Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Marc Wilkinson comes to civilisation

I haven't got much against the Wirral, except that depending on which bit of it you're going to, it can take ages to get there. A recent visit to Heswall involved two trains and two buses and took two-and-a-half hours – no wonder that, against all the odds and a bump that gets in the way of what my instructor calls 'peep and creep', I'm trying to learn to drive.

One of the nicest things about the peninsula, apart from my mate Liz and her lovely baby daughter Nancy, is Marc Wilkinson's restaurant, Fraiche, in Oxton. He works alone, very hard, and his food is great: inventive without being stupid. His Michelin star, awarded last year after a frustrating wait, is well deserved.

After being clouted (accidentally) in the heed by a pensioner on the bus, my day has improved considerably with the news that Marc will be plying his craft in Manchester for one night only. Harvey Nichols have just sent news that he'll be cooking a 40-cover dinner in their restaurant on January 25, showing off dishes from his signature menu, which is the one between entry level and 'hold on lads, I'm going mental'. Five courses with matching wines, water, coffee and service is £90, which is perfectly reasonable for a taste of Fraiche without the tear-stained Merseyrail ticket and 40-minute delay at Chester, where they have helpfully demolished the ladies' loos on platform 7.

It should be the most confident, interesting food that's been served at Harvey Nichols for a while, and hopefully he'll be bringing Gemma, his young and extremely capable front of house, to oversee service. And it's a Monday night, so there should be plenty of off-duty chefs in attendance. That could make for extra sport, especially if they get drunk and start throwing stuff at me. It's always a risk.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Kitchen W8

There's nothing like gastric distress to ruin a girl's birthday weekend in the big smoke, but before things went bad we did at least get a few proper dinners in. Chief among them was Kitchen W8, Philip Howard's relatively new venture just off Kensington High Street. Howard has two Michelin stars at The Square, has faithfully cooked at Nigel Haworth's Northcote food festival every year since it began, and has talked openly about overcoming his addictions to drugs and booze, which has nothing to do with anything but makes me suspect that he's a good egg.

He's not on the hobs at Kitchen W8 – head chef is his former sous, Mark Kempson – but between them they've mustered enough humour and lateral chefly thinking to take the blander edges off a sleek, mushroom-coloured dining room. Dishes from The Square have been transferred and tweaked, and between them they've turned game into a hot dog, made a girly fish dish into something obscenely, satisfyingly luxurious, and upended the ubiquitous lemon tart so that creme fraiche, usually the accompaniment, becomes the star of the show.

If ever a dish was designed to catch the eyes of food geeks and restaurant critics, it's the starter of game consomme with bacon cream and a small game hot dog. It's like the protein in two services (suckling pig and a sausage roll, p'raps) at Hibiscus: ignoring it would be unnatural. The hot dog, in a brioche bun with a seam of home-made brown sauce, was neither here nor there, but the mug of soup was like a wet, hot, immaculately clarified country house. It tasted of leather, cigars, mahogany and tweed, and the bacon cream benefited hugely from being proper cream rather than wishy foam. A little arrangement of 'thinly sliced' smoked eel with grilled mackerel really had been through the mandolin. The paper-thin approach makes for effective flavour delivery, but the slices were slightly weighed down by hefty chunks of yellow beetroot, some of which retained too much rootiness.

Howard seems to like putting cheese in odd places (see the passion fruit and lime mess with Brillat-Savarin cream), and halibut with a Beaufort crust is a Square classic. Here, and I'm sure there, the crust is a fine, elegant affair the colour of pale gold, and the accompaniments, a sweep of cauliflower puree and buttery 'melted' onions, are brutally rich; on a plate of beiges and yellows, I missed greenery. Ox tongue with shallot puree and a foie gras baked potato reflected the incipient trend for posh spud stuffings, and reflected it well.

A visit to Lutyens a couple of weeks ago confirmed that while restaurants are still happy to serve chocolate fondants, they're reluctant to admit it. So while theirs, when it's on, is called hot chocolate cake, Kitchen W8's is known as a warm bitter chocolate pudding. It is extraordinarily good, but of more interest is the caramelised creme fraiche tart. Wobbly and sweetly farmyardy, the creme fraiche takes the place of a lemon tart filling, while the lemon curd, in a blob and an ice cream, is relegated to the sidelines. It's a quiet joke which works extremely well.

We were in and out for under ninety quid, especially sweet since we'd been at the River Café the night before, and, as is customary, paid the bill in a manner best described as half willing, half wincing. It's nice to know that, should you wish, it's cheaper to be cossetted in Kensington than mildly patronised in a barn in Hammersmith.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Chef's hat

I took this picture (click to enlarge) in Hyde Park this morning, on the path out of Winter Wonderland. It's a rather chilly-looking Heston Blumenthal, preparing to do some filming. If you could pan around to the right, you'd see a camera crew, several runners and a not particularly effective canopy; to the left, the shadow of the 'Bavarian village' and a not particularly festive ghost train. Anyway, it was just starting to rain, so we didn't hang about. Stay tuned, as they used to say...

Friday, December 04, 2009

The apples of our eyes

At the weekend (a long time ago now, but that’s the way it wiggles) we drove out to proper Cheshire – as opposed to our little fringe – to have lunch at Cabbage Hall. Robert Kisby has been at the posh pub since March and has eradicated most remaining traces of former owner Francis Carroll’s horribly flamboyant interior. 

Lunch was fine rather than world-beating. Our winter warmer platter, a big plate with its indentations filled with Kisby’s takes on chicken kiev, Lancashire hotpot and the like, looked a bit like yesterday’s man, and if the cottage pie-stuffed jacket potatoes had been made that morning then I’m a pickled cabbage. 

We did, however, make a worthwhile discovery, and all thanks to me being off the booze. The barman brought us each a bottle of crisp, tart-and-sweet Cox’s Orange Pippin apple juice from nearby Willington Fruit Farm, and as we sat mulling over its deliciousness offered directions to the farm shop near Kelsall. Obediently, we went.

Willington Fruit Farm has a farm shop in the old-fashioned sense, a world away from the sexy (if you like marmalade) sheen of nearby The Hollies and its caravan site and extra barn stuffed full of Christmas gifts. It’s basically a cold shed full  - and I mean full – of apples. They grow, pick and sell or juice a huge range here, and I thought immediately of my friend Rosemary Moon. I had never really understood her obsession with our native apples until we saw, spread before us like Yeats’s dreams, Chiver’s Delight and Belle de Boskoop, Melrose, Holstein Cox and Egremont Russet. 

Sod’s law, of course, meant that I was about to come away for a week working in that London and couldn’t, in good conscience, buy any. We did pick up six bottles of gorgeous juice, though (£2.15 for a big bottle, as opposed to £2.50 at Hollies). One of them is from a dessert apple called Katy, a cross between James Grieve and Worcester Pearmain which apparently has a slightly acid and refreshing flavour.  That one is earmarked as a Christmas gift for our friends Helen and Adam and their daughter Katy. Luckily their tiddler, Jacob, is too young to be upset about his lack of fruity namesake. 

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Life of pie

I've just written a piece about mince pies, and as soon as I'd filed it, I had the urge to make some. It's too early, of course – this kind of caper should be saved for December – but the giant jar of mincemeat Tim brought back from Saino's should last all the way through to Christmas. The ones above are ready for their sugar sprinkles. I've just eaten the 'and', and I must say that using lard in the pastry is a masterstroke. Delia's masterstroke.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A work of tart

Sue Lawrence is regarded as a bit of a goddess round our house. She was a Masterchef winner in the Loyd Grossman era and went on to write several straightforward, spirited cookery books including one about her native Scotland and my favourite, Sue Lawrence’s Book of Baking. She’s a member of the Guild of Food Writers, as am I, and although our paths have never crossed I am told that she is a) lovely, and b) very slender for a woman who writes such brilliant cake recipes.

On Saturday night we had our friends Bryony and Ric round for dinner. Nice to see them and all that, but basically it was an excuse for me to cook two recipes that I’ve had my eye on for some time. One of them is Tamasin Day-Lewis’s chicken Savoyarde, a creamy, tarragon-scented gratin that Hale and Hearty will no doubt revisit soon – it was delicious. The other one is Sue Lawrence’s chocolate-crusted lemon tart.

I’m usually unappealingly smug in the kitchen. Things don’t often go far wrong and if they do, I know how to fix them. Not on Saturday. Baby hormones have made me clumsy and short-tempered and I was miles behind. The tart caused trouble because I was too cack-handed to get the bloody thing in the oven without the filling overflowing the boundary of the friable chocolate crust and pouring out onto the baking sheet. So it was not perfect, but it was still good.

The tart is made with a chocolate pastry comprising plain flour, butter, equal quantities of cocoa powder and golden icing sugar, and an egg yolk. This could be a nightmare to work with, but the protracted resting time advised in the recipe – three hours minimum – took the edge off. After baking it blind, you sprinkle the hot pastry case with a generous amount of finely grated chocolate, so that it melts and forms a smooth’n’sultry layer on the pastry. Then it’s in with the filling – lemon zest and juice, eggs, sugar and double cream. Of course, I didn’t have time to let the case cool a bit before pouring the filling in, so the pouring disturbed the chocolate and bits of it floated to the surface. Then it all leaked. I was furious with myself, but surprisingly it lifted out of the tin like a dream and the recommended dusting of icing sugar hid the rest of my blushes.

As you can see from the picture, there’s a clear seam of gooey chocolate between the pastry (biscuity, although not quite pâte sucrée biscuity) and the lemon filling, and that’s what makes it a winner. Tim described it as refined and dignified, what with all the lemon and dark chocolate, and it did have a bit of the ‘Ambassador, you are spoiling us’ about it. The Scottish ambassador for cakes, that is.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Come fly with me

Could you use some exotic booze? (And, really, who couldn't – we could only rustle up an M&S champers bottle and some old Absolut for the picture accompanying this post). Well, hold on to your hat. According to this Caterer story, Manchester Airport plans to restyle a decommissioned Terminal 1 control tower as a bar.

And not just any bar, either. "We're hoping this becomes a venue to rival some of the city centre's most sophisticated venues," says the airport's commercial director. "Our intention is to produce an experience that far exceeds all current expectations of a great bar."

An admirable ambition, but a tall order – even if you sidestep the question of what exactly qualifies as a sophisticated venue. Manchester has some skyline bars already, of course: Cloud 23 in Beetham Tower and The Modern at Urbis, coincidentally home to some tasty golden-age-of-air-travel graphic design. Both have that must-visit quality that doesn't necessarily translate into atmosphere or repeat custom. And airport catering? Rare is the table that hasn't left Hale and Hearty with the urge for a fistful of reds from the in-flight service.

Still, the airport project has USPs. Like, say, it's in an airport control tower. You can expect the 360-degree panoramas that are – I'm assuming – handy for air traffic control. Then there's the rural setting, albeit relative in the context of an international travel hub. It's also not a strictly airside concern. Get the right operator and the Cheshire fringe could have a new favourite watering hole.

Sinatra, of course, would have had you straight through check-in and non-stop to Mumbai. But then, he also thought you might enjoy a one-man band in 'llama land', so the sensible money's on waiting to see what happens next. If it opens, I'll certainly go.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Starry, starry nights, part two: Per Se

We booked our New York trip in a bit of a hurry, and as I excitedly outlined our eating plans to my friend Clarissa Hyman, her brow darkened with worry. Not only were we planning to visit Per Se, but we were excited about it. This, she suggested, may not be wise.

Clarissa is a great cook, a brilliant writer (a view confirmed by her two Glenfiddich wins) and a sharp, experienced assessor of all restaurants great and small. Not long after Per Se opened, she went. Reader, she hated it. Small portions, stiff and stuffy service, huge prices, and full-length mirrors in the loos offset so that you could almost, but not quite, watch yourself wee. Some good dishes, some misguided. From what I've read in Phoebe Damrosch's book about working there, Service Included, Clarissa is not the only one who resented the formality and awkwardness of the early days.

As we discovered on Monday night, Per Se retains the loo mirrors and the big (though still mighty good value) bills, but it has plenty of charm too. The room, high up at the Time Warner Centre, has great views of the city and the park – you can almost look Christopher Columbus (statue edition) in the eye – and there isn't really a bad table. It's all flickering firelight and glowing bronze floors and nice men pouring Champagne; as soon as Tim got up for the loo, the maitre d' came over to keep me company, revealing that, despite his Italian heritage, he has an aunt and uncle who run a pub in Droylsden. Someone else spotted us looking enviously at the truffle box (they're shaved, suitably generously, over risotto for a $150 supplement) and beckoned the bearer over so that we could have a sniff.

Staff loveliness and views aside, what did we get for our $275 per head (service included)? A whole lot of tasty is what. Thomas Keller's nine-course American-French tasting menu was riddled with the good stuff, starting with the famous salmon cornets and a fabulous truffle custard hidden in an eggshell and topped with Marmitey black truffle ragout, and butter-rich rolls the exact shape of a bum. I was totally convinced by the pro-potato statement made in a salad of different coloured ones, cold, sliced and served with an egg mayonnaise and little pickled onions. Even the frisee garnish was there for a reason, and that is rare indeed.

The lobster course, a huge hunk butter-poached and served with a creamy lemon dressing, ribbons of radishes and a silky cabbage puree (I know. Cabbage!) was another topper, and enough to make the chef who cooked my lobster at Jean Georges weep with shame. Tim was horrified by the cheese course, a slice of ragingly creamy goats' cheese with pickled mushrooms (he hates good cheese and vinegar), but I thought it was great. And I will never know how to say 'mignardises' correctly, but I do know that even after nine courses, plus canapes, there's always room for a salted caramel truffle plucked from a custom-made, triple-decker silver trinket box.

I won't go on. It was forking brilliant, the best meal we've had since last year's absolute stunner at Nicolas Le Bec in Lyon, and worth three Michelin stars whether they be European or American. When I saw Clarissa recently at Booths supermarket's lovely food shop and restaurant in Kendal, I said as much. She was surprised but, I think, delighted.

Friday, November 13, 2009

I am the egg man (limited edition)

Here's how to do scrambled eggs: mix in some black truffle and serve with garlicky Lyonnaise potatoes and a croissant. You'll pay $14 for it at New York's esteemed Brasserie (add $5 for a side order of streaky bacon, plus $3.50 for coffee... maybe another $8 for fruit... then tax and tip), so it's not cheap. But it is delicious.

Brasserie's a characterful place, all told. It's 50 this year, with Sunday brunch big on English teas and family gatherings. The latter pack out a basement space decorated like a cross between a Prague subway station and the set of The F Word, with chairs that would fit right in at Manchester's old Simply Heathcotes.

Speaking of which, Paul Heathcote's Spanish restaurant, Grado, used to do a moreish truffly scrambled egg. Unless I'm missing something on the menus online, it isn't there any more. An incentive, if ever there was one, to try something similar at home.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cafe Metro: UK update

You'll recall Hale and Hearty recently blogged about the number of outlets bent on putting the Metro into metropolis, but here's an example closer to home.

While we naturally take all due care not to imply any resemblance between this panini, sandwich and refillable hot beverage joint – on Moss Lane in Altrincham, opposite the ramp down to the station – and newspapers living or dead is anything other than coincidental, that font does look mighty familiar.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Starry, starry nights, part one: Jean Georges

I took part in a rigorous fine-dining press trip in Las Vegas earlier this year and, when all the truffles and gold-dusted Rice Krispies were said and done, I began to suspect that an American Michelin star is not quite the same as a European one. The big star places were nice and all that, but they weren't up there with Lyon's Bocuse (three) or Nicolas Le Bec (two, and so exciting and wonderful that it's become our benchmark for posh eating). Now we're in New York, we're putting that theory to the test. What do you mean, we should be saving for the baby's shoes? He won't be able to walk for months.

Jean Georges, the three-star restaurant which sits at the base of a gilded Trump building off Columbus Circle, is a constant at the top of the New York must-eat lists. I have no idea how you pronounce Vongterinchen, the surname of the JG in question, who has a string of places across the city, but luckily we didn't have to say it. We just had to go and eat the tea.

It's a small room and we were expecting it to be ragingly formal, but the number of people in there on a Saturday night - some dressed as Germanophile 1970s mobsters - took the edge off. The prix fixe (which is not the pov option, just the alternative to the full-on tasting) is $98 for four courses plus bells and whistles, including a visit from the mournful man who extracts a long marshmallow from a jar and solemnly cuts it with silver scissors.

And the food? It wasn't that exciting, frankly. Highlights were the turbot with Chateau Chalon sauce, which was heady and rich, and Tim's lamb (pictured), which had an utterly delicious sticky, shiny chilli crust. We weren't sold on the idea of the desserts, which are all 'tastings' on various themes, with four mini dishes, but they turned out to be the highlight. We swerved the spice one and the autumn one, and went for 'chocolate' and 'apple'. A chocolate fondant ('FONDONT!') was marvellous and Tim was impressed by a feather-light mini apple tart and a white chocolate and caramel apple dome.

Low points were a noodling combination of halibut with a huge amount of chilli foam, cucumber ribbons and soft creamed potatoes; the potatoes belonged on a French plate and everything else on an Asian one. My lobster with basil and spaetzle, the crazy German short pasta, was... nice. The chocolate plate also held the real aberration of the meal, a minty mouthwash-flavour bowl of green goo, with chocolate vermicelli that looked like little brown worms and were all texture, no flavour.

Until we get back from Per Se on Monday night, we won't know quite where Jean Georges sits. I'm not sure it's three stars worth of delicious, but it certainly beats my plans for next Saturday, when I'll be queueing for the swine flu vaccine at the doc's. You can bet they won't have a man with silver scissors.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Seafood wearing hats

One summer in Coney Island, my friend Louis and I paid 50 cents a go to view such quaint sideshow delights as the two-headed baby (actually a poorly rendered plastic infant in a large bell jar). That famous stretch of Brooklyn beachfront - faded glamour in the best possible way - is pretty much closed for business come November, lending a stroll in the late autumn sun an additional melancholy that, say, Weston-super-Mare will never have, with or without its burnt-down pier.

It's a treasure trove of crumbling Americana that would offer riches to even the world's worst photographer. One pleasing quirk I had never noticed, however, was the wearing of hats by the assorted clams, shrimp and crabs that adorn Coney Island's many boardwalk food stalls (you should head straight here, by the way, and skip the overrated hot dogs at Nathan's).

Were we in England, we would have to assume someone has taken the sartorial standard set by Homepride's Fred - faithful servant of the bowler since 1965 - and gone one grander. As we're not, we'll look no further than the topper, if not the cane and monocle, of a certain Mr Peanut.

I am the egg man (calorific uncertainty mix)

The celebratory rough-and-tumble of the New York Yankees' ticker-tape parade called for a robust breakfast. (What do you mean, you didn't hear about that? They won the World Series - everyone had a stake in it.) Before finding a suitable spot 20-odd rows back on Broadway we dropped in at the Europa Cafe on Water Street. Emma had a yoghurt parfait ($3.25) and I ordered Breakfast Special #1 ($4.69).

What you see - other than a couple of rounds of foil-wrapped buttered toast, just out of shot - is what you get: bacon, two eggs your way and breakfast potatoes, fried with peppers and onion. What's interesting is the calorie count. Everything at Europa is given one, and this particular special clocks in at 520-820 calories. It's the eggs that do it: lose the yolks and don't add oil to what's left and you'll be getting near that lower limit. But really, where's the fun in an egg-white omelette?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Jamie Oliver: an Essexman in New York

I've been leaving the holiday blogs to Tim because, frankly, it's all I can do to stay awake enough for basic conversation, let alone typing. But something so unlikely happened today that I have returned, briefly, to the typeface. Relish it, people.

As a restaurant critic I have a childish fondness for seeking out the new. I've put that into practice over here despite the fact that pretty much every restaurant they've got is new to me. So we went for lunch at The Breslin, a new venture from British-born chef April Bloomfield, who co-owns the Michelin-starred gastropub The Spotted Pig. It's part of the almost comically cool Ace Hotel (pictured, plus stranger hailing taxi), styled pubbily with tartan overtones and a bit of shabby chic. You'd know you weren't in England, it's very dark, and you can't tell the staff from the civilians, but there's something very satisfying about the whole business.

We'd just ordered lunch when Jamie Oliver came in. He's apparently working on a primetime eight-part American show which weaves his campaigny threads into one rich, slightly bolshy tapestry. He knows April and needed a kitchen to film in. What are the chances? Small, I tell ye. Anyway, he sat a foot along the banquette with his people and his big hat, trying dishes and explaining that the UK doesn't really have Iron Chef, while we had lunch.

It's a raw, rich, meaty menu and for me, the options were limited - everything seemed to involve goats' cheese, mayo made with raw eggs, and tantalisingly rare meat. I was pleasantly surprised by what I had dismissed as the ladies' option, to be served with a glass of fruit juice and a smirk. Sea bass with wilted, caramelised treviso and a punch-packing anchovy sauce was done well and, as they say on the Food Network, 'flavorful'.

Tim's lamb burger with cumin mayo and thrice-cooked chips (stolen, we heard the boss confide in Jamie, from the Hinds Head. No surprises there) worked very well as a kind of Middle Eastern slant on a Western classic. To finish, we shared an Eton mess quite unlike any we'd had before in that, being a whole meringue with a drizzle of lemony cream and a sprinkling of crunchy pistachios, it was categorically not an Eton mess. Good, though.

As we left, we noticed a huge SUV parked on one side of the road, and a sporty, sheeny pale blue scooter on the other. I imagine his Joliver a bit like David Cameron, wheeling along carefree while a big car follows with all the necessary equipment. But we'll never know - unless he turns up at dinner time, too.

Simple things, done well

There's an art to doing simple things well. Last night we went to Les Halles (see previous post) and, reasoning that a much-respected brasserie should be able to do justice to brasserie classics, ordered some. I had the steak frites (pictured) and creme brulee. See these on the menu of many UK restaurants and I'm not sure what is more off-putting: their familiarity as dishes, or the familiarity of the pitfalls in their execution. At Les Halles they were pretty much faultless.

The meal put me in mind of something William Grimes, former restaurant critic of the New York Times, said recently. He's just published a book, Appetite City, documenting the history of NYC's dining scene, and we heard him talk about it at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Grimes would be the first to admit you can't fully explore the subject in just one volume: New York's food culture, from the first immigrant markets to today's highly evolved triumphs, is a genre in itself.

That doesn't mean he can't follow a clear thread of his own, of course, and Grimes's is straightforward: New York is the restaurant capital of the world because, weighing up quantity and quality, it offers the finest examples of global cuisine found anywhere outside their country of origin. Typically this means simple things, done well - which is, after all, what most of us are hoping to achieve every time we get out the pans. We have some high-end reservations of our own lined up this weekend, but so far the basics have been hard to beat.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The other Hale and Hearty

Naturally, readers of this blog have excellent taste: chances are you have the site bookmarked to make it easy to check for updates. But imagine, if you will, the nightmare scenario. You're away from your regular computer, and our address momentarily escapes you. A quick Googling is called for - at which point your top hit may well be for a chain of New York soup shops.

The branch in the picture is a couple of blocks north of here on Lexington Avenue and, in fairness, the menu looks pretty good. From a British perspective, it's certainly more interesting than the Pret A Manger on the same block, with the tomato Cheddar soup a top-seller (I have my eye on the Senegalese chicken with peanuts).

Further consideration will have to wait, though. Earlier today we emerged from a subway station to find ourselves outside Anthony Bourdain's brasserie, Les Halles, and it turned out they had a table for later tonight. He probably won't be on the hobs, of course, but - new wild game menu notwithstanding - the promise of 'American beef, French style' is all but impossible to resist.

(American TV postscript: Saw a billboard today for a new Steven Seagal show, Lawman, which will follow the erstwhile action hero as he carries out his real-world duties as a deputy sheriff. It starts on A&E next month and, if it ever makes it to the UK, is surely unmissable)

Lawn in the USA

The lobby of our hotel, where I'm writing this, is known as The Living Room. Last night it hosted an extended cocktail hour as Andrew Butler - him out of Hercules And Love Affair - played vintage disco; right now, it's filling up with suits taking advantage of the free wi-fi and plentiful green apples. The small tables double as chess and backgammon boards, restrained deep house skitters away on the PA and a couple of walls are backdrops for what in the rave days we called 'visuals'. It's not yet 9am.

If all that sounds painfully hip, relax: in the best NYC tradition, it's pulled back from the abyss by an unselfconscious and decidedly mixed clientele. That, and the indoor lawns. Grass is a big theme at the W, from the palm-sized glass cubes on those tables to the mini batting track opposite the lifts. That's it in the picture; Mario, the guy with the electric clippers, is charged with trimming it each morning. The longer you're here, the more of it you see: today there are half a dozen oblong blocks of turf on reception, and a couple of waist-high planters out the front.

If it's not quite Central Park by stealth, it's still more entertaining than American TV, which by and large remains rubbish. Other than the good stuff we know about back home (HBO, FX, some of the comedy), the most beguiling channel is BBC America, a not entirely seamless blend of last season's British prime-time (Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, Graham Norton, Robin Hood), dial-a-psychic adverts and lots and lots of Matt Frei. There, as among the suits in The Living Room, much talk this week has been of Michael Bloomberg winning a third term as New York mayor. City redevelopment will be a priority, apparently. Back on a green tip, he could do a lot worse than extend the excellent High Line project.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Cafe Metro: Eat well, live well!

Visit any English-speaking major city and it's unlikely to be long before you're confronted with a multiplicity of metro-themed branding. Shops, services, commuter newspapers... you know the drill. New York is no exception. Our first morning here even offered some Metro Drugs; not something you would associate with my old beat (it was actually a pharmacy). Before we stumbled across that, though, there was this breakfast spot two blocks north of our hotel.

It maybe goes without saying that there's a Cafe Metro - or Metro Cafe, I don't have the data to hand - next to the Metrolink line on Manchester's High Street. As far as I recall that one doesn't sell syrup-heavy stacks of waffles, or favour the gratuitous excitement of an exclamation mark in an up-and-at-'em slogan, but it does do pretty decent fry-ups.

We took a different tack this morning: a Metro espresso and cinnamon Danish on the hoof, followed by good eggs benedict at Markt, an airy Belgian-themed place on Avenue Of The Americas. Lunch involved an opportunistic drop-in at Goodburger, back over on Lexington Avenue. They do, well, good burgers - very good, in fact. And there's an echo of Greater Manchester here, too: if you ask us, that branding is pure Mr Scruff.

Monday, November 02, 2009

I am the egg man (Aldo Buzzi remix)

One perk of working from home is the opportunity to cook your own breakfast at a sociable hour – in my case, one that might more properly be described as brunch-time. Eggs – they make you strong, apparently – have been a fixture, so I was pleased to stumble across a new but essentially foolproof recipe in an old review paperback.

Despite endorsements from David Furnish and Simon Cowell, Mr Jones' Rules (a how-to guide 'for the modern man' from the suitably ovoid headspace of GQ editor Dylan Jones) is an amusing and not particularly smug or prissy read. The section on food and drink is home to some pleasingly eccentric finds, among them a fried egg recipe from a treatise on cooking by the late Italian polymath Aldo Buzzi.

Like so many great recipes, it's the finer details that make it. You must crack the egg into a cup, then add the white to a pan on a low heat. Season this, then add the yolk carefully to its centre. When it's almost cooked, add a lid to the pan and lightly firm the top of the yolk. Transfer the result to a warm plate.

Jones adds a few tips of his own. Toast should be served on the side, rather than under the egg; use a duck egg (bigger, if surprisingly hard to come by given Hale and Hearty has rolling countryside south to Stoke and west to Chester); only cook one of them.

You're a modern man, remember, so there's a beer in it for you, too. In keeping with the Italian theme, I'd suggest the elegant attire and gluggable heft (6.6%) of Peroni's Gran Reserva. After that, you'll probably be ready to forget the work and take up another of Jones's serving suggestions, watching sport on TV. Just don't blame me if Sky Sports News fails to sustain the glamour of la dolce vita.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Saf: please 'cheese' me

My friend Lindsay has suddenly become a very tough woman to please, dinner-wise. She's always been prone to the odd bout of smoothie-making, but this time she's gone into hardcore detox mode. She's been feeling a bit rough recently, which she puts down to eating crap, drinking too much, and occasionally buying an Upper Crust baguette to eat on the train home from work, and then lying about it. According to her new tough-love regime, she can now effectively only eat raw vegetables. So when I met her for dinner in London last week, there was only one place for it: Saf.

Saf opened a while ago in Shoreditch, so all the London critics have been and gone and left it for the proper people. I can see why they like it; it's long and dim and quietly stylish, with a pretty garden, or at least the illusion of it, visible through floor-to-ceiling windows at the back. The staff don't all know which table is which, but they're willing.

The menu is all vegan and 50 per cent raw which, when you think about it, means not many carbs either (bread, rice and potatoes need cooking, of course). There's soy milk in the coffee, a lot of cashews pounded into 'cheese', and not nearly as much tofu as you might imagine. There are a lot of facsimile items (nut ricotta, vegetable noodles, parsnip rice). Anything that's been cooked is marked with an asterisk. Danger! Warm food! We kept getting whiffs of the Thai green curry, which is cooked and smelt fabulous, but seemed a bit like cheating.

By the time we'd all assembled there was only time for one course. Lindsay had the pad thai, which uses ribbons of courgette and carrot instead of noodles and a drizzle of chipotle sauce for flavour. Cold, of course, as was Natalie's lasagne, a very pretty stack of various pulverised vegetable pastes and layers, served on a nails-down-the-blackboard slate. Good, with individual flavours on show, but oddly heavy.

I had a long, elegant tasting plate, with two kinds of the fabled cashew cheese, with olives and sun-dried tomatoes, with flaxseed crackers to spread them on with satisfactory results. Little beetroot parcels stuffed with cashew ricotta (pictured above, courtesy of Saf) were lovely, as were the soy-spiked seeds and nuts. Vegetable maki, stuffed with parsnip chipped into rice-like bits, tasted too much like parsnips. Dolmas, which they forgot to put on and arrived later, after enquiries, were stuffed with cauliflower rice and flavoured so heavily with cinnamon they reminded me of American apple pie.

How much did we like it? Just enough. It meant we could have an interesting dinner together like normal people, despite what Lindsay is doing to herself, and I like to think of London's vegans being able to do the same. I'm just starting to feel the baby move, like little bubbles popping, and he was fizzing away happily in appreciation of such a healthy dinner. Although if he's his mother's son, he would have been equally delighted by a bag of Cadbury's caramel Nibbles.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

To the USA...

I've embarked on a dig through some old cassettes in the basement, the latest fruit of which is Leonard Cohen's 1997 album The Future. The CD's down there somewhere, too, but the relative inconvenience of tape – no simple track-skipping here – means I'm listening to the whole thing for the first time in years. Currently playing is one of its key tracks, Democracy, in which the Canadian posits the emergence of a new order in typically deadpan fashion. Democracy is coming to the USA, he sings, 'on a visionary flood of alcohol'.

Substitute 'large aeroplane' for 'visionary flood of alcohol' and 'Hale and Hearty' for 'democracy' and you have a fairly accurate picture of our movements next month, when tools will be downed for a final trip to New York before the baby comes. Among the manifold attractions will be fine restaurants and, if not a biblical tide's worth of booze, a renewed chance to enjoy some decent American brews that usually only make it across the Atlantic in a crate.

It's reasonably easy to order something reliable from Chicago's Goose Island or NYC's own Brooklyn Brewery in a British bar; pick your spot and you'll also find bottles from some of the 1,000-odd small breweries that have set up in the US in the past 30 years. By happy coincidence, however, our local shop sells six-bottle carriers of the one I'll be drinking on the first night. Happy, and bizarre, given the brewery's size: I can't remember ever seeing its beers in a supermarket or off-licence.

There really is nothing to dislike about a proper pint of Samuel Adams' Boston Lager, unless you're the kind of old colonialist who takes exception to the product of one of our finest exported processes taking its name from an architect of the American revolution (which seems unlikely). Full-bodied and richly malty, it's a long way from the bland fizz of the multinational big-hitters. I'd like to think it's what Barack Obama had in mind when he floated a bit of 'bar-stool diplomacy' at the White House this summer. What Len would make of that is anyone's guess.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Book: Easy Tasty Italian by Laura Santtini

Laura Santtini's first book, Easy Tasty Italian, has been the subject of much excitable foodie chatter of late. That's partly because her PR is the Twitter-friendly, proactive Sarah Canet, and partly because when a chef is blonde, smiley and had just launched a range of edible glitter products at Selfridges, she's likely to get some attention.

It was by neither of these routes that I came across a copy of the book. I'm staying with my friends Natalie and Tom this week. They've just moved into a new house a Rohan jacket's throw from Epping Forest, and Tom had bought Nat a copy as a little new-home love token. He's a football journalist, nothing to do with the thrilling world of food media and its zeitgeists, but picked the book up because it looked unusual and contained the recipe for Alfredo sauce, a key component of many of his favourite meals.

To make Laura Santtini's Alfredo sauce, the cook (that's Nat) must heat 300ml of double cream with a whole packet of unsalted butter, stir in the cheese, and add nutmeg and another 100ml of cream. Last night we had it with grilled chicken, mash and green beans, and Nat added mushrooms and peas to the sauce to create the illusion of added vitamins. She's got a marvellous palate, the sauce was a triumph, and it went impressively solid in the fridge.

Tonight, we will have it with spaghetti and salad, and because Tim regards pasta and strong cheese as The Food Of The Devil, I intend to relish every mouthful. Buon Alfredo, as I'm sure Alfie's mother said when he was young and wont to experiment with butter and cream*.

*Apparently the Alfredo comes from a Roman restaurant called Alfredo alla Scrofa, which means 'at the sow's', but let that not detain us.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Taps me up

Taps, the new bar at the Great Northern, doesn't give much away. Certainly not beer; you pour your own from the taps that are installed at each table, and with pricing done by tenths of a pint, an amateurish pour is money down the foamy drain.

The food offer is a bit of a mystery, too. In a big brown bar off Peter Street, clean in a corporate way with a wipe-clean A3-size menu, it's not immediately apparent whether an inventive selection is going to be the result of a quick flick through the Brakes catalogue, or some thoughtful home-cooking.

The first indicator that we might be in for a nice surprise came when I asked if they had any preg-safe factory-made mayo, all pasteurised and flavourless but perfectly adequate for chip-dipping. The answer was no – it's all made in house, from fresh eggs. Good Lord.

The beers supplied vary from table to table – a hen party near us had Duvel and Vedett flowing freely – and Tim poured both Amstel and a lambic which smelt, tasted and looked exactly like cherryade and was clearly there For The Ladies. It's difficult to leave the shiny, shiny beer levers alone when they're right in front of you, which is presumably why the concept of Taps, which started off in Leicester, has proved lucrative enough to extend to Manchester. There's table service for other drinks and bottled beers from a long list, but it is not a concept that has been thoroughly grasped. Our empties were ignored every time someone dropped by with cutlery, or my glasses of lime and soda, each more thrilling than the last.

It feels odd to be eating good, fairly interesting food in such a bland and beery environment, but eat it we did. From the tapas-cum-starter list, the mini venison Wellington (pictured), with a fat chunk of foie gras tucked inside, was cooked rare and came with mustardy devilled mushrooms. Soft shell crab, in a coconuty crumb, was good with a herb salad even if the fearsomely garlicky mayo didn't really match.

Tim's ribeye steak (it's the weekend, right, you can't have something interesting every day of the week) was decent enough, and a kilo pot of mussels with white wine and cream, although a bit shoddy on the debearding front, did the job nicely. It reminded me of moule frites at the Hopleaf, a proper beer-loving pub in a suburb of Chicago, where we were very glad that our friends Abra and Erik had made us take ID. At the ripe combined age of 66, we weren't going to be allowed in without it. Now that's something that wouldn't happen on Peter Street.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Slattery will get you nowhere

As soon as my mum walked into Slattery in Whitefield, she sniffed the air, noted the cakes, and observed quite rightly that it's a bit like a Mancunian Bettys. They're both family-run patissier and confectioners with a nice line in tea shops, and what Bettys have done for tea and coffee, Slattery have done for extravagant hand-decorated wedding cakes. The Scousers, including the Rooneys, love it.

As long as the trams are down, north Manchester remains hard to reach. After a rare vehicular visit to Bury to pick up some pre-loved baby gear from a friend whose eeny weeny bundle of biddable has grown with terrifying speed into a bright, lively six-year-old, I twisted mum's driving arm and we sped down Bury New Road in search of a nice quaint lunch.

We didn't get it. In principle and in practice, I have always been a Slattery fan – I love the idea of an independent cake'n'choc emporium and took a fabulous chocolate course there a few years back – but I'm sad to report that, compared to how it was in its prime, the upstairs tea room falls short.

Away from the pretty art deco table lamps, which distract the eye momentarily, the walls are shabby and scuffed, and a yellow 'mind the wet floors' sign had been left beyond its usefulness on a bone-dry floor. Our drinks arrived after our food, there was nowhere to put mum's tea strainer (I KNOW, the hardship), the chocolate discs served with tea were bashed about. My plate was dirty round the edges and a glass and teapot bore the scars of a losing battle with the dishwasher.

We had bagels, mine an American job stuffed with pastrami, cheese, pickles and tomatoes. Nice idea, but it was soggy on the bottom, and someone had applied a massive gob of mayo to the hole, so that it oozed through as I bravely attempted to lift it to my mouth. Service was polite but lacklustre.

Like the Bettys cafes, the Slattery tea room is regarded by its many customers as a massive treat. It was packed and buzzing, and people were still waiting for a table as we left. Madness.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Kitchen essentials

No.2: The Magimix Compact 3 Automatic 100 Multi Cuve

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Product placement comes early to the BBC

It's true that the tyre lads do a prestigious line in restaurant and hotel guides, but last night's Masterchef: The Professionals took the product placement a bit far. In an episode during which hangdog Ludo and sad-face Matt went their mournful ways about Jason Atherton's kitchen, Michelin was mentioned a total of 28 times in 43 minutes. Other guides are, as they say, available.

In other news, Gregg Wallace revealed a rather inconvenient aversion. 'I find raw apple not unpleasant but strange,' he said of Ludo's apple salad. Seeing as Gregg's main foodie qualification is that he's a greengrocer, we suggest he gets this seen to sharpish. In the meantime, Gregg, don't go near the fruit bowl.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Manchester Food and Drink Festival Awards

Lord, but the roads are quick at night. Mere minutes after leaving the Palace Hotel and the Manchester Food and Drink Festival awards dinner, I'm back at my desk with disappointment dwelling in my heart.

Despite the apparent best efforts of everyone at the Festival, the food and service at the Palace were absolutely shocking. If that's what they do to impress Manchester's hospitality high fliers - not to mention the Hairy Bikers - I dread to think what's on the menu at the annual industry bash for, say, the people who make plastic, or sell air conditioning.

Nevertheless, some joy was available. As ever, I was on the judging panel for the awards and although not all my first choices picked up gongs, it's lovely to see some hard graft, clever thinking and good cooking being rewarded. And the winners are:

Retail outlet: Barbakan, Chorlton
Healthy and sustainable: Gabriel's Kitchen
Coffee bar and casual dining: Folk, West Didsbury
Family friendly: Dough (presented, masterfully, to strains of Kylie and Robbie's Kids)
Wine list: Gaucho (presented by Corrie's Anthony Cotton, who said "I'm going to burp, sorry. After one bottle, they all taste the f*cking same")
Bar: Apotheca
Pub: The Lass O'Gowrie
Newcomer: Damson, Heaton Moor
Chef: Ian Matfin, Abode
Restaurant: The Modern

Henrietta Green, who was sitting next to me, rather sweetly enquired who Noddy Holder was when he took the stage to give the lifetime achievement award to George Bergier. Quite rightly, the silver charmer got a standing ovation as he extolled the virtues of education, service and product knowledge. Perhaps he could take The Palace in hand.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Brimful of Asher

I am currently hunkered down under the twin weight of tonsilitis and a nasty cold - that's what you get for spending a couple of days in London - but back in the halcyon days when eating didn't feel like swallowing knives, I was a judge at Jane Asher's Home Baker of the Year competition.

I'd previously interviewed Asher (pictured left in hat) about the competition at her Chelsea cake shop. It's surprisingly small and un-fancy, although presumably the va-va-voom factor increases when Nigella Lawson, apparently a regular customer, drops by for some wafer roses.

To enter the competition, amateur bakers submit their cake recipes and the top five are selected to take part in a live bake-off, held this year at Poggenpohl's super-smooth Deansgate showroom. The top prize is £25,000 worth of Poggy kitchen, and it's a nice thought that at least one of them will be going to someone who cooks in the oven rather than using it to store their cashmere jumpers. So it was no surprise to find that competition was fierce, although it was a shame that one of the disappointed runners-up circulated afterwards, bitterly suggesting that there had been a coup.

In fact, there was nothing of the sort. The judges - including Jane, Andrew Nutter, telly lady Lucy Meacock, Karen Barnes of Good Housekeeping, Lucy of Lucy Cooks and me - gathered around the cakes, ate them, and decided which one we liked best. A fruity Bakewell tart and a really good carrot cake were both lovely but flawed in some way, so after much deliberation we chose Helen Roscoe's Lancashire Belles, choux puffs filled with home-made parkin ice cream and drizzled with chocolate. The choux, ice cream and other frills were all very nice, but it was the parkin - gingery and oaty and fabulous - that clinched it.

Two more things that are fabulous: Andrew Nutter's chef's jacket, which is appliqued with blue diamante, and Boots' packs of 30 nasal strips. Drugs are limited when you're pregnant, so thank God for the glamour of the anti-cold sticking plaster.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

I can't go back to Sainsbury now...

Wide aisles, fruity beers and – bit of a clincher, this – a new deal to feed four for a tenner. But what would John Shuttleworth say?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Let us now hail... Culinary alcohol

Here's a sight to gladden the heart – or possibly stop it. This is one of the well-stocked ingredients shelves at Cocoadance, the Peak District chocolate-maker featured in a recent Hale and Hearty post

There wasn't time to talk drink then, perhaps because I wasn't doing the writing. But Cocoadance returned to mind after a weekend celebration that involved, among other things, a skittles marathon, some old-school desserts, this marvellous cake and much West Country beer. Chocolate and what might generously be called the more refined tipples didn't get a look in, which is probably par for a birthday bash in honour of two merry widowers with a combined age of 150. 

It wasn't always this way. Samuel Pepys was apparently as devoted to the restorative powers of drinking chocolate – at the height of its imperial period as medicinal marvel – as he was to the transformative powers of drinking colossal quantities of what might generously be called port. The best part of two centuries passed before Fry's sold the first bar, at which point finding a preservative became paramount. And so began the journey that brought booze to soft centres.

Most of the bottles in Cocoadance's stash contain culinary alcohol. These are super-proof bottles of popular brands, prized for their familiar taste and practical potency, plus the odd wildcard: that Lajita is a hefty mezcal, complete with worm. 

The daddy of the set, though, is the plastic pot far right. It might look like something sold alongside the charcoal briquettes on a petrol station forecourt, but this is Etilfrutto: a formulation supplied by industry wholesalers Keylink. It's flavourless, it's colourless, and it's 80% ABV. Not one for the vicar, then, but more than enough to get a chocaholics' party started. Even if you are better off with the finest ale known to man.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Riemenschneider: 'Too many balls'

Michael Riemenschneider. Pic: Martin O'Neill

When Michael Riemenschneider arrived at Juniper in Altrincham, some people were excited. When it closed not long afterwards, some people were not surprised. But rumours of the fain-daining chef's return to God's own region have been swirling thickly, and it has been confirmed that he's now in charge of the food at all three of Contessa's Wirral hotels, with Scouse wedding favourite the Hillbark, near Frankby, his focus.

The hotel's restaurant, The Yellow Room, is being refurbished, and soon anyone who liked Mr R's langoustines with pearl barley at Juniper will probably find them on the menu down Frankby way; he's bringing his signature dishes with him. Meanwhile, he has an explanation for his swift departure from Altrincham. "It's a fair criticism to say I took too much on," he says. "We created a real impact on the table but I was juggling too many balls."

If the Hale and Hearty piggybank will stretch to it, we'll be on the Wirral – oh joy! – before long to see what the crack is now he's put the balls down.

Man cake: DONE!

We've had babycakes, now it's time for mancakes. Tim's dad is celebrating his 70th birthday tomorrow night and this cake is what 80 of his nearest and dearest will be nibbling at one of North Somerset's premier village sports clubs, with a pint of Butcombe on the side.

It's much easier to produce something pretty and cute for a christening or girl's birthday than it is to come up with a manly cake which doesn't rely on a comedy golf theme, so I went for simple and colourful. Even this required a visit to our local cake decorating shop for supplies, and apart from eating the sponge offcuts slathered with raspberry jam, this might be my favourite part of the process.

Sugarcraft shops, where they bake on site and decorate behind the counter as well as selling bits of specialist kit, have a lovely sweet smell and a language all their own. You can have a half-hour conversation about guide sticks, edible glue, drums and dowels, and charmingly, everything still seems to be calculated in inches.The staff tend to be highly skilled and very helpful, and if they're not, you just go somewhere else next time. I could have spent hours looking through the spools of ribbon and little pots of glitter, but I had a cake to make.

If you have a fancy for cake fiddlings but don't know where to start, have a look at Peggy Porschen's website and her first book, Pretty Party Cakes (the new one, Cake Chic, isn't nearly as good). Her designs are ridiculously chic and accomplished, so much so that I've never attempted more than a few of her decorated cookies. But her recipes and quantities for good base cakes and instructions on filling, stacking and icing are immensely useful, right down to the boring stuff like covering the cake board (which I didn't do properly for this one. Fule!).

PP, as I like to think of her, has also let me into one of the professional cake decorator's biggest secrets. Even under a thick mantle of icing, there's no way a sponge cake is going to stay fresh and moist for the many hours between baking, filling, decorating, transportation and the big do. The solution is to give the sponge a liberal soaking with sugar syrup, flavoured with vanilla, lemon or booze, before you put it all together. It's this discovery that means I'll be able to hang around at the party rather than scampering off, shamefaced, while everyone wonders why that nice-looking cake tastes like sawdust.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Parental advisory: explicit cake

There's a celebratory cake to be made by tomorrow afternoon, and the Hale and Hearty baking drawers have been turned out in preparation.

The hunt for decorative inspiration is weirdly addictive: visit the website of a random cake-maker and, as the old Black Flag track so memorably put it, let your fingers do the walking.

But there is intrigue closer to home. Such as, what kind of cake is it that requires a topless female figurine with luxuriant strawberry-blonde hair and moveable arms?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I am the egg man (deluxe edition)

This minimalist egg cup-cum-toast rack – a recent gift – is about as sophisticated as my breakfast gets, unless a) I'm in a hotel, or b) someone's making hotcakes, the recipe for which is available strictly on dead-tree media and sadly unlinkable.

Still, it's a substantial step forward from what until recently was a breakfast policy of 'no breakfast'.

Monday, September 28, 2009

AA Hospitality Awards 2009-2010

I'm just back from the AA's big annual awards bash at the Park Lane Hilton, and it's been a fascinating few hours in the company of - or at least in the same room as - some of the nation's finest hob-hoggers. From my seat at table 42, I could see Glynn Purnell, Tom Aikens, Simon Radley, Richard Corrigan, Helene Darroze, Marcus Wareing, Shaun Hill, John Burton-Race, Claude Bosi and Sat Bains, and that was without turning round. Aiden Byrne, from round our way in Lymm, had picked up his three-rosette plate for The Church Green earlier, but told me that his new project, The White House in Prestbury, will now be delayed until 2010.

If you're after the full round-up of gongs, you're best off with Caterer, but from 20 awards, the highlights were a nice spread of out-of-London winners and Raymond Blanc's acceptance of his lifetime achievement award. We were treated to archive film showing off Blanc's luxuriant haircuts past, before halfway through a humble, earnest speech, a tired and emotional John Burton Race leapt onto the stage. I thought it was going to go a bit Kanye West, but the white-haired kitchen lothario kept it to, "He's the most fantastic bloody cook we've got. I love him!" before bounding off.

Other winners, who received an air kiss from host Natasha Kaplinsky, resplendent in cerise, included Sat Bains for his new ranking of five AA rosettes, Marcus Wareing, a very popular winner of the Chefs' Chef award, and Richard Corrigan, whose Mayfair restaurant was chosen as AA Restaurant of the Year London. Predictably, though, given that the audience was largely men of a certain age, the biggest whoop whoop went to Glynn Purnell. Apart from being a figure of merriment and delight in the industry and winner of AA Restaurant of the Year England, he took it upon himself to kiss and squeeze Kappers with the enthusiasm of a sailor home on shore leave.

Monday nights, when many restaurants close, are a fine time for this kind of event, but the tiredness was showing for chefs who may normally be snoozing on their night off. Poor Helene Darroze looked thoroughly exhausted and made her excuses soon after the lovely people from The Connaught, whose table I was on, picked up their award for Hotel of the Year London. And as I passed Angela Hartnett on the way out, she could be heard to respond to the suggestion of further drinks and dancing with, "Christ, no. It's Monday night!" A woman after my own heart. And so to bed.

Cake introspection

It's not an attractive habit, but once I've fed people, I tend to mull over the success or failure of the snacks provided. If I've used a new recipe, then so much the mullier. The weekend's get-together of university friends, which featured a bit'o'lunch, is ripe for consideration.

Helen, Liz, Natalie, Lindsay, Rachel, Kelly and I lived in the same Manchester halls of residence, Owens Park, and more than ten years on we still get together a few times a year. There's a wise head for every problem and it's a set of friendships which I value hugely, so I aim to provide an acceptable level of cake when they come to Hale and Hearty towers.

With Lindsay in LA and Kelly delayed, there were five round the table for Jill Dupleix's grilled tomato soup and bread from Barnby's in Hale, plus ham and some truly horrible pickled onion cheese that I got from Sainsbury's for a story. I didn't make them eat it.

For the three pregnant ladies, we followed it up with the babycakes pictured below, the only drawback being that the Jelly Belly beans which are an appropriately pale pink are the bubblegum ones. There were also some oaty flapjacks. The real challenge, though, was the production of a low-fat cake.

Helen's off the bad fats for a while on doctor's orders, and after rifling through my books I found an apricot and hazelnut cake in Annie Bell's Gorgeous Cakes (there are some similar ones here). It involves dried apricots, spices, ground hazelnuts, six eggs and no flour or fat, and the lift is supposed to come from folding the whisked egg whites into the base mixture just before it hits the heat.

In the book, it looks elegant. In reality, it looks like a cowpat – a low-fat cowpat, mind. But if you close your eyes and think of pretty things, it tastes delicious: damp, slightly spiced with cardamom and cinnamon, fruity but not wildly apricoty. And because everyone else was busy with the babycakes, there was plenty for Helen to take home.

FACT: some cafes are better than others

After a hard day's Scouse shopping yesterday (I'm going to the AA Hospitality Awards tonight. I don't have a black tie, so the least I can do is find some shoes that match my frock), I was greatly looking forward to the crown of the week. My friend Carmel has been living in Sydney for three years and she's back on a whirlwind tour of Europe. In Australia, when she isn't eating lovely breakfasts or running on the cliffs at sunset, she's a film festival kingpin, and her nothern England tour culminated in attendance at FACT's Abandon Normal Devices film festival.

It seemed only right, not to mention convenient, that we should conduct the reunion in the FACT cafe. Even on a dull Sunday it's got what they call a good 'vibe', all laptops and big wodges of cake, so I hate to reveal that it is really Not Much Cop. Service is excruciating – our fella avoided eye contact until he'd finished fiddling about with his trolley, gave me the wrong drink, forgot to charge Carmel for hers and generally made me ashamed to be British.

My sausage and chutney sandwich (I always go for the classy option) also contained thick slices of cheese and, even more of a surprise, a small chunk of chargrilled chicken which tumbled unbidden from the bready depths. We didn't risk coffee – after Carmel's three years in a city where it's a matter of considerable pride, ordering a cup in a food operation where pride is scant is really not wise. Nice films, shame about the caff.

And while we're talking FACTs, let me share this: according to OK!, not only does England cricketer James Anderson live in an 'exquisite home' in Hale, Cheshire, but Freddie Flintoff lives round the corner. I'd like to know their chosen venue when, as James informs us, they meet up and go for dinner. Surely not Piccolino?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Pitter patter patisserie

We've got the babycakes, now all we need is the babies

Friday, September 25, 2009

Kitchen essentials

No.1: The Kenwood Chef

Curry in a box, for the box

Generous screenings of Masterchef: The Professionals mean there is barely time to cobble dinner together in time to throw it at Gregg 'pudding face' Wallace and his nonsensical talk of citrus lemon and deep rhubarb.

Nonetheless, we persevere.

This week's duff-looking curry comes courtesy of Michelle Hart, a Manchester PR who persuaded Danny Moore of Intafood to send me something nice in the post. Now, freebies or no freebies, H'n'H does not endorse rubbish names, and Intafood is most definitely one of those. But they have had a good idea which is especially useful if you live in the land that integration forgot. Away from the urban whirl, we're no more likely to be able to score lime leaves than a bag of brown, so Intafood's Thai green curry recipe pack (£2.99 inc postage) is a marvel.

You get a pack of little sachets containing green curry paste, fish sauce, palm sugar, Thai holy basil and lime leaves, and a shopping list for bits like coconut milk, aubergine and whatever protein you fancy. Follow the instructions on the back, adding the contents to the pan in order, and you end up with a curry that has the correct tangy whiff of fish sauce, lime and unswept streets which Tim recognises from past Thai holidays.

The greens won't like it – there are too many bits of plastic – but we did, especially because, unlike a lot of off-the-shelf curry action, it has a bit of poke to it. The Inta dudes also do packs for teriyaki, Sechuan and other dishes, and they all include at least one ingredient that's hard to find. It's a business plan with a natural end, of course – it wasn't too long ago that coconut milk was a mystery to most supermarkets, and baby, just look at us now – but for the moment, it's not a bad idea.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Think global, act local

It is, apparently, "the last bargain left on Earth". But whether or not the current deal at Joanne's (£2 for a meat and potato pie with chips) lives up to the billing, this Altrincham chippy merits a visit.

Having occupied the same site on the corner of Borough and Massey Roads since 1901, its hours are unfashionably traditional – lunchtimes only Monday to Friday, plus a short evening service on Friday itself – and its fare deviates little from the classic model. 

Vimto is touted in the other window, but not in the cutesy off-the-peg style of a thousand theme pubs. Partly concealed, the impression is that these banners remain simply because no one has seen fit to remove them when there's serious frying to be done. And Joanne's serves up pretty good stuff, too.

Those opening times mean it helps if you're a schoolkid, work locally or otherwise spend your days in or around the terraces near Stamford Park. But when did a properly good deal ever come without a bit of effort?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Scone me: the search for the perfect cream tea

I occasionally think that, at 30, I may be spiritually more suited to middle age. This happens especially when I am assessing the quality of a scone, or pointedly barking ‘thank you’ at a shop assistant who has failed to meet the minimum qualifying standards of politeness.

The first episode in what I’m sure will be an extremely pleasurable occasional series allowed me to do both. The teenagers behind the tea counter at Altrincham Garden Centre are unfailingly sullen, but the scones they push over the counter with a grunt and a scowl are home made and often still warm. So it was that, looking out over the sheds and planters of the nursery, we conducted Hale and Hearty’s first Cream Tea Appraisal.

It was my friend Bryony who first alerted me to the notion that we may have an award-winning scone on the doorstep (she lives in Sale). Since then, it has become our Sunday afternoon refuge of choice, and we have tackled many thorny issues – work, mainly, leavened by the occasional family trauma – in the garden centre's conservatory. We may be sporting decorating trousers and greasy hair (it’s the weekend, innit?) but by virtue of our relative youth, it’s the one place we still look pretty dashing. 

The cream tea, £2.69 for a scone the size of a man’s fist, a pot of Rodda’s, a jar of good jam and tea, has always been rather good. It’s the kind of sod’s law that afflicted my Metro column that as soon as I rock up with my review head on, everything turns to shit.

The fruit scone was overbaked, dark and far too crusty, and the plain one, though light enough inside, lacked the kind of scone magic conjured at The Wolseley (although I have heard bad things about it recently), the Ballymaloe House cafe, and – very occasionally – in my own kitchen via Delia and some rare good luck. As the Apprentice voiceover man would say, Emma’s search for a good scone continues. And if I get to the south west before the baby’s born, it’s going into overdrive. Who could deny a pregnant woman a cream tea or three?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Let us now hail... Port

Yesterday I finished a bottle of port acquired in the run-up to last Christmas. While the second part of that sentence isn't unusual, it strikes me the first probably is.

Port's one of those fringe-interest festive accoutrements that, like those peculiar dials of candied orange and lemon segments, tends to find its way into the trolley on an 11th-hour trip through the supermarket. That's not to deny its healthy year-round fanbase, of course – merely to pinpoint its place in the average 21st-century household.

Here, the bottle is normally a few inches down by home time on New Year's Eve. Otherwise it's untouched. Jokes about gout and the singer from Keane may follow. But here I am, staring at the label and wondering when it would be politic to line up my next fix.

It probably helps that this particular port arrived as part of a wine case won in a Guild of Food Writers raffle. So it is – was – a good one. That's it in the DIY pack shot at the top of this post: a Fonseca Terra Prima, non-vintage but made from organic grapes grown in Portugal's famous Douro Valley.

As you'd expect from a fruit-based alcoholic drink fortified to 20% ABV, it's full-bodied and warming. But there's a moreish, mellow spiciness to the blackcurranty flavours here that had previously eluded me. The bottle looks great, too – and that proper stopper beats a cork every time.

Perhaps it's something to do with the context; the absence of an already alcohol-soaked seasonal binge. Perhaps it's because there's been very little red wine in the house. I'll settle for saying that any recommendations for my next bottle will be well received.