Last time I had to write about Simon Rogan at l’Enclume, I was worried.
I worried that it would be a case of Emperor’s new clothes, I wouldn’t ‘get it’, we’d be served course after course of micro-herb flavoured air and that we would have to stop at a service station on the way back for some actual food that required chewing. Most of all, I worried about sounding like a pretentious arse in my write up.
Unless you have been living on the moon for the past few months, you’ll be aware that award winning Chef Rogan, holder of 2 Michelin Stars and a 10/10 Good Food Guide rating, has joined forces with the iconic Midland Hotel in Manchester to give its outdated destination restaurant (and the city) a much needed culinary kick up the jacksie.
There are also imminent plans for him to oversee the larger 160-seater former ‘Colony’ restaurant in the hotel where the menu will feature more international dishes at a lower price point.
The Midland Hotel is a Grade 2 listed building, so the interior designer had to work around it’s original features. They were obviously keen to keep a neutral palette to match Rogan’s natural style but it’s been a little over-beiged.
Over the course of the evening, we were presented with a series of dishes displaying a riot of natural colour such as purple hued viola leaves, vibrant orange butternut puree and gloriously rosy pink rhubarb. Rainbows of colour flashed randomly as the huge and impressive spherical chandeliers caught the light, but touches of colour in the decor wouldn’t have gone amiss. Also, the huge 60’s style wooden tables made it look a bit utilitarian, like when they had to turn glorious country houses into code breaking offices during the war.
Let me just cut to the chase and try and give you a general idea of what to expect from a Simon Rogan meal. If you want to read a fuller description, here’s my write up of L’Enclume for Great British Chefs.
The tasting menu evolves dish by dish within days so I’m not really spoiling things for you by showing you what I ate on the preview a few days before it officially opened on March 12th 2013.
Don’t expect to be able to choose your 3 course option from a menu. Diners can expect a set 3 (£29), 6 (£55) or 10 course (£79) culinary adventure with a comparative vegetarian option and the option to include a matching wine flight. If you’re really adverse to particular ingredients, mention it when booking, they’re pretty accommodating.
Above - razor role reversal: Eggs, dill, celeriac and sea herbs
Ox in coal oil, pumpkin seed, kohlrabi and sunflower seeds
Fresh crab and caramelised cabbage, horseradish, chicken skin with crow garlic
Self styled ‘Google farmer’ Simon Rogan is fascinated by plant groups, botany and heritage dishes using ancient edible herbs and grains. He doesn’t hide behind modern molecular gastronomic techniques, but uses them as a tool to enhance the natural (and sometimes forgotten) purity of flavours. He’s not afraid to make something as simple as cabbage or turnip the central focus of a dish, often only using the protein element to enhance it.
Early spring offerings, vegetables, herbs and flowers, lovage salt
Sole fillet with onions, smoked scallops, parsley, leeks
If you counted it all up, over the course of the evening, we probably experienced well over 100 different ingredients and flavours in many different forms. Compare it to say, instruments in an orchestra. If the conductor doesn’t know what he’s doing, the sound can be the stuff of nightmares. In the hands of an expert, you can witness a harmonious experience that’ll stay with you forever.
Many ingredients come from the North West. Rogan now has 25 acres on 4 dedicated farms at his disposal to grow vegetables, herbs and lesser known leaves. There is also a garden on the roof of the Midland where the chefs intend to grow their own in season.
Yew Tree Farm Herdwick hogget, sweetbread, sheep’s milk and ramsons
Studded Cumbrian Rose veal, blewitts, split peas, sorrel and beetroot
Sweet cheese, with rhubarb, toasted oats, mulled cider - This turned out to be one of the highest highs in a series of highlights for me. A perfect collection of complimentary flavours and textures. If I had to have this for breakfast every day for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t put up a fight.
Pear, meadowsweet and rye, buttermilk, linseeds - Despite it’s slightly muculent texture, I imagine this would be the type of pudding Elizabeth I would have gladly tucked into. Apparently she was a big fan of meadowsweet and all the other ingredients would have been available during her reign.
Sass ‘n’ soda - A shot of home brewed herbal sasparilla was poured into the cup at the table whilst the thin meringue sandwiched a thicker paste and a little ice cream. It smelled a little like play-dough and I wouldn’t be surprised if further research lead me to a good plant based reason why.
I’m hardly going to be awarded the ‘Sherlock Holmes Award for stating the bleedin’ obvious’ in saying that Simon and his team will be the ones to finally bring the highly coveted Michelin star back to Manchester and The Midland Hotel in October, but I think that is merely the start of the journey.
As someone who spends much time pondering on the definition of success, I leave you with this thought. Obviously the reservation book is now full of bookings from eager bloggers and food enthusiasts, but this is a long term project and Manchester, as a destination for serious food enthusiasts, is being judged. He has built it, will they come?
The Midland French Peter Street, Manchester, M60 2DS
Tel: +44 (0)161 236 3333 Email: email@example.com
Open Tues-Sat 12-2pm Dinner 6.30-9.30pm
You think it’s easy being invited to eat at restaurants for free in return for a review? Well it’s not, not at all. It’s fraught with a tangled web of unspoken rules and imagined obligations. ‘What happens if I decide not to write about it, despite having stuffed my face at their expense?’, ‘What if I had a terrible experience? Shall I tell the truth or should I lie because they have paid for my opinion with a cocktail and that extra side-order?
However, the one issue that most bloggers really lose sleep over is – ‘Can we order the lobster?’ In short, does ordering from the top end of a menu constitute as ‘taking the piss?’ This question fills your average, polite, British blogger with absolute fear. Don’t take my word for it, pick any 3 freebie blogs at random and you’ll see various versions of ‘Mr Bloggycake wanted the foie gras but we settled for some lettuce and water as it would clearly be wrong to infringe on complimentary hospitality.’
I’m as guilty of this etiquette merry-go-round as anyone. My husband and I have had the ‘can I have one more free beer?’ argument more times than I’ve had hot dinners. (Oh, ok, well maybe not as many as that, but lots of times.)
Livebait in Manchester has new owners and is no longer part of a chain. It’s now proudly independent and wants to start afresh, dispelling memories of any previous, unrelated experiences. Through Manchester Confidential, they invited a gaggle of local bloggers to dine and offer their opinion on the new menu, which brings me back to my culinary quagmire.
The menu lists a range of simple, well priced fish dishes with a couple of veggie and meat options thrown in. Starters average around £7 and include several ways with oysters, and simple classics like fried whitebait, smoked salmon and prawn cocktail. Mains average around £16 and include fried haddock & chips, plaice with lemon & capers, cod with risotto, the obligatory sea bass and a fish curry.
Fish and shellfish are delivered fresh every day, so what interests me the most, is the section entitled ‘Shells’; Seared King Scallops in the half shell, Thai scented Scottish Mussels, Lobster and chips (Thermidore or garlic buttered) and….. the Shellfish Platter for Two.
I can make most of those mains myself at home, but what I can’t make is one of those magnificent, glorious, abundant cascades of assorted fresh seafood on crushed ice. I searched my soul wondering whether it would be cheeky to order one but after reading other recent Livebait blogs I became absolutely determined to bloody well order it. Surely the point of these reviews is to showcase what a restaurant does well.
A fresh seafood platter is a thing of beauty, it makes a good fish restaurant stand out and that is the main reason I would ever go to Livebait. As it turns out, it’s the thing that would make me return.
Our waitress brought us a platter of fresh bread with Spanish extra virgin olive oil and the chef’s own dukkah. I’ve never been that keen on the idea of dipping bread into a load of whole spices but I was wrong, this is a really good idea. Lightly roasted coriander, fennel and cumin seeds, flaked salt, sesame and poppy seeds with toasted slithers of hazelnuts really got the taste buds going.
The wine list is reasonably priced and matched mostly for fish, seafood and light dishes as expected. I abandoned my usual Chenin or Sauvingon Blanc and decided to go for a previously untried Albarino, available in small/large glass, carafe or bottle. It was delicious– light, apricot fruitiness gave way to a drier, crisp, refreshing drink.
After the bread, we shared a portion of whitebait which I’ve now decided would make a perfect cinema snack. Wouldn’t you rather dive into a bucket of tiny, hot, crispy, salt and pepper dusted whitebait rather than popcorn? *dials local Odeon*
What’s exciting about ordering the shellfish platter (if that’s your sort of thing) is the theatre that pre-empts it. Our waitress arrived with a stream of deliveries, building up the anticipation – fingerbowls, claw crackers, tweezers, empty bowl for shells, extra napkins, Tabasco and the metal stand. Other diners turned to watch as our waitress struggled to keep her composure under the weight of the abundant and glorious collection of fresh seafood she was carrying.
It was a thing of beauty; a pyramid of crushed ice upon which was laid a perfect towering medley of rosy-hued crustacean treasure; fresh oysters, shell on prawns, mussels, clams, a whole crab and a lobster, divided neatly into two equal sides for harmonious sharing. Ramekins of diced vinegared shallots, aioli, cucumber pickle and fresh lemon were provided, but the seafood needed nothing else to accompany it.
At £70 for two, it is not cheap but it is absolute value. We spent the next finger-licking hour happily cracking and poking, teasing morsels of seafood out of the shell and knocking back fresh oysters decadently like ancient Romans. I wouldn’t recommend this for a first date, but it’s a great way to spend the afternoon or evening getting away from it all with someone you’re comfortable with, and is much cheaper than a spa hotel in Cheshire or 2 tickets on Eurostar.
We decided to round things off with homemade dessert (well, we’d come this far…) Livebait offers a tasting plate but Pat fancied the apple crumble with warm custard and I wanted the slab of Chocolate Délice with salted caramel and hazelnut ice cream. Carrying on with my Spanish themed drinking, I ordered a cheeky shot of smooth, dark Pedro Ximenez. If you’ve never had it, I recommend you order it when you see it; it’s like delicious alcoholic prune syrup or liquid Christmas pudding.
So there we are, our afternoon ‘away’. A chat with assistant manager Gareth began with me babbling effusively, trying to justify my decision to order the shellfish platter. As it turns out I needn’t have worried, he confirmed it IS the best thing they do and he was in fact curious as to why more of those polite bloggers hadn’t ordered one too…
Click here to visit the Livebait website.
22 Lloyd Street (off Albert Sq), Manchester, M2 5WA
Tel: 0161 817 4110
Right, get your coats because I’m taking you out. In fact, grab your snorkel, a medical kit and some spare undies too because we’re going on a culinary adventure. Some parts you’ll enjoy more than others but I warn you, we’ll be making pit stops in Weird-ville and Crazytown on the way.
South African born Ernst Van Zyl has recently brought molecular gastronomy to Etrop Grange near Manchester airport using culinary techniques he’s learnt from stages spent cooking at The Fat Duck and Noma, the top restaurants in the world. Next year, he’s off again to absorb some of the genius behind the 2 Michelin starred Franzén Lindeberg in Sweden, before heading off to work a few weeks at L’Enclume. He’s like a sponge-carrying magpie, flitting off and soaking up knowledge before bringing it back to the Etrop’s kitchens.
He wasn’t going to be cooking from the a la carte menu during busy December but had announced an ambitious collaboration with ‘DineInOut’ a new private dining club based in South Manchester and Cheshire. This was hosted by number one Etrop fan and Ernst ‘fanzilla’ Tania Harvey, who had requested a special menu inspired by ‘The 12 days of Christmas’. Never one to shirk a challenge, Ernst had agreed to cook this 12 course extravaganza for 12 diners.
Each course wasn’t going to be presented in chronological order, so we were all asked to guess which dish alluded to which verse. I’ll tell you what each one was here and thanks to Joby’s lovely photographs, I shan’t add too much lavish description. However, some dishes inspired rather more commentary than others.
As we had 12 courses to get through, the first few dishes were understandably designed to be small and light. First up ‘Eight Maids a Milking’ - a goat’s milk marshmallow with quince purée and fennel seed granola.
The milk marshmallow was pretty much like straight up egg white but livened up with the hit of tangy goat’s cheese dotted underneath and the textural work out provided by the savoury granola.
Course two turned out to be ‘Four Calling Birds’. Duck leg confit bonbons, one coated in an orange glaze, and one encased in white chocolate and hazelnuts.
Now, I’m aware that these progressive chefs like to break down the neural networks usually associated with certain flavour combinations - duck with orange, yes, very good, but white chocolate? I closed my eyes and tried to enter a transcendental state in order to introduce these previously unconnected flavours to each other, but by the time I’d opened them again the white chocolate had put knuckle dusters on and beaten the shit out of the poor duck which was cowering on the opposite side of my tastebuds. Put it this way, Magnum won’t be putting out a special duck confit edition any time soon.
Next, Eleven Piper’s Piping. Hay Espuma with toasted wild rice and celeriac. A light nutty cream which had been piped onto a cling-wrapped, smoke-filled glass bowl.
It all got a bit playful at this point as the room filled up with the heady smell of smoke associated with a roaring winter fire and we were all soon tapping the tops to see who could get the best smoke rings.
Course 4, Turtle Doves. Tender roast breast of pigeon with thin slivers of salsify, almond and a cranberry wafer.
All together now, ‘Five Go-old Rings’ - this course most reflected Ernst’s Michelin starred work experience. Rings of golden beetroot in two forms; one juiced and set into pliable rings with gelling agent, and the other thinly pared, crunchy and pickled.
The golden theme was continued in the form of crumbled Blackstick’s blue cheese, passionfruit and edible gold dust. All quite simple until you work out the staggering number of processes that has gone into this dish.
Six Geese-A-Laying was Foie Gras ice cream on a bed of apple puree with Granny Smith granita and salted peanut brittle.
I’ve got to be honest, this was pretty tough to get down. Goose liver doesn’t release it’s creamy, unctuous density in frozen form. I won’t be raiding the freezer section of my local Saino’s to chew on their pate range in the near future. Perhaps if Ernst discovered a way to incorporate the salted peanut brittle without losing the crunch, it might work better - but keeping it above 0c would definitely work better.
The arrival of course 7 was pre-fixed by a mysterious Alice in Wonderland like syringe labelled ‘Squirt Me’.
‘Three French Hens’ inspired a well flavoured chicken consomme with mushroom and leek. The syringe contained cauliflower puree which, once released from the syringe, became cauliflower ‘noodles’. It was very immature of ‘someone’ to try and pipe the word ‘bum’ into their soup bowl with their syringe, so sorry about that *avoids eye contact*.
The soup was accompanied by Ernst’s delicious, warm sourdough bread.
Nine Ladies Dancing came along for course 8 in the form of warm ‘Queen’ scallops with pumpkin, chorizo and buttermilk. Just saying it out loud has a touch of the fairytale about it.
Now, here we are, at what turned out to be the most challenging course both for Chef and diner. Seven Swans-A-Swimming was bound to cause a little difficulty what as swans are the official property of HRH and absolutely illegal to kill or eat. Ernst decided to concentrate on the ‘swimming’ part and presented salmon which had been slowly cooked in a water bath at 42c with grapefruit and tiny enoki mushrooms.
The waiter had surreptitiously been spraying the room with some kind of grapefruit diffusion beforehand to add to the atmosphere and this course was like a snapshot of Edwardian opulence. I have to admit though, if I never have to eat salmon encased in softly toasted Italian meringue on a blue seaweed jelly lake again, I won’t be too sorry. However, there is a good idea in here somewhere. Sweet-cured salmon is delicious, and I once successfully experimented with a poppyseed macaron filled with smoked salmon and cream cheese for a canape. This however, I’m sure Ernst himself would agree, needs
throwing away a little more work.
Course 10 turned out to be one of the highlights and again, contained flavour combinations I’d never have matched before, but this time, with more harmonious results.
Lords-A-Leaping, Tatton park venison tartare, oyster emulsion with parsley, grape and black olive. Highlighting this dish like a lurid yellowy green marker, was pine resin or Christmas Tree jelly. Now, what with Ernst’s Scandinavian culinary influences and it being the appropriate season, I guessed this would make an appearance somewhere and, as I’ve never had the urge to knock back the toilet duck, I was worried.
Well, I needn’t have been. I’m not saying this should be mass marketed and spread lavishly on crispbread, but it worked well with the black olive puree to add a bitter sweetness, a little like pickled lemons or limes, to cut through the mass of raw venison. After the meal I asked Ernst how this was made and he proceeded to explain a hugely complicated sounding process involving ‘Vitamix’, ‘warmth which acts as an extractor’, ‘muslin bag overnight’.
I was getting a bit concerned as we’d reached course 11 and I wasn’t sure I’d be left satiated without some hot proteinous main event. So here it came, the one bit of the song that we all remember, A Partridge in a Pear Tree.
Pan Fried breast of partridge with roast pears, Jerusalem artichokes (hallelujah, I love these under-rated roots) and tiny pine infused preserved pear drops. All of which was served on a vibrant purple smear of red cabbage puree (the secret to keeping the colour is in the addition of ascorbic acid #geekfact)
Course 12, pudding time. Over the course of the evening, we’d all been trying to guess which dish correlated to which verse with varying degrees of success. I was still wrongly waiting for dancing ladies, yet what arrived was 12 Drummers Drumming.
Ernst had set a thin, translucent shard of sugar over a dish which we were to bang on like a drum revealing…..well, nothing really. Oh no, hang on, further peering into the dish revealed tiny Lilliputian sized cubes of gingerbread and a Pontipine sized orange jelly. We were given a jug of bitter chocolate sauce to pour over it. Call me greedy, call me a Northerner, but even after 12 courses, I still prefer my puddings to have a higher carb to air ratio.
Fortunately, along came a gorgeous looking bonus platter of petit fours. Blood orange pastilles, pink peppercorn Madeleines (another successful unusual flavour combo) and dark chocolate and popping candy truffles.
So, an epic write up of an epic feast. Some of the dishes were more successful than others but hats off to Chef Ernst who was brave enough to take up such a culinary gauntlet thrown down in the middle of the silly season. Each of his dishes contained touches of Winter fairy tale magic in the forms of gingerbread, pine, pumpkins and wood smoke. I think there is a risk in getting carried away with the infinite possibilities when trying to create new flavour combinations, but I for one will always support a talented creative that gives it a good go.
To keep up to date with DineInOut events, follow Tania on Twitter or ‘like’ their Facebook page. Chef Ernst van Zyl tweets under the name @ErnieChef.
Etrop Grange Hotel
Tel 0161 499 0500
I recently popped into the offices of Manchester Confidential with some parkin – well they hardly ever eat in there, the poor dears…*rolls eyes*. They suggested I book a table on the new all-weather terrace of The Restaurant Bar and Grill. The PR of Individual Restaurants had been in touch and wanted a wide range of reviews as part of a blogger outreach campaign. What happens is Manchester Confidential invite local food bloggers to go for a free meal and the idea is that they are so thankful and flattered they write a positive piece, often splattered liberally with words like ‘lovely’ and ‘tasty’.
However, it takes more than a 35-day aged steak and a free cocktail to buy positive feedback from me (although, throw in the dessert trolley and we’ll talk.) My opinion gauge is firmly set at default position truth and if the venue actually knows I’m coming, it leaves pretty much zero room for error.
I haven’t been to the Restaurant Bar and Grill for about 10 years, for no particular reason, so I thought we’d go late on a Saturday afternoon for a spontaneous date. It first opened in 2001 and even though they are planning a refurb in February 2013, we conceded that the travertine stone bar designed by architect Roger Stephenson had aged far better than we had over the last decade. In a dubiously contrived nod towards Christmas spirit, I ordered a ‘Pear Tree’ cocktail and drifted up the impressive super-lightweight staircase to the restaurant.
Let’s cut to the chase here, the terrace is bloody brilliant. I’m always suspicious when anyone waxes lyrically about ‘views of Manchester’ but it is a pretty impressive spot to sit and watch the city go by. It runs the whole length of the restaurant, there’s a bar up there, plump cushioned sofas, glass topped rattan tables and a bank of heaters which turned the nippy November air into a tropical heat wave complete with mild sea breeze. They also provide extra blankets for those who like to be warm and cosy but realise that wearing a onesie to a fashionable bar is inappropriate (me).
Walking your fingers over the menu gets them a free trip round the world at the same time. Leading global dishes sit next to each other like an edible G8 summit. ‘Mezze’ sits next to ‘Asian Plate’, French onion soup sits in between Thai fish cakes and Iberico ham etc., but to be so crowd pleasing isn’t such a crime if you can do it properly. We’ve all been out with a group of people who have varying tastes, and to be honest, anywhere that has a Tandoor clay oven gets my vote.
What is a bit naughty are the simply untrue generic sound bites that food-naive PR’s like to splash all over menus. They proudly mention ‘seasonally inspired cooking’ several times on their website, and I’m sure they mean Britain, so why offer asparagus, avocados, raspberries and heirloom tomatoes in November? You can’t have both those dishes and those words on the same menu all year.
But that’s it, a tiny, easily redeemable blip in what was such a truly enjoyable Saturday afternoon, we were still talking about it the following Tuesday. Ok, my Thai spiced fishcakes (£8) were a little light on the chilli and heavy on the potato, but the accompanying coconut and lime leaf sauce was so good, I knocked it back like a shot when nobody was looking. Husband treated himself to a plate full of testosterone and zinc (6 Irish oysters £9.95) *feigns headache*
Man wants meat after oyster, so he had the 35 day dry aged bone in prime rib (£27.50) cooked rare. The steaks are excellent here and they are quite justifiably proud of them. The lunch menu features detailed information about the farmer, the farm, the breed, the feed, the ageing and the method of butchering. It only narrowly falls short of naming the actual cows. All steaks are served with hand cut chips and a choice of classic sauce or flavoured butters.
I had 7 fat king prawns marinated in tikka spices and cooked in the tandoor clay oven (£18.95) No corners cut here, the delicate aromatic flavour of toasted spices came through well. No lemon rice for me but a side of broccoli with cashews, chilli and garlic (£3.95) and a salad that included more 3 dimensional ingredients such as fennel and chicory.
One more slug of light Beaujolais and I was off to where you’ll always find me at parties. Head chef Kevin Wigglesworth seemed completely unfazed by the slightly drunken 40 year old woman leaning over the pass throwing questions at him. So unassuming and modest is he, he only casually mentions that he used to work at ‘Blanc’s place in Oxfordshire.’ By the time he’d dropped in the small detail of working for Albert Roux (only the father of all modern British cuisine) at le Gavroche for 3 years, I was sober, straight backed and open mouthed. He’s been with Individual Restaurant group since 2005 and loves it because they look after their staff, never rest on their laurels and invest in excellent equipment from the Robert Welch cutlery to the £18,000 Josper grill that’s on its way. His simple aim is to make The Restaurant Bar and Grill the best restaurant in Manchester.
Everything is made on the premises including bread, ketchup, ice cream and desserts which are wheeled to the table in a huge Perspex topped trolley. If stewards on budget airlines wheeled those down the aisle, there’d be a lot less complaints. We decided to share the classic glossy Gateau Opera with edible gold leaf (£6.50) which tasted like something straight from the 1950’s (in a good way) washing it down with a chocolate martini with chocolate caviar (little balls of cocoa suspended in sodium alginate, the molecular mixologists BFF.)
The best way to recommend a restaurant that plies you with free booze and food is to decide if you’d return again as a paying customer. This time I won’t be leaving it another 10 years for my next visit, I booked a table of 4 for next month on my way out.
You’d be pushing it to accuse me of being the kind of person who ‘turned up to the opening of an envelope’. In fact, thanks to my two small children, nowadays you can barely describe me as someone who ‘turned up to the opening of a door.’
Sometimes though, new and interesting things come up and I feel compelled to visit, eat, drink, catch up with the munching Manchester massive and have a jolly good nosey. This is how I ended up at the new Albert Square Chop House. I say new, but this was so freshly minted they were still tacking the red carpet onto the front steps and adding pictures to the wall when we turned up.
Owned by the team behind Manchester’s two other chophouses (Sam’s and Mr Thomas’s) Albert’s chophouse is in a grade II listed building, on the corner of Albert Square, between the Town Hall and the registry office. They have spent an eye popping amount of money on restoring it - ripping out the sticky carpets, fruit machines and smoke stained walls of what used to be the imaginatively named ‘Square Albert’ pub.
The 80 cover restaurant is downstairs, the public bar is on ground level and upstairs visitors will be able to hire ‘The Memorial Hall’ a 100-seat function room, or next to that a 20-seat boardroom with state-of-the-art communication and presentation facilities. Plans are also apparently afoot for a boutique hotel upstairs.
The name ‘Chophouse’ brings to mind the kind of place I’d expect to find busty mop capped barmaids serving tankards of gin and ‘a bowl o’ brown’ to Mrs Miggins with nothing to wipe her mouth on but the back of her hand. Maybe I do tend to let my imagination run away with me, but the very English idea of a ‘Chophouse’ conjures up images of Victorian music hall bawdiness. With this is mind I found the recent makeover a little too stripped back, but it must be hard trying to keep the essence of the building whilst avoiding it looking like Sweeny Todd the musical.
This is an important civic building on the corner of Manchester’s main civic square and it has the backing of the city who recognise it as part of a regeneration project to celebrate the grandeur of Manchester’s rich industrial heritage. Paintings and photographs of local cultural icons fill every wall space of each floor. Made me reet proud to be a Manc.
So this is more of a public service announcement than a review. An interesting new city centre restaurant opened, we were invited, the lovely Joby photographed it all (except the interior shot which was sent by the PR.) We ate everything on the menu and I turned up at the school gates mildly drunk, again. Now it’s up to you if you want to visit and decide if they do have all the flavours of Manchester.
The Albert Square Chop House,
The Memorial Hall,
Tel: 01625 834 1866
Find them on Facebook or on Twitter
No-one wants to feel like they’re predictable, as though some marketing person can assess your habits from a distance, combine them with your vital statistics and label you like a Christmas turkey. But of course they can. Everyone is a ‘consumer type’ regardless of any secret tattoo, fetish, or a desire to eat fish finger and Marmite sandwiches whilst skipping backwards down the high street shouting ‘I’m a banana’ at random (just me then?)
Anyway, my foolish desire to be (in the words of Peter Andre) a ‘mysterious girl’ might be why I may have, quite possibly, been a tiny bit sniffy about ‘Living Ventures’ and their slow takeover of Manchester with their formulaic bars and restaurants. Their portfolio includes The Alchemist (crowded, cocktails, chips), Australasia (beautiful faux fur coat, no knickers) and ‘temporary’ pop ups The Oast House (not been yet) and Yacht Club (missed the boat) in Spinningfields, Manchester city centre. They also own the Blackhouse and Gusto chain of restaurants. Oh they’re all quite shiny and happy and full of people, but a bit on the safe side?
It was half term, midweek. The kids were at grandmas for the day and the husband had taken a day’s holiday. I’d had a meeting in Cheshire that over-ran so we needed to find somewhere for a reasonable lunch around 2pm. If you lose the gamble on a British kitchen being open midweek after 2.30pm you could end up having a pack of pork scratchings for lunch, which was not the ‘quality time’ we were after.
I’d seen some recent photos of the latest Living Venture (under their New World Pub Co.) The Botanist in Alderley Edge. Lots of shiny, happy, orange, Cheshire people with very white teeth and PR girls with cartoon eyebrows and that ‘messy bun on top of the head you do before you get into the shower’ hairstyle that’s become very popular. I knew it would be of a decent standard and that it would be open for food all day, so we thought we’d try it.
It’s on the mid-terraced site of an old wine bar, across from a car park that charges only 80p for 2 hours parking *casts withering look in the general direction of Manchester city centre*. Walking into The Botanist is like walking onto the set of ‘Disney does Midsummer Night’s Dream’ or walking into the window display of a really good department store in springtime. My husband describes it more like a cross between his auntie’s potting shed and the garden department of IKEA. I think between us we paint a decent picture. It was reasonably busy for a Tuesday at 2.15pm with a mixture of families, groups of girls, business men and ladies who were just finishing their lunch.
Part of the formula is that they have appointed an interior designer who not only loves what they do, but is really good at it. In fact, getting an expert in is how they do everything. On every table is a hand illustrated ‘Almanac’ detailing all 40 or so of the carefully chosen bottled beers and ciders on offer. They have included some local breweries such as Macclesfield’s Red Willow and Manchester’s Marble but also international brews like Duval, Chimay and the big hitting Delirium Tremens. Of course they also match individual drinks with glasses, so my Swedish Koppaberg elderflower and lime cider came in an ice packed glass tankard (Scål!) and the pint of Red Willow ‘Wreckless’ came in a proper ‘Albert Tatlock’ handled 70’s beer mug. There’s also a huge involved list of cocktails.
The food menu is exactly the same as that of their sister pub, The Oast House in Manchester. There’s a rotisserie BBQ and lots of mix and match platters but, they only go and list the desserts first. What a marvellously ground-breaking, but simple idea that totally appeals to my sense of humour (ie. greed) but of course their marketing people would know that.
I do wish they would show as much pride in the provenance of the food as they do with the drink though. The blue cheese offering is a good quality but obvious Stilton rather than a carefully sourced cracking North West blue and the charcuterie is all Italian when they have the excellent Cheshire smokehouse within 5 miles who’d be happy to cure meat to order for a group as big as LV, I’m sure.
To start, the ‘Alderley Egg’ was their attempt at the generic Scotch egg. Nice timing on the yolk, decent sausage meat to egg to crumb ratio, served in a fried shredded potato nest. I had home-smoked duck Waldorf salad. Simple, well executed flavours and textures. Fresh apple, juicy grapes, toasted walnuts, crunchy celery, light mayonnaise. Just what I wanted (as only their marketing people would know.)
Manchester is currently the Northern outpost for ‘Burger wars’ and my husband reckons that Living Ventures Oast House version stands up well amongst the competition, so he ordered one and was happy. I wanted one too but had to keep up the pretence of being ‘on a diet’ so had a chicken kebab hanging from a novelty hangy thing. They had less problem swapping the chips for salad than I did and my husband ‘helpfully’ removed the accompanying garlic butter before I embarrassed myself with it (- don’t ask.) On The Botanist theme, both starter and main course salad contained edible flowers, filling my mouth with an unexpected gorgeous floral, vegetative dimension.
So it was all going well, I had to begrudgingly admit that they had got me pegged and we were having a fine time when something unpredictable happened. We were unexpectedly approached by a waiter saying ‘would you like a free cocktail?’ Sorry what now? ‘The bar is training, they’ve made this sorrel and orange cocktail, would you like to tell us what you think?’
These people are geniuses. They are powerful, they know EVERYTHING. How could they know a free spontaneous midweek afternoon cocktail would please my very soul? How could they know this and then follow it up with another in the form of a Martini glass full of creamy dill infused alcohol, when I didn’t even know that was what I wanted? Would this aniseed flavoured bully of a herb work when infused with cream and powerful alcohol? Yes*rolls over in complete submission*and now I don’t think I can live without it.
We went outside for a breath of fresh air (ie sober up before picking up the kids.) They have a gorgeous all weather walled beer garden out the back, with blankets and ashtrays. Basically the social groups I know that this place would cater for are: My vegetarian smoking sister in law, my pescatarian profession Hale dwelling friends, the school mums, my mother and her visiting London based friends, my fussy husband, the girls.
Look, I know we lucked out on the whole ‘free cocktail training timing’ thing but they really do train their staff heavily (research shows photos of staff, pre-opening, shaking invisible cocktail shakers in a village hall, drilled like army cadets) to a level of care and service that many independents don’t. What can you do? In conclusion, they win. I will be back and I have a whole list of people to bring with me *lies prostrate, shiny, happy and slightly drunk*
The Botanist: 15 London Road, Alderley Edge, Cheshire, SK9 7JT
Telephone: 01625 865 637
After several toddler-filled, bikini-less years, it was finally time for a holiday abroad, so we booked a family ‘glamping’ holiday in Normandy. Glamping is very similar to camping but the creepy crawlies terrorise you whilst you lie in proper beds as opposed to a sleeping bag.
This trip involved a long cross-country drive with an overnight stopover at the entrance to the Chunnel. I was almost resigned to the idea of having to eat a ‘ping’ meal from the microwaves of Hotel Generica, when I pulled some useful information from my food obsessed sub -conscious.
Hadn’t Mark Sargeant opened a fish restaurant in Folkstone a year ago? I’d followed the build up on Twitter before it opened and he had tweeted some complimentary things about the design of North Star deli. However, it’s a 530 mile round trip from home, so a visit was to be now or never.
When I’d called earlier in the day, they told me they couldn’t fit us in until 9.30pm, but there may be a cancellation. That hope fuelled the journey down to the Kent coast and we arrived with plenty of time to look around.
First impressions of Folkestone? Well I now know the answer to ‘what do we do with the drunken sailor?’ - We obviously put him in charge of town planning. After negotiating the ‘this way, back the other way, back the way you came’ one way system, we finally parked up by a seagull the size of a dog, a meter that refused our Northern pound coins and a sweary mid-afternoon fight outside Lidl.
With our hands over the children’s ears we ushered them towards the harbour. The folk of Folkstone have had a bit of a go with a ‘creative quarter’ and it was a joy to see old fashioned seafood kiosks doing a brisk trade in cockles and mussels, but other than that, it’s pretty run down. It was a hot day and, with my vest top covering my belly, I felt seriously overdressed and under-tattooed.
Absolutely desperate for a drink and a chill out, we butted round the town square between the entrances of sticky carpeted hotels and grotty pubs like a live pinball game until finally, through the historic arch of the old fish market, we saw it.
Rocksalt’s modern, black timber façade rose up to greet us. I burst past the bouncer through the tall glass doors like Hercules having completed his final task. Sara, the Austrian manager turned out to be every bit as charming in real life as she did on the phone. Between her look of sympathy and my enthusiastic nodding dog impression, the cornered head chef was left no other option but to allow us a table at 6.45pm - this was perfect and still left time for a quick drink overlooking the harbour in the pleasant upstairs bar (which, of course, I’d have known about if I’d spent a bit more time looking through their website.)
Rocksalt is co-owned by Mark Sargeant, who worked extensively under Gordon Ramsay and now appears regularly on the telly. His business partner is a son of the De Haan family who own the Saga group, making them the second richest family in Kent – after the people that own the local tattoo parlour obviously.
Every detail has been taken into consideration from the location, fit-out design, uniform, menu and suppliers. They even play ‘The Shipping Forecast’ through speakers in the toilets for a bit of sea faring atmosphere. Despite this high level of detail and control, it still shows a real sense of humour and an independent personality.
Bonus points to the genius who came up with the idea of providing kids with an Etch-a- Sketch which kept them busy throughout dinner. Rocksalt are more than happy to accommodate children and the ‘Small Fry’ menu (£9) includes a main course and ice cream or baked Alaska. Our 4 yr old loved being able to pour his own gravy onto his sausage and mash out of his own little jug. Details - children like them.
The menu has been designed with a curt nod across the English Channel, which can be seen through the floor to ceiling glass wall. Mark and his team are as proud of the suppliers and produce we have on this side of the water as the French are over there. Ingredients are sourced as locally as possible and are cooked simply to speak for themselves. The restaurant has built a good relationship with the Folkstone Trawler Company, in order to command the pick of the catch. Seasonal vegetables come from their ‘garden’ – which must mean Kent, ‘the garden of England’.
The prospect of a week gorging cheese in Normandy meant I wanted to ‘save myself’ so ‘Millhouse radishes with anchovy sauce’ £2.50 were a perfect start. The reasonable price meant I had no problem re-investing my starter allowance on a glass of Grüner Ventliner 2010 £8.25/175ml.
Pat said his mussels ‘Marinière’ (£7.50) were perfectly cooked and had obviously been freshly plucked from the sea that day. They’d been baked in a Josper Grill which is basically a hugely sophisticated £18,000 indoor BBQ.
I ordered ‘Josper Baked Mackerel with Tomatoes and Fennel’ (£12.50) which hit the spot with its smoky charred skin. Pat fancied the local ‘Salt Marsh Lamb Rump with Rosemary Sauce’ (£17.50) which came from nearby Romney Marsh (didn’t he used to play for City?) It was cooked perfectly rare, as requested, and came with a beautifully soft and charred garlic bulb which we loved. Various side orders were on offer for an additional £2.50.
All in all, the bill came to around £100 for a family of 4 with drinks. This was at least twice what a meal would have cost in the chain hotel and more than twice as enjoyable. If you find yourselves in Folkestone, go. Not because it’s the only decent place to eat within the city boundaries, but because it’s actually quite lovely.
Sometimes it’s hard to remain un-biased. The Rose Garden on Burton Road in West Didsbury only opened in May. It’s a small, independent, family concern - much like my own deli in that respect. Head chef is the owner William Mills whose architect father designed the interior which was fitted out by his brother. Various friends and family ensure that front of house runs smoothly. The modern British menus are inspired by the seasons, and they insist on prioritising local producers and suppliers when sourcing ingredients. So I was pre-disposed to like it before I even stepped foot in the place - all it had to do was mess up, but it didn’t.
The name ‘rose garden’ conjures up romantic whimsy in the form of pastel shades, trellis wall paper and vintage tea cups but this is anything but. Walls are mostly painted white and colour is introduced with clever lighting and modern art.
Before I get onto the food, I just need to spend some of my word count praising our waitress. I didn’t get her name (it says Chloe on the receipt) and wasn’t sure if she was a sister, niece, aunt, cousin or family friend, but she was great. Attentive but not pushy, professional but relaxed, and she didn’t refer to us as ‘guys’ once (which I hate, as I do not live in an episode of ‘Friends’.) She also provided us with a magic self-filling water bottle because it always seemed to get refilled unasked, even though I swear I didn’t see her touch it once.
Remember, I’m on this crazy high protein diet at the moment which dictates what I order but I needn’t have worried. To start, two of us had wild boar carpaccio (£7.25). 7 thin slices of lightly cured and tender meat complimented by a centre of remoulade which was sweetened with apple and packed with a horseradish punch. To give depth to the overall texture of the dish he’d scattered the plate with crumbs of delicious crackling and some micro leaves.
Our friend ordered the Scotch egg (£6.95) – a ubiquitous inclusion on most current menus. This one was perfectly cooked with only a very thin layer of meat surrounding it which apparently maximised the crunchy texture of the outer batter. It was served with a tiny jar of home-made rhubarb chutney. The other starter was a huge bowl of steaming mussels, decent value at £6.95.
For mains, two of us chose the sea bass with a trio of scallops – smoked, seared and lightly battered (£19.95). It was a delicate, well-balanced dish which consisted of various components all working well together.
Our friend ordered beef ‘two-ways’ (£19.95) this was a huge, robust dish consisting of both rare fillet and slow-cooked shin, roast tomatoes and layered potatoes.
My husband was mildly disappointed with his venison with a Rubik’s cube of beetroot and carrot (£21.95) mainly because despite it being more expensive, it was quite a bit smaller than the beef dish. Also, since listening to a recent Radio 4 documentary he’s learnt that venison is only a generic term for a number of wide ranging breeds of deer and always (quite unreasonably) expects restaurants to be more specific.
We shared a couple of bottles of house red the Sicilian Nero D’Avola (£14.95) which slipped down nicely with the meat dishes but was too hefty for the delicate sea bass – not their fault, obviously.
Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to review desserts until I make friends with my skinny jeans again. Once I firmly declared I wasn’t going to indulge it had a domino effect on the rest of the table, so no-one ordered pudding. Glancing at the menu (I’m allowing myself to at least do that) it consists of dessert classics such as lemon tart, Pavlova and warm chocolate fondant which, if done well are all you need really.
The total bill for four came to £144.85 which we considered to be a fair price as it included two bottles of wine, starters and mains.
It’s early days yet for ‘The Rose Garden’ and Will is possibly still finding his feet as first time head chef in his own place. At this rate, once he’s bedded in and formed a working relationship with his customer base, he has every chance of creating something really special here. What with the excessive parking charges in central Manchester, the suburbs are definitely worth a visit and I echo the cry that can be heard all the way down Burton Road, ‘support your local independents’.
The Rose Garden, 218 Burton Rd, West Didsbury, M20 2LW
Tel 0161 478 0747 www.therosegardendidsbury.com
Anyone who’s been near me over the past few weeks knows that I’m currently following some horrendous eating plan known as the Dukan Diet. It’s high protein hell and involves large quantities of meat and not much else.
Unfortunately, a lot of animals have had to die for me to rid myself of baby weight before the ‘baby’ in question grows up and starts shaving. This limits my current dining out options, but I’m heading towards becoming an authority on Manchester steak houses.
First up ‘Smoak Bar and Grill’, in the Malmaison hotel, which has recently been through a complete refurbishment in an attempt to move it from regular hotel restaurant to fashionable meeting place. My Twitter timeline’s been full of gasps of delight from bloggers who’d been invited to the recent opening party and generously plied with drinks. It wasn’t exactly like that for us during our visit.
The kitchen and menu have been based around one impressive piece of kit, The Josper Grill - the mother of all indoor barbecues. With a price tag of around £18,000 it’s an expensive chef’s toy and features in some of London’s finest kitchens, including Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Dinner’.
A Josper is a top of the range charcoal grill with a door which ensures all the natural moisture and flavours remain inside the meat or fish. It’s also quite an impressive thing to watch in action, which is why Smoak have designed a U-shaped counter top in front of the open kitchen for those that want a ring-side seat to the sights and smells that emerge when the door is opened.
Another pertinent design feature is the glass meat cabinet in which hang all manner of steaks and full sides of beef, like Lady Gaga’s walk-in closet. With all those racks of prime rib on show, do you think any size 6 WAG customers ever mistake it for a mirror?
Starters look high-end though basic. I’ve heard a few people rave about the fresh oysters but as I’m not a heterosexual man or a lesbian, slurping on all that gubbins holds little interest for me. So we ignored them and headed straight for the next source of high protein – steak. They’ve had a little go on the menu with some token vegetarian dishes and fish options but if you’re going to go to Smoak, with their fancy grill, steak’s their thing - though I spotted a burger on the counter top that looked delicious.
Even though they get a lot of meat from Scottish butcher Donald Russell, they’re also supplied by Althams, a reasonably local family butcher in Southport. I chose the 400g, 35 day aged rump which I wouldn’t normally go for, as rump can be a bit tough but was intrigued as to what the effect of hanging for over a month would have on it. It was tasty and juicy but much thinner than I expected for £25. However, I suspect you could stick an old boot in a Josper and it’d come out with half a chance of tasting delicious. Husband had 500g sirloin, rare, £28. Both came garnished with a grilled flat mushroom and a chunky bone marrow boat. I know all that nose-to-tail stuff is supposed to sort the men out from the boys but bone marrow on its own leaves me underwhelmed. Like say, flour, it’s an ingredient that really contributes as part of a dish in both taste and physiology, but eaten on its own?
Smoak must make a fortune shifting side dishes (all £3.25) as our waitress was amazed when I said I didn’t want any. ‘What, none?’ she said aghast, ‘no side dishes?…. AT ALL?’ ‘Er no, but I’ll have some wine in an attempt to distract you from this newsflash’….and that’s where it all started to go wrong.
I’d spent a while in gleeful anticipation over the wine list. Like old friends, getting together - me, Merlot, Shiraz and Rioja, we were going to have a long anticipated girls night out. The steaks were fine, even with a full restaurant on a busy Saturday night, the chef was cranking them out to order. He and Josper working together with efficient harmony, but after you’ve been working so hard to break down those proteinous enzymes, what you want is a drink. What you want when you’ve been on a daft no-alcohol diet for 6 weeks is a drink, so what was the most difficult thing to get access to at a place that calls itself a ‘BAR and grill’? Yes, you guessed it, a DRINK!
The food arrived at the table long before the wine was delivered so it took all I had not to grab the waitress’s lapel whilst knocking it back and shout ‘another! Wench.’ After dinner we decided to cut out the middle man and order drinks directly from the bar but unfortunately that’s when we magically became invisible. Truly, no-one could see us though we stood there plainly in view, thirsty and with money to spend. It wasn’t even busy, yet one end of the bar was piled high with dirty glasses. All the time we were waiting, there was only one guy slowly making a cocktail for someone - who’d probably ordered it the day before.
As we left, I spotted three influential Manchester food writers also unsuccessfully trying to get served before giving up and going to Mint Hotel round the corner. One of whom said ‘what’s going on, are we doing this wrong? Are we standing here trying to get served incorrectly?’
We stopped by reception on the way out to give them a piece of our mind. ‘Oh’ said the receptionist, ‘we do have a VIP bar, ‘the Ember lounge’, would you like to see it?’ See it? Ha! No thanks love, we’ve spent half an hour too long staring at this one…goodbye.’
It doesn’t matter how good the chef, the service, the steaks or the uber-grill are if your night is cut short and spoilt by not being able to get a drink. If there are any bar managers looking for a job in Manchester, please, get yourselves to Smoak forthwith.
For more information or to book call Smoak on 0161 278 1000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org