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Monday, 27 April 2015

The Thyme Machine Lands in Chorlton: A Carvery with a Difference (and an unconvincing moustache)

I'm a big fan of a roast dinner, and can think of few other plates of food that so effortlessly encompass so many highs and so few lows. To be honest, I think the meat is almost the least exciting part - I like great piles of parpy vegetables, and enough crispy-edged roast potatoes to build a wall across half of Cumbria, and an ocean of gravy lapping lazily round the edge of the whole magnificent ensemble. And to be fair, most pubs and restaurants do a decent roast these days, no doubt having realised that this is a meal most people are capable of knocking up at home and thus there is no real excuse for getting it wrong.

Chorlton is not short of options when it comes to choosing a roast dinner, with places such as The Parlour and Electrik carving out pretty fearsome reputations on the back of their legendary Sunday lunches. Still, it's nice to find someone doing something a bit different, and The Thyme Machine, a new silver service carvery that has started popping up in the Chorlton Irish Club every Sunday, is certainly that. It's essentially Sunday dinner meets steampunk meets Parisian bistro - the blinds are down, the staff are dressed in fetchingly Victorian-esque outfits, the music is a mash-up of old and new, and the wine waiter (Marcel, apparently) sports an extravagant fake moustache that is only fractionally less convincing than his French accent.

Maybe this sounds a little contrived, but in reality it isn't - it's fun. And for all the frippery, at the heart of it all is great food and a proper wine list - the chef hard at work in the kitchen is Kim H Merritt and the man behind the ridiculous moustache is a wine merchant who really knows his stuff and is eager to share his enthusiasm (he also does magic tricks if you ask nicely). We start by sharing a couple of dishes from a board offering a short selection of starters, all priced at £4.50 - we have cubed watermelon wrapped in smoked ham (very refreshing and a good combination of textures and flavours) and the garlic mushrooms, which are pretty sexy and carry just the right amount of garlic (ie enough to be tasty but not so much as to preclude you actually speaking to anyone else for the rest of the day).

The main event though is obviously the roast dinner, which comes in at a reasonable £13. The meats change slightly every week - this week we are given brisket, pork and chicken along with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, carrots and parsnips, red cabbage, greens and a baked onion stuffed with bubble and squeak (a treat that I normally only get to eat once a year, on Boxing Day). This is all served at table from underneath satisfying silver domes, and our lovely server Melissa, to her credit, doesn't so much as blink when my "say when" with the roast potatoes takes an embarrassingly long time to come. We also like that when we request more gravy we are simply brought the enormous jug from the kitchen and allowed to drown our dinners to our hearts' content. Everything is beautifully cooked, with nice crispy frilled edges on the potatoes and the most flavoursome roast chicken either of us recall eating in some time - both of us surreptitiously save the skin till last. Even the veggie option looks good - smoked butter squash and goats cheese pie - and there is also a weekly special, which this week is blackened salmon ni├žoise.

As well as eating all this, we also take a pretty enthusiastic run at the wine list. We have a bottle of good Sauvignon Blanc at £16 (well, guineas, but I only have English pounds on me), a couple of glasses of very easy-drinking Barbera with dinner, and then a Port and a Madeira from the basket of goodies Marcel tempts us with after our meal. He is really quite something; in fact, all the staff are lovely, and Melissa even remembers me from my eating marathons at The Mark Addy when she used to work there (this might explain her lack of surprise at the RoastPotatoGate incident). We are both a little saddened to emerge from this mad little corner of 1890s Paris at the end of the meal, and will certainly go back - I don't think this concept will be to everyone's taste, but we enjoyed doing something a little bit different. Even better, next time I plan to return in full-on Victorian garb - Chorlton, you have been warned, and if anyone can lend me a top hat and some evening gloves I'll be eternally grateful.

- The Thyme Machine is currently running every Sunday afternoon on High Lane, Chorlton - check their Facebook page for more details or call 07459 023741 for reservations. We were invited to try the carvery and paid for all our drinks but not our food.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Spoiled for Choice at Spinningfields: Dockyard, Scene and Artisan Cafe Bar all Open for Business

It's hard to believe that until just a few years ago, the Spinningfields area of Manchester was a pretty unloved patch of concrete, designed as a business quarter and therefore unknown to many of us despite its prime location between Deansgate and the River Irwell. And I think it's fair to say that, despite its transformation into a public, social space offering shops, bars and restaurants, it has still felt like a bit of a work in progress. Yes, there are some great places there - Manchester House is one of my favourite places in the whole of the city, and The Lawn Club is hard to beat on a summer's day - but the area has still had something of an unfinished air about it.

Well, until now really. There's been plenty written about the recent flurry of big-name openings in recent weeks (Iberica, Fazenda) and there will be plenty more when Tattu (see their teaser video here) and The Kitchens open next month. Just this last week has seen the opening of a new pub, The Dockyard Spinningfields (sister to the already very successful Dockyard Media City), where I drank good house red and ate a huge deli sandwich (above) and sat outside by the Irwell, as well as a downstairs bar area at Artisan (above and below) and a vast new Indian restaurant called Scene. These seem like fine additions to me - Spinningfields needed another pubby venue as The Oasthouse gets packed, and as I find myself able to manage a curry at virtually any hour of the day or night I'm pretty sure that that Scene will be seeing me again.

The arrival of the Artisan Cafe Bar is also good news. This formerly wasted space beneath the main Artisan restaurant is now a very cute little bar offering all the signature Artisan cocktails but in a more intimate setting than the cavernous room upstairs, with plenty of outside seating too. We had a quick look last night, and were impressed with the friendliness of the staff, the quality of the cocktails (we particularly liked The Artisan - Green Mark vodka, Aperol, pomegranate, mint, lime and apple juice) and the moreishness of the canapes (I'm sorry to anyone who was hoping to get any of the pulled pork ones). As there will be a cinema opening above this bar area later in the year it seems possible that one may visit Artisan and indeed never leave, particularly as it seems I will be allowed to take my wine into the film with me. Definitely a case of watch this space.

From Artisan it's just a short walk to Scene - I know this, as we went straight from one to the other. The launch party here was pretty spectacular, as befitting such a grand venue - I don't know what I was expecting, but this huge, airy space with its floor to ceiling windows looking over the river is impressive to say the least. Here we drank champagne and danced along with some infectiously cheerful Indian dancers and ate plates of nicely spicy starters - I'll be interested to try the full menu, as the quality was very good despite the enormous number of covers sent out all at once.

So, Spinningfields continues to go from strength to strength. I still think it lacks a little cohesion, but it is really starting to present itself as a self-contained area of town where you can have a good night out from start to finish. And the rumours that I ate canapes at Artisan and then food at Scene and then returned to Artisan for a full meal in the restaurant are entirely unfounded*

*completely true.

- The Dockyard is on Leftbank, as is Scene. Artisan is on Avenue North. All three of these visits were press or preview nights, except for the meal we had later at Artisan which was fully paid.