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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.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Zouk Cookery School, Manchester: Best Bhajis in Britain

When your day job is teaching, normally just the very mention of the word "school" is enough to give you palpitations and necessitate a quick lie down. Not so when preceded by the word "cookery" and located at Zouk, the much-lauded Pakistani and Indian restaurant tucked away at the top end of Studentville; indeed, so exciting was the prospect I willingly got up early on a Saturday morning and headed there in search of education, knowledge and new skills (and the prospect of a substantial luncheon).

I'd never been to Zouk before, but pretty much everyone I mentioned it to had already been and already loved it - although were surprised to learn of their regular cookery schools, so the restaurant perhaps needs to shout about this a bit more. Classes start at 10am with a welcome talk and a cup of masala chai; there are thirteen of us in all, including lots of people on their own, and everyone gets on immediately - united in our greed and enthusiasm for Indian food. The course I attended was "British Favourites", which promised to show us how to make all those anglicised dishes that everyone secretly really likes - Seekh Kebabs, Onion Bhaji, Chicken Tikka Masala, Lamb Rogan Josh and Channa Masala, along with rice and naan - but which never come out quite the same at home and which are so often garishly coloured and profoundly disappointing from one's local takeaway.

This is a refreshingly laid-back type of cookery school - we are given the recipes but told we won't need them, and we gather round a few tables in the restaurant area that have been pushed together and covered with tempting pots of herbs and spices. Much of the course is demonstration-led, but there is plenty of hands-on participation too: we are each given a metal tray filled with sliced onions and are at liberty to season at will (my bhajis are pleasingly heavy on the garlic and the coriander) before learning how much gram flour to use - this is the crucial bit - and how to combine the ingredients in such a way as to incorporate plenty of air. Our fledgling bhajis are then whisked away; next time we see them, they are sizzling away happily in the restaurant kitchen. Seconds later, most of them are in my mouth, hot from the fryer and quite simply the best bhajis that any of us has ever tasted (genuinely, and I've tasted a LOT). We also get hands-on with the chicken tikka, and whilst my tray of raw chicken might not look that appetising, its transformation once grilled on long skewers over (very) hot coals is quite something.

Much of the rest is handled by the chefs. Ali, our tutor, shows us how to make the seekh kebabs, which we enjoy along with some more bhajis and the chicken tikka over a very welcome tea break (well, Coke/beer break - soft drinks are on the house and alcohol can be purchased at the bar). Then - thrillingly - he lets us loose in the kitchen, where we run amok and, truth be told, everything gets a bit chaotic. It's fun though, with the three different main dishes on the go as well as the largest pan of rice I have ever seen. We are allowed to supervise, and stir, and taste, and ask questions, and generally make a bit of a nuisance of ourselves - the chefs are genial and tolerant, however, and I learn lots of new things, including how to make an extraordinarily good Channa Masala. The real surprise, though, is the Chicken Tikka Masala (seen below in its massive vat, which I was hoping was all for me) - a dish I normally avoid for its bland creaminess but which is quite simply a revelation in these expert hands.

Perhaps the nicest touch of all is that the budding chefs are each allowed to have a guest join them at the end of the course, to help eat all the food they have made. I had forgotten this until someone mentioned it during the morning, and it is to my friend's great credit that she responded so nobly to my late call, bravely hotfooting it across town despite a code amber hangover in order to admire our handiwork (she decreed her race against time well worth it). Each course is individually priced but the average is around £80-90 - not cheap, but this seems good value for the time and attention you receive and the generosity with the food you've helped to make. I was given a complimentary place on my course for review purposes but will definitely be booking more as a paying customer: full details can be found here on the Zouk website. In the meantime though, I now know how to make the world's best bhajis, so if anyone fancies popping round and helping me slice some onions, you'll be more than welcome.

- Zouk Tea Bar and Grill can be found at Unit 5, The Quadrangle, Chester Street, Manchester M1 5QS; tel 0161 233 1090. They won the Best Restaurant Award in the Manchester Tourism Awards in 2012 and I can see why, so it's to my great discredit that I'd never been before (an error I intend to atone for on a regular basis).