Monday, April 14, 2014

Restaurant Wars: The Battle For Manchester

"Don't look so uncomfortable Simon, we're on the same side"
What with Mary-Ellen McTague doing big swears (I'm guessing - she's got previous) on Great British Menu and Restaurant Wars starting straight afterwards, there's enough North West food action on BBC2 tonight to butter all the parsnips in town. The twin tales of  the openings of Simon Rogan at The French and Aiden Byrne's Manchester House have been yoked together for a who'll-get-the-Michelin-star? documentary. Three hour-long parts might be a bit ambitious, but the first one is, at least, reasonably low on patronising bullshit - excepting, of course, Tim Bacon's opinions on what the laydeez like for dinner.

For veterans of the original French there are plenty of opportunities for old retainer spotting and a glimpse of what happens when rich people get pissed off. Restaurant spods will enjoy watching the chefs wielding their tweezers and demanding high standards of cabbage butchery. I particularly relished Byrne's interior designer threatening to "turn up the funk buttons", Midland GM Mike Magrane observing worriedly that the team need to think about jugs, and Simon Rogan barely containing his frustration that the dry ice has arrived and "there's no hose to squirt it off." And don't get him started on the location of the onion oil. Tonight, BBC2, 8pm.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

I like my breadmaker

We'll always be together in electric dreams: the Panasonic SD-2501

So David Cameron's got a breadmaker, and he never buys Value bread. We don't agree on much (although he's probably been eating at The French during the Tory conference, which I also like doing), but on this we are as one. Xanthe Clay and Dan Lepard, both of whom are great, appeared on PM to discuss Dave's bread. Dan pointed out that breadmakers are handy if you can't knead, while Xanthe was of the firm opinion that breadmaker bread is crap. Well, I've got a breadmaker, and I like it.

Our Panasonic SD-2501 was a wedding present and for a long time after it arrived, we didn't buy bread at all. Now it's the occasional ciabatta, because a breadmaker loaf is the wrong shape to be stuffed with a pork loin and some rosemary salt, draped in pancetta and baked. This is one machine that's never lived in a cupboard or even gathered dust; we use it three times a week, minimum.

I like the idea of making bread by hand, and when I was at Ballymaloe, I did a lot of it. I follow bloggers like Annalisa Barbieri and Rich of Them Apples, both of whom do it properly, out of love, and make the process seem extremely enticing. When I was in Sweden last week, I almost bought a Nordic banneton (just as pricey as the French ones, as far as I could see), for kicks. But - and here you may feel free to adopt the tones of my Lutonian forebears - I ain't got the toiiiiime. I need to be able to leave the kitchen for whole days. In the evening I am likely to be working rather than kneading. I do enough bloody washing up already. Getting meals made from scratch on the table is the priority. We've got a couple of decent bakers not far away, but I don't pass their doors as often as I pass the cupboard full of flour from Bunbury Mill, Little Salkeld or Walk Mill - which would be bedevilled with weevils if it was waiting for me to come along and turn it into handmade loaves.

I'm not pretending that the breadmaker's efforts would rival Poliane or even the bread at Abode, which is consistently the best in town. I know the difference between the fluffy white loaves with crackling crusts that have accelerated our butter, toast and sandwich consumption, and serious, proper, nerdy bread. But if it's a choice between the scent of vinegar and despair that rises from a bag of factory seeded batch and the smell of baking bread that floods through the house at 7am without me having to do anything taxing, I'll take the breadmaker.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The French by Simon Rogan

The French, looking green'n'growthy
Christ, but it was awful. Shortly before The French closed in order to be saved by Simon Rogan, I organised a little field trip to say goodbye to the restaurant where Posh and Becks, it's said, had their first date. The consomme was dull, the sole Veronique was weird, and the bread trolley, which I liked because everything on it seemed to be topped with local cheese, had been replaced by a sad little tray. The only glory was the longstanding waiter who, just as I remembered, murmured winningly "Please. Shall we? Thank you!" as he cleared. You'll get no argument from me: The French needed a jazzle.

Now Simon Rogan has arrived. I went to the preview evening, and was thrilled. For one thing, I can now leave the house, avail myself of public transport, eat a world-class 10-course meal and be home before midnight. It's like living in Birmingham. For another, there's joy in the fact that this very Mancunian space, which has gone green and brown in line with Rogan's all-natural ethos, is offering something that the chef's other places do not. L'enclume is very slatey. Roganic, not surprisingly, feels temporary. The French offers some of the grandeur with which Rogan's food, veg-centric and 'umble though it is in parts, should rightly be surrounded.

For pictures of the dishes, have a look at my friend Deanna's blog. The preview menu we had wasn't the finished, finished article, but it's safe to say that ox in coal oil with little beads of kohlrabi and crisp pumpkin seeds, early spring offerings with lovely buckler leaf sorrel (I think; the wine flight was aloft by that point) and Herdwick hogget with sweetbreads and ramsons are the best dishes served in Manchester for years. The service is excellent, and they've kept the "Please. Thank you!" man, which delights me.

I have the same conversation over and over again with friends here who like food, and need somewhere they can take visitors - perhaps even from That London - to eat without risking mortification. The French is it, and much more besides.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cooking with Ken Hom

Ken Hom with his dan dan noodles
One minute you're on the phone to Ken Hom, the next minute he's telling you, very politely, that you are in danger of overcooking your noodles. I interviewed the master of Chinese cookery for Metro recently, and I also interviewed the queen of Cactus TV, Amanda Ross, about Cactus Kitchens, the cookery school above the studios where Saturday Kitchen is filmed.

Coincidentally, when Amanda kindly offered me a place on their first Saturday Kitchen Experience class, it was the one Ken was teaching. He's only in the country twice a year, so it's a rare old business to be able to meet him. He's a practised anecdote-teller and, like all celebrities who have polite public personas, he threw in a few swears to let us know that he's human. As he talked he cooked dan dan noodles, made with ginger, garlic, spring onions, chilli and sesame paste, and garnished with deep-fried pork mince (absolutely delicious, as you might expect) and toasted, ground lip-tingling Sichuan pepper. Then we had a go, while he circulated, offering advice, tasting things and drinking wine.

I'm a bit of a cookery school obsessive thanks to three months at Ballymaloe, and Cactus Kitchens is pretty smart. It's part of a tasteful church conversion and the stations are well appointed, with sharp Michel Roux Jr Global knives (he's an investor and runs classes) and lots of kit, including induction hobs.Trying to find the right bits and pieces quickly in an unfamiliar setup made me sympathise, briefly, with MasterChef contestants who find themselves in a strange kitchen without the comfort of their own wooden spoons. It is, though, very easy to get used to kitchen luxury.

Some people will be here just to be in the same room as the chefs, but some will want to learn the more technical aspects of a dish. With this in mind, no matter how much it makes the lovely room look like Darlington Tech, they need to put a mirror (or, more likely here, a monitor) above the teacher's station so you can see what's going on in the pans.

When all the dan dans were done, we ate them, and then went downstairs for a sip'n'sign before Ken went off. He's a lovely bloke and he had plenty of time for everyone - it's all about access here, and you certainly get that. After that, it was the omelette challenge, where pairs of students emulate the show's eggy cook-off on the real set, with the real pans. I thought I wouldn't be competitive: I was. I didn't win, but I think I'm more bothered about overcooking my noodles in front of Ken.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Luck Lust Liquor & Burn

Sticky pork buns - excellent pic, no?
Frank loves liquor, so when fashionable cocktail establishment Socio Rehab reopened as Luck Lust Liquor & Burn last week, he insisted on conducting a lunchy fly-past. It's a dirty food job from the people behind Almost Famous, with overtones of the Food Network's evening programming. Anything Guy Fieri would get stuck in his moustache - mac and cheese, chilli, cheesesteak and a £30 'huge man vs burrito' challenge - is here, with pulled pork and bacon-topped burgers from Almost Famous.

The fit-out is nicely done, tongue-in-cheek Americana that reminded us of Red's True Barbecue in Leeds and plenty more besides. It's freezing cold - there are places in Manchester that no amount of CaliMex sun-soaked Golden State blather can reach unless you turn the heating on. We huddled round our blue cheese dip with bacon and a bucket of barbecue Popchips, then Frank's quesadilla, Deb's ragingly spicy lettuce cups filled with chicken, peanuts and pineapple and mango salsa, grilled halloumi with roasted tomato ketchup (not really a cockle-warmer, that one) and yum yum sticky pork buns. Probably the best bit, the 'buns' were slices of lovely light brioche topped with clumps of pulled pork, 'Hawaiian' barbecue sauce and more pineapple and mango salsa. Deb didn't think they were too sweet or too lumpen, but I did.

Pudding, a salted caramel brownie that turned out to be an Oreo brownie, had an air of Momofuku Milk Bar about it, with a liberal layer of multicoloured confetti crumb between the chew-crunch of the brownie and a ball of really good malted vanilla ice cream. Less chocolate, more biscuit, it would have gone well  - granny alert - with a cup of Lancashire tea.

We got pretty much what we expected at Liquor & Burn; dirty food which, transplanted to the land that inspired it, would occupy the middle of the highway. What surprised me was the service. On Twitter, they create a certain mood (sample Tweet: "MEEEEOOOWWWW FUCK YEAH"), which doesn't necessarily suggest warmth and kindness, but they were professional, knowledgeable, and nice. Nothing helps an Alabama bone suckin slammer burrito go down like a bit of old-fashioned well-mannered waitering.       


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

I stole Craig Bancroft's pencil

Phil Howard dishing out the cheese course
Following a recent tasty but initially cold overnight stay in Nottingham, we have amused ourselves by planning the title of my (mercifully unforthcoming) memoir. It is to be called Sat Bains Fixed My Radiator. Or is it? There is a rival title, born of the moment Craig Bancroft, the estimable co-owner of Northcote, came over at the end of the opening dinner of chef-fest Obsession just in time to witness me putting a Northcote pencil in my handbag. Needless to say, we had had the paired wines.

Phil Howard, head chef at The Square, has done most of the Obsession festivals. On successive nights,  some of the toppermost chefs from here and abroad take over the restaurant kitchen and serve their food. Everyone gets the same thing at the same time, so it's like very high-end, small-scale banqueting, and it's a great way to try the chefs' food without going all the way to London, Madrid, or Atlanta. It's 100 quid a head for five courses bookended with Champagne and coffee. Mum made a face about the price, but it feels like good value when you see how much it's possible to burn through at Pizza Express with two grown-ups and a toddler.

Howard has a reputation as a chef's chef, and his strength and dedication to The Square are widely admired. His smoked mackerel veloute with oysters and caviar is also pretty impressive; the soup had an incredible rich, sweet smokiness which, he says, comes from home-smoking the fish (and this was just before the Big Mackerel Row). He later rated the smoking job as 8/10, which bodes well for a dish that scores his full 10.

Judging by the framed menu Howard was presented with, there had been a few last-minute changes to the finished menu. Not all the courses were spectacular, but the glazed veal cheek with cauliflower cheese, truffle shavings and raggedy little handmade farfalle really worked, and there was a frisson of Great British Menu banquet-style jeopardy as monitors showed the kitchen handling a delay to the rhubarb souffle-filled tuile cones served with custard and rhubarb sorbet.

I've been to Obsession before at the kind invitation of the Northcote team, and sat on the 'industry' table with an unlikely set of companions: Big Sam Allardyce, Angela Hartnett, and some of the north west's premier growers of root vegetables. Ken Hom was cooking and the food was great, but being in the thick of the dining room, surrounded by really excited customers who were really enjoying themselves, was probably better. And, of course, I got a 'free' pencil.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Four Tiers of Trauma: or, why some books should be better

There is a bit in India Knight's very excellent novel My Life On a Plate in which the heroine, Clara Hutt, describes one of the ways in which glossy women's magazines charm (or used to charm) advertisers. Whichever cosmetics house has stumped up the cash for the ad on the back gets the credit for the cover girl's make-up, whether their lipgloss was used or not. The casualties of this, Clara points out, are the girls who buy the featured lipgloss and then wonder, sadly, why that shade doesn't look the same on them. I'm not much for lippie, but I am one for cake. And Derek and Lucy's wedding cake, the paley beautiful project which has already occupied an unhealthy amount of time, got done despite, not because of, the book which inspired it.

I didn't charge the happy couple for their cake, so I don't feel bad about the fact that the idea - four tiers with hand-moulded roses - was lifted straight from the pages of Mich Turner's Couture Wedding Cakes (Jacqui Small, £30). It was published in 2009, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that some things on Mich's equipment list just don't exist, but still it hurts. I can Google with the rest of them, not to mention attend cake-head hobby fairs.The inch-deep round polystyrene cake spacers Mich calls for are not produced; I had to find a polystyrene factory and have them specially cut. 2cm diameter circular plunger cutters can't be got, either. I needed more roses than she suggests to block between the tiers; she gives no instructions for creating the little posy that looks so sweet on top of the cake in the book. I felt like the girl with the wrong lipgloss, but with only hours in which to solve a load of sugarcrafting problems before the door shut, Crystal Maze-style, with me and a half-finished cake on one side and, on the other, a harried bride sending her mother in law out to a big Marks & Spencer to find some of those ready-iced wedding cake layers and a box of dowels, two weeks before Christmas. Between Mich's half-baked instructions and my half-remembered cake dec course, it got done and thanks to photographer Helen Mary, who took the picture above, the lasting record of it is glorious enough to behold with relative pride. 

I write about cookbooks for part of my living, and I really appreciate the ones that work. This is one of the many reasons why.