Monday, August 3, 2015

Astrid & Gastón

So this is a little odd - we haven't written a single blog post for the last year and we said we'd decided to knock the blogging lark on the head, but here I am writing up a meal we went for during last year's summer holiday! Why am I bothering then? Well, one of my biggest culinary regrets of all time is that I failed to follow the advice of several Peruvians who told me not to leave the country before treating myself to a meal at Astrid & Gastón, the flagship restaurant of celebrity chef, joker and all-round nice guy Gastón Acurio. While we were still in Peru I thoroughly enjoyed laughing at his cheesy TV appearances/adverts and have since loved reading his recipes and general musings on Facebook.

Astrid & Gastón... where they look at your trainers
Last August we did a 24 hour whistle-stop tour of Bogotá on our way to visit the family in Colombia and to make up for the aforementioned misdemeanour nothing was going to stop us paying Gastón's Colombian branch a lunchtime visit. And, it may have taken me a year to get round to it, but I have always intended to make sure I wrote about this one. Fortunately it was quite a memorable meal. (Plus we made some pretty detailed notes...)

What I immediately liked about the place on arrival was that they'd managed to find pretty much the only building in the whole of Bogotá (that we came across anyway) that looked exactly like one of the colonial houses you see in the Miraflores / Barranco district that the original Astrid & Gastón is located in. It feels like a very secluded, calm little place especially when stepping in off the bustling streets of the city.

We were greeted by some pretty keen and personalityless staff and it didn't take us long to realise that the service was going to be quite a lot more nebby and formal than we are used to here in the UK. Firstly we realised that we had made something of a faux pas not dressing up more for the occasion... for example the fact that I was wearing a pair of Converse attracted two double takes from two different staff members and Bailey swears he saw one waiter peer round a corner to get a good eyeful of them... We got away with it as the idiot gringos we were but note to self, don't wear Converse to Colombian fine-dining restaurants next time.

First port of call was always going to be a nice big glass of Pisco Sour which was just as citrusy and delicious as any I had in Peru. We were also delivered a very good looking slate of bread. I absolutely loved the concept behind these, each one paying homage to a favourite Peruvian ingredient or dish in bread form. There was a bread made from papa amarilla yellow potatoes, another using ají amarillo yellow chillis and cheese as a nod to my favourite Huancaína sauce, a maíz morado purple corn bread and sweet potato and quinoa bread sticks all served with lovely creamy butter. It all tasted nice enough but the only problem... the texture of all of them bar the quinoa sticks was actually pretty crap (our notes simply read "Bread not good"). I suppose we are spoilt in Europe when it comes to bread. Bailey's conclusion: "Oh well, I guess they're not doing too badly for a country that doesn't have wheat."

Starters next and I'd decided to go with a Tres Cebiches trio. These were simple, delicate and delicious, much like the ceviche you'd receive in Peru but with some fancier touches and presentation. I liked the fact that our waiter came over and told me to stop using a fork and get in there with a spoon so I could enjoy all the juices.

Bailey's starter was an absolute beast of a plate of Cangrejo Azul AKA a main course sized portion of black fettucini with crab, some kind of fishy foam and "sweet algae". An amazing dish, loved so much by Bailey that he sneakily retrieved a piece of crab he dropped into his cocktail, which was witnessed by one of those beaky waiters during one of their routine gawps at us.

Onto the mains and by far the dish of the day for me was Saltado de Invierno. This dish was super interesting and consisted of lots of Peruvian favourite flavours all rolled into one tasty fish boat. It was served on a bed of white bean Tacu Tacu (a Peruvian type of bubble & squeak esque bean and rice patty, there may have been some sweet potato in there too?), topped with loads of beautiful seafood and lovely crispy fried fish. The sauce, described by the menu as "chifa juice" did exactly what it said on the tin, "Chifa" is the adopted name of the hugely popular Peruvian-Chinese fusion food available all over Lima, which always tastes amazing in a salty, sugary, fried, hangover-curing kind of way. This sauce tasted like an intense reduction of every delightful plate of chifa I ate while in Lima and I LOVED it!! Honestly one of the most fun and tasty things I've ever eaten.

Bailey once again had won the portion lottery with his choice of Cordero Andino - an almost intimidating lamb shank served with a yuca "froth", some delightful little croquettes and a traditional Incan herb jus. While very tasty, it was with great sadness that Bailey had to leave some of this. For him, there was just far too much meat and not enough veg or sides to go with it.

Is it a bird, is it a plane, no it's a huge fuck-off bit of meat.
Before dessert we decided to get another round of cocktails in, a Lulo Sour for me and an 'El Capitán' Pisco Martini for Bailey. Both seriously good.

Desserts were pretty much some of the most old skool presentation ever, my Merenguitos Rellenos were tasty little orbs of meringue filled with purple corn sorbet served on chopped fruit and topped with a pinch of cinnamon, a clever take on the popular Chicha Morada Peruvian purple corn drink (which is always served with chopped pineapple and a good shake of cinnamon).

Bailey's bizarrely named Plátanos Enjaulados Dulcemente was a coconutty, chocolatey plantain affair served with a goat's cheese ice cream. It was really nice except that the caramel "cage" was nigh on impossible to eat without investing in some expensive dental treatement.

So this had already been a thoroughly enjoyable meal, even if the beaky service up to this point had been pretty weird. I'm not exaggerating when I say that several times we had noticed waiters awkwardly craning their necks to peep round doors to see how we were getting on. There was nothing natural or relaxed about it. The announcement of each dish was delivered in a bizarre robotic, trance-like fashion. It hadn't spoiled the meal in any way, just made us crack up laughing mostly. But it did make it extra nice at the end of the meal when we managed to properly start chatting to the staff over the petits fours (coffee macarons, truffles and passion fruit marshmallows - YUM) and they realised we didn't mind seeing them behave like normal humans in front of us... what can only be described as 'TOP BANTZ' ensued. They even came to the front door of the colonial house and waved us off. Lovely.

So, did it live up to expectations and was it worth the wait? Well even a year on from our meal at Astrid & Gastón I still look back at the afternoon very fondly, and probably only partly because I was so giddy with excitement. I'm not too sure if Bailey and I would have loved it so much had we not known about the Peruvian flavours and foods that inspired the dishes we had (sounds knobby I know...), but I also think that the Peruvian tendency (and I'm talking about the whole country here, not just Gastón Acurio's) to pinch ideas from other cuisines and do their own take on things is undoubtedly what made their country's cuisine so ace in the first place. Certainly more than can be said of Colombian food anyway! So if you're ever in Peru (and you should go, really really really) or Colombia (you should also go here), make sure you don't make the same mistake I did - pay Astrid & Gastón a visit, you won't regret it!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Antalya Café

The Curry Mile is somewhere we ought to be proud of in Manchester. There aren't many other destinations in the city which boast over 70 different eateries across so many different cuisines; a great example of Manchester's boiling pot of cultures. We love the Curry Mile mainly because it's home to one of our favourite restaurants, the mighty Mughli, but we're also fully aware that there are loads of other independent businesses serving great food that we need to try. We're no experts, but Haz @mughli is a huge advocate of the Mile and happy to give recommendations. We're also lucky that our friends @mcrfoodies also know all the good spots and on this occasion took us out for a slap-up tea at Antalya Café, a Turkish grill that also doubles up as a shisha bar, if you're into that kind of thing.

Sweet mint tea was a great start to the meal and the best I've had in the UK since realising I bloody loved it our holiday in Morocco a couple of years ago. Bailey's Mars Bar Milkshake was a perfect Sunday afternoon post-hangover treat.

Antalya's food menu is reassuringly simple - clearly sticking to what they do best with great results. The main reason we were there was to sample the grilled fish, and this did not disappoint - beautifully crisp skin with tender flesh inside, a basket containing way more Turkish bread than we could eat and a tasty sumac-sprinkled salad.

The chicken kebab could be whiffed long before it was seen, the smell of charcoal cooked meat wafting over as the plate was brought to the table. The meat itself was spot-on with fragrant spices, flavoursome enough to compete with the copious amounts of houmous Bailey liberally applied to it.

Antalya's food may not be fancy but it certainly tastes good. The portions are mammoth and we loved sloshing the sauces all over everything; just the sort of meal where you stuff yourself silly and don't even care when someone points out you've got a load of food down your front (and I was wearing a white dress).

Service from a 'naturally' brilliant waitress who endearingly called me and Anna "honey" throughout the meal was also excellent and do you know the best thing, the bill for four of us came to under £40. Bargain. Considering I've seen a couple of comments made recently suggesting the Curry Mile's increasing number of shisha bars is a problem, we loved our shisha bar tea and will be back soon! In conclusion, we love the Curry Mile and want to support the hardworking businesses that make the place what it is so if you find a great place to eat there, do tell us as we want to know about it!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Crispy Lemon Sherbert Cake

I recently decided it was time to make my old favourite Crispy Lemon Cake as per my lovely late nan Gwen's recipe. However, me and my cake-mad friend Hayley had been discussing ideas for sexy 80's party cakes (Bake-O-Rama meets Club Tropicana, coooooo-ooooool) in a rather worrying amount of detail. We'd set each other a challenge to bake up a storm and send each other pictures so I decided to go with the 'If it ain't broke, fill it with lemon curd and cover it in buttercream icing and 4 tonnes of sweeties plus glitter' approach and give Gwen's cake the ultimate makeover!

As with many things, some of the best and most inexpensive sweeties can be found in the Arndale Lower Food Court's Pick N Mix stand, and I was delighted to purchase loads of lemony sherberty sweeties for just a couple of quid.

The cake looked pretty good even if I say so myself and it tasted crazy/delicious, although I'm pretty sure one bite was enough to send me into a debilitating sugar coma for the evening. The beauty of Gwen's original recipe is that it's very moist and super lemony. My dad was the cake's biggest fan, declaring "I could eat this until I was sick". Thanks Dad...


For the cake:
Follow the recipe for Gwen's Crispy Lemon Cake. Only difference is you need to divide the cake mix between two tins. Then when baked, carefully cut the sponge into four rounds before adding the crispy lemon drizzle mix to all four layers.

For the Lemon Curd:
Make up a batch of BBC Food's Lemon Curd. Easy peasy.

For the Lemon Buttercream Icing:
I used Primrose Bakery's recipe and bunged the following into my electric mixer and whizzed away until smooth...

220g butter
4 tbsp lemon juice
Zest 4 lemons
1kg icing sugar
Couple of drops yellow food colouring

For the topping:
Lots of sweeties from the Pick N Mix including crushed up sherbert lemons, flying saucers and lemon bonbons. Oh and 'edible' glitter.

Make the cake as per the instructions above before filling each of the layers with lemon curd.

Ice the cake with a layer of lemon buttercream and leave to set before adding another layer. Pipe the remaining icing on top to your desired pattern. I did some big circles to hold my sweeties in place.

Top with as many sweeties as is humanly possible.

Marvel at the craziness then serve. You will need some serious pots of tea on the go for this one as it is siiiiiiiiick-ly!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Street Food Reccy to Leeds

There's been an awful lot of talk about street food lately. And it's fair to say Manchester has been getting a bit of a kicking for being "lightyears" behind the likes of London and Bristol. While I'd be on the front lines supporting anyone who wanted to start any sort of street food revolutions around here, for now it would be counterproductive for me to sit here crying into my veggie lasagna about the fact that we'll never have it as good as Portland Oregon and that our events can't compare to London's Kerb or Street Feast... Instead I'd like to talk to you about a city we visited recently that proves that Manchester is fully capable of  having a street food scene that does not compromise on quality, originality or atmosphere... Let's talk about Leeds.

A while back we were trading at Belgrave Music Hall's monthly Street Feast. This event had everything I personally would hope for out of a street food event. The atmosphere was spot on but this was down to so much more than the fact the place was packed to the rafters (ALL day!). This wasn't just about "hipsters", this was about food lovers of all ages, families, dogs, good times... The feeling of friendliness and inclusiveness was palpable in the air.

I'll tell you what else this event wasn't about - "cashing in" on a trend. Everything was what I'd consider to be reasonably priced from both the venue itself's bar and the traders (and let's not forget this is only possible when traders haven't been charged an extortionate pitch fee).

Belgrave is also an amazing city centre venue - a converted Riley's pool hall filled with odd-shaped rooms boasting a sun-terrace and more personality than you can shake a stick at. Oh and here's a video about Street Feast where you can see Bailey at 1 minute 44 talking about how great the event is...

It's plain to see that the focus for Belgrave has been creating a high-quality event that works for them but is great for the punter, great for the trader, supports the "little guy", offers unique products, supports the local food scene and is sustainable in the long term. This is the kind of event that warms my cockles and that, if I lived in Leeds I would be coming back and supporting month in, month out.

The only disadvantage of trading at such a successful event is that you barely get time to get out from behind your grill and try a single scrap of food from any of the other traders, so Bailey and I decided to jump on a train a few days later and see what we'd missed out on.

We were reliably informed by the local bloggers that the best breakfast in Leeds can be found at the unassuming yet hugely charming Greedy Pig. While we didn't get to see them in full street food action cooking up their nose-to-tail delights, they certainly know how to put together a great full English and veggie sausage sanger on brioche bun.

Next up we hit the place where all the magic happens, Belgrave itself. Although it obviously had a totally different 'vibe' when not full to the brim with street food fans, it was still a great place to sit and eat a snack or two (or three). Patty Smith's made Bailey one of the best burgers he'd had in yonks - simple, tasty and not over-topped. When I asked him for his one-sentence review, the first word he used was "squidgy" and he SWEARS he hadn't read Marina O'Loughlin using the exact same word to describe them just yesterday, so now we can now declare it scientifically proven that Patty Smith Burgers are squidgy...

Fu Shnikens' steamed Taiwanese gua bao buns were one of my favourite street food dishes of all time and Bailey could barely believe his luck at being asked to pay a mere pound (his cries of "A FUCKING POUND!" could be heard all around Leeds city centre) for a generously topped, tasty slice from Dough Boys.

Our final pitt stop was the well-known Trinity Kitchen which I guess is something like what you'd get if someone spent shitloads of money making the Arndale Food Market uber trendy and putting in a champagne bar. Like at the Arndale there's an eclectic mix of permanent eateries but we were there to see the guest traders - shipped in especially from up and down the UK to ensure Leeds gets access to an ever-changing selection of high quality street food. Another complaint we hear a lot here in Manchester is that you always see the same traders at events, therefore this Trinity setup seems very clever to me and the people of Leeds are clearly on board with it as the place was packed on a weekday lunchtime.

We sampled an unexpectedly spicy Tava Roll from Rola Wala and a huge portion of very tasty sushi from Happy Maki (both trade in THAT LONDON, both doing well here up north). We wanted to carry on eating as there were several other things we wanted to try, but we were unhappily reaching that 'beyond uncomfortably full' stage and therefore returned to Manchester.


So as our train pulled out of Leeds it got us thinking that while we probably won't ever be Portland Oregon and maybe we won't be like That London, we can certainly be like our Northern brothers across the hills in Leeds where they're hitting the right notes when it comes to street food events. We've certainly got the high-quality traders and the punters who want to fill their bellies so it's only a matter of time before someone finds the right set-up and Manchester takes that next big street food leap.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Samuel Fox Country Inn

Recently Bailey and I were in sunny Sheff Vegas over the weekend to celebrate jointly the birthdays of both me and my dad. My mum loves going out for countryside drives so we decided to hit up a country pub for our lunch. In the interest of trying out somewhere new (both in terms of eatery and 'little Peak District town'), we chose The Samuel Fox Country Inn in the Hope Valley mining village of Bradwell, which we had found on @FeastAndGlory's extremely useful "Sheffield favourites" page. Lovely stuff!

Not too shabby a view from the top of the hill leading to Bradwell
We rolled up on a quiet Sunday lunchtime and decided to take advantage of their two courses for £26 or three courses for £32 lunch offer. Not alarmingly expensive but enough for expectations of the food to be high (not forgetting also that chef proprietor James Duckett has worked under allsorts of food honchos including that absolute badass Marcus Wareing).

No better way to start a meal in a country pub with a pint of good quality local ale, and the Bradfield Brewery Farmer's Blonde more than did the job. What really impressed us however was the fresh bread. Now there have been a few debates about bread lately and we've always made it clear that we're firmly in the "if a restaurant gives a shit, it will make sure its bread is good" camp. Well Sam Fox certainly gives a shit. Those crackers - MM! So good we ordered more.

Onto the starters and the majority of us around the table were on the Fennel and Blood Orange Cured Sea Trout - fancy pants presentation or what? It tasted great too - perfectly balanced and a delicate and dainty starter. A big hit.

Bailey's Chicken Liver Parfait with Picked Rhubarb & Toast was also pretty dreamboat, the sweet toast some of the butteriest we've tasted.

Main courses were just as much of a hit. My dad was on the Beer Battered Cod with Chunky Chips featuring a beautifully light batter, thrice cooked chips Heston would be proud of and an insane tartare sauce. My mum described her Roast Chicken with Spring Vegetables & Jersey Royals as "to die for". Happy parents!

Bailey's Mixed Grill of Derbyshire Lamb & Beef had a lot of finesse considering it was basically a massive plate of delicious meat featuring some unusual little twists like the mini shepherd's pie. This was great as it had all the merits of an ordinary Sunday lunch but was a bit more exciting.

My Risotto of Spring Vegetables was a fantastic veggie option and was a delight to eat as I kept finding all sorts of unusual mushrooms and unexpected greens. 

Feeling giddy after the fantastic food we'd eaten up to this point, three of the four of us decided to get involved in some dessert. I should say that although the desserts were really good, we felt they were the least exciting dishes of the day and I think from what we saw on our visit I'd say the Sam Fox's strength is the savoury stuff. That said I enjoyed my Coconut Pannacotta with Raspberries very much. I didn't love it as much as other courses I'd had but was very nice and creamy and the coconut flavour was quite subtle making way for a nice whack of vanilla, which I liked. A nice springtime dessert.

Bailey was a bit disappointed with his Sticky Toffee Pudding with Stout Ice Cream as it wasn't very sticky or um, toffee-y. We liked the way the dish tasted very "Northern" and had a sort of bitterness to it like Bonfire Toffee but thought they could have stouted up the ice cream a notch.

My dad's Hot Chocolate Pudding with White Chocolate Ice Cream was definitely the desert of the day...

I can't actually remember what my dad said about it but I remember that he loved it and I guess this picture probably says it all:

A delightful meal at Sam Fox Inn and there were other things we really liked about it including the picturesque location, the relaxed atmosphere and most of all the very friendly and down to earth service. Our waitress was so nice and once my dad got talking to her about which is the best well dressing (what's a well dressing? That's what I said - see the Wiki entry on it) in Derbyshire I thought they'd never stop. The décor of the place was fine but apparently just a few days after we were there they refurbished, so a bit of a shame we didn't get to see the new look pub. Oh well, an excuse to return! If you're passing through the Peak District or don't mind a bit of a drive out of Manchester or MAYBE if you can't resist checking out the WELL DRESSINGS (Bradwell's is August 3rd. Apparently the Sam Fox's rooms get booked up really far in advance - you've been warned), you should pay them a little visit!


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