Tuesday, 31 July 2012


Wednesday night. A stressful day at work. Who doesn't want to come home to a sated and smug looking boyfriend who's had the day to sample Solita's new menu, proudly brandishing a jar of bacon jam? Okay, I'm not complaining - well... I am - but I did appreciate eating that sticky smokey goodness from my fingers as a post-work snack.

You're probably wondering how this has anything to do with LiveBait. Don't worry, I haven't gone all A.A. Gill on you (I vow never to turn into him when it comes to reviewing!).

Jamie's post-deep fried mac'n'cheese slump, and my apathy for cooking anything complicated after frying my brain all day in front of InDesign meant that we turned to the Taste card. I'm not sure how we acquired this, but I do know it was free, and the expiry date was fast-approaching. Feeling lazy, and never one to miss out on a bargain, we knew it was calling.

LiveBait is one of the restaurants that the Taste card offers a discount for. I'd read a review of its new menu over at Manchester Confidential, and it certainly seemed that it had changed hands for the better. Having previously trusted Jonathan Schofield's review of the revised menu at 101 Brasserie and had a fantastic meal on its recommendation, the odds were soon stacking up in favour of dining there.

The many years I'd spent working in various dining and drinking establishments across Manchester seemed to finally pay off: industry knowledge taught me that Wednesday is delivery day, hence LiveBait may well have caught a fresh flock of fish that day (I know, it's not the right collective noun, but school doesn't have the same ring to it...). We were sold.

We'd called ahead (as the T&C of the Taste card requires), and arrived at the restaurant for 8pm. Prime dining time, though sadly not for this place. There were only five tables - including ourselves - seated the whole time we were there. LiveBait is a huge restaurant, probably around 200 covers, and so I imagine it really needs more than 11 people to get a real atmosphere going - and the lobster tank geared up. The tank distinctly lacking in shellfish (i.e. totally empty) in the only fish restaurant in central Manchester was an humane, but disappointing sight. I began to worry... maybe the food was only decent when Man Con reviewed it because they'd sussed out who their guests were? I soon discovered my worries were all in vain...

We ordered our wine (a bottle of Albarino - reasonably priced, around the £20 mark). It was a pleasant dry white which worked well to accompany our dishes. The wine list was varied, and didn't look like it would break the bank. They do a deal of 6 oysters & 2 glasses of Prosecco which might also be a nice way to begin.

To start, I had the octopus salad. The octopus was well cooked, very tender, and the salad well dressed. It also had some naughty little oily potatoes hiding in amongst all the healthy looking leaves, which were salty and tasty and actually worked quite nicely, adding a different texture. We took a photo but I think you can all imagine what a plate of salad leaves looks like, so I shan't patronise you by adding the photo here! Jamie's starter was more interesting to the eye...

A well cooked piece of pork belly was the perfect salty accompaniment to a plump, sweet scallop. It was a few weeks ago that we went, but if my memory serves me correctly, it came with cucumber ribbons on the side, which tasted as if they had been marinated in some sort of Chinese-inspired acidic dressing (Man Con review tells me pickled - makes sense). Whilst tasty little morsels of cucumber they were, the marinade wasn't necessary and didn't particularly work with the modern surf'n'turf. I understood the thinking behind the dish but sometimes I reckon when you're going to be as indulgent as eating pork belly and the queen of the sea together, you should just concentrate on the pure succulence of the ingredients themselves. When they're cooked this well, the chef needn't hide the stars behind a raggedy old curtain. They also added - what I could imagine in a poncey restaurant being called - a 'texture' of pig ear, i.e. deep fried. It was certainly only there to add texture, as the taste was unremarkable. Chef: please see earlier comments, leave your tasty centrepieces well alone!

For mains came two pieces of fish - which, I hate to say, I could have cooked better at home. They weren't over or underdone, but where was the crispy skin?!?! This is the best bit of the fish!! And the closest thing I can get to feeling like I'm eating something naughty when I'm actually being reasonably healthy.

I had the striped bass, as shown below....

Look at that skin..... almost glistening with its moistness. It really saddens me when a beautiful piece of fish is ruined like this. Don't get me wrong, I get sad at real stuff too, like on Undercover Boss when they reveal themselves & give Joe Bloggs, who loves cleaning toilets for a living and does the best damn job of it anyone's ever done, a 50p pay rise. Anyway, salad no.2 was reminiscent of a beautiful nicoise, though I can't help but feel that it wouldn't have needed those croutons if they'd just cooked that skin... okay I'll shut up about it for now...

I tried to escape it, but I can't. The limp skin is back. I shall say no more, but it is present. This dish was pretty under seasoned, which was a shame as the sauce/bisque could have been really tasty. What you can't see from this photo (and I'm wondering if Jamie did this strategically to wipe its existence from its memory) is the er, 'bed'(?!) of polenta. I've never been a huge fan of this Italian semolina and this did nothing to start a club. It tasted like solid scrambled eggs fused with bread and butter pudding. Yum.

I feel like I've nearly gone all Bob Granleese on one of Manchester's better restaurants looking over this review, and that's unfair. We had a really enjoyable time - service was good, wine was hangover-free, and the starters were above par. I do feel that Man Con's review was a little on the generous side, but I would revisit - at least to check our their oyster and Prosecco deal - once they've 're-branded'. Using the Taste card, it was very reasonably priced, but I don't think I would've been overjoyed if I'd paid full price for those meals. Let's put it like this: if you're not as anal about your fish skin as I am then you'll probably spend less time whingeing and more time enjoying your meal.

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Sunday, 29 July 2012

Bored of Porridge?

Over the years, I’ve been called sleight, scrawny, skinny, slim… Most of the epithets you could think of to describe of a man of my small build. Suffice it to say that I’m not going to be entering any muscle-man competitions in the near future. However, fueled by a kind of vanity and the thought of my ever-decreasing strength, I decided to eat breakfasts designed to help one 'bulk up'.

Anna: On the flip side - as a woman subject to the narcissistic pressures of twenty-first century media (and not one of those members of the opposite sex who has the luxury of complaining "but I just can't put on weight however many double Angus burgers I eat!" a la Jamie) - I knew I needed an interesting and healthy breakfast that would keep me going longer than Shreddies. I also wanted a breakfast that I would be able to transport to work and eat at my desk as I rarely wake up early enough to get anything nutritious inside me (really - we moved into the city from the suburbs mostly to allow me an extra hour in bed in the morning).

Porridge, eggs, and even red meat have long been the breakfasts of choice for athletes. Call it parsimony or plain old common sense that, despite my love of steak and eggs, I was always going to choose the most economical option - porridge. Fortunately for Anna, it turns out that oats are a fairly female-friendly option too.

Memories of badly cooked, flavourless lumps of soggy oats meant that I had avoided porridge for the better part of a decade. Also, being fairly time consuming to prepare properly, oats were replaced by quicker easier alternatives.

Nevertheless, after following the steps Felicity Cloake’s 'how to cook the perfect porridge', Anna & I produced a nutty, creamy, wonderfully textured version and, henceforth, porridge became my breakfast staple. Incidentally, my condensed guide to cooking delicious porridge goes as such: toast oats in a dry pan until aromatic (take care not to burn them); soak in required amount of water/milk (50g porridge/300ml liquid), preferably overnight for quicker morning prep; cook relatively slowly and leave to sit covered for 5 minutes once cooked. Make sure to add a pinch of salt, it really does make a difference. Honey, golden syrup, or a swirl of jam are simple and effective; but there are of course a myriad of potential toppings and flavourings.

Nonetheless, come the summer months, a steaming bowl of porridge can be the least appetising thing at 8am on a Monday morning.

Enter Bircher Muesli. 

My first encounter with this style of oat-based breakfast came when I grabbed an apple and peach MOMA pot as an on-the-go breakfast on a recent trip to London. I enjoyed it so much that, upon my return home, I googled Bircher Muesli and, using Yottam Ottolenghi’s recipe as a guide, went about recreating the MOMA version. The original Swiss recipe calls for oats to be soaked in water then mixed with cream, to which are added fruit and nuts. Nowadays, most recipes call for fruit juice instead of water, and yoghurt instead of cream.

Bircher-style muesli is, like porridge, a wonderful canvas for various flavours and textures. Apple, peach and cinnamon is a good place to start but experiment with your favourite combination of fruit, nuts, and seeds. You can soak the oats in various liquids – try pineapple juice and coconut milk, then add fresh pineapple, coconut shavings and allspice for a Caribbean twist. I favour a nice tart granny smith (grated), blueberries, walnuts and pumpkin seeds with a squeeze of lime and a little agave syrup.

Soaking times vary from recipe to recipe. I find 10 minutes is enough time to soften the oats sufficiently for a pleasant texture. Soaking overnight speeds up preparation time in the morning and is advised, but don’t worry if you forget.

This breakfast has various nutritional benefits. The oats help to keep you fuller for longer and give you a good hit of B vitamins, which aid your memory amongst other things. Yoghurt is a genuine superfood (although I dislike the term), boosting your immune system, promoting fat loss, reducing colorectal cancer risk, in addition to giving you a good supply of protein and calcium. In the right quantities (somewhere in the realm of 40g a day) nuts are a great source of healthy fats and vitamin E as well as fibre and protein. I’m sure I don’t need to extol the virtues of fruit - combine dried with fresh to get up two of your 5-a-day before 9am. 

Bircher Muesli is undoubtedly an extremely healthy way to start the day. Try my recipe and forego the porridge, at least until Septemeber:

50g porridge oats
50ml apple juice (or other juice)
Roughly 30ml milk
100ml of natural yoghurt
Half a granny smith apple, cored and grated
1 peach, pitted and diced
Handful of blueberries
Handful of walnuts 
Pinch of cinnamon
Agave syrup, to taste
Half a lime, squeezed 

I work in individual man-sized portions - Anna & I manage to compromise on some things, but I leave her to sort out her own Bircher muesli whims. On this one, Anna suggests using around 35g of oats, around 70g of apple juice - or enough to cover the oats - and replaces the milk for a tablespoon of fat free yoghurt. No lime or agave necessary - A: unlike Jamie, I don't feel the need to start the morning reminding myself of the six Tommy's margaritas I drank the night before.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Goks and Woks

A seasoned wok
I am loathe to admit that Gok Cooks Chinese has reignited my passion for cooking Chinese food at home. Loathe, because there is something that irritates me about Gok Wan's fashion/body-image programme, and I had jealousy made derogatory comments about his sudden transition to TV chef stardom. However, I was forced to eat a leaf of humble bok choi when I watched the show and realised his restaurant-owning chef-father had taught him to cook and that Gok is actually pretty authoritative on the subject. (I must also admit that the infuriatingly nice Ching-He Huang's 'Chinese Food Made Easy' inspired me to try Chinese home-cooking for the first time.)

So, full of enthusiasm and armed with £20, I set off for Chinese-supermarket-Mecca, Wing Yip, intent on equipping myself with a wok and a cleaver. I’d had a tip-off that their woks were not to be sniffed at and that their Chinese cleavers were good value. However, without a wok expert whispering advice in my ear, I couldn’t really pick out any discernible difference, except size, between the cheaper woks. My theory was that when properly seasoned (more on that later) a cheap one would be as fit for purpose as the Ken Hom endorsed non-stick variety. I opted for a wok around the £7 mark, incredible value considering the versatility and efficiency.

Next up, the cleaver. My only requirement was that it be sturdy, with enough weight to glide through some of the bulkier vegetables and to mince meat coarsely. So I felt the weight of a few in my hand, and - after more deliberation than I had expected - chose a heavy, wooden-handled cleaver at £7. Feeling pretty happy with my purchases and left with a surplus of £6, I bought some store cupboard staples - 100% sesame oil and some Shaoxing rice wine.

Chinese cleaver
At home it was time to begin the seasoning. To the uninitiated, this doesn’t involve sprinkling the wok with liberal quantities of Maldon and sitting back waiting for something magical to happen. Seasoning is the process by which a wok is given a non-stick shiny coating or patina. It involves coating the surface of the wok with a thin layer of oil then heating it to the point that the oil smokes. This temperature is maintained until the oil ‘cracks’ and forms, by some rather complicated chemical reactions, compounds that turn the surface non-stick. The same process is used on cast-iron frying pans.

Modernist Cuisine's guide to seasoning a wok

The instructions that came with my wok informed me that it was necessary to remove the rust-proof coating before seasoning. I'm not sure if this is the case for all woks of this type, but grab a wire brush and some cream cleaner or detergent and scrub. Don't fret if the wok looks like its gone 10 rounds with a pack of mountain lions, it's going to be black and dirty-looking once seasoned. 

Incidentally, if your wok is looking worse for wear here's a good video I found on how to give an old wok a facelift on the Chow website.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Pollen Street Social

An artist's impression of Pollen Street Social

We couldn't think of a more fitting way to start our food blog than with a celebration. Jamie turned 26 last week and the surprise venue for the birthday meal was Jason Atherton's Pollen Street Social, which won Time Out's best new fine-dining restaurant award last year. We have admired Jason since he won Great British Menu in 2008 and subsequently became a judge for the show (albeit a very stern one); so you can imagine our excitement at finally being able to try one of his menus.

Compared to somewhere like Pied A Terre, where we went two years ago for the same occasion, Pollen Street Social is more sleek and showy yet maintains a modicum of intimacy, despite the seemly endless processions of staff. Admittedly, it was surprisingly busy for early evening on a Tuesday; a good indicator of things to come, we thought. We were sat at a table from which Anna had a bird's eye view into the kitchen and near to which was the epicentre of all the waiter's activity - so no complaints there!

It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we would have the tasting menu. So, after a brief perusal of the à la carte menu, we opted for the 7-course menu à degustation and ordered a couple of cocktails to whet our appetites. Anna's 'Curiously Clear Manhattan' was, well, curiously clear, being as it was made with unaged whiskey; and my Dry Martini (made, incidentally, with Death's Door - a very fine American gin) was expertly mixed.

Our amuse-bouche was a trio of olives, cod brandade, and the airiest of pork scratchings (imagine, bizarre as the image is, a pork skin meringue, only lighter). The meal began with the Cornish crab vinaigrette: a perfectly dressed crab with wafer-thin pear, pickled cauliflower and a small mound of peanut powder. Delicious. And the delicate crab wasn't overwhelmed due to the mildness and sparsity of the other ingredients.   

Scallop Ceviche

The same cannot be said of the scallop ceviche (above). It's always a pleasure to eat scallops (in fact most seafood) in a fine-dining restaurant since the best quality ones are usually prohibitively expensive to buy from the local fishmonger. When grilled, scallops take on a fuller flavour due to those lovely Maillard reactions; when 'cooked' in yuzu, the flavour is so subtle that even radish and cucumber drowned it out. The micro-planed horseradish snow was, however, sublime.

Slow-cooked egg

Next came a dish that could not fail to please. Chorizo. Patatas Bravas. Slow-cooked egg. Baked Potato Foam. Combine those four ingredients and you have in my humble opinion some of the best comfort food ever made. The best thing is getting all the flavour of a buttered baked potato without any of the stodge. 

Turbot next. More excitement at having a fish that is also particularly expensive. Perhaps the novelty of the flavour combinations was the reason for my not enjoying this dish. The fish was slightly under-seasoned but it was the coco beans with their pungently perfumed taste that really got in the way. The fish was well cooked, the bisque delicate and flavourful, the courgette nicely al dente, but my palate could just not comprehend those strange little beans.   

Cornish Turbot

The choice for the meat course was then between the duck or lamb. So, naturally, we chose a different dish respectively in the interest of culinary adventure.

The lamb (below) came with aubergine puree and olive reduction and a unappetizing swirl of brown stuff (what were they thinking!). It was described by Anna as tasting like a Turkish kebab. No bad thing obviously, but not much more interesting than that.

Salt marsh lamb

The duck was better but we couldn't help feeling a lack of imagination when it came to the main courses (and that the standard had started to slip in the kitchen). The braised leg and breast were both tender and moist, the purple sprouting broccoli looked a bit like felled trees, the mandarin and clementine jus wasn't as sharp as expected, and the jersualem artichoke was incredibly salty. 

Creedy carver duck

Hooray for the desserts! The food that came before could have been of the most mediocre sort and the meal would have been rescued by what followed. 

A beetroot and strawberry sorbet of the most exquisite texture was just what we needed after such rich main courses. The sorbet was adorned with the tastiest English strawberries I've ever had (apparently due to our mild spring) and a basil ash meringue (still not sure what this is, see photo).

Beetroot and strawberry sorbet

 It's always great to finish a meal with a panna cotta or a crême brulée - the creamy, unctuous mouthfeel is so satisfying. This time the panna cotta, a white chocolate and coconut version, was the best dessert we've had in recent memory. Served in a bowl, which is apparently customary since if it could support its own weight it would be too set, the rich panna cotta was dotted with mango, candied pistachios and topped with lemongrass granita. I can still taste it now. Simply amazing!  

White chocolate and coconut panna cotta

We ordered coffees feeling not as uncomfortably full as anticipated but then were undone by the smallest and cruelest of petit fours. We were presented with a single, tiny, innocent Madeleine that tipped us both over the edge. Damn you madeleine! Sluggishly we paid up and waddled to the nearest bar for a nightcap. 

The consensus among critics is that Jason Atherton is at the top of his game in London - a strong start and a stellar finish meant it certainly lived up to expectations, with informal and welcoming service throughout. If you can't or don't want to plump up the cash for the tasting menu, there's a very reasonably-priced lunch option.

A satisfied customer

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