Sunday 27 November 2011

San Carlo Cicchetti

Located on the ground floor of ‘Kendals’, San Carlo Cicchetti is the ‘little sister’ to the popular San Carlo Italian restaurant which sits across the way.

The impressive art deco department store’s origins can be traced back to 1796, when John Watts founded his Deansgate based drapery. In 1836, when three employees took over, Watts’ became Kendal, Milne & Faulkner. Then, in 1919, the company was bought by Harrods and traded under the famous name for a short period before protests from customers and staff forced the ownership to revert to the name Kendal Milne. In 1959, House of Fraser purchased the Harrods group; (although maybe fearing further uprisings from the staff and customers) the store continued to trade under the Kendals name until 2005. Since then, House of Fraser has been the store’s official title.

The 1919, staff and customers showed true Manchester spirit, reminiscent of the time when a group of local residents in nearby Coronation Street campaigned to save the street’s famous cobbles. I don’t know how House of Fraser managed to slip the name change through - perhaps today’s staff and customers are not concerned about such things?  Maybe the Rover’s Return should become a Wetherspoons or be renamed the Cap and Whippet?

Since the opening of Harvey Nicks and Selfridges in the city I do not get down to Kendals, sorry, House of Fraser very much – that will soon change as I have just discovered Cicchetti!

Above the doors (one into the store and one onto King Street) yellow neon signs vibrantly welcome diners into a restaurant / pizzeria / bakery / deli / bar which oozes Italian chic. There is no stereotypical kitschy checked tablecloths, irksome accordion music, clichéd candles stuck into Chianti bottles or hackneyed pictures of Mama on the walls.

Instead, diners can expect a largely white, well-lit modern space. A pop of colour is provided from the lemon yellow, leather cushions, chairs and barstools. Tables are fairly close but not overly so; they are simply set and furnished with olive oil and salt and pepper mills – I do not like it when, in many Italian restaurants, the wait staff appear brandishing a oversized grinders and proceed to season your food with an overly exaggerated flourish. 

From the moment they enter, customers are served a true slice of Italian flavour. The deli and bakery area is piled high with traditional goodies - an amazing array of antipasti and a delectable display of all things delightfully dolce!

The largely (if not completely) Italian front of house team are as slick, sleek and polished as the fine Italian marble tables and bar area. Every other word seems to be a cheery, “Grazie.” “Scusami” “Ciao!” “Bellissimo!” or “Buon appetito!” – it’s almost as if someone has said to them, “Say lots of Italian stuff… the customers lap it up!” We did.

Looking outside at the dreary weather is the only clue you have that tells you that you are in Manchester and not Milan. Of course, if you look out of the other window, you can see people shopping for cosmetics and handbags; thankfully the blinds obscure sufficiently to pretend that these are not potential wives for Manchester’s footballers, but Milanese fashionistas.

Whilst we perused the fairly large but manageable menu, we ordered aperitifs.  Needing a stiffener after a morning of busy Christmas shopping my wife went for a double vodka and tonic. Thinking, ‘When in Rome!’ I ordered an Italian non-alcoholic aperitif called Crodino. Personally, I think it should be called Crud-ino. It was very bitter with a hint of oranges and vanilla (think fizzy medicine!) It may be an acquired taste but not one that I am in a hurry to acquire; but, hey, I’m glad I tried it.

The menu, hence the restaurants name, is based on the Venetian culinary custom and concept of cicchetti – small plates and tasters, to be shared or enjoyed alone with a glass or two (think Italian tapas!) When we ordered, the waitress made a point if stating that there is no starter followed by main format and that the food comes out as and when it has been prepared by the kitchen. This was fine by us, but as it happened most of the dishes pretty much arrived together.

Carpaccio of Angus Beef with Parmesan & rocket – meltingly tender, with generous shavings of Parmesan.

Crostini with roasted Sicilian peppers, garlic & parsley – this was not as flavoursome as expected; though it was still very enjoyable.

Oysters with lemon - these were served at a pleasing temperature; not too cold so that they could be chewed comfortably and enjoyed.

Octopus salad with olive oil, lemon & garlic – another generous portion; simply flavoured. You can’t go wrong with oil, lemon and garlic!

Breaded baby mozzarella – served with mayo and fresh tomatoes with a basil dressing. My only criticism being the disproportionate about of tomato... to rectify this, I wouldn’t have said no to a couple more of the delicious balls.

Pizza Fiorentina, with tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, spinach & egg – lovely fresh dough with a perfectly cooked egg nestled on top.  

The final dish to arrive was the Tartare of fresh tuna mixed with olive oil, French mustard, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar & wild rocket, which is constructed at the table. I always love the theatre and spectacle of dishes prepared at the table and this was no exception. The ingredients arrived beautifully presented to be deftly chopped, blended and served surrounded by a drizzle of olive oil and a, not too overly exaggerated, flourish of cracked black pepper. Oh, yes, it tasted as good as it looked too!

For dessert, they were sadly out of the Panna Cotta served with rhubarb that had caught my eye earlier. My wife and I therefore decided to share the Coppa Golosa - Chocolate, hazelnut & caramel ice cream with crushed Ferrero Rocher & warm Nutella. I like to think that I am fairly knowledgeable about food but I had always assumed Ferrero Rocher was a French invention; it turns ‘Ferrero’ is an Italian company that are behind both the ambassador’s favourite and the kid’s favourite, Nutella. Whatever their ‘provenance’ (if you can say that about chocolate spread) they combined exquisitely here – it’s just a shame I had to share!

We ended the meal with Vin Santo and an excellent Cappuccino.

Ti piace? San Carlo Cicchetti… Ti amo!

Friday 25 November 2011

Manchester Christmas Markets

“Holidays are coming…  Holidays are coming…” Each year, there are three things that tell me Christmas on its way. The first is seeing the Coca-Cola ‘Holidays are coming’ advert, the second is hearing Fairytale Of New York on the radio and the third is the opening of Manchester’s Christmas Markets.

We started with a stroll along King Street’s French Market. Anticipating stuffing myself when we got to the large European Market in Albert Square, I managed to resist the allure of the crêpes, cassoulet and vin chaud.

We then took a left into St Anne’s Square and after pausing at the Nativity my resolve began to give in and we bought some delicious chocolate covered marshmallows with Gingerbread, Amaretto, Cherry, Mint and Irish Cream fillings.

It was then onto our favourite chestnut stall which resulted in me humming ‘The Christmas Song’ for the next five minutes as we enjoyed the sweet, nutty festive treats. 

In Albert Square, this year the familiar giant Santa in front of the Town Hall had been bejazzled with some festive fairy lights and a MCR ‘Hearts’ XMAS banner.

Each year, one of the first stalls that we head for sells Dutch Mini Pancakes – I’m a sucker for tradition and sugar and lemon remain my perfect topping.

Another favourite stall sells chocolate tree decorations – we have a delightfully camp pink Christmas tree and the pink stockings always provide a chocolaty treat for visiting children (I’ve been known to pinch one or two from the tree myself but don’t tell my wife!)

We then saw a company of Christmas toy soldiers turned out in their smartest uniforms; all sporting spectacular ‘taches for Movember (see here)!

The salami selling stalls are always popular; they often offer tasters and sell a range of meats, such as venison, wild boar and the rather pleasant pheasant.

Of course, there are many bars and Gluhwein Houses selling German beers, English ales as well as variously spiced and flavoured mulled wine and cider. They even do non-alcoholic mulled beverages for the kids or designated drivers.

My favourite bar is the one in the centre (near the bejazzled Santa) that features a singing moose head. My one criticism of the markets is that there should be more festive music – maybe even more strategically placed musical moose!

The oversized German sausages are always a popular choice with hungry Christmas shoppers. This year I decided to have a break from my customary Bratwurst and opted for the Pork Rack instead – very tasty, I definitely recommend the rack!  

I particularly like the ketchup and mustard ‘udders’ – a genius invention that should appear on Dragon’s Den. I'm in!

There are a couple of stalls selling a varied selection of olives and garlic – I bought some pink garlic this year. (Last year I got some smoked garlic that was delicious roasted whole, then rubbed on bread.)

Making its debut appearance at this year’s market is the much talked about Mr. Holden’s Manchester Egg, served with Traditional Black Peas. I’ve wanted to try one of these for quite some time. Similar to a Scotch Egg, the differences are the use of a mixture of sausage meat and Bury Black Pudding, encasing a picked egg; this is then covered in crispy Japanese ‘panko’ breadcrumbs.

Personally I found that the pickled egg overpowered the black pudding far too much – the panko breadcrumbs were excellent, as were the black peas. One of the signature dishes at Aumbry (a favourite Manchester restaurant) features a quail’s egg encased in Bury black pudding – these are much tastier and you get the full flavour of the excellent blood sausage. Aumbry have also elevated the Lancashire black pea to the echelons of fine dining – see my Aumbry post here.

Another Lancashire specialty on offer is the famous Lancashire Hotpot – I didn’t taste this personally, but a friend of ours we bumped into had just had some and said it was excellent. The perfect hearty food for a cold winter’s evening.

Lancashire specialties continue at the Saddleworth Cheese Co’s stall – their award winning Lancashire Cheeses include: the young and crumbly Muldoons Picnic; the smooth and creamy How’s Yer Father; the full flavour mature Mouth Almighty and the wonderfully named blue, Smelly ‘Apeth. Fans of Corrie (Coronation Street) gather at this stall, which is often manned by Sean Wilson who played Martin Platt in the show for 21 years.

To go with my purchase of Smelly ‘Apeth and Mouth Almighty, I bought a fabulous new hand crafted cheese board from one of the craft stalls. ‘Start Creative’, have a stall on Brazennose Street. Start in Salford provide creative arts-based activities and training opportunities for people who are, or may be at risk of experiencing mental health difficulties or social exclusion… what’s more, their products are exceptional quality.

In addition to the local cheese, there are also a number stalls selling a wide range of other British and International cheeses, with particularly fine examples of Dutch and French. I bought a tasty Aged Gouda, a Smoked Bavarian beauty and a handsome hunk of Comté.

For those with a sweeter tooth, the markets also sell a wide range of sweets, cakes and cookies. Giant licorice laces, brandy snaps and gingerbreads are some of my favourites. Chocolate Santas are also prominent and for people aiming to get their 5-a-day, fruits on sticks, covered in chocolate are a popular choice.

This year, there are a few stalls that sell Italian products: olive oils, balsamic vinegars and the festive Torrone and the increasingly popular Milanese specialty Panettone. I’m not a huge fan of sweet breads but I did buy a lovely Sardinian Torrone made with the regions superb ‘miele’ (honey).

Another stall sells Warm Strudels from Bavaria. I can personally recommend the Plum Strudel – my wife opted for the Marzipan and Chocolate Strudel but the Nut Strudel, Gingerbread Strudel, Cherry Strudel, Strawberry Strudel and traditional Apfelstrudel (apple strudel) all looked amazing - oodles of strudels!

For those trying to shed a few pounds before Christmas, the markets are not ALL about food. It’s a great place to get your Christmas Tree or other festive greenery such as Wreaths and Holly. Last year we bought some Mistletoe but I haven’t see any yet this year – an interesting custom, not always observed, is that each time a couple kiss under the mistletoe, one of the white berries should be plucked. When the bush is bare the kissing should stop. Therefore, if you want lots of kisses, make sure you buy a berry filled bunch!

The same stall also sells rattan animals - I was going to buy one of these but it was a little deer. I did however purchase some spring bulbs and nuts and seeds to feed the birds over winter.

Christmas decorations can also be found in each of the market areas. You will find a whole host of seasonal stars, snowmen, snow globes, colourful baubles, Father Christmases, trees, bells and reindeer. I particularly like the snow topped villages that can be illuminated with tea lights.

Each year the selection of funky Wooly Chullos hats (popularly called ‘Dappy hats’ after they became a trademark of the N-Dubz front man) seems to get brighter and more varied. I was tempted to buy a chicken hat but decided to make do with my pink Mohawk one from last year. (The stall at the end of Brazennose Street is especially good.)


We’ll definitely be back a few times before the markets finish. The main European Christmas Market on Albert Square is open daily from 10am to 9pm until Wednesday 21st December. Merry Christmas! 

Monday 21 November 2011

Trattoria D’Agostino

About 200 metres from my house in Cheadle Hulme, there is a small, family run Italian restaurant - Trattoria D’Agostino. It has been open a few months now and despite the close proximity we have only just got round to paying them a visit.

The main reason for our delay was, when it first opened we mistook it for a sandwich shop. Although, driving past, we started to notice that they always seemed to be busy in the evenings. We thought this might just be because they were new and that things would settle down.

When the business continued we decided to stop and take a look at the menu. It didn’t seem especially inspiring but helped us come to the conclusion that, in order to be so busy, they must be getting the simple stuff right - this was confirmed to us by the people we spoke to who had visited.

Last week, having planned to cook Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Stuffed Butternut Squash for tea we where scuppered when the Waitrose next door had sold out of squash. Luckily Trattoria had a table and they also do B.Y.O. (with no corkage) and Waitrose had 25% off of a nice bottle of Sancerre. All good!

Inside out initial ‘sandwich shop’ impressions were reinforced. Tacky pictures (including an unframed Gustav Klimt poster), ‘economy’ furniture and a fridge in the dining room made for a (politely put) ‘unpretentious eating experience.’ Paper tablecloths and paper napkins completed the ‘modest’ feel.

Technically, there is not a ‘front of house’ as the Italian chef/proprietor cooks from the open kitchen, cornered off by a wood panelled counter but the two waitresses do a great front of house job - meeting, greeting and delivering a friendly and efficient service.

If they had been open for some years the broken clock on the wall may have stood as a metaphor about how time has stood still; for unlike some Italian restaurants, the lavish décor will not transport your spirit to renaissance Tuscany. But it is what it is; and what you have to consider is that this is a local restaurant that has bucked the trend and opened in the middle of a recession.

Supporting local businesses is important in these times and despite the fact that the owner clearly hasn’t spent a lot of money furnishing the place they always seem full of local people doing just that. With a glitzy outpost of the quality Gusto chain in sight and the long established Il Maestro (formerly La Piazza and Il Signore) just over the road in the precinct, Trattoria’s customers either come to support the local underdog or, more likely, for the overriding reason that - the food is good. 

To start, I opted for the Tuscan Bean Soup - with cannellini beans, smoked bacon, garlic, tomato & touch of chilli (£3.95) – flavoursome, with a gentle chilli kick. A generous portion, served piping hot.

My wife chose the, Egg Fiorentina (v) – egg baked in the oven with spinach, tomato, mozzarella finished with Parmesan cheese (£3.95) – more simple ‘home cooked’ fare. I don’t often eat out at Italian restaurants because I usually feel I can cook better at home, this may still be the case but at £3.95, why would I? The egg was well cooked with a liquid yolk.

Accompanying the starters we also ordered a garlic bread to share; the Al Formaggio – with mozzarella cheese. The bread, priced at £3.95, had a delightfully thin crispy base and a subtle garlic undertone.

My main was not too dissimilar from my wife’s starter Cannelloni al Forno (v) - hand rolled cannelloni filled with spinach and ricotta cheese £6.20. The tomato sauce tasted identical to the starter and it was served in the same plate – out of the two I would say the Egg Fiorentina is the stronger dish.

My wife opted for a pizza for her main, the Campagnola (v) - tomato, mozzarella, mushroom, spinach & artichoke   £6.95. A decent pizza, well cooked with fresh ingredients and delicious artichoke petals.

Ultimately, would I recommend Trattoria D’Agostino? I don’t think I’d travel far to eat there but what I would say is, if you live local and believe in supporting local businesses then, next time you don’t feel like washing up, definitely get yourself along for some simple but tasty (and inexpensive) home cooked Italian cuisine.



 Trattoria D'Agostino on Urbanspoon
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Twitter Feed