Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Livebait, Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 17 January 2013


Tequila has a bad rep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 January 2013

Hervé This - Building a Meal : From Molecular Gastronomy to Culinary Constructivism

For many there could be nothing more tedious than reading a philosophical and scientific investigation into the preparation of six ‘bistro favourites’; for foodies of a particular bent (read me!) there could be nothing more edifying.

Let’s start with the title. Read the words ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ and your brain will probably conjure up a beatific mug shot of Heston Blumenthal and images of Masterchef contestants unsuccessfully trying to create caviar out of things that don’t normally lend themselves to roe-like presentation. In short, it’s become the buzzword(s) for weird and wonderful ways of dealing with ingredients. Read ‘Culinary Constructivism’ and most of you will already be heading for the door, asking yourselves ‘Am I back at uni? The only –ism I cared about then was plagiarism’. I’m not going to even attempt to broach the topic of constructivism, that’s a lesson for another day. Suffice it to say, Hervé This analyzes why we have chosen to construct dishes in certain ways: the pairings, the cooking methods, the chemical reactions and our various responses to it all.

A small amount of background: Hervé This is a renowned chemist and head of the world’s first lab devoted to molecular gastronomy. He is the spiritual father of Blumenthal, Adria, Achatz and many other chefs who have pushed the boundaries of culinary science and practice. By his own admission he is crazy: “Some who wants to change the way people are cooking, you have to be crazy”. Watch him on film and it’s not hard to imagine a future where he resides in a padded cell muttering incontinently “an egg white coagulates at 61oC...an egg yolk coagulates at 620C...onsen tamago...mayonnaise”; and every once in a while tries to discover the specific heat of a nurse’s arm or at what temperature human-brain proteins denature.

Anyway, to return to the text: when you read the list of dishes covered (hard-boiled egg, simple consommé, lamb and green beans..) you might remind yourself that Monsieur This is French and thus the bistros he eats in are different to the ones you or I would frequent. In fact, listening to him, he’s probably not eaten in a bistro since the 70s, hence the anachronistic menu! Never have I seen a hard-boiled egg with mayonnaise on a bistro menu; however, the dishes have been selected as they permit the examination of some important cooking methods: egg-cooking, stock-making, braising, grilling, deep-fat frying, custard-making, and so on.

The results of Hervé’s investigations are fascinating. Here are a few highlights to whet your appetite:
  1. For cooked green beans to retain their green colour, it is not a matter of ‘fixing the chlorophyll’. It is dependent on several factors: the beans must be fresh enough that the chlorophyll has not been degraded; they must be cooked quickly; and the water they are cooked in must not be acidic, lest the magnesium in the chlorophyll molecules be eliminated.
  2. Bringing out the flavour of meat depends in part on how much fat the meat contains. British chemist David Mottram discovered that Maillard reactions (the reactions which cause that lovely brown crust on a steak) produce different odorant compounds depending on the presence or absence of fat.
  3. After you take your chips out of the fryer, you only have a minute to wipe off the excess oil before the pressure inside the chips drops and it absorbs the oil on its surface. This applies to all fried food!
  4. If you want soft cookies, pre-cook the flour (in an oven or under the grill) and the gluten proteins are deprived of their ability to harden the cookies.

These examples will give you some idea of whether this book is for you (and whether you want to spend £10.99 on it!). I would like to clarify that the text does contain more than just intellectualized cooking tips. What Hervé has to say about diet is particularly interesting, especially for his lampooning of conventional wisdom: for instance, the Mediterranean diet (as if it existed) is constantly being extolled yet around a third of children in Greece are obese. One caveat, the book can have the whiff of ‘manifesto’ about it at times, which can become tiresome. For what it’s worth I think if you’ve given yourself the goal of changing the public’s attitude towards cooking then you’re probably going to come across as self-righteous and a little doctrinaire.

So, if you’re a hopeless skeptic, as I am, then you will be spurred on by Hervé’s endless probing: ‘Making a stock? It’s so simple that it hardly seems worth explaining. One puts meat in water and heats it. Ah but what sort of meat? From what part of the cow, if it is a beef bouillon? Fresh meat or meat that has been aged? And how much meat for how much water? What kind of water? Salted? Heated in what sort of pot?’ It goes on. Make no mistake, this book is not for the faint-hearted foodie: the chemistry can be complicated and his philosophical meanderings might try the patience of a commis chef whose been given the unenviable task of plucking a million partridges; but I would encourage those interested in the science of cooking to persevere. And if challenging culinary orthodoxy is your thing then grab a copy of Harold McGee’s ‘On Food and Cooking’ and you've got the two testaments of modernist cooking.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Top Ten Cheap Eats in Manchester

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

1. Yuzu, 39 Faulkner street, China Town

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

Yuzu on Urbanspoon

2. Al Jazeera, 22 Wilmslow road, Rusholme

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

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

Frankies Fish Bar on Urbanspoon

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

Kyotoya on Urbanspoon

5. Jaffa, 185 Wilmslow road, Rusholme

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

Jaffa on Urbanspoon

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

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

I Am Pho on Urbanspoon

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

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

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

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

Seoul Kimchi on Urbanspoon

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

DosaXpress on Urbanspoon

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

Friday, 21 December 2012

Q & A with Eddie Shepherd

Eddie Shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

Jamie: What made you become a vegetarian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 December 2012

Aumbry, Christmas Dinner

The pass at Aumbry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Church Lane, Prestwich
M25 1AJ
0161 798 5841

Aumbry on Urbanspoon

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Wineglass, Etrop Grange

Etrop Grange
I'd been looking forward to eating at the Wineglass at Etrop Grange ever since I first saw it spring up on Twitter. When I saw photos of Ernst van Zyl's dishes, I could see he had his presentation nailed, but I wanted to know whether it would taste as good as it looked. As it turned out, the proof really was in the pudding.

Just so readers know, Ernst was more than aware that we were coming to the restaurant, as he had insisted upon creating a bespoke menu for me. As regular readers will know, Ernst loves a challenge (see our Q&A with him, & DineInOut for more information on that!) and enjoys teaching his kitchen brigade new skills and flavour combinations; a personalised menu creation is a perfect opportunity to do that. We were pleasantly surprised with a complimentary glass of Prosecco, but other than that we did pay for our meal in full (I say we, I mean Jamie, it was my birthday after all!). Before I get lost in the details of the dishes, let me mention that the service was brilliant, and we also had a beautiful selection of wines to match each course. I haven't gone into detail about them here, as the food really was the star, but they all complimented the food delightfully.

Beetroot 'Aero', watercress puree and beetroot crisps
I don't think I've ever been to a restaurant where I haven't read the menu at least once before dining, so this was to be an unique experience (oh, and because of the food itself, of course!). Seeing the menu placed in front of me as we were sat in the conservatory area was incredibly exciting. I had an inkling that a venison tartare might appear as it is something that I've wanted to try for a long time. Funnily enough, this turned out to be the dish on the menu I least enjoyed. So after an amuse bouche of a beetroot 'aero' (think beetroot with the texture of marshmallow) we settled down to enjoy the most interesting five courses of food we'd ever tried.

I apparently leapt back in time to my first year of university when I became vegetarian for a year as a moral experiment, and suddenly couldn't stomach the taste of the raw deer in my mouth. It was clearly good quality meat, but entirely wasted on myself. I began wishing I'd grown up in a Scandinavian country where eating this would almost be the norm. Funnily enough, my childhood didn't change, and I sat there, a girl from inner city Birmingham - with no accent, mind! - unable to appreciate the beginning of what would soon turn into my favourite ever meal (except Jamie's Hanger steak, & his version of Heston's fish & chips - ah the Brummie in me appears!). Jamie enjoyed his starter but was unsure of the inclusion of fir pine. I'm sorry Ernst, but I don't think Manchester's ready for this dish yet!

Venison tartare/ bitter chocolate/quince/douglas fir

I was excited to see that two of my favourite foodstuffs were to be included in the next course, but was completely clueless as to how they might turn out when combined. Celeriac and granola! When I took a bite of all of the components of the dish, which included to name but a few: cranberries, whey jelly, fresh cheese, and yoghurt, there was a total harmony in my mouth. The celeriac was perfectly cooked, so earthy and sweet, and worked beautifully with both the granola and fresh, bitter cranberries. Despite being the second course on an evening menu, I would love to eat this for breakfast every day, and if I were more sophisticated, perhaps I would go to some efforts to make that happen. Whilst every morsel of it was delicious, it did seem unusual eating it on a tasting menu. I mean no criticism in that, as whilst Ernst loves a challenge, I think he might enjoy challenging his diners even more. Fortunately that's a game I like to play.

Celeriac/granola/cranberries/fresh cheese
Another surprising combination next, but now I felt myself really slipping into the comforting, delicate touch of the meal. Sole, which Jamie spotted had been filleted then glued back together to create the perfect fillet - what attention to detail! - served with brussel sprouts, grapes and a spelt sauce. These were probably the best brussel sprouts I've ever tasted, though we later found out that they were simply boiled and buttered. I need to get my hands on Ernst's brussel sprout supplier in time for Christmas I think! Grapes, both in their fresh and dried form. I was expecting a modernist take on the classic sole Veronique when I read of their inclusion in the dish, but with the addition of chicken skin seasoning the fish, and the robust flavour of the spelt jus, it was a world away. Everything worked beautifully and I really began to allow myself to sink into the tasting menu.

Sole/grapes/brussels sprouts/spelt
Total, utter comfort was next - though beautifully executed as ever. Duck, served pink - sous vide, I imagine - with butternut squash, blackberries and feta. Not too wild I thought, and was somewhat glad of that. I think sometimes with a main it's important to dial down the crazy and allow the diner some time to pause before hitting them with dessert. Words are beginning to fail me for this one, because I don't know how I can ever get across how delightful it was to place all of these ingredients on my fork in one go. The blackberries were the most perfectly ripe fat little berries I've ever tasted, and the duck perfectly cooked. The feta broke through the sweetness of the rest of the dish and danced around the palette. Just go there, and ask Ernst to make this dish for you - seriously, you won't ever regret it.

Duck/feta/sweet potato/blackberries
And, though sad it is to say, all great meals must come to an end, and here was ours... the wittiest and most beautiful take on lemon meringue pie I have ever witnessed. Soft little peaks of meringue sat next to butternut squash curd, all on a bed of gingerbread puree. I remember watching Great British Menu one year and the judges announced that if they arrived at the gates of heaven and the dish they were judging were placed in front of them, they would be happy. At the time, I thought their comments ridiculous. At the time, I had never eaten this dessert. Now I understand what prompted them to utter such superfluous words. This was the perfect end to a beautiful meal.

Butternut squash/granny smith/gingerbread/meringue
I didn't like everything I ate at the Wineglass, and nor would I eat some of it again. Other dishes I could be fed for the rest of my life, and I'm not sure if I would ever get bored. If someone told me this was their regular tasting menu, I would be impressed, even knowing that this was served every night, but to know that this was an ad hoc creation, is remarkable. Ernst's skill level, attention to detail and sense of adventure is witnessed on every plate, and cooking of this level - I believe - deserves more than 2 AA Rosettes. Michelin, listen up! I've heard people talk about restaurants they love so much they don't want to tell anyone about them, for fear they'll lose sight of what was once great about them. I'm confident that Ernst won't fall prey to that game. Jamie treated me to this meal as my Birthday present, so here, dear readers, is my Christmas present to you: dine at Etrop Grange, let Ernst know, and experience your very own tasting menu: you won't be disappointed.

The Wineglass, Etrop Grange
Thorley Lane, Manchester Airport
M90 4EG
0161 499 0500

The Wine Glass Restaurant at Etrop Grange on Urbanspoon