Tuesday 31 January 2012


2012 promises to be a great gourmet fun-filled foodie year for me, I have trips to Paris, London and Singapore booked and hope to visit Barcelona soon - but where better to enjoy my first Michelin starred meal of the year than one of my all time favourite restaurants in the world… Fraiche.

Having blogged about Fraiche on a few occasions now, I believe the quality of chef Marc Wilkinson’s food just gets better and better – of all the one starred places I have eaten, to my mind, along with L’Enclume, it remains amongst the most deserving of being awarded a second Michelin star. 

With little to add to previous posts, what follows is essentially a picture post (with a few notes) charting the courses featured during our most recent meal so that readers who have not yet been to Fraiche can get a flavour of what to expect if they are lucky enough to secure a table.

As usual, the meal started with some simple but tasty Spiced Pecans whilst we perused the impressive Sherry menu.

Oyster Leaf with a dewdrop of Sea Buckthorn Gelée – in the past Marc has served these with a Champagne Gelée, which to my taste I prefer to the Sea Buckthorn. Both however hare delicious and these phenomenal leaves never fail to amaze.

Marc had me drooling earlier in the week when he posted a picture of some gorgeous looking black truffles on the ‘Restaurant Fraiche’ Facebook page. Hoping they would feature on the menu I was overawed to discover that had been indulgently paired with Foie Gras Mousse, Apple Jelly and crisp gingery wafers – a delightful dish.

Image courtesy of the 'Restaurant Fraiche' Facebook group page.

The truffles also made a welcome appearance in the next course, a Butternut Squash & Tangerine Espuma with Yoghurt Mousse, which was topped with a slice, and flecked throughout with tiny slivers of the heady Truffle. served with Poppy Seed and Squid Ink Wafers.

Having dieted for most of January, to say I was looking forward to the breads at Fraiche would be a massive understatement. Certainly living up to my expectations, the first round included Cheese, Five Nut, Mixed Seed and, my favourite, Granary & Treacle.

Up next, my wife’s favourite dish of the evening, Slow Poached Hen’s Egg, Smoked Artichoke Cream, Pickled Artichoke and White Port Jelly, topped with a Cheese Crisp – a wonderful and harmonious balance of texture and flavours. For me, the smokiness of the artichoke cream and the white port jelly were especially pleasing.

More breads, consisting of Organic Oat, Tomato, Mushroom and, my pick of the bunch, Black Olive.

My favourite dish of the evening was served next, Wild Sea Bass, Aubergine Yoghurt, Radish, Puffed Wild Rice decorated with a tartly, sweet vibrant swirl of Verjuice. Verjuice (or verjus) has been around since medieval times but I was first introduced to its joys at Aumbry (see here) – it is a gentle acidulant which can be made in a number of ways, often from unripe sour fruits and even crab apples. Fraiche’s is made by reducing grape extract and added a fresh zing, which really bought out the flavour of the flawlessly juicy bass.

Our meat main was, Gressingham Duck with Kohlrabi Purée, Roasted Shallot, Pickled Grelots and Chanterelles, topped with a Potato Crisp and Cocoa Nibs. A very typical, excellently executed and flavoursome Fraiche meat course; Marc has a wonderful ability to get maximum flavour out of the quality produce. I’m not usually a fan of chocolate used in savoury dishes but the subtle bitter richness from the cocoa nibs was a masterstroke

On our last visit to Fraiche the cheese chariot was absent so it was wonderful to see it back with such a fine selection of artisan cheeses. James, the new headwaiter, was very knowledgeable and able to suggest cheeses for me to try alongside my favourites. One such suggestion was for the Gaperon a l'Ail, which is a soft, crumbly yet creamy cows milk cheese flavoured with pepper and smoky garlic.

Being picky, I’d like to have seen a couple more hard cheeses on the board although the Beaufort (a type of gruyère) was pleasantly delicate and fruity. The soft rinded cheeses were wonderfully ripe and elastic but not too runny - especially good with wonderful spicy notes were two of my all time favourite cheeses, a Livarot and a Langres.

Another of James’ recommendations, which similarly had delicious spicy qualities as well as salty tanginess was a Bleu de Basque – I also tasted a hint of apricots, although this may have been more pronounced due to the sherry soaked apricot that was served alongside the other tasty and imaginative condiments, including: pistachio dust, dehydrated apple, pan de higo and a sublime Chablis jelly.

Our pre-dessert, one that I have raved about in previous posts (see here) and which also made it into by best of 2011 (see here) was the phenomenal Lemongrass Panna Cotta with Sour Cherry, topped with flakes of dehydrated grape – it never fails to thrill me!

At Fraiche, diners are usually asked if they would like cheese or the day’s sweet dessert, which was ‘Pineapple’. Knowing it would be special (and loving cheese so much), naturally, I opted to pay a supplement and have both! Therefore, what we thought was the final course of the evening was our dessert of, Poached Pineapple, Frozen Coffee Parfait, White Chocolate Ice Cream, Milk Crumb with Nut Brittle and Chocolate Rice Puffs – it did not disappoint!

Then, as we expectantly awaited the arrival of the tea and coffee menu we were brought Chocolate Cake with ‘Apricot Toothpaste’ – the chocolate cakes clouds were so light, they seemingly  had to be weighed down with ‘yoghurt powder coated dried apricots’ (thanks Twitter @marcatfraiche) to stop them from floating away! Now, it is said that ‘little things please little minds’, and taking the lid from the natty ‘toothpaste’ tube, puncturing the seal and squeezing out a delicious apricot purée certainly pleased mine! Great fun, great flavour with a good measure of ‘wow’ factor!

From the Tea & Coffee menu, I selected a White ‘Tea of Life’ served with a selection of Petit Fours, including: Raspberry & Rose Chocolate, Passion Fruit Marshmallow and sticks of Berry Meringue.

As usual, an amazing experience and meal - usually we have a couple of months between bookings but luckily this year we managed to secure a meal for Valentine’s Day… I cannot think of a more romantic place to dine.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Smoak Bar & Grill, Malmaison

January is nearly over and the post Christmas pinch means that for many, ‘Money's too tight to mention’, so the ‘Club Mal’ 50% off food offer was too good to pass up.

If You Don't Know Me By Now’, you’ll soon realise when reading my blog, that clearly ‘Something got me started’ on this random dropping of Simply Red song titles into my posts… it can only mean one thing,* I’ve eaten at the Malmasion in Manchester. *The hotel chain was originally owned in partnership with irksome ear bothering lothario, Mick Hucknall (I’m not a huge fan – although, to his credit, he was also one of the financial backers of Manchester based reggae label Blood and Fire – of which I am a fan.)

As the flame haired star no longer has a steak (see what I did there?) in the hotel, the fire and flames now come from the restaurant’s Josper grill - which takes centre stage in the open kitchen and provides the spark of inspiration for its pun fuelled name: Smoak.

Although they have been around for a while, Josper, like Inka Grills (see here) are rapidly becoming the ‘hottest’ piece of kit to have in the ‘commercial’ kitchen. As Manchester is not particularly well known for its barbeque weather, the ability for these charcoal ovens to perfectly cook flame-grilled food to your liking is hot news - whether you like your steak well charred or Simply Red (I promise I’ll stop now!)

For the restaurant itself, (a bit like my introduction) I found the unashamed American themed décor straddled the fine line between that which is fresh, cool and breezy and tiredly cheesy. The whole set up reminded me of an ‘upmarket’ TGI’s – but I’m not convinced the place needed the random pieces of US objet d'art such as the old style gasoline memorabilia, sack curtains and head-bangingly low light fittings to be hip.

On the subject of cheesy, a colleague of mine refuses to go on the strength of the ‘egotistical’ pictures of General Manager, Mister McKenzie on the website and large advertising hoardings around the city. (Screenshot courtesy of www.smoak-grill.com)

Despite many positives (which, I’ll get to in a mo) there were a few niggles, including wonky tables, and metal water beakers that reminded me of drinking out of a Primary School art pot

One major negative seemed to be the service - it was not the server’s fault as they didn’t stop rushing to and fro but there simply didn’t seem to enough of them on and their small number meant that food was sat on the pass; tables were taking a long time to be cleared and from my wife’s vantage, many walk in customers, gave up ‘waiting to be seated’ and instead walked over the road to Abode. 

Our actual interactions with the polite and knowledgeable waiters were good. Thankfully, despite the fact they were wearing T-shirts bearing slogans such as ‘No Smoak Without Fire’, there was not a pair of ‘wacky’ badge laden braces in sight and they didn’t try too hard to ‘make friends’. Although they did fail to mention the ‘Specials Board’, which, as we happened to notice on our way out, was inconveniently displayed in the hotel’s foyer.

Despite these gripes, for us on the whole, the positives did far out way the negatives - namely: the comfy chairs, red leather booths and banquettes; the lighting and ambience, including the occasional heavenly waft of smoke as the door to the grill was opened; the open kitchen and glass butcher’s room / walk in chiller where you could check out the meat prior to ordering… and, bizarrely, I even quite enjoyed weeing into a bucket - I’m just glad no one came in as I was taking the pics (Yes, that does say pics) – and, let’s not forget, the biggest plus point of all… the food.

My wife and I, each chose to start with a couple of Cornish Oysters served with a mignonette sauce, lemon & Tabasco – far from the best we’ve had but perfectly enjoyable.

For my main starter, I selected the Potted Whitby Crab with deep fried oyster and sorrel potatoes – this dish was well put together and tasty. The crab was the star ably backed up by the textures and flavours of the fried oyster encased in a crisp golden batter and the fine crunchy dice of the sorrel potato salad.

My wife’s choice was the Steak Tartare with egg yolk – I went in for a taste and was smitten. My wife saw how much I liked it and with a seemingly early Valentine’s Day like gesture kindly left me a good half  - easily the best thing I have eaten so far in 2012.

After perusing the menu and making a couple of trips to check out the cuts on offer in the window I decided to keep the oyster theme going by ordering the beautifully moist, tender and flavoursome Flat Iron Steak (known in the Antipodes as ‘oyster blade steak’) accompanied by a Béarnaise Sauce. The dinosaur leg of bone marrow and the hint of rosemary on the mushrooms were welcome touches but the cooking of the steak in the ‘indoor’ barbeque was rightly the best thing on the plate!

Accompanying my steak I ordered a funky cone of Skinny Garlic Chips – top notch.

My wife selected the Josper Fired Lamb Cutlets with vine tomato, mushrooms & red currant jelly – again, perfectly cooked and fabulously flavoursome, with a side of Carrot and Swede Mash.

For dessert I chose the Artisan Cheese served with biscuits & chutney – pleasingly served with my favourite Fudge’s biscuits, the two stand out cheeses for me, were the Gloucestershire offerings, the velvety ‘Love Ewe’ and the fresh tasting ‘May Hill Green’ with its crushed nettle rind.

My wife was a little disappointed with her dessert – I talked her out of her first choice of Pineapple Panna Cotta by pointing out that the Banana Split came with a Cherry Cream – cream and cherries being two of her favourite things. As the picture attests, the ‘cherry cream’ transpired to be a handful of ‘glacé cherries’ with no cream in sight! To my mind, glacé cherries have no place on a dessert like this - they are fine in a cake but fresh cherries should have been used and some cream is expected when the wording clearly states ‘cherry cream’.

All in all – Smoak Bar and Grill serves top quality steaks and other grill favourites in comfortable surroundings in a great and easily accessible location, near Manchester’s main Piccadilly Station. I’ll be going back for the steak tartare alone! 

Smoak Grill on Urbanspoon
Malmaison Brasserie  on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Sunday 22 January 2012

63° French Cuisine

Romantically, January in Manchester may not have the same ring to it as April in Paris; but to get us in the mood for our upcoming trip to the ‘City of Light’, I took my wife to 63° French Cuisine - the Northern Quarter’s new French fine dining restaurant.

In April (assuming we can get reservations) we hope to visit Pierre Gagnaire, Le Chateaubriand, Passage 53, L'Agapé and (the only one we have so far managed to book) Le Jules Verne Restaurant, in La Tour Eiffel. Of course, these bastions of Gallic cuisine are amongst the best Paris, and indeed the world has to offer; so it would be unfair of me to expect Manchester’s new French kid on the block to live up to my high expectations – but it didn’t stop me hoping. 

63° is a ‘family restaurant’ operated by ‘la famille de Moreau’ – Despite being fairly new to the North West (having previously worked at the restaurant’s failed predecessor ‘Simple), the son, Alexandre Moreau, quickly realised the opportunity to open a French eatery that would be a change from the many Italian places which the city centre has to offer and be financially more accessible than The French Restaurant at The Midland. (Although, since the opening of 63° in October 2011, another, similarly priced, French offering, ‘Aubaine Le Restaurant’ opened within Selfridges, towards the end of November.)

With the opening of Aubaine, 63°’s main selling points remain its location, nestled between Market Street and the city’s increasingly trendy Northern Quarter; it’s relaxed service and, of course, the ‘family’ connection. Alongside Alexandre, the father, Head Chef, Eric Moreau, can be seen smiling at the pass as he calmly oversees what comes out of the restaurant’s semi open kitchen whilst his wife Florence, elegantly and efficiently serves the front of house.

Eric has previously worked for two-starred Michelin chefs in Paris and as the head of Research, Development and Quality Control for a large French catering company – experiences that led to his belief that poultry tastes ‘magnifique’ when cooked slowly at a temperature of 63° C – a technique which, as well as giving the restaurant its name, features on its signature dishes: Suprême de volaille 63°, sauce morille et gratin dauphinois (63°chicken breast, morel mushroom sauce and gratin dauphinois) and Filet de canette 63° aux fruits, endives caramélisées (63°duckling fillet with fruits and caramelised chicory.)

Relatively small, with around 40 covers, 63° have used the space inside well - large sweeping leather banquettes span one side, whilst linen covered tables with comfy wood and leather chairs sit reasonably spaced throughout the remainder of the dining room. Black and white, modernly sets the main colour theme with subtle pops of colour coming from fresh flowers, printed wallpaper and charming ‘shabby chic’ ruffled and tasseled lamp shades, which also provide a Parisian flavour whilst managing to avoid stereotypes. 

Whilst perusing the small but well-balanced menu, I selected the ‘Le Petite Anglaise’ cocktail as an aperitif - a refreshing G&T with the added zing of pink grapefruit - très bien.

A tasty amuse bouche, of a lightly toasted crostini with Duck Rillettes topped with micro salad and a slice of cornichon, soon followed – this went down very well.

For my starter I opted for a dozen Escargots en persillade, poêlée de pommes rattes et jeunes pousses (Snails in parsley butter, pan-fried Ratte potatoes and young greens). I enjoyed this dish; although the snails were plump, they were not as tender as some I’ve had. The pan-fried Ratte potatoes were very nicely done.

My wife chose to start with the Oeuf cocotte au saumon d’Écosse (Baked eggs with Scottish salmon). She enjoyed this dish so much that I have been charged with the task of trying to recreate it at home. The accompanying bread however (which, trying to cut down on carbs she gave to me) was a little on the chewy side.

On the strength of the parsley foam that I had enjoyed so much at nearby Sole Seafood Restaurant the week before (see here), for my main, I ordered, Saumon à l’unilatéral, risotto noir et espuma de persil (Salmon cooked on one side, black risotto and parsley foam). Not wanting to be picky, sadly this dish was somewhat of a disappointment for me; I felt that the salmon itself could have done with a good 30 seconds less cooking time; the rice seemed to lack seasoning and the foam or espuma, despite being flavoursome, was not at all foamy - I expect a culinary foam to have bubbles at least the size of an Aero chocolate bar, but in this case there was nowt so much as a Wispa of aeration.

My wife’s choice of Mille feuille d’épinard, tomates confites et balsamic réduit (Layered spinach, caramelised tomatoes and balsamic vinegar reduction), was more successful - all the components were cooked and seasoned to our taste. Choosing this because it appeared to have the lowest carb content, my wife felt that the menu should have referred to the fact that the spinach was layered with sheets of lasagna, as it was a fairly substantial part of the dish.

Image courtesy of www.facebook.com/63Degrees

Having seen a picture on their Facebook page (see here), for my dessert I went for the Le Délice de Florence (Pistachio macaron and raspberry pulp) – it tasted good but despite having all the hallmarks of a good macaron: a crisp outer shell; glossy finish and a well formed pied, disappointingly the oversized puff itself didn’t have the expected gooey centre that I love so much.

My heart set on a decent macaron, to solve the problem outlined above, I order a second dessert, the Café Gourmand, which came with a trio of traditionally sized macarons. These were much better - all of the qualities of their big brother but with the all-important gooey centre. Delectable! (It would be interesting to find out if these are bought in or skilfully made by Eric on the premises.)

My wife opted for the simply presented Fromages affinés à la Française (Fine French matured cheese) featuring a Chèvre, Comté and a wonderfully ripe, pure and decadent Camembert. Personally I’d also liked to have seen a bleu (or even an Epoisses) on the plate – something with a bit more welly.

When reviewing 63° not long after they opened back in November, my fellow food blogger at Foods To Try Before You Die (see here) said, ‘63 Degrees has the potential to be a real winner, but it’s got a long way to go yet.’ A couple of months on I’d say, ‘63° has the potential to be a real winner, but it’s got a little way to go yet.’

63 Degrees on Urbanspoon

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