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.

Fraiche on Urbanspoon

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

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