Liam and Paul are quarter of the way through a quest to eat their way around the world - all without leaving Manchester...
by Liam Hetherington on May 7, 2009
Scotland – 23/04/09Any fish-lovers really must make the journey out to Didsbury to the Loch Fyne restaurant. What they specialise in here is fresh, high quality seafood – largely Scottish – served in an array of attractive and flavourful dishes.A flying visit (literally!) to Manchester by my mother was the excuse to continue my quest to eat around the world in 80 meals with a leisurely lunch on a day I’d booked off work. One of the good things about the credit crunch, is that restauarants are offering good offers to entice diners through the doors. This is particularly the case at lunch times. Otherwise I’m not sure I would have thought about going to the new Loch Fyne that had opened down between in Didsbury. While a student in Cambridge I had enviously passed the sister branch there on Trumpington Street, but had never really had the wherewithal or excuse to eat there. Now their website advertised two different offers. One was a £12.00 set menu (valid up to 5pm) which would get you a starter and main from a choice of four each, plus side dish. The other, which is what we actually used, was a downloadable £10.00 voucher, utilisable upon ordering two main courses from the a la carte menu. This Loch Fyne restaurant is located inside a former pub, Ye Olde Cock Inn. This had always been a bit too chavtastic for my liking, especially compared to the ‘country-pub’ feel of The Didsbury adjacent to it on the green, which is one of my regular haunts. However, the inside has undergone a radical make over. The place is spotless with gleaming wood and shining blue and white tiling around the kitchen. Photos and paintings of Scotland’s highlands and islands adorn the walls. There is a chiller diplay where you can buy lobster, oysters, langoustines or their very own smoked salmons and herrings. And part of the large conservatory at the rear has been opened to the sky as an enclosed patio. Arriving at 1.30 we were the only customers, though a few more tables did fill up as we were there. A smiling waitress seated us near the servery and brought the two menus – the main menu, and the £12 set menu, and then also talked us through the day’s specials. And frankly we were spoilt for choice. Rather than just be limited by the four options on the set menu we decided to use my voucher and go a la carte. While not all the seafood on offer is definitely Scottish, a very large proportion is. The descriptor Loch Fyne identifies those that hail from the actual Loch Fyne on the west coast of Scotland, the country’s longest sea loch. The company had started off as a simple oyster shack, but now mussels, scallops, kippers and herrings, haddock and smoked salmon are also produced locally. They have signed up to responsible sustainable fishing methods, and their website carries the RSPCA Freedom Food accreditation, as well as the logos of the organic Soil Association and the Slow Food movement. Additionally they have also extended inland, going from surf to turf, and their own Highland steak or lamb is marked as Glen Fyne. When the time came to place our order we decided to share a starter, a seasonal seafood platter. Mum ordered grilled sea bass with new potatoes; I ordered kiln-roasted salmon with a shellfish, mushroom and whisky sauce – after all, just how much more Scottish could one get?The platter came first. It comprised two large prawns, fresh and still with a briney aftertaste. There was some delicately smoked salmon. There was a sharply sweet rollmop herring with onion, and another herring in a tomato-ey sauce. There was a large heap of mackerel pate to be enjoyed with the fresh rustic bread they had served up (both white and granary). And there was an Argyll oyster, which we cut in half to share with difficulty. Now, neither I nor Mum had ever tried an oyster before, so this was a voyage of discovery for us both. And both of us were won over by what tasted essentially like a thick tangy mussel. Though when oysters are on the menu for £1.50 each or twelve for £16 you have to wonder if they are overpriced in general. The cost for the entire platter was £8.00. While the volume of food probably contrasted slightly unfavourably with the £7.95 fish platter I had shared the previous week at Kro2, this was not bad value. The food was good and fresh, and its Scottish provenance was impeccable. My main course proved to be as quintessentially Scottish too. It was Bradan Rost, kiln-roasted salmon, with a strong smoky taste (and aroma). It was a couple of surprisingly thick slices, almost charred on the exterior but with beautifully moist flesh. The promised ‘shellfish, mushroom and whisky sauce’ was a surprise. It actually proved to be a heap of mussels, cockles and scallops, drizzled sparingly with a creamy white sauce. The salmon was placed on top of this to separate the flavours. And all in all it was really rather wonderful. At £13 it did not include any sides so I had ordered a bowl of fluffy mashed potato for £2.00, and a £2.50 mixed salad (rocket, cos, fennel, tomatoes and red onion with a basil and garlic dressing) to share. (To be honest, ordering the salad was probably overkill, but it all got eaten).Mum’s grilled sea bass came whole with new potatoes and rosemary and herb butter. The white flesh was melt-in-the-mouth liquescent. Obviously, next to the smoky-flavoured salmon, its taste was much more delicate. Including drinks, the whole bill came to £43.75 for two. We had my £10 voucher to deduct, but we were so impressed with the food, the service and the restaurant we gladly each paid in £20 to include tip. Following the meal we had a short walk around the rockery of the adjacent Fletcher Moss Gardens, one of the loveliest parks in south Manchester. We decided that we would both be more than happy to revist this fabulous restaurant. It was then that we realised something. We had visted on 23rd April, St George’s Day, the day named in honour of the patron saint of England. Well, sorry George, but with their great fresh seafood plucked from the cold waters of the Atlantic I have to dedicate today to Scotland. St George 0 – St Andrew 1. (The only other Scottish establishment I can think of in Manchester is Robbie’s Steak House at the Renaissance Hotel. Or McDonalds I suppose…)
Pakistan - 24/04/09And so to the Curry Mile. The stretch of Wilmslow Road passing through Rusholme has been known as the Curry Mile for as long as I am aware. Curry houses cluster thickly, alongside music shops selling Bollywood tunes, clothiers with windows of stunning saris, and mini-markets stocked with goods from the Indian subcontinents. However, the gravity point of the businesses here has been shifting west recently. As one can tell that the two meals I’ve previously had here on my quest so far have been from Afghanistan and Iraq!However, there are still a good number of ‘Indian’ restaurants on the Curry Mile. Though very few are actually run and managed by Indians (as far as I know, only one actually) – most ‘Indians’ in the UK are actually run by individuals hailing originally from Pakistan or Bangladesh. As one can tell by sign after sign down the road stating that all meat is halal in both English and Arabic. And some don’t have alcohol licenses (meaning that you can bring your own booze). Though as the British craze for curry predated Indian independence and partition in 1947, it is understandable that the same dishes tend to recur on menus no matter the restaurant’s provenance. You are unlikely to find either pork (forbidden to Muslims) or beef (forbidden to Hindus) on any menu – the purely Bangladeshi Coriander! is hence quite unusual. Standards tend to vary among these restaurants. And despite living in Rusholme for four years I have been to less than half a dozen of them. Lal Qila is one that I had been to twice previously, and both times had enjoyed the meal. Plus it served beer. So it was chosen for the location for a cast curry following the Friday night performance of a show I had been in. We did not book in advance, but when we arrived at 11:30pm and requested a table for 18 (!) the staff quickly spang into action moving tables around to seat us. Just as quickly trays of poppadoms and sauces were provided as appetisers. The usual sauces are mango chutney, minted yogurt, fiery lime pickle, and ‘red onions’, the latter of which seems to be a specifically Mancunian dish – a salsa-type affair of chopped red onions and tomato. Associates down south have had to describe to restaurants what they wanted. At the same time a drinks order was taken. I ordered the Indian lager Cobra. (Annoyingly, according to the menu a half-pint of Cobra, Carlsberg or bitter all cost the same; however a pint of Cobra cost 20p more than any other beer). Scrutinising the menu I had to work out what might be a spcifically ‘Pakistani’ meal – after all it would just be wrong to request a Madras curry if I was trying to find a Pakistani dish. And a Kashmiri curry could start off a diplomatic incident! And while on my previous visits I had both times enjoyed the chicken makhani (in a yellow buttery dish) I had a feeling that that was a specifically indian dish. So, as ever, I turned to the house specials. One that caught my eye was lamb nihari – principally because I had never tried it before. (It actually turned out to be a good call. According to Wikipedia, nihari "originated as a dish of the Muslim upper class society" – albeit in Delhi. It is also traditionally acurry consumed for breakfast. Still, by the time it was served it was after midnight, so I was only a few hours early!Despite there being eighteen diners all with different orders, the staff managed to produce the meals practically all at once – there was only a slight delay for the niharis to be produced (two other cast members, Justin and Sam, had also ordered the same dish). Pilau rice was produced, fluffy and yellow, piled high on platters. Buttered naan bread also came for those who had ordered it. Unusually for me, I was only having a half, sharing with Laura; I’m usually very possessive about my naan!The nihari proved to be a dish of big chunks of stewed lamb served in a gravy-coloured sauce. The taste was also nearer to a gravy than a curry, being quite meaty and mild, with only a tingle of spice at the back of the throat. The texture was pure curry though. I’ve never been one to order the spiciest dish on the menu, but I think in future I would have preferred a dish a bit more richly spiced. But actually, my only criticism really would be that the sauce was a bit too oily. The meat itself was great and was soon finished off. The final price for curry, rice, half-naan, poppadom & sauces, and a pint of Cobra was £16.00. Considering that you would be paying £4.00 from a kebab house, this has to count as pretty decent value. In all we were there for 90 minutes, sitting and talking, and drinking beer after the pubs had shut. It was not the most amazing meal I’ve ever experienced, but it still hit the necessary spot. So I’ve now visited Lal Qila three times, and have had three enjoyable meals.(Under the catch-all name of ‘Indian’ it’s hard to know what restaurants actually are Indian, or Pakistani, or Bangladeshi. I think most restaurants along the Curry Mile are principally Pakistani - certainly the Islamabad Grill is a safe bet! Darbar I think is Pakistani too and have enjoyed meals there previously (bring your own booze). Spicy Hut and Sanam Restaurant and Sweet House both have management of Pakistani origin I believe. Or just check out the www.rusholmecurry.co.uk website to find out more recommendations on restauarants along the Curry Mile.)
Spain - 03/05/09If ever a restaurant deserved the tag ‘hidden gem’, it would be El Rincon de Rafa. But once found, it is never to be forgotten!Paul and I had decided to seek out a tapas bar for a Spanish meal as we had already been in town for a free May bank holiday festival organised by the tourism department of the Balearic Islands (Majorica, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera). This involved a large marquee occupying Albert Square that hosted musicians, flamenco dancers, displays of Menorcan equestrianism, and stalls showcasing traditional crafts and foods. I had cheered the suave horsemen on their rearing black horses, photographed the parade of drummers and geants (giant mannequins) that paraded down Cross Street, and had been whacked in the cojones by a broomstick-weilding dancing devil for my troubles! The dressage was particularly impressive, where the horses not only walked and trotted, but reared, bucked, sidestepped, pranced, hopped, danced and high-kicked. After a few nibbles at cheese on oil biscuits, flao (like a custard tart), and a shot of pomado (a worryingly potent gin and lemon) we had had our appetites whetted somewhat. While Manchester is not short of tapas bars, I had only heard of El Rincon the day before, where it had been described as a totally authentic one-off, staffed by Spanards, and which was the equal to anywhere one might find in Spain itself. This was good enough for us to set out on our voyage of discovery. To find the place walk south down Deansgate from the Peter Street junction, take the first road on your right (just past the Scientology centre). Then immediately double back to the right onto Longworth street. A sole Cruzcampo sign shows that you are nearing your destination, something confirmed by the stencilled tiles straight out of Andalucia – ‘El Rincon de Rafa – Manchester’. A doorway leads onto a descending flight of stairs. At the bottom is a surprisingly high hall, bar down one side, crammed with tables and benches. The music was not Spanish, but certainly from the Spanish diaspora, with Colombian Shakira interspersed with the Argentinian Gotan Project. The walls groan under a collection of sporting memorabilia, from signed cartoons of golfer Seve Ballesteros to Deportivo la Coruña scarves. In particular check out the ’90s vintage Manchester United shirt signed by the squad. The décor should not be a surprise – I hear that Rafa himself first came from Spain to play football for Stockport County FC. Apparently waiting for a table is a common problem at El Rincon. Fortunately we had popped in for a Sunday lunch, and the joint was almost empty when we arrived; however when we left every single table was occupied. So this place is hidden, but not unknown! Paul and I were immediately seated in a corner with good views across the restaurant and provided with menus. First off I ordered a pint of draught Cruzcampo. Not being a natural lager drinker, I found this Spanish brew far too gassy at first. However, as I got into the meal it became a lot more refreshing – I don’t know whether this is the beer going flatter, or whether it just does naturally complement the taste of Spanish food. And at £3.00 for a pint it is not a totally extortionate price. Which was good as I have often discovered that tapas meals can end up quite expensive as you end up ordering far too many dishes. In the end Paul and I ordered seven different tapas – eight if you include the basket of bread (£1.50), which I personally reckon should have been complimentary. Prices for the tapas varied between £4.35 and £5.75, and they were enough to fill us. They would probably have stretched to four if the individuals concerned were not particularly hungry. A word of warning – don’t get your heart set on having the dishes in any particular order. They get delivered in dribs and drabs – essentially as soon as they are ready they appear.So first to hit the table was a plate of queso Manchego, the distinctive tart sheep’s cheese from La Mancha. These were firm triangles of robustly mature cheese, topped with a blob of some sort of marmalade that worked well, its sweetness contrasting with the tart Manchego. Frankly I preferred to savour the cheese on its own without diluting it with the slices of crusty baguette. Next up were gambas pil-pil, spicy king prawns. Or at least, that was what I expected. The king prawns were thick and meaty, but the sauce they came in was sadly rather insipid. Some sort of stronger flavour was needed to bring out the best of the prawns in my opinion – either chilli or lemon.If the prawns (one of my choices) were underwhelming, another of my choices was a great success. Alcachofas fritas were fried artichoke hearts in a salsa / ratatouille sort of marinade. Very simply prepared and cooked, but certainly none the worse for that. The flavours were much more delicate than those of some of the other dishes and were very refreshing. As the cheapest dish we ordered (£4.35) this is one that I can wholeheartedly recommend. Two of Paul’s choices were next up – lentejas and filetitos. The lentejas was a thick browl lentil soup. So thick in fact, that it could be scooped up with a fork. Lentils were not something that I would have ordered, but it proved to be a good hearty broth. It had been thickened up with odd bits of meat however – chunks of some sort of black pudding, and some slices of what we took to be tripe (and which we didn’t care to try). Vegetarians beware! The filetitos were shreds of fillet steak in a thick sauce redolent of red wine and chopped chilli. A red wine also formed the basis of the sauce for chorizo al vino, as the name suggests. Rather than slices from a larger salami-style chorizo as I had become accustomed to in other (chain) tapas bars, these were entire nuggets of roughly shaped chorizo. The insides were a lovely paprika orange-red. These had a good spicy tang to them, which the boozy sauce suited well. This was another dish that I can really suggest you try – and again, at £4.50, it was one of the cheapest. The final dish was a plate of the famous cured Spanish ham, jamon serrano. For £5.50 we got quite a substantial amount of ham spread over a plate. It really was wafer-thin, almost translucent in fact. Draped over a fork, one could make out the shadows of the individual tines quite clearly. Yet it tasted a lot thicker, if that makes any sense. Because the jamon was dry and firm it had a great impact in the mouth and was a great way to finish off the meal.The total bill came to just over £40.00 for two – not the best value in the world compared to some all-you-can-eat places we have discovered so far this year, but still reasonable for the variety of dishes we consumed, and the generally high standard of the food. As I said, really it was only the prawns that left me disappointed. The place is very atmospheric, particularly when full with the hubbub of conversation. It feels authentic. Emerging from the underground dining hall, we fully expected to emerge into a wave of heat and bright Andalucian sunlight rather than an overcast Manchester back-alley. El Rincon de Rafa may be hidden, but apparently it’s not quite that well hidden!(As stated, there are a surprising amount of Spanish restaurants in Manchester. The mainstay would be the La Tasca chain, with eateries on Deansgate, in East Didsbury, the Trafford Centre, Wilmslow and Bolton. Purists may hate me for saying this, but I have eaten there a number of times and cannot really complain. They also often have salsa and tango lessons. A slightly more prestigious chain would be La Viña, with establishments in Hale and Alderley Edge as well as on Didsbury. Other independents would be Evuña, further down Deansgate towards the Hilton, Grado on New York Street near Piccadilly, Casa Tapas on Wilmslow Road in East Didsbury, and Pinchjo’s on Burton Road in West Didsbury.)
Côte d'Ivoire - 05/05/09Downstairs at African Emporium there’s a whole lot of flavour going on.Frankly, this place is a real find. Just off Piccadilly, by the Roadhouse venue, there is a flight of stairs leading down into what actually is an African emporium – a shop selling African staples and specialities. What Nimba, the Ivorian owner, has now done, however, is to set aside part of the shop to prepare and serve the sort of foods he sells. Not a large part admittedly – a small kitchen area, a preparation spot, and no more than three tables. But if you fancy a walk into the unknown and discovering some great West African grub, then I’d really recommend trying to grab one of those three tables. I didn’t know what to expect of African food, but the cook swiftly assuaged any fears and talked Paul and me through the dishes they had to offer that day. The food comes from all across the continent, from the Volta to the Niger to the Congo. Knowing that the proprieter came from Côte d'Ivoire I went for an Ivorian dish – attiéké.Attiéké is apparantly a staple food in the Ivory Coast. What I received was a massive plate of couscous. But this was tapioca couscous, not semolina couscous: it was made from grated cassava rather than durum wheat. This by itself was fairly bland, but I was provided with three further dishes for me to eat it with. The first was a fried fish. The fish (a yellow croaker, since you ask) was possibly slightly over cooked, and had very sharp spiky bones, but had meaty and flavourful flesh. The second was a large bowl of a simple tomato and red onion salad. This came in a very tasty dressing, the ingredients of which I couldn’t make out. And so I asked the cook what was in it. The answer? Oil (which was obvious), and… a Maggi stock cube! But hey! It tasted really good. There was also a freshly chopped chilli, but she had provided this separately for me to add according to taste. For this I was very grateful because it was an extremely hot chilli. The third bowl was a tomato sauce. Actually, it was more of a thick tomato soup – again with a little bit of fire in there somewhere. All these three dishes were very nice, but the tastes didn’t really gel with each other. Adding the tomato sauce to either the salad or the fish would have overpowered the flavours. What I did was eat the fish with the cassava couscous, then ate the salad with the couscous, then finally ate the tomato sauce with it. And then I was quite full after eating all of that. The cost? A mere £6.50. What value! Add an additional 69p for a drink (a choice of canned or bottled pop – I went for a lychee Rubicon, which was actually a lot better than I thought it would be).Paul had ordered jollof rice, fried West African rice mixed up with onion, tomato & pepper. Slices of fried plantain came on the side (an odd taste – too much like banana for our western palates to accept being part of a main course). He was also provided with a bowl of curried goat. Again, not dissimilar to lamb. All this cost him £5.50.African Emporium is authentic and unfussy. The food they serve is tasty and filling. When you realise just how little you have paid for a full table of grub, well, that’s just the icing on the cake. This is a brill little place, and I’m just happy that I got before the crowds find it!
by Liam Hetherington on May 13, 2009
Morocco – 08/05/09Regular readers may have noticed that I’m a big fan of Moroccan cuisine. Which is why I’m quite annoyed with Manchester. Not just because I could only track down one Moroccan restaurant in the city. But also because other Mancunians don’t seem to have caught on to how good the food is!8 o’clock on a Friday night. Paul and I had come up from the city centre on the Metro to Prestwich. Le Tagine is right in the heart of the town, just off Bury New Road. Inside the restaurant is decorated with North African pottery and the sort of paintings that transported me back to my 2004 holiday in Morocco. And it was empty, on what should have been one of the busiest nights of the week.The only other diners we saw all evening entered just after Paul and I had ordered. And surprise, surprise – we knew them. Ed, who works in London, and had only previously been able to join us for Russia and Argentina, came in with his parents to celebrate his dad’s birthday. In fact, it was his parents who had first tipped us off as to the existence of Le Tagine. So this made a grand total of five customers on a Friday evening. By the time we left at 10.30 we saw no others.As I said, this is a great shame because Moroccan food is yummy. Paul and I ordered a pot of mint tea. This came boiling hot and very sweet. Bread and a pot of olives were brought to the table on the house. Then our starters arrived. We had both plumped for harira. This is a brown chick pea and lentil soup. Served alongside were a couple of sticky-sweet dates and a wedge of lemon. This latter we were advised to squeeze into the soup – and indeed this did add a lovely twist to the taste.For main courses, there were seven different tagines to choose from. A tagine is both the traditional earthenware cooking pot with a conical lid, and also the stew that is cooked in it. I went for a lamb tagine (£10.00), which I knew as agneau avec prunes in Morocco. The lamb was accompanied with prunes in a sizzlingly-hot sauce. This latter was apparently flavoured with ras el hanout, a Moroccan mixture of (according to the menu) ‘as many as twenty one spices’. I accompanied this with couscous – real couscous, not the grated cassava I had been served at another restaurant earlier in the week. Accordingly, this had more taste to it. Paul ordered the fish tagine (£11.00). The fish in question was mackerel. The only awkward thing was that it was hard to debone the fish in the restaurant’s atmospheric low light. Quite amusingly, he was part way through eating when the chef rushed out to apologise that she had completely forgotten to add olives in whilst cooking the dish. She told the waitress to knock 50p off the bill in recompense!When we finished our meal we were asked whether we wanted dessert. This would be orange blossom water ice cream. Which sounded pretty interesting! We were told this would be brought to us if we wanted to wait upstairs. Upstairs was another world. A large room had been hung with sheets and carpets, its couches adorned with plump cushions, as if to resemble a desert nomad’s tent. The ice creams were produced on ornate low tables. The entire thing was very atmospheric. The ice creams were quite odd tasting though, perfumed rather than flavoured. It was not necessarily a bad taste, just unusual. But we ate them up as we lounged on the cushions like a party of contented Berbers.The final bill for Paul and I came to just over £40.00 (minus the 50p for the missing olives!). And for £20.00 each we had enjoyed a very good meal. As Manchester’s only Moroccan restaurant Le Tagine deserves to be known about more widely, and patronised more heavily. I see no reason why people should not be prepared to make the (easy) trip up north from the city centre to enjoy this wonderful food. At present the restaurant is only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings (7pm onwards). I think it is our duty to ensure that this fab little nook survives the recession and continues to bring a slice of exotic Marrakesh to grimy Manchester.
by Liam Hetherington on May 15, 2009
Indonesia – 13/05/09Maps of East Asia grace the walls and place mats at Tampopo, along with a dedication to the ‘traders and adventurers’ that introduced the flavours and tastes of the Orient to the Occident. Tampopo may be named after the heroine of a Japanese film who was searching for the perfect noodle, but the dishes in the restaurant reflect wider influences, with typical dishes reflecting the cuisines of Korea as well as Japan, of the Philippines and Vietnam, of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. And of Indonesia.Now, having already eaten Malaysian, Korean and Vietnamese, and knowing that there is an embarrassment of Thai and Japanese restaurants in Manchester, it was quite clear that we were here for something a bit more off the beaten track. And unlike Tampopo’s near rival Wagamama, rather than serving up ‘fusion’ cuisine inspired by the cooking of the East, here they served up specific regional dishes, colour coded and tied in with the countries depicted on the map. In fact, they were even doing a loyalty scheme on my visit – ‘The People’s Republic of Tampopo Passport’. The idea was when you ate a dish from a specific country you received a stamp for that country. With each additional visit (and additional stamp) you would receive a free dish – miso soup, then wok fried greens, then dessert, then a main. And once you have ‘visited’ all eight countries you can be entered into a draw to win £60 of Tampopo food vouchers per month for an entire year. As a subscriber to the Manchester Confidential website I already had a first stamp, entitling me to miso soup with whatever I ordered. Tampopo is set inside the Triangle shopping centre, the high Victorian Corn Exchange. A Vietnamese snack stall marked its entrance. Descending into the restaurant we were seated at a table by one of the wait-staff in their distinctive Vietnamese-style peasant’s tunics. There were three of us – me, Paul, and Paul’s girlfriend Ana. We were brought a basket of spicy prawn crackers while we pored over the menus. First off drinks. Their fresh lemonade really is wonderful – sharp and sour and perfectly refreshing for £1.95. Paul went for his usual pot of green tea. They also serve a range of Asian beers, from Thai Singha to Singaporean Tiger to Laotian Beer Lao. At around £3.30 for a 330ml bottle though I have to say I thought they were a bit overpriced!Firstly I had my free bowl of miso soup. I was tempted to spice it up with one of the sauce bottles that were on the table. There was Vietnamese hot sauce, Japanese soy sauce, and Indonesian soy sauce. Obviously I compared and contrasted the two soys. Indonesian is a lot darker, thicker, and much sweeter. It was like liquid treacle toffee. So I thought I’d leave that to one side while I had my Indonesian main course. I had ordered nasi goreng. Essentially, this just means ‘fried rice’. And indeed it was a plate of wok-fried rice with chunks of chicken, whole shiitake mushrooms and chilli. It was topped with flakes of fried onion and was flavoured with whole fresh lime leaves (the latter of which were not to be eaten!). It was spicy and tasty.Paul had ordered yasai gyoza for his starter, vegetarian Japanese dumplings stuffed with water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and carrot. His main course was the Indonesian mee goreng – literally ‘fried noodles’. His seemed to be slightly hotter than mine to be honest, despite still only being marked with one ‘chilli’ on the menu. One can only wonder just how hot the Singaporean laksa with its three ‘chillis’ would be…? Maybe that’s for my next visit…Ana bucked the trend for all things Indonesian, and ordered the Philippine chicken adobo. This was chicken breast, brocolli and choi sum topped with fried potato slices, all in sauce. All three main courses cost £7.50.Following all of this Paul and I decided to be adventurous and order desserts too. Though I was tempted by the ginger crème brulee I eventually opted for a simply wonderful passionfruit syllabub (£4.50), creamy and tart and totally recommended. Amaretti biscuits were crumbled on top to provide a contrast to the frothy mousse of the syllabub. Paul’s was even more ‘out there’. Bubor pulot hittam (£3.95) was a Malaysian sticky black rice pudding, enriched with coconut milk and palm sugar. Frankly, it looked evil, but the taste was nicer than I expected it to be (as someone who does not particularly care for rice pudding).The total bill for the three of us just topped £40.00, which is pretty reasonable. The food we tried was of a high standard without being out-of-this-world-remarkable. What appeals is the opportunity to eat your way around the many varied tastes and flavours of East Asia without having to leave their snazzy dining room. Of course, now I’ve ticked the place off for my Indonesian meal I’ll have to find somewhere else to eat Thai, Japanese, Philippine and Singaporean…(I cannot think of any specifically Indonesian restaurants in Manchester, which I why I've used this swerve. If you too want to try the Tampopo experience, there are other branches in the Trafford Centre, and the original restaurant on Albert Square near the Town Hall. The chain has also now branched across to Leeds, Bristol and Chelsea I believe...)
by Liam Hetherington on May 22, 2009
Mozambique – 19/05/09Famous potty-mouth and TV chef Gordon Ramsey is on record as saying that he distrusts restauarants with large menus – how can you hope to keep a consistent high quality when you are expected to prepare everything from meat and two veg to Thai green curry to lasagne to Louisiana gumbo to nut cutlet? Nando’s takes this idea and runs with it. What they serve here is chicken. And they do very well on it.In particular they serve peri-peri chicken. The peri-peri is the African birdseye chilli (pili-pili, which means ‘pepper-pepper’ in Swahili), native to Mozambique, with which marinades of varying strength are concocted. The chicken is fresh, butterfly cut and steeped in those marinades for 24 hours before being flame grilled. The last time I had eaten piri-piri chicken (the spelling varies) was in a Portuguese restaurant in January. This dish is a classic of Portuguese colonists adapting local produce to create their own cuisine in Africa. And then exporting it back to their homeland with great success – much like with curry in the UK. In much the same way the Nando’s chain is a similar fusion of influences, being founded in South Africa by Portuguese exiles from Mozambique. But the dish itself originated in Mozambique, so I am more than happy to claim this as my Mozambican dish – even though Paul quibbles with my logic. Paul and I had attended an organic cheese and wine tasting at the famous 8Th Day Co-operative on Oxford Road with Gary and his girlfriend Lucy. With our appetite whetted we took a short walk up Oxford Road to to get something to eat. Located almost opposite the BBC, this branch of Nando’s (there are another six in Manchester) was ideally placed. It was a long dark room stretching back from the entrance on Chester Street. To the right cooks sizzled chicken over a flaming grill. To the left were private booths, decorated with dark wood mashrabbiya and arabesque lanterns. All in all the effect was much more reflective of Zanzibar or Dar es Salaam than Lourenço Marques. And one other notable thing: after the amount of times we had visited practically deserted eateries so far this year, this place was buzzing with customers. We were seated at one of the few remaining tables and presented with menus. Obviously, chicken is the thing to go for at Nando’s – whether it is as a burger, in a wrap, wings, or served whole with sides. There are vegetarian options – several salads and a choice of vegetarian burgers – but obviously I wanted chicken. You order at the counter and bring your own cutlery and condiments back to your table. You can also specify how spicy you want your chicken, with a choice of marinades: lemon & herb, mango & lime, medium, hot, and extra-hot. I asked for a hot quarter chicken, with which I got a choice of two sides – chips and spicy rice in my case. This cost £6.10. I also ordered a bottle of Savanna cider from South Africa for £2.95. Other options would have been South African or Portuguese wine, or ‘bottomless’ soft drinks which you can continually top up from the soda fountain.The choice of hot marinade was not a mistake. When the waitreess brought over my steaming chicken, slightly blackened on the outside, but with its succulent white flesh falling off the bones, the marinade added a lip-tingling zing to the meat. This did go well with the sweet South African cider, which proved to be very refreshing. No, the mistake was to only order a quarter chicken. Paul had requested a half-bird (£8.60 with two sides). Gents – if you are in any way hungry I’d suggest the half-bird. Lucy and Gary had an even better idea. After sharing a tub of olives around the table, they then had a platter heaped high with food between the pair of them. Final conclusion? A satisfyingly carnivorous meal.For a chain with a somewhat limited menu, Nando’s has expanded quite dramatically. In particular it’s a good place to bring kids with their bottomless soft drinks and childrens’ menu for ‘little Nandinos’. From their authentic roots down in South-East Africa the chain has now apparently spread to five continents, and in Manchester alone there are other branches in The Printworks, the Arndale Centre, the Spinningfields development on Deansgate, on Wilmslow Road in Fallowfield, in the Trafford Centre, and at the Chill Factore indoor sky slope. Who knew it would be so easy to eat Mozambique in Manchester?
The Netherlands – 21/05/09One of the many good things about Manchester these days is the many markets that the council have encouraged under the banner of ‘Manchester Markets’. These range from fashion and craft markets, to farmers markets where you can buy produce from local North-West producers, to the ‘German’ Christmas market (more of which in December I hope…).May saw a European Spring Market take over the picturesque St Ann’s Square for the fiortnight straddling the Eurovision Song Contest and the Eurocultured Street Festival. St Ann’s Square is a pleasant pedestrianised area sandwiched between Deansgate, Marks & Spencer’s, the Royal Exchange Theatre, and the simply beautiful / beautifully simple 1712 St Ann’s Church. For the purposes of the market pre-fabricated ‘chalet’-style huts were erected. These held craft stalls or store fronts selling fresh food. A beer garden had been set up in the centre. Though there were vendors hawking Spanish paella, German sausage, Turkish nibbles, and English hot pork sandwiches, I was drawn here by a sizeable Dutch presence. Since the closure of the famous Dutch Pancake House on St Peter’s Square a couple of years ago I despaired of ever finding any authentic Dutch eateries. Everytime I passed the boarded over Pancake House its windmill-laden signs seemed to mock me. Thankfully it lay within easy walking distance of work, and so accompanied by my colleague Gemma. Three stalls stood in close proximity at one end of the market, all selling Dutch foodstuffs. One sold Dutch cheese, another doughnuts, and a third waffles. The Dutch Cheesman does the rounds of these festivals, and his stall was laden down with cheese after cheese after novelty clog after cheese. Loosely Gouda (I’m not sure I spotted any Edam), the viewer is presented with lots of different cheeses, many with additives. There are small free samples to allow you to taste-test chilli cheese, or smoked cheese with ham, or green pesto cheese, or cheese with garlic and nettle. What a good thing I had Gemma here to guide me; this year she will be on the judging panel at the prestigious Nantwich International Cheese Festival and so her advice is literally worth its weight in gouda. I did buy some cheese – not a big iconic ‘named’ Dutch cheese I have to admit, but rather some extra-mature goat’s cheese. Mature? Most of my ex girlfriends have had less personality! It was a hard dense cheese and jaw-clenchingly tart. A sliver certainly goes a long way! Which was useful with it being £21.90 a kilo. After taste-testing a few bits of the German sausage at the neighbouring stall we went for our Dutch dessert. We both bought packs of Dutch waffles, stroopwafel, two halves of a biscuit-y wafer sandwiched around a rich caramel toffee filling. Good cold, even better warmed and with a topping of squirty cream (Gemma’s inspired idea). Next door a woman sold doughnuts (oliebollen. These were not the regimented factory-produced fare you usually see, but small irregular doughy balls dusted with icing sugar. Gemma bought herself a plain doughnut, and one split open and filled with apple puree for me. A more-than-generous coating of icing sugar served to make a mess of my black suit. While these were nice I’m not sure they were worth £1.00 each (or £1.50 for the varieties filled with apple, strawberry or pineapple) when you could buy two bags of six larger jam doughnuts on Buy-One-Get-One-Free for £1.00 at the local Co-op.As Gemma had treated me to my doughnut, I treated her to a fresh juice from a nearby stall. You could say we went Dutch. Ahem. Anyway, we were each then able to enjoy a wonderfully sour freshly-squeezed lemonade. We each made a couple more purchases – brandy snaps for Gemma, a hot roast pork sandwich for me (what? I was hungry alright?) – and then strolled back to work, taking time to look at the plants on sale by the Dutch flower seller. They didn’t look edible, so I wasn’t interested…
by Liam Hetherington on May 28, 2009
Iran – 23/05/09If you are in an Iranian restaurant, don’t ask for an Iranian beer.That comment is actually a bit unfair on the wonderful Shiraz in Northenden. For starters, it classes itself as a Persian restaurant. I’m not sure whether this is simply because the name ‘Iran’ passes as a swear-word in some quarters, or whether because ‘Persian’ tastes (the word conjuring up images of imperial splendour, learned culture, and refined luxury) differ from those in today’s devout and austere Iran. But a visit to Shiraz certainly evokes those images of glorious Persia.Frankly, the restaurant gets a bonus star just for its internal decoration. It is probably the most attractive interior of a restaurant I’ve visited so far this year. In fact, one might even say it was slightly over-decorated. The windows are inset with stained glass panels to mute the (on this trip) bright May sunshine. Stars spot the ceiling. The walls are hung with framed tourist posters, a chainmail suit of armour complete with helmet, and vivid tiles. I had noticed before that unlike conventional Islamic decoration, Persian images tended to veer from the purely geometrical to include actual depictions of nature and individuals. So there were glazed tiles depicting archers and warriors from the region’s medieval past. Best of all, we were sat at a tile-topped table which showed birds apprearing from a knot of plantlife; the colours glowed with gemstone-bright pigments.There were three of us for dinner – myself, Paul, and Al, with whom I am in a number of drama socities. It was Al who asked whether they served Iranian beer, a question that elicited an explosion of amused shock from our waitress. However, the question was not quite as absurd as it may seemed. Befitting a restaurant named after a city which gave its name to a grape (syrah) and a type of wine, Shiraz does have a wine list (no Iranian wine though), and also serves bottled beer (Heineken, Cobra, Corona etc). But sadly no Iranian beer. As it was all three of us requested mint tea. This came served in three individual shallow china teapots and sherry-glass sized glasses. Frond of real mint filled the pots, and sugar was provided to flavour to taste – the tea was not oversweet when served. The menu at Shiraz is not the largest in the world – probably eight-or-so starters, and around a dozen entrees. Still, this comprised a far-ranging and intriguing selection of dishes. Considering how much of a picky eater I was as a child, I was happy to note that – if only in the name of experimentation – I would be happy to order anything off it. Possibly the one dish I would have been wary of was the one Al ordered for his starter – chicken liver. This came as grainy and flavourful sugar-lump-sized chunks of liver in a dark liver-flavoured liquor. As far as I was concerned, one piece was quite enough; there was no way I’d have been able to finish that whole dish.However, my starter I could quite happily have eaten more of. Labelled as khufta it was the local transliteration / pronunciation of the Turkish kofte or Greek keftedes. I had read that Persian food was fond of incorporating fruit elements, and this was no exception. At heart it was an orange-sized ball of succulent minced lamb, but it was also flavoured with ingredients such as chickpeas, plum, and walnut. So obviously it was not suitable for those with nut allergies – as the menu did warn. It also warned that there might be the odd plum stone in the dish, and sure enough I did find one. The khufta was served in a plum and walnut sauce, a sauce so wonderfully sharp that it actually caused a pain at the very back of my jaw! These were not sweet plums, but pretty sour wild plums. The use of grated walnut, an ingredient I would never normally think of using, did add something to the flavour too. Frankly, it was a great first course.Fruit and nuts flavours also influenced my main course. But here I have to admit that it was not quite so enjoyable to my western palate. I ordered fesanjaan. This was chicken pieces in a thick treacle-black stew of ground walnuts and pomegranate puree. To be honest, it was a stupid choice by me. While I like pomegranates, I find drinking pomegranate juice too acrid for my taste. Really, I can only cope with it in small quantities. What then did I expect from a dish in a pomegranate sauce? It had a very rich, very sour taste, and I would have struggled to eat the chunks of chicken had it not been for the massive heap of fluffy Persian rice delivered for the three of us to share. As it was I managed all the chicken, but half the khoresht, or stew, was left. This should not be a criticism of the chef; I’m quite sure this is an authentic Persian taste. But it was not for me. Paul was on safer ground with joojeh kebab - grilled chicken flavoured with lemon and saffron. Al had two kebabs in one, a dish that saw him served a khubideh kebab of ground lamb mince and a slice of barg, a grilled thin fillet of beef. As mentioned, a vast amount of fluffy rice was served to accompany it, as were flat unleavened breads. For £42, the three of us were pleasantly stuffed. For me it was a voyage into the unknown due to the Iranian prediliction for combining the tastes of fruit, nut and meat in a way that doesn’t really occur here in the UK. And while I didn’t really like my main course, it was a valuable learning experience – and even then I still got through most of it. Maybe Shiraz should think of serving the fesanjaan in a smaller portion as a farter, and the khufta in a larger portion as a main? I would certainly order the khufta here again. And I would certainly return again. It is a fab, cheery, ornate place – and I’m not sure I would have suspected just what was in store for me from its somewhat plain exterior on Palatine Road. It is definitely one to recommend. Though I warn you now – don’t ask if they have any Iranian beer!(There are a few Iranian places in Manchester. The nearest direct comparison to Shiraz I can think of is Persia on Barlow Moor Road in Chorlton, though I have never dined there. I must admit, I was originally planning to review a simple kebab takeaway for Iran – Caspian on Wilmslow Road in Rusholme. This was my favourite place for a chicken tikka kebab in naan bread with salad – and owner Maz’s famous ‘special sauce’ – when I lived in Rusholme. It also served a select few Iranian dishes which I never ordered but always intended to. However, it was a recommendation from a friend which swayed my mind to try out Shiraz. And boy, am I glad I did!)
by Liam Hetherington on May 31, 2009
Sweden – 25/05/09 It is almost a tradition that on the spring bank holidays the entire population of the UK decamps to Ikea to pick up material for their home improvements. Well, who were Paul and I to buck the trend…?Ikea is of course the Swedish home-furnishing chain colossus. And their megastore in a retail park in Ashton, Tameside, is like a colossus too, a massive box in the blue and yellow colours of the company… or of its Swedish homeland. And it was the Swedish connection that had brought us there, to see precisely what was on offer at their in-store restaurant. And pick up a toilet-roll holder. But mostly to visit the restaurant.Located on the second floor, the restaurant is actually one of the few places that it is easy to reach without wandering through the labyrinth of beds, dining tables, office workspaces and couches. It is a self-service cafeteria. While there were signs showing their Swedish specialities it looked like the bank holiday crowds had already almost exhausted their supplies by the late afternoon when we arrived. So no gravalax, and no Daim cake.What they did have though was the famous Swedish meatballs. Ikea reckon they sell around 3.3m portions of these beauties every year. So I ordered up a regular serving for £4.25. This gave me 15 pork and beef meatballs, served with boiled potatoes and gravy. A dollop of lingonberry sauce came on the side to perk up the dish. It was a relatively unsophisticated dish, but hearty, with proper meaty meatballs. The lingonberry sauce was an odd touch to a British palate, where sweet fruit generally doesn’t get mixed in with traditional roasts. I suppose the exception would be in the case of cranberry sauce at Christmas, and the red lingonberries here tasted quite significantly like cranberries (indeed, I have since discovered that the two berries are related). Berries formed part of my dessert too – a strawberry tart for £1.55. There were other more traditional Swedish cakes for sale, but all of them were very strangely coloured due to the presence of garish marzipan. ‘Princess Cake’ was an odd grass green colour, and ‘Punch Rolls’ were an coloured the blue and yellow of the Swedish flag. Frankly the unnatural colours would have been enough to put me off even if I didn’t dislike marzipan. For a Swedish drink I tragically had to resort to beer! Spendrups Old Gold was a pale sweetish lager, at a very reasonable price – a bottle cost only £1.75.Paul had enjoyed an organic vegetable soup before his meatballs. He had paid for a hot drink, which was a cup he could take back for further free refills.We weren’t quite finished with Ikea’s Swedish food however. On the ground floor they have a shop selling Swedish specialities. This ranges from frozen meals, to Swedish sweets, to Kopparberg perry (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic variants). They have a great selection of jams – strawberry, gooseberry, blackberry, cloudberry and so on. I quite fancied the latter, it being one I had not come before. However at well over £3.00 for a jar it was over twice the price of any other. Hence I bought a jar of the lingonberry jam for £1.40. For a further 85p I bought a packet of moose salami - ‘smoked elk salami with pork and venison’. I’ve only ever had elk once before, in Russia, so I thought it would be an interesting buy. I haven’t actually tried them yet… I’m waiting for a suitably special occasion. Possibly the next bank holiday in August...
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