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Restaurant Review: Aumbry revisited

If there’s one thing I’d like to echo from Giles Coren’s mixed-to-positive review of Aumbry in the Times the other week – and believe me, there are few things of his I would ever want to echo – it’s that their treacle tart is awesome.

On my first visit in February I was relatively underwhelmed by the puddings and wondered whether the kitchen lacked passion for the sweeter parts of the menu. But second time round I ate this mini-masterpiece: a skilfully-made pie with tart lemon jelly and a deep frothy warming cup of Earl Grey cream tea on the side. It more than proved me wrong.

It was the balance that was so exceptional. I’ve had better desserts this year* but I can’t think of any that was so well-conceived. The marriage of flavours was wonderful and all my dining companions agreed. My dad claimed it was the best sweet he’s ever had.

The other big highlight from the six-course tasting menu was the potato and wild garlic soup, which swung bag after bag of flavour at my grateful tastebuds. When you get soup of this quality, it makes you want to question why higher-end restaurants don’t do it more often. Done right it can be such a beautiful thing; here, with a glass of chardonnay on the side, it was.

Head chef Mary-Ellen wasn’t in the kitchen this evening but there appeared to be no adverse effect on the food being produced – certainly there were none of the technical errors Coren wrote about. I wanted more from the slow-cooked wood pigeon dish, which seemed to lack the usual Aumbry wit and needed another element to lift it, but the cooking was faultless. I was particularly impressed by the accompanying chicory, a bitter leaf which has murdered many a game bird in its time but was held firmly in check through careful braising.

Here’s the menu with pictures. My dad and I also shared a cheeseboard at the end.

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TASTING MENU ǀ SIX COURSES

Amuse Bouche

Potted shrimp

Home Smoked Mackerel

Poached rhubarb & mustard cream

Potato & Wild Garlic Soup

English truffle oil

Cumbrian Wood Pigeon

Braised chicory, grilled grelot & lemon balm

Grapefruit Posset

Celery granita & grapefruit sherbet

Treacle Tart

Lemon jelly & Earl Grey cream

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Cheese

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After February’s meal I declared Aumbry to be the best restaurant in the county. Eating there four months on with my family in toe, there was nothing to make me want to rescind that statement.

Admittedly, I wasn’t quite as thrilled by the experience this time round. Greater familiarity with the menu (I’d hoped for more change between the two visits), staff who kept dropping things (spilling a glass of wine all over our table was probably the worst of the half dozen or so slip ups) and a random diner who kept looking at me like she wanted to stab me in the face all helped to dampen the magic.

Nevertheless, it was still a top meal, better than any other restaurant has given me for about four years round these parts. I’ll look forward to going back.
Aumbry on Urbanspoon

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*These superior desserts would be the ones I had at The Square and The Ledbury, so it’s not really a fair fight. If there’s a pudding better than Aumbry’s treacle tart in Greater Manchester right now, I’d love to know about it.

Restaurant Review: Yuzu

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.

Dining room of Yuzu Manchester

Yuzu

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.

Kaisendon sashimi at Yuzu Manchester

Kaisen Don – fresh tuna, organic salmon and sweet prawn sashimi served over sushi rice in a donburi bowl

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.

Chicken katsu at Yuzu Manchester

Chicken Fillet Katsu – chicken fillet cooked in bread crumbs

Yakitori with sauce at Yuzu Manchester

Yakitori (with sauce) – freshly made skewered chicken thighs with spring onions, char-grilled in Yuzu’s original yakitori sauce

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.

Gyoza at Yuzu Manchester

Gyoza – freshly made prawn dumplings served with soy sauce and Japanese chilli oil

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.

As if we needed it!
Yuzu on Urbanspoon

Food: 8.5/30

Service: 6.5/10

Dining Room: 3/5

Experience: 7/10

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.

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*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.

Restaurant Review: Aumbry

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.

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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

Grapefruit Posset

Celery granita & grapefruit sherbet

Chateau Jolys Jurancon 2008

Beetroot & Chocolate Cakes

Heaton Park honey, hazelnut, caraway & bee pollen

Jean Bousquet Malbec, Dulce Naturale 2007

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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.***
Aumbry on Urbanspoon

Food: 17.5/30

Service: 8.5/10

Dining Room: 3.5/5

Experience: 8.5/10

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.

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*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.

Restaurant Review: Sam’s Chop House

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.)

Belly Pork at Sam's Chop House restaurant, Manchester

Pork belly from Wilson’s Farm, Helmsley slowly braised then roasted with mustard swede, black pudding mash & finished with a light pork sauce & crispy crackling

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.

Steak and Chips at Sam's Chop House restaurant, Manchester

8oz 28-day aged Pennine Hills prime sirloin steak with a slow-roasted seasoned plum tomato, a garlic & thyme-roasted flat mushroom, Chop House chips & peppercorn butter

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.

 
Sam's Chop House on Urbanspoon
Food: 9/30

Service: 5/10

Dining Room: 4/5

Experience: 5/10

Overall score: 42/100 (OK)

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*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.

Restaurant Review: The Rose Garden

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.

Table at The Rose Garden restaurant, West Didsbury

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.

2010 Felino Vina Cobos wine at The Rose Garden restaurant, West Didsbury

2010 Felino Vina Cobos

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.)

Glazed pigeon starter at The Rose Garden restaurant, West Didsbury

Glazed pigeon: Cheshire wood pigeon breast, orange glaze, toasted walnuts, celeriac and radish salad, orange vinaigrette

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.

Scotch egg starter at The Rose Garden restaurant, West Didsbury

Scotch egg: sausage meat, black pudding and venison, boiled egg, crisp breadcrumb shell, rhubarb chutney

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.

Two-way beef main at The Rose Garden restaurant, West Didsbury

Two-way beef: 4oz fillet of Cheshire beef, braised shin of beef, fidget pie, roast tomato, rich beef gravy

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.

Pistachio tart dessert at The Rose Garden restaurant, West Didsbury

Pistachio tart: ground pistachio, orange essence, sweetcrust pastry, blackberry compote, candied orange, clotted cream

Bakewell tart at The Rose Garden restaurant, West Didsbury

Bakewell tart: classic raspberry and almond tart, St Clements dust, spun sugar (note: this is normally served with house-made vanilla ice cream)

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.

 
The Rose Garden on Urbanspoon

Food: 10.5/30

Service: 7/10

Dining Room: 3/5

Experience: 6.5/10

Overall score: 49/100 (Good)

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*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.

Food #10: Oysters

Raw oysters

Oysters (note: this image is purely for illustrative purposes and is not of the oysters I talk about below)

When I set about planning a week in London last year, oysters were as prominent a part of my plans as Michelin stars. I figured I’d get off the train at Euston, hop on over to St Pancras and the St Pancras Grand, crack open a bottle of champagne and tip a dozen bivalve molluscs down my throat.

It didn’t matter that I’d never had oysters before and might not like them, it just sounded like a good idea.

As plans changed and I realised it’d be a stretch to go to the St Pancras Grand on day one, I decided I’d get my first taste of oysters while on a trip to Borough Market instead. The Wright Brothers Oyster & Porter House was earmarked. It looked like a lot of fun.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find space in my schedule to go to Borough Market either. By the time I had time for some oyster chugging, it was the end of the week. Homesick, overeating and rich food sick, I decided to give it a miss. My first oyster experience would have to wait.

I eventually ticked this item off my Foods To Try Before You Die list a couple of months later – completely unplanned – at Manchester’s Smoak, a restaurant known more for its steak than its seafood. I’d spent most of the day at a whisky tasting and was pretty damn drunk by the time I arrived. Not really in the mood for oysters, my wife and I ordered just half a dozen between us. What followed next was, I felt, quite profound.*

The Cornish oysters arrived in a ridiculously oversized bucket, so full of ice I half-expected to see a polar bear roaming amongst it. Lemon quarters, shallot vinegar and a bottle of Tabasco were shoved in alongside.

I looked down at the oysters and they glared back at me – huge albino slugs, trodden into jagged shells, threatening to come alive at any moment. I was John Hurt, staring on the eggs of aliens, at risk of one bursting open and attaching itself to my face.

Oysters didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. I was dreading the first tip; steeling myself for something truly horrific. I’ve never hesitated with food before, but I had the same feeling with this that I have when someone places a shot of tequila in front of me.** It wasn’t going to taste nice; afterwards I might have to fight the urge to vomit.

My wife cracked one down her throat, and I decided I should stop being such a pussy and followed suit.

A salty tang of seawater filled my mouth and I gave the mollusc a couple of chews. The texture was as anticipated – a combination of raw gristle and jellied mucous. The flavour was that of brine.

Swallowing was unpleasant – like chugging down a big ball of snot – however, there were no feelings of nausea after; I simply felt incredibly underwhelmed.

“Seriously, that was it?!”

Some people love oysters, worship them, can’t get enough. I’d expected that if that wasn’t me, I’d have to be the antithesis – hate oysters, revile them, can’t get away quick enough. But I had no opinion either way. I just didn’t get it.

I tried another oyster with a squeeze of lemon and some shallot vinegar. This was better because it didn’t just taste of salty water, but it still felt like there was no point in me eating it. It was doing nothing for me at all.

The last oyster I had with a dash of Tabasco. The sauce jarred with the ocean taste and I wished I’d just stuck with the lemon instead. Again, I didn’t understand.

At Smoak that evening, for the first time in my life, I’d eaten something and been totally bewildered as to why anybody bothers to eat it. Just what is the appeal of this giant bogey that tastes like the sea? It’s not that it was revolting or anything like that. It was just banal.

I appreciate that these were probably far from the best oysters available. I can also see how you might be able to get some enjoyment from the way oysters are consumed. However, I cannot at all envisage how people take pleasure from the actual eating.

I don’t plan to try them again.

Verdict: I can’t possibly recommend oysters based on my experience, but maybe you could try them and tell me what I seem to be missing.

NEXT UP: Valrhona chocolate

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*How profound I might have found any of this had I not spent all afternoon knocking back drams is up for debate.

**Tequila and I were once great friends. When I was 18 years old, we were as close as close could be. For seven months, we partied together relentlessly. Salt and lime were shunned – we wanted nothing to come between us. But after a while tequila began to turn on me. The taste of her started to make me feel sick, then the smell of her started to make me feel sick. Once the mere thought of her made me want to vomit, I decided we could no longer see each other. People I know who don’t understand our past will occasionally bring her along to parties. When this happens I just need to grit my teeth, choke back the chunder, and get on with it.

Foods To Try Before 2013

I have plans for 2012. I have plans that involve a new passport, trips to Belfast and Bangor, and London and Paris; plans that must be executed before a bun appears in my wife’s proverbial oven, forcing them all to be put on hold.

My plans will see me scratch the itches left over from 2011 and tick the boxes I thought by now I might’ve already ticked. They should take me on a fabulous roller-coaster ride of flavours, textures and aromas, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.

My plans will see me cross many more items off my list of Foods To Try Before You Die.* It is my greatest hope that they will see me eat the meal of a lifetime.

These are my restaurant plans for 2012:

Manchester

Aumbry

The River Restaurant at The Lowry Hotel

Belfast

Deanes

London

Koffmann’s

Ledbury

Paris

Le Meurice

The dining room at Le Meurice, Paris

And these are the Foods To Try Before You Die I’ve got my eye most closely on:

Abalone

Capon

Éclair au Chocolat [from Jacques Genin]

Goose

Icewine

Macaroons [from Ladurée]

Macaroons [from Pierre Hermé]

Omelette Arnold Bennett

Pig’s Trotter stuffed with Sweetbreads & Morels [at Koffmann’s, London]

Rose Veal

Roast Rib of Beef

Salt-Baked Fish

Tarte au Citron [from Jacques Genin]

I wish you all a Happy New Year!

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*My apologies for neglecting the primary focus of this blog in the last few weeks. As you’ll have seen, a killer Japanese restaurant, end of year lists and Christmas have been taking centre stage in my mind. I haven’t completely forgotten about The List though. I’ve been adding new items to it as ever – it’s now up to 66 – and another of my plans will see me recap the eating of these four bad boys in the coming weeks:

Food #9: Confit de Canard

Food #10: Raw Oysters

Food #11: Valrhona Chocolate

Food #12: Victorian Mince Pie

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: Damson

On paper, Heaton Moor’s Damson should deliver one of the best Sunday lunches in Manchester.

The first thing going for it is it’s a bloody good restaurant. I’ve had four evening meals there since it opened in 2009 and can’t recall it hitting a single bum note. In my experience, it offers a consistency unmatched by any other restaurant in the city on a Saturday night. The food, the service and the ambiance have been uniformly excellent every single time.*

The second big reason it should rock on a Sunday is that revered restaurateur Steve Pilling is in charge; the man who built his reputation at Sam’s Chop House with its peerless beef roast. I visited the Chapel Walks pub regularly to eat this dish during his tenure and it remains the best non-home-cooked roast I’ve ever had.

Sadly, Sunday lunch at Damson does little to live up to the standards set by the restaurant on other days of the week, or Mr Pilling’s illustrious past.**

A starter of chicken liver and foie gras parfait, rhubarb chutney and toasted ginger brioche wasn’t bad, just mildly irritating. While all well made, the generous parfait slab dwarfed the two small pieces of brioche and thimble’s worth of chutney served alongside it.

Even rationing myself to an enormous chunk of parfait and tiny nibbles of brioche and chutney per bite – not the easiest balancing act, and an overly rich one – I still managed to exhaust the accompaniments with more than a quarter of the paté left.

Fortunately by this stage my wife was tired of her “too dry” game terrine and was able to provide me with some toast reinforcements.

Real problems, as opposed to minor quibbles, appeared with the main: 21 day aged roast rib of Cheshire beef served with Yorkshire pudding, duck fat roasted potatoes, seasonal vegetables and roasting juices.

My beef – seemingly cut from the end of the joint – was brown, not pink as requested. The plate was cold. What I imagine was meant to be the roasting juices was merely a damp stain that appeared to have been wiped around a bit. “Wouldn’t you think they’d give us a gravy boat so we can add a bit more?” said one of my dining companions. “Yes, it is rather dry,” was the consensus reply.

The only thing that was any good was the veg, and even then I’d say it needed cooking for a minute longer, with a knob of butter thrown in for good luck. Still, I’m quite glad they didn’t take the extra time. The vegetables had already shown up five minutes later than the rest of the food.

Dessert of bread and butter pudding was OK, but pretty forgettable. All I really remember about it was being puzzled by the serving temperature. I’d expected hot, I wouldn’t have been surprised by cold, I got tepid. If this was intentional, then fine, but it was a little weird.

There were some positives about the meal. Our waitress was lovely. The restaurant was very accommodating when one of our party asked if she could have a fruit salad instead of one of the listed starters, which was much appreciated. Our table, situated in the recently built extension, was nice and comfortable.

But I do feel a little like I’m clutching at straws.

This was actually my second experience of Sunday lunch at Damson and the first visit was no better. On that occasion we were told they were understaffed, which went some way towards explaining why the usually mustard kitchen and serving teams were so slow and made so many mistakes.

However, I could see no easy excuse this time; no reason why one of Manchester’s finest had delivered a meal so thoroughly mediocre.

I said it on Twitter afterwards that Damson feels like a completely different restaurant on a Sunday. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a very good one.

Damson on Urbanspoon

Food: 7.5/30

Service: 4/10

Dining Room: 3.5/5

Experience: 4/10

Overall score: 35/100 (Mediocre – not worth visiting)

Note: I returned to Damson for Saturday lunch in February 2012. Based on that experience and this one, I don’t think it’s possible to call it “a bloody good restaurant” anymore. The meal certainly wasn’t as bad as the Sunday lunch but it was a very mixed bag and I’ve reduced its mark on my Restaurant Ratings page accordingly.

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*A scallop-centred seafood dish with salt and vinegar cockles, which I had on my third visit, is one of the three best starters I’ve ever eaten in Manchester.

**As well as establishing the famous chop houses and The Damson – and winning lots of awards in the process – he’s also had great success with the Red Lion Hotel in Stockport. His next venture, Mr Pilling’s Roast Restaurant and Oyster Bar at The Courthouse in Manchester city centre, looks like a 2012 restaurant opening not to be missed.

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