Tuesday, 4 September 2012

"Are you sure we're in the right place...?"

Researching where to eat in Barcelona was a mixture of highs and lows. Highs, because practically everywhere we read about sounded delicious; lows, because nearly all of those places are closed in August.

We were staying in Sant Pere, a small area close to nearly everything - it neighbours Eixample, el Born, & el Barri Gotic. We found the apartment through airbnb and I would thoroughly recommend staying there if visiting Barcelona. It is small but perfectly formed, very reasonably priced & in the heart of everything.

It was also just a five minute walk to the well-known Santa Maria tapas restaurant - located on Carrer de Comerç, also home to the relaxed Picnic, and popular Comer 24 - owned by Adrià disciple, Paco Guzman. We'd heard a lot of great things about this place, and having previously had fantastic experiences in Gelonch and Tapas 24, other restuarants owned by ex-el Bulli chefs, were hoping for great things.

Unfortunately, like every other restaurant we really had our heart set on going to in Barcelona (with the exceptions of Igueldo and Gresca), it was closed. We found this out on our first day in the city, but remembered later in the week that there was a note on the door which seemed to imply it had moved locations. Stuck for somewhere to eat on Friday night (please see earlier frustrations with the month of August), we went back to decipher the Spanish map stuck to the door and decided it had moved to just the other side of the Parc Ciutadella.

Walking up Passeig de Pujades, we were concerned in relation to our attempts at translation. It didn't look like somewhere that would house a restaurant owned by someone who'd been taught under one of the best chefs in the world. We finally found it, and whilst rather fancy looking inside, it was totally empty. Realising that we still needed to adjust to the Catalunyan way of life by eating dinner after 10pm, we decided to have a drink at a nearby, er, 'pizzeria', a place where ex-Spanish mafia and O.A.Ps mingled. But hey, £6 for 4 beers, who's complaining?

We realised no-one had entered the restaurant in the whole time we'd been drinking our cervezas, but our bellies were forcing us to make a move, and so we began our expedition into what began as one of the most awkward dining experiences of our life (perhaps even more so than our first date at Ramson's, with the ever-"charming" Chris).

Even in Barcelona in August, it seemed odd that at 10pm on a Friday night there would be no-one in Guzman's restaurant. Maybe people hadn't realised they'd moved we thought? As a big Spanish momma sat us down and told us that she spoke 'very very little English', I started to worry. Fortunately, Jamie has spent time in South America and has a relatively good understanding of the language, even though he doesn't speak much of it. She took us through the menu and we anxiously ordered the menu degustacion. At this point, I'm not sure why we ordered it. We were sure we were in the wrong place (even though it said 'SANTA' above the door in the biggest writing I've probably ever seen) and we were the only people here on a Friday night. I felt much better when Jamie suggested that perhaps an opportunist con-artist had seen that Santa Maria was closed for August, and had popped up a makeshift sign convincing people they had actually relocated to this style over substance restaurant round the corner.

There was no music on, other than the tunes emanating from the kitchen's radio, and at this point we hadn't even been given our wine yet. I definitely needed a drink to relieve the awkwardness of the situation. Upon visiting the bathroom and seeing the cleaning rag left in the sink, I was about ready to bolt for the door.

To make matters worse the first item from the tasting menu was 'nachos'. "Shit Jamie", I said, "what if we really do just get nachos? What if they're just conning naive tourists who are blinded by the lights of anything that mentions an ex-el Bulli chef?"

The big Spanish momma was back, with wine. She offered us a taste. It wasn't good. Oh shit. We've been mugged, I thought. But then, I think five-year-old Anna crept out and saw her name on the wine bucket (not actually surprising considering Anna is a Spanish name - though usually with only one 'n') - and thought, 'this must be a sign, maybe everything's going to be alright...'. We were brought bread and olives, de-stoned and all. And tasty. Really lovely salty, spicy (covered in chilli) olives. I waited in anticipation for the 'nachos'....


And there they are, our nachos. Nothing like nachos. Thank fuck! We're in the right place. Lovely little tasty morsels of something resembling a potato and apple layered tortilla, covered with top-quality guacamole and salsa, with two mild deep fried Padron peppers on the side (I'm not sure I believe what they say about the ratio of hot ones to mild ones, I must have eaten about 25 of the buggers when I was in Barcelona, and not one was spicy!). To the right of the 'nachos', we had seared Iberico nigiri, and out of shot was a lovely little salmon futomaki, strangely fried on the outside, but actually making for a rather pleasant difference, in introducing a bit of warmth to the otherwise room temperature food. There was also a little pot of what I thought was going to be lamb tagine. Prawns had been used in place of the favoured meat, and it worked really well, although I did feel this dish would have benefited from being heated prior to serving. I'd like to say the star of the show were the chicken wings, which we were told (we think) were brined & confited before deep-frying. They were delicious and crisp, but unfortunately lacking in flavour and not particularly well seasoned. They were also sprinkled with - what I think were - Nasturtium petals, and I'm not really sure why. They did nothing in terms of flavour or texture, and I'm surprised that with Guzman's heavy influences from Asian cuisine (he's travelled heavily in the East, and worked as a chef in Tokyo), he didn't take more of a risk with flavour here. Still, pretty to look at...

Chicken Wings

Following these 'starters', we were presented with a deliciously fresh salmon and avocado tartare cheekily interjected with tiny pieces of gherkin. I would never have previously thought of putting salmon and gherkin together (though, thinking about it now - why not? capers and salmon is a classic combo), but it was a clever and witty nod to the classic tartare. We were then given the 'main' of - essentially - lamb kofta with tzatziki and a tomato and spinach salad. Nothing particularly ingenious, but it was tasty, the tomatoes beautifully ripe, and the tzatziki well-seasoned. There was also a spot of romesco sauce on the side, which worked well.

Lamb Kofta

One of my favourite dishes of the night was a beautiful palette cleanser, which we unfortunately didn't photograph: three types of melon, with a lemongrass granita and fine slithers of kaffir lime leaves. Beautifully refreshing and exactly what I needed after that mound of food! However, I felt Guzman defeated the point of this course with his next: pain perdu with tiramisu ice cream. The ice cream was delicious - and I noticed that tiramisu seems to be a hit in Barcelona - but the pain perdu was slightly too chewy, and I felt I would have been happier with a lighter dessert. I've got a photo but I don't think I need to show you what melting ice cream looks like! We were then given chilli & salt truffles. I know these are probably totally passe in foodie circles by now, but I've never tasted them before and they were fantastic.

Meal done, and we're still wondering what's the deal with this place? It definitely isn't the place we've read about, but it's no run of the mill restaurant you'd find in a part of town like this. Enter Paco Guzman to answer our questions. The chef pops his head over the kitchen counter and asks how we liked our meal. We start to chat and he comes round to talk to us for a bit longer. We learn that this chef, wearing his khaki cut-offs and looking distinctly different to the 'celeb chef' style shots we've seen of him in press, is the owner of Santa Maria and this restaurant, Santa. He tells us how he opened Santa five years ago (I believe Santa Maria has been going for around 14 years), catering to more of a business crowd, and where they are busy at lunchtimes. He seems disappointed that many restaurants in Barcelona have stayed open in August this year, whilst he took the decision to close Santa Maria for the month. He tells us he kept Santa open in order to do some work over the holiday period, though he's not expecting many customers, us being the only ones that day. He also vexes his frustration at the new gourmet burger fad which has recently taken off in Barcelona, and the pizzas of el Born stealing potential customers when you can eat at such joints for under ten euros. He also, disappointingly, tells us that he's selling Santa Maria and is keeping Santa as his focus. Reading about Santa when it first opened certainly showcases a more interesting and expensive menu. I try to gage whether his decision to close Santa is to aid a return to his early days at Santa, to showcase more of his creativity, but it seems from his response, that perhaps those years under Adrià hasn't created a molecular chef but someone who - despite their talent and fame - is struggling to make it as both chef and businessman.

Our meal at Santa wasn't out of this world, but it was good quality food, and I would encourage anyone visiting Barcelona to check it out, perhaps at a lunchtime, and not in August if you want some atmosphere (though you might miss out on the conversation with the chef!). It was 25 euros for the menu, inc. IVA (Spanish tax), which - for me - was good value. I feel someone larger than my build might feel there wasn't enough food, though Jamie was definitely sated by the end of it. With the potential for there being only one Guzman venture in the future, perhaps this will give him the opportunity to develop and refine what is already good quality food, and turn it into something spectacular.

Santa Restaurant
Av. Meridiana 2, 08018 Barcelona
00 34 93 309 7078

Thomas Restaurant

After only a month or so in the food blogger's game, Anna and I were very excited to receive an invite to a 'bloggers evening' at Thomas in the Northern Quarter. This might be, to my knowledge, the first time a Manchester restaurant has done such a thing (if not, please do set me straight); undoubtedly a savvy move by the owners. To be sure, The Fat Duck it ain't, but who's complaining when you get to try a new menu, meet fellow food geeks, and give feedback.

Our hosts, and the proprietors, were Nicky and Yvonne, the team behind the Bay Horse and former owners of Soup Kitchen. The evening began with a tour and a cocktail - I went for a Negroni (classic combo of gin, sweet vermouth and campari) and Anna chose the 'Joan Collins' which is essentially a Tom Collins with the addition of muddled grapes and sage. And very nice they were too. Nicky and Yvonne were extremely welcoming and seemed genuinely enthusiastic about showing off the new menu.

Crab cakes
The tasting began with a trio of starters. A perfectly executed crab cake with mango and chilli salad; a deliciously salty and wonderfully textured goat's cheese tart; followed by potted ducked wrapped in prosciutto atop a chorizo and borlotti bean hash. Having only visited Thomas once a couple of years back, I hadn't been sure what to expect, but I wasn't disappointed. The crab cake was easily one of the best I've had and the tart was, if not original, very well made. However, the duck dish was not as well thought out - the duck didn't shine, being overpowered as it was by the smoky bean crush and prosciutto, and, overall, it was a little dry.

The menu has a definite autumnal feel and nowhere was this more evident than in the main courses. The Yorkshire lamb shank, meltingly tender and very hearty, made me imagine fattening up to see out a cold winter. The nutmeg in the gratin dauphinoise and the redcurrant and marsala jus almost sent me forward in time to Christmas.

Yorkshire lamb shank

It was nice to see plaice on the menu as I had only just seen Rick Stein extolling its virtues as a fish. The fillet lay on a perfectly cooked potato fondant (sigh of relief, as I've seen many an undercooked one in my time) and was finished with a delicate coriander bisque, asparagus and spring onions. The artichoke risotto, the favourite dish at the press review, was a bit of a let down. It was slightly overcooked and tasted overwhelmingly of tomato and vinegar in my opinion. The crumbed egg yolk that topped it was nonetheless delicious. The consensus was that the Lamb Shank won dish of the evening and is very good value at £15.95 considering how generous the portion is.
Whitby plaice

The desserts were all extremely moreish, devoured quickly by the bloggers, and will meet with no complaints from me. It would be worth going to Thomas on the strength of the tiramisu alone. Apparently based on one of chefs' family recipes, it is a perfect example of how light delicate a dessert it should be. The lemon tart and tarte tatin were both suitably rich and filling. 

Yvonne was keen to push the wines and came across as very passionate about pairing food with wine. The Thomas Bassot Macon-Villages complemented the starters well, cutting through the fat and salt with its minerality and dryness. The perfumed Aimery Viognier would be delicious as an aperetif wine, but is perhaps too pungent to be paired with a lot of the food. The Villa Domiziano Chianti was bold enough to stand up to the strong flavours in the lamb dish.

The team at Thomas have done well to create a menu which will appeal to everyone and it is certainly pitched very well at this time of year - sensitive to the approaching autumn and the lack of summer. In aesthetic and attitude, they have always tried to stand out from the crowd of bars that pepper the Northern Quarter and the solid food and cocktails are sure to keep customers coming back for more.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Foodie Pen Pals

When I read about foodie pen pals I knew I wanted to get involved. The opportunity to buy delicious foodie treats that I wouldn't normally - or at least not without a shred of guilt - (even if I'm not eating them, a trip to the supermarket/foodie shops is always welcomed!) and the idea of having a lovely parcel of things delivered in return to get my creative cookery juices flowing definitely appealed to me!

I had the pleasure of sending a foodie parcel to Sarah Jane of the atomatosardine blog. Her entry on my parcel is here! All I'll say is that I had great fun picking treats out for someone I didn't know, and trying to get creative with what I could fit in my already full-to-the-brim luggage on my return from Barcelona.

Samantha Bell  sent me a very generous food parcel as shown below...

Where to begin? Well, maybe with the bits in it I've already eaten! I was so excited to get stuck in that the lentil & chilli curls from M&S & some giant corn snacks are already gone. My favourite were the curls - a really nice healthy snack to steer me away from crisps; these were yummy. I've also already delved into the lasagne as Samantha had kindly included some recipes to accompany some of the items - I created Samantha's own courgette lasagne recipe. This was a lovely homely dish, though I never quite get lasagne right (the top sheet of lasagne always seems to go crispy - although I realised this time that I actually quite like that!) so I think I'm going to get Jamie to have a go at it next time. It was a nice autumnal dish though (yes, it's autumn, I hear that's been decided by the continuous Mancunian showers), and I was especially pleased to receive this recipe as we had courgettes that were close to dying!

The BEAR fruit yo yo is actually a replacement one as I love these fruit rolls that I've already eaten the one I was sent. I think I was sold on them as a brand when I contacted them whilst volunteering in the fundraising department at work & although they never actually had a conversation with me, I enjoyed receiving their e-mails letting me know that "Jenny is currently out of the cave resting her paws" & their sign off - "best regrrds"! They're also super tasty too... Pineapple is very good, and I'd also recommend the peach flavour.

I thought I could smell coffee when I picked up my parcel from reception & I was so happy when I found that there was some included - I'm a total coffee fiend. I have tried this in my cafetiere but I think I need an espresso machine to do this fine ground justice. Time to invest!

Samantha said that she's a lady who doesn't usually buy ready-made items but included the Merchant Gourmet lentils because lentils are such a pain to get right, and I definitely agree. I always end up under or over cooking them, so I'm looking forward to using these - but can't decide what to have them with! I'm thinking a ballotine of chicken stuffed with chestnut puree, or a slow cooked duck leg... Let me know if anyone has any other ideas.

The kinder egg was also a very sweet treat, and I think I may just crack into it tonight...

All in all, a fantastic foodie parcel - and I can't wait to eat/use the other bits and pieces shown above! I definitely think that I'll be doing this regularly, and I know that Jamie's keen to get involved too... he was very envious when he saw my treats.

I hope I haven't been naughty in posting this before the last day of the month - I'm off to Harrogate tomorrow for a weekend (well, two nights) sans internet, so thought I better get it up now.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Degustación de Barcelona

Where to start?

A week in Barcelona is never enough time... yet there's still so much to say.

Anna & I found such an affinity with the Spanish way of life, especially that of Barcelona, that it's quite a culture shock returning to Manchester. It's a pipe-dream to imagine that the English attitude towards eating, drinking and socializing could undergo an overhaul of the kind that would bring us more in line with the Spanish mentality. It's also a pipe dream to imagine we would have any money left should we live in a country which offers tasting menus (Menú degustación) at every other restaurant.

Anyway, that's enough of my unpatriotic misgivings, I suspect.

Having gone straight back into work from holiday, we haven't had time to write up reviews of all the places we visited, so the idea here is to give a taster (or a degustación!) of things to come.

Full reviews of the restaurants to come but highlights include...

-Being the sole table on a Friday night in Paco Guzman's 'Santa', the sister restaurant to Santa Maria, and having a fairly frank discussion with the chef/owner about the state of the food scene in Barcelona

-Discovering an ale-centric bar just around the corner from our apartment in Sant Pere and talking to one of the new breed of Spanish brewers (I say talking, I mean smiling and nodding, as he spoke no English, and us little Spanish)

-Sardine with spiced butter, fennel pollen and lemon at Gresca

-Squid with a deconstructed Romesco sauce at Bar Del Pla

-Morcilla with sauteed chickpeas at Casa Delfin

-Beef tartare and beer yoghurt at Igueldo

-The eccentric and laid-back staff at Organic (somewhat reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in I Heart Huckabees)

-Watching Spanish hipsters dancing to British indie music in Sidecar

Watch this space! (It is a bank holiday, after all...)

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

SoLIta Bar and Grill

The prospect of eating at SoLIta had my mouth salivating, my stomach rumbling, and my arteries looking frantically for the nearest exit...

Artery-assault: deep fried Mac 'n' Cheese
After attending a press review lunch at SoLIta, I initially wrote a small preview for tasteofmanchester.com, with the view to writing a full blog post soon after. Then the shit hit the fan and every food blogger in Manchester was reviewing the place. So, I decided to wait for the storm to subside, bide my time, then give my two cents, for what it's worth.

Out of the ashes of Sole, SoLita is born.

The restaurant brings the bar and grill concept to the Northern Quarter for the first time. The idea is to serve comforting, homely food in a New York-Italian vein, or what owner Dom Sotgiu understatedly calls ‘posh kid’s food’.

The menu is a carnivore’s dream - even the ice cream, made by Cabrelli’s, comes with bacon candy. Nibbles come in the form of fried chicken skin, a lighter alternative to pork scratchings; starters include bacon jam on sourdough, deep-fried cod balls, and the amazing pulled-pork sundae, which is sure to become a firm favourite among customers.

Pulled pork sundae

For the main courses, Dom has chosen some of the cheaper, tastier cuts and made them shine with the help of the Inka charcoal oven, which produces results that rival the best outdoor barbecue. The Short-ribs, aka Jacob’s Ladder, are slow-cooked for two days before being finished in the Inka, a recipe for deliciously tasty meat. A hanger steak (the tail end of the sirloin), notoriously difficult to cook, is exquisite and a steal at just over £16.

Other standout dishes include the behemoth deep-fried mac ‘n’ cheese burger, which has to be seen to be believed, and the sumptuous beef and bone marrow burgers on a perfectly light, yet sturdy demi-brioche bun. Even the side salad and chargrilled vegetables are brimming with flavour.


Desserts come in the form of ‘deep-fried coke’ (coke-flavoured churros), cheesecake, and the astoundingly good chargrilled pineapple with coconut ice cream. Dom has also been lucky to get hold of some fine mixologists and baristas and with a fine range of cocktails there’s more to the place than just meat.

SoLIta is not somewhere I can imagine eating very often however. This is perfect comfort food (read: 'having had a few too many beers the night before' food). The salt, fat, and sugar will satisfy all your desires for excess. Not to be indulged in more than once in a while but very good when you do.

They will undoubtedly have stiff competition from Almost Famous and Home Sweet Home but I do hope that the owners can make a go of this difficult dining spot.

Deep fried 'Coke'
Solita Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 11 August 2012

A simple supper... and a simpler lunch

Being a passionate and often fastidious cook, I sometimes get bogged down in the intricacies of cooking complicated dishes and neglect simple combinations of ingredients. Reading through a recipe by Heston Blumenthal or Thomas Keller can leave one feeling overwhelmed and wishing simply to concoct an easy dish with tried and tested flavour pairings.

Here it's mackerel, beetroot, and horseradish for a light lunch which takes only a few minutes to prepare; and then a slow cooked duck leg seasoned with five spice, stir-fryed cabbage and sauteed potatoes for dinner.

Mackerel and beetroot with horseradish dressing
Smoked mackerel fillet, 1 per person
Beetroot, pre-cooked
Horseradish sauce, 1 tsp
Extra virgin olive oil, 3 tbsp
Sherry vinegar, 1 tbsp
Salt and pepper
  • Tear the mackerel into bite-size pieces
  • Slice the beetroot into thin circles
  • Combine the horseradish sauce and sherry vinegar then whisk in the olive oil  until emulsified, then season and taste
  • Dress the mackerel and beetroot

Slow-cooked duck leg with cabbage and sauteed potatoes
2 Duck legs
Sea Salt, 2 tbsp
Five-spice powder, 1 tsp
Sweetheart cabbage, finely sliced
Shaoshing rice wine, splash
Soy sauce, to taste
New potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
Corn oil or butter
  • Sprinkle the salt over the duck legs and rub into the skin and underside, then leave covered overnight in the fridge
  • Preheat the oven to 200 degress then rinse the salt off the duck legs, pat dry, and season with five spice
  • Fry the duck skin side down until most of the fat has been rendered down
  • Place duck legs in a covered casserole dish, put in the oven and cook for roughly an hour and a half
  • To saute the potatoes, pat the cut pieces dry, then heat the oil or butter in a frying pan over a medium heat
  • It is important that the pan be hot enough to brown the potatoes but not too hot that it will burn them
  • Fry the potatoes turning occasionally to make sure all sides are browned (this will take about half an hour)
  • For the cabbage, heat a little oil in a wok then stir-fry the cabbage, seasoning with the rice wine and soy sauce
  • Do this when you are ready to plate up as the cabbage will not take long to cook
  • Sit the duck leg on top of the cabbage and serve with the sauteed potatoes

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Sirloin Steak with Chimichurri

The perfect combination
Mmmm, steak.

For the meat lovers who read this post, I bet you won't be able to resist uttering (even mentally) something similar to 'I wish I had one of those'; and with my sincere apologies to the vegetarians and vegans, I admit that I cannot behold a well-cooked steak without salivating. It speaks to my inner carnivore like nothing else.

In 2009, I travelled around South America for four months. From gorging on coxinha's in Rio to nibbling guinea pig in Cusco, from gigantic pizzas in La Paz to coconut water in Cali, there is one food memory that stands out: carving into slabs of delicious Argentine steak.

The Argentinians tend to cook their steaks on outdoor grills known as parillas, which impart a smokey, char-grilled crust to the already flavoursome cuts of beef. The British weather being slightly more inclement, I tend to cook steaks in a cast-iron griddle pan, and you can still get a delicious brown crust with this method.

Adding some chimchurri sauce I am transported back to those small restaurants in Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and Salta. In Argentina, chimichurri is the condiment of choice for steak and as with anything in the cooking domain there are various recipes for it, but they all revolve around a few central ingredients: parsley, garlic, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Some add coriander, dried oregano, chilli and lime juice.

Chimichurri sauce

For the chimichurri:

Flat-leaf parsley, small bunch (80g packet from the supermarket)
Coriander, small bunch
3-5 garlic cloves, peeled
Red wine vinegar, 1 tbsp
Extra-virgin olive oil, 3 tbsp
Oregano (preferably Mexican), 1tsp
Crushed chillies, a pinch

-Blend all ingredients in a food processor

When it comes to cooking steak, my tips are culled from Heston Blumenthal and his idol, Harold McGee:
  • Take your steak from the fridge, remove any packaging and let come to room temperature for about half an hour (optionally, air-dry in the fridge for 2 days a la Blumenthal)
  • Put a cast-iron pan over a high heat for roughly 5 minutes or until smoking hot
  • Brush one side of the steak with oil then season with table salt (two decent pinches for a normal size sirloin should do it)
  • Lay the steak seasoned side down in the pan, season the other side then turn every 20 seconds or so, until each side had a nice, brown crust and the steak is cooked to your taste
  • The best way to check how the steak is cooked is with a temperature probe (but with a little practice simply pressing the meat will give you a good enough idea)
  • Once cooked, remove from the pan and rest for at least 5 minutes
Another simple method is to brown each side of a steak then put it in an oven at around 100 degrees celsius and check its doneness with a probe. This will tend to give a very evenly cooked piece of meat.

There are other tips and tricks, but if you follow these you can be guaranteed a tasty steak. For me the most salient points are getting the pan really hot, the resting period. and making sure you season the steak enough. It'll take more salt than you think.

With Aldi now doing Aberdeen Angus 28-day-matured sirloin and rib-eye steaks for just less than £4, it's now pretty affordable to eat a decent cut of meat every now and again. While I would always advocate sourcing meat from a reputable butcher, I think it's understandable to go occasionally for the cheaper albeit not so ethical option. I prefer a rib-eye for its flavourful marbling of fat which melts deliciously when cooked.

Wash this all down with a decent Argentine Malbec and dream of eating steaks the size of your head for less than the price of a Big Mac meal. No wonder they restrict how much of it gets across the channel!

Just how I like my steak