Friday, 22 March 2013

The Drunken Butcher

Drunken Butcher. It Sounds like it could be the title to a comedy horror film: think Hostel and The Hangover meet Masterchef.

Thankfully, in fact, it's the nickname of Ian, our supper club host for a night of porcine pleasure: The Joy of Pork. The first image to spring to mind was of a sauced butcher clumsily wielding a cleaver before accidentally chopping his own fingers off. I'm glad to say there were was no trip to A&E! 

After two bus trips and a short walk, we find ourselves in Sale much too early and, like icy vultures circling a dead hog, we walk around the block until it seems reasonable to approach. Ian's home is mercifully warm and there's a wonderful smell emanating from the kitchen. 

Tania from DineInOut greets us with a whisky prosecco and cherry cocktail and as other guests arrive we are treated to the lightest, most delicate pork scratchings (or chicharrones) and some insanely good soy pig cheeks - meltingly soft, rich and salty. The joy of pork indeed. 

We take our seats and, faced with the menu, can see Ian's commitment to using as much of the pig as possible: if you're going to eat meat then this is the sort of reverential treatment you should give the animal. Head, cheeks, skin and so on. If it's edible, use it.

Torchon of pig's head
The starter of torchon of pig's head is a great example of this philosophy. It's a unctuous combination of slow-cooked meat and fat (from the head) coated in breadcrumbs and fried. The accompanying cherry sauce and mustard helped cut through the richness with their sweet,tart and bitter notes. 

T-Bone, tenderloin and crackling
Ian is most certainly a perfectionist. His devotion to cooking is evident in the sheer volume of cookbooks on his dining room shelves. And, of course, in the food. The main of T-bone and tenderloin of pork was wonderfully cooked with the best crackling I've had in recent memory and a cauliflower gratin that was a (rather delicious!) meal in itself. It all met with unanimous praise.

Home-made Oreos
By this time we're all one or two sheets to the wind (Ian is rather generous with his between-courses shots!) and very full indeed, after second and third helpings of mains. The Scandinavian-stye pudding of plum and raisin soup with cinnamon icecream is a welcome refreshment - light and cooling and reminiscent of mulled wine. 

It just about gave us the much-needed boost to finish with the home-made Oreos and a bourbon milkshake. Ian made an impressive stab at recreating the popular American cookie; the milkshake was for me a creamy step too far after so much food though I would happily drink it again if I hadn't already eaten 3 courses!

But it's nothing a few untouched shots of bourbon wouldn't remedy. Somewhow Anna and I managed to be the last to leave (and miss our last bus in the process, doh!) - a testament to our host's welcoming nature and a very enjoyable evening. Ian even gave me a parting gift of some super fiery home-made hot sauce!

The Drunken Butcher will be running many more supper clubs in 2013 and you can find more events at DineInOut's EventBrite page.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Modern Comforts by Manchester Foodies

Catering for fifteen
We've been talking about starting a supper club since we decided that Come Dine With Me was far too embarrassing an option for showcasing our er, culinary talent. Last October we moved into - basically - our dream home, complete with dining room and kitchen perfect for entertaining. After months of deliberation, being wimps, and trying to get a Friday (or Saturday) off work, we've finally set a date for our first ever supper club.

Take a look at our menu, see what you think, book a place if it's up your street, or pass it on to a friend if you think it might be theirs. We're starting off small, with 8 seats, so bring a friend or come alone, and hopefully you will enjoy what's dished up!

Eventbrite - Modern Comforts with Manchester Foodies

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The French by Simon Rogan - Opening Night

Ox tartare, coal oil, pumpkin seeds, kohlrabi

Bowing my head to the plate and inhaling the aromas of raw ox and coal oil, I immediately break into a smile and think, “Simon Rogan, you’re a bloody genius!” 

On the back of our menu Rogan is quoted as saying “The city is definitely ready for it”. From many people's point of view this couldn't be more of an understatement. I and countless others have decried the lack of fine-dining options in Manchester for some time; but, no longer. 2013 is shaping up to be a game-changing year and Simon Rogan is spearheading the move to put Manchester back on the culinary map.

Upon entering The French, the first thing to note is that this is not a restaurant, it is a dining room. The kind of dining room people of my generation have rarely, more likely never, eaten in. Decor, though, is the least of my concerns, suffice it to say that I quite like it - the colour scheme and comfortable furniture do a good job of mitigating the opulence of the otherwise formal setting.

However, we were here for the food and it was a foregone conclusion to choose the 10-course tasting menu at £79 (there was also a 6-course option (£55), and 3 courses (£29) will be offered, I imagine at lunchtime). £79 will seem excessive to many; but it is interesting to note that five years ago Jay Rayner was paying £70 a head at The French for what he termed a 'gruesomely expensive' and at times 'authentically bad' meal. 

Under the guidance of Rogan and Adam Reid, there will be no such worries. This is unequivocally the best meal I've had in Manchester; full of subtleties, surprises, and damn good cooking. I can't think of a single ingredient that wasn't perfectly prepared, bar the couple of fragments of shell in the crab dish. So, I'd rather not bore people with gushing descriptions of each of the 10 courses and, furthermore, I don’t want to spoil the surprise; but I will dip into some of the highlights reel.

The amuse bouche of onion cracker with eel and onion ash was a delicious assault of smoke and umami, once you got over the fact that it looks like someone's stubbed a fag out on it. 

I never thought I'd see the day come when I spooned black pudding mousse into my mouth with a seaweed twig. You'd feel like you were being secretly mocked if it wasn't so good. 

The ox tartare with coal oil might well become a 'signature' dish. The oil is infused with burning coals so that the aroma of barbecue hits you as you lift the tender rib-eye meat to your mouth, the blackened pumpkin seeds add texture and more charred notes, the kohlrabi spheres and sunflower shoots refresh and mellow it all. Multisensory heaven. It's worth going for this alone.

Early spring offerings
Early spring offerings was a salad of incredible depth. I had seen Simon Rogan make this salad at the NRB show last week and he used more than 30 ingredients if my memory serves me well. The range of textures and flavours is extraordinary, from the charred leaves to the silky purees, to the flower petals and crisp turnip. A compositional tour de force.

The larded veal with split peas and beetroot jus was an exceptional main. The lean veal is studded with fat so it appears moister, richer, and altogether more flavourful. The ingredients were in rich, earthy symphony.

Larded veal with split peas and beetroot jus
I'll stop...there was overall very little to dislike. The homemade cola at the end was a little to sweet and the razor clam and scrambled egg dish a bit too rich. But that's being picky and only my personal preference. The wine list was reasonably priced for a hotel restaurant, with some definite bargains in the Pinot Noir and the Tasmanian Sauvignon.

I imagine Simon Rogan will now set the trend and others will follow, not so hot on his heels, for it will take a supreme effort to usurp The French even on first impressions. The menu was pitched perfectly, the cooking near faultless and the service was smooth for the most part, except one waiter who was prone to saying “thank you very much” with the alarming frequency of an erstwhile Elvis impersonator.

It was disheartening, as Rogan pointed out on Twitter, to see two no-shows, especially on opening night. It highlights the fact that it may not be plain sailing and it will take some time to win Mancunians over to the style of food and distract them from the price-tag, even with the big name attached. We've been without this kind of thing for so long that it'll perhaps be re-embraced slowly. I for one, to parody Greg Wallace, am giving it a great big hug!  

The French by Simon Rogan on Urbanspoon

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Liquorists: Ceylon Arrack Trail

My experience of a Liquorists trail can be summed up in the following three bullet points:
  1. I haven't drunk like this since university 
  2. 25 minutes to drink a Sazerac and a glass of punch is not enough
  3. Capping off the night with a rum Old Fashioned and a Martini is just plain stupid
The last is my own bittersweet fault and I only partly blame The Liquorists. Nobody had a gun to my head, forcing me to drink the copious amounts of booze but it seemed in the 'spirit' of things, if you'll pardon the pun. (Five bars) x (a cocktail and a shot of punch) = this quote by Ernest Hemingway: “Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”

Now, before you think - "Hold On! He's not selling this very well!" - I did have a great time. I'd simply advise booking the following day (NB: read week) off work unless you're blessed with an immunity to hangovers. Of course, as an advocate of responsible drinking, I know there is no need to drink everything that is put in front of you but it doesn't seem financially sound not to (although I should mention that this perhaps isn't a logical argument in this case, as we were guests of the kind folks at the Liquorists).

For those who haven't heard of The Liquorists, they are Tom Sneesby and Jody Monteith, a pair of vastly experienced bartenders turned consultants who run among other things the Manchester Spirit and Cocktail Trails. They take a spirit and teach you about it in the best way possible: drinking it in various concoctions. It's an upmarket, informative pub-crawl if you will, which they run from their headquarters/bar/venue/studio at 22 Redbank in the Green Quarter. Imagine a kind of boozy Bat-cave.

The bartenders' Bat-cave.
For this particular trail we had the company of Jody and the spirit in question was Ceylon Arrack. Now, I'd like to qualify that I too am a bartender albeit it one with much less experience but a great deal of curiosity; and I can't remember the last time I tried a spirit that was completely new to me. And I'm guessing that, with the exception of the 'trailblazers' and a select few, not many of you will have ever heard of this mysterious drink.

Ceylon Arrack has a great story behind it and Jody, being a great teacher and a passionate orator, conveyed its heritage to us over the course of the night. It is a spirit distilled from the sap of the coconut flower and comes from Sri Lanka where the 'toddy tappers' climb coconut trees, make holes in them and collect the milky sap which is also used to make palm sugar and coconut syrup. We were shown pictures of these daredevils 'tight-roping' between the enormous palms. The distillate of the fermented sap is then aged for a short period in Sri Lankan 'Hamilla' wood to mellow it.

Ceylon Arrack takes a little bit of flavour from the wood and bears a slight resemblance to a bourbon or cognac on the nose. It also has the floral, green qualities from the sap but its finish is predominantly sweet, almost caramelized, coconut. Thus it sits well with other flavours that like coconut, especially lime, pineapple, and ginger. These flavour combinations made up a lot of the shots of punch if I'm not mistaken.

The Sazerrack at Hula
It is beyond the scope of this post (and my hazy memory) to describe all the cocktails we had, suffice to say that you can mix it with ginger beer, a dash of bitters and a slice of orange as Jody did; or treat it more like a bourbon and make a Sazerac out of it like the guys at Hula with their Sazerrack (see what they did there?). We were also treated to cocktails at Northern Quarter stalwart Apotheca and newcomer The Whiskey Jar, ending up in Epernay. Transport was provided where necessary and we were given a nice Sri Lankan curry before embarking on the crawl as well as snacks at each bar, most noteworthy of which was Epernay's cheese and meat selection.

Um, something with beer in it at the Whiskey Jar. No idea what it was called.
I reckon with The Liquorists at the helm you're always going to be guaranteed a drink-fuelled night with the right balance of education, entertainment and socialising. Put a group of strangers together and there's always an element of awkwardness at the start which quickly dissipates after several drinks. This being organized fun after all, the only qualm I have is that the night could have started a little earlier to allow a bit more time in each bar as there were times went things felt a little rushed. I do nonetheless acknowledge the restrictions on time and the difficulty of herding a load of tipsy sheep from pen to pen!

After all this talk of booze, I feel I should leave you with a sobering thought. A cursory glance at an article on the Sri Lankan 'toddy tappers' will tell you that their art is dwindling one. The younger generation are put off by the risk, the hard labour and the poor wages (750 rupees/£3.80 for 100 litres of sap). Many of the ageing toddy tapper population have no one to follow in their footsteps. So it remains to be seen whether the manufacture of Ceylon Arrack will become an industrialized process and lose most of its heritage in the process. Let's hope not.

In the interests of transparency, I'll mention again that we were guests of the Liquorists, but like drinking those last cocktails, no-one has forced us into writing anything nice.

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