Tuesday, 26 February 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Fire & Salt BBQ, North Carolina Supper Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

In Defence of Ernst Van Zyl

Last week several food bloggers took to the comment pages of Manchester Confidential to defend the cooking of Ernst Van Zyl, head chef at Etrop Grange, in response to Mark Garner's disparaging review of the 'Chef's Menu'. It is a testament to Ernst's ambition and disposition, more so maybe than the quality of his cooking, that he received so many supportive comments.

Herein lies the crux of my argument. Gordo writes: 'Constructive criticism is good'. This is true - I've eaten at Etrop and I was not unanimously complimentary about the food. There is certainly room for improvement and I believe Ernst knows this better than anyone. However, I don't believe the review fits into the canon of constructive criticism. How can you write: 'the disaster that came before'; 'smelled of fart'; 'it actually disturbed us'; and term it 'constructive'.

I can't refute that the meal did go 'spectacularly wrong' or that a broccoli jelly 'smelled of fart' (which it very well might have). I know many who've had excellent experiences at Etrop but I'm more than willing to accept that the current menu has some major flaws. What I'm not willing to accept is the heavy-handed manner in which the criticism was delivered. I’m admittedly a neophyte in the food-writing game but one review and one meal should not be the basis for damaging a chef's reputation so. If Gordo has 'high hopes' for Ernst cooking then you'd have to read between the lines with an electron microscope to find them. 

What bothers me more about the review is that Ernst is one of the few chefs trying to do something innovative in Manchester, a city that has seemingly devolved into buffets, burger joints, and brasseries. I'm not remotely suggesting this precludes him from criticism but anything positive about the meal was brushed over: in the mallard dish (7/10) 'the ingredients worked well'; the desserts were 'fine' despite the lemon tart scoring 8/10. The whole preamble about The Fat Duck was there to illustrate how far, in Gordo's opinion, Ernst has fallen from that particular tree. The whole piece was so far balanced towards the low points that it will discourage so many from ever trying Ernst's cooking.

So, my question to Mark Garner is this: How is Ernst ever going to ‘get it’ if one of the most influential food critics in Manchester recommends that everyone 'stick to the steak and chips'? That would render all Ernst's efforts useless. Surely, more 'constructive' advice would be to recommend trying the 'Chef's Menu' - for how indeed is Ernst going to improve on and adjust his cooking style if the customers don't exist to give him feedback?

I understand that Mark Garner and Manchester Confidential do not want to endorse a meal, especially one with a high price-tag, that might end up disappointing a large section of their readers. However, sometimes I wonder if the motives are less than altruistic.‘Gordo will return in the next three months. He sincerely hopes Ernst takes the criticism in the right way.’ Read: ‘Gordo sincerely hopes Ernst starts cooking exactly the kind of food Gordo wants to eat or Gordo will write another scathing review'. 

The most irksome comment was not in the review itself but from a user called Big Ears who, to paraphrase, wrote that we don’t want or need Ernst's type of cooking in Manchester. It is the most galling thing when someone proclaims to speak for Mancunians in this matter - there are those, myself included, who certainly do want this kind of thing! 

Without encouragement the fine-dining scene in Manchester will never grow and we'll always have to go further afield to find a meal that will challenge our expectations or a chef who will inspire us with his creativity. 

Thus I implore you to visit Etrop Grange and try Ernst's more adventurous dishes; and I hope Mark Garner will take this piece not as a personal attack but in the spirit of 'constructive' criticism. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Food For Thought

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 8 February 2013

Épernay Champagne bar

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

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

Épernay Champagne bar

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

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The perfect slice

The best homemade pizza?

Pizza is one of those foodstuffs that elicit obsessive behaviour. Fanatics will  go to painstaking lengths to recreate the 'perfect' slice. Heston Blumenthal devoted an entire programme to it for his 'In Search of Perfection' series; and I have been guilty of indulging in such fanaticism! Having already put many recipes on trial, it was time to have a stab at the recipe from 'Modernist Cuisine at Home'.

The resting dough
I'd like to say by way of preamble that I won’t advocate trying to mimic a wood-burning pizza oven chez vous. The result might be rewarding but the expense and time detract from what should be a very simple, cheap meal. Buying a thin sheet of metal cut to fit your oven doesn't prove to be that expensive (and might be an investment if you often eat pizza) but what if you've not had the foresight to order one and want pizza pronto? What if you don’t fancy preheating your oven for an hour in this age of astronomical energy costs?  Above all, I felt compelled to master pizza cookery at home purely because the mark-up in restaurants is so high – a Margherita at Pizza Express costs £7.90 and I can imagine it costs well under £1 to make.

Pizza dough formed into balls

I find that placing a baking tray upside down in an oven preheated to its highest temperature will suffice. No, your pizza won’t cook in under 2 minutes per the ridiculous criteria set for authentic Naples pizza but, frankly, do you care? If you really want an authentic pizza you’re probably going to have to bite the bullet and pay for one. The high heat of a wood-burning clay oven will cook the base evenly and give it colour (undoubtedly the biggest challenge) and give you those lovely charred bubbles of dough. I often find that the slightly thicker crust is underdone by the time the topping has cooked.

The rolled and topped pizza

Rolling the pizza base very thinly is the best way to ensure a speedy cooking time and toppings that aren't cremated. The best way to learn how to hand-make a pizza is to watch a video then practice; it's deceptively hard work and tearing the dough while stretching it out is easy to do. Use a rolling pin if you're having trouble and try to ignore the sound of the purists jeering. The making of the dough itself will be that much easier if you own a mixer with a dough hook; though the dough can be easily kneaded by hand as it is not particularly wet.

Purified gluten

Now comes the time to admit that I've been a little disingenuous. The Modernist Cuisine recipe for Neapolitan pizza dough does require a specialist ingredient: Vital Wheat Gluten (Bob's Red Mill brand available on Amazon). Yeast-leavened doughs - like pizza dough - benefit from the addition of extra gluten in its purified form. It gives, in my mind, the right amount of chewiness to the crust and yields a dough that requires less kneading. A brief rest during the kneading process and then a 1 hour period at room temperature and you're ready to go. I'm sure you can forego this ingredient (given it costs £8/500g) as a decent kneading will develop the gluten networks sufficiently.

So, introduction over, now to the recipe:



500g '00' Flour (or '0' Pasta Flour)
310g  Water (cold)
10g     Honey or Agave syrup
10g     Salt
2.5g    Vital Wheat Gluten
2.5g     Active dry yeast

  1. Mix the flour, water, salt, gluten and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attached until the dough comes together.
  2. Mix on medium speed for 5 minutes.
  3. Let the dough rest for 10 mins (still in the bowl and attached to the dough hook) and them mix for another 5 minutes.
  4. Transfer the dough to a floured surface, divide into four chunks of roughly 200g each.
  5. Stretch and roll the dough into smooth balls to develop a network of gluten.
  6. Rub the balls with olive oil, cover with clingfilm and leave to rise at room temperature for 1 hour before using.
To make your pizza, preheat your oven to its highest setting (ours reaches 250 degrees) with an upturned metal baking sheet in it. Roll out your dough on a well-floured smooth board - I use the cheap, flexible plastic chopping boards as a makeshift pizza peel. As you can see from my attempt, there's no need to worry too much about getting a uniform circle! Make sure you add enough flour to the board so the dough will slide off easily onto your preheated tray. Cover with store-bought or homemade tomato sauce and your favourite toppings. At the given temperature, they tend to take 6-7 minutes to cook. 

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
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