And therein, I think, lies the secret of what makes John Salt so revered, so talked about. Upper Street appears to be full of fairly average establishments.

To my unfamiliar eyes, Upper Street is by no means a dump or a dive, but rather row after row of perfectly pleasant seeming bars and restaurants, offering nothing in particular to catch the eye (perhaps apart from House of Wolf!) until you get to John Salt. (Particularly if you're walking down from Highbury and Islington, as opposed to up from Angel). It's early evening on a Monday but the sweet French waitress appears to struggle to squeeze us in, initially sitting us uncomfortably close to another couple, though eventually moving us a seat up to give us room to breathe (though still not enough room to take photos without essentially shouting "HEY LOOK I WRITE A FOOD BLOG" - hence the lack of in this post).

We begin proceedings with drinks. I take a so-so Albion Highball, and J opts for the Beer Glass Mary Snapper. I'm not sure what made them decide to put cheese and crackers with the latter, but it seemed a bit silly (and crumbly). I'm intrigued by the cod cheeks starter (mainly because we're cooking them for our supper club) which I learn is a new dish on the menu, and Jamie, rather unusually, goes all veggie and picks the 'burnt leeks, parmesan, egg yolk, truffle vinaigrette'. Mine arrives and the waiter seems genuinely interested to hear what I think of it, but has disappeared by the end of the course so am unable to impart my wise and wonderful critique of the minute starter to his otherwise-engaged ears. There's nothing much to say about it: cod cheeks, cooked well, seasoned with a light scattering of tasty heritage tomatoes. Jamie's starter is rich and unctuous.

My main was decided before I reached the restaurant. It was always going to be the Onglet steak with kimchi hollandaise. Recommended rare, it was slightly too rare in the middle for my tastes, though well seasoned and the accompanying sauce was a TASTE SENSATION. I rarely capitalise in posts but this calls for it. The sharp, spiciness of the kimchi married beautifully with the creamy, classic French sauce, leaving me wishing I'd requested to purchase a tub of this cheekily wonderful sauce on departure from the restaurant. Jamie's pork hash, with belly pork, black pudding and egg yolk, mixed together with sweetcorn and peas and massive roasties was inelegant to say the least - but that's okay, I won't denigrate them for that. The roast potatoes reminded me of the best kind I used to get on school, usually if you were served one of the last in the queue: huge beasts that the dinner ladies were obviously saving for themselves but a pesky child rolled up late waiting to be fed, with a beautifully crisp exterior (the potatoes, not the pesky child). Yummy is how I would describe this dish; something comforting to eat on a night when you can't really be bothered to cook... which, I guess, is what hash is. Whilst £12 is by no means steep for a main, I'm not sure I'd pay that again. We also had 'aged beef dripping fries'. For God's sake guys, if you're gonna call them that, then at least make sure they taste like it, and not fairly similar to a well-known burger chain.....

Slightly disappointed with some aspects of the meal so far, we were sure it could be salvaged by the bacon panna cotta (which we shared: Jamie suddenly decided he couldn't even finish his main for chrissakes!). The panna cotta itself - milk infused with bacon - was rather beautiful, and served in a glass, as Jamie constantly tells me they always should be (apparently if it can stand on its own it has too much gelatine, who knew?!). I liked the added crunch of crumbled biscuity bacon bits on top, but the saltiness really unbalanced the dessert and I finished unsatisifed. Fortunately, John Salt do a great range of beers, and the Left Hand Brewing Co.'s Milk Stout saw me leave with a smile on my face.

Overall, the meal was fine - which my counselling colleague says stands for "fucking incapable of normal expression". In fact, John Salt was exactly the opposite - capable of very normal expression. Disappointingly normal in fact. If I lived in Islington, perhaps I'd frequent it with friends once every few months. Visting London from the far away north that is Manchester, I'm confident that I shall never return. Oh shit, I just remembered the kimchi hollandaise. Okay, maybe for that... if I'm passing.

John Salt
131 Upper Street
Islington, N1 1PQ
020 7704 8955

John Salt on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Duped by Dinner

Dinner by Heston. It was probably the most anticipated restaurant opening of 2011; it was definitely our most anticipated meal of 2013. Were our expectations too high? Did the allure of Michelin stars and San Pellegrino Top 50 lists cloud our judgement? Whatever the case, we left thinking: ‘How on earth has this restaurant earned such a great reputation?’

It’s not the food that's the problem. It’s still ‘fearsomely expensive’ and, dare I say, over-rated. It’s rather the service that caused the whole evening to feel off kilter. Now, I’m no veteran of Michelin-starred establishments but, having been to a fair few, the service, at its worst, has always been discreet if a little formal. At its best it has elevated the evening and the dining experience. At Dinner, we often felt uncomfortable and at times downright harassed.

Imagine it’s the anniversary of a special occasion and as you raise your glasses for that celebratory toast, your waiter clumsily chimes in like a pissed wedding guest in the middle of the best man’s speech. Your gauche, French sommelier asks if you’d like to see the wine list and proceeds to hold on to it, so much so that you are forced to peer at it until he graciously hands it over. Why do that? This wine list caused the waiting staff much vexation. Surely they had more than one? Yet, each member of staff seemed intent on retrieving it from our grasp despite many protestations.

Add to this a dining room devoid of intimacy, the overwhelming feeling that every other table is more important than yours, the realisation that most people are here on business, staying in the Mandarin Oriental and have charged a steak and chips to their room – and the entire experience quickly lost its charm. Perhaps my account is a little revisionist, tainted by some not so rose-tinted glasses? Maybe we were just naive? But I expected more: the glowing reviews; the high standing; the endless superlatives.

I wish these were the only caveats and I could now utter as Jay Rayner did ‘Oh, but the cooking!’ It was very nice in parts but that obsessive compulsive attention to detail that Heston is always bragging about didn't materialise.

As per usual, we’d agonised over what to choose beforehand (this was after all a very expensive meal and we didn’t want to make any costly mistakes) so the choice of starters was already a foregone conclusion.

Ever since I saw Ashley Palmer-Watts cook the scallops and cucumber dish, it had made my shortlist. It was as I expected and no more: refreshingly clean with a lovely minerality from the scallops and seared cucumber and great acidity from the cucumber ketchup. This is really more about the cucumber than the scallops, treating the ingredient in ways that many will not have seen before. The best dish of the meal. The salamugundy was full of wonderful textural contrasts – slippery marrow studded with crispy chicken skin, crisp chicory, juicy chicken oyster.

The special of Royale of Beef (which brought to mind Pulp Fiction) with ox tongue, smoked anchovy and onion puree was a delicious exercise in savouriness with a great depth of flavour. The Turbot with cockle ketchup was expertly cooked and balanced. To be honest, I'm struggling for things to say. Whether it was a side effect of the service and ambiance or not, everything rang a bit hollow. Come to think of it, Jay Rayner's review must have also exerted some subconscious sorcery on us as we unwittingly chose exactly the same menu. Great minds...or maybe fools never differ.

If you happened to be staying at the Mandarin Oriental, it would however definitely be worth popping down for a dessert. The tipsy cake brought a smile to my face and the buttery, syrupy brioche pudding actually recalled of all things a krispy-creme pudding I'd had some weeks ago at a FireandSalt supper club. Bearing in mind the accompanying pineapple is roasted on what must be one of the world's most expensive spits, it has that air of overindulgence. The brown bread ice cream with salted butter caramel was malty, salty, sweet goodness that actually might have salvaged the meal.

So, an evening of highs and lows. The food might have disappointed less had we not been to Simon Rogan's new opening at The French in the same week. And I doubt we would have been so critical if the service were up to scratch. I'm wouldn't write the place off on the back of this one meal but at these prices I'm not hurrying to return. Frankly, there are better places in London to spend your hard-earned cash.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon

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