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Sunday, 30 July 2017

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

If you cook quite a lot, it's easy to get stuck in a bit of a rut, and to think that you know more than you do. For example, until last weekend, I was confident in the knowledge of at least two things: that I could make a really, really good Thai curry from scratch, and that spring rolls could never, ever be worth the effort of making yourself, and should only ever be purchased from your local takeaway (preferably wearing a hastily-donned coat over the top of your pyjamas).

A few hours at a Chaophraya cooking class last Sunday proved me erroneous in both regards. First things first though: in case you've not been, Chaophraya is an excellent Thai restaurant nestled behind and above Sam's Chop House on Chapel Walks, a stalwart in an area of Manchester where there are frequent restaurant casualties. I've had a couple of really good meals here in the past, so was excited to be let loose in one of their cooking classes, which promised an introduction to Thai ingredients, as well as a demonstration and hands on session and - that magic word - tasting.

There are nine of us on the course, and we are given a welcome glass of fruit punch before being equipped with Chaophraya aprons and chef's hats (as usual, mine is too small, and I have to have help) and sent upstairs where our work stations await. This is a very well-organised (and subsequently calm) affair; some of the restaurant tables have been pushed together and set with boards and other equipment, with a stove set up at one end, and we are split into a five and a four with the luxury of one instructor each.

Our menu for the day is chicken spring rolls followed by Thai green chicken curry, with kluay buad chee - bananas in coconut milk - for pudding. They are happy to cater for dietary needs but we appear to be a bunch of omnivores, although one of our party requests not to have things too spicy. The spring rolls turn out to be brilliant fun to make - we finely chop and stir-fry a selection of vegetables and then are each given a pile of wrappers and shown how to construct the perfect spring roll (with infinite patience, it has to be said). They look mighty impressive and we are all pretty pleased with ourselves when our efforts are whisked away, deep-fried, and returned to us with a pleasingly spicy dipping sauce. We have made around 5,000 of these items and they are delicious; I manage four and watch with some satisfaction as a good half dozen more are packed for each of us to take home. Whilst I can't ever imagine knocking a batch of these up on a Friday night after a week at work, I would definitely make these again for a special occasion, and our smugness at our own cleverness is palpable.

On to the main, and I am, in truth, a little disappointed that it's something I make so frequently at home and already consider myself to be quite good at. HOWEVER. Whilst we have been eating our starter, the workstations have magically cleaned themselves and set themselves with an array of beautifully fresh, healthy ingredients, and the curry we make is, without question, in a different league from any I have ever made before. Maybe it's the freshness of the ingredients; maybe it's the addition of one or two things I tend to leave out because I can't be bothered to go out and find them (fresh lime leaves come to mind); maybe it's because we make the curry paste properly, in a pestle and mortar, rather than lazily throwing all the ingredients into a food processor like I normally do at home. Either way, the curry is amazing, and I feel I have genuinely learned something from making both these courses - about technique for the starter, and about flavours for the main. Our chefs couldn't be more helpful, talking to us about the ingredients and bringing me a little dish of bird's eye chillies and fish sauce with which to augment my curry when I mention I like things slightly spicier.

The dessert is the least exciting of the dishes but is delicious all the same - we chop bananas and simmer them in coconut milk with sugar, salt and sesame seeds. It is simple but effective, although we are all pretty stuffed by now and not everyone can finish the generous helping we are given. At the end of a most enjoyable 2.5 hours, we leave with full stomachs, garlicky fingers, and a bag containing the food that we've made, the recipes, and a bottle of beer to wash it all down with, as well as our authentically be-smeared aprons. Accusations that I then go to meet a friend for a pint at Sam's and he excitedly consumes all the spring rolls in a furtive manner under the table are almost entirely unfounded.

- I was invited to the cookery class free of charge but - genuinely - this is one of the best-value cookery classes I've tried, and I would honestly pay the £60 to go again. Full details can be found on the Chaophraya website here.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

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

By and large, I'm very fond of a food festival. And how could I not be? The premise is a tempting one - interesting producers and suppliers gathered together in one venue (often, pleasingly, a field), ready to talk with enthusiasm about their produce and to proffer samples on cocktail sticks to the hungry potential purchaser. All too often, though, a food festival is a disappointment - too crowded, full of pushy people with sharp elbows out to eat and drink all the samples they can get their hands on without the slightest intention of buying anything, with lots of very samey, very over-priced food outlets demanding £8 for an average burger openly removed from a frozen Tesco box before your very eyes.

Not so Foodies Festival, the biggest food festival in the UK, which pops up at various locations around the country every summer. This weekend it's been at the lovely Tatton Park in Knutsford; we went on Friday, traditionally the quietest day of the three, although still attracting a good crowd and a gratifying number of dogs carrying their own toys and eyeing up cheese counters. Here, in no particular order, are some of the highlights of our wanderings:

1. Cheese. There are few sights more beautiful than a table of cheeses, ideally with someone standing behind it, cheese knife in hand, ready to cut slivers of whatever you fancy. Good selection too, with stalls featuring Great British Cheese, Snowdonia Cheese, Saddleworth Cheese Company and Rostock Dairy. Many of the items you see here now reside in my fridge.

2. Good booze. There was also lots of decent booze to be had, starting with a large glass of Cremant for a fiver and proceeding through a number of stalls with both samples to try and glasses to purchase. We didn't get round to any Pimm's (although we liked their teapot stall, and luckily the rain you see in the clouds above it remained there), but enjoyed the Chardonnay and the Merlot from Dark Horse Wines and the tequila from Cazcabel, particularly the Reposado, which I bitterly regret not buying. We probably spent the most time at the Thomas Dakin stall (my current favourite gin by some distance) and the Feeney's Irish Cream counter (complete with bell to be rung every time anyone mentioned Bailey's), and as I came home with a bottle of each and some cocktail recipe cards, I shall post again soon with the results of my jigging and shaking.

3. Food and beer pairings. We elected not to get tickets for any of the demo tents although - impressively - there were three, offering food, drink and cake demonstrations, and the line-up was a good one (Rosemary Shrager was on when we walked past, and Luis Troyano from GBBO had just finished). We did, however, very much like the mini food and beer pairings from There's a Beer For That. These were quick, entertaining events every half hour, some led by the lovely Melissa Cole ahead of her main gig later that afternoon in the demo tent. Also, I now have a badge that says BEER on it, which I shall wear proudly in the hope that people are subliminally lured in and buy me beer.

4. Assorted pork products. A food festival visit is simply not a success for me if I don't sample a range of pork products and come home with a bulgingly porky handbag. We tried lots of very good pork pies, and ended up spending wildly on sausages (all from Northumbrian Sausage Company, and including pork & black pudding and CHEESE & MARMITE) and excellent bacon from Spoilt Pig.

5. Burger. There were loads of options for lunch, including Peruvian, Mexican and an entire stall dedicated to calamari, but I believe a big fat burger to be de rigeur on such occasions, and had a very good Wild Boar patty from Silverside Grill, washed down with a salted caramel pudding from the Bonne Maman van.

A good day out then, AND I had sausages for breakfast yesterday. There's still time to catch the last day of the show at Tatton Park today, otherwise I highly recommend you track them down the next time they pitch their tent on our shores - full details here.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Manchester Tapas Wars: New Menu at La Vina, Deansgate

I've always been fond of La Vina, that reliable Manchester veteran at the King Street end of Deansgate. I've spent many happy lunchtimes there ordering more and more rounds of tapas in a bid to soak up their excellent white Rioja, and even chose it as a first date venue around this time last year, not least because I was relying on their gin-and-tonics-the-size-of-your-head to allay any last-minute nerves. In what used to be a fairly straight shoot-out between La Vina and Evuna, my money was invariably on the former.

Things have changed though in the last couple of years, and Manchester now has a whole raft of very good tapas restaurants, mainly clustered around the Deansgate area and supplemented by the excellent San Juan in Chorlton and newcomer La Cantina in Didsbury and Heaton Moor. And to their credit, La Vina seem to have raised their game accordingly. The new menu is a brave one, moving away from a comfortable, mid-price approach and instead foregrounding more typically Spanish offerings that had my San Sebastián-loving dinner companion raving in approval. And so far, the approach seems to be working, with the restaurant full at 6.30 on a wet Wednesday last week.

The evening does not, in truth, get off to a particularly distinguished start. They seem a little understaffed at first, meaning that the gin and tonics we order take 15 minutes to arrive, they have run out of Jamón ibérico, and the Pan Tumaca (tomato bread) is woefully under-toasted and seems to be lacking any seasoning. Things take a turn for the better with the arrival of the gin and tonics (which are exemplary even if the glasses do seem to have shrunk a little since the heady goldfish bowl days - a Gin Mare with thyme and a fat Gordal olive, and a Brockman's with strawberry and grapefruit zest) and our excellent server Bruno, who whisks away the offending tomato bread and replaces it with a perfectly-toasted, perfectly-seasoned version (you may play spot the difference above, if you wish). We also enjoy a dish of Gordal olives (there was one more than you see here, suggesting I should start being more selective with my choice of plus-ones), some very good Boquerones, confidently and simply presented with olive oil and smoked sea salt, and some moreish Croquetas de Pollo - three fat balls stuffed with chicken and cheese, deep-fried and served with aioli for added goodness. Alongside this we have a bottle of that infamous white Rioja which, at £21 a bottle, is far too drinkable for its (or my) own good.

Next up, the fish dishes - for me, the highlight of the night. The Pulpo is bravely, unmistakably, octopussy - one fat be-suckered tentacle lying brazenly across a bed of piquillo purée and flavoured with garlic, chilli and lemon. Bearing in mind that I once witnessed a girl in Iberica refuse to eat the octopus dish until her boyfriend had cut off all the suckers for her, this seems likely to startle a few diners - this is the best dish of the night though. A close second is the Galician-style fish - red mullet fried with garlic, paprika and sherry vinegar on a bed of potatoes and samphire and topped with crispy fried onions. I had this dish here a couple of weeks ago, and am well on my way to becoming addicted to it - the flavours are bold and the textures a lovely combination of fatty crispness and soft, flaky fish.

For our meat course, we share the Secreto from the Iberico pork section of the menu. My dinner date has talked of little else since the start of the meal, and thankfully it delivers - the marbling of fat keeps it beautifully tender as well as imparting a wonderful flavour, and it is cooked nicely pink as we request. Alongside this we have the Patatas Trufa, another stand-out dish of triple-cooked potatoes with Spanish white truffle oil, rosemary and manchego. The waiter says these are like Marmite, and a real love-it-or-hate-it dish; sadly, we both love Marmite, and do not share these crispy little delights in a particularly dignified manner. I am too full for dessert but am (thankfully) persuaded into a portion of Churros. These are as good as you might expect, served scalding-hot from the fryer, dusted with cinnamon and sugar and accompanied with a warm chocolate dipping sauce that I 100% do not, repeat NOT, drink straight from the cup when no-one is looking.

We had an excellent night at La Vina, which really seems to have stepped up a gear with the new menu. Yes, to my eye it seems that prices have gone up a little, but so has the quality, and they still do a range of excellent deals such as three selected dishes and a drink from the Menu del Dia for an astonishing £9.99 (Monday to Friday until 6pm), and Steak and Seafood nights on a Monday, offering a main, a side and a drink for £15. Every Wednesday there is live music from resident musician Fisko Tuvera between 7 and 9pm; we didn't know about this when we booked, but it added to the already-buzzy atmosphere and went some way to concealing the noise made when one slurps chocolate sauce straight from the dish. We couldn't really have felt more like we were on holiday somewhere warm and seductive by the time we left - so here's a shot of a moody, sexy, rainy Manchester on my way to get the tram just to remind us how lucky we are to have it all here.

- La Vina Manchester is at 105-107 Deansgate, Manchester M3 2BQ. We were invited in to review the new menu and given an allowance towards the cost of our meal, but we enjoyed it so much we lingered over drinks and spent far more.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Provenance, Westhoughton: The Return

Back in September I went to a press event at Provenance, a restaurant and food hall in Westhoughton that was celebrating its inclusion in the Good Food Guide for 2017 under the skillful watch of head chef Lewis Gallagher, North West Chef of the Year 2012. Impressive credentials, and ones which stood up to vigorous tasting: we all loved it, our only concern being whether there was really a market for fine dining at pretty-much Manchester prices in a location just south of Bolton.

Well, thankfully Provenance is not only still going strong, but - if the near-flawless meal I had there last week is anything to go by - is better than ever. I'd begun idly perusing the new Spring menu at around 7.30am on the day of my visit, and the more I looked, the more I wanted; indeed, there is perhaps too much choice, prompting worries over whether this would be a case of jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. A more careful look however makes it clear that this is actually a very clever menu, with the same core ingredients and flavours running through the dishes and suggesting a sensible approach to both food preparation and waste reduction. There has also been an exciting development since my last visit in the form of a CHEESE TROLLEY (more of which later), and it was this overwhelming need to last it out until the cheese course that prompted my sensible approach in ordering two fish dishes for my starter and main.

And what inspired choices they turned out to be. Our charming waitress (young; friendly; knowledgeable; enthusiastic) told me that I'd chosen her two favourites from the new menu: the crab starter (Picked White Crab Meat, Mascarpone, Lime and Radish. Crab Crackers) and the King Prawn Linguine main (Tiger Prawn Tails, Wild Garlic Pesto, Langoustine Bisque). The crab starter was quite the prettiest thing I'd seen for some time (with apologies to my dinner date for the evening); almost too pretty to eat. I'm glad I did though - light, well-seasoned crab adorned with a fetching cracker hat which turned out to be one of the best things of the night. If they sold these in packets like Snack-a-Jacks I'd be bankrupt within the week. My only thought was whether the £10 price tag was a bit steep (maybe), and I had the same concern over my £19 main. This worry, however, was misplaced; this was a generous and wonderful dish, with eight plump prawns, a subtle-but-punchy pesto, and a little jug of lobster bisque that actually tasted of lobster (unlikely a woefully disappointing dish I had at a well-regarded place in Manchester recently, which tasted of nothing and didn't cost much less than this). The waitress even pours the bisque for you, although rather embarrassingly kept telling me to "say when" until it became obvious to us both that the jug was now empty (does anyone actually stop her pouring? anyone??) and the word "when" had never been further from my lips.

Meanwhile, across the table my date had chosen rather meatier options, having apparently spent the day worrying that three courses of fine dining plus cheese trolley might leave him unfulfilled. The Duck Egg & Ham Asparagus starter (Poached Duck Egg, Asparagus Spears Wrapped in Homemade Duck Ham) might not be a looker (a friend who saw the photos on Facebook queried why we were eating asparagus wrapped in beef and served with ice cream) but was spectacularly tasty, with a perfectly-cooked egg and a lovely sharpness to the hollandaise. For main, he had the Crispy Duck Breast with Creamed Cavalo Nero Cabbage, Smoked Bacon and Wild Mushrooms; this was a similarly good dish, with pink, tender duck and impossibly light, fluffy gnocchi (which weren't even advertised as coming with the dish, but which were a real highlight). On the side we ordered the veg of the day, which turned out to be a generous dish of green beans, mange tout, sugar snap peas and purple sprouting broccoli, all beautifully al dente and dressed in just the right amount of butter. Yep, even the veg was perfect.

I've never really been a dessert person (and I still had both eyes firmly on the cheese trolley), but was swayed by the prospect of the Chocolate Orange Bread and Butter Pudding with Blood Orange Sorbet. There are no two ways about it: this was one of the best desserts either of us had eaten anywhere, ever. The bread and butter pudding was soft and light, without that cloying texture that so often comes with a chocolate pudding, and the sorbet was sharp and bitter and sweet all at the same time. Outstanding. The Arctic Roll with White Chocolate Ice Cream and Gariguette Strawberries, which we ordered in a fit of 70s nostalgia, simply couldn't compete; indeed, we both felt a bit sorry for it as we openly fought over the Bread and Butter Pudding (technically mine). Still, it was perfectly nice (and banished all thoughts of the Bejam's horrors I remember from childhood), even if it was the part of our meal that didn't quite match the flavours and quality of the rest.

Finally, FINALLY, it was cheese trolley time. All cheeses are locally sourced (although not necessarily locally produced), and you can choose any three for £9, served up with really good crackers, a lovely grainy fig chutney, grapes and celery (which I ignored). We shared a Cornish Brie, a goat's cheese, and the Lincolnshire Poacher from a selection of seven; I could happily have eaten all seven, although would have liked some kind of offensively oozy blue rather than a rather standard-looking Stilton. Next time, I might just see if they'll park the trolley up by me for the duration of the evening.

The restaurant was busyish but not noisy, and dinner was accompanied by a nice man playing on the piano, which made for a pleasing atmosphere and masked the sound of lobster bisque slurps; service, as mentioned, was excellent. When we left, I noticed one solitary green bean on the floor where it had clearly fallen from our dish of vegetables; this was literally the only thing that got away from us all night, and still I regret it. Provenance is very, very good, and I for one will be making the journey to Westhoughton far more frequently from now on.

- Provenance is at 46-48 Market Street, Westhoughton, Bolton, Lancashire, BL5 3AZ. Go - it's a belter.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

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

Until this week, I had only dined at three Michelin-starred restaurants. I don't say "only" out of some over-inflated sense of privilege, but because for someone whose whole life revolves around food I think this is on the low side, particularly as one of those experiences was an ill-fated first date at Altrincham's Juniper around the turn of the millennium and is definitely best forgotten. For one thing, Michelin-starred dining doesn't come cheap; it's largely beyond my budget, and doesn't always seem to me to warrant the additional money when there is so much good stuff around for less. And for another, as we all know, Manchester doesn't have a Michelin star, and thus we need to affect nonchalance and pretend we don't care for all that nonsense anyway.

Thus today's post strains the limits of being a thing to do in Manchester, for we're off to Birkenhead to sample Marc Wilkinson's Fraiche. This tiny restaurant - just eight covers - has been widely recommended to me by many people whose opinion I trust; it's a real labour of love for Marc, who still does pretty much everything himself, and who has held that coveted star for nine years running. It's easy to see why; service is exceptional from the moment you walk through the door, the attention to detail is astonishing (see the music and fragrance lists below), and the spiced pecan nuts that we delicately fight over whilst drinking a bespoke gin and tonic made by the terribly knowledgeable Tom set the tone for the largely excellent food that follows (with one or two caveats). Our table of four all has the £85 tasting menu with the "salt" rather than "sweet" option (despite what you see on the menu below), which essentially means you get cheese rather than dessert; three of us also have the splendid wine matching at £45 a head (well - in for a penny, in for a pound).

All of this is largely successful. None of us is that keen on our pre-cheese course of figs and feta, which features a green granita that renders the dish rather watery, and I don't enjoy the rhubarb crudite or the fizzy grapes, although everyone else loves them and I think it's just the texture I don't care for. Standout courses include the duck (the nicest I've ever had), the turbot, the carrot starter and the extraordinary "blue cheese and cabbage", a dainty little dish of frozen cheese that proves beyond doubt that cheese ice cream should be a thing. And the cheese course itself is spectacular - five well-chosen examples of full-flavoured cheeses, each served with its own specially-made accompaniment. There is also a petits fours trolley, a contraption of unspeakable excitement from which we are each allowed to choose five things (fennel shortbread the star for me). All in all, I have a memorable evening - great company and generally exceptional, unshowy cooking that doesn't require you to go for an emergency burger to fill yourself up afterwards (as was the case at a previous Michelin-starred experience). And where else gives you a bag of muesli to take home so - in their words - you can think of them at breakfast the next day? As if I've thought of anything else since.

- Fraiche is at 11 Rose Mount, Birkenhead, Prenton CH43 5SG; successful booking requires persistence, luck or a clever friend who is quick off the mark when the reservations are opened every month.