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.

40-42 Deansgate
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!

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. 

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Chorlton Coffee Festival

Since I quit a fairly safe graduate job at the end of last year, I've gone through stages of working a mere two days a week to not having two minutes to myself to think! In part, I can thank the wonderful Chorlton Coffee Festival for that. Get your tiny violins out, please, people: as well as working three jobs, I am somehow heading up the marketing for this innovative wee festival happening in the lovely south Manchester suburb.

So, despite being in charge of the marketing shenanigans for the festival, I didn't want to get too salesy and blabber on about how great the festival is going to be (which IT WILL BE). Rather, I wanted to talk about a little coffee experience that Jamie & I had when visiting Berlin last year. An experience that made me re-think the way we "do" coffee shops in the UK.

Described as something of a 'hole in the wall', Double Eye is a teeny coffee shop, situated on a beautiful street in Schöneberg. Well, I think it was beautiful... it was a gorgeous, sunny day when we visited, and I was in love with Berlin, so everything looked a bit like I'd taken some sort of herbal high. Even though it wasn't near where we were staying, Jamie and I made a rather long trip over to this caffeine provider, as it appears as one of the best places to get coffee on most review sites and city guides. The queue was out of the door, practically half-way down the street. Normally, this might put me off, but we'd come so far! 

We patiently queued, and by the time we entered the shop itself, what really struck me was the sense of calm in the building. No impatient individuals, impertiently tapping their fingertips on the counter, but calm, Sunday-morning people, looking forward to a damn good cup of coffee, however long it would take. I couldn't work out whether this behaviour was mirroring that of the staff, or vice versa. The baristas were serving cup after cup after cup of coffee, happily. There was no sense of stress, or annoyance at the busyness, just a humble dedication to perfecting their flat whites. 

What's funny is that it isn't really the coffee itself that I recall. I remember something soothing and milky, with a complimentary sweet biscuit perched on top. It's how relaxing the environment felt when I was waiting inside. It didn't matter to anyone that there were tens of people in need of a coffee: every customer was treated as if they were the first person to order a coffee that day.

In many coffee shops in the UK - and here, I'm talking about the huge, city centre chain ones - there's such an impatient and unfriendly attitude with regards to buying takeaway coffee. Yes, I know you're incredibly important and are in a terrible rush to get your caffeine fix, but really, must you be so surly? Of course, Starbucks is like totally changing the customer-barista interaction now baristas are being so personable and being forced to ask our first name when we order a drink.

If, you are in Berlin, by the way, and want a damn good cup of coffee - to be remembered for how amazing the coffee itself is - make sure you hit Bonanza: simarly relaxing, though professional to the point I thought I'd walked into some New York advertising agency when I saw the baristas.

So, drinking in coffee in Berlin is how I came to be involved with Chorlton Coffee Festival. When I met Lorelei, the festival producer, and heard her desire to promote cafe culture as it is on the continent, and internationally, in the UK, I was sold. Unlike other coffee festivals in the UK, it's not about getting huge sponsorships from industry suppliers (though some sponsorship would be nice if any kind benefactor is listening!), it's about celebrating the independent spirit of Chorlton's cafes, bars and restaurants.

Chorlton Coffee Festival takes place on the weekend of 28th - 30th June, across 30+ venues in the area. Establishments will be offering coffee related deals and hosting related (and not-so-related!) events across the three days. On Saturday 29th, Chorlton Central Church will transform into the festival 'hub', with tastings, demos and workshops from related businesses. As I - and all of the other volunteers involved - have given up many hours, days and weeks to get this festival together, please support us by coming along, drinking a cup of coffee (or tea!) and celebrating all that's great about cafe culture by relaaaaxing.

Double Eye 
Akazienstraße 22, 10823 Berlin
0179 456 6960

Oderberger Straße 35, 10435 Berlin
0176 6169 1496