Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The French

I love Manchester.  I love the fact that as a major city we aren't a smaller, underdeveloped version of London.  We have our own 'thing' going on here and this can be seen in the people, in the streets and certainly in the food and the drinks.  That 'thing' is undefinable I think (or at least I'm not going to try to define it here) but a symptom of that 'thing' is that our best bars and restaurants have a very welcoming atmosphere and the good people of the Manchester food scene are naturally very inclusive.  There are of course some exceptions to this rule that go out of their way to make their offering as exclusive as possible and as a result I'm not interested in visiting those establishments which employ door staff to weigh up the cost of the labels I'm wearing or checking that my face fits.  I've also mentioned a couple of times previously that it was this air of exclusivity or elitism that discouraged me for a long time from visiting 'fine dining' establishments because it caused a genuine fear that I would not be made to feel welcome.  Luckily our visits to Aumbry and L'Enclume completely blew my misconceptions away and proved that you can serve fine food in fine settings without sacrificing a warm welcome especially in the case of L'Enclume which was almost certainly our favourite meal of all time that we have eaten in the UK which was down to not only the strength of the food but also the perfect service.  This brings us nicely to Manchester's brightest hope for its first Michelin Star in the form of Simon Rogan's new (well it was quite new when we went back in May) restaurant The French.  There are some big questions hanging over The French with the biggest being 'Will it get that Star?' as well as 'Does Manchester need a Michelin Star?' but really that isn't that important to me as long as I enjoy the experience and on this occasion it was Jules' birthday so the stakes were a little higher than usual.

Located in The Midland hotel we arrived a little early to hear the sounds of a pianist bashing out modern 'classics' (think Radiohead/Coldplay/Alicia Keys) in the main lobby of the hotel.  We weren't there for long as we spied the unmissable doorway to The French and scuttled through apologising for our anti-tardiness.  Once through that epic archway the space opens in to a glorious dining room.  You will almost certainly have seen lots of photos of the 'light fittings' shown in the above image but none of them do the real thing justice.  Despite the extra high ceilings the room still feels cosy as tables are snuggled together without encroaching on each other's space and the natural wood of the furniture gives a warm feeling to the decor without sacrificing the grand nature of the room.  The French had pulled off its first magic trick successfully.  Jules had a particular penchant for the carpet.

After a lovely welcome we were seated and we ordered our customary G 'n' T while we pondered whether or not to go six or ten course.  We pondered for all of 30 seconds before plumping for the ten course.  A word of caution, the number of courses is deceptive as it was at L'Enclume.  Before course one arrives you are presented with an amuse bouche and two snacks as well as a surprise at the end.  Deception of the best kind.

The amuse bouche was raw radish served with nutmeg mayo and toasted pearl barley.  This is the kind of plate of food that exemplifies what I love about Rogan's cookery, it sounds a plate so simple it's silly.  But it isn't and the flavour and textures crammed in to just three very simple elements puts most chefs to shame.  The pearl barley was like the most natural popping candy in the world, sublime.

A bad start to the next course as a non pescetarian plate was brought out and placed in front of Jules, as the description was a little rushed we were left wondering if the dish was correct or not.  We asked a moment later and the dishes were whisked away from us again returning a minute or two later the waiter brought back the parsnip crisp with belly pork (Jules' version swapped the pork for smoked eel).  The topping of pork was lovely but sadly the crisp had gone past being a crisp and I feared for my teeth which was a shame.  It was also a shame that due to the mix up with the timings our next snack was delivered before we could even finish the first...

Crowding the table was the pickled mussel in edible shells with seaweed sticks.  We had gone for this menu without reading any reviews or looking at the menu so that every course would be an absolute surprise.  On top of this I didn't want the opportunity to pass on ingredients I normally avoid like mussels.  I'm so glad I didn't as this was by the far the best mussel I had ever eaten, absolutely loved it.  The shells and sticks didn't disappoint either.  When it comes down to it there is also a lot of fun to be had eating sticks and shells.

Beetroot, goats cheese, salted hazelnuts with apple marigold appeared swiftly after our snacks were cleared from the table.  The waiter informed us we should try the apple flavoured micro herb first on its own.  This tiny innocuous herb tasted like a full on bite of a granny smith.  It was so unbelievable that it made us laugh.  When combined with the other elements in the bowl it all came together as another amazing dish.

Another ingredient I would normally side step due to my seafood squeamishness is razor clams which is lucky as I might have missed out on razor clams, egg yolk, celeriac and sea herbs.  I'd previously only seen razor clams served rustic style in their own shells, well presented with more refinement here to match the gentle flavours of this incredible dish.

A quick word about the bread which we patiently consumed over the course of the meal, this took some will power as they all looked so attractive.  The only one that didn't live up to its appearance was the mini french baguette which was a real denture breaker, disappointing to have this served up alongside the Manchester beer roll which was a delight.

Boiled sole, onions, truffle and aliums caused me to look up the word allium in the dictionary to figure out why this was so delicious.  This was so very rich but not overpowering, a very crisp flavour to each element and the broth was strangely refreshing.

I had heard hushed whispers of the next course and how exceptional it was so when the waiter announced I was receiving the ox in coal oil with pumpkin seed, kohlrabi and sunflower sheets I was pretty happy despite the fact I rarely find pumpkin very inspiring at all.  The pumpkin seeds were my favourite element, a real stand out flavour!  The ox was still beautiful and the coal oil was a subtle but interesting flavour.

The next dish was fresh crab, caramelised cabbage, horseradish and chicken skin with crow garlic.  Crow garlic might sound scary but it isn't and it was the lightest flavour on the place.  At the same time crab and cabbage might seem like odd bed fellows and appearance wise this is not as elaborate but this was our favourite dish of the night.  Absolutely amazing, rich but supremely balanced.

The next plate didn't sound very inspiring from the generic title of spring offerings, vegetables, herbs, flowers and lovage salt.  How wrong could I be?  I don't think I've ever been so inspired by a plate of food in my life.  This is a plate of plants and vegetables with some salt, how can it taste so good?  There was no protein at all and it didn't need one.  There were 32 ingredients on the plate and whatever combination of those ingredients ended up on your fork it still tasted amazing.  This was a real lesson in getting full flavours from unassuming ingredients.

A pretty classic dish next in the form of hake fillet with buckwheat, cresses and smoked roe butter.  A simple and beautiful portion of fish perfectly cooked.

We weren't done yet.  Reg's duck, ruby chard, king oysters, mulled cider and nasturtiums.  Like so often in Simon Rogan's food you look forward to the protein such as the duck on this plate and then something blindsides you.  On this occasion it was the ooof of the oyster mushrooms.

With the savoury dishes out of the way we moved to the lighter dessert plates.  Chamomile with cheshire rhubarb, toasted oats and douglas fir was our first sweet plate and it was a lovely comedown from the savoury plates.  That said it didn't quite hit the mark as much as the L'Enclume equivalent we had enjoyed previously but maybe that was a conscious decision.

The final plate of the evening was pear, meadowsweet and rye, buttermilk, linseeds.  There was a pretty immediate issue with this plate as the brittle was almost impenetrable, in an effort to cut hers Jules managed to propel it some distance before it hit the floor.  Apart from that crunchy problem the dessert was an absolute triumph, a wonderful way to end the meal.  As the waiter collected our plates Jules wailed 'It's so sad it's all over now!".  With a flash of a grin the waiter lets slip "Or is it?" before disappearing in to the kitchen.  A cruel trick by the waiter?  No, there was one more surprise.

That surprise was sarsaparilla tonic, sarsaparilla wafer and sarsaparilla frozen mousse.  Now this is a way to finish a meal.  Incredibly powerful flavours but very natural, sums the whole meal up really.  It was an absolutely phenomenal meal, fourteen fantastic plates of food despite two or three minor issues that mean this is certainly the best food in Manchester and in our opinion it is also great value for the quality of the food you receive.  That high praise said, we do have to judge it against the standards of its little sister L'Enclume and when you do that you see it just falls short of the perfection they are aiming for.

A general comment is that (with the exception of the floor manager) all the staff really want to to tell you is how good the food is which ended up feeling a little bit robotic.  When I tried to respond to the oft repeated question 'It's brilliant isn't it?' they seemed a little bit uncomfortable and unprepared to actually have a conversation about the food.  As we arrived the manager had ensured us we would 'get to know' all the waiting staff and this couldn't have been further from the truth although L'Enclume absolutely succeeded in this respect.

There was also an awkward/hilarious moment between the gent who delivered the food to the table and our actual waiter which is worth a mention.  For each dish the waiter would lead the food carrying gent to the table so that he could introduce the dish.  In one instance the food carrier (apologies if there is a posh name for this role!) stopped one table short and the waiter proceeded to stop at our table.  I immediately saw the food carrier furrow his brow as if the waiter had made a heinous error.  The waiter spun on his heel only to see that the food carrier was the one who had made the error.  Now I understand that he couldn't just shout 'OI you've gone to the wrong table you absolute wazzock' but I did expect there to be some communication, instead the two men locked each others' steely gaze on the other and neither was speaking or flinching.  Then began an inaudible conversation discussing the pressing issue of which table the food should be delivered to. Both men allowed only silent words to escape the corners of their mouth, they appeared to be highly skilled ventriloquists but I wasn't sure where they were throwing their voices to.  It was the quietest argument in history.  After what must have been 20 seconds or so (it felt like an age as we sat in silence watching the conflict unfold) the food carrier relented and took the final steps to our table.  We did laugh at this but it does add to the general feeling on the night that the service required a little bit more fine tuning.

The final issue that ties in to this general feeling was the pacing of the meal was a little off, possibly caused by the mix up of the 2nd plate to be brought out.  It was noticeably quicker for the first half of the meal (making it feel a little rushed) when compared to the slower pace of the second half. Watching the floor staff later in the night they appeared to be a bit pushed out when the restaurant was full.  Also the delivery of the bill seemed to be at the bottom of their priorities when we had been waiting some time, they even fell in to the classic trap of stopping to have a nice extended chat and a laugh in full view of the guests when we were waiting for our bill.

Let's pretend for a moment that I had never visited L'Enclume.  This would be the best UK restaurant I'd have ever visited.  No doubt.  The quality of the food and the restaurant is amazing.  We loved it.  The comments on the service are minor rough edges only worth mentioning because we all know what Mr Rogan and the people of Manchester want and that's perfection as well as a big fat Michelin Star.  I'm pretty sure it's inevitable that we will get both.  If Manchester needs a Michelin star or not Rogan deserves one.

The French by Simon Rogan on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 24, 2013

BBQ at BrewDog

I'm not a big fan of conversion.  People of a religious persuasion who come to my door in the hope of a conversion always leave disappointed.  There's something about the word that implies you are being converted against your will that makes me feel a little uncomforatable.  That said it definitely looks like BrewDog are in the business of converting people but luckily they aren't asking you to base your entire belief system on a millennia old book that featured no jokes or plot twists.  No, they are attempting to convert BrewDog fans into BBQ fans and BBQ fans into BrewDog fans, a much more admirable cause.  For me though no conversion is required, if you draw a venn diagram with BBQ and BEER as the two factors I am firmly in the middle section.  Jules on the other hand is no where to be seen on my venn diagram instead she is elsewhere firmly lodged between two circles, one labelled as marmalade based cocktails and the other as houmous and as a result Jules was not as enthused as being invited by BrewDog to come along and check out their new meaty BBQ menu.  We reviewed their old menu and the bar itself a little while back so click here for a catchup.

There was an element of bad timing here as firstly we had only just returned from a 3 day camping trip to Great Langdale and so had been consuming plenty of beer and basic BBQ food for some time.  Something in me told me I could manage one more day though so no problem there.  Secondly it seems that BrewDog (famous for their radical business decisions and trend setting) are coming at BBQ when its popularity is already in full swing.  That said Manchester is well behind London in the BBQ restaurant stakes as all our restarauteurs appear to have been infected with a mind controlling virus that compels them to open burger shack after burger shack and the top dog of the Manchester BBQ scene Mr Fire & Salt BBQ is a roaming vagabond still of no fixed abode.

The menu is short and sweet and as soon as I saw it I knew I was going go for the Hardocre Ribs with mac 'n' cheese.  It should be noted these ribs are only available Friday to Sunday after 3pm.  The menu proudly proclaims the meat is procured from Chorlton's favourite son Frosty The Butcher which is a bonus point straight away.  Add to that the fact that they also use Chorlton's favourite bakers The Barbakan and we are on to a real winner.  The meat can only be described as Flinststones-esque in its appearance (this is a good thing) with a very eye pleasing char on the exterior which didn't disappoint in flavour either.

Now then for some people the meat might have been a little bit too well done on the exterior but I quite liked that combination of char alongside the great coleslaw and banging BBQ sauce they had on offer.  And for those of you that like that super moist flesh then that was just below the crust closer to the bone, that stuff just fell off the bone.  I went at it with my utensils until they became inefficient and then I downed tools and went in with my hands to make sure I got every last scrap.

So it was a really good bit of BBQ meat but the one thing that absolutely blew me away was the mac 'n' cheese.  I bloody love mac 'n' cheese and frequently order it only to be disappointed that it is not quite as good as our home cooked version but this one was head and shoulders above any mac 'n' cheese I've ever tasted.  The consistency was perfect, there was no graininess and most importantly it had some other flavour to it, there was a real smokiness that ran all the way through it.  Bloody amazing and worth a trip to sample this alone.  I would think that BrewDog would do very well if they turned this in to a main course dish providing another veggie option on the menu as well as directly making me happier.

Jules went for the halloumi and mushroom burger, she didn't have much choice as this is the only veggie option on the petite menu but as soon as she saw it she knew that it was going to be brilliant.  Even I as a card carrying meat eater went 'ooooooh' as it slid under my nose.  The Barbakan bread was really trying its best to contain the hefty rack of halloumi as well as the excessively stacked veg but it could not complete this gargantuan task without the aid of the normally redundant burger spike.  With each bite the burger spike had to be removed and strategically replaced to ensure the structural integrity of the monster burger did not fail.  My instant reaction was that, for once, somebody has realised that vegetarians like dirty food too and the veggie option doesn't need to be the healthiest dish.  Bravo.  The bread was soft, the peppers were sweet and smoky, again the slaw & cabbage rocked.  Jules loved it.  Not only that but Jules also drank a half of BrewDog's 'Fake Lager' and really enjoyed that too.  This is quite an achievement.

So the food is very good, the beer is obviously still very good and the staff are still top notch therefore I think BrewDog are going to get exactly what they are after, more converts.  If they can take a vegetarian who dislikes all beer and move her right in to the middle of that venn diagram then I'm not sure who will be able to resist their master plan.

Brewdog Manchester on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 23, 2013


According to Wikipedia, Baekdu Mountain is an active volcano and therefore not the sort of place you'd want to go to dine. Baekdu in Manchester however, is a Korean restaurant that I've wanted to go to for quite some time. In fact, I've been wanting to go to Baekdu ever since I first heard about it on the blog of Mal of Fire & Salt BBQ (from before he became a street food superstar). Bailey and I love a good authentic cheap eat and this sounded right up our street, especially when we heard it being grouped under the same category of eatery as This & That.

The perfect opportunity to visit Baekdu arose on the opening night of the new Superman film. Bailey had booked us in at the IMAX in the Printworks and we wanted somewhere nearby for a super quick bite to eat. Baekdu did fit the bill but we did tell them we were in a rush and they played a blinder, were great with the timings and had us in and out in 45 minutes. However we could have stayed longer and had a leisurely dinner if we'd wanted to - spot on.

We started off with some drinks - a Korean green tea for me and a 'Cass Fresh' for Bailey. I liked the way my tea was served in a proper mug and although Bailey wasn't a big fan of his beer, I liked the way it reminded me of a Brahma. No, that's not the well known Brazilian bottled lager, that's the shifty Peruvian Brahma they used to sell at my corner shop in Lima.

I'm not too familiar with Korean food but one thing I do know is that I blooming love kimchi, so when I spotted the Kimchi Pancake on the starters menu it was a no brainer. This was awesome - quite hard to explain but kind of like a cross between a massive deep fried crumpet and a potato cake... in a very, very delicious way. The filling was nice and crunchy and the dipping sauce was mega salty; we devoured the whole thing in minutes, and not just because we were rushing to get to the cinema.

Bailey ordered the Fried Vegetable Dumplings and these also went down a treat. They were a lot less mushy and more rugged than dumplings we've had in the past which some people might have not been to keen on but we loved them.

Bailey's main was the Jabche which consisted of pan fried Korean vermicelli with mixed veggies and seasoned beef.

Bailey was once more a happy man with this main course - he loved the noodles which were sort of like gelatinous glass noodles and found the meat and veg to be well cooked and very satisfying with a nice sweetness to them.

My main was the Sundubu Chi-Ge which sounded good to me as a stew containing all my favourite things - tofu, egg and seafood. This made quite an entrance as it was bubbling furiously.

This was a pleasant little number with lots of soft tofu, tasty little prawns and some nicely cooked squid in a fishy, spicy sauce but my gut instinct was that there were definitely some better dishes on the menu than this one and I look forward to trying a few other things on future visits.

As I say we were in and out of Baekdu in less than an hour, so not much time to soak up the atmosphere but we were very pleasantly surprised by the whole experience. The place is much more inviting than This & That; there are a few more 'frills' in the form of nice matching bowls and fancy silver chop sticks. There was also a good buzz in the air as most tables were full with a steady stream of people arriving. Service was efficient and friendly and we thought the whole meal was excellent value. I'm already planning my return visit, I know my dad Roy Morris will love this place. I can't wait to go back for some more Kimchi Pancake!

Baekdu on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cracking Good Food - Middle Eastern Spice

One of my birthday pressies from Bailey this year was a trip to a Cracking Good Food cookery school event called Middle Eastern Spice. I'd been interested in Cracking Good Food for a while as they are a pretty punk rock not-for-profit community organisation and offer a lot of courses involving decent local chefs. However, Middle Easern Spice wasn't just any Cracking Good Food event, this event was to be run by none other than Wendy Swetnam - Manchester's most excellent vegetarian chef who we'd had the pleasure to meet at The Hungry Gecko and whose food we'd had the pleasure to taste at both Bistro 1847 and the Secret Vintage Veggie Vegan Afternoon Tea Party. I really like Wendy and am really keen to go to one of her Wendy's House supperclubs very soon!

I rocked up at Chorlton High School (which was a bit weird as I did my teacher training there) and all the other 'cooks' and I sat down and had a cuppa and a chat before getting started. I'd been really looking forward to Middle Eastern Spice - Bailey knows how much I love Middle Eastern food and how keen I am to learn how to use new ingredients. The words "Ottolenghi inspired" in the description had also filled me with excitement as he is one of my favourites and a real inspiration.

Wendy started off by showing us how to make the dough for her Manakees bi Za'atar. This was a surprisingly quick and easy to make flatbreads recipe and I immediately started daydreaming about the hundreds of exciting flatbreads I could make now that I had this recipe under my belt.

Leaving the dough to one side to give it time to rise, Wendy now showed us how to make her vegan Couscous Tabbouleh. I've made salads with couscous quite a few times before but never made a proper traditional beautiful, colourful tabbouleh so really enjoyed doing this. I also picked up quite a few good knife skills tips too which will of course be very useful to me in the future.

Next was the dish I'd been waiting for, the "Ottolenghi inspired" Fried Butterbeans with Sumac and Feta. This was surprisingly simple to make, nice and healthy as it's packed full of fresh veggies and also the first time I'd used sumac. It's a gorgeous looking dish and the smells going through the kitchen as these were on the hob were quite something.

By this time I was pretty excited about getting to the business of eating but we had the important matter of our flatbreads to deal with. We rolled out the dough and topped the flatbreads with a little Za'atar. Like the sumac I'd never used this before and I was really pleased to get the opportunity to familiarise myself with another new ingredient.

Once everything was ready came the sociable part of the evening - everyone sitting down and eating together. I liked this as I got to chat to all sorts of people all with the common interest of food and a few veggies and vegans too. All of the food was delicious and perfect preparation for the upcoming summer months of (hopefully) good weather and barbecues. I have a lot of veggie friends and a few vegans too and I know they will love having all of these as accompaniments to some nice meat free BBQ options.

The Middle Eastern Spice was a great event, very well organised and enjoyable and I do feel like I learned quite a bit too. I've already picked up some sumac and za'atar of my own and am looking forward to trying them out in other recipes soon. One of my favourite parts of the evening was getting the chance to listen to Wendy talk about her time working at Noma - probably worth going along just to pick her brains about that! There are a few other Cracking Good Food events coming up and I would recommend going along to one - they're perfect for people of all cooking abilities and levels of knowledge. Thanks to Wendy and of course Bailey for buying me my ticket in the first place.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Strawberry Cupcakes

Last month at school we were told that we were going to be taking part in British Red Cross Week and were asked did we have any ideas for fundraising activities? Well of course whenever me and my colleague Hayley hear the the words 'fundraising', there is only one thing that pops into our minds: any excuse to bake.

We therefore decided to organise a cake sale for one break time, seeing as we've discovered there is no better way to make a load of cash quickly than by selling cakes to kids.

For my contribution I predictably turned to my Primrose Bakery Cupcakes book. I don't care what anyone says about cupcakes being passĂ©, kids still go mad for them. Seeing as I already had several punnets of strawberries in the fridge, I decided to do some Strawberry Cupcakes topped with nice big, juicy, fresh strawberries.

I was super impressed with these cupcakes and got lots of compliments on them from everyone who ate one. They were very popular with the staff. People liked the hidden strawberry jam surprise in the middle.

However, the other thing I learned about kids is that a lot of them dislike strawberries and therefore refuse to touch cupcakes with a strawberry on top with a barge pole. Therefore, next time I will remember to stick to chocolate...


For the cupcakes:
125g strawberries
225g butter
225g caster sugar
4 large eggs
210g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
25g cornflour

For the filling / topping:
Strawberry jam
A punnet of strawberries

For the buttercream icing:
110g butter
60ml milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
500g icing sugar
Red food colouring

To begin, preheat the oven to 180 degrees C / gas mark 4. Next, take the 125g of strawberries and place in a mixing bowl. Mash the strawberries using a potato masher.

Cream the butter and sugar together with the mashed strawberries before gradually adding the eggs one at a time and mixing well.

Then add the flour, baking powder and cornflour to the cake mix and beat well until fully combined.

Using a couple of teaspoons, spoon the mixture into the cupcake cases until just over half full.

Place in the oven for around 30 minutes or until the cakes are risen and golden. Leave the cakes to cool in the tin for around 10 minutes before removing from the tin and cooling on a wire rack.

Meanwile, whip up the icing by beating the butter, milk, vanilla and half of the icing sugar together until smooth. Gradually add the rest of the icing sugar until you have a smooth buttercream.

Add drops of red food colouring until you have the colour you'd like - I went for a nice light pink. Put your icing to one side.

Once the cupcakes are fully cooled, use a teaspoon to dig out a chunk out of the top of the cupcakes - like you would if you were making fairy cakes. I gave the cake bits to a grateful Bailey to eat but you could chuck yours or even better leave them out for the birds.

Fill the holes you've made with a blob of strawberry jam, but don't overfill them.

Now pipe the icing onto the top of the cupcakes.

Once the cakes are iced, take a whole strawberry and press into the icing on top of each cupcake.

These cupcakes look really lovely and summery so serve as part of a summer lunch or tea party!


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