I never intended to write a review of Paul Rankin’s Cayenne.* In fact, I never intended to visit in the first place.
It was a spur of the moment thing, born out of my wife thinking my idea of roaming around the streets of Belfast until we found a chippy wasn’t the most sensible way to ensure we had some tea on the first night of our visit.**
I expected very little from the place. Actually, that’s not true, I expected to be annoyed by it: underwhelmed by the lifeless fusion cooking of a celebrity chef trading solely on his name; pissed off that the myriad of mediocrity would cost me substantially more than takeaway haddock and chips.
Neither the menu nor the look of the restaurant really appealed to me. I booked us in simply because it was an easy walk from our hotel*** and I’d heard of it. The decision of where to go was being made late the night before we flew – I wasn’t much in the mood for shopping around.
Looking back more than two weeks on, I’m pretty glad that I didn’t.
We arrived at 6.30pm and the dining room was already buzzing; the majority of the tables filled up and everyone exuding Friday Feeling. The lighting and decor were a little garish where we were sat (see above) but this suited the atmosphere, which was much more night-out-on-the-town than relaxed or romantic evening.
Getting into the spirit, and already feeling rather better about the choice of restaurant, my wife ordered a gin and tonic and I a beer while we weighed up our food options. I’ve never been one for set menus, usually being attracted to the far more interesting-sounding dishes on the a la carte instead, but Cayenne’s seemed too good value for money to overlook. £60 would get us 3 courses each, plus a fair bottle of wine, and half the dishes sounded more appealing than those on the main menu. It was music to my wallet’s ears.
Both of us had spiced soft-shell crab to start and it became immediately clear that all my preconceptions of what Cayenne’s food would be like were wrong. Paul Rankin is a TV chef who really gives a shit.
Where I expected flaccid textures and muted flavours, I found crispy freshness and careful spicing. Where I dreaded boring combinations and stingy portions, I got refreshingly different tastes and a hearty plate. It was a dish created by someone who knew what they were doing, cooked by someone who’d been drilled to do it properly.
All the pains of the day, the two-hour delay at the airport, the trauma of leaving Britain for the first time in 8 years, the annoying wrestling fans queued up at our hotel looking to get WWE autographs, were washed away with that dish. There was nothing fancy about it; nothing that would blow anybody away. It was just simple, delicious comfort food, perfect for a man who had done nothing but moan for the last 9 hours of his life.
I’d kill for a place in Manchester that sold that crab dish, and did so by the bucket.
My main course, sesame-crusted hake with lentils and Asian greens, was very much in the same vein: simple enough to remind you of the pleasures of really good home cooking; precise enough in the combination of traditional British and Asian flavours that you know if you tried it yourself, you’d cock it right up. The plate was of the piping hot temperature I dream about when going to restaurants but so rarely ever get. All I could think about was how satisfying it all was; how for a restaurant of this style and at this price point, it really was ticking all the boxes.
Unsurprisingly, the chips I ordered as an extra also hit the spot.
The only misfire of the meal for me was the cheese I ordered for dessert – a fairly bland board, with little in the way of good biscuits or condiments to help it out. It wasn’t bad by any means, but it did have me wishing I’d ordered something else. Far better was my wife’s rhubarb and raspberry crumble – a flawless rendition of the classic pudding which drew a little moan of pleasure from me when I tried it. Your grandma wishes she could cook it this well.
Service was excellent throughout: efficient and friendly despite the busyness of the restaurant. It was interesting to compare this with the relative chaos we experienced at the more upmarket Deanes the following night. Guess which one of the two didn’t tack a discretionary service charge on to the bill?
We left the restaurant with big smiles on our faces, thinking we must recommend it to our friends. This need to share how good the experience was and encourage others to go is the reason why I decided to write this review.
While I’m sure my low expectations probably helped, I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate at a restaurant that was so firmly on the money. If Cayenne was anywhere near where I lived, I’m sure I would’ve already been back.
If you’re in Belfast city centre and you want a nice meal without too much expense or fuss, you definitely need to check it out.
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 49/100 (Good)
*Because I wasn’t expecting to write a review, I didn’t bother taking any pictures.
**I hear there are some fine chippies in Northern Ireland. Annoyingly I didn’t get to try any.
***I say easy walk, but after taking a wrong turn and ending up miles away in a decidedly rough-looking part of the city, we ended up getting a taxi to Cayenne anyway.
Suggest to me a trip away and my response is immediate: “Where’s the best place to eat?”
Doesn’t matter where it is or what we’re going for, as long as there’s going to be spare time while we’re there, my preoccupation will always be to find the finest local restaurant.
My wife really wants to go to the Edinburgh Festival one day; The Kitchin’s already planned.
My family visit a relative on the Isle of Wight every year; The Hambrough is on the agenda for the next time I go along.
I simply can’t help it, it’s just the way my mind works. When some friends of mine announced they’d be getting married near Belfast, I began searching for the city’s best restaurant before I even got the Save the Date.
The place I eventually settled on was Deanes, which is probably the most famous restaurant in Northern Ireland, having held a Michelin star from 1997-2010*. With a convenient location in the centre of Belfast, it seemed the natural choice for the four-day visit.
The first thing you notice about Deanes – and this hits you as soon as you walk in the door – is the atmosphere. This isn’t some temple of gastronomy with a congregation of food pilgrims silently worshipping every dish that emerges from the blessed kitchen. Nor is it a cold, expense-account-fest, filled with uninterested businessmen trying to show off to their clients. It doesn’t feel as if you’re trespassing at an elite club either; a dining room where if you weren’t public schooled and your credit card’s not platinum, you’d get snooty looks from patrons and waiters alike.
Instead, Deanes is a place of celebration, packed full of ordinary locals simply looking to have a good time. It’s informal and lively and you can’t help but get infected with how vibrant it is. Out of all the Michelin and would-be Michelin-starred places I’ve eaten at – and there’s been a few – this was definitely the first where I was certain I’d have a fun evening before my bum touched its seat.
Alas, the second and third things I noticed weren’t quite as positive. Service, while well-meaning, was a little on the chaotic side. One of our main waiters was excellent (hence the decent score below) but the rest were scatty at best. From being asked three times if we’d like to order after we’d already ordered, through requesting the sommelier who never arrived, and having to ask for the bill more than once (and then, after a ten-minute wait, having to ask for someone to let us pay it) it was a bit of a patience tester.
And I was disappointed to find that a couple of fine dining’s more conventional trappings were missing. There was no amuse-bouche. Bread had to be paid for. £4.50 bought a decent but not particularly interesting board; I would’ve expected better for free. Petits fours seemed stingy too, not that we got any as we chose to drink brandy instead of coffee. The two tiny macarons I saw make their way over to one table barely seemed worth the effort.
But these were relatively minor quibbles in the context of an otherwise great meal. It’s the dishes you order which matter the most after all – and, for the most part, they absolutely delivered.
My starter was a celebration of squab pigeon, flawlessly cooked: two succulent and tender breasts served with a delicately flaked leg confit and gory chunks of kidney and liver. The plating was precise, as were the flavours and textures; each mouthful highlighting the quality of the ingredients and the skill and knowledge of the kitchen which created and cooked it. It was easily one-star Michelin standard – there was nothing to fault.
My wife’s scallops with chorizo dish was almost as good. The scallops, while small, were still of stunning quality, fresh and sweet and singing of spring. I’ve never got on very well with chorizo but this was nice too, a more subtle flavour than I’m used to and a perfect accompaniment for the shellfish. The only complaint was there could’ve been another scallop – at this size, two seemed a rather measly portion, and given the relatively large amount of chorizo on the plate, the dish was a little unbalanced.
Both of us were sucked in by the day’s meat special: a 14 oz rib steak with chimichurri and triple-cooked chips. While I regretted not ordering a main that could better showcase the talent of the kitchen, it was still a very strong dish; a substantial piece of high-quality beef, well-cooked with a dazzling Argentinean sauce, full of spice and zing***. I did get a little bit bored with it halfway through and I think it would’ve been better served with the chimichurri on the side so I could mix up the flavours a bit, but it was still one of the best steak dishes I’ve ever had. The Rioja Viña Bujanda 2008, Crianza that was recommended by one of the waiters provided a worthy match.
I had a difficult time choosing dessert, mostly because none of the options sounded that appealing, but I eventually settled on a chocolate pudding with rhubarb several-ways. I don’t think rhubarb and chocolate go particularly well together but this was a fair bash at making it work, helped along by a really first-rate chocolate fondant.
The recommended sauternes (we weren’t told specifically what this was and I don’t recall seeing it on the menu) seemed a rather lazy wine match but it went down nicely anyway, and actually ended up outclassing the food, which lacked some of the harmony and confidence I’d expect from a Michelin-standard sweet. It was a beautiful drink in a beautiful glass.
We rounded off the meal in fine style with shorts of Rémy Martin XO**** and left feeling generally happy with the overall experience. Deanes is not a restaurant I’d make a special journey for, and at £100 a head it was hardly a bargain. However, if I lived in Belfast I’d definitely go back, and if every meal was like this, I’m sure it’d become a firm favourite.
Does it deserve to win its Michelin star back? That’s hard to say. The starters were definitely up to scratch, but the dessert wasn’t and it’s difficult to judge a steak on that sort of scale. If pushed, I’d say it certainly has the potential to win a star again. But my hunch is it’s not quite there yet.
Dining Room: 4/5
Overall score: 67/100 (Excellent – must try for locals)
*The loss of Deanes’s Michelin star in the 2011 guide was blamed on a flood, which forced the restaurant to close down for four months during a time when inspectors were likely to have been doing their rounds. However, it is notable that Deanes failed to regain the star when the 2012 guide came out.
**Apologies for both the starter images – I forgot to take a pic until after we’d started eating.
***Another issue with the service was how the dishes were described – in great and enthusiastic detail by the good waiter or in sparse, confused mumblings by everyone else. The steak in particular could’ve done with more information. The chimichurri was very spicy, which I liked but I know would be too much for a lot of people. A throwaway comment about it being “a sort of salsa” did little to make it clear what it is, how hot it was or how prominent it would be on the plate.
****This was the first time I’d had Rémy Martin XO and it was lovely, but nowhere near as good as the Hennessy for me. It had a richer and deeper flavour, but the Hennessy is just much more sophisticated, with its many subtleties and floral notes and striking bouquet. I really must try the Hine now…
A couple of months after writing up the mixed experience I had at Sheffield’s The Wig and Pen in January, an email arrived in my inbox from the restaurant’s director, Marc Sheldon. He said he was very disappointed to read that the meal wasn’t up to their usual standards and he’d like to invite me (and my wife) back to try their new tasting menu, in the hope we’d have the experience that we should’ve had first time round.
It was a gracious email and we were happy to accept the offer, particularly as the restaurant had shown quite a bit of potential on our first visit.
While I’ll be my usual honest self in this review, it’s worth bearing in mind that obviously we were known to the house beforehand and the only thing we paid for was the tip.
It’s amazing what light can do for a dining room. On my first visit to The Wig and Pen I was reminded of a dodgy Scream bar I had the mispleasure of drinking in on a London theatre break about six years ago. It was corrosively dingy and the cheapest pint was that piss water they call Carling at £3.30 a pop. For a lad who’d lived in Salford his whole life and was at university in Newcastle, that price was a big kick in the balls in 2006.*
After drinking a couple of fart pints, it got even worse. My bank rang me up to say a cheque I’d written for my landlord had just bounced and I was liable for some sort of fine. You can imagine it wasn’t exactly an experience I wanted to be reminded of.
But The Wig and Pen didn’t remind me of it this time, with the early evening sun still pouring in through the windows and our table better lit. It was much smarter than I’d given it credit for and more comfortable too. Not a looker by any stretch, but it already had the meal off to a better start.
This continued into the bread and olives, a far more generous and accomplished platter, which featured decent stabs at white and granary bread. Both were perhaps a touch doughy but the taste was good, each with that indelible quality you get from fresh, home-made bread.
The meal started properly with a consommé of lobster, ginger and carrot, smartly presented with the liquid poured at the table. I’ve eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants that have over-cooked lobster, so I was impressed by how sweet and tender this little morsel was. Unfortunately, the consommé was far too bitter for me (my wife didn’t mind it) and I felt it spoilt what would otherwise have been a very good dish.
Because of that issue, I was a little nervous about the next course, an extremely modern textures of carrot with coconut sorbet, which frankly sounded disgusting and way beyond the capabilities of the kitchen. As it turned out, it was easily the dish of the night and one of the most interesting things I’ve eaten in a long while.
It was just beautifully balanced; the different flavours and textures of pickled and pressed carrot deftly held together by the bizarre and inspired sorbet. It even worked with the puzzling La Carré Sud Merlot wine match, which I didn’t think stood a chance at first taste, but grew into a winning combination the more I ate and drank.
The ingredients weren’t up to the right standard, but there were definitely some Michelin qualities about this dish.
Next was the first hot course, mackerel with apple and bone marrow. The restaurant wasn’t aware of this, but my mother-in-law and her partner were also in the room that evening and were working their way through the tasting menu as well. They raved about this one, but while I enjoyed it, I just felt there was something missing. The skin wasn’t crispy enough and it needed a touch more salt.
An extra dish was thrown in at this stage: smoked duck egg with baby leaf spinach, black trompettes, chive yoghurt and almond. I loved the presentation, with the duck egg encased in a dome of smoke (didn’t get a pic of that – sorry!), and I thought the dish worked really well, helped along by the gorgeous trompette mushrooms and spinach. The only issue with this was the inconsistency between mine and my wife’s plates. Her bright orange yolk was more attractive than mine and runnier, and I felt a little jealous!
It was back to the usual tasting menu from there on in and for the main course we were treated to chicken served in a jasmine consommé with some small vegetables. It was a basic, pared-down roast dinner sort of a dish but it was a nice change of pace and I thought it was delicious.
I have nothing much to say about the rhubarb jelly and parfait that followed, a reasonably forgettable dish that cleansed the pallet and offered little more.** However, the final pudding, a white chocolate parfait with toasted pine nuts and lemon sauce, was excellent. Like the food critic in Ratatouille, on the first bite I was catapulted back to my childhood, reliving the joy I used to experience the times when I made and ate lemon crunch flan. The flavour combinations were exactly the same – perfect and timeless.
My wife seemed to like her dessert even more. A bread base with honey, pear and orange sorbet was a little bitter for me, but she thought it was absolutely brilliant. She told the waiter it’s one of the best puddings she’s ever had, and she wasn’t kidding.
Service was about as good as you could hope for and on the whole, it was a top meal, definitely at the high end of the spectrum for the £50 a head price point. Actually, I think that’s a bit of a bargain for a six-course taster with matching wines.
You can of course think “well, obviously you’re going to say that – you didn’t pay for it and you were given special treatment”, and that’s fair enough. All I can say is that my anonymous in-laws had a similar experience and they paid in full. Already they’re planning to go back to try the next taster menu when the seasons change.
I think there’s probably still an element of The Wig and Pen being overly ambitious with its food, and this was shown by the odd mistake and inconsistency during the meal. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that the restaurant is finally finding its feet and starting to realise some of the promise I glimpsed a few months back.
Marc was anxious to get our feedback on the meal as you’d expect, but he – and all of the staff – seemed to be doing the same with the rest of the diners as well. I think it’s clear that the management here really care about the quality of their offering and are keen to listen to people’s opinions in an effort to be as good as they can be.
As long as they continue to respond to their customers in such a positive way and can build on what’s now looking like some fairly sturdy foundations, I believe The Wig and Pen could definitely be a restaurant to watch.
Dining Room: 2/5
Overall score: 56/100 (Very Good)
*How depressing is it when I spend £3.30 on a pint now, I barely bat an eyelid?
**My in-laws dismissed the rhubarb dish as “jelly and ice cream” and couldn’t understand the point of it on the menu.
The other week I was reading an interview with Nobu Matsuhisa, the multi-Michelin-starred chef behind the famous Nobu chain of Japanese restaurants. I got two questions in before deciding I wasn’t really interested in anything he had to say.
The reason I took the snap decision to just skim the rest of the article instead of reading it properly was down to Nobu – and I know this will sound strange – making it very clear how much he loves rice. You see, I just don’t get rice. I don’t understand how it’s something people can enjoy; how it’s anything more than just dull filler to bulk out a dish.
So, in light of not having much time for reading at that particular moment, I decided if Nobu wasn’t going to talk about a food I find appealing, I didn’t care to hear any more.
The first thing I did when I got back from my meal at Yuzu on Thursday night was dig the interview up and read it from start to finish.
I’d heard a lot of good things about Yuzu, a fairly recent Japanese addition to Manchester’s Chinatown, before my visit. Most of the praise was for the freshness of the ingredients and the supremely polite staff, with the odd mention of ‘fantastic value for money’ thrown in. Not much was made of the rice*, but that wasn’t particularly surprising. Why would anyone waste sentences talking about confetti substitute? The best you can hope for is that the bland grains don’t distract from the food you actually want to eat.
But, inconveniently, the rice at Yuzu was a distraction – a massive one. That’s why I’ve been banging on about it for the last 300 words! I’ve been able to think of little else since.
It was sort of – a little bit – bloody brilliant.
I’m not entirely sure what it was that made it so delicious, or at least, I don’t think I’m capable of putting it into words. It certainly wasn’t that different to every other bowl of rice I’ve had before. It just seemed to be perfect in three (presumably) very important areas: texture, temperature and salt.
I definitely won’t be so dismissive of it again.
The rice was part of our final dish of prawn, salmon and tuna sashimi**, all of which was wonderfully fresh and sweet. Kyotoya in Withington offers a cheaper and more generous sashimi platter, but this was of vastly superior quality, with the tuna particularly good. A small dollop of past-its-best, flavourless salmon roe felt a little out of place, but I could forgive it.
Prior to the sashimi, the food had ranged from solid to very good. Pork yaki udon was cleanly cooked with decent noodles, though the pork was slightly dry and bland and there was nothing special about the pitiful amount of vegetables it came with (I think Kyotoya might have spoilt me in that area).
Chicken katsu, with an excellent golden bread crumb coating but slightly dry meat, was enjoyable as far as chicken nuggets go; the yakitori with sauce, a char-grilled kebab of chicken thighs and spring onions, was of a level you’d find at a merely decent takeaway.
Gyoza was the best of the small plates by far, the prawn dumplings absolutely beautiful, although it probably deserved a better sauce than the meek combination of soy and chilli oil that was served alongside.
The bill for the five courses – easily enough to stuff the two of us – plus four bottles of beer came to a little over £40. For the quality of the food on offer, I think it’d be fairly difficult to do better than that in Manchester city centre.
The staff were indeed supremely polite and the authentic-feeling dining space was very pleasant. As we got up to pay the bill and leave, my wife spotted a specials board with deep-fried whole sea bream listed on it.
“Now there’s a good excuse to go back,” I said.
Dining Room: 3/5
Overall score: 46/100 (Good)
Note: I’ve returned to Yuzu several times since this first visit and each time has been better than the last. I’ve revised the score up on my Restaurant Ratings page accordingly.
*Andrew Stevenson’s review is an exception. You can read it here.
**The sashimi was meant to include scallops but they didn’t have any in.
“What is he doing?” the fat old lady probably thought as she past the scruffy bearded bloke for the third time. He’d been stood in the same spot in the confectionary aisle for well over ten minutes, forcing her to turn sideways and squeeze her ample frame through as she waddled around the shop filling her basket.
She wasn’t alone in noticing – or scowling at – the man, who kept picking things up, staring at them, then putting them back again. The Harvey Nichols staff were peering over too, undoubtedly trying to make sure that nothing fishy was going on, and wondering whether he was ever going to buy anything.
After a while one of them decided enough was enough; let’s see what this fella’s up to, said the steely look in her eye.
“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?”
“No, I’m fine thank you,” was the reply. “I’m just really struggling to make up my mind!”
Satisfied that he was neither loony nor thief, the assistant went back to her till and the scruff’s gaze returned to the rows and rows of Valrhona chocolate that had him so entranced.
It was another five minutes before a decision was made.
Founded in 1922 in a district to the south of Lyon, Valrhona’s generally considered to be one of the best chocolate manufacturers on the planet. Its products are used in some of the finest restaurants in the world to create some of the finest puddings in the world, including the legendary chocolate croustillant at Le Louis XV in Monaco.
Plenty of Michelin-starred places wield the Valrhona name as if it’s the ultimate in quality. Make a dessert using chocolate from another manufacturer and it will simply appear on the menu as a ‘chocolate dessert’; make it with Valrhona and all of a sudden it becomes a ‘Valrhona chocolate dessert’.
More than any other, it seems, Valrhona’s a brand that chefs are proud to show off.*
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not the biggest chocolate fan, but given the widespread veneration for Valrhona, I couldn’t help but place it on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die. Annoyingly, what I hadn’t really thought about until I stood there agonising over a shelf in Harvey Nichols was whether a standard chocolate bar could be a true representation of what’s so good about this company’s products.** And, if it could be, which one should I choose?
I eventually decided the best I could do was just buy a range of bars and rate the lot.
I’ve had a couple of underwhelming experiences as I’ve worked my way through The List over the last year or so, but the Guanaja, 70% really dropped the bar to a new low. It looked and smelled the part, even had a texture that wouldn’t be amiss in chocolate of real quality. But the flavour was virtually non-existent; in depth terms, flatter than a witch’s tit. All I could make out amid the dry, nothing taste of cardboard was a single bitter tone – cheap and unpleasant.
“Don’t worry, you’re not missing anything,” I told my dairy sensitive wife, who’d been very jealous about me conducting a taste test in which she couldn’t partake. “Fucking Bournville’s better than this.”
With a sense of dread starting to set in, I moved on to the Manjari, 64% – a significant improvement in the taste department, although still remarkably unimpressive. If it was Taste the Difference, you’d think Sainsbury’s had lowered their standards – that’s about the level we’re talking here.
Finally I turned to the Albinao, 85%, praying that it’d be the chocolate bar to make all that agonising worth it; to make the £12 or so I’d spent worth it. This was even better still – about as good as a bog standard bar from Green and Black’s.
Oh god what a waste of time. What a waste of money! How little I’m describing each bar is testament to their quality. They were just immensely bland and forgettable; overpriced and an embarrassment to the supposedly prestigious Valrhona name.
I started writing up a blog post to lament the experience; to express my disappointment at Valrhona’s rubbish offering. I got about half way through my vitriolic rant before deciding something wasn’t quite right.
I figured that even if chocolate bars aren’t their main strength, a company as well-regarded as Valrhona can’t be all crap. Perhaps I just got unlucky with the bars I chose? Maybe my palate just wasn’t in the mood that week?
After some thought, I decided I’d give Valrhona chocolate one last chance at redemption. I’d go back to Harvey Nichols, buy another bar and see if it couldn’t change my mind.
The El Pedregal 2011 Vintage, 64% was picked as the company’s final champion.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Click here to read Part 2 of this Valrhona chocolate post.
*I had to laugh when a few days after writing this paragraph I received the menu for a friend’s wedding which listed this as a dessert option:
Deluxe chocolate dessert with brownie, Valrhona chocolate mousse, vanilla bean ice cream and chocolate coated strawberry.
I picked a fresh berry pudding instead.
**I have very loose rules about trying to be fair which you can read in my FAQ.
Those who know me as a lifelong hater of coffee, who only last week was saying how he’d rather shoot himself in the face than go to the Trafford Centre again, might be surprised to hear that a coffee-themed event managed to drag me back to the Hell Mall on Monday.
It’d been six blissful years since my last visit and if anything was going to persuade me to go back I definitely didn’t think it would be the bitter muddy stuff. But I simply couldn’t resist when a PR company for Nespresso invited me along to a coffee and food tasting being run at the brand’s new boutique.
Firstly, I was intrigued to see whether food and coffee pairing works – would the coffee not just overpower everything else? Secondly, I was keen to try the food of Andrew Nutter, the chef from the well-regarded Nutters in Rochdale, who’d been drafted in to design the Taste of Manchester menu.
The food certainly didn’t disappoint. The flavour of the beef in a well-balanced carpaccio salad was the standout for me, but I also very much enjoyed the homely warmth of the pork belly and bean casserole, and the rich creaminess of the panna cotta and crème brûlée dishes.
Unfortunately, the much-heralded Eccles cake was less impressive. It was clear from the way he spoke that Nutter’s very passionate about this local delicacy, but I am too and I didn’t think the espresso shots lacing its innards did it any favours.
As for the coffee pairing, my overriding feeling was that it wasn’t really worth the effort. The chef did a pretty good job of creating dishes that would be enhanced by the coffee, and the drinks definitely brought out notes on each of the plates. But the improvements were so subtle and so small I couldn’t really see the benefit of pouring these liquid exhaust fumes into my mouth to achieve them.
Granted, I don’t like coffee but even trying to be objective I still don’t think it worked. The joy of wine pairing (if you get it right) is that both the food and the drink are improved by the match. They complement each other to create a whole that’s better than the sum of its parts; it’s a loving, caring marriage of flavours.
In contrast, the relationship between food and coffee is that of gimp and dominatrix. The coffee brutally spanks out its flavours and takes absolutely nothing in return. It has all the romance of a ball gag.
I don’t just mean this from a taste point of view either. Temperature was another clear issue. I can’t imagine even the most ardent coffee fan coming away from the evening and deciding next time they do a salad at a dinner party they’ll stick a hot cup of espresso on the side. It was seriously weird.
The only match that came close to success in my eyes was the crème brûlée pairing; the coffee was mild enough and the dish creamy enough that they sort of went together.
I couldn’t help but think, however, that a much better liquid accompaniment could’ve been knocked up by the two mixologists doing wonderful things with espresso martinis and mojitos on the other side of the room.
As I said, the food was good, but I don’t think coffee pairing is going to catch on anytime soon!
Here’s the full menu with pictures:*
TASTE OF MANCHESTER
Cocoa Roast Beef Carpaccio with Chicory and Rocket
Nespresso’s Arpeggio Grand Cru
Slow Braised Pork Belly with a Hot Bean Casserole
Nespresso’s Roma Grand Cru
Nespresso Ristretto Coffee and Toffee Eccles Cake
Nespresso’s Ristretto Grand Cru
Chocolate and Malt Crème Brûlée
Nespresso’s Dulsão do Brasil Grand Cru
I must say – my feelings on coffee aside – it was a very enjoyable and interesting evening. I was genuinely impressed by the Nespresso store, its products, its staff and the way the whole event was put together. It was all very slick.
I obviously can’t comment on the quality of the espresso itself, but it did seem to me that the company has something really unique and exciting going on with this new offering. While it’s evidently not up my street, I do hope some other drinks manufacturers take a leaf out of its book.
Nespresso’s luxury boutique at the Trafford Centre is now open. Visit www.nespresso.com
*As mentioned, there was also a panna cotta dish but I have neither the full details nor a clear photo of that so I’ve left it out. If you look closely at the Eccles cake snap, you’ll see it loitering in the background.
Nothing ever seems to go right for me when I plan a gourmet holiday. Shops and markets are never open on the days I want them to be; restaurants are always booked up. I can’t count the number of times my schedule has been waylaid by mysterious ‘private functions’, which crop up with unnerving regularity whenever I dare to make a booking inquiry.
Have I told you that the queen ruined my honeymoon plans last year? Well, she did. We’d been planning to go to The Waterside Inn on night one ever since we got engaged and the whole week was arranged around it. So desperate were we to guarantee our table that I rang them up the very second the booking window opened to make sure we got in.
“I’m sorry sir, but the restaurant is closed that evening for a ‘private function’. Would you like to book for another day?”
Turned out the royal family had reserved it for some sort of celebration.* We were forced to reorganise the entire bloody week!
Naturally, as I shuffled hotels and restaurants around, more issues cropped up. We couldn’t get into Gordon Ramsay. Then we couldn’t get into Le Gavroche. I had no problems booking Alain Ducasse – which was always on the itinerary – but when I rang them up a few weeks beforehand to inform them of my wife’s dairy allergy they said they had no record of the booking at all!!
The guy at the end of the phone fortunately agreed it was the restaurant’s fault and sorted us a table anyway, but he didn’t manage to do so before my head exploded, splattering big gooey lumps of excitement and good will all over my bedroom wall.
The original plan had been to do all the country’s three-star Michelin restaurants in a week, in this order: The Waterside Inn, The Fat Duck, Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse (with a night at The Dorchester).
After a month of headaches, we eventually settled for: Hibiscus, Goodman, The Waterside Inn and Alain Ducasse (with a night at The Dorchester). Not too shabby really, but a bit of a pain to cobble together.
Annoyingly, I’ve been going through the exact same pain again as I try to set up another gourmet holiday in London this June. It’s gone like this:
We wanted to spend the last night with a room and dinner at The Ritz.
The Ritz was unavailable.
We booked a night at The Dorchester instead and tried to get into Le Gavroche.
Le Gavroche was unavailable.
I uttered the following phrase: “God this is irritating. Ah well, at least we won’t have a problem going back to Goodman – who books a steak house so far in advance?”
Goodman was unavailable.
I uttered the follo… actually, that probably doesn’t bear repeating.
I just seem to have no luck with these things; no luck at all. I know these places are popular, but when I go to book them as soon as is humanly possible, I’d expect to hit more often than not. It’s not like I’m trying to get into an El Bulli or a Next or somewhere where you might have to pay a few hundred quid on eBay in order to be sure of a reservation.
I know two different couples who are going to Le Gavroche in April and booked without a hitch. How is it they got in so easy? I expect the Jubilee has something to do with it. Yet again I’ve been thwarted by the queen with her sodding celebrations!**
Anyway, I should probably stop complaining. If there’s anything to be learned from going through this experience again, it’s that you should always have a back-up plan for this sort of holiday. And the great thing about London is it’s pretty damn easy to come up with a back-up plan that’s just as full of awesome.
My restaurant itinerary for the four-day trip is as follows:
Dinner at Hawksmoor Seven Dials
Lunch at The Ledbury
Dinner at The Square
(we’ll eat here when we stay at The Dorchester)
There should also be time for a visit to Borough Market…
…and a macaron raid on Pierre Hermé.
I’m pretty happy with that!
It’s almost inevitable that some things will go wrong when the week actually comes. Lowlights from last year included a three-hour train delay on the way down and a ‘meal’ at an Angus Steakhouse.
But as long as the latter doesn’t happen again, I think we’ll be alright. I’m very much looking forward to it!
*Or at least I’m fairly sure that’s the case. It’s certainly a more interesting story with the queen involved, so let’s stick with it…
**I don’t mean that really. I love the queen. She can thwart me all she wants.
I love writing scathing reviews. There’s nothing more fun than donning the hat of mean and being a complete and utter bastard.
I’m much better suited to making negative comments than positive ones, or at least that’s how I feel. I certainly know far more insults than compliments. There’s just a pleasure to be had from constructing phrases of harsh ridicule that isn’t there when writing praise. I think I’m better at it, and when I have bad things to say, I reckon my posts are more interesting.
So do forgive me if I bore you to death while recounting my meal at Aumbry, which last week gave me the best meal I’ve ever had in Greater Manchester.
It’s the little things and how well they’re done that make Aumbry such a good restaurant. The tiny dining room – a converted domestic lounge which looks to seat 28 but felt nicely full with half that number on my visit – is a wonderful place to eat. Quaintly adorned and warmly lit, it’s cosy and intimate and has a lot of character. The open kitchen at the back provides a refreshingly un-showy focal point.
The team of waiters is small too – and magnificent. I can imagine it’s very difficult to get the balance right in a place like this, where high-end food demands rigid formality but the dining room calls out for casual friendliness. Each of the two staff members walked this fine line with aplomb, proving extremely efficient, charming and knowledgeable as they flawlessly tended to our table.
The small things done well theme continued into the food, where a focus on the little details gave everything a lift.* The bread wasn’t particularly special but the bread course was. Two types of butter including a wonderful brown nut variety were served in one pretty little pot; joyous beef dripping – the bread accompaniment of all bread accompaniments – was served in another.
In the nine-course tasting menu, it was the little things that outshone everything else. The Scotch eggs were excellent but it was the ketchup that made the dish, a luscious red sauce that had me raking at the plate to scoop up every drop. A hexagonally-cut mushroom, an ingredient so often an afterthought, was immaculate too. On a plate of turbot – my favourite fish – the itty-bitty frogs’ legs stole the show. On the cheese board, it was the beetroot and rhubarb condiments that stood out and sparkled.
Given the passion the kitchen clearly has for the fiddly bits, it’s perhaps not surprising that the first two dishes were the most successful. The most diminutive, refined and delicate of the lot, each of the morsels they encompassed was delicious individually; combined they truly excelled.
Home-smoked mackerel with poached rhubarb and mustard cream was my favourite, an absolutely dazzling dish from the top end of the 1-Michelin-star spectrum. But the home-cured ham with Derbyshire oatcake and potted cheddar that preceded it was every bit as good. My wife’s dish of the night – the Scotch egg – completed a very strong first act.
I didn’t feel the middle part of the meal quite reached the same heights, but there was still plenty to adore. The hogget was beautiful; the pearl barley and braised shoulder served under it inspired. I’ve already mentioned the frogs’ legs, but the smoked eel pudding was just as big a delight.
I did have a couple of quibbles, however. The cauliflower and oat groat porage wasn’t really to my taste,** and it felt a bit like porage overload given its similarity in texture to the hogget’s pearl barley accompaniment. There was a lapse in the precision cooking in this section as well. In fairness, it was the only blip during the whole meal, but it was not an insignificant one: the turbot was overdone.
The final act started with an attractively presented cheese board – six different varieties of cheese, three different condiments, two different ports, one big dose of heaven. This was followed by two very capable, if slightly uninteresting, desserts. Each was well-made, but I felt they lacked a bit of the imagination so prevalent among the other seven courses. Still good, mind!
The full menu (£60) with matching wine (£38) is below. All of the wine pairings worked well and I’d highly recommend it if you have the nine-course tasting menu.
Home Cured Inglewhite Ham
Potted cheddar & Derbyshire oatcakes
Prosecco di Valdobbiadene 2009
Home Smoked Mackerel
Poached rhubarb & mustard cream
Chablis ‘Le Grand Bois’, Domaine Grande Chaume 2008
Bury Black Pudding Scotch Egg
Mushroom relish & tomato ketchup
Morgon Les Charmes 2009
Cauliflower & Oat Groat Porage (v)
White onion purée & cauliflower cheese beignet
Lapostolle Chardonnay Cuvée Alexandre 2009
Roast Wild Turbot
Smoked eel pudding, frog’s leg, parsley root & verjuice
Picpoul de Pinet, Languedoc 2010
Slow Cooked Herdwick Hogget
Pearl barley, braised Shoulder, smoked shallot, crispy lamb belly, Madeira jelly
Crozes Hermitage, Etienne Pochon 2009
British & Irish Cheeses
Rene Mure Gewurztraminer Late Harvest 2006 & Krohn Colheita Port 1978
Celery granita & grapefruit sherbet
Chateau Jolys Jurancon 2008
Beetroot & Chocolate Cakes
Heaton Park honey, hazelnut, caraway & bee pollen
Jean Bousquet Malbec, Dulce Naturale 2007
Overall I had a fabulous meal at Aumbry. It wasn’t just the best I’ve had in Greater Manchester, it’s the best I’ve had in Greater Manchester by a long, long way. The couple we got talking to at the table next to ours seemed to be having a similar experience, breaking out the superlatives for every dish. There were just so many high points and nothing much in the way of a low. The four of us agreed that places this good don’t really exist around here.
I want to give a special mention to how well the kitchen catered for my wife’s dairy allergy. I’ve complained in the past about expensive restaurants promising it won’t be a problem and then doing a terrible job of it, and it’s always a big fear when we splash out on a meal. But Aumbry were outstanding; as accommodating as any place we’ve ever been. Discussing it afterwards we decided they were probably as good in this area as Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, and better even than The Waterside Inn (both three-Michelin-starred restaurants, in case you didn’t know). A specially-made dairy-free chocolate petit four was the icing on the cake.
I’ve already convinced my family to give Aumbry a try – we’re planning to head back to celebrate my dad’s birthday in May. But if you live in Greater Manchester, you really need to try it too. I’m pretty sure it’s the finest restaurant in the county. And I doubt you’ll be disappointed.***
Dining Room: 3.5/5
Overall score: 69/100 (Excellent – must try for locals)
Note: I returned to Aumbry in June 2012 and took some pictures of the experience. You can read that review here.
*I forgot to mention the pre-meal nibbles: a couple of decent gougères and some seriously addictive crisps.
**I’m not saying the cauliflower dish was bad, just not up my street. I don’t particularly like cauliflower, nor am I that into foods that have a grainy consistency. Interestingly, when I discussed the meal with my sis-in-law’s fella, who’d eaten at Aumbry a few weeks earlier, this was the dish he really raved about. Different strokes…
***In case anybody is wondering where the food pictures are, I didn’t bother to take any. I was enjoying myself so much I didn’t remember my camera until after the bread, following which I decided snapping away would probably detract from the experience. Certainly, it would’ve been distracting, and I’d rather have a great meal distraction-free than a blog post full of pretty pics.
There are few places in Manchester’s centre that are as charming as Sam’s Chop House, a haven of Victoriana in a 21st century city. The below-street-level timbered bar, with its olde-worlde fittings and characterful warmth, is as good a room to drink in as any in town. The dining area – a tiled jewel every bit as pretty as the centuries-old Paris bistros tourists go so wild for on holiday – is even better, and for years it had food to match.
I vividly remember my first visit in 2005, when I was left awed by an incredibly simple but immaculate plate of smoked salmon, seasoned only with capers, egg and spring onion. An award-winning roast dinner followed: generous slices of stunning beef, gravy made from the pan juices, one crisp giant of a Yorkshire pudding, beautifully cooked buttery veg and that ultimate restaurant rarity – acceptable roast potatoes.
I went back time and time again for the roast when I lived in the city centre. The portions were monstrous but I’d order other courses when I felt manly enough. There was the legendary brown onion soup, cooked for three days ‘til rich and sumptuous, and deeper than a poem by Sylvia Plath. There was the house-made corn-beef hash, a luxurious take on the tinned working class favourite; comforting and tasty enough to be a serious contender for a death row last meal.
It wasn’t entirely consistent, but the fabulous surroundings and wine list were always the perfect plaster for any cracks. Sam’s was, quite simply, the best place to eat lunch in Manchester.
Last week, after a two-year hiatus*, I decided it was finally time to go back.
The usual crowd was in for a quiet Tuesday lunchtime. A few City-types enjoying business lunch over a bottle; an old retired couple trying admirably to conquer a full three courses. Not wishing to spend too much money or be full to bursting, we elected to just have two courses and drink beer.
My hanger steak carpaccio had decent flavour and went well with a watercress, radish and horseradish coleslaw, but it felt more like sandwich filling than a complete dish. Certainly, it would’ve been more interesting between two thick slices of white bread, and I probably wouldn’t have felt so cheated by the portion size.
My wife’s starter of scallops with ham hock and a butternut squash purée was better but similarly uninspired. The purée was sickly sweet and the scallops, though well-cooked, were dismally small. The combination of hot scallops with fridge-cold ham hock and lukewarm butternut squash was slightly disconcerting.
(We did take pictures of both of these, but they were crap, so I’m not going to bother putting them in.)
One disappointment I experienced on an earlier visit to Sam’s was a dish of belly pork that was absolutely delicious but didn’t have any crackling with it, which sort of defeats the point of pork belly as far as I’m concerned. Seeing crackling specifically mentioned on the menu this time, I couldn’t resist giving it another go, and I found myself disappointed all over again.
The skin itself was fine, though nothing more than that; the pork was very dry. Stodgy black pudding mash and somewhat out-of-place slices of mustard swede completed the dish. In a lot of pubs this would be adequate fare, but not in Sam’s, a place that one critic once said did “cooking like your mother wished she could”. I can’t imagine many keen home cooks being proud of this.
The best bit of the meal was probably the chips served with my wife’s steak, although in a world where the triple-cooked variety is becoming increasingly common, they’re nothing to write home about. The steak seemed to be a lovely piece of beef, but of course in this meal of letdowns it was unevenly cooked; one half the requested medium, the rest more or less well done. It wasn’t a patch on the steak I remember ordering from here back in the day.
The bill came to £66, which included three-and-a-half pints of Stella Artois and a 10% service charge. This seemed rather expensive given the quality of the food and compared to what we’d be able to get for the same price elsewhere in the city (a far better meal at The Mark Addy, for example). It was by no means a terrible experience, but it was thoroughly average.
In the past, when I went to Sam’s Chop House, there was always a bit of magic about the place. If something wasn’t right, there was normally something else to make up for it; at the very least, there was the feeling that next time it would all be right again.
Regretfully, on this visit, the magic was gone. Unless it’s just for a drink, I don’t think I’ll be going back.
Dining Room: 4/5
Overall score: 42/100 (OK)
*In case you’re scratching your head and wondering why I stopped going if I loved it so much, I had to cut back a lot on restaurant visits between 2009 and 2011 as I saved up to buy a house and pay for a wedding. It’s only been open season again since August and now I don’t live in the city centre, lunch at Sam’s is no longer as convenient as it used to be.
I think it takes real balls to open up a serious restaurant on West Didsbury’s Burton Road. There are few, if any, places in Manchester that offer such fierce competition. Dozens of eateries lie in the vicinity, including several of the city’s most successful and revered.
Directly across the road from The Rose Garden sits Rhubarb, “the only restaurant in West Didsbury to be recommended in the Michelin guide”.* Around the corner is the granddaddy of the local dining scene, The Lime Tree, which has been picking up awards for decades.
But if such competition has had an adverse effect on The Rose Garden, you’d never be able to tell. With a menu and dining room that ooze confidence, it was completely full when we arrived for our 9pm booking on a Saturday night and it was still buzzing when we left almost two hours later.
A friendly waitress seated us at a small but serviceable table by the door. First impressions were far better than I expected them to be. Pictures of the restaurant online made it look like this bleak, dystopian nightmare of a place – snowblind-inducing white walls with cold splashes of modern art. But packed to the rafters with people it was warm and intimate; a lovely space to be.
There were a lot of good options on the menu, so it took us a while to make up our minds. My wife drank a gin and tonic whilst perusing while I got straight on with the wine, a perfectly acceptable Vina Cobos Malbec Felino 2010.
It took about 30 minutes for our starters to arrive but mine, I felt, was worth the wait. The well-cooked glazed pigeon breast was in perfect harmony with the crisp salad, sweet popcorn-esque toasted walnuts and tart orange vinaigrette served alongside it, and it all went down very nicely. It wasn’t the most exciting of dishes, but definitely a very pleasant way to start the meal.
(‘Pick the walnut shards out of the tooth cavity’ was a fun game for my tongue to play between courses.)
While I was eating that, my wife had a black pudding and venison scotch egg, which would’ve been great had it not been let down by a couple of things: a disappointingly overdone egg yolk and far too much black pepper. The combination of flavours was good, with the chutney particularly outstanding, but it wasn’t executed as well as it could’ve been.
For mains we both ordered two-way beef – a 4oz fillet with braised shin, fidget pie and roast tomatoes. This wasn’t as ugly as the below picture suggests and definitely didn’t merit my wife’s suggestion that someone had “shit on the plate”, but it wasn’t going to win any prizes for presentation. What could win prizes, however, was the absolutely incredible shin of beef, which brought up memories of all the best stews I’ve had in my life and showed them two fingers. The chef’s heavy-handedness with black pepper aside, this was about as good as warm, homely comfort food can get.
A little too good, if I’m honest, for the fillet steak. This wasn’t a bad chunk of meat by any means and it was well-cooked, but it was easily outshone by its rustic partner. The contrast was interesting for a bit, but I think I’d rather have done without it. The superb fidget pie and tomatoes were accompaniment enough.
Each of us had a different tart for pudding: an orange and pistachio tart with blackberry compote and clotted cream pour moi and a Bakewell tart for the missus. Both were pretty solid efforts and I don’t have much to say about either, other than I’d happily eat them again. Dessert wine options weren’t particularly strong, but there’s worse things that can happen.
Service was charming and efficient, and the whole evening was very satisfying; that I went home afterwards and cracked open the Hennessy XO says volumes about what a good time we had. My only real complaint about what was otherwise an excellent meal is that the prices (£7 starters, £20 mains, £6 desserts) seemed one or two pounds higher than they should’ve been. But given how packed the place was, the locals are clearly happy to pay this much.
And for a meal this good, so am I.
Dining Room: 3/5
Overall score: 49/100 (Good)
*I don’t rate Rhubarb at all, having had a very poor lunch there a couple of years back. But a lot of people do seem to like it.