Monthly Archives: October 2011

Food #6: Beef Rossini

Every so often you come across a recipe which instantly makes you think to yourself: “How the hell have I never heard of this before? How is it that this food is yet to pass my lips? Where is the big pile of broken glass I can crawl over – fly unzipped – to get it?”

Beef Rossini (aka Tournedos Rossini), invented by king of chefs and chef of kings Auguste Escoffier* in tribute to the famous composer, conjured up all these feelings and more when I first read about it towards the end of last year and immediately went on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die. How could it not when the basic recipe consists of pan-fried fillet steak, a slice of whole foie gras, a crouton, black truffle and a Madeira demi-glace sauce?

Have we all stopped slobbering yet? Good. Then let’s carry on…

I’ve harped on before about how much I love beef, but what I haven’t touched on is how scared I am of ordering it in restaurants these days – or at least how scared I am of ordering it in restaurants that don’t specialise in dead cow. I’m genuinely frightened of it being a disappointment. Beef is my favourite food in the whole wide world and if anything short of stunning arrives on my plate, I’m going to wish that I ordered something else instead.

So it says a lot about how appealing beef Rossini is that I ordered it without hesitation when presented with it on a menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester this summer.**

The dining room at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester's dining room

The menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

The menu (exterior)

The menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

The menu (interior). Our waiter arranged for chef Jocelyn Herland to sign it for us.

The version they serve at Alain Ducasse is slightly different from what I’ve described above. Instead of a crouton, there was a thick piece of toast. The truffles and Madeira demi-glace were combined in a Périgueux sauce. Crunchy cos lettuce drizzled with vinaigrette, which you’d imagine was just a side, was a fundamental part of the dish.

And it was all so perfect; I couldn’t imagine it being done any other way. The beef and the foie gras and the truffle sauce just belonged together, offering an exquisite marriage of richness and corruption that you only tend to find among Premier League football club owners.

The toast soaked up all the flavours beautifully and added some extra texture to the plate. The freshness and acidity of the dressed lettuce cut through the richness like a guillotine in 1793; its vibrant green helping my eyes to survive the onslaught of brown.

Combined, it tasted like the greatest burger you could possibly imagine. It was absolutely brilliant.

(You can see a picture of it on the Food Snob Blog here.)

The kitchen obviously deserves a lot of credit for cooking it all so precisely, and the amendments to the traditional dish (lettuce, toast) were masterful. The delightful sacristain potatoes that accompanied – peppery, spiral crisps that take a staggering amount of work to produce – iced the proverbial cake with further texture and flavours.

But the real kudos should be reserved for the inventor of beef Rossini – whoever that may be. My overriding feeling, as I pushed knife and fork into the centre of the plate*** and waited for one of the excellent waiting staff to take it away, was that I’d just eaten one of the world’s great dishes. A recipe conceived by a genius – one that if you stay faithful to it, will deliver time and time again.

I’ve had much better beef than the fillet steak I had here. I’ve had better foie gras too. In fact, I had superior versions of both ingredients mere days before my trip to Alain Ducasse. But I’ve yet to have a whole dish involving either beef or foie gras that was anywhere near as good as this beef Rossini.

To be honest, I might not have eaten anything as good in my whole life.

Verdict: Highest possible recommendation

NEXT UP: Rum Baba [at any Alain Ducasse restaurant]

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*This seems to be the most common belief anyway. I’ve seen it said that Escoffier’s roi de cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois forebear Antoine Carême actually came up with it – either way, beef Rossini is a dish with serious pedigree.

**I was also thinking that if I can’t trust a three-star Michelin restaurant to get beef right, I might as well just give up eating the stuff altogether.

 ***I loved the plate, by the way. It looked very plain, but there was a really subtle, almost imperceptible, decline towards the centre, which pooled the sauce and saved me having to chase it around the plate with the other ingredients. Just one of those little details that makes you realise the amount of thought and effort a restaurant like this puts in to trying to give you a perfect dining experience.

Christmas pudding

Delia Smith Christmas Pudding

I’m back to a home-made Christmas pudding this year after buying one from the supermarket in 2010. It can be quite an expensive affair if you don’t already have the requisite booze in, and I’ve yet to have one sufficiently superior to what you can buy in the shop to convince me it’s worth the effort.

But it’s a helluva lot of fun putting it together and my wife just couldn’t resist. Let’s see if Delia’s recipe is better than the rest we’ve tried!

The picture above shows the pudding after it’s been steamed for the first time. It’s now going to sit in a dark room for the next 8 weeks until it’s ready for Christmas Day.

By the way, I’m sorry for the sparseness of posts in the last few weeks. Between a stomach bug, a dead laptop and busyness at work, I’ve not had a lot of time for writing, but things should be back to normal from next week.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing some tweaking to the About page and I’ve also been working on the Best Restaurants in Manchester list, so that should be up fairly soon. My next Foods To Try Before You Die post on Beef Rossini is in the pipeline as well, so stay tuned!

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011: Manchester Whisky Festival

MFDF11 logo

When it comes to whisky, I’m a total novice. I drink it most frequently on nights out, after I’ve decided my stomach’s nearing capacity and another pint of lager will probably make me puke. The places I tend to end up in don’t sell the ‘good stuff’ – and I doubt I’d be in any fit state to appreciate it anyway – so typically it’ll be Bells or Jack Daniels. Ice may be involved, depending on my drunken whim.

This is the sort of whisky I’m used to.

Occasionally I’ll indulge in a nice short if I’m in a fine restaurant and I’ve just had a very satisfying meal; it can be the perfect way to cap off a wonderful evening. But it’s rare I’ll actually choose what I order. I’ll generally just describe the taste I’m after and allow the barman/sommelier/clueless waiter to work their magic.

This approach has led to me being served some brilliant whiskies down the years, and not being able to remember the name of a single one.

I looked on this month’s Manchester Whisky Festival, part of the Manchester Food and Drink Festival and organised by The Whisky Lounge, as an opportunity for exploration. A learning experience, if you will. For £20, the price of a cheap bottle, I hoped it would give me the chance to try a wide range of whiskies and allow me to decide – and recall – what I actually like.

Underpinning it all was the desire to find a high-class bottle to stand on my living room shelf; one capable of residing alongside the Hennessy XO cognac that’s on there and not looking an inch out of place. A bottle to be reserved for special treats and pick-me-ups; to remind me once in a while of all that is right with the world.

Glenglassaugh Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 26-Year-Old

Glenglassaugh Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 26-Year-Old

That bottle might well have been the first that I tried.

I wasn’t in the best of moods when I turned up to the The Lowry Hotel for the 11am festival session. If it wasn’t bad enough that I’d made the schoolboy error of picking the sesh that meant I was going to miss the 12 o’clock match between Manchester United and Liverpool, like a right nobhead I’d also left the tickets at home.

The hour my wife and I had set aside beforehand to have a relaxing cup of tea with my mother in the Marks & Spencer cafe was instead spent on a hectic and expensive taxi round-trip to pick the tickets up. And the worst thing was, it was completely my fault.

I was livid as I queued up to enter the conference room; furious as I quickly glanced around at the busy stands and picked an empty one to start off with. Even as the good people from Glenglassaugh told me their history and took me through their whisky manufacturing process sip by sip, I was still seething at my own stupidity.

But when I was given the opportunity to try the Glenglassaugh Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 26-Year-Old that had pride of place in the centre of the table, all the feelings of annoyance drifted away.

The picture I’ve included here does scant justice to how attractive the bottle was, with the simply curved lines of the mostly-plain bell-shaped vessel allowing the gorgeous honey-coloured whisky to shine through. It was hypnotically beautiful – I couldn’t stop staring at it – and clearly very expensive. I figured it was just a showpiece. Not for one moment did I ever expect that they’d open it up and allow me try it.

I’m not a one for tasting notes*, but let’s just say that it easily lived up to its £149.99 price tag, both on the nose and the palate. As I savoured it, and the anger subsided, I thought to myself: “You’re a lucky bugger getting to drink this. I think it’s going to be a good day after all.”

“I reckon you’re right,” I thought back. “Just one problem though – I think we’ve made the error of drinking the best whisky in the room first.”

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky

Based on what we sampled in the following three hours**, I think my initial assessment was correct. Nothing came close to matching the majesty of the Glenglassaugh. The second best whisky I had was probably King Car, the latest release from the distillery of the same name based in Taiwan.

The company was apparently making its debut at a European whisky festival and they proudly told me how their Kavalan whiskies have been wiping the floor with scotch at a bunch of major awards shows in recent years. It was pretty clear to see why. There was a uniqueness to their flavours, and a freshness and vibrancy that really set them apart.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if when they finally launch in Europe next year, they end up being a huge hit. I certainly know I’ll be buying a bottle (as long as it’s not too expensive).

Ardberg Uigeadail

Ardberg Uigeadail

The only other whisky that really stood out to me was the Ardberg Uigeadail, a highly revered drop from Islay. It stood out mostly because I didn’t really like it. I could appreciate that it was a very fine drink, perhaps the second best in terms of quality that I had all day. It just wasn’t to my taste, which I found really surprising. Given its reputation, I’d thought Ardberg might be the brand for me.

But in fact, I didn’t really like any of the Islay whiskies, or anything from anywhere else that was advertised as ‘peaty’. They just tasted of decay; like whisky that had been infused with the rotting lung of a chain-smoking cancer victim. I’m not quite sure what there is to enjoy about that.

On the whole, the day was extremely interesting. I felt like I learned a lot and moved a good few steps closer to working out what sort of whisky is right for me.*** The event was very well-organised and welcoming and the perfect place for a novice to begin a journey into this world.

I didn’t buy a bottle in the end. The Glenglassaugh’s a bit too expensive for me and I’ll need to do some research to come up with a suitable alternative. But the Manchester Whisky Festival certainly got me thinking. And that’s all I ever wanted it to do.

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*If you’re interested, the Glenglassaugh website calls it “a complex whisky with rich sherry notes, combined with a medley of boiled fruits”. Seems fair enough.

**Four hours might seem like a long time, but it’s definitely needed. An event like this is nothing like the Big Indie Wine Fest, where you can go hell for leather at the booze from start to finish. You need to take your time with this one, or else you’ll probably die. Our strategy was to try out a couple of stands, sit down for 15 minutes or so until we stopped feeling wobbly, then move on to another two. Once we’d done eight or so it was time to leave.

***Highland and Speyside seemed to be up my street, and the milder whiskies, with notes of fruit and sherry. The harsher ones that tasted of emphysema and death didn’t do much for me, but it’s possible as I get older and my tastebuds change, I might grow to like them.

Restaurant Review: Smoak

The best steak restaurant in Manchester has been Gaucho for years. But now there’s a new sheriff in town.

Smoak is a restaurant that tries much too hard. Everywhere you look its desperation to be ice cool glares back. From the rustic lanterns that hang over some of the tables – and cause great irritation every time you have to duck around them when standing up or sitting down – to the ghastly metal-finished oil cans and sacks used as decoration, and the groan-inducing plumbed-in buckets that act as urinals in the gents, it’s a place that makes you want to roll your eyes like a teenage girl whose dad has just told her friends he’s a Lady Gaga fan.

I’m trying to imagine how drunk they were at the design meeting where it was agreed that having metal beakers for water is a good idea. Presumably it was at the same meeting where they decided they were going to put the dessert menus on the back of the placemats and the staff should all wear t-shirts.

(Because lord knows, when you’re dropping down £30+ for a steak you want to feel like you’re at TGI Fridays…)

Of course, I shouldn’t neglect to mention the glass butchery in the middle of the room, with its dead cow parts hanging from hooks. I’m by no means adverse to steakhouses showing off their produce in this way, but like most things at Smoak, it just feels false. As if the person who came up with it wasn’t thinking “let’s allow our customers to see our meat raw and up close, they’ll appreciate that”, but more “think how cutting edge we’ll look if we have a glass cage stuffed full of carcasses”.

It’s a wonder that the meat is actually real, given how staged it is. I was slightly surprised not to see a wagon wheel in there alongside a cardboard cutout of Clint Eastwood.

The over-the-top design continues into the food. Half a dozen oysters* were served in a ludicrously oversized bucket, with so much crushed ice in it I half expected to find a pre-transplant organ inside. The bone holding the marrow that accompanied the steak was so large you could beat someone to death with it – and I had half a mind to as I struggled to eat around it on the plate.

But at the end of the day, I’d much rather go to a restaurant that’s desperate to impress than one that doesn’t try at all, and where Smoak gets it right, it gets it very right indeed.

Take the dining room. Despite my quibbles above, it’s a very pleasant place to eat. Bright, airy, smart, it’s a world away from the gloomy, vomit-inducing garishness of Gaucho, which looks like Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen was asked to design a brothel for cowboys.

And the steak is good. Very, very, very good. I suspect Smoak’s ownership of a Josper Grill might have more to do with it being the kitchen gadget du jour than a desire to grill meat to perfection, but it doesn’t change the end product. My bone-in sirloin was flawlessly cooked: a textbook medium rare with a char on the outside to die for – the kind you only ever really get from a Josper.

The Belted Galloway beef was of fine quality too. Not at the same level as the meat I had at Goodman in London this summer, but easily as good as anything I’ve ever had in Manchester. With precise cooking and seasoning, and the Rolls Royce of grills at his disposal, the chef rang every ounce of flavour out of it he could, and the result was a steak that was truly sublime. Better than any I’ve had in this city; better than almost every other steak I’ve had.

The rest of the food was perfectly serviceable: the chips were solid, there was nothing wrong with the mushroom, the bone marrow was nice, despite its unwieldy presentation.

And the winelist was surprisingly friendly, offering a decent choice under £25 where I’d been expecting to find one or two wines at best.

But for me, anything beyond the steak at Smoak is pretty much irrelevant. It makes up for all the restaurant’s deficiencies with aplomb, and anything else that’s good about the place is merely a welcome bonus.

I think this change of opinion from my wife sums it up best. Before the meal, as it took us 30 minutes to get a drink at the incompetently staffed bar, she told me that she hated it already and wanted to leave. She spent the entire first course moaning and picking fault with the place; savaging it far more than I have in parts here.

And then three bites into her steak, after groaning with pleasure and uttering the words “oh my god”, she asked if it could become our new special restaurant – the place where we go to treat ourselves on birthdays and other occasions. The beef had wiped all the negatives away and left her eager to come back.

It did the same for me as well.

I’ve enjoyed going to Gaucho in recent years. I even went on my stag do and had a fantastic meal, perhaps the best yet out of five or six visits. In a lot of ways, it still sets the standard for this type of restaurant in my home city. But I can’t see myself going back anytime soon.

Based on grilled meat alone, there’s a new best steakhouse in Manchester. And its name is Smoak.

Smoak Grill on Urbanspoon

Food: 13.5/30

Service: 5/10

Dining Room: 4/5

Experience: 7.5/10

Overall score: 55/100 (Very Good)

 

Note: I returned to Smoak in June 2012 and had another good experience, although not as good as first time around. I’ve revised the score down on my Restaurant Ratings page accordingly. If you plan to go it’s worth looking around online for any discount offers as they seem to run these quite regularly. We had a 50% off food voucher on the latest visit, allowing us to share an excellent 900g wing rib sirloin (click link for picture) for the bargain price of £26.

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*That’s another item ticked off my Foods To Try Before You Die list…

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011: Big Indie Wine Fest

MFDF11 logo

I received an email through today from the fine people at hangingditch wine merchants, revealing that I, along with around 200 others, had done spectacularly badly in the blind taste test they were running at Manchester Food and Drink Festival’s Big Indie Wine Fest over the weekend.

My excuse for only getting two out of the six wines right and therefore not winning whatever the hell the prize was (was there one? Things got a little bit hazy around that point of the afternoon…) is that I’d probably consumed well over 50 wines in the preceding three hours of constant drinking and as such my tastebuds were well and truly buggered.

If my ability to discern flavours beyond alcohol is not a strong enough justification for my complete and utter failure, then prepare to be shocked when I reveal that I was also a little bit drunk.

You see, I firmly believe – and I hope you all agree with me here – that spittoons are for the weak.

Manchester Food and Drink Festival wine

A picture from the aforementioned hangingditch email. Is it me, or is there something slightly familiar about some of the people on there?

Despite being a budding oenophile, I’ve never been to a wine tasting or any other wine-related event before. The Big Indie Wine Fest at the People’s History Museum was my first bash at it, and it was absolutely fantastic.

For £10 entry, my three companions and I were able to try dozens and dozens of wonderful and interesting wines and meet several wonderful and interesting vendors (plus the odd dickhead). While there were inevitably quite a few mediocre bottles knocking around, the standard was mostly very high and with plenty of the typically £10-£12 wines living up to or exceeding their price bracket, there’s no doubt that I got my money’s worth in booze.

We were given a tasting glass and a tasting guide as we walked into the hall where the wine festival was taking place. There were more than a dozen different stalls set up around the sides of the room, each with anything from two to 12 different wines to try. All of them had a spittoon next to them (for the WEAK! I said) and the good ones had water available as well.*

Anybody thinking they would never go to an event like this because they’d expect it to be intimidating, whether it’s a fear of not knowing enough about wine or some misplaced feeling of class inferiority, should think again. All four of us rocked up scruffy as you like and nobody batted an eyelid. The most knowledgeable member of our group (me) would fit quite firmly into the category of ‘wine novice’, while the least knowledgeable would come under ‘I don’t like wine, I think it’s rubbish’.

Yet, to a man, we had a brilliant time. Even the wine-hater found plenty to enjoy after I suggested red might be a little more to his tastes. Once we got over the initial few minutes of “I don’t have a clue what we’re meant to be doing”, it was pure gold.

Without a doubt, I’ll be going to more of these things in the future and I’ll be recommending this event in particular to anybody who’ll listen. Seriously, you should give it a try – I doubt I’ll spend many better tenners this year.

Three vendors stood out above all the rest, so I’ll give them a bit of attention here:

Origin Wines (Taste Buddies) – All the wines on this stall were from small producers based in Italy, France and Spain and you could taste the care that went into each and every one. Several were brilliant, those that weren’t were at least interesting, and along with every single one the charming scouse bloke behind the stall was able to give us stories and jokes that helped to bring them alive.** Particularly memorable was just about everything made by Luigi Giusti, or “my mate Giavanni”, who also did a wonderful extra virgin olive oil. I plan to buy a lot.

Pacta Connect – Regretfully we only came to this lot right at the end, but the lady behind the stand was fantastic and made sure we got to taste all the Croatian wine they were offering before we got kicked out. I’m sure I’ve never had Croatian wine before, but even to my then knackered tastebuds, there was something new, exciting and refreshingly different about the bottles on this stall. I’m eager to try more.

Porto Vino – Not everything on this stand worked – I summed one up as tasting like “wet dog” – but when the wines did it screamed value for money. I promised my wife I’d buy her a bottle of the magnificent Moscatel de Setubal Sivipa dessert wine and we’re seriously considering foregoing the usual bottle of Champagne on Christmas morning and quaffing a sparkling Quinta da Romeira instead. At £15, it was a third of the price of the cheapest Laurent Perrier being poured on the other side of the room and it wiped the floor with it.

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*Water is a must for this type of event. The tasting glass will get pretty dirty once a few different wines have been poured into it and if you don’t want to spoil the drinks coming up with remnants of those already consumed, you’ll want to be able to wash it out regularly over a spittoon (for the SMART!).

**The Origin Wines man was doing a masterclass that evening, which you had to pay extra to get into. I’m pretty sure we got a good dose of it for free at the stand.

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011: Cheese Fest

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011 logo

I’ve been having a great time at Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011 since it started on Friday. Out of everything I’ve tried so far there have been two main standouts: the Big Indie Wine Fest, which I’ll cover in another post, and the cheese on sale in St Anne’s Square.

The market they’ve got there is dominated by cheese vendors, who must make up at least a quarter of all the stalls. The quality of some of their produce is ridiculous and has comfortably outshone everything else I’ve got around to tasting in the last few days.*

The easiest stall to be drawn to is that run by the Saddleworth Cheese Company, which is owned by Sean Wilson, who played Martin Platt in Coronation Street. His celebrity is clearly a major selling point – a huge picture of him decorates the stand – and I’m sure they get a lot of business solely because people want to be served by the male nurse off Corrie. But try their cheese, speak to them and you’ll soon see the business is much more than just a gimmick.

Sean’s partner in fromagerie, who has something of the Johnny Rotten about him, is brilliant.** Dashing around the stand making sure all the potential customers try all of the cheeses, he’s extremely passionate and charming; someone who clearly loves his cheese and just wants everybody else to love it as much as he does. He explained to us how all the different varieties were made, where their individual flavours came from and generally did a bloody good job of convincing us we needed to buy some.

With a friend, I purchased all four of their products: Muldoons Picnic (crumbly Lancashire), Hows yer father (creamy Lancashire), Mouth Almighty (tasty Lancashire) and Smelly Apeth (blue). They were all very good, but the award-winning blue was clearly in a different class from the rest.

Four big blocks of cheese – Mr Rotten went out of his way to make sure we got the four biggest slices as part of the four for £10 deal – would normally be enough to keep me going for a while and I had no intention of buying any more. But on a second visit to St Anne’s I ended up getting sucked back in by the fine folks from the Cheshire Cheese Company, who sell some very interesting cheese indeed.

Alongside your traditional mature cheddars and creamy Lancashires, they make some very weird and wonderful truckles, flavoured with ingredients such as toffee, curry and jerk spice. They’ve got a relatively large number of cheeses to try and that they’re able to pull all the strange ones off without making anything truly disgusting is extremely impressive – although I’d imagine Taste of the Raj and Sticky Toffee Heaven probably get a bit much once the novelty wears off.

I bought three rounds off them for £10: Robinsons Old Tom Ale & Mustard Cheddar, Bowland Mature Lancashire, Apple, Sultana & Cinnamon and Traditional Cheshire. All are pretty great, but I think the Old Tom is my favourite.

The final cheese I bought was from the French cheese stand, the name of which escapes me. Looking around at it and struggling to keep the slobber in my mouth, I wanted to kick myself for spending so much on cheese from other stalls when I could’ve got some from there instead. I was looking for a non-dairy cheese for my wife and picked up a beautiful gooey, unpasteurised goat’s cheese, which I think was £3. It’s easily the best cheese I’ve had from the festival so far and I feel I need to go back.

Of course, there are plenty of other cheese vendors – including the famous Mrs Kirkham’s – in St Anne’s Square at the moment and I suppose I should probably try them all for, erm, the sake of fairness. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it…

Besides, I’ve opened a bottle of port all special. Can’t let that go to waste now, can I?

Taylor’s 20-Year-Old Tawny Port

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*Cheese has even outshone these rather addictive pork scratchings from The Crusty Pie Company, which I’m munching my way through while I write this post. They’re also available in St Anne’s Square.

**Besides the food, getting to meet the producers and vendors is the best part of MFDF or any other food festival. Obviously not all of them are cut out for speaking to members of the public, but when you come across a real character who cares so much about their produce, it’s really cool.

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011 logo

The highlight of this year’s culinary calendar in Manchester, MFDF 2011, gets underway tomorrow. The Manchester Food and Drink Festival has been running since 1998 and for me it’s by far and away the best foodie experience the city has to offer.

Manchester has often been sneered at for its lack of really high-end, Michelin-star standard restaurants and quite rightly so. For a city of this size to offer such little in the way of gastronomic brilliance is a bit of a joke. Edinburgh and Birmingham can do it, so why can’t we?*

But for 11 days every year, the place I call home offers up the MFDF, or as it should be titled, “The Engraved Apology”. A fantastic celebration of food and drink that goes a long way towards making up for the shortage of gourmet treats during the rest of the year.

I’m not going to do a preview, as there are way too many things to cover and half the fun lies in just turning up to the Festival Hub outside Manchester Town Hall and seeing what’s going on. Over the years this unguided approach has rewarded me with dozens of freebies, countless enjoyable cookery demonstrations, an item off my Foods To Try Before I Die list and my first ever three-Michelin-star food.** You really can’t go wrong.

(Besides, the official website will tell you everything you need to know.)

But what I will do is outline my plans for the next few weeks and say how excited I am to get stuck in.

The plan for tomorrow is to head down to Albert Square on my lunchbreak and see what’s on offer. They’re making a big thing about street food this year, so I’m hoping there’ll be lots of things to choose from for a dinnertime gorge. After I’ve finished work, I’m going to go back again with some friends and give the beer tent a thorough examination.

(Like many people, I imagine, I’m going to be trying to walk that delicate line between nicely drunk and too drunk to enjoy the rugby at 6am on Saturday morning.)

After England are done giving France a darn good thrashing in the World Cup quarter-final***, I’m off to the Big Indie Wine Fest at The People’s History Museum. I missed this event last year, so I’m doubly keen to go this time, even if it ends up more hair of the dog than sophisticated wine-tasting (from the sounds of it, it was a bit like that last year anyway…)

I’ve got a table booked at MFDF champion The Mark Addy immediately afterwards and am eager to see if they can deliver me a meal as good as they did last month. The restaurant actually first came to my attention at MFDF a while ago when I saw a great presentation by chef Robert Owen Brown. Not sure if he’s on again this year(?), but if they’ve not invited him back, someone needs shooting with one of those gun cartridges he serves herbs in.

Sunday I’ll probably rest, but I intend to be back again throughout the week to see what else I can treat myself with. I’ll definitely be there on Saturday, when I’ve got tickets to the Manchester Whisky Festival at The Lowry Hotel. I enjoy whisky, but I’m a complete and utter novice, so I’m hoping this will point me in the right direction and send me down the path of the connoisseur.

Can’t wait until tomorrow. Let the consumption commence!

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*The new Michelin UK guide came out today, and surprise surprise, Manchester didn’t feature again. You can see the full list, including the three restaurants in Birmingham and five restaurants in Edinburgh to carry a Michelin star, here.

**A note of caution here – I’m pretty sure that it was MFDF that one year had a Heston Blumenthal stand, but I’m not 100% certain. Why he’d be up here for another event I don’t know, but even if that was the case, it’s still a story I like to tell.

It wasn’t long after The Fat Duck had been named the world’s best restaurant, but as Heston was barely on TV at that time, few people knew who he was and as such nobody seemed to care that two of his development chefs were sat in a faux ice cream truck outside G-Mex selling three-star-Michelin food. There was literally nobody there when I went up to sample a red wine slushed ice and millionaire shortbread and I remember thinking how crazy it was that here was food from a world-renowned genius chef and nobody in Manchester gave a shit. Maybe that’s why we have such mediocre restaurants.

Anyway, my first taste of the three-star stuff didn’t exactly blow me away. The millionaire shortbread was perfect, but it was about the size of my thumbnail, so was hardly something you could savour for long. The ice was interesting at first, but was very one note and quickly became boring and sickly. I think I threw some of it away.

***I’m trying to be optimistic. France are terrible. We’ll be alright, won’t we?

You can read further posts on MFDF11 below:

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011: Cheese Fest

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011: Big Indie Wine Fest

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011: Manchester Whisky Festival

How to choose a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris: The result

I like lists, as you can probably guess. This whole blog has been built around one and, in the coming weeks and months, more are going to be built to go around the whole blog.

One of my favourites is my Restaurant Wishlist – a top 25 (or thereabouts) of the restaurants I would like to eat at more than anywhere else in the world. France, as you might expect, is the dominant player, occupying ten of the places. Three-star Michelin restaurants in Paris make up four of the top ten, in positions 2, 6, 7 and 8.

If you’d asked me to predict what would happen when I worked through my eight-point system to decide where to eat in Paris next year, I definitely wouldn’t have guessed #7 would come out the winner.

(click that link for a refresher of the rules before we begin)

Ledoyen looks like an incredible restaurant, right at the cutting edge of world cuisine. It got the full 30 marks for Step #1: Food Quality and was the only restaurant to pick up the maximum 20 for Step #2: Menu. Its most famous dish, Spaghetti, Jambon Blanc, Morilles et Truffes is on my list of Foods To Try Before I Die, but pretty much everything it offers looks like it’s worth shoving down my gullet before I snuff it.*

It’s cheap as well, at least by the standards of three-Michelin star restaurants in Paris (ie not cheap at all, but relatively so). The tasting menu at Ledoyen will cost you around €199 a head. Only L’Astrance is cheaper. It’s even less expensive than Le Jules Verne at the Eiffel Tower – and that only has one star to its name.

I’d go vegetarian for an entire month – the most extreme endurance test I can think of – if someone would take me. But Ledoyen is not the restaurant I will be visiting next year.

Three-Michelin-star food at L’Ambroisie, Paris

L’Ambroisie is another place with a fabulous reputation and a very appealing menu. It’s not as modern as Ledoyen, but it more than makes up for it in opulence. Luxury ingredients dominate the various courses and its dining rooms have the grand, palatial decor to match.

After Steps #1-4, it was equal with Ledoyen at the very top of the leaderboard and surged ahead after Step #5: Website.**

If someone rang me up today and said they’d booked a table and would fly me out there on the condition that I cut off a toe, I’d tell my wife to run and fetch the pliers. But I won’t be going to L’Ambroisie next year either.

Besides these two restaurants, there were just three others left in the running by the time I’d reached Steps #6/7: Price/Maths. Le Bristol and Guy Savoy, neither of which are on my Restaurant Wishlist, had both done much better than expected, thanks to consistently solid scores and excellent (English) user-friendly websites. Nevertheless, they too fell at the final hurdle.

Le Bristol’s dining room. For my money, the second prettiest three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris. (Note: since this post was written, this restaurant seems to have moved to a less attractive dining room elsewhere in the hotel)

The failure of these two I didn’t mind so much. Neither scored the full 30 points for food quality and, as such, I doubt either could deliver the ‘meal of a lifetime’ I’m after. I don’t want to settle for a dinner that is merely superb; I want a magnum opus of cookery. An experience so wrought with divinity that when I have kids I can point to it and say: “Look at what the expense of your existence has cost me – and for what?!”***

It’s the kind of meal I’m hoping will be delivered by the clear winner of my three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris competition: Le Meurice.

The dining room at Le Meurice

Le Meurice is a restaurant that seems to have it all: an attractive menu, food of the highest order, a massive reputation. Its Palace of Versailles-inspired dining room could stand toe-to-toe with the purdiest I’ve ever seen (Le Louis XV in Monaco and The Ritz in London, if you’re interested) and give it the old Rocky Balboa. Its website smokes those of Ledoyen and L’Ambroisie like a pair of Woodbines, and while it’s €40 a head more expensive than the former, I wouldn’t need to sell any kidneys in order to be able to afford it like I would with the latter.

Here are the full results:****

I should say, the more I’ve looked into Le Meurice since it came out on top, the happier I’ve been with it as my choice. It’s in an iconic location, opposite the Tuileries on the Rue de Rivoli. It’s in a world class hotel – part of The Dorchester Collection – where I might consider staying the night.*****

An executive room at Le Meurice, Paris

And the fact that it’s in a hotel and one that’s historically kind to English speakers reassures me that there will definitely be no issues with language.

Hopefully they’ll be used to thicko foreigners like me!

 

January 2013 note: Yannick Alleno, the chef who won Le Meurice its third star, has now left the restaurant to focus on other ventures.

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*If you don’t mind dribbling uncontrollably on to your keyboard, take a look at these gorgeous photos of Ledoyen by one of my favourite food bloggers, Ulterior Epicure. He’s been to quite a few of the other Paris three-stars as well, although unfortunately not the one I’m going to.

**This wasn’t exactly hard. The information on Ledoyen’s barren website would struggle to fill a lonely hearts ad space.

***I’m going to be an awesome dad

****L’Ambroisie is so extortionate that its price dragged it down to last place, although it’s probably a bit better than the 19 given here – they’ve launched a new and improved website since I marked it. If you want a more detailed breakdown of all the figures, just ask.

*****One thing I’ve found in recent years is that it’s so much better once you’ve had an amazing dinner to be able to just retire upstairs to bed, rather than have to go out into the street and find your way back to wherever else you might be staying. Having to travel on a full stomach, even if you’re just walking down the road or taking a short cab journey, somewhat spoils the experience, I think. Stay in the same place and the fun doesn’t have to end until after breakfast the next day, by which time you’ll probably have had enough.

How to choose a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris

In the next 15 years, I might only get one shot at a ‘meal of a lifetime’. In 2012, I’m going to Paris, and that’s probably going to be it. Money’s one reason, the prospect of kids another. I have to be realistic and concede that there isn’t going to be too much fine dining going on in my immediate future.

Basically, I need to make my one shot count.*

Three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. There are four and only Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck is considered truly three-star worthy. Not even that is thought to be a match for the very best restaurants abroad.

I’m not saying you won’t have a great meal at any of the top British places. Indeed, I had fabulous experiences at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester and The Waterside Inn, both of which I visited recently. But if you’re after culinary perfection and want to see what it tastes like at the absolute pinnacle of world gastronomy, you’ll have to travel to a foreign country to find a restaurant that fits the bill.

Luckily for me, Paris seems to have quite a few.

Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris, where Alain Ducasse has another three-star Michelin restaurant

There are currently ten restaurants in Paris with three Michelin stars.** I can only afford to go to one, but the choice is too rich and the stakes are too high to just pick it off the cuff. I need to make sure I go to the RIGHTone. A place that not only offers the food dreams are made of, but can offer it with exceptional service to an ignorant Englishman and his dairy intolerant wife, neither of whom can speak a word of French.

So I’ve done exactly what I have to do when faced with any tough decision: I’ve made a spreadsheet in Excel, invented a tremendously geeky 100-point scoring system, and done some research.

Here’s the result – my 8-step guide for choosing a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris:

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Step #1: Food

Whole Grilled Sea Bass with Sweet Spices at the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris

The first thing to look at, naturally, is the quality of the food. These places don’t send free samples of their dishes 400 miles overseas, unfortunately, so what you’re after is reviews of each restaurant that are trustworthy, comparable and that allow you to score them out of 10.

Andy Hayler and his essential 3 Star Restaurant Guide website, which features reviews of every three-star Michelin restaurant in the world, is a great place to start. His opinion is one that I rely upon and he’s scored all the three-stars out of 10 for you already, so it doesn’t take much work.

Food is obviously one of the most important factors, so it needs a suitably hefty weighting within a 100-point system. I multiplied Mr Hayler’s marks by three, to give a score out of 30.

Step #2: Menu

The front of the menu at three-Michelin-starred Le Pre Catalan in Paris, along with the first page of starters. Note the scary prices.

The second thing to do is track down menus for each of the restaurants and rate them based on how exciting they look. This is much more time-consuming and a bit of a pain, but it’s essential if you don’t fancy going in somewhere blind.

A few of the restaurants only have menus available on their websites in French, so it can take a bit of effort to find out what is what. Some of the others don’t have menus available at all, so you’ll need to fish around on review sites (thanks again Mr Hayler) to get a vague idea of the sort of food they offer.

The menu’s not as a important as the quality of the food, but it is more important than some of the steps coming up, so I’d suggest giving these marks out of 20.

Step #3: Dining room

The stunning three-Michelin star dining room at Le Meurice in Paris

After that, look up pictures of the restaurants’ dining rooms. A combination of Google Images and official websites should see you right, but again Mr Hayler has the odd snap and the Food Snob blog can be good.

This might not be as important to some as it is to me, but my thinking is: “Can a meal truly feel special if you’re sat somewhere rather ordinary? Not if you’re paying these kinds of prices, it can’t. I want to eat in a place that looks and feels amazing.”

Score this out of 10.

Step #4: Star quality

The iconic and revolutionary three-star Michelin chef Pierre Gagnaire, whose eponymous flagship restaurant is based in Paris

It’s great being taken by surprise and wowed by somewhere you’ve never heard of before, but there’s something extra exciting about being cooked for in a prestigious restaurant by a superstar chef.

Think about the reputation of the place and the foodie bragging rights you can attain by going there, and add another mark out of 10.

Step #5: Websites

A snapshot of the all-French website for the three-Michelin-starred L’Arpège in Paris

This is hugely superficial and I might be way off track, but my fear of eating in a restaurant where I don’t speak the language and having to explain an allergy are forcing me to put a lot of stock in website quality. I want it in English, I want the menu to be in English and I want to be able to book online. To me, these things say: “We welcome English custom and will accommodate English people as best we can.”

The ones which are completely in French or simply consist of a blank page and a phone number (I’m looking at you, Ledoyen), do not.

Mark this out of 30.

Step #6: Price

The price of the 2011 autumn tasting menu at Le Meurice. It’s not the cheapest in Paris, but by no means is it the most expensive.

If you don’t have a limitless budget, you should probably be hunting around for the best value. Look at the cost of the tasting menu and note this down. If you can’t find the cost of the tasting menu, or the restaurant doesn’t offer a tasting menu, just make it up. You can generally get the jist with a bit of Googling.

Don’t give the price a mark, leave the number exactly as it is.

Step #7: Maths time

My Excel calculations. My wife called me a geek when she saw this, but she had no idea I was secretly kicking myself for not adding the code to round the totals up and down automatically. I’m sure that would’ve changed her mind.

Take your score out of 100 (steps 1-6 added together) and divide it by the price. Multiply by 100 and round up or down to get a whole number. Whichever ends up with the highest overall rating is the three-star restaurant you should visit.

Example based on average scores: (27 + 12 + 8 + 6 + 14) / 280 x 100 = 24

Step #8: Cheat

If the restaurant with the highest score doesn’t look like the one for you, then change the mark weightings until you get the one you want.

Let’s just say the website score didn’t become out of 30 until I needed it to…

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And there you have it. A completely foolproof (aka not at all foolproof) way to choose a three-star Michelin restaurant abroad.

In my next post I’ll reveal what happened when I fed some numbers into my system and which of the ten restaurants came out on top.

Anybody care to take a guess where I’m going?

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*I started writing this post days ago and I’ve still not been able to get Lose Yourself by Eminem out of my head. I suppose that’s what you get when you talk in clichés.

**The ten, as of October 1st 2011:

L’Ambroisie

L’Arpège

L’Astrance

Le Bristol

Guy Savoy

Ledoyen

Le Meurice

Pierre Gagnaire

Plaza Athénée

Le Pre Catelan

 

You can read the follow up post to this one here: How to choose a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris: The result

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