Friday, 1 November 2013

My Picks for The Skinny's Northwest Food and Drink Survey (with GIFs)

As some of you may know, The Skinny Northwest is running their first ever food and drink survey this year. 

We're hoping that it will become something of an annual tradition, not quite as big as Christmas but bigger than National Bath Safety Month. What can I say, we're nothing if not dreamers.  

As the mag's food and drink editor I thought it best to lead by example/drum up votes in as un-cringeworthy fashion as possible. So, here are a few of my picks. With GIFs. Because everything is better with GIFs.

You can find the survey form here: and it'd be great if you could vote too, rather than just stare blankly at the screen. I know Russel Brand says it's not cool to vote but in opposite land it totally is. So, yeah.

Best Pub

The Gaslamp, because the beer selection, the staff, and the setting make me do this inside:

Best Local Brewery

Blackjack, because I like supporting the little guys:

Best Cafe

Caffeine & Co. because their coffee is as smooth as this pervert:

Best Newcomer

Some Place, because when I first walked in I wanted to do this to the owners:

Best Food/Drink Shop

Beer Moth, because their beer selection makes me go insane:

Best Place...When Hungover

Go Falafel, an unusual choice, I know, but they feed when I feel like this: 

Best When... In a Rush

Panchjo's, because, well, they'll feed you tasty things when time is of the essence:

Best Place...For a First Date

Berry & Rye, because it's the bar equivalent of doing this:

Well, that was fun wasn't it? And it's always good to end with a bit of Cage.

I hope that's given you some inspiration. Now, go vote! Or we're sending this woman to get you:

Only kidding!


Thursday, 17 October 2013

Blog North Awards

As some of you may know, our blog - this one, right here! - was shortlisted for the Best Food and Drink blog category at the Blog North awards, part of Manchester Literature Festival. Whilst we didn't come away with an acceptance speech to rival Gwyneth's, there was one whose did - and I mean that in a nice way (for all you Paltrow haters out there). Winner of Best Personal Blog, Wife After Death recounts in a heartbreaking yet simultaneously hilarious manner life after her husband's death. Being a 'food blogger' (I wish there was some synonym I could use for that; its connotations now grate on me like a sandpaper bed sheet), it's easy to become engrained in the world of um, food blogging and ignore some of the wonderful and heartfelt writing that is expedited via the means of our beloved Internet.

Reading the other shortlisted blogs, I hope you'll forgive me for saying - and what poor marketing this is - but that our blog felt somewhat mundane. Hey guys look! We ate a meal. We made a meal. We drank some booze. How can that compare to the art of Thom Writes About Love Songs - a blog that will have you howling like a banshee - or the eye-opening Life Without Papers, Len Grant's second winning blog (his previous 'Her First Year' similarly revealing without any sense of intrusion), or Life Beyond Anorexia, a young woman's attempt to communicate her experiences to her family (the one I was most disappointed to see not win an award).

I'm not much of an expert on things, and I suppose blogging helps us to learn. Writing this blog has taught me a lot about food and drink, introduced me to some people I think are really, well, great to be honest - and made both of us pursue careers in writing. I worked as a copywriter for a while, which Jamie is also now doing - and we both have been fortunate to land writing positions with other external sites. (I realised that writing blog posts all day every day made me hate writing and I couldn't cope with that, so maybe I won't be pursuing a full-time career as a writer for the foreseeable future!).

In short, I guess what I'm trying to say is blogging is fucking great. I might not be as proud of our blog as some deservedly are of theirs, but in time I hope it will improve, that we as writers improve and that we'll become more creative in writing about food and drink. Yes, we may not be helping others to empathise with the plight of immigrants, or provide people with comedy gold, but hey - if writing this blog means others know where's good to get a shawarma, or where does the best cocktail in the North West, then at least we've done some sort of service, right? Hedonistic? Maybe. But hobbies are allowed to be, aren't they?

Congratulations to all those who own awards at the Blog North awards, every one is inspiring and I recommend everyone take a gander. For full details of the winners, take a look at the Blog North site.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Mughli, Rusholme: it's time to say goodbye.

Possibly lamb nihari with a definite side of okra.
We have lived in Rusholme now for almost one year; in this time we have discovered more cuisines than we could ever have hoped for in that narrowly named 'Curry Mile': falafel, shawarma, lamb chops, naan breads bigger than our heads, fried chicken, chips fried in chicken fat, bountiful salads, and lots and lots of rice. Having grown up in Manchester, I was already au fait with many of the Mile's 'Indian' restaurants before moving to the area, including the old Mughli. I've watched the curry scene change: from the faithful British Indian cuisine of my childhood (at places like Jalal's in Burnage and Khandoker's in Parrswood) to a more modern yet nostalgic vision complete with street food influences, fusion, and a focus on regional dishes (think East z East, Zouk and Mughli).

Samosa chaat: uttar pradesh topped with chickpea, potato,
sweet tamarind, yoghurt & crispy sev.
Of those latter restaurants, Mughli is most firmly planted in the present day. Whether it's the iPad-wielding staff or the chilli okra fries, the surprisingly decent cocktail menu or the engaging Twitter presence, this neighbourhood Indian has not rested on its laurels. We've heard how, following a particularly scathing review, the family called a meeting to discuss how to step up their game. Whatever the conclusions were from those talks, they have obviously paid dividends. There's been a favourable review in the Telegraph, near unanimous praise from bloggers, and even an endorsement from Matt Tebbut. The place, it seems, has never seen busier and while people flock to nearby Lahore to be seen (we assume - from our visit, it can't be for the food), it's the food that draws the punters to Mughi.

If you thought after all this I might be setting Mughli up for a fall, I'm not. It's merely time for us to say goodbye - although, we rather hope it's more of 'a bientot' - as we move to the more suburban area of Levenshulme. There'll be no more Friday night hungover trips - although it seems Anna is thankful of this, as she began to worry the owner thought her an alcoholic, or last minute Sunday night "let's make the last little bit of this weekend last" visits.

Ignore the bright colours - Far Far: better than popadoms!
While there may be curry houses in Manchester producing more 'traditional' dishes, that's not entirely the point. Among the trendy Tava rolls and Far Far, the usual suspects are lurking, the CTMs and the Kormas, but what matters is that the food is consistently good and delivers on flavour. And it has done every time we've been since they got back on track (I'm holding back a Railway Curry pun). Mughli has in my estimation overtaken the once exemplary Great Kathmandu which has been steadily declining of late and outclasses its city-centre competitors (although, you must still go - just to meet the Scouse waiter, he's a legend in his own right).
Mughli has recently updated its menu. And we've tried a tiny, weeny bit of it. Truth be told, I'm not a big fan of telling people what I've eaten and what I thought of it. Sometimes I deem it necessary, especially when justification is needed to back up a critical review, but most of the time I'd like to say go try it yourself. So do. 

However... if you'll excuse my hypocritical self for a moment, I do have a couple of recommendations: the Machil Masala is rich, deeply satisfying fish dish, while lamb-on-the-bone dishes like the Nihari and the Lahori Karahi are must-haves. I can testify to the quality of the Kati rolls and the Samosa Chaat too. If you've had better (in Manchester!, fuck it - the UK) then please let us know. A side dish of okra is also a must, and fellow bloggers Where To Feed and Bacon on the Beech also proclaimed the gunpowder chips and aubergine mash near-items of beauty.

Machli masala - or whatever it was called before the menu change!

So if you're thinking this place sounds too good to be true, what are the criticisms? Well, they are few and far between and mostly down to their own damn good business. If you're trying to bag a walk in - if it's Friday or Saturday night - then buy a bottle of wine at the bar, and maybe by the time you've drunk it all, there'll be a free table: this place fills up fast. Booking is more than advised. And their naan isn't my favourite in Manchester - but how could it be after I've met breads bigger than my head?!

We couldn't leave without one last meal in the restaurant that is no more than 500 yards from our front door - so Anna has arranged her leaving do from her current job there on Sunday night. Why? Because if you find a restaurant that makes you sad to move, you share it with others. Go. 

Mughli on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Manchester House

That dish
Fine dining restaurants in Manchester are a bit like buses. You wait ages and they all come at once. 

Hot on The French's heels is Manchester House, the collaboration between Chef Aiden Byrne and Living Ventures. In the words of LV's CEO, Tim Bacon, it's a restaurant that the city can “potentially be very proud of”. A modest admission for a man who has made no secret of his intention to give Manchester its first Michelin Star.

Bacon is someone who acknowledges that there has been a “lack of traction with fine-dining in the city”, so the £3 million he's invested  in this venture will seem to many as pure extravagance; and a cynic might say that he is trying to buy greatness. It’s a lot of pressure, also, for Aiden Byrne. "Dancing to the Michelin drum" as Marco-Pierre White puts it, has been many a chef's undoing.

To have hope of winning over the Michelin inspectors, the food will have to be better than anything on offer in  Manchester. So what of it? Well, to analyse the dishes in too much detail would be superfluous. This, after all, was no ordinary service. It was well orchestrated 'press lunch' (i.e. complimentary); everyone on their best behaviour for the BBC's cameras. We all ate the same seven-course tasting menu. There were no slip-ups in service, save for a bit of pea in the pea juice ("It's supposed to be clear", the waiter explains, rushing to fetch a fresh one).

The offending pea juice
Better to judge the food at a later date, during normal service. Though, for those on a writer's wage, it's going to be a long time before the next tasting! First impressions were unanimously positive with the food impressing in many areas; and letting down in other respects. It's perhaps telling that the 'WOW' dishes like those from Byrne's Great British Menu repertoire (the paleolithic beef dish and the 'prawn cocktail') were outshone by the breads: the first, a bun filled with oxtail and served with oyster mayonnaise; the second, a bacon brioche served with pea butter and pea juice.  

The decimated prawn cocktail

The trickery of the prawn cocktail's melting passion fruit sphere seemed a time-consuming effort for a dish that didn't have its desired impact. Too much of the fancy maltodextrin powder, and not enough flavour. The beef dish was lovely but, at £58 for two people to share, it wasn't that lovely. The sea water and soil distillation that smoked out of its bed of false grass failed to hit its multisensory target.

Sea water and soil distillation 
The pigeon dish with black cherries and pistachio was, however, a standout: the one plate that could please the gods of Michelin. So good was it that Manchester Confidential's Gordo prematurely named it 'Dish of the Year' in a fit of shameless self-publicity. But one plate of that calibre won't be enough to achieve Tim Bacon's dream. Nevertheless, there's no doubt that Manchester House is a restaurant that can get better with age; Byrne won't allow it to be otherwise. 

Perhaps, more interesting than any food was to hear what the two collaborators had to say about their vision for the restaurant.

During the post-dinner Q & A, Byrne came across as simultaneously humble and ambitious, eager to get the point across that he wanted to challenge himself. Reinvention was born out of boredom: “I wanted to throw away my recipe book.” Strange then that a couple of the dishes we tried were well-known dishes from his time on The Great British Menu. One guess as to whose decision that was.

The award-winning pigeon dish

Byrne was preoccupied but took the time to stop at tables and have a chat. It’s evidently been a tiring year and already a tiring day – Byrne and his team have been here since seven in the morning and last night’s shift finished at 2am. Maybe that accounts for the negative language (the word frustration is scrawled on my notepad/menu in huge caps); maybe its the whispered troubles he's had with Tim Bacon. Perhaps it's competition with The French that worries him. He made a point of distancing himself from Simon Rogan: "Simon's product and mine are a million miles from each other." Here's hoping that these worries won't consume Byrne and he can put his full attention into making the food truly exceptional. Easier said than done, with £3 million riding on it.    

Sitting next to Byrne, Tim Bacon took a different tack and endeared himself to the common folk: first by talking about how Byrne phoned him whilst on holiday in the Maldives, and later by reminding us that the “combined turnover of [his restaurants] would blow your mind.” Well, customers aren't going to be thinking about turnover when they're eating at Manchester House and the only thing they want to blow their mind is the food.

Tim Bacon's got the money and believes Manchester can give London a run for its money; and Aiden Byrne was the youngest chef ever to win a Michelin star. So, perhaps they're a match made in heaven. I'm not so sure.

Manchester House on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

V Zátiší Restaurant, Prague

I consider myself to be a fairly liberal sort of person: I read the Guardian, eat hummus and don't set vulnerable people on fire. I vehemently disagree with prejudice but of course, would fight to the death someone's right to be an ignorant racist. I've realised lately, however, that I have a prejudice of my own. I say have - fortunately several restaurants Jamie and I visited in Prague earlier this year have managed to correct that - I can now proudly say HAD; I had a prejudice of my own.

"So what's the prejudice?" I hear you cry, pleading with me to tell you (read: bumping up our bounce rate to 99%). Well, until recently, I was under the impression that Asian food was never very good on the continent. If you read our post on Sansho, you'll know how wrong I was. Perhaps it was that lemon chicken I ate in Amsterdam, forever associated with an entirely horrific rite-of-passage 'Dam experience, maybe it was the millions of photographs of horrific-looking plates of south Asian food I'd seen advertised in tourist areas, or the fact that Asian restaurants in Europe seem to assume that no-one can handle any level of spice outside of the Balti triangle. Whatever it was, I made a judgment. A bad judgment. And I'm pleased to say, I'm pleased to admit to y'all here today: AH WAS WRONG, my brothers and sisters, I was wrong.

So where was it that proved me wrong? Well, I should really stop pretending to be readers asking me questions, particularly ones with answers that are based in the title of the post. As you may have guessed it was a rather posh ol' place down a quaint back street in Prague: V Zátiší (meaning cosy and peaceful - it was both of those things save a lone American tourist asking, "what the hell is turboh?"). Part of a group of fine-dining restaurants, this place clearly knows what it's doing: an opulent building, plush interior, perfect service and damn tasty food is always going to be an equation for a successful business operation.

Look at the size of those salt flakes!
I was initially drawn to the restaurant as I spotted they offered tasting menus - but not just that, they offered MIX AND MATCH tasting menus. Those with an affinity for spending vast sums of money on small plates of food and wine kept out of arm's reach (myself included) will be aware that this is practically unheard of. Next to a tasting menu description, you'll usually see the words "to be ordered by the entire table". One person alone may not enjoy a tasting menu, nor an experience different to that of their companion. The rules associated with tasting menus is, perhaps, a discussion for another day.

Anyway, I was excited: this meant that Jamie and I could each have a different menu and try more food. Hurrah! Oh, and then it got interesting. There are three choices of tasting menus: one, which I suppose consists of the classics of the restaurant; one made up of modern-Czech dishes; and one from "our visiting Indian chef's menu". Jamie went for the first, and I the latter.

In retrospect, maybe Jamie should have opted for the Czech menu as the 'menu degustation' he opted for whilst *ahem* positively delightful, was nothing really special, just very well cooked food. There was the unctuous foie gras, served with an orange puree and brioche, the pretty-as-a-picture asparagus salad (and heaven knows what else was on there now, this was back in July, but it tasted as fresh as it looks), and the perfectly-pink steak seasoned as if Jamie had poured the salt shaker on it himself. 

Curry & Mash. I'll never understand.
And, whilst the Indian menu was by no means flawless, there were some delicious dishes: the tomato and lentil soup with green pea and "tiki croquettes" - the latter like little fish-roe explosions of flavour - the mustard tandoori tiger prawns, which I will try and recreate until my dying day, and the tandoori chicken makhani, as good as any you'll find in Mughli. The lamb-lime curry was also delicious but far too rich for the fourth course in the meal, and I'm really not sure what they were thinking when pairing it with saffron and mushroom mash. The potatoes, entirely delicious on their own, would have been lovely with a stew but with an Indian lamb curry? No no no no. The blueberry kulfi with gulab jamun balls has even seen me attempt Indian sweets at home since.

By the end of five courses, we were full to say the least. At first it felt like an expensive bill - and I think it was for Prague - but paying around £45 each for the quality of cooking and service back in the UK would have been more than reasonable. I'm not saying you should rush and book a table if you're planning a trip to the Czech Republic, but if you fancy a taste of the curry mile whilst you're there, and have a fussy bunch of eaters who are hard to please, then V Zátiší is the place for you. It was worth it for me, if only to cure me of my prejudice.

V Zátiší
Liliová 216/1, 110 00 Prague 1
Reserve online here.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

On the Virtues of Fried Chicken

To get things underway we have an excerpt from Fried Chicken by the American rapper Nas:

Don’t know what part of you I love best
Your legs or your breast
Mrs. Fried Chicken, you gonna be a nigga death
Created by southern black women to serve massa’ guest

Well put, Nasir. In less than 140 characters he ruminates on which part of the beloved bird is the tastiest, the implications of fried chicken consumption for the health of Black Americans, and makes a barely disguised reference to slavery. Take that, Twitter generation!

The song is part pop at America’s dietary habits and part farcical metaphor for a lustful relationship with a woman (“You in your hot tub I’m looking at you salivatin’/Dry you off I got your paper towel waitin’”). I implore you to give it a listen, if only to hear Busta Rhyme’s hilarious closing lines on the dangers of ham hocks: “Who cares if the swine is mixed with rat, cat and dog combined/Yes, I’m a eat the shit to death.”

As is plain to see, fricken is important enough to write a song about. And Nas’ ode is probably the best example of a food-inspired song (if you discount Funkadelic’s Fish, Chips and Sweat). But what’s so great about fried chicken? I’m a self-confessed addict, but I often find, as with many things in life, the expected high turns out to be guilt-ridden disappointment, like a greasy one-night-stand. Guilt-ridden because my moral sensibilities tell me it’s not okay to keep stuffing myself with poultry that’s lived a life only marginally better than a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Disappointment because my ‘freshly’ fried chicken has inevitably been sitting on a warming rack for hours and thus taken on the consistency of the fused tentacles of a very dry mop.

So, what advice can a Manchester fricken junkie give? Well, I’m inclined to agree with Will Self when he says, in a clever inversion of the old rat story, “you’re never more than a few feet away from some disjointed portion of poultry carcass.” That is to say, there are plenty of options in this here city. What follows are some tips/recommendations that may or may not (especially if you don’t eat chicken) come in handy:
  •       Avoid anywhere near Piccadilly or Portland St. And the Dixy Chicken at Shudehill. The one on Deansgate is acceptable. Beware of a greater than usual vibe of “I don’t give a fuck” on employees’ faces. That is, if you are in any fit state to be so aware.
  •             In theory, I’d question the kitchen practices of all chicken shops but I can’t bear to look at their Food Hygiene Ratings and suggest blocking it from your mind, preferably with alcohol.
  •           The best chicken wings are in my opinion to be found at Chunky Chicken and Chicken Cottage in Rusholme and Finger Lickin’ Chicken in Withington. They’re a (un)healthy size with the right amount of spice and a slightly less crisp coating (which I prefer for wings). If you like ‘em spicy, Finger’s the default. If you like shards of batter, then stick to KFC.
  •           I now only rarely order my old fave, the 2-piece combo, as I find that wherever I go the quality of chicken borders on the foul (bum-dum-tsh!). Unless we’re talking Southern Eleven’s chicken dinner, although I think they take the colour of the batter a little too far. More brown than golden. Stick to wings and burgers where poor quality is less evident.
  •           When you enter a joint, ascertain the quantities of chicken pieces, wings, and burgers on the warming racks. If they’re low on a certain thing you might be able to get some freshly made if you order enough. Failing that, just ask for it to be made fresh as we’ve established the price of eating stale fricken.

A word on KFC . If you like your service efficient and your options plentiful then it’s definitely worth seeking one out. As much as I try to avoid the global fast-food chains, I can’t fault their turnover of customers, their marketed-to-death specials, and the internal temperature of the food served. Sometimes when I enter any one of the number of ‘fake KFCs’ I often wonder (a) whether the my bowels are going to hate me for this in the morning (sorry!) and (b) why the most incompetent member of staff is serving and the other four are collectively managing to make one mini-fillet burger and a portion of chips. I think there should be a joke along the lines of: “How many Dixy Chicken employees does it take to make a bargain bucket? Five, plus the manager, and the delivery guy, and some guy they roped in off the street. And it still took two hours.” Yeah, I’ll grant you, it’s not very funny. And another thing:  why do KFC still refuse to salt their chips? Surely one salt shaker is cheaper than hundreds of individual sachets. Is it a way of limiting customers’ salt intake? If so, I don’t think it’s working.

Right, I’ll stop myself before I get too much into rant territory. Thanks for taking a foray into the crazy, mixed-up world of a fried chicken addict. It’s great to finally open up about my vice. But writing about it, far from helping in some cathartic way, has just made me want to get hold of a bargain bucket. Dammit!

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Juke Joint Bars at Black Jack Brewtap

Do you like beer? Do you like your mind to be blown by the sheer choice of beer on offer? And for your mind to continue to be blown when you see the quality of beer and the mad handmade set up Juke Joint bars have got going on? If you answered yes to these three questions, then read on (make sure you put a helmet on, in case your mind actually blows - the helmet will ensure it is held in place).

Seating area accompanied by excellent DJs
You've heard of pop-up restaurants, right? (I'm sure Dr Oetker's explained them to you). Now, here's the um, next phenomena: pop-up bars. Not quite the same premise as the pop-up restaurant, but the clever boys over at Juke Joint Bar have created transportable craft beer on tap. Generally appearing at events such as Levenshulme Food & Drink market, Trove Foods and um, Brighton (that's the kind of city that's an event in itself, right?), the rentable bar is making a move to central Manchester for a few special weekends. The Juke Joint Bar, run by Jon and Joe - once of the Gas Lamp/Wahlbar and the Beagle - revolves around transportable Jockey Boxes (devised by the fellas themselves), and are always filled with an awesome selection of beer when curated by these guys. They recently took over Black Jack brewery (where their office is based) for a weekend of Brew Tap fun, accompanied by food from the Moocher. We didn't actually try any of the food but their salt beef was apparently good enough even for vegan Jon - that's got to be saying something, surely?!

Now, for the beer. There was quite a selection, and that's not an understatement. No really, look >>>

Apologies for the blur - I may have had my second shot of 'tea vodka' by then.

In the interests of fairness, we tried as many beers as our livers could handle. If you enjoyed feeling sophisticated at IMBC, drinking beer in thirds, you can do this here too, meaning you get to sample a much greater variety than you would in your local boozer. As a less experienced beer drinker than Jamie, it was also a good opportunity for me to delve further into the craft beer world. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about brewing, but I am a keen craft beer drinker. I generally go for porters or stouts if I can handle something heavy, or a
decent malty pale ale when I'm drinking er, heavily. Amongst others, ones that stand out from the night include the Black Jack Alumni, Redchurch's Hackney Gold, Weird Beard's Black Perle and the Shoreditch Triangle. It's not all about the beer here though: there's also a carefully-chosen selection of spirits and um, apple juice. I really wanted to try some of the latter but given the already exemplary selection of beers on offer, it was difficult to turn one of them down in exchange for something non-alcoholic.

Unfortunately Jamie and I can't make Juke Joint's next event at Black Jack, but I whole-heartedly recommend it to those who are still searching for bank holiday weekend plans. Open Friday from 5pm, more or less all the way through to Sunday (I say more or less, those boys do need to sleep!), is there anything better than to sit on a seat (made by Jon and Joe themselves), drinking an excellent selection of craft beers listening to tunes that make you want to move your feet? I THINK NOT. Do it. (OH and if you like craft beer, watch out for an upcoming article in the Skinny Northwest by Jamie. It's interesting. Really. He didn't pay me to say that. And vote in their food and drink survey please. He did pay me to say that. Not really.)

Friday 22nd - Sunday 24th August
Black Jack Brewery (in the yard!)
36 Gould Street, Manchester
M4 4RN