Thursday, October 24, 2013

Manchester House

I don't like the TV show Friends. Gasp away and re-read that first sentence. Here I'll say it again.... I don't like Friends. In fact I'd say that I found it quite unpleasant to watch and I certainly didn't find it funny. The reason I was so turned off by it is that it felt so disingenuous, so vacuous and so shallow that it was painful. It was written by a committee of writers, nothing had any heart and even the 'biggest romance of the nineties' between Ross and Rachel had me reaching for the sick bucket. Now you might just presume I'm a heartless curmudgeon who hasn't got a humorous bone in his body or I'm an elitist prick who goes out of his way to turn his back on the mainstream any chance he gets but before you start slinging that particular venom let me also say that Friends was obviously created by some incredibly talented people. Even I can appreciate how slick the writing was, the relentless barrage of quips and the never ending supply of stand out guest stars who managed to establish memorable characters in a single episode. The producers managed to create a TV show so popular that it became a cultural phenomenon and I'm not sure anybody has matched this achievement in the past decade so touché David Crane and congratulations Marta Kaufmann. I never found Friends offensive, it just wasn't for me.  Whenever I peeked over somebody's shoulder to watch it for a moment I found nothing that interested me because all I could see was the dazzle of the spit and shine that had been applied to make it as slick as possible. Now then let's talk about Living Ventures.

If you haven't heard of Living Ventures before they are Manchester's uber restaurant group owning eight 'Grill' restaurants, Gusto, The Alchemist, Australasia, The Oast House, The Botanist, Artisan and now Manchester House as well as a few further afield.  That's a pretty impressive chunk of restaurant real estate that they're sitting on but I've never felt compelled to visit any of their restaurants for the simple reason that I don't think they're for me.  Why not?  A lot of their 'brands' are located in Spinningfields which is quite an impersonal locale to me, they refer to their restaurants as 'brands' and even the name itself makes them sound like some sort of futuristic corpse reanimation service.  They just feel too big for me, they've got too much going on, like a restaurant with 300 dishes on the menu how can they do it all right?  They've strayed too far from the core of what I love about food which is an individual cooking food for somebody else in the hope that they will love it too.  I can appreciate restaurants that cook great food even when they are far removed from that ideal of mine but I can never love them.  I have visited LV's Grill On The Alley and really enjoyed it, some fantastic service and lovely food but it had that artificial sheen that meant it wasn't memorable to me, it still had that chain restaurant feel to it albeit a very high end chain restaurant.  I actually only paid it a visit because Gordo told me to, it made his list of Manchester's best steaks and so had to be visited as part of our monthly pay day steak day adventures.  All being said Living Ventures are incredibly successful so I have to assume there are some clever bods behind it all.

Taking that all in to account I was quite surprised when I heard the news that Aiden Byrne had decided to open a restaurant with Living Ventures.  Here we have undoubtedly an incredibly talented chef everybody is familiar with due to several successful appearances on The Great British Menu showing off some fantastic looking dishes and as importantly (to me anyway) a visible passion for food teaming up with a faceless restaurant mega corporation in an obvious effort to attain Manchester's first Michelin star.  I had mixed feelings to say the least but I was happy that Manchester was going to be the new home of an exciting chef and so it was quite an easy decision to make when I was invited to one of the launch events.

Arriving at the restaurant is harder than you might think, for starters the sign is very subdued and stencilled on to the wall at the base of Tower 12 (again a sinister sounding name, post apocalyptic prison run by killer robots?) but actually that's a good sign to me, the brashness of some of Living Ventures' other eateries is absent at this point.  Entering the foyer of the snazzy office block we received a warm welcome (I went through the usual minor embarrassment of giving the name of our blog) and after a few moments wait for the lift the greeter attempted to usher us through the elevator sliding doors.  Two people made it in before the door attempted to cut me in half as I hopped back out in to the safety of the foyer, I looked worryingly at the greeting gent. "Yeahhhh we do need to do something about that, it's very quick isn't it?".  Seems like the killer robots might be in charge after all.

We managed to survive the perilous lift journey and arrived at the The Lounge on floor 12 which is Manchester House's bar where you will have a pre-fodder tipple and wait to be called to your table.  This is not a bad place to wait.  Not at all.

It's a classy but not over the top bar with inescapable views of Manchester on every side.  On the day we visited, Manchester was a little bit overcast but I'm sure there will be opportunities for amazing views of our grand city at sunset or night time, I imagine watching the New Year fireworks from here would be a pretty special experience.  We enjoyed a glass of wine and had a sit down in what must be one of Manchester's most pleasant smoking areas shown below.  Canapés were passed round which were very nice with the highlight being the beetroot, foie gras and palm sugar macaroon which was outstanding.  This was actually my first taste of foie gras as I normally pass on it due to the dubious ethics involved, the only reason I went for this was that I didn't hear what the waiter said when he described them.  A delicious mistake.

It wasn't too long until we were summoned down stairs to the restaurant itself.  Straight up this is one of my favourite looking restaurants I have ever visited.  There was absolutely none of the LV excess that I feared.  Again everything was really classy, earthy colours, loads of soft natural light and very inviting.

The star of the show though?  Well it has to be the most open kitchen I've ever seen, there is nothing that cannot be observed from almost every seat in the house.  Walking through the entrance is a real experience as all that separates you from a busy prep bench is a super polished pane of glass (presumably to stop people helping themselves to ingredients), it actually feels in a tiny way like you are walking Goodfellas style through the kitchen or perhaps some sort of weird zoo where chefs reared in captivity are housed.  I absolutely loved the open kitchen and I can't imagine it makes the chefs' jobs any easier being so easily scrutinised so it must be a little bit of a gamble.

Now I'm not really going to spend as much time as usual talking about the food and this is because this was a launch event therefore some of the dishes were not quite the same dishes to appear in the menu and the kitchen had not been cooking these dishes for very long at all so in one or two places things were not quite right and this is absolutely to be expected until a kitchen finds it's feet a little further down the line.  If you want to know how the food is getting on now the restaurant is up and running (the launch event was some months ago, sorry PR people!) just click here or here.  I'll just give you a quick run down of my thoughts on what the Manchester House food is about.

Ajwain cracker bread with carrot butter
Nice little cracker which actually had more flavour than the very subtle carrot butter, visually a perfect match to the natural colours of the restaurant.  You should also note in the picture the visages of talented food bloggers The Hungry Manc and Lickerish Split looking forlornly at our cracker bread as they had yet to receive theirs.  Just look at them being all forlorn.

Oyster, beetroot and oxtail
Right grab your pitchforks and run me out of town because for the second time in one blog post I'm going to out myself as an inexperienced food blogger.  As well as foie gras I've always managed to dodge eating oysters for the simple reason that no one has ever described them to me in a positive way, if anybody out there would like to send me any positive adjectives for oysters I'd be happy to receive them.  Anyway I wasn't dodging them this time!  It arrived with a theatrical plume of smoke and accompanied by an outstanding bread roll which was stuffed with incredibly flavoursome beef, like a meat doughnut.  The oyster itself was full of beetroot flavour and went down easy but the consommé was a little subtle in flavour to compete with everything else going on here.  This dish was reaching for something that it never quite got hold of, probably one of the dishes that will benefit from a few goes round the block.

Roasted pigeon with black cherries and pistachio
This was a beautiful dish to look at and it's simple name hides one big surprise (which I won't ruin) as well as the quite complex nature of the flavours and textures all sitting together. This dish was reaching for something that it absolutely managed to get hold of, no questions asked.  If Manchester House can sustain the quality of this plate of food or even near this quality it is destined for big things.

Bacon and onion brioche with pea butter
Another top class bread, whoever is baking these bad boys needs a pay rise.  I'm not sure if the pea juice was supposed to be a Northern nod to 'pea wet' but either way it was a refreshing counter to the rich brioche.

Prawn cocktail
Well it's not a prawn cocktail is it, just look at it.  Nope this is one of Aiden's dishes off of the telly box.  It was a nice surprise and was quite pleasant but apart from the impressive presentation it wasn't spectacular, the prawn flavour was a little muted compared to the sourness of the sorbet orb.  Clever, interesting and a good reference point for those people who haven't eaten Aiden Byrne's food before but not quite up to the standard of some of the other dishes.

Welsh black beef with grilled mushrooms and salsify
Another Great British Menu winning dish here, the outlandish Flintstones-esque beef dish for two.  Don't take this the wrong way but I did very much enjoy unsheathing the knife supplied alongside the rib cage board.  All the sides were fantastic as was the slow cooked cheek but the fillet, although perfectly cooked, was the least interesting element of the arrangement.

Manchester tart
There is no escaping this Northern reference, a radical reworking of the classic Manchester Tart.  I absolutely loved this dessert, it was pretty and delicate in flavour without sacrificing the same satisfaction that you get from a dirty great traditional Manchester Tart which was a great trick.

So the food on the whole was great and where there were rough edges, as I said before, they can easily be forgiven as the kitchen had not had that essential settling in time.  More importantly I really liked the types of dishes that are coming out of the kitchen with a good split between pushing simple elements (such as bread) to a higher level as well as taking calculated gambles on more challenging flavour combinations.

Great food with a bright future on top of a glorious dining room supported by a fancy bar with warm, relaxed service throughout?  It's got it all but obviously I can't love this place because it's the spawn of Living Ventures, it must be so far removed from that intimate relationship (ooo errr) that I want to see between a chef or restaurateur and their food (and therefore their guests) that this can only win my respect but not my enamour.  Well you would expect that but luckily despite being extraordinarily busy and looking like he hadn't slept for several days Aiden Byrne took the time to visit each table to say hello and have a quick chat.  It only took a few minutes of Aiden's company to decide that his heart and soul is being poured in to this restaurant, that he want's this to succeed very much and most obviously he wants to take on a brand new challenge by completely reinventing his food and his techniques.

Without meeting the chef the only impression of the motivation behind Manchester House would have been Tim Bacon's speech given to the restaurant while we enjoyed a good strong coffee and sadly Tim sounded exactly as I had imagined the man behind LV would sound pontificating about his 'brands', how much money he's spent, how much money he makes, how much more money he wants to make and how nice his holidays are.  Balk.  But that didn't matter because I know there's a man behind Manchester House who cares and so I look forward to returning sooner rather than later to get the full experience.  I don't love Manchester House just yet but I do know that there's room in my heart for this place.

Manchester House on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 21, 2013

Burnt Aubergine with Tahini

We recently had our vegan friends Hannah and Gray over for dinner and wanted to make them some slap up side dishes to go with some BBQ tofu Bailey was making.

We decided to go for a load of Middle Eastern type dishes courtesy of (who else?) Ottolenghi. They all turned out well, our vegan friends were pleased and we didn't miss the dairy but our favourite had to be the beautifully creamy Burnt Aubergine with Tahini. I know I am always posting Ottolenghi recipes but this one was so tasty I just had to.

This was simple to make and the only ingredient I thought we would struggle to find was the pomegranate molasses, but thanks to a bit of helpful Twitter advice, I discovered there is in fact a whole aisle of the stuff in good old Venus Foods. Any excuse to visit that brilliant wee supermarket.

I think another part of what made this so nice was the nice light olive oil we brought back from our holiday in Crete. We made some flatbreads that were great to dip into this but you can get awesome pide breads at Venus that would be fabulous with this I think. If you're looking for a delicious dairy-free, and healthy dip, this recipe is highly recommended!

2 aubergines
70g tahini
60ml water
2 tsp pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 garlic clove
3 tbsp flat leaf parsley
Half a pomegranate
Olive oil to drizzle

Place the aubergines under a hot grill and toast them away, turning occasionally, until the skin is burnt and blackened but the flesh is soft and creamy in the middle. Scoop the flesh out and add to a bowl. Add the tahini, water, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Finely chop the garlic and roughly chop the parsley and add these too. Mix well.

Smother the mixture over a nice deep plate.

Tap the pomegranate seeds out of the pomegranate.

Sprinkle the dip with the pomegranate seeds and finish off with a nice drizzle of good olive oil. Easy peasy!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Tavern Strata

Um, so this is a bit weird, I have been so silly busy lately that I haven't blogged or even really tweeted anything in AGES and here I am posting about a meal we went for in Crete during our summer holidays way back in August. I considered just forgetting about this one but it really was such a good meal (Bailey and I were saying one of our favourite nights out of the summer, if not the year) that I wanted to write a quick post about it.

It was our last night in Chania and after such an amazing holiday, we were hoping our last meal at local favourite Tavern Strata would be one to remember. It was the superb location down a charming little alleyway that first attracted to the place, as well as the atmosphere of fun tangible in the air as you walked past.  It started off well/badly depending on your opinion of the beverage Ouzo as we were presented with a complimentary glass. I'm not a huge fan of the stuff but it did set the mood for the evening of good times at the hands of generous hosts and super fun staff. We followed this up with some of Strata's home made rosé wine which was delightful. Next up a huge basket of bread, some delicious teeny olives and the most amazing home made garlic butter.

We'd also ordered some Dolmathes (the best we'd had all holiday), Tzatziki (the best we'd had ever) and some courgette fritters (very good). The portions were absolutely huge and because everything was so tasty and we are so greedy we couldn't help but dispatch the lot.

This didn't bode well as we'd both also ordered massive main courses. Mine was the Boureki - a carbtastic Cretan specialty of courgettes, mint, potatoes, Cretan cheeses and super delicious pastry a bit like filo but slightly thicker. Again this was by far the best boureki I'd had all holiday and I am pretty glum that I will most likely have to fly all the way back to Chania to taste anything like it again.

Bailey was in an even worse pickle, having ordered the Mixed Grill. This consisted of every type of meat imaginable served on a ridiculous platter with some really good rustic chips, again, the best chips of the holiday.

This was too much meat for one man whose belly was already full of delicious starters to contend with but Bailey gave it a good go. He was helped out by a few friendly local cats that, to our excitement, joined us at the dinner table but he was still unable to put it all away despite it all being very nice and well cooked. This led to a light ribbing from the joker waiters of course.

Just when we thought we were safe to waddle back to the hotel, the waiters only went and brought over a portion of watermelon and some more complimentary beverages - Raki this time. If you've read any of our other Chania posts, you will know that pretty much every restaurant will give you a little bottle of raki and it's apparently quite impolite to refuse to drink it. However the waiters at Strata took it to the next level, telling us they were going to refuse to bring us the bill until we'd drunk every last drop. They then proceeded to fill our bottle back up to the brim and say they wouldn't bring us the change until we'd had that as well. Grr. Fortunately, the owner walked past and, unaware of the gag, brought us the change. Phew.

We absolutely loved our visit to Tavern Strata hence the reason I am raving about it two months later. I still dream of their mega thick and creamy tzatziki and heavenly boureki. Please someone open a Greek restaurant of a similar calibre here in Manchester. And if I don't get free ouzo I'm kicking off.

Unimpressed by raki


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