Thursday, 7 March 2013

Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner

Lovely Beagle branded glasswear sporting Buxton's Dark Nights and the Kernel's London Sour

Never have truer words been spoken than the title of this post. Spotting The Beagle's Chicken In A Basket night - chicken served three ways - our pulses raced as it was confirmed that fried would indeed be one of the ways it would be cooked. Then I stupidly decided to give up fried chicken for Lent (yes, it has got that bad). Cue moral dilemmas. Being agnostic I'm not really that strict on the whole Lenten abstinence, and decided, for the sake of democracy - as Jamie's analysis of fried chicken is only going to end in one answer: "good!" - to go and eat everything anyway.

I will ashamedly admit that we had never before visited the Beagle. Though it had most definitely been on our to-do list since I picked up a mysterious flyer promising a beer house with dining room (bastards! I shouted, they've stolen my concept!) at IMBC, we had failed to make the lengthy two bus-rides journey over. Whilst we have an array of chicken eateries on our doorstep, this journey proved we will travel far and wide for our land-burdened feathered friend. On entrance, the bar made me feel a little like I was in a very sophisticated German beerhouse - and even reminded me a little of Die Henne in Berlin (chicken on the brain or what?!) - though on moving into the restaurant area, it felt a little more like I was in a super stylish granny's living room.

Though we would be provided with beer as part of the deal, we opted for something different as an aperitif, and Jamie wisely selected us a half of the Kernel London Sour (at 2.3% perhaps one of the lowest ABVs I've seen on something actually drinkable!), and another of the Buxton's Dark Nights (4.6%) - an American style Porter. Having acquainted my palette with a rather less sophisticated Irish porter in an attempt to enjoy beer as a young girl, I ended up becoming rather good friends with it, and so the Dark Nights was right up my street. Whilst I could appreciate the er, aperitif style of the Kernel (it certainly got one's mouth watering!) the barman's description of it tasting like salt & vinegar crisps couldn't get out of my head, and I passed this on to Jamie. Good news all round as he's loving the Cantillon brewery at the moment, whose Geuze beer isn't altogether dissimilar to the Kernel's offering. I should also take this opportunity to award Jamie with a small round of applause for managing to refrain from any puns on its name given what we were here to eat...

The most perfect scotch egg in the world. 

We were given a couple of morsels to begin: a perfectly cooked scotch egg (look at that yolk!), and something lovely and buttery on brown bread. I had to ask the waiter what it was who replied "just potted cheddar". Now to he who works there, and probably is lucky enough to pinch a bit every day of his working life (late at night, when going for a 'fag break' but secretly going on a fridge scour - that's what I used to do), it may just be potted cheddar, but to me, it was one of the most delicious things I had ever eaten on bread before EVER. Even with the chicken still to come, this decided it: the Beagle was my new favourite restaurant.

Now, I can't say I'm altogether taken with this new fad of serving things in a basket (think burger bars), but I was going to let this slide for tonight, and was more than pleased when I spotted that the Beagle had carefully sourced lovely stylish baskets for the evening. Despite that, chicken in a basket ain't ever gonna look pretty so there's no photo, but you do get to hear my comprehensive description! First of all, my guilt re: Jesus' death subsided as the fried chicken was 'popcorn' style, and therefore not even what a fricken aficionado would term fried chicken due to its lack of grease. The coating was light and tasty and easily popped! into the mouth. The spicy Buffalo wings were seriously spicy (though I'm only one step up from a Korma kind of gal) though didn't set my mouth on fire as much as the ones we tried at the Bird in Berlin (more of what they're about here). Fortunately, the sides offered blue cheese dip which made them easily manageable for someone as wimpish as me. We were also given a purple cabbage slaw and crudités of carrots and celery (the chef's Mum had clearly taught them that you must always get at least one of your five-a-day in your evening meal!).

BBQ Beanz & blue cheez dip
Back to the chicken, as we still had a breast and a leg of chicken each to get through... My guess is that they might have been cooked sous-vide and then finished off in a pan as they were so wonderfully tender. Or they're just really good at cooking their poultry to perfection too! We were also given the best chips ever: perfectly seasoned with what I can only imagine was crack-salt as I am still craving more of them now, a whole week later. There was so much food we had to ask for a doggy bag to bring half of the chicken home, which I thoroughly enjoyed in a club sandwich the next day.

We were, of course, also given matched beers with the chicken with a choice of either Quantum's American Amber Ale (5.3%) which I really enjoyed; not overly hoppy and therefore a great choice for me. We were also served Magic Rock High Wire (5.5%), which - to be honest - I don't remember at all, but beer ratings websites seem to score very highly so it's probably not bad!

This would have small children crying with tears of joy
Dessert was still to come and took the form of a retro ice cream sundae. The ice creams were phenomenal - the strawberry even better than a Mini Milk (what high praise!), and I would hazaard a guess that the other was a dark chocolate sorbet. All served up with strawberries, bits of brownie and honeycomb, and topped - slightly too high, for my liking - with whipped cream (the proper stuff) - we manage to get through most of it, as we were worried it might not transport so well in our doggy bag.

All in all, a highly successful evening! I think that's evident from the number of seemingly superfluous statements I've made in this entry, but it's all true. My only criticism would be that when I heard 'matched beers' I thought there would be set beers provided to compliment each of the courses and had dreams of some sort of treacly dark beer to go with the dessert. Nevertheless, booze was enjoyed, food was demolished and even better, it was a bargain! £20 per person for a pint, a nibble, pracitcally an entire chicken, sides and dessert. I hear other great themed nights are on the cards, so please Beagle, reserve us a spot now, because I can't wait to see what you'll do with a prawn cocktail...

The Beagle
456-458 Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton
Manchester, M21 0BQ
0161 881 8596

The Beagle on Urbanspoon

Friday, 1 March 2013

Berry & Rye, Liverpool

1920s America: terrible racism, organized crime, and a brief post-war recession aside, I sometimes like to think I’d have enjoyed living in the USA during the Prohibition era. Imagine a time when the humdrum activity of going to a bar was charged with the excitement of illegality; a time when the mere act of raising a pint to your lips was tantamount to ‘sticking it to the man’; a time when bars were secretive, underground and un-signposted.

Nostalgia can of course be a terrible thing. Let’s make one thing clear - the booze would have been dire, knocked up by your neighbour in the same bathtub in which he washed his dog or, worse still, the poisonous “canned heat” made from roughly filtering Sterno, a type of jellied alcohol-based fuel. I very much doubt a good Manhattan would have been easy to come by.

So we come to Berry and Rye, a bar which casts its eye back to the speakeasies of the Roaring Twenties for its aesthetic; but has living, breathing 21st century bartenders with a plentiful supply of excellent spirits and formidable cocktail knowledge. No need to worry about the rising membership of the Ku Klux Clan or why all the good writers are emigrating to Europe, just sit back and enjoy the atmosphere

If this weren't such a great bar, I’d be loath to recommend it, lest its obscurity be compromised in the least of ways. But it is that good: a breath of fresh air, the kind of bar I own in my dreams, the kind of bar you can normally visit only after buying a ticket to Berlin or Barcelona.

So, it’s a Thursday night in Liverpool, Anna and I, braced against the biting wind, wander down Berry Street past the legion of Chinese takeaways and fried-chicken shops looking for a number. We approach an unassuming black doorway behind which we can faintly hear some sign of life. Is this it? I open the door, breast-stroke through the heavy black curtain, and feel like I've stepped back in time. Well, except for the fashion.

Anna goes to the bar to ask for menu only to find out there isn't one: surely, a good omen. So we take a seat in an intimate booth, the waiter brings over some water, perches beside us and asks us what we’d like to drink. Anna is in the mood for whiskey and I for gin, so after some querying and several suggestions we settle one a Volstead Act and a Martinez.

The former, named after the piece of legislation that established prohibition, is a blend of bourbon, sweet vermouth, white cacao, and bitters. The latter is a classic cocktail of gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino and, usually, orange bitters; if you like a Negroni then the omission of the bitter Campari for the nutty, floral, cherry notes of maraschino. Both were smooth and expertly mixed.

With drinks ordered, we could soak up the sights and sounds: the place is moodily lit by exposed-filament bulbs, rail-road lanterns and candles which give the place an old-timey feel, as do the antique photographs and the tunes playing over the speakers. Then the piano keys begin to tinkle a jazz standard and we both sense that our dinner plans have just been cancelled. Not that we particularly want to stave off hunger, but the prospect of going outside, back to reality, has immediately become abhorrent.

So we order another round with the able assistance of our waiter. I fancy a dirty Martini and am nudged in the direction of Chase gin, a British gin made exclusively from apples which are fermented into cider then distilled into vodka. The usual flavourings of juniper and coriander are apparent with some more unique characteristics of hops and bramley apples. It’s a full-bodied crisp gin which stands up well to the salty olive brine. Anna chooses a Sazerac, a drink guaranteed to intoxicate the most hardened booze-hound. Rinse and coat a glass with Absinthe, then stir bitters, cognac and bourbon over ice, then strain into aforementioned glass. Needless to say, we took our time over these.

Forgive me if I slip into 1920s parlance for a brief moment. On accounts of being ‘spifflicated’ as we were, we were all ‘goofy’ and there was no chance we’d be ‘getting our wiggle on’ soon so we decided to order some more of that ‘giggle water’. To cap off the night, Anna ordered another Volstead Act and I went for what I think the waiter called a Holland, being that it was made from Dutch gin or Jenever. I didn't have the wherewithal to ask which Jenever and am struggling to recall the ingredients; however, it tasted in my mind like a gin old-fashioned, with the Jenever imparting a malty, creamy mouth-feel. I’m sure I will find out more on my next visit.

This place is low-profile on the Liverpool bar scene so I can only imagine how well-known it is in Manchester. Now the secret's out.

Berry & Rye
48 Berry Street
L1 4JQ

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