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Preview: Things to do in Manchester

Things to do in Manchester

Restaurants, bars, pubs, theatre and general niceness in the finest city in Britain. "Never knowingly undershod."

Updated: 2018-03-25T07:03:12.648-07:00


Christmas Menu at Provenance, Westhoughton


Now that Halloween is safely out the way, our thoughts start to turn towards the looming celebrations and the festive foods that we may stuff into our faces with impunity for the next couple of months. Christmas menus have been a big thing in the last few years, with seemingly all pubs and restaurants laying on special set menus offering two or three courses for somewhere around the £20 mark. Truth be told, these menus are often anything but special, with fairly predictable options that often don't extend much beyond traditional turkey and the obligatory salmon option (although there are, of course, some notable exceptions). How nice, then, to see a restaurant keeping to its normal à la carte menu but supplementing it with a few seasonal specials on a tempting-looking set option in honour of the festivities. Provenance in Westhoughton have maintained their place in The Good Food Guide for a second year, and are the only Bolton restaurant to feature; on the evidence of their recent Christmas menu preview, their continued presence is entirely deserved. Head chef Lewis Gallagher is still at the helm, and still knocking out a great selection of daintily-executed but deeply-satisfying dishes; here's what we had. A Selection of Christmas Fayre Canapés. I'll overlook the use of the word "fayre" here in view of the general excellence of these bitesize portions of starters from the Christmas menu: Potted Salmon, Sauteed Chicken Livers, and Wild Mushrooms on Toasted Sourdough. The mushrooms were my favourite of the three but I would happily eat the whole lot all day, every day, and the Christmas Fayre menu from which they're taken looks outstanding value at two courses for £16/three for £19 between 30th November and 23rd December. Cauliflower Espuma, Granny Smith Apple. "I don't like cauliflower," said my date for the evening. "I shall try it though." The inevitable conversion-to-brassica robbed me of a second ramekin of this smooth, earthy foam lined with a hidden layer of tart apple; must try harder to find someone pickier for next time.Scallops, Butternut Squash and Chorizo. A straight-up knockout dish: two fat, caramelised scallops, salty chorizo and - just showing off now - butternut squash done three ways. Onion Tatin. This is one of the mains from the Christmas menu, and underwhelmed me a little - I love an onion tart but prefer a squishier version rather than the sturdy half-an-onion approach adopted here. The deeply bitter ash on the side was utterly addictive though.Pan Fried Cod, Chorizo Cassoulet, Basil Pesto. Another from the Christmas menu, this one sounded an outright winner - something that I would order from a menu on a regular basis. In practice, this dish was the one real letdown of the night for me; the cassoulet was far too sweet and lacking in texture, with only a tiny amount of the chorizo that would have brought it into a better balance of flavours and a jarring swirl of herby pesto that fought with the rest of the components. My piece of fish was one of the thinner ones (it's the first of the two you see above), and simply couldn't cope with the cloying mass beneath. Other people on our table felt less strongly about the dish, so this may well just be a case of personal taste.Duo of Lamb, Potato and Celeriac Dauphinoise. Hurrah - right back on form, with a splendidly pink cutlet, a gloriously sticky piece of stuffed belly and - one of the out-and-out triumphs of the evening - one of the best examples of daupinoise I have ever had. EVER HAD. And I've had a LOT. Oops Chef Dropped the Manchester Tart. A bit of a foodie joke, this one, inspired by the legendary Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart created by Massimo Bottura after a bit of an accident one evening at Osteria Francescana. I'm not the biggest fan of Manchester Tart anyway, so this wasn't really for me; nice enough, as such things go, and handily smashed up to save you the effort of having to do it yourself.Coffee and Treats. This was a treat indeed, and reminded me that, actually, some desserts are worth the calories - mini versions of some of[...]

Bolton Food and Drink Festival 2017, including the Aidan Byrne Pop-Up Dinner and an Introduction to Carrs Pasties


Today's weekly(ish) phone call to my mum soon turned, as usual, to the subject of food. She'd been reading a James Martin magazine column about Bolton Food and Drink Festival, in which he sang the praises of a foodie extravaganza that is increasingly well-regarded and to which, until a couple of weeks ago, I had somehow never been. Part of this is no doubt sheer laziness on my part - driving to Bolton from South Manchester is easy enough, but if you want a drink you're looking at several different forms of public transport and a pretty early curfew. Finally though, I've been, thanks to overnight accommodation courtesy of some lovely Bolton friends and an invite to the Aidan Byrne "Made in Bolton" pop-up restaurant. Byrne was until very recently at the helm at Manchester House, a restaurant for which I have a lot of time, although he has now moved to a consultancy position within Living Ventures. A great chance, then, to try his delicate food in the relaxed environs of a giant tent pitched in the middle of Bolton, offering three courses from a set menu that I had trouble choosing from because I wanted it all. In the end, the relaxed environs didn't prove particularly relaxing. I imagine it's tricky turning a multipurpose temporary marquee into a glamorous restaurant for one night only, but the efforts were perhaps a little wide of the mark - table cloths and proper crockery, yes, but strange disco lighting and curiously dancey music that set a rather uncertain atmosphere. Some of the others at our shared table felt the venue looked a little like a tacky wedding disco, although I think this was a bit harsh. And anyway, we were here for the food. For starters, we both had the shellfish bisque, grilled Sicilian red prawns and saffron mayonnaise. This was superlative, with a strong, punchy flavour that spoke of a fish stock many hours in the making, and served with two fat prawns, a generous crouton and a healthy blob of excellent mayo. This was a great start, although one wonders why such beautifully presented food was served up under such strange lighting. I've deliberately not fiddled with the photos, so you can see how everything actually looked on the night as it pulsed through a variety of pastel colours. For my main, I was lured in by the meaty delights of the braised beef cheek, choucroute, Wagyu fillet tartar, sweet miso hollandaise and beef Secretto ham, although I should in truth have gone for the red pepper-crusted cod loin with aubergine caviar and mussels which my date had ordered. Everything on my plate was, individually, lovely, but the overall effect was just too meaty, meaning that none of the elements stood out and I found myself longing for a bit of greenery just to break up the wall-to-wall beef. And yes, that's a terrible photo, but when you put a brown dish under purple lights I'm afraid that's what it looks like. The fish dish was lovely though, and perfectly balanced in a way the meat dish wasn't, with the comforting blandness of the cod pepped up by the saltiness of the mussel sauce and the sweetness of the red pepper crust. He won again on the next course - I chose the selection of regional cheese and biscuits in preference to dessert, whilst he had the chocolate mille feuille with hazelnuts and violets. The cheese course was generous but a bit generic and quite variable in quality, with a lacklustre Brie letting the plate down. Meanwhile, the mille feuille was a thing of great beauty and delicacy, shot through with flavours of parma violet that prevented the chocolate from being too rich, and snarfed in a millisecond by a man who claims not to like puddings. Service was also a little variable, with a huge fleet of young people on hand - some of them excellent but some rather guilty of whipping plates away before people had finished. Byrne said himself on Twitter later that night that he wasn't happy with how the night had gone, but we enjoyed most of it very much, and certainly wouldn't be put off eating at one of his restaurants again. In any case, we were also by [...]

Festive Feasts at The Vegetarian Society Cookery School


Ah, Christmas, the most emotive of all the C-words. Whilst I'm not keen on shops full of Christmas tat and festive music before the start of Autumn, I'm very happy to eat Christmas food at pretty much any time of year; I'm a big fan of wintery food in general, and any occasion that encourages the consumption of sprouts, pre-lunch booze and one's own body weight in cheese gets my vote every time. As a blogger, this all-year-round love of Christmas food is useful, as festive previews tend to be over the summer, and thus it was I found myself a couple of weeks ago at The Vegetarian Society in Altrincham for a Christmas cookery school. The weather, naturally, was beautiful, and the sunshine streaming in through the French doors meant the Christmas tree set up in the corner of our reception room looked a little forlorn. It's amazing how quickly you can get into the spirit of something though, and as soon as we were in the kitchen with our genial chef Alex, it was surprisingly easy to buy into the whole thing, particularly with the prospect of some mince pies in the offing. There were eight of us on the course, grouped around a central island worktop set with individual stations - it's a lovely kitchen, with plenty of space and several cookers, hobs and sinks so that you don't all end up queuing to wash your hands at the same time. We began with some knife skills and then were straight into the festive baking, working together to make mincemeat before rolling out our own pastry and each making four mince pies. I've always wanted to be the sort of person who makes their own mincemeat and it was really very easy (especially if you make The Lady Sybil do the elbow grease, as seen below). Alex also demonstrated a couple of dishes, but even these were very hands-on, with jobs assigned to anyone making eye contact at the wrong moment.Over a cup of tea and one of our own mince pies (which were perfect - not too sweet and each the size of a small house), we got to look through a selection of recipes and each choose one to make. This is a great idea, and my favourite part of the whole course - every cookery school I've been to before has given everyone the same thing to make, whereas the idea here is that we each make something different and then all sit down to a real feast of dishes. This could, of course, be a little daunting for the inexperienced cook, and it did take a few minutes to get my head round where everything was (mind you, my mum has lived in her current house for 17 years, and I still can't ever find anything in her kitchen). The recipe I'd chosen - the Stilton and Walnut Cheesecake with Port and Blueberry sauce - was fairly straightforward though, and Alex was on hand to help with any questions and to laugh at me for accidentally setting my Port sauce on fire just the tiniest bit.The afternoon flew by, and it was soon time for us to proudly carry our dishes through to the serving table and sit down for Christmas dinner. There wasn't a duff dish amongst them, although my favourites were my Stilton tart (due to the presence of a great deal of cheese rather than any skill on my part), the spectacular Chestnut and Butterbean Wellington and the astonishingly good Sumac Carrot Smash. Alex joined us for lunch along with cookery school manager Jonathan and media officer Su, and great company they were too; in fact everyone on the course was lovely, and the atmosphere was festive indeed. The whole day was brilliant fun, and I actually learned a few things as well as confirming that my love of sprouts remains undiminished. The people at the Vegetarian Society are lovely, and not the least bit preachy to the array of (mostly) carnivores sitting in front of them; instead, they're all about showing that vegetarian food can be just as good (and sometimes better) than its meatier equivalents. I rarely cook meat at home any more, and whilst I shan't be going back to vegetarianism any time soon (last attempted when I was 16, and trying to convince Morrissey I was the girl for him[...]

Cookery School at Chaophraya Thai, Manchester: No More Friday Night Takeaways


If you cook quite a lot, it's easy to get stuck in a bit of a rut, and to think that you know more than you do. For example, until last weekend, I was confident in the knowledge of at least two things: that I could make a really, really good Thai curry from scratch, and that spring rolls could never, ever be worth the effort of making yourself, and should only ever be purchased from your local takeaway (preferably wearing a hastily-donned coat over the top of your pyjamas). A few hours at a Chaophraya cooking class last Sunday proved me erroneous in both regards. First things first though: in case you've not been, Chaophraya is an excellent Thai restaurant nestled behind and above Sam's Chop House on Chapel Walks, a stalwart in an area of Manchester where there are frequent restaurant casualties. I've had a couple of really good meals here in the past, so was excited to be let loose in one of their cooking classes, which promised an introduction to Thai ingredients, as well as a demonstration and hands on session and - that magic word - tasting. There are nine of us on the course, and we are given a welcome glass of fruit punch before being equipped with Chaophraya aprons and chef's hats (as usual, mine is too small, and I have to have help) and sent upstairs where our work stations await. This is a very well-organised (and subsequently calm) affair; some of the restaurant tables have been pushed together and set with boards and other equipment, with a stove set up at one end, and we are split into a five and a four with the luxury of one instructor each.Our menu for the day is chicken spring rolls followed by Thai green chicken curry, with kluay buad chee - bananas in coconut milk - for pudding. They are happy to cater for dietary needs but we appear to be a bunch of omnivores, although one of our party requests not to have things too spicy. The spring rolls turn out to be brilliant fun to make - we finely chop and stir-fry a selection of vegetables and then are each given a pile of wrappers and shown how to construct the perfect spring roll (with infinite patience, it has to be said). They look mighty impressive and we are all pretty pleased with ourselves when our efforts are whisked away, deep-fried, and returned to us with a pleasingly spicy dipping sauce. We have made around 5,000 of these items and they are delicious; I manage four and watch with some satisfaction as a good half dozen more are packed for each of us to take home. Whilst I can't ever imagine knocking a batch of these up on a Friday night after a week at work, I would definitely make these again for a special occasion, and our smugness at our own cleverness is palpable.On to the main, and I am, in truth, a little disappointed that it's something I make so frequently at home and already consider myself to be quite good at. HOWEVER. Whilst we have been eating our starter, the workstations have magically cleaned themselves and set themselves with an array of beautifully fresh, healthy ingredients, and the curry we make is, without question, in a different league from any I have ever made before. Maybe it's the freshness of the ingredients; maybe it's the addition of one or two things I tend to leave out because I can't be bothered to go out and find them (fresh lime leaves come to mind); maybe it's because we make the curry paste properly, in a pestle and mortar, rather than lazily throwing all the ingredients into a food processor like I normally do at home. Either way, the curry is amazing, and I feel I have genuinely learned something from making both these courses - about technique for the starter, and about flavours for the main. Our chefs couldn't be more helpful, talking to us about the ingredients and bringing me a little dish of bird's eye chillies and fish sauce with which to augment my curry when I mention I like things slightly spicier. The dessert is the least exciting of the dishes but is delicious all the same - we chop bananas and simmer them in cocon[...]

Foodies Festival at Tatton Park, July 2017: Cheese, Pork Products and Booze in the Cheshire Countryside


By and large, I'm very fond of a food festival. And how could I not be? The premise is a tempting one - interesting producers and suppliers gathered together in one venue (often, pleasingly, a field), ready to talk with enthusiasm about their produce and to proffer samples on cocktail sticks to the hungry potential purchaser. All too often, though, a food festival is a disappointment - too crowded, full of pushy people with sharp elbows out to eat and drink all the samples they can get their hands on without the slightest intention of buying anything, with lots of very samey, very over-priced food outlets demanding £8 for an average burger openly removed from a frozen Tesco box before your very eyes. Not so Foodies Festival, the biggest food festival in the UK, which pops up at various locations around the country every summer. This weekend it's been at the lovely Tatton Park in Knutsford; we went on Friday, traditionally the quietest day of the three, although still attracting a good crowd and a gratifying number of dogs carrying their own toys and eyeing up cheese counters. Here, in no particular order, are some of the highlights of our wanderings: 1. Cheese. There are few sights more beautiful than a table of cheeses, ideally with someone standing behind it, cheese knife in hand, ready to cut slivers of whatever you fancy. Good selection too, with stalls featuring Great British Cheese, Snowdonia Cheese, Saddleworth Cheese Company and Rostock Dairy. Many of the items you see here now reside in my fridge.2. Good booze. There was also lots of decent booze to be had, starting with a large glass of Cremant for a fiver and proceeding through a number of stalls with both samples to try and glasses to purchase. We didn't get round to any Pimm's (although we liked their teapot stall, and luckily the rain you see in the clouds above it remained there), but enjoyed the Chardonnay and the Merlot from Dark Horse Wines and the tequila from Cazcabel, particularly the Reposado, which I bitterly regret not buying. We probably spent the most time at the Thomas Dakin stall (my current favourite gin by some distance) and the Feeney's Irish Cream counter (complete with bell to be rung every time anyone mentioned Bailey's), and as I came home with a bottle of each and some cocktail recipe cards, I shall post again soon with the results of my jigging and shaking. 3. Food and beer pairings. We elected not to get tickets for any of the demo tents although - impressively - there were three, offering food, drink and cake demonstrations, and the line-up was a good one (Rosemary Shrager was on when we walked past, and Luis Troyano from GBBO had just finished). We did, however, very much like the mini food and beer pairings from There's a Beer For That. These were quick, entertaining events every half hour, some led by the lovely Melissa Cole ahead of her main gig later that afternoon in the demo tent. Also, I now have a badge that says BEER on it, which I shall wear proudly in the hope that people are subliminally lured in and buy me beer. 4. Assorted pork products. A food festival visit is simply not a success for me if I don't sample a range of pork products and come home with a bulgingly porky handbag. We tried lots of very good pork pies, and ended up spending wildly on sausages (all from Northumbrian Sausage Company, and including pork & black pudding and CHEESE & MARMITE) and excellent bacon from Spoilt Pig. 5. Burger. There were loads of options for lunch, including Peruvian, Mexican and an entire stall dedicated to calamari, but I believe a big fat burger to be de rigeur on such occasions, and had a very good Wild Boar patty from Silverside Grill, washed down with a salted caramel pudding from the Bonne Maman van. A good day out then, AND I had sausages for breakfast yesterday. There's still time to catch the last day of the show at Tatton Park today, otherwise I highly recommend you track them down the next time they pitch t[...]

Manchester Tapas Wars: New Menu at La Vina, Deansgate


I've always been fond of La Vina, that reliable Manchester veteran at the King Street end of Deansgate. I've spent many happy lunchtimes there ordering more and more rounds of tapas in a bid to soak up their excellent white Rioja, and even chose it as a first date venue around this time last year, not least because I was relying on their gin-and-tonics-the-size-of-your-head to allay any last-minute nerves. In what used to be a fairly straight shoot-out between La Vina and Evuna, my money was invariably on the former. Things have changed though in the last couple of years, and Manchester now has a whole raft of very good tapas restaurants, mainly clustered around the Deansgate area and supplemented by the excellent San Juan in Chorlton and newcomer La Cantina in Didsbury and Heaton Moor. And to their credit, La Vina seem to have raised their game accordingly. The new menu is a brave one, moving away from a comfortable, mid-price approach and instead foregrounding more typically Spanish offerings that had my San Sebastián-loving dinner companion raving in approval. And so far, the approach seems to be working, with the restaurant full at 6.30 on a wet Wednesday last week.The evening does not, in truth, get off to a particularly distinguished start. They seem a little understaffed at first, meaning that the gin and tonics we order take 15 minutes to arrive, they have run out of Jamón ibérico, and the Pan Tumaca (tomato bread) is woefully under-toasted and seems to be lacking any seasoning. Things take a turn for the better with the arrival of the gin and tonics (which are exemplary even if the glasses do seem to have shrunk a little since the heady goldfish bowl days - a Gin Mare with thyme and a fat Gordal olive, and a Brockman's with strawberry and grapefruit zest) and our excellent server Bruno, who whisks away the offending tomato bread and replaces it with a perfectly-toasted, perfectly-seasoned version (you may play spot the difference above, if you wish). We also enjoy a dish of Gordal olives (there was one more than you see here, suggesting I should start being more selective with my choice of plus-ones), some very good Boquerones, confidently and simply presented with olive oil and smoked sea salt, and some moreish Croquetas de Pollo - three fat balls stuffed with chicken and cheese, deep-fried and served with aioli for added goodness. Alongside this we have a bottle of that infamous white Rioja which, at £21 a bottle, is far too drinkable for its (or my) own good. Next up, the fish dishes - for me, the highlight of the night. The Pulpo is bravely, unmistakably, octopussy - one fat be-suckered tentacle lying brazenly across a bed of piquillo purée and flavoured with garlic, chilli and lemon. Bearing in mind that I once witnessed a girl in Iberica refuse to eat the octopus dish until her boyfriend had cut off all the suckers for her, this seems likely to startle a few diners - this is the best dish of the night though. A close second is the Galician-style fish - red mullet fried with garlic, paprika and sherry vinegar on a bed of potatoes and samphire and topped with crispy fried onions. I had this dish here a couple of weeks ago, and am well on my way to becoming addicted to it - the flavours are bold and the textures a lovely combination of fatty crispness and soft, flaky fish. For our meat course, we share the Secreto from the Iberico pork section of the menu. My dinner date has talked of little else since the start of the meal, and thankfully it delivers - the marbling of fat keeps it beautifully tender as well as imparting a wonderful flavour, and it is cooked nicely pink as we request. Alongside this we have the Patatas Trufa, another stand-out dish of triple-cooked potatoes with Spanish white truffle oil, rosemary and manchego. The waiter says these are like Marmite, and a real love-it-or-hate-it dish; sadly, we both love Marmite, and do not share these crispy little d[...]

Provenance, Westhoughton: The Return


Back in September I went to a press event at Provenance, a restaurant and food hall in Westhoughton that was celebrating its inclusion in the Good Food Guide for 2017 under the skillful watch of head chef Lewis Gallagher, North West Chef of the Year 2012. Impressive credentials, and ones which stood up to vigorous tasting: we all loved it, our only concern being whether there was really a market for fine dining at pretty-much Manchester prices in a location just south of Bolton. Well, thankfully Provenance is not only still going strong, but - if the near-flawless meal I had there last week is anything to go by - is better than ever. I'd begun idly perusing the new Spring menu at around 7.30am on the day of my visit, and the more I looked, the more I wanted; indeed, there is perhaps too much choice, prompting worries over whether this would be a case of jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. A more careful look however makes it clear that this is actually a very clever menu, with the same core ingredients and flavours running through the dishes and suggesting a sensible approach to both food preparation and waste reduction. There has also been an exciting development since my last visit in the form of a CHEESE TROLLEY (more of which later), and it was this overwhelming need to last it out until the cheese course that prompted my sensible approach in ordering two fish dishes for my starter and main.And what inspired choices they turned out to be. Our charming waitress (young; friendly; knowledgeable; enthusiastic) told me that I'd chosen her two favourites from the new menu: the crab starter (Picked White Crab Meat, Mascarpone, Lime and Radish. Crab Crackers) and the King Prawn Linguine main (Tiger Prawn Tails, Wild Garlic Pesto, Langoustine Bisque). The crab starter was quite the prettiest thing I'd seen for some time (with apologies to my dinner date for the evening); almost too pretty to eat. I'm glad I did though - light, well-seasoned crab adorned with a fetching cracker hat which turned out to be one of the best things of the night. If they sold these in packets like Snack-a-Jacks I'd be bankrupt within the week. My only thought was whether the £10 price tag was a bit steep (maybe), and I had the same concern over my £19 main. This worry, however, was misplaced; this was a generous and wonderful dish, with eight plump prawns, a subtle-but-punchy pesto, and a little jug of lobster bisque that actually tasted of lobster (unlikely a woefully disappointing dish I had at a well-regarded place in Manchester recently, which tasted of nothing and didn't cost much less than this). The waitress even pours the bisque for you, although rather embarrassingly kept telling me to "say when" until it became obvious to us both that the jug was now empty (does anyone actually stop her pouring? anyone??) and the word "when" had never been further from my lips.Meanwhile, across the table my date had chosen rather meatier options, having apparently spent the day worrying that three courses of fine dining plus cheese trolley might leave him unfulfilled. The Duck Egg & Ham Asparagus starter (Poached Duck Egg, Asparagus Spears Wrapped in Homemade Duck Ham) might not be a looker (a friend who saw the photos on Facebook queried why we were eating asparagus wrapped in beef and served with ice cream) but was spectacularly tasty, with a perfectly-cooked egg and a lovely sharpness to the hollandaise. For main, he had the Crispy Duck Breast with Creamed Cavalo Nero Cabbage, Smoked Bacon and Wild Mushrooms; this was a similarly good dish, with pink, tender duck and impossibly light, fluffy gnocchi (which weren't even advertised as coming with the dish, but which were a real highlight). On the side we ordered the veg of the day, which turned out to be a generous dish of green beans, mange tout, sugar snap peas and purple sprouting broccoli, all beautifully al dente and dressed in just the[...]

Restaurant Review: Michelin Dining at Fraiche (erm, near Manchester)


Until this week, I had only dined at three Michelin-starred restaurants. I don't say "only" out of some over-inflated sense of privilege, but because for someone whose whole life revolves around food I think this is on the low side, particularly as one of those experiences was an ill-fated first date at Altrincham's Juniper around the turn of the millennium and is definitely best forgotten. For one thing, Michelin-starred dining doesn't come cheap; it's largely beyond my budget, and doesn't always seem to me to warrant the additional money when there is so much good stuff around for less. And for another, as we all know, Manchester doesn't have a Michelin star, and thus we need to affect nonchalance and pretend we don't care for all that nonsense anyway. Thus today's post strains the limits of being a thing to do in Manchester, for we're off to Birkenhead to sample Marc Wilkinson's Fraiche. This tiny restaurant - just eight covers - has been widely recommended to me by many people whose opinion I trust; it's a real labour of love for Marc, who still does pretty much everything himself, and who has held that coveted star for nine years running. It's easy to see why; service is exceptional from the moment you walk through the door, the attention to detail is astonishing (see the music and fragrance lists below), and the spiced pecan nuts that we delicately fight over whilst drinking a bespoke gin and tonic made by the terribly knowledgeable Tom set the tone for the largely excellent food that follows (with one or two caveats). Our table of four all has the £85 tasting menu with the "salt" rather than "sweet" option (despite what you see on the menu below), which essentially means you get cheese rather than dessert; three of us also have the splendid wine matching at £45 a head (well - in for a penny, in for a pound). All of this is largely successful. None of us is that keen on our pre-cheese course of figs and feta, which features a green granita that renders the dish rather watery, and I don't enjoy the rhubarb crudite or the fizzy grapes, although everyone else loves them and I think it's just the texture I don't care for. Standout courses include the duck (the nicest I've ever had), the turbot, the carrot starter and the extraordinary "blue cheese and cabbage", a dainty little dish of frozen cheese that proves beyond doubt that cheese ice cream should be a thing. And the cheese course itself is spectacular - five well-chosen examples of full-flavoured cheeses, each served with its own specially-made accompaniment. There is also a petits fours trolley, a contraption of unspeakable excitement from which we are each allowed to choose five things (fennel shortbread the star for me). All in all, I have a memorable evening - great company and generally exceptional, unshowy cooking that doesn't require you to go for an emergency burger to fill yourself up afterwards (as was the case at a previous Michelin-starred experience). And where else gives you a bag of muesli to take home so - in their words - you can think of them at breakfast the next day? As if I've thought of anything else since.- Fraiche is at 11 Rose Mount, Birkenhead, Prenton CH43 5SG; successful booking requires persistence, luck or a clever friend who is quick off the mark when the reservations are opened every month. [...]

Zouk Cookery School, Manchester: Best Bhajis in Britain


When your day job is teaching, normally just the very mention of the word "school" is enough to give you palpitations and necessitate a quick lie down. Not so when preceded by the word "cookery" and located at Zouk, the much-lauded Pakistani and Indian restaurant tucked away at the top end of Studentville; indeed, so exciting was the prospect I willingly got up early on a Saturday morning and headed there in search of education, knowledge and new skills (and the prospect of a substantial luncheon). I'd never been to Zouk before, but pretty much everyone I mentioned it to had already been and already loved it - although were surprised to learn of their regular cookery schools, so the restaurant perhaps needs to shout about this a bit more. Classes start at 10am with a welcome talk and a cup of masala chai; there are thirteen of us in all, including lots of people on their own, and everyone gets on immediately - united in our greed and enthusiasm for Indian food. The course I attended was "British Favourites", which promised to show us how to make all those anglicised dishes that everyone secretly really likes - Seekh Kebabs, Onion Bhaji, Chicken Tikka Masala, Lamb Rogan Josh and Channa Masala, along with rice and naan - but which never come out quite the same at home and which are so often garishly coloured and profoundly disappointing from one's local takeaway.This is a refreshingly laid-back type of cookery school - we are given the recipes but told we won't need them, and we gather round a few tables in the restaurant area that have been pushed together and covered with tempting pots of herbs and spices. Much of the course is demonstration-led, but there is plenty of hands-on participation too: we are each given a metal tray filled with sliced onions and are at liberty to season at will (my bhajis are pleasingly heavy on the garlic and the coriander) before learning how much gram flour to use - this is the crucial bit - and how to combine the ingredients in such a way as to incorporate plenty of air. Our fledgling bhajis are then whisked away; next time we see them, they are sizzling away happily in the restaurant kitchen. Seconds later, most of them are in my mouth, hot from the fryer and quite simply the best bhajis that any of us has ever tasted (genuinely, and I've tasted a LOT). We also get hands-on with the chicken tikka, and whilst my tray of raw chicken might not look that appetising, its transformation once grilled on long skewers over (very) hot coals is quite something. Much of the rest is handled by the chefs. Ali, our tutor, shows us how to make the seekh kebabs, which we enjoy along with some more bhajis and the chicken tikka over a very welcome tea break (well, Coke/beer break - soft drinks are on the house and alcohol can be purchased at the bar). Then - thrillingly - he lets us loose in the kitchen, where we run amok and, truth be told, everything gets a bit chaotic. It's fun though, with the three different main dishes on the go as well as the largest pan of rice I have ever seen. We are allowed to supervise, and stir, and taste, and ask questions, and generally make a bit of a nuisance of ourselves - the chefs are genial and tolerant, however, and I learn lots of new things, including how to make an extraordinarily good Channa Masala. The real surprise, though, is the Chicken Tikka Masala (seen below in its massive vat, which I was hoping was all for me) - a dish I normally avoid for its bland creaminess but which is quite simply a revelation in these expert hands. Perhaps the nicest touch of all is that the budding chefs are each allowed to have a guest join them at the end of the course, to help eat all the food they have made. I had forgotten this until someone mentioned it during the morning, and it is to my friend's great credit that she responded so nobly to my late call, brav[...]

New Menu at Gusto: Old Didsbury Favourite Still Delivers


Things in Didsbury continue to look up. After a few years of empty shop fronts, bland chains and dodgy boozers, we now have Hispi (for which I have developed a shameful, costly weakness), a couple of new tapas places, the lovely Casa Italia, SoLIta, a couple of great chippies, loads of independent coffee shops and a brilliant Nepalese place. And yet despite this array of shiny loveliness and temptation, I still find myself as often as not in good old Gusto Didsbury, a stalwart of the high street for many years now thanks to its reliably great pizzas, interesting cocktails and lovely leather booths, into which one may sink thankfully whilst lobbing excellent fries in the direction of one's mouth and slurping a decent red.Of course, Gusto can do grown-up too, as proved by the new menu which we tried last week. As usual, most of the old favourites have survived the cut; in fact, most of the starters remain the same (no bad thing, in my opinion). Still, only wise to toy with a little focaccia - a plump, garlicky square studded with rosemary and salt and presented with olive oil and aged balsamic - whilst choosing, not least because my date for the evening is the Annoyingly Dairy Free Friend, who requests the allergy book (cue heart sinking) and spends several hours working out what he can have. I can (and would like to) have all of it, so I choose the oven roast pork ribs served with tomato barbeque sauce and coleslaw - not strictly a new dish, but one I've not had before, and which turns out to be a triumphantly meaty affair smothered in a sauce that strikes just the right balance between sweet and tangy, and perched on an excellent thin-cut coleslaw. Most of the dishes have some form of dairy in, but in the end the Annoyingly Dairy Free Friend is delighted with his half portion of tagliatelle with prawns and garlic - really good pasta with a decent amount of fat prawns in sweet chilli tomato sauce with fresh lime and rocket. This is the kind of dish that Gusto do well - good ingredients cooked simply and served up in generous quantities (as proved by the fact the the ADFF was outside having a fag when his dinner arrived and I hadn't even made a dent in it by the time he got back).Mains are excellent. I have the new duck dish - a pan roasted breast with buttered winter vegetables, aged balsamic and honey - and it is just lovely. The duck is perfectly cooked - briskly seared on the outside and pink and juicy within (they will do it well done if you want, but look visibly relieved when I ask for it pink), and resting on a bed of interesting vegetables (although there is a hefty hit of chilli here that isn't advertised on the menu - not a problem for me, but others may wish to be wary). Despite this plate of meaty joy, I end up with total, utter dinner envy, as the ADFF has the whole salt baked sea bass and it is SPECTACULAR. The theatre of such a dish is always fun, involving as it does an intrepid member of staff setting up a table alongside yours and burrowing wildly into the salty casing in order to free the fish that lies within; this is expertly done by John, whose service is faultless all night. Indeed, after such drama the dish itself looks a little underwhelming, but its looks belie its stunning flavour - soft, gently flaking fish, infused with lemon and herbs from within and a good sturdy blast of saltiness from without. The ADFF practically sucks the bones clean; not a phrase I ever expected to use in polite company. The fish is not cheap at £18.95, particularly as it comes solo and requires the ordering of extra side dishes, but it is perfection, and to be honest I always order fries and some Italian fried courgettes whatever I'm having - a meal at Gusto is simply unthinkable without either or both of these splendid items.Desserts are the only misfire. The ADFF can only ha[...]

Three Wine Men Manchester Christmas Wine Tasting 2016: Embarrassingly Clanky Bags on the Tram Time!


There are all sorts of things clamouring for our attention at any given time. Restaurants come and go; pop-ups spring up everywhere you look; street food continues to flourish; and every week seems to see the launch of at least one new bar in the city centre. So any event that keeps people coming back year after year is something to be applauded, particularly if it permits one to sample hundreds of wines in the rarefied atmosphere of Manchester Town Hall; indeed, I can think of few things besides the Three Wine Men Manchester Christmas Tasting that would see me boarding a tram at 11am on a Sunday morning and heading off in search of a nice glass of red.Three Wine Men is, for me, one of the best days of the year. Hosted every year by Tim Atkin, Olly Smith and Oz Clarke, it would be easy to be cynical about the branding - you're invited, for example, to take a test to see with which of the three you most share your wine tastes, complete with a sticker to wear (terrifyingly, if you end up liking the same wines as Olly this means liking "wines as exuberant as riding a unicorn by the horn all the way to the gates of Guzzle City", a trip I'd be keen to avoid, even to the extent of paying an Uber surge). Too much cynicism would rather miss the point though - this is simply a happy, joyous affair where, in exchange for £27.50, you get to merrily weave your way round the Town Hall, sampling lovely wines at will and getting to talk to some of the small producers and stockists who often don't get much of a look-in. One such company is Alpine Wines (pictured below), who are just lovely and from whom I end up buying every year - this year, the lovely Grüner Veltliner "Mitanaund" from Elisabeth Hausgnost. In fact, for me the Reislings and the Grüners were the stars of this year's show, with some excellent examples at GK Wine House (as personally recommended by Olly Smith who - as usual - asked after my mother, whom he met for about three minutes about three years ago). I shall also remember 2016 as the year I was finally converted to Sherry, a drink of which I have always been a little suspicious. Whilst I can't claim to have liked all of the Sherries on show at the Sherry Wines stall (Tio Pepe Fino still has too much of a whiff of old ladies in bed jackets about it for me), I did enjoy most of them, particularly the Manzanillas and the Oloroso. In fact, I did so well and was SO brave that I was allowed my badge for achieving the Sherry Challenge despite some rather undignified retching of the Tio Pepe into the spittoon.I avoided most of the big name stalls simply in the interests of time - the whole point of Three Wine Men is to try wine you perhaps wouldn't come across on the high street. That said, who could resist a chat with the lovely Dave Marsland (aka Drinks Enthusiast), on hand to represent Warner Edwards Gin (try the rhubarb one - it's wondrous) and seen below in one of his typically unassuming, camera-shy poses. I also very much liked the wines chosen to represent the International Wine Challenge, an annual award that recognises outstanding wines regardless of their cost - some of the 2016 medal winners on show included the lovely Greyfriars Vineyard Blanc de Blancs 2013 (I'm a sucker for an English sparkler) and a very good Tempranillo from Asda that comes in at under six quid. All too soon, our time was up - three hours fly by here, and we had to make way for the good folk thirstily arriving for the next session. The only rogue note of the day? The three wine men were being filmed for a TV show, and as I was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time there is a worrying chance I'll soon be on a TV screen near you, swaying slightly and pretending to listen to Oz Clarke as he talks to me about something. Still, potential public humiliation aside, [...]

Hip Hop Chip Shop Bring Fish-Based Joy to the Northern Quarter


If there's one meal capable of bringing both great joy and inconsolable sorrow, it's surely fish and chips. Good fish and chips is a wondrous thing indeed - properly crispy batter concealing soft, flaky fish; big fat chips with fluffy middles and a few scrappy bits at the bottom of the tray; more salt and vinegar than any normal person would ever want. In short, it is a thing of great beauty. Unfortunately, standards vary, and too many chippies serve up greasy, soggy fish with anaemic, under-cooked chips...I'm almost weeping at the thought of such travesty. Still, if the purchasing of fish and chips is a gamble, all the more reason to rejoice that purveyors of fine fishy wares The Hip Hop Chip Shop have taken over the kitchens at Kosmonaut in the Northern Quarter for the foreseeable future. The new venue feels like a good fit for Hip Hop, who have been seeking a new home since the end of The Kitchens project at Spinningfields - Kosmonaut has decent beers, loads of space and always has a good atmosphere, plus it's right in the middle of the NQ rather than tucked away at the bottom of town. The new menu features Hip Hip favourites (the Battered Halloumi Fingers are on as a side and a main, and Feastie Boys - battered fish biters, chips, minty mushy peas, tartare sauce - and the splendid Shell L Cool J Burger - Louisiana spiced crabcake, battered smoky bacon, spicy ‘slaw, brioche bun, chips - are on the mains) as well as some new dishes, the standout of which is the DJ Kool Jerk - jerk batter fish, battered plantain and scotch bonnet pickled pepper. The Chilli Batter Onion Rings remain superlative, and the Minty Mushy Peas are still, for me, the best in Manchester; we also very much liked the Pea Fritters and have both become a bit obsessed with the Curry Sauce and the Black Sunday Gravy (which takes between three and several hundred days to make, depending on who you speak to).In fact, we liked it all. We like the Hip Hop Chip Shop, we like the beer at Kosmonaut, we like the music (NWA + DJ Kool Jerk = v.g.), and we like the menu, which has a decent range of veggie and meat dishes as well as the obvious fish ones, and just shows what a permanent kitchen can do for you. Yes, it's all a bit deep-fried, but there's still far more range here than you'd get at most chippies, and anyway, there's wholesome booze to wash it all down with. The dishes you see here were part of a preview tasting and thus some of the dishes are not full size (and the crabcake is completely stark naked, apart from its 'slaw) - Hip Hop are not shy with portion size so you'll often get a bit more than seen here. And if fish and chips is more of a takeaway thing for you, they'll soon be on Deliveroo, thus rendering movement from the sofa completely unnecessary.- You can find Hip Hop Chip Shop at Kosmonaut 4-9pm Mon-Thurs and 12-10pm Fri-Sun (full menu here); the van will also be taking up residence at Trinity Leeds for the next six weeks. This was a preview event with complimentary food but they had my cash off me plenty of times at The Kitchens and will continue to do so now. [...]

Christmas Made Easy: Giving the Gift of GIN this Festive Season


Much as I adore it, I do try to avoid mentioning the C-word - Christmas - until the end of November or so. It really isn't easy. The Boots Christmas catalogue has been in store so long I've had ample time to select which Soap & Glory gift set I require this year (the twisty-tin with ladies on, just in case you've got a spare item in your 3-for-2 basket). A colleague admitted this week to having had Christmas pudding for his tea on Monday. There is a box of biscuits in the staffroom, which makes no direct mention of Christmas but which bears a drawing in which several of the biscuits are sporting festive hats. All this, and we've not even had Halloween yet. And to be honest, the presents are the least interesting bit of Christmas once you're a grown-up with a house full of tat and very little room to put any more (twisty-lady-tin excepted, obviously); this means it's hard to come up with a meaningful answer when people ask you what you want. Well, no longer, thanks to a PR email I received a couple of weeks ago: had I thought of gin as the perfect Christmas gift? Astonishingly, I hadn't - but it makes perfect sense. If there's nothing you really need, the whole point of a present is for it to be a treat that makes you happy: and if that isn't the very definition of gin, I really don't know what is (bourbon or rum maybe, but that's for a different post). Thus a happy quartet of four mini gins arrived through the post, along with the promise that there would be one here for every palate. Obviously I immediately broke up the little family by opening and drinking them - purely in the interests of providing the following Christmas gift guide, of course. BLOOM Gin. This comes in a beautiful bottle and has a slightly floral flavour that explains why it is so beloved of Manchester cocktail bars. BLOOM is distilled by one of the world's few female Master Gin Distillers, Joanne Moore, who is celebrating her 10th Anniversary as Master Distiller this year. This, along with the three main botanicals that go into BLOOM Gin - the flowers of chamomile and honeysuckle and the citrus fruit pomelo - perhaps explains why this is suggested as being a perfect gift for a woman. I'm not sure about this as I think most people would enjoy this gin, but as long as that woman is me I don't really mind. Available from: Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Harvey Nichols and Ocado. RRP £24.00 for 70cl. ABV: 40%. Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin. This is billed as a unique and different style of London Dry Gin made using exotic botanicals, herbs and spices; it also comes in the most beautiful bottle. I'd had this once in a cocktail and decided I didn't like it, but it turns out it must have been the cocktail I didn't like - this makes a very fine gin and tonic indeed and I am converted. My boyfriend has favoured this gin for some time, but warns that the attractive tassel that decorates the bottle can be used as a rope by cunning dinosaurs with a taste for Opihr.Available from: Tesco, Morrison's, Waitrose, Ocado, Booths and seven regional Harvey Nichols stores nationwide and RRP: £23.00 for 70cl. ABV 40%. Thomas Dakin Gin. I'd had this one before as well, courtesy of Manchester legend Alix Walker, and been impressed - it comes in a sexy apothecary-style bottle and is nice and savoury thanks to botanicals including horseradish and English coriander (which explains why it's so perfect in a Bloody Mary). And, it's named after the forefather of English gin, which makes it educational too. Available from: Waitrose and Harvey Nichols, Booths,,, RRP: £29.00 for 70cl. ABV: 42%.Greenall's. This one has a freshness thanks to its rounded juniper notes and mature citrus flavours, but was for me the [...]

Your Buddy Mary - the Socially Acceptable Face of Breakfast Booze


I have always been partial to a Bloody Mary, partly because of its most excellent components (tomato juice, horseradish, Tabasco), and partly because it's entirely acceptable at any time of day, thereby sanctioning the consumption of alcohol at breakfast if so desired. Fortunately, many others share this view, and one such - Simon Burgess - has brought a range of Bloody Mary-themed events and pop-ups to Manchester (and not before time, in my opinion - no idea why no-one has thought to do this before). A couple of weeks ago I got to attend the dry run (an inappropriate name if ever there was) of Simon's new baby: twenty or so of Manchester's food bloggers drinking their way through the full range of Your Buddy Mary's tomato-based repertoire. Simon's plan is to offer three different options, all of which I wish to do immediately: 1. #TheBuddyClub. This is the pop-up version, a 90-minute session coming soon to bars near you in Manchester and London - the first is a Halloween special at The Liquor Store on Sunday 30th October. Here you'll first be served up a selection of Taster Marys - we got to try loads of these and they were all excellent, especially the Red Snapper (properly blow-your-head-off levels of heat) and the tequila-based Bloody Maria - before the 'Club Mary' takes care of any hangover hungers. Finally, you'll get to make your own little bottle of #MyBuddyMary to take away - I loved this part of the press event, and went faintly feral in my application of spices, horseradish, Jalapeno Stoli and pickle juice in the creation of my own masterpiece. These events strike me as good value at £20, particularly as most Manchester bars/restaurants will relieve you of the best part of a tenner for just one Bloody Mary.2. #BuddysBoozyBargeBonanza. Whilst the idea of combining booze, people and large stretches of water may seem a foolhardy one, I'm a big fan of a booze barge, and I think this one looks really good - little wonder, really, as Simon is a paid-up member of The Liquorists, who certainly know how to pack a boat with genial folk and ply them with alcohol. The 3-hour round trip goes from Castlefield to Media City, accompanied by live acoustic music, an arrival Mimosa and midday beer, a selection of Bloody Marys and - best of all - a #TheresSomethingAboutMary. I actually emitted an undignified cry of joy when this arrived at the press launch - an outstanding, Cajun-spiced, Bloody Mary sporting what I consider to be a superlative array of garnishes. As with the other events, you also get to make your own drink to take home, so you may wish to consult the pictures below to see what perfection you are aspiring to. At an introductory price of £35 this is crazy value, and I am very much hoping to be aboard the next barge on Sunday 3rd December.3. #YourOfficeBuddy. The idea behind this one is pleasing: if you're hungover at work, Your Buddy Mary will pitch up and make everyone a Bloody Mary as well as one to take home, thereby restoring harmony in the workplace. I fear that a college staffroom will never be eligible for such a service, but it's a nice thought. Further details and event tickets are available on Your Buddy Mary's website. The press event was a free event but for feedback only with no pressure to review - Simon's enthusiasm and knowledge is a fine thing though, and I shall be going to more events as a paying customer (if only for the prospect of shouting ALL ABOARD THE BLOODY MARY BARGE! for a couple of hours). [...]

Provenance Food Hall and Restaurant: Fine Dining in Westhoughton


First things first: despite having quite a lot of friends who live in Bolton, I am woefully ignorant of the merits of this particular town and its environs. Thus I have to trust their judgement (and point the finger of blame squarely their way if this offends anyone) when I say that the news that Westhoughton, some four miles southwest of Bolton, had a more-than-decent restaurant, with an excellent young chef and a menu full of British classics, was not immediately thought to be credible when the invitation to its new menu tasting arrived a few weeks ago. In fact, some went so far as to suggest that "fine dining" and "Westhoughton" were not words that naturally collocate. And yet it is indeed so; in fact, on the evidence of last week's preview, Provenance is far, far better than even the most open-minded Boltonians of my acquaintance could ever have dreamed. For one thing, it has a most excellent food hall on the ground floor, full of things I would like to eat. Fortunately for my bank balance this had closed for the evening, but I had a quick roam around and made a mental note of essential future purchases (by which I mean, essentially the whole shop). For another thing, the head chef Lewis Gallagher was awarded North West Chef of the Year in 2012 and went on to be runner up in the national competition, as well as winning Lancashire Young Chef of the Year twice in succession. And if that wasn't enough, Provenance have got themselves into the Good Food Guide 2017, after just one year of trading. All of this boded most auspiciously. We started off with a platter of miniature versions of dishes from the forthcoming Christmas menu: goose rillettes, beetroot gravadlax and black pudding with apple. All of these went down a storm but the black pudding was probably the favourite across the table, certainly going by the evil looks that came my way when it transpired that my date for the evening didn't like black pudding and was in need of someone to eat hers on her behalf. This was followed by an exquisitely velvety pumpkin soup, which was widely decreed a proper taste of Autumn and equally widely devoured despite it being pretty much the hottest day of the year; I particularly liked the contrast between the rich smoothness of the soup and the crunch of the toasted seed topping. Next up was a big fat scallop, briskly seared and served with some sharp Granny Smith apple and different textures of cauliflower. Rather excitingly, the apple had been vacuum packed and had its juice forced back into it, resulting in joyous, refreshing little bursts of flavour to complement the already varied textures of the cauliflower. The ravioli of truffle and Jerusalem artichoke that followed was initially met with a little suspicion, with some of us worrying the truffle would be overpowering and pretty much all of us wondering where the sauce was. We should, of course, have had greater faith - the pasta, filled with ricotta cheese and lightly drizzled with oil, was more than moist enough on its own, and boasted beautifully subtle notes of its bolshier ingredients (the chef clearly has more self-control than I when faced with a dish calling for either artichokes or truffle).On to the two larger courses of the tasting menu - monkfish with a chorizo crumb, crisp ham and a lemon sauce, followed by fillet of beef with onions and mushroom - and both an absolute knockout. One of the most impressive aspects of Provenance is its focus on traceability (hence its name), and nowhere is this more visible than in the in-house ageing facilities, responsible for both the beef (which cut with ridiculous ease) and the ham. Another obvious strength is the sauces - the lemon sauce was brill[...]

Robert Owen Brown with Inca Pop Ups: Ancoats Coffee Supper Club Sparks Octopus Cravings


Facebook Memories can be a bit of a mixed blessing. Some days it throws up lovely memories, and reminds you of much-loved friends, and splendid nights out; sometimes, the memories are things you might perhaps rather forget, or reminders of quite what a greedy girl you really are. My own account is keen to remind me, for example, that four years ago I was seemingly a regular nuisance at The Mark Addy, where the wonderful Robert Owen Brown would rustle up six courses of unmitigated joy, the odd foray into brains or testes excepted, at his monthly Gourmet Nights; the menus serve as a constant reminder of how much I miss those nights. Fortunately (well, for me, not so much for the wildlife of Greater Manchester), we can still enjoy Rob's distinctive menus via his semi-regular supper clubs in partnership with Inca Pop Ups, the most recent of these being last week at Ancoats Coffee House. I've been to pop up events at this venue before and it works really well for supper clubs - it's friendly, and has sexy brickwork, and sociable seating, and a generous bring-your-own policy that I applaud most heartily. And, of course, it's always a pleasure to see Rob. Here's what he cooked for us this time (and fear not - there's nary a bollock in sight): Wild mushroom soup with summer truffle. Rob does a good soup, and this was one of his very best - rich, smooth and earthy, with a proper hit of truffle. Everyone loved this.Pressed smoked duck, with raspberry vinegar emulsion. Another winner - I love duck in all its forms, but it is a meat that smokes particularly well, and went well with the sweetly tart dressing. And yes, I've now got an image of a duck in a velvet jacket smoking a cigarette in a long holder. Octopus, heritage tomato, Yorkshire Chorizo with garlic & saffron mayonnaise. Genuinely one of the nicest things I have eaten this year - a really meaty, flavoursome stew completely brought to life with a big dollop of really garlicky aïoli and some nice crisp toast to dip in it. We didn't really share this very nicely on our table, and truth be told we found our portion of one medium and one small bowl between four a bit sparse. If the boys had had pistols, I think they would probably have duelled over the last piece of octopus (which, obviously, I ate - just to alleviate the tension). Butter-roast free range guinea fowl, with candied honey, lemon & lime. Well, it wasn't guinea fowl but chicken; Rob had apparently been let down by a well-known butcher, although I know better than to comment on this. The meat was lovely - moist flesh (a phrase I don't type that often, thankfully), and the most perfectly crispy skin (again, likewise). The vegetables were beautifully cooked and the light jus brought everything together with exemplary cohesion; we did all feel the mashed potato was a little bland though, and could have stood a little more seasoning.Classic summer pudding with vanilla ice cream. I wasn't initially that excited about this one, as summer pudding isn't my favourite dessert, and I can take or leave ice cream. I should have known to trust Rob though - the whole dish was stunning both in taste and presentation - and just look at the dinky little ice cream! Look!! All in all, this was great value at £35 for food of this standard cooked by a chef of such high repute, particularly as taking your own booze keeps the costs down anyway. Do remember to factor in though that Rob will make you buy a copy of his excellent book, even if you already have a copy. You can catch him and Inca Pop Ups again at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival with an Edwardian-themed supper club on Saturday October 8th - more info and tickets he[...]

Manchester Three Rivers Gin at the City of Manchester Distillery: New Premium Gin Celebrates Manchester's Past


Manchester is, of course, wonderful, as any Mancunian (adopted or otherwise) will be pleased to tell you with little or no prompting. I moved here at 17, lured by two revolutions: the Industrial one which I had learned about in History lessons at school, seduced by the march of progress in the form of canals, and railways, and the enormous belching mills and factories; and the cultural one that I had learned about by riffling through my sister's record collection, full of moody black and white covers and even moodier black and white songs. Nor have I have ever regretted moving here, despite sporadic accusations from other, lesser cities that Manchester's glory is all in the past, a relic from another time. This is clearly nonsense, as one of the things that Manchester does best is combine past and present - as even a cursory glance at the city centre skyline will make abundantly clear. This approach is also very evident in the new City of Manchester Distillery, located underneath one of the railway arches in the Green Quarter and home to Manchester Three Rivers Gin. This is the city centre's first dedicated gin distillery in modern times and aims to blend a sense of Manchester's glorious history with the current renaissance in small batch gin - the name refers to the three waterways (the Irwell, Irk and Medlock) that played such a huge part in Manchester's development into the city we know today. All of this is celebrated in the video that visitors to the Gin Experience will be greeted with and which we watched at the recent press launch - a video that speaks volumes about the passion of Master Distiller Dave Rigby and which brought several tears to several eyes (must have had something in mine, I reckon).Dave began his career as a university lecturer but now spends his time with his beloved custom-built 450l copper pot Arnold Holstein still, named Angel after the distillery's location in the shadow of Angel Meadow. He produces all the gin himself, and very good it is too - I've never been able to enjoy gin neat, but the inclusion of oats leads to an oily sweetness that makes Three Rivers palatable even on its own. Dave suggests serving the gin with cherries in order to pick up the natural sweetness of the gin, which combines 11 botanicals and derives its smoothness from vanilla, cinnamon, cardamon and almond as well as the oats. Three Rivers Gin is already available in a growing number of Manchester bars and independent and online retailers (Manchester House has it behind the bar and you can pick up a bottle at Hanging Ditch), but the distillery is also positioning itself as an interactive visitor attraction. The City of Manchester Gin Experience offers a guided tour of the distillery, four drinks (all gin-based, of course) and - best of all - the chance to create a bespoke 700ml bottle of gin to take home using the mini Alembic copper pot stills. I am, naturally, beyond desperate to make my own gin, but had to make do with eyeing up these cute mini stills and drinking a Three Rivers and tonic, pretending I'd just made it. The experience is not cheap at £95, but this is a chance to see (and taste) a seriously good gin being made by lovely, passionate people who want to share their love of gin and of Manchester and its history. And any cultural experience that leads to going home on the bus carrying your own bottle of gin is absolutely fine with me. - Full details of the City of Manchester Gin Experience are available through the Three Rivers website, and the distillery can be found at 21 Red Bank Parade, Manchester M4 4HF.[...]

Restaurant Review: Artisan Kitchen and Bar, Spinningfields


Much as Spinningfields has grown and improved over the last couple of years, it still seems to me a place of extremes. There are some brilliant casual places - I like The Dockyard, and am excited about Beastro coming to The Kitchens - and an excellent high-end bar/restaurant in Manchester House, as well as a couple of great restaurants if you're feeling really hungry (Iberica, Fazenda) but which won't leave you much change from £50 a head (well, not if you're as greedy as me, anyway). Where it seems lacking is in those useful in-between places, somewhere to have a quiet drink without risk of Z-list celebrities and dancing girls dangling from chandeliers, somewhere to have a decent-value dinner without too much bling but without having to perch on a trestle table. This is where Artisan comes in. I wrote recently about how it had overcome an uncertain start to become a reliable, go-to place with good food, more-than-acceptable cocktails and great atmosphere (during the week, at least - I'm not really one for town on a weekend so cannot vouch for the Friday/Saturday crowd). We had a quick drink in the oh-so-cute Artisan bar underneath the main restaurant ahead of our whisky tasting at Manchester House last week; I like this little place, with its outside seating and relaxed atmosphere, particularly as it carries the same drinks list and offers as its big sister upstairs. We went back for dinner after the whisky tasting and were once again impressed by the new menu, which offered up lots of things we wanted to eat, although the starters were, for once, the weaker link. My prawns with roasted garlic, coriander, tomato, chilli and lemon were full of flavour, satisfyingly big and juicy and with just the right hit of chilli, but the dish seemed a little incomplete somehow - some substance and texture in the form of some bread (and to allow mopping up of the juices) would have improved this. Meanwhile, across the table the braised chorizo with cipollini onions, cherry tomatoes and super seeded toast was even better in terms of flavours but suffered the opposite problem - this simply didn't need the bread, which added a bulk and sweetness that jarred slightly with the rest of the dish. Predictably enough, I stole half the bread to have with my dish, and balance was thus restored.Mains were very good. I had the 10 oz ribeye with french fries and roast garlic & herb sauce, an excellent value dish at £19.50 which was very well-executed - the steak had good flavour and was perfectly pink as ordered, and the fries were salty and moreish. The real revelation was the chopped salad with peanut dressing that I ordered as a side - I've never woken up the morning after a meal craving salad before, but I will have this fresh, crunchy, spicy, nutty joy every time I eat at Artisan from now on. My dinner date fancied a burger and was rightly pleased with his beef burger with bagel bun and french fries, a properly moist and pink burger with good texture and flavour and more of those addictive chips. They also knocked him up a tomato salad off-menu, just one example of some really excellent service throughout the meal.Of course I didn't need dessert, and of course I had one. The sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream was indeed very sticky (in a good way), and brought the meal to an accomplished end. All in all, it was another very enjoyable Artisan evening; the food is good, but it's the overall package that really works - I like the atmosphere here, with its slightly seedy red-hued lighting (I've left the photos their original colour so you can share the enticing murk), its loud-[...]

Pulteney Pairings with Old Pulteney Single Malt Whisky and Manchester House


Whilst I'm perfectly willing to put the hours in to bring myself fully up to scratch, I'm still something of a whisky duffer. I only acquired the taste for it a few years ago and am best described as an enthusiastic amateur, happy to try new things but always slightly wary of accidentally getting one of those TCP ones that tastes like it belongs in the medicine rather than the drinks cabinet. When I mentioned I was going to a whisky pairing evening hosted by Old Pulteney, however, the reaction was entirely positive - everyone seems to rate this single malt most highly, with one trusted friend proclaiming it her favourite all-time whisky. Even better, the event was to be held in the 12th floor bar of Spinningfields's Manchester House (as you can see from the stunning views that greeted us on our arrival), with specially-created canapés served up by Aiden Byrne, one of my absolute favourites of Manchester chefs.The event was designed to celebrate the forthcoming Bolton Food and Drink Festival over the August Bank Holiday weekend, where Old Pulteney are music and entertainment sponsors and where Aiden will be appearing in the Regional Chef's Kitchen, and certainly suggests that a trip to Bolton will be in order at the end of the month. We began with a welcome cocktail that tasted smooth and sweet but turned out to be fairly lethal, consisting of two parts Old Pulteney 12 Year Old and one part Stroma Malt Whisky Liqueur - anyone who thinks whisky is too harsh a drink would do well to adopt this as their starter drink (although perhaps only one at a time, whilst sitting down). The 12 Year Old, the brand's entry-level whisky, turned out to be just as easy to drink on its own, perhaps because it's matured in ex-bourbon casks and has a mellow sweetness as a result. It also has more than a whiff of the sea about it, a brininess picked up in an outstanding opening canapé from Chef Byrne - the Nori rice cracker with cured salmon and seaweed salad (including some little orbs of salmon caviar and an addictive wasabi mayonnaise) was a perfect match.Next up was the Old Pulteney 17 Year Old paired with chicken liver and wild sugar parfait, tobacco-scented chocolate and spiced plum purée. This was a bold combination that really worked, with the sweet richness of the parfait dish providing an interesting foil for the spicy heaviness of the whisky (a taste which I ineptly summed up as *technical whisky jargon klaxon* "feisty"). So rich was this dish that when offered a second helping (which I automatically said yes please to) I was unable to finish it, a hitherto unheard-of event, ever. Brand Ambassador Andy Hannah had, of course, left the best until last, and we finished up with the Old Pulteney 21 Year Old, which was awarded "World Whisky of the Year" in Jim Murray's 2012 Whisky Bible. It's fairly easy to see why - this whisky was soft, and smooth, and sweet, and smoky, and I would have a tot of it every night before bed for the rest of my life if only I could afford to. This mighty dram was paired with a dainty spoon of poached lobster with smoked apple purée and vanilla oil, which perfectly picked out the sweeter notes in the whisky. The whole point behind the "Pulteney Pairings" idea is that the distinctive flavours of each whisky make them perfect for food matching, rather than just thinking of whisky as a pre- or post-dinner drink, and the whole evening has certainly inspired me to look beyond my traditional guilty accompaniments of cheese on toast, crisps, or similar.The Bolton Food and Drink Festival takes place from 26th-29th August, with The [...]

Baked Camembert with Garlic and Rosemary: A Not-Quite Recipe with Lactalis


The International Cheese Awards at Nantwich is amazing. It's the biggest cheese show in the world, and is quite simply a cheese-lover's paradise. The inherent problem with the show, however - and I hate myself for admitting there even exists such a thing - is cheese overload; you eat cheese samples for a full, glorious day, and then get caught up in the whole excitement of the day and bring a load home as well. This leads to a fear of one's own fridge, which one barely dares to open for outright terror of the cheese mountain that looms there, growing ever more pungent by the day. This is where helpful, cheese-loving friends come in handy. I brought back a bag of goodies courtesy of Lactalis, who are the largest dairy products group in the world and who had a ridiculously successful time at this year's International Cheese Awards, winning a total of 22 awards including nine golds. Three of these golds were for the Président range that you will all be familiar with, and as I ended up with two of the whole Camemberts, I elected to bake them whole and serve them up with bread for dipping. Thus I offer this up not as a recipe but as a suggestion really, and to commemorate how much I enjoyed the whole thing.First, look in your fridge and locate a suitable cheese item. Ignore the rest of the cheese for now, even though it is glaring menacingly and appearing to multiply before your very eyes. Remove the whole Camembert from its waxy paper and put it back into its box, on a baking tray. Lightly score the top with a knife in a criss-cross pattern and then smother it with whatever pleasing ingredients you have to hand. I finely chopped a couple of garlic cloves and a sprig of rosemary, and then drizzled over a little garlic oil and a splash of white wine. Add salt and pepper and pop the whole thing in the oven for about 20 minutes or so - it should be obvious when it's ready as the cheese will have melted but won't yet be at the point where it's leaked all over your oven. Serve with crusty bread - the first of these I did served four as a starter, the second served three as part of a BBQ; but I could, to be honest, eat one of these to myself if absolutely required.The Lactalis range also includes the Seriously Strong products (which now has a Caramelised Onion variety in the spreadable tubs - see here for a lovely suggestion from Good Egg Foodie on what to make with this) and Galbani Mozzarella, which I like to slice up over the top of a tomatoey pasta. I'm also (almost) looking forward to going back to work so I can use this lunchbox. Lactalis gave me these to celebrate their new products and their success at the awards, but one or more of these items tends to end up in my basket at the supermarket anyway - I might leave it a while before I buy any more though, at least until the salad items rumoured to be somewhere in the fridge have been uncovered.[...]

A Brief Paean to the Joy of Meat: Beastro Preview at Manchester's Spinningfields


My sincere and uncomplicated love for a good sausage has been oft documented on this blog, particularly the superlative charms of the Bobby's Banger. And over the last year or so, James, Richard and Heather have been slowly but surely extending their sausage empire to include two outlets at The Kitchens in Spinningfields, a butchers and countless pop-up events, as well as purveying their porky wares at the festivals and markets where we all fell in love with them in the first place. And unless you've been living under a rock, or particularly outsized piece of black pudding, you'll know that they were recently announced the winners of the year-long competition to find the most successful restaurant at The Kitchens. This means that the existing units, Bangers and Bacon and Well Hung, are closing for a short while before re-opening as Beastro, a new restaurant that will occupy the space previously given over to the three outlets on the left hand side of the development - exciting times. I was invited to a preview of what to expect from the new menu when Beastro opens (or, a chance to drink lots of wine in the old premises before the refurb starts). It's all you would hope for from this talented trio (James is a butcher, Heather is from a family of bakers, Richard is a chef) - good quality meat cooked and served simply and with flair. The evening began with some giant-sized canapés (the highlight being the steak and fried egg on a spoon, a sport at which I feel I would have excelled had it featured in my school sports day) and a few words from Richard, who you see here pontificating about something or other. There were also excellent cocktails, so that we didn't really have to listen to Richard. The first dish proper was a plate of short rib bon-bons served with sweetcorn purée, something of a Bangers and Bacon classic, and dispatched with appropriate speed and enthusiasm. Perhaps the classiest dish of the night was the scallop with cod, fondant potato and shallot purée, which was swiftly followed by lamb loin with Bury Black Pudding and minted peas, carrots, potato and pancetta - both dishes proving that Beastro can do dainty as well as eminently satisfying. The main course was oxtail and pearl barley risotto with roast beetroot, a deceptively simple dish given astonishing flavour by a stock that had been simmering all day, and well complemented by the earthiness of the beetroot (although this kind of smearing across the plate is perhaps a bit dated, and not really my thing). There is no picture of dessert as I was gassing to James in the kitchen by this point, but it was a beautiful little glass of watermelon layered with strawberry jelly and cream. It's also worth noting that Beastro aren't just about the meat, and went out of their way to produce interesting vegetarian dishes for the non-meat eater at the preview.This is obviously not an unbiased review, as James, Richard and Heather are my friends, and some of the nicest people I know. However, if the new restaurant is as good as the preview night suggests then Beastro will be a raging, swaggering, meaty success - and it's absolutely nothing more than they deserve. - Beastro will be at The Kitchens, Irwell St, Manchester M3 3AG - follow them on Twitter (@beastromcr) to find out exactly when we'll be able to get our hands on their meat.[...]

Restaurant Review: Pier Eight at The Lowry, Salford (plus some exuberant singing at HMS Pinafore)


Back in December I reviewed Pier Eight, the new restaurant at The Lowry, and trumpeted loudly about how much I liked it. I've been back this week in order to try the new menu, and find to my relief that I still like it - if anything, even more than before, despite some streamlining to the menu and more limited pre-theatre options. Sometimes a simplified menu is a very good thing, and this proves to be the case here - we ate at 5.30 ahead of seeing the all-male cast performance of HMS Pinafore (more of which later), and whilst I was initially a bit disappointed that the full menu wasn't available, the fixed price option they run between 5 and 7pm on the night of a show turns out to be excellent. We began with a sneaky additional bread course as I was starving, and in danger of eating my napkin in an unseemly manner. The bread was very good - three different types, including a cumin crispbread and a superlative walnut loaf - and some perfectly soft and salty butter (you get more than shown here - I did say I was hungry). For starters I had the scallops with pea purée, samphire, runner beans, sun dried tomato pesto - two beautiful fat scallops, well-seared and seasoned, and nicely offset by the sweetness of the pea purée and the brackishness of the samphire (one of my very favourite things). The pesto was presumably there to add some sweetness but wasn't needed and found itself a little overwhelmed by everything else - still, a very good dish though. The roast and pickled beetroots with beetroot jam, preserved pear, sorrel leaves, whipped Lancashire curd and powdered rosemary oil sounded fiddly but actually worked perfectly - a really well-balanced and interesting dish offering different textures and a ludicrously wonderful sweet sticky sauce that got me caught running my finger round the plate.Mains kept up the standard, and provided the perfect summer accompaniment to an unusually sunny Salford. My roasted sea trout, steamed mussels, samphire, gnocchi and watercress sauce was a great example of a simple, elegant dish, despite a couple of blips - the mussels were initially forgotten and had to be brought separately, and the samphire had been substituted for fennel without warning. No real matter though - the mussels were brought swiftly (and the dish was indeed much augmented once I'd tipped them on) and the aniseed flavours of the fennel went perfectly with the trout. Also, these were the best gnocchi I have had anywhere. The lamb rump with crushed new season potatoes, warm pea salad and salsa verde across the table was both beautiful and generous - two large pieces of off-pink meat with a well-seasoned crust (although we added an extra grind of salt just to add a little more texture), with the warm pea salad and the salsa verde bringing a freshness to the dish that is often lacking with lamb.It's an unwritten rule when reviewing that you should choose different things in order to try a variety of dishes, but neither of us has a sweet tooth and both went for the selection of British farm house cheese with poached pear, chutney, celery, oat biscuits and knacker bread (which, I now learn, is the proper name for the crispbread we had earlier, and is a much better term). Often a pre-chosen cheese board has one duff option amongst its wares, but not here - all three were excellent and included Garstang Blue and a lovely smoked Brie. Interesting accompaniments too. Drinks-wise, we chose an Argentine Torrontes from a decent and well-priced menu, and thought it gr[...]

New Summer Menu at Iberica, Spinningfields


Manchester is spoilt for choice at the moment when it comes to tapas, almost as if we are being given our moment in the Spanish sun despite our occasionally inclement weather - it's altogether easier to overlook the rain and the cold when you're inside drinking sherry and eating patatas bravas. Nowhere is this more true than at Spinningfields' Iberica, where I once ate a full-on feast on the covered terrace whilst a particularly vehement Manchester storm raged a few feet away from me, trying and failing to wrest my attention from my jamon. The Manchester outpost of this small chain has been with us for over a year now, and judging by the new Summer menu it continues to go from strength to strength. Last week we got to try selected dishes from the new menu along with a few old favourites (impossible to consider going to Iberica and not having the serrano ham croquettes), introduced by Ibérica's Group Head Chef and all-round charmer, César García. Here - deep breath - is what we had. Trio of hams: a journey through three hams from north to south (and, indeed, from left to right, as the flavours get more pronounced the further you foray across the board). Cured Iberian acorn-fed "Presa" (Lomito de Bellota). The meat at Iberica is consistently excellent - marbled thickly with fat and full of smoky, nutty flavour. ALL pigs should be encouraged to dine on acorns if this is the result. Pan con tomate: toasted bread with tomato. Always a classic and always done well at Iberica. I sometimes sit at the bar for a glass of wine and accidentally order this (six is my current record). Red berries gazpacho from MercatBar by Quique Dacosta. A real stand-out dish, this one - pretty as a picture and with a deeply savoury richness from the combination of earthy beetroot and sweet and sharp berries. Developed by world-renowned chef Quique Dacosta, this one is only available in June so get in quick.Cauliflower tempura: deep fried fresh cauliflower heads with yoghurt sauce. I'm a big fan of cauliflower in all its forms, but let's not pretend that cauliflower rice or pizza base could ever live up to these gloriously crisp and golden morsels. Asparagus toast: asparagus with manchego, onion confit & truffle oil on toast. You can't really go wrong with this combination of ingredients - I particularly like how pronounced the truffle flavour is and salute the generous pouring that clearly goes on here. Ibérica’s serrano ham croquettes. An old favourite. These are addictive mouthfuls of molten cheese and salty ham breaded and deep fried - I love them dearly, and would sell my soul to have a plate of these to hand right now.Fideua with garlic & prawns. This is a classic Spanish seafood dish originating from Valencia, like paella but made with pasta instead of rice. For me, this was the least impressive course - it had plenty of flavour from the fish stock and the liberal quantities of sliced garlic, but this one just didn't quite mesh together for me and remained less than the sum of its parts. Ibérica octopus a la gallega: Galician style octopus with potatoes & pimenton de la Vera (paprika). Another favourite. This wouldn't be for everyone - the fat pieces of octopus are still waving their suckers about and the pimenton is very strong - I can't get enough of it though, and nobly helped out those others at table for whom this dish was a step/tentacle too far.Fresh hake with hollandaise sauce & lettuce water. This is a really classy dish - perfectly[...]

New Menu at Artisan Spinningfields, and a Big Birthday Party


Sometimes when I mention I'm going to Artisan, people look at me with some suspicion. There is a general perception that this particular member of the Living Ventures stable is a bit, well, WAG-ish, or a bit big, or a bit loud, or a bit something. It must be doing something right though, as it's just celebrated its third birthday with a lavish party that coincided with the launch of the new summer menu - a menu that seems to have ironed out some of the little issues here with the food that people (including me) have noted previously - earlier menus have seemed a little too eclectic, a fact that has been reflected in some patchier dishes alongside some excellent ones on previous visits.Well, between three of us we tried six dishes and found not a duff one amongst them. The new menu has a more cohesive feel about it, and perhaps a more traditional one too - there is nothing fancy here, just big hearty portions of things that we all wanted to eat. We started with a couple of nibbles that weren't strictly needed - the crispy kale (all about the health, as you know) was a triumph, and the spiced chickpeas, almonds and cashews were tasty although a tiny bit burnt in places. Next up, the starters - I was hungry, and had the chicken liver and rum pâté with golden raisins sealed with chia seeds (bear with me on this one), whilst my two friends were feeling more virtuous and shared the asparagus served with broccomole dip and radish, and the globe artichoke with herb vinaigrette. The pâté was perfection, thick and creamy with a good hit of booze, and whilst the addition of chia seeds all sounded a bit Hemsley and Hemsley, it did add some texture to the layer of butter - although presumably any health benefits were swallowed up by all the bad fats and calories elsewhere. The other two starters were bright and fresh and appealing - the broccomole (which I've been meaning to make at home for ages after seeing Nigella whip some up a while back) made an interesting change from the ubiquitous avocado, and the artichoke with its zingy dressing was one of the prettiest dishes we'd seen for a very long time.On to the mains, and no-one was even pretending to be healthy anymore (although it is perfectly possible with the new menu). I had the seared tuna with spiced lentils, whilst elsewhere on the table we tried the confit duck leg with chickpea cassoulet and the 10oz ribeye steak with matchstick fries and roast garlic and herb sauce. The tuna was generous and the lentils well flavoured, and whilst the fish was fractionally more cooked than I would do it myself, this is definitely a dish I would order again. Likewise the confit duck - we thought this excellent value at £14, and enjoyed the spiciness of the cassoulet - and the ribeye, which was perfectly cooked and similarly good value at £17.50. Portions were hefty, and although we didn't need the side orders of moreishly salty matchstick fries and sweet potato fries with paprika salt, we wolfed them anyway. In fact, we wolfed the lot, and found very little to fault across the board.Away from the relative quiet of the restaurant area (the room divisions really do help this enormous industrial space feel far more intimate than it would otherwise), the birthday party was in full swing. We tried some of David Beckham's Haig Club whisky from a stand manned by a gentleman nearly as charming as David himself (and probably more generous with the shots), and listened to some v[...]

New Spring Menu at Gusto Didsbury: Salmon, Lamb and a LOT of Avocado


Bearing in mind that some parts of the country have had snow this morning, it's perhaps a little difficult to believe that Spring has sprung in Britain. Still, sprung it has, and I know this for two reasons. Firstly, I am now awakened by actual daylight at 6am every morning, and secondly, the new Spring menu has launched at Gusto. Gusto Didsbury is one of my favourite haunts. It's part of a chain but doesn't feel like it; it has a great atmosphere and lovely cosy leather booths where no-one can see if you get arrabiata down your top; the staff are lovely; it's possible to dine well there for not much money; there's a very decent, mostly Italian wine list; and it's ten minutes' walk from my house (a walk that I am always glad of afterwards, although technically more of a roll than a walk on the return journey). I also like that they change their menu every Spring and Autumn - it means regular visitors like me get to try new stuff, and also reflects their interest in seasonal eating (although to commit to this fully would require more frequent changes than twice-yearly, of course).The new menu has some interesting-sounding new dishes; so many, in fact, that we are forced to eat olives and some rosemary focaccia bread whilst we are choosing. I want it all, although truth be told the options are more limited for my dairy-free, pescatarian plus-one (although his moment in the sun will come later, with the dessert menu). In the end I go for the asparagus spears with dolcelatte mayonnaise and roasted red peppers - a simple dish, well-executed. The dolcelatte mayonnaise is a thing of great joy and the asparagus spears are fresh and fat (although for £6.25 I think three of them is on the low side). My friend has the cold smoked salmon with spiced avocado, red pepper purée and capers and although it looks absolutely stunning, in practice it is a bit of a misfire - the star of the dish should be the salmon (which is, indeed, lovely) but it finds itself a bit overwhelmed by the other elements. The spiced avocado turns out to be a purée which would work well on its own as a dip or on toast, but here makes the dish a little wet, and the capers add too much salt to a dish that is already well-seasoned. It wouldn't take much tweaking to make this a great dish - more texture to the avocado and one or two less complicating elements perhaps.For main, I have the roast lamb rump with truffled cheese piccolo ravioli and tomato sauce. I enjoy this very much - two generous slabs of perfectly pink and tender lamb surrounded by a whole army of exquisitely tiny ravioli that are probably my favourite component of the whole meal. I have misordered on the sides, as I have gone for my usuals of fries, Italian fried courgettes and, on the waitress' recommendation, the new polenta chips (these are to share by the way - not even I'm that greedy). Each of these, individually, is perfection, but the lamb dish would have benefited from a green vegetable and the salty sides end up making the overall dish a little over-seasoned. The picky friend is more of a problem though - there are some wonderful-sounding fish dishes on the menu but they contain reams of butter, so he ends up going for the pan fried salmon fillet with tomato and avocado salsa and spiced crumb, fully aware that he is essentially ordering salmon and avocado followed by salmon and avocado. Still, he is a little surprised when the "avocado salsa"[...]