Thursday, 1 August 2013

Hemingway Bar, Prague

Manhattan at Hemingway Bar
I love booze. There, I've said it - that's the first step, right? Jamie loves it too. We're probably doing to die eating cat food because we've spent all our money on Gin Mare and Rip Van Winkle bourbon. Not a bad way to go, I suppose, as long as Heston comes up with a pet food range for Waitrose in the next thirty years. So, we've frequented the majority of Manchester's cocktail bars and now we're moving on to the Continent.

In our experience, upmarket cocktails bars in Europe differ from bars here. There's few places which offer table service, although Proof and Epernay are exceptions, though neither of those are quite as intimate as the places we've visited when abroad. There's nowhere quite like the hostess-seated, Green Door in Berlin, the ring-for-entry art deco space where Miles Davis once played, L'Archiduc in Brussels, or the too-cool-for-menus, El Gimlet in Barcelona. Fortunately, Berry and Rye - a stone's throw away over in Liverpool - is more akin to our favourite holiday haunts.

Maybe it's just the holiday feeling that adds a certain je ne sais quois to the aforementioned bars, and I certainly mean no insult to the places that are serving some damn good drinks here in Manchester. Maybe I just go all pretentious as soon as I'm drinking in another country and want table service ALL THE TIME, certainly no standing and a bartender who looks like he's walked off a 1930s film set. God, I'm demanding, aren't I?

Courtesy of the Hemingway Bar website (it actually looks better than his in real life)

One of the places we found on holiday in Prague which ticked all the boxes was Hemingway Bar. We loved it so much, we managed to squeeze in three trips in our four night stay, and certainly worked our way through a hefty portion of the menu. I knew I'd love it as soon as I read the 'bar rules' on the menu online; some way find them a little arrogant, but having worked as a bartender for a number of years, they're exactly what I like to see when I walk into a place - I'm just not sure if others take as much notice of them.

Pistachio & Blackcurrant Cosmo - with pistachio foam!
From the attentive and friendly service - we had the same waiter on two of the three nights who was lovely, and had recently started working there after his old place of work flooded! - to the attention to detail in the drinks, we found the place hard to fault. Hardened booze-hound Jamie found some of the drinks too 'watered down' for his English palate, but on the most part they were a delight, even the cocktail which included English mustard!

As I say, we tried a few cocktails over the three days, and learnt they mixed a mean Manhattan and even did justice to some more typically 'girlie' drinks, such as their Pistachio & Blackcurrant Cosmopolitan. If you enjoy proper cocktails, a spot of table service and even a good ol' shake at your table, Hemingway Bar is worth a trip (or three!) if you're visiting Prague.

Hemingway Bar Praha
Karolíny Světlé 26
Praha 1

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Phetpailin, Chinatown

Pla Chu Chee - creamy, spicy richness with crispy lime leaves.

We've banged on about Phetpailin a fair bit since writing this blog - we featured it in our 'Top Ten Cheap Eats' back in January and mentioned it as the 'place to keep going back to' on Wow 247. We even had the pleasant surprise of recommending it to someone on Twitter and later realising they were sat at the table next to us when we last visited!

I'll start by warning you the photos don't do this place justice, and it doesn't help that the lighting's bad and they were all taken on my iPhone. Also important to note is that this joint is BYOB. Yes, that's right ladies and gents: it's free reign to get as pissed as you like for under a tenner. Or, as sometimes occurs, when we're feeling a little more flash, it's an opportunity to splash out on a fancy bottle from a decent wine shop like Reserve - as we did on this occasion - for the same price you'd usually spend on a bottle of the house in a licensed restaurant.

It's easy to spot: you'll see Long Legs on George street, a huddle of bouncers and dodgy looking fellas outside, sometimes even sitting on the steps to the entrance of Phetpailin - so squeeze past them and slip into this little gem of a Thai restaurant.

Knowing that I was going to be treating Jamie for some seriously good pan-Asian cuisine in Prague in the form of Sansho, I wanted to give him a little taster of things to come on his actually birthday and so booked us a table at 8pm on a Wednesday night. It was surprisingly busy, and there was just one waitress to manage the whole place - whilst service wasn't speedy per se, considering she was on her own, it was perfectly efficient and well, just generally inoffensive.

Tod Mun Pla (Thai Fishcakes)
I won't beat about the bush with this one: the food is decent, reasonably priced, and as already mentioned, it's bladdy bring yer own innit guv?!

Having previously sampled the deep fried platter of Thai starters - a bargain at £5.95 p/p - we weren't sure we could face it this time, so just opted for the Thai fish cakes. With a completely rubbish carrot salad on the side, the fishcakes themselves are fragrant, spicy little bites of um, fish. And other bits. According to their website, there's green beans in them but I didn't notice any. Though rubbery to touch, they're almost as light as marshmallows, but with a slightly crisp coating. Essentially, I'm telling you that for £5.50 they're worth a try. The accompanying sweet chilli sauce is fair too, less gloopy than the stuff out of a bottle and I assume it's made on site.


Mains were pretty much predetermined. We managed to sample a good majority of the menu when our mates had a leaving do there (they left us for Australia, sob!) and discovered our faves: Tamarind Duck and Pla Chu Chee. The duck dish is a slightly sweet and sour one due to the inclusion of tamarind (also found in HP and Worcestershire sauce, don'tcha know?). We loved the use of cashew nuts to vary the texture, and there were plenty of veg. It would be great if they'd cook the duck pink, though perhaps if you specified they would. Regardless of the colour of the meat, it's still perfectly tasty. We tried to recreate this at home later - we got the duck bang on but couldn't quite recreate that lovely sticky glaze. The Pla Chu Chee is in another league, although I can't work out if my palate is hardening to spice or they've cooled it down a bit over the years, as I definitely remember not being able to manage more than a mouthful a few years ago due to the chilli heat. This time I was more than capable, hurrah! They use tilapia, a cheap white fish, though it doesn't really matter that it's nothing posher here as the rich red curry paste sauce, mixed with coconut milk and deep fried lime leaves is an unctuous delight alone.

Our bill came to just over £25, we'd drunk a bottle of wine we'd probably have paid in excess of £40 if bought in a restaurant, and left stuffed. This place isn't going to win any awards for fine dining or innovative cuisine, but I've never had a bad meal here, and it's a great place to visit, whether you're a couple or group of mates. I'd advised booking, particularly on the weekend - and they even have a fancy website you can do it on!

Phetpailin
46 George Street, Chinatown
Manchester, M1 4HF
0161 228 6500

Phetpailin on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Sansho, Prague

Soft-shell crab slider with wasabi mayo

Halfway through our meal at Sansho the owner, Paul Day, passes by our table and asks us how we're enjoying the food. Anna promptly replies, “It’s really good.” I've just had a mouthful of some seriously tasty Beef Rendang and blurt out, “It's amazing!” Without a second thought, Day says, with genuine sincerity, “It's not amazing.” And with that he carries on his way.

Maybe it's modesty. Maybe it’s the high standards he expects of himself after working in Michelin-starred establishments. Maybe, just maybe, the Thai food he creates cannot, in his eyes, come close to the ‘real deal’. Whatever the case - for us - the whole experience was unexpected. Thai food in Prague? And good Thai food at that.

It’s not as strange as it sounds, we later found out. The Czech Republic has a huge Vietnamese population, over 10,000 of whom live in Prague according to the 2011 census. They are the country's largest immigrant community; so it stands to reason that Pan-Asian cuisine is something Prague-dwellers are familiar with. However, it's perhaps not at the level of sophistication that Day brings: soft-shell crab sliders, pork and watermelon salad, and that 12-hour Beef Rendang.

Pork and watermelon salad
Opened in 2011, Sansho is Day’s first restaurant; and judging by the turnout on a Tuesday evening, it's not doing too badly. Admittedly, it is high tourist season - we're flanked by a large group of Australians on one side and an American couple on the other - but the buzz about the place seems to have stayed strong. It's sparsely decorated and staffed with easy-going, somewhat Bohemian Czech twenty-somethings.

Paul Day was senior sous-chef at Nobu and worked under legendary David Thompson at Nahm, the world's first Thai restaurant to gain a Michelin star - so, despite what he says, the food is very good. He offered to choose our courses for us, presumably to showcase the best of Sansho, although judging by the other dishes we saw flying past us, I'm not sure there'd be any dud courses in this place.

Beef Rendang

The meat dishes are the real treat. Given Day's background, it's no real surprise. Raised in Stafford, he was working in a butcher's shop at the age of 13; a shop which he ended up owning then selling when he was 18. With the proceeds he moved to London and started as a butcher in Chinatown, working in various restaurants as well. It's a passion he has brought to the restaurant and the city: he's started his own butcher's shop called the Real Meat Society (superbly branded, by the way) which provides all the meat used in our dishes. He's also committed to improving local farming practices and confessed in a radio interview his interest in "changing the Czech palate." You can see what he means: the pork belly is cooked five different ways in a three-day process and the rendang contains 21 different ingredients. The beef salad featured some incredibly tender steak and a complex array of non-native herbs.

The seafood was surprisingly good, considering the Czech love of meat (in particular pork). The Soft-shell Crab Slider is sensational: the delicate bun giving way to deep-fried crustacean with a hint of a heat from the wasabi mayo. They're deceptively simple and so good you immediately want another. The slider, along with the clams in an aromatic broth and salmon sashimi, were fine examples of less Thai-inflected cuisine that Sansho is capable of. 

Sansho - Interior. Like some hip New York gallery.

The only letdown was the desserts. Sticky toffee pudding and baked cheesecake could be staples of Thai kitchens for all I know; but I seriously doubt it. It's not that they were bad necessarily, it's just that on a sweltering summer's evening, we craved something with coconut, mango, and lime. Thankfully, they'd mixed some refreshing cocktails, a cucumber collins and a watermelon cooler, that did a good job of staving off the heat.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, I can say that rarely have I ever been as satisfied with a meal as I was with the tasting menu at Sansho. This may be down to my 'sunny' holiday disposition but I'd like to think that my critical faculties were still intact. Don't trust me? Then, there's only one way to find out.

Sansho
Petrska 1170/25
110 00 Praha (Prague)

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Proof's 'Liquid Brunch'

Oysters: hangover-cure in a half-shell

Brunch. While there's some debate as to the origins of this portmanteau, there can be no debate that it's one of the most overlooked of mealtimes. Originally, brunch was a cure for 'Saturday night carousers'; something not as heavy as a full-on a Sunday roast for the hungover hordes. Though there was no shortage of boozehounds back then, there's just plain more of us now, waking up at the weekend with throbbing heads and rumbling stomachs, looking for the ideal brunch spot. But, where to go? Well, if you live in Chorlton or its environs (hell, even further afield - it's worth the journey) then Proof have stepped up to plate with their Liquid Brunch.

Beet 'n' Bloody
A drawback of most places that offer brunch is the lack of decent liquid refreshment. Sure, you've got your coffee and your fruit juices (maybe, a Bloody Mary at a push and a side of scowl from the bartender) but for those who like to treat their hangovers with more of the devil drink, the options are few and far between. But not at Proof. Thanks to the crack cocktail team, you can get back on the wagon in style with a selection of no less than six brunch-inspired concoctions. From the Margarita-based Holy Guacamole and a twist on the classic Bloody Mary, Best 'n' Bloody, there's something for all manner of ailment. So you don't have to listen to me prattle on about the merits of each one and list their ingredients, I've kindly added a copy of the menu below. Suffice it to say, that Proof have been mixing some of the best drinks in Manchester for years now, and their Liquid Brunch doesn't disappoint.

And it's not all liquid. They serve up three different bagels that will please meat-eaters, pescatarians and vegetarians alike. If you're brave enough, they also do a platter of oysters with all the trimmings. They're keeping it local too with bagels coming from the ever-popular Barbikan and oysters coming from the guys at Out of the Blue. If that doesn't tempt you, the price most certainly will. With a cocktail and a bagel costing just a tenner, or two cocktails for 12 quid, you won't feel to guilty about loosening those purse strings again after a heavy night.

We were guests of Proof and between each member of the group we managed to sip and scoff our way through the entire menu. Pairing a bacon and roasted tomato bagel with a souped-up Bloody Mary is a must; the Holy Guacamole with, you guessed it, homemade guacamole was a surprise hit; and if you like something less savoury the Brunch Martini is a sophisticated alternative. 

Liquid Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 12-4pm.

Proof
30a Manchester Road
Chorlton
M21 9PH

The menu: get browsing








Monday, 8 July 2013

Recipe: our English Garden Martini

We'd just booked a holiday and the next pay day seemed like a lifetime away. Sainsbury's sent an e-mail asking whether anyone would like a free bottle of gin to write about their 'perfect serve'. As supermarket spirits increasingly overtake well-known industry producers in the International Spirits Challenge awards, it seemed like now was a good time to sell-out and accept a product freebie...

Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Blackfriars Gin  recently won 'gold' in the aforementioned awards, flying past renowned brand names such as Hendrick's, BLOOM, Bombay Sapphire, and even Gin Mare (Jamie's personal fave). Whilst we're yet to try it in a classic Martini, which I suppose is one of the best tests of taste, the cocktail I did make it in was bloody delicious. So here's my 'perfect serve', ideal for the spate of super sunny weather we're currently having...

Whilst the gin was perfectly quaffable in a standard G&T, I wanted to do something a bit different with it, and so decided to create a cold infusion with cucumber. Using the same quantities of cucumber and gin (I used 200g and 200ml - any amount will work, but as this was the first time I was to make it, I wanted to check that it was drinkable first!). Next time, I'm likely to use a full bottle...


Firstly, you'll want to peel your cucumber and chop the hell out of the slippery green thing. Add the same amount of liquid and get whizzing with a hand blender: you'll want a vessel with high sides so you don't give yourself a surprise face mask. Once blended, you'll refrigerate this mixture for a number of hours - the longer the better. (Heston suggests 16).


We were being a bit fancy pants though and popped ours in one of our vacuum seal tubs - which meant that after just a couple of hours, the cucumber flavour had really penetrated the gin. Once the gin has infused for the proposed amount of time, it will need to be fine-strained to remove the cucumber mush! (I reckon someone cleverer than I could turn this mush into some sort of gin-infused cucumber granita...)


This is a little bit time-consuming, but unless you want a cucumber smoothie, totally necessary! I then decided to use this cucumber-infused gin in a taken on the modern-classic 'English Garden Martini'. I cannot reiterate how refreshing this cucumber gin is - it's actually dangerously drinkable... I would thoroughly recommend making a huge vat of this for barbecues this summer. This is most definitely my 'perfect serve' and the gin-aficionado that is Jamie even said that it was one of the best gin martinis he's ever had. High praise indeed! We loved this one so much that we're considering serving it at our next supper club...

English Garden Martini


Ingredients
50ml     Taste the Difference Blackfriar's Gin infused with cucumber
75ml     Cloudy apple juice
12.5ml  Lime juice
7ml       Elderflower cordial
7 - 10   Mint leaves

1. Gently bruise mint leaves with muddler (or rolling pin)
2. Squeeze lime juice into glass part of cocktail shaker
3. Add remaining ingredients and fill glass with ice
3. Ensure top part of cocktail shaker is tightly fitted and SHAKE! 
4. Double strain (with hawthorne and double mesh strainer)
5. Garnish with mint leaf and enjoy!


This post used a complimentary bottle of gin, as provided by Sainsbury's. We were honestly pleased with the quality of the product and as the gin usually retails at £16.50 for a 70cl bottle, think it's a bit of a bargain too!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

National Waiters' Day

http://themanlyartofbartitsu.tumblr.com/post/6358802789


Happy National Waiters' Day, waiters! Only, if you’re a waiter, you won’t be reading this, will you? You’ll be knee-deep in cellar smells, getting your hands dirty halfway through the infamous Sunday deep-clean. Or maybe you’ll be working an AFD (that’s All Fucking Day for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of working in hospitality), and by AFD, we don’t mean 9am ‘til 6pm, we probably mean 9am – midnight, or later still.

And it’s not just long hours and shitty pay (more on that in a mo) we have to deal with when working in hospitality. As a female, there’s the endless ‘EverydaySexism’: I’ve had my arse slapped, been given the card of a man old enough to be my grandfather, and that’s not to mention the endless array of derogatory comments I’ve experienced in the last eight years working in the industry. An ex-colleague of mine was close to the point of getting a restraining order put out on a customer after the harassment she received.

Women aren’t alone: there’s plenty of sexist shit that happens to blokes too. Men are frequently left to manage and lock-up establishments on their own “because they’re men”. Whichever gender you happen to identify as, staff shouldn’t be left on their own to cash-up and lock-up a high turnover site. An owner of a bar where I used to work experienced a bloke trying to smash through a window with a barrel in order to rob the place. Fortunately the owner was brave (read: crazy) enough to grab the nearest, largest knife in the place and yield it in this wannabe-criminal’s direction, leaving the chancer scarpering off into the night. After that, only the owner would take the responsibility of locking up on his own; it shouldn’t have to take an altercation like that to make changes, but at least he acted on it. Many don’t.

You wouldn’t believe some of the shit that goes down when you work in a restaurant or a bar. I’ve been reduced to tears by chefs, “unintentionally” physically assaulted and even been told not to speak to an owner of one establishment I worked in, unless spoken to. At that point, I thought I’d Quantum-Leaped back to the 1800s – when I realised I hadn’t, I got outta that place as fast as I could.

The National Waiters' Day press release says it ‘aims to change the perception of waiting or waitressing as an unskilled job working long hours to one of a job that can offer good skills, can lead to a rewarding careers with good progression routes and great rewards’. Now, I certainly have nothing against its aim – I consider it a worthy one – but whose perception is it planning on changing? In my opinion, it starts from the top.

How do you think we’re supposed to be given respect by customers, if we don’t feel respect? And how are we to feel respected if our employers don’t show us any? Rotas are often drawn up at the last minute, so we’ve no idea when we’re working from one week to the next; hours invariably change: one week it may be 15, the next 65, all depending, of course, on who the flavour of the week is with the GM at any given time. Bonuses in this industry don’t exist, other than in the form of being given enough hours to keep a roof over your head. Ask for a break, and - more often than not – you’ll be scowled at. Someone remind me -  when was it that employment laws stopped applying to the hospitality industry? From the reaction I’ve got any time I’ve stood up for my rights, and asked for the thirty minute break I’m more than entitled to in a 12 hour working day, you’d think said rights never even existed.

So far it reads like this: long hours, often with no guaranteed income (if it’s dead, that’s it – your shift’s cut short, and this could easily happen any time), a constant tirade of abuse from punters and bosses. All that to deal with, but at least we’re well compensated for it, right? Wrong.

Most businesses within hospitality will try and get away with paying national minimum wage – which for over 21s is £6.19 an hour. Try raising a family on that. And don’t get me started on the age discriminatory wage practice which means that many 18 year olds with comparable skills to 21 year olds in the industry will be paid over a quid less, and under FOUR POUNDS an hour if you’re under 18.

Yes, there are tips, but these aren’t guaranteed, and further, depend on the restaurant’s tipping policy. I may be wrong in suggesting that most restaurants have been shamed into ensuring tips go directly to the staff, although I always still check with my waiter or waitress when eating out, just in case. If it’s quiet – which is rarely the fault of the waiting staff – it’s simple: no tips. If you’re (un)lucky enough to work in the ‘exclusive’ bars and restaurants of the world, then yes, you might make up to and over £100 a night in tips, every night, but there’s only so many of them out there (thank God).

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a reason why we put up with this shit. Sometimes, it’s fun. I’ve encountered some of the most interesting and intelligent people I’ve ever met working in hospitality. I’ve worked with musicians who’ve been on Jools Holland, clever clogs with degrees from Oxford, linguists who can speak their third language better than I can my first, high-profile models, budding documentary-makers, nutritionists and doctors in training, to name but a few.

Note that the aforementioned friends and acquaintances have been working in the industry as a ‘top-up’ to their chosen career path. And why? Because these creative and bright people know that if they want to reimbursed for their expansive skill set, they won’t get very far in hospitality. I’m not suggesting that all jobs in hospitality result in the treatment I’ve mentioned above: I’ve worked in some bars and restaurants where I’ve been paid more than minimum wage, earned a very fair amount of tips on top, been given breaks when needed and even been listened to by my bosses! Woah.  

All I want to say is: yes, a career in hospitality should be considered a profession, and yes, our customers should treat us with the respect we deserve – but we also need that respect from those who thought we were decent enough to give us a job in the first place. 

Monday, 10 June 2013

SoLita, Northern Quarter

My favourite thing about Solita is their bio on Twitter: "Manchester's 150th best restaurant according to Tripadvisor." Bad news fellas, you've moved down in the world: you're now 172nd. I'm sure the restaurant owners are quaking in their boots... In all seriousness though, many of my favourite food bloggers seem to bloody love SoLita; since it's been more than a year since Jamie and I visited, we decided to remind ourselves what all the fuss is about.

The first time we bobbed in for their seemingly bargainous lunch deal. For £5.95, there's a selection of hefty sounding sandwiches, one salad and a chilli. Though I was seriously tempted by the pulled pork toastie, given that I still hadn't overcome my own toastie machine bereavement, I went a bit healthier and chose the 'Charcoal grilled Caesar chicken salad'. Well, it would have been healthier if I hadn't developed serious food envy from their Twitter account repeatedly posting delectable looking images of their nduja spiced baked beans inside a portion of mac'n'cheese.

Heaven on a plate? Little bit.

I could eat a portion of this right now. Perhaps every day. It was good. I'm even going to say the mac'n'cheese might be better than Jamie's. Only might be, because I quite like being his girlfriend and I don't want him to give me the heave for saying such things. It was a little tepid, and I do quite like dishes such as this steaming hot but I'll forgive them this time.



The chicken Caesar was nice: croutons made from the same bread J's sandwich was served on, and appropriate amounts of dressing, but where were the anchovies?! I know Caesars don't always have them but that salty hit of my favourite fishy friends belong here in my opinion. Just four of them maybe? Please?



J was happily munching away on his SoLita whilst I debated combining the Caesar salad with aforementioned side order. (I didn't, phew!). He did comment that the bread was a little dry, but also that it had a good flavour and he wondered whether it had even seen a little herb garden at some point - though perhaps this scent was coming from elsewhere. For the uninitiated, a SoLita is the restaurant's own take on a Reuben: warm Salt Beef, Emmenthal cheese, Big Manc sauce and chow chow slaw. Jamie had a side of fries, which I can also verify were of the tip-top variety.

We enjoyed our good value lunch meal so much so that several weeks later, after the success of our second supper club, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner here with our earnings. I must start by saying that in their defence, we did rock up at 8:45 on a warm Sunday night, and were told they served until nine. 

We were served by the same waitress both times, whom I found to be generally friendly and efficient. Given that there were only two other tables in the restaurant, we were seated and served speedily. J had a bottle of  Brooklyn (pretty good value at £3.50), and I, a small glass of the house red, a Merlot (£4.75). 

As Hanger steak has recently become my favourite cut of beef, I wanted to see how an Inka grill could improve an already awesome meal. Jamie went for the KFB burger, involving: melted Monterey Jack cheese, jalapenos, BBQ sauce, and kentucky fried bacon.

When the waitress took our order, she didn't ask how I wanted my steak. I naively assumed this was because she - and the chefs - knew that there's no point in having a Hanger steak anything other than rare. It's a tough cut of meat, and if you cook it past this juicy bloody mess, it just ain't no good. Unfortunately, it seemed this wasn't the case.

Poor cow, it died in vain :(

My steak was a huge disappointment. The meat was overcooked, I'd say medium at best. It also hadn't been left to rest so my fries and salad were swimming in a pool of bloody juices. Maybe this was a good thing as the salad had just been dumped on the plate, undressed, so this at least stopped them from being as dry as a Ryvita (no offence, crackers).

As often seems to be the case in such circumstances, all the staff seemed to disappear at the moment you actually want to talk to them. There was no check back, and so no opportunity to correct this miserable meat. Granted, I could have said something at the end of the meal, but given that we were now the only table left in the restaurant, I really didn't want to cause a fuss when it was evident the staff wanted to get out of there, and so did I...

Jamie's burger was fine. He ate it all up. No complaints there. And I really should add that despite the sorry state of my plate of food, the actual flavour of the Hanger was still pretty good. I just had a sore jaw by the end of it.

So, I'm undecided. One decent trip and one disappointing. The latter was near closing time, and I probably ought to have said something; I just assumed that a restaurant famed for its Inka grill would either ask how a customer likes their steak cooking, or cook it right. As I said before, other bloggers such as Hungry Hoss and Food Geek seem to really enjoy SoLita and I trust their opinions on dining, so I say not to just listen to me, but make up your own mind.

NOTE: Since publishing this blog post, the owner of SoLita - Franco - has been in touch and asked when we dined so he could look into it. He seemed accepting of the - we hope - constructive criticism. What's that? A restaurant owner who listens to feedback? Well, he'd have no place on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

SoLita
Turner Street, Manchester
M4 1DW
0161 839 2200

SoLita on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Byron hamburgers, Waterloo


This mouth won't wait for no photo.

Unfortunately, this isn't a post about the brand spanking new Byron hamburgers in Manchester city centre, but it is a post about Byron hamburgers on the Cut in Waterloo! A trip to London for bank holiday weekend saw a total of three burgers consumed, a feat I have not achieved since living above GBK for near on a year (OH, I miss those days).

Sitting on the sunny Southbank, drinking a bottle of Veuve my clever friend spotted in a local offy mispriced at £15.99, saw us very quickly in need of some grub. I remembered there's a supposedly decent gastropub nearby in the shape of the Anchor & Hope, but sadly found it closed. Lo and behold: Byron hamburgers sat directly opposite.

I've been to Byron before and happily found this visit as pleasant as the last. The interior is bright, the service speedy and friendly, and the food pretty damn good. I'd been to Meat Market the same weekend, and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my double patties, I was secretly quite pleased to find a more refined affair. I can never resist a burger with cheese and bacon (as the bite mark in my photos evidences), and this one was as delicious as usual!

Burger, open. (2013) Please note: this image is due for submission in the Turner Prize 2014.

Possibly my favourite thing about Byron burgers is the MASSIVE gherkin that accompanies them beef things (saying burger over and over is getting repetitive). The piece of pickled cucumber you see before you is actually only 1/20th of the entire thing*. Immense. I think the burger was probably slightly more cooked than I would have eaten at home, but it was actually so tasty - slathered in mature Cheddar and bacon - that I didn't really notice. (Oh, and the booze again might have had something to do with it...)

Chips innit.
Skin on chips are usually a delight, and these were no exception. My friend and I shared a portion along with our burgers, and if your tummy has been filled with bubbles prior to eating, I'd say this is plenty. However if you're more of a Big Ma(n)c kinda guy or gal, then you might want a portion to yourself.

Not to forget this delightful bottle of house red, named on their list as "good" (the wines range from good to best, so the one we had was essentially their worst). At £14.95, it may be a little pricier than some expect for a burger joint, but it went down a treat. Having shared this bottle with just one friend, I'd perhaps recommend others don't: 375ml is quite a lot to consume with just a burger for company, and it resulted in me nearly missing my train back up north... The online menu suggests a great selection of bottled beers, which is music to my ears. Next time, I'll skip the overwhelming amount of red juice and opt for a Kernel instead.

The Byron I visited is located on the Cut, so it's a perfect spot for pre or post-theatre dining if you're visiting the Old (or Young!) Vic, and it's also handily located within walking distance of Waterloo - bypass the overpriced Upper Crust and get yourself a real meal if you've got time to kill round here.

I know Byron may not be as cool or trendy as some burger bars, and is probably a tad overpriced when you factor in fancy toppings like er, spicy BBQ sauce at £1.25, and chips at £3.25, but I like this place: I can visit Byron and enjoy a burger in a grown-up environment, without worrying about the sexist undertones of the menu. I also hear their milkshakes are winners (must work on increasing stomach capacity), if feeling adult ain't always your thing.

I'm yet to visit the new Byron site in Manchester, and sincerely hope I won't be disappointed. From reading Bacon on the Beech's write-up, it sounds like I'm safe. Phew!

*Note: this may be a slight exaggeration. I was suffering from cheap champagne induced sunstroke at the time.

Byron
41-45 The Cut
London SE1 8LF
020 7633 9882

Byrons on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Brunch Club Recipe no. 1 - Earl-Grey Smoked Salmon

Smoking - best done outside

Whenever I read a piece about smoking foods, someone's always quick to evoke the addictive nature of this 'foodie' pursuit. They'll say things like: "you'll want to smoke everything, even the dog food"; "I can't leave for work without my smoking gun"; "Tarquin's only three but smoked hummus is already his favourite food". So is it all it's cracked up to be? 

 

Joking aside, it's a good idea to speculate whether it's worth making certain foodstuffs at home, and this applies equally to home-smoked goods. Several items at our Brunch Club have reached such pricey highs in the supermarket that we rarely buy them, preferring to make our own. Take granola for instance: oats, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, mixed together and toasted for more than a Bhutanese family spends on a weekly shop. The cons of making things yourself are usually time- and equipment-related; the pros are you have a better understanding of what's gone into your food and can produce a product that suits you. With our earl grey smoked salmon you get the added benefit of saving a shed-load of money.

Let's take a similar product as a comparison: Heston from Waitrose Lapsang Souchong Tea Smoked Salmon which sells for £4.99 per 100g. I went to Out of The Blue (preferred fishmonger alert!), purchased a side of salmon at roughly £9, cured it and smoked it, ending up with enough salmon to feed 8 people and plenty leftover to fit snugly into several cream-cheese filled bagels. (This said with the caveat that I purchased a smoking gun to facilitate the whole process; but if you can see yourself eating a lot of smoked food, then it's a worthwhile investment and a very fun toy.) Regarding the smoking, I found several recipes which state simply "light the tea leaves" or recommend heating in a wok until smoking. From experience, the former is actually rather tricky to do and produces very little smoke, as anyone who's ever tried to light a cigarette without drawing on it will testify; the latter is prone to filling your house with smoke, never mind the sucking power (ooh,er) of your extractor fan. And burning earl grey is particularly acrid, believe me.

So some sort of dedicated smoking device (a tin or a gun are the cheapest options) will stop your house stinking like Waynetta Slob's ashtray. (The aforementioned problems might be to do with tea so if anyone's got a reliable tea-smoking method do let us know). I don't want to get into the logistics of smoking here as I'm going to assume if you've got a tin or smoking gun then you've read the instructions. If not I'd recommend a blowtorch to get those pesky tea leaves to burst into flames. What I will say is that there are a lot of variations when it comes to curing and smoking times; and my advice is not to obsess about it. The longer the salmon is in contact with the curing mix the drier it will become; with the smoke, the smokier it becomes. Simple. Curing with a 2:1 salt to sugar ratio for 16 hours and smoking for three half-hour periods with fresh smoke gave us a very palatable product. Tea smoke is more subtle than the traditional oak so the salmon can probably take a little more.


Earl Grey Smoked Salmon


1 Side of salmon (approx. 900g)

Cure:
250g salt
125g granulated sugar
A few sprigs of dill, roughly chopped
Leaves from 1 earl grey teabag

For smoking:
Leaves from 2 earl grey teabags

1. Mix salt, sugar and dill together; and moisten the tea leaves with a little water.
2. Cut salmon in two if too large to fit in any container you own.
3. Spread a thin layer of curing mix on the bottom of a container.
4. Place the salmon skin-side down and cover with the moistened tea leaves then the remaining cure (spread less cure on the thinner tail-end areas to prevent over-salting).
5. Cover and place in fridge for 16 hours.
6. Rinse off cure and leave salmon uncovered in the fridge to dry for a couple of hours.
7. To smoke, place salmon on a cooling rack above a bowl of ice inside a large seal-able container (see picture).
8. Use your preferred method to light the tea leaves. Get a decent amount of smoke in the container then seal. Do this outside if possible!
9. Let smoke for half an hour then repeat.
10. Store covered in fridge and slice when ready to eat.

Notes:
- If you're going to the effort of smoking your own salmon then you might as well buy a side as it's more time efficient and the salmon will keep well
- If you do, however, buy a smaller piece just mix up less cure

The finished product

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Apotheca, Northern Quarter

Salted Caramel & Orange Rum Old Fashioned

It hardly seems a day goes by when a new bar hasn't just opened or a pop-up hasn't launched in the once-trendy, now over-saturated area of the Northern Quarter. Don't get me wrong: there's still lots of places I like in the area, it's just that I prefer not to have to wait in a queue of twenty-five people to get into a bar that used to be a lot less pretentious.

We recently reviewed Apotheca on Thomas Street for the website Social and Cocktail - and fortunately found out it's something of a pretence-free haven. To find out more about what we drank and thought, read our review here.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Brunch Club, Sunday 2 June

Pecan and salted-caramel rolls, croissants, and chorizo and courgette gruyere muffins

Sunday mornings should be about relaxing and eating. Well, we think so anyway... which is why we're giving up ours on June 2nd to make sure you can kick back and stuff yourself silly on a (posh!) buffet style spread of all the best breakfast items.

Near enough everything will be homemade, from the flaky, buttery croissants, to the Sourdough bread and the butter to go on top! There'll be sweet and savoury alike with chorizo and courgette muffins, and salted caramel pecan rolls. Not to mention our very own home-smoked salmon with the most decadent scrambled eggs.

For the full menu and to book your place go to Eventbrite.

Monday, 13 May 2013

3twentyone: smokehouse, serving the best onion rings in Manchester

Best retrospective restaurant order ever made.

I've finally realised the purpose for writing this blog: to tell readers where to go for the best onion rings in Manchester. Not to downplay the other virtues of the newly opened smokehouse, 3twentyone, but damn, they were some good onion rings. We nearly didn't try them: when ordering, I told Jamie to stop being such a fattie and make do with chips. However, when he later spied them on a neighbouring table, he couldn't resist and quickly added them on to the order. Possibly the best move he's made in our entire relationship. Wonderfully crisp specimens, we managed to devour the lot of 'em, save a Siamese pair, which Jamie decided should be worn as goggles. Lottie Moore has the evidence (bet she was glad she shared a table with this unsophisticated pair!).

So 3twentyone officially opened to the public today, but we were lucky enough to visit on their soft opening, receiving a fantastic and complimentary meal. I cheekily e-mailed them when I saw a tweet asking for opening night visitors; they didn't know we wrote a food blog (unless they did an internet stalk) so we had intended to go for a night out, without thinking about what we'd write later. Turns out, the meal warranted a write-up because other people definitely need to know about this joint.

It would only have been appropriate to have cocktails in a 'joint' like this.

And it does have a feel of a "joint": the staff are suited and booted in 1930s style uniforms, with braces and all. The deep mahogany of the furniture, jazz tunes and beautiful back bar feel a world apart from the Deansgate pub, which is situated beneath the restaurant. It does make for an interesting experience when having to shimmy between a large group of football lovers when in need of a trip to the loo, but it hardly hinders the experience.

We started with cocktails: for Jamie, a sweet Manhattan, and I opted for the 3twentyone signature Martini. I just saw the words 'gin' and 'elderflower cordial' and was sold on those grounds, stupidly not realising it was going to basically be a gin martini. Despite Jamie suggesting it smelt like lime cordial, it was the first gin-no-juice-Martini drink I've managed to finish, so I say hats off to them! Top notch glassware too.

Rather fancy chicken wings, them.

To start, I really wanted the boneless, smoked chicken wings. Unfortunately, as Jamie is 'king of the wing' in our house, he got first dibs. I was bloody jealous when I tasted them too: the flavour was divine. My only disappointment being that they were boneless... sucking chicken juices off one's fingers is half the fun (oo er).

Excuse the shoddy photo quality here!

Instead, I opted for Mr. Holden's Manchester Egg. Not usually a fan of black pudding, the stuff here was bloody gorgeous, not cheap or 'gritty' tasting at all. I was slightly disappointed that the yolk was overcooked, but this was easily forgiven (because I was staring so hard at Jamie's wings).

He didn't look happy about being eaten.

You don't usually see a choice of four different kinds of fish on a 'smokehouse' menu. Some may say that it would be foolish to choose one of them when meat is clearly the speciality here, but I bloody love fish, and the idea of it cooked on a smoker style barbecue had me sold. It was incredibly tender, stuffed with dill and shredded fennel. It was served whole, but we were also informed that it could be served filleted if desired, perfect! They also offer salmon, mackerel and swordfish. We had balsamic roasted candy beetroots which were pretty tasty, and 'twice-cooked chips' to accompany our mains; the latter were average: maybe they'd been sat on the pass for a while. I hope they're usually better as you gotta have great chips with steak!

This was gone in about twenty seconds.

Jamie went for the rib-eye, medium rare. I'll assume he enjoyed this as his usually chivalrous self made a dash for the nearest exit (fortunately located nearby) and he neglected to offer me a taste until he was down to his last mouthful! He later tells me that it was slightly overdone, but this obviously didn't hinder his experience at the time. There's a selection of sauces to choose from at an additional charge (£1.25) and J opted for the chimichurri. Jamie later managed to make room for a blueberry cheesecake, which was also gone in seconds. Jesus, that boy can eat.

Looking at the menu I'm already planning a return trip (on my own, so I can have the chicken wings all to myself with a side of onion rings). They have a great selection of steaks including ones at lower price points (both the flat iron and hanger are just £11.95), and the burgers are all under a tenner. They're not doing anything crazy or particularly different, but they're doing 'normal' rather well, in my opinion.

The interior is quite swanky for a restaurant above a pub, and they also have a gorgeous looking roof terrace. Our waitress was brilliant, and even Jamie admits that it was amongst the best service we've had in Manchester. All that, and it was only opening night? I've worked an opening night in a restaurant before, and it didn't bloody go like that! If that's how things have started at 3twentyone, then I'm looking forward to seeing more of them very soon.

3twentyone (up the stairs in the Deansgate pub),
321 Deansgate, Manchester

3TwentyOne on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Italia, Manchester

Business is booming

It's a gloriously sunny Wednesday evening in Manchester city centre. The unexpected rays have sent the populace into a booze-fuelled frenzy (yours truly included) and everywhere with an inch of outside seating is rammed. Lurching from one over-capacity establishment to the next, we eventually stumble half-cut into an almost deserted Italia. To a soundtrack of Blink 182, we are seated by an authentic-sounding waiter, complete with 'ragazzi' and 'ciao'. So far so swings and roundabouts. Looking past the empty tables, I spy a trio of chefs staring out from the pass, visibly willing us to order pronto just to have something to do. The boredom is palpable; the atmosphere is slim to none; and as Mark Hoppus chimes in with "What's my age again?", I think "Shit! What have we let ourselves in for?"

When it came to writing this review, I took out my notepad to find that I'd only written one 'sentence' consisting of two acronyms: 'AC/DC WTF?' A helpful reminder that the conversation mainly revolved around the mind-boggling music choices. Driving down the highway (to hell) in a convertible and an Angus Young guitar solo would be just the ticket; in a quiet Italian restaurant, not so much. And pop-punk from the early noughties? Maybe at 42nd Street. I can only assume the playlist was dreamt up by the alarmingly young staff members; it felt as though the boss had gone off to sun himself and left the kids in charge. Italian kids with a penchant for rock.

Wine will save us. The waiter recommends a Chianti Classico from the specials board. I'm on a bit of a Chianti trip at the moment (thanks Dr. Lecter) so take his advice to save any faffing around. It hardly seems worth mentioning at this point that service is quick (I think there are five other diners) but it is also friendly without the machismo that you get at San Carlo, where I feel less like I'm being waited on and more like I've walked into mating season at the zoo, where the gorillas have just revolted, got hold of some suits and then decided to make some (delicious) pasta. Long-winded metaphor, I know. Anyway, the wine is a great example of a Chianti - bone-dry with plenty of acidity and ripe fruit flavour. Things are looking up.

Nduja pizza

And when the food arrives my worries are laid to rest. My dining companions are hungry so we order a starter of polpette (pork meatballs in a rich tomato sauce) to see us 'til mains. Yielding, moist, and flavourful, they fit the 'just like your mama used to make' bill; if only we were Italian. Anticipation for the main courses is now anxiously high. I fancy a pizza and opt for the 'Nduja' with spicy Calabrian sausage and peppers while the others go for pasta in the shape of Arrabiata and the seafood linguine (calamari, shrimp, tuna?!) special. The pizza is easily one of the best in Manchester and a must if you want to eschew the chains. The pasta dishes were confirmed to be nearly as good - though mussels would certainly have worked better than tuna in the special - and, considering the dishes were all around £10, the portion sizes are generous.

Sated and pleased with the food, the initial misgivings are far from my mind. The food at Italia has had its plaudits and rightly so (even though the influential Franco Sotgiu has since parted ways with the business) but they really do need to sort that music out. Maybe Bacon on the Beech can give them some tips.

Italia,
40-42 Deansgate
Manchester
0161 834 1541

Italia on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Dog Bowl, Manchester



Jamie and I were recently invited to enjoy lunch, drinks and a game of bowling at Black Dog's new venture, Dogbowl. I've always been a fan of Black Dog's late night burgers & deep fried gherkins, so was keen to find out whether the bowling alley's grub would be up to standard in the middle of the day. Given that we were booked in for 2pm on a Wednesday, the venue was hardly booming and it certainly lacked atmosphere, although I imagine this is easily rectified once evening falls and beers - and bowls - are sunk.


Having read good things about the quesadillas from Bacon On the Beech, we opted for the veggie version with onions, potatoes and peppers to start, as well as some of their BBQ Shrimps from the little plates section. When these arrived, we started to worry. Up 'til now, the service had been of the hipster calibre (see Good Gobble's description for background reading), and these 'starters' weren't doing much for us. Though the portion humungous, the tortillas were a little bland; I really felt they would have benefitted from a dollop of salsa or guacamole on the side. Perhaps we should have gone for one of the meat options, though as these are the 'base' recipe, I would have expected them to be decent. I'm also not sure what was 'BBQ' about the shrimps, but all we could taste was ginger - perhaps our palates were fooling us, but these weren't particularly good.


Feeling altogether uncomfortable with our awkward/hipster/hungover service and average food, we concentrated on our drinks, which at least, were better. I'd opted for a Mint Julep (bourbon, crushed ice, mint & sugar), and Jamie for a Maple Bourbon Smash (essentially bourbon & orange). Heady stuff for a Wednesday lunchtime, but it felt in fitting with the heavily American menu.


On to the mains and Jamie decided to go out-and-out gross with a Sloppy Joe. We've all heard of these on American sitcoms and shows set in high schools, though up 'til now, I'd never actually seen one. Fortunately, it was light on the 'slop', and was actually pretty tasty: served on Texas Toast (essentially extra thick white bread), the chucked beef 'chilli' was a little on the sweet side, but when eaten with the smoked brisket and beef gravy, it was all pretty good. Excellent chips too!


I've been meaning to make short ribs for a while, but have been lazy about sourcing them, as they don't seem to be an item available in most butchers (probably just because they're actually called something different over here - still trying to work out what that is!), so when I saw them on the menu, I ploughed straight for it. One huge rib, tenderly cooked and dry smoked in the house rub, this was one tasty beast. It came with both chilli and blue cheese sauces, though I would have just preferred more of the gravy that was dripping off the top of it - that was tasty. With fries as well, I struggled to finish this, but it was a tasty main.



Barely able to move after consuming all that food, we managed to burn (almost no) calories with a game of bowling. It'd been bloody ages since I'd last switched my loafers for a pair of bowling shoes, but sipping on a Tijuana Sling (tequila, cassis, ginger ale), I felt as confident as my 12 year old self when the bumpers were first taken off. By the end of the game, I realised not playing for 10 years doesn't result in improvement - though I did manage a strike - and Jamie had me beat by thirty points! The lady on the bowling desk was lovely and a great improvement on our waitress whilst dining. I should add that whilst she was by no means rude, she just wasn't very friendly and I've had much better service elsewhere. Overall, I'm sure many people will visit Dogbowl and have a great time with their mates, nipping in to the restaurant as an add-on to their bowling night out. Certainly, when I compare the Wimpy in the bowling alley I went to as a kid, the food here is much better (though I did love their spicy bean burgers), I just wouldn't recommend making a trip to the restaurant without a game of bowling planned.

Oh, and just in case it wasn't clear, this whole thing was a freebie, but I think it's pretty obvious that we haven't been paid to be nice, just honest!

Dogbowl
57 Whitworth Street
Manchester, M1 5WW
0161 228 2888


Dog Bowl on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Jay Rayner: A Guardian Masterclass

"Do I feel threatened by bloggers? Only if they're better than me."

No one has to read a single word I write. If there were a journalistic mantra it should be this. And Jay Rayner lives by it. After all, he's in the business of "selling newspapers" and if people stop reading he's out of a job.  


So what do you need to know about Mr Rayner, tonight's speaker at The Guardian Masterclass - Choosing your words: the craft of good writing? Well, he doesn't like it when writers ask questions at the start of sentences: a journalist "should answer the questions not ask them". And he probably wouldn't like the clusmy nature in which it was phrased. Oops. Better start again.

Jay Rayner is a tall, imposing man and strides across the stage at Salford University like a man who yearned in his youth to tread the boards. He's got a voice made for oratory, delivered with such confidence that he might make an actor yet. Perhaps all those TV appearances have taught him something. And with the anecdotal references to Roger Alton, former editor at The Observer, and some ironic posturing he's pretty funny too. Not just a pretty face as the ladies at mumsnet would have you believe.  

Look past the Gallic profile, luscious locks and garish shirts and there stands a man who has worked hard to earn his right to address the audience on 'the craft of good writing'. Eager to step out from his mother's shadow (journalist Claire Rayner, best known as an agony aunt to the nation) and ambitious to make it as a writer on his own terms, he became editor of his university paper, went on to work for The Observer and was named Young Journalist of the Year in 1992. Not bad credentials eh? And that doesn't take into account the subsequent 20 years of journalism.  

By his own admission, Rayner didn't set out to become a food critic. As his version of events goes, the position of restaurant critic at The Observer came up and he expressed a desire to do it. Right place, right time, I guess. Perhaps it is for this reason that I've seen many a commentator question Mr Rayner's credibility as a restaurant reviewer. What does he know about food? Those people are missing the point: Jay Rayner is not really a food critic and his reviews aren't really about food. Yes, he gets to dine at some of the nation's best restaurants; but what he gets paid to do is write. And write well, he does. He's said it before but it bears repeating: "People don't read my reviews to find out whether the lamb was overcooked or the fish was raw." 

You could, if you're a food blogger, hate Jay Rayner on principle. But you shouldn't. Some will take his comments about blogging as offensive; but in fact they are a challenge. A challenge to write a better story.  The moral of the evening was:  given that the world and his wife have an opinion and a means to voice it, your opinion needs to be well-crafted otherwise it won't get heard. At least not in the world of journalism. "Pick 100 people off the street and I can guarantee you'll only find 1 or 2 genuinely good writers," Rayner claims.  That's all assuming you want to be a writer or have your opinion taken seriously. If you've got no pretensions to be a food critic and it's all a bit of fun, then I guess Jay should lay off.

However, there is no reason why a blog can't become something more than just a blog. And no reason to dismiss all blogging as a lesser form of 'proper journalism'. The blog has a place in the hierarchy. To think Manchester Confidential started out as a blog, Mark Garner confessed in a candid interview for the purposes of the masterclass. For some, myself included, a blog is a way to hone the art of writing, in the hope one day of creating praise-worthy prose. Jay Rayner has had a lot of practice since he started out, over two decades ago. And there's something we could all learn from him.