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A foodie confession

There’s a great shame that haunts my life; an unforgivable horror which stalks me wherever I go. It plagues my daydreams and breeds my nightmares, this feeling of raging, unconfined guilt.

I can imagine myself at the Pearly Gates as St Peter carefully weighs out all the good and bad things I’ve done over the course of my life. The scales just about lean in my favour and I’m starting to believe that heaven awaits when the Keeper of the Keys produces this golem, tipping the balance irrevocably the other way.

“I thought you might have forgotten,” I say meekly, as St Peter opens up the shaft to hell. “Dear child, a sin so heinous shall never be overlooked,” he replies and casts me down.

As I descend, I’m almost certain the eternal terrors that await will be themed around my great folly, this moment of infamy that I will never be allowed to forget. And I’ll think to myself that I deserve it, while the crime runs over and over in my head.

I once spent £24 on a chicken sandwich.

I once spent £24 on a chicken sandwich!

I once spent £24 on a chicken sandwich!!*

Now, in a sane world, this would be the bit where I tell you about the big dollop of caviar that was plonked on top, or the truffle-ridden salad, or the side dish of whole lobster. You could mmm and ahhh an understanding and think to yourself “extravagant yes, but I can see where the money went”.

But it is not a sane world and the sandwich had none of these things. It had two slices of bread, nuggets of battered chicken, a green salad, tomatoes and a dressing. That was it. No fancy adornments, no side dishes, nothing.

Yes I was in the bar at The Dorchester. Yes it was my honeymoon. Yes it was a damn good chicken sandwich.** But £24? Just what was I thinking?!

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*What form a sandwich-themed hell would take, I obviously cannot say – I’m sure the devils are more creative than I am. But I’d bet a lot of money on it smelling like Subway. And I reckon those acrid cucumbers you get in Ginsters butties would also be involved.

**And I do mean impeccable. I couldn’t fault a thing. Even the tomatoes – my food nightmare in waiting should I ever become famous and get invited on Saturday Kitchen – were divine.

Restaurant Review: Kyotoya revisited

Reviewing a restaurant just a few weeks after I last visited and reviewed it feels a little strange to me. In the past (see Mark Addy), I’ve simply tacked a few comments about the revisit on to the end of the original post because there’s not much more I need to say – certainly not enough to write a whole new article.

But Kyotoya last night was the first meal I’ve had since setting up the blog where I’ve bothered to take pictures,* so I figured sod it, let’s give it a go!

The dining room at Japanese restaurant Kyotoya in Withington, Manchester

There were two dishes I was desperate to eat on my second visit to Kyotoya: the shichimi chicken breast I adored so much last time and the spicy whole sea bass, which I’d heard good things about. Being a budding fatso and in the position of choosing food for the whole table of three, I also ordered the shichimi salmon and shichimi beef, and the house special fried rice and fried noodles.

The salmon arrived first, alongside a delightful beansprout salad. I’ve never used the word ‘delightful’ to refer to anything featuring beansprouts before, as I’ve traditionally considered them an abomination. But there was nothing soggy or gritty about this salad; nothing so stringy you could floss your teeth with it. This was just supremely fresh and crisp, and the perfect foil to all the meat we were about to consume.

(I did take a photo of the salad, but it was crap, so I’ve left it out.)

The salmon itself was moist and full of flavour, but had a little bit too much soy sauce on it for my tastes. I don’t know what else to say about it, which probably says enough. I’m glad I ordered it, but I don’t think I would again.

Shichimi salmon at Japanese restaurant Kyotoya in Withington, Manchester

Salmon shichimi, grilled in a garlic and chilli sauce

While we were busy eating the fish, the beef arrived, cooked nice and pink in the middle and with wonderfully crisp fat. Going off its appearance, I was expecting it to chew like a rubber band, but it was so tender you could pull it apart with chopsticks and it melted in the mouth. Unfortunately, it was salted to the point of mummification, which held it back from being the dish of the night for me.

Shichimi beef at Japanese restaurant Kyotoya in Withington, Manchester

Beef shichimi

The rice, noodles and chicken came more or less together. A wanton dusting of black pepper spoiled the rice to the point of unpleasantness, but the noodles – with prawns, salmon, bok choi and assorted veg – were lovely. The chicken was every bit as gorgeous as I remembered it; so succulent, so juicy, and so, so, so addictive.

Special fried noodles at Japanese restaurant Kyotoya in Withington, Manchester

Kyotoya special fried noodles

Shichimi chicken at Japanese restaurant Kyotoya in Withington, Manchester

Chicken shichimi

After we’d demolished the shichimi, it was time for the main event – the spicy whole sea bass**, which was stuffed with a leek, lightly battered and deep fried before being dressed with a spicy sauce. I don’t think there are many more exciting things in a restaurant than being presented with a whole fish to share, and this definitely looked the part: an angry monster fish, roaring up from a blood-red lagoon. Every diner in the restaurant turned their head as it was brought out; it was stunning.

Spicy whole sea bass at Japanese restaurant Kyotoya in Withington, Manchester

Spicy whole sea bass

Spicy whole sea bass at Japanese restaurant Kyotoya in Withington, Manchester

If I’m honest, it didn’t quite live up to expectations. The meat was a touch overcooked and it didn’t pack the flavour I’m used to with sea bass. That said, the sauce was spot on and the crispy skin was incredible; there was a great big dose of happiness with each salty, crackly bite.

We’d eaten far too much food by this stage, but we still managed to polish the fish off, autopsying it until every shred of flesh was found and devoured. Despite the faults, I’m struggling to think of a single restaurant dish in Manchester which comes anywhere near this in terms of value for money. For £12, it’s an absolute cracker.

Spicy whole sea bass at Japanese restaurant Kyotoya in Withington, Manchester

On the whole, this meal was a sizable step up from my first experience of Kyotoya. There were far more highs from the food and the lows were all fairly minor. There were no service issues to speak of and I’ve even grown slightly fonder of the dining room, thanks to a seat that allowed me to watch the kitchen and kept me out of the path of the hurricane winds which blow in under the door.

The improvements did come at a price. We visited at 6pm – too early for me – when the place was pretty much empty, and we spent around £6.50 more per head, although admittedly this was for far, far more food.

Nevertheless, I think it was a price well worth paying. Even at £20 per person, including wine and beers, Kyotoya is a bargain. And now I’ve revised its scores up, I make it the second best East Asian restaurant in the city.

I said this last time, but I’ll say it again – if you live anywhere near Withington, you definitely need to go.
Kyotoya on Urbanspoon

Food: 9/30

Service: 5/10

Dining Room: 1.5/5

Experience: 7/10

Overall score: 41/100 (OK)

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*I should apologise for the standard of the images. I can assure you that in real life, the salmon didn’t look like the chicken and the sea bass wasn’t served on a plate of gore. At the moment, I’m just experimenting with photos using a crappy cameraphone. Once I’ve worked out what I’m doing – and whether it’s something I want to continue doing for my restaurant reviews – I’ll upgrade to a proper camera.

**Do bear in mind if you go and want the sea bass (they do a sweet and sour version as well), you’ll need to pre-order it.

Restaurant Review: Kyotoya

Sometimes you come away from a restaurant struggling to work out where the meal went wrong. The food’s good, the service is good, the ambience is good – even the company is good – but the overall experience is pancake flat.

“Meh, it was OK,” you tell a friend when they ask you how it was afterwards – and you secretly hope they won’t press you to elaborate. Explaining why you don’t like something when you don’t really have a reason takes way too much effort.

Kyotoya, a tiny Japanese diner tucked away on a Withington side street, is not a restaurant that fits into this category in any way, shape or form. If truth be told, it’s actually the antithesis of all I’ve described.

Bear with me for the next few hundred words while I slag off the multitude of things it does wrong and try to explain exactly why it is that I can’t wait to go back.

Kyotoya reminded me a little of the cafe in Coronation Street, only Roy and Hayley have better taste in décor and they don’t arrange the tables to look like the aftermath of a fight between two sumo wrestlers. It’s small and drab and student canteen-y and if you end up sitting directly in front of the door like I was, you’re going to need to wear your coat for the duration.

The ‘service’ on offer made a mockery of the word. Each person’s dish was brought out separately, with what seemed like an age in between. My sister-in-law’s plate of six dumplings was empty by the time my sashimi platter rolled out. If a pregnant lady was this late she’d need to be induced.

The only thing you could rely on with the service was that the food would turn up at least 10 minutes after you started wondering how long it takes for starvation to kick in. Over the course of the meal we learned if you want something from the staff, the only way of getting it is to stand up, walk over to the counter and ask. If we’d waited for them to do the rounds, I think we’d still be there now, a week later, dying of malnutrition.

There were a few problems with the food as well. The tuna and salmon sashimi lacked flavour, the latter so much so that it tasted of nothing at all. My seafood yakisoba could’ve been named a vegetable yakisoba for all the fish it contained. Two rings of octopus, two small prawns and some incredibly tiny pieces of tuna do not a seafood dish make. You get more in a Spar economy fish pie.

Yet, while any of these issues alone would normally have me vowing never to return to a restaurant, and all of them together would typically leave me seething, I exited Kyotoya with a big smile on my face, looking forward to my next visit.

Why? Well, first off, besides the above, some really great food was put down on the table. The octopus sashimi was excellent; sweet, succulent, sublime. The prawn sashimi was almost as good; fresh as a daisy and gorgeous with a bit of pickled ginger and wasabi.

Chicken dumplings and salt and pepper spare ribs were several cuts above anything you’d expect to find in a joint like this. The noodles – between us we tried three different types – were all wonderful. Even the veg that dominated my yakisoba was good. The freshness of the ingredients and the clean way they’d been cooked – there was nothing greasy at all about this food – made me very happy indeed.

The star dish was chicken with garlic; a chicken breast that had been marinated – perhaps even poached – in coconut milk, with a garlic and soy dressing. It was beautifully moist and incredibly moreish and I was extremely envious that it wasn’t me who’d ordered it! It’s the best bit of chicken I’ve had all year.

The second reason I’ll be heading back is because it was so easy to put the service issues down to a culture clash and take them with a pinch of salt. The staff were supremely friendly, polite and generous. Asked if we could have another bottle of white wine, they said they only had a quarter bottle of it left, but we could have it on the house. While we sat waiting for the bill, they wheeled out complimentary plates of ice cream for us all. Small gestures, but ones that made me feel very welcome.

The third and final reason is the price. It was dirt cheap. The bill was the sort that makes you open your eyes wide in disbelief before checking through to make sure nothing has been missed off. 14 dishes (including the ice cream) plus a bottle and a quarter of wine and three beers came to £67.50. That’s £13.50 a head, a total steal given the quality of some of the dishes and the portion sizes. They gave the five of us more food than we could eat.

Kyotoya probably isn’t a place worth going out of your way for – I couldn’t imagine anybody coming away from it thinking that they’ve had a really special meal. However, the food is so good in parts that if you live in the area, you should definitely make the trip. At the very least, give their takeaway service a spin. If I lived around the corner, I think I’d be there every week.

Manchester’s not particularly well known for its Japanese food, but with certain dishes, Kyotoya might just produce the best the city has to offer.

And it does so at prices too good to miss.

Kyotoya on Urbanspoon

Food: 8/30

Service: 4/10

Dining Room: 1/5

Experience: 6.5/10

Overall score: 36/100 (OK)

(I revisited Kyotoya a few weeks later and upgraded its score. You can read the latest review here.)

Restaurant Review: 63 Degrees

63 Degrees restaurant, Manchester

There are times when I like to tell myself that I could’ve been a chef. If I’m in a nice restaurant and I’m drunk enough, I’ll probably tell you too.

I believe I’ve got the passion it takes. I’m almost certain I’ve got the work ethic. My tastebuds aren’t too shabby either and I’m not devoid of cooking skill.

My excuse is that I came to food too late, when I was too comfortable. I think I could’ve got into it aged 18 with nothing to lose, but I didn’t love food back then. These days, the enthusiasm’s there, but I’m much too happy with where I am and what I have.

There’s not a chance in hell I’d give up my ordinary life for the crazy one of being a chef.

As I sat in Manchester city centre’s newest French restaurant 63 Degrees, I counted my blessings that I’m not in the restaurant business. From 12pm-1pm on a Tuesday lunchtime, I was the only customer in a place that seats 37. By the time I left at 1.30pm, only four other people had walked through the door. One appeared to be selling something; another was looking for a job.

The waiter assured me that the place is starting to take off. It has been open for less than two weeks, he stressed, and they’re fully booked this Saturday. Other nights of the week haven’t been too bad either – they’ve been getting about 25 customers per evening, around two-thirds capacity.

Still, while it takes time and you can’t expect instant success, it has got to suck being so quiet at lunch. When I first set up this blog and I was getting three hits a day, it was depressing. And it’s not like this is my livelihood.

So I spent my entire time at 63 Degrees rooting for the place. I wanted it to deliver a really great meal so I could sing its praises and encourage people to go.

It certainly got off to a good start. A first course of baked egg with salmon was just what the doctor ordered for a brisk autumn afternoon. The rich, unctuous yolk chased the chill away like a big cosy jumper; tiny pillows of Scottish salmon provided the perfect foil with texture and salt.

I’ve not had an egg dish as good as this for about three years,* and I do love these poultry periods.

Unfortunately, the meal slid downhill from there. My main of 63° chicken breast, morel mushroom sauce and gratin dauphinois had the potential to be outstanding, but fell a long way short. There was nothing wrong with the cooking of it – the sauce was wonderful, the chicken was lovely and moist with a nice crispy skin, and I couldn’t fault the gratin.

But there were three big problems:

1) The chicken wasn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter how carefully you cook it, chicken is the dullest meat in the world unless you’ve got one of real quality. And this was far from a top notch chook.

2) There was way too much dairy. I took one glance at the entirely beige plate of food and thought: “I don’t know what that’s going to look like once it’s passed through my digestive system, but I bet Gillian McKeith won’t like it.” The morel sauce was enough; why cheesy creamed potatoes were needed as well, I have no idea.

3) The plate was cold. That wonderful morel sauce died an icky death in just a few minutes as it quickly cooled.

It was a real shame**, but not as big a shame as dessert. I’d had a very decent crème brûlée at The Lime Tree a few days earlier and was interested to see how this one compared. It definitely won on appearances. Set tight in the middle of a wide-rimmed dish, it was very pretty to look at, and it was a little bit thrilling when the maitre d’ set the sugar on fire to create the hard caramel layer on top.

Just a pity it didn’t really work. Only the middle section turned into a crisp; the sugar around the edges remained untouched by the flames. And I should stress I’m using ‘crisp’ in the loosest of terms – when I plunged my spoon through it, it bent more than broke.

But it was beneath the surface where the main issues lay. The cream was too warm and had a gelatinous texture, almost like a panna cotta. It also seemed to have contracted jaundice – not the most appealing look for a pudding, it must be said. There was some passion fruit at the bottom, but it was overwhelmed by the rest of the flavours. I could barely taste it.

Without an ounce of exaggeration, I’ve honestly had better burnt cream from the supermarket.

Overall, I enjoyed my lunch at 63 Degrees. I found the staff to be friendly and charming, the 2009 bottle*** of pinot noir from Bourgogne went down nicely and it was all reasonably priced. The menu is definitely an interesting one and a welcome addition to the Manchester dining scene.

However, while there is clearly some skill in the kitchen and the chef seems to have a few good ideas, I can’t in good conscience recommend the place based on this meal. There were just too many faults.

63 Degrees has the potential to be a real winner, but it’s got a long way to go yet.

63 Degrees on Urbanspoon

Food: 8.5/30

Service: 6.5/10

Dining Room: 3/5

Experience: 6/10

Overall score: 44/100 (OK)

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*Since Grado’s baked duck egg with morcilla and truffle cream, which benefitted from my love of black pudding, and the fact it was thrown in as an extra course, compliments of the house.

**Honestly, I’d go back and pay £10 more for this dish if it was made with a high-end piece of chicken, featured a few more morels and had something simple like green beans instead of the gratin. It could be sublime.

***Yes, I had a whole bottle to myself. It was my birthday. I’m allowed.

Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls

I’ve not been very well this weekend, so my wife made me this:

Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls and Fresh-baked Bread

It’s times like this I feel I’ve won at life.

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