Tuesday 31 July 2012

Simon Radley at The Chester Grosvenor, Cheshire

It’s been just over a year since I last posted about Simon Radley at The Chester Grosvenor – in that time, little has changed, so I’ll spare you the usual preamble and get quickly to the foodie bit (if you want to read my previous post with some information about Chester and Simon Radley – see here).

One thing that has changed is the reopening of a fully refurbished, second restaurant and The Grosvenor, called ‘La Brasserie’, which looked very impressive and will undoubtedly be getting a visit from me soon.

One thing that I am glad has not changed is the impressive breadboard by ‘Barry the Baker’ – to my knowledge, the best bread selection of any Michelin starred restaurant in the country* (please let me know of any better, and I am there!)

Service, as always, was excellent albeit very formal; some may think a little stuffy. Dining alone I did notice a lack of atmosphere, partly due to the lack of music (a live pianist or a gentle classical soundtrack would be welcome). At the beginning of the meal when the only other diners were a female couple, I could hear every word of their conversation – if you are looking for a wedding planner, I am now an expert on wedding dresses, flowers, marquee and pavilion hire.

Exhausted from having spent much of the day walking around Chester shopping and enjoying strolls through the parks, by the River Dee and along the medieval walls, I arrived early and ordered a cooling Bundaberg Ginger Beer (my new favourite tipple) and enjoyed a bowl of quality nuts and olives and a quintet of gougères: Salmon & Beetroot, Green Olive, Parmesan Cheese, Chicken Liver & Passion Fruit and Cheese & Truffle.

The days Bread offerings were (reading from right to left in the photo): a white and granary mixed loaf with White Onion & Lancashire Cheese; a soft, white Stoneground Farmhouse; the signature, moist, rich Mashed Potato & Boddingtons Beer Bread; a sweetly sour Sourdough, that had been five days in the making; a hearty Cottage Granary (in the hands of the waiter); a classic French Baguette; a sweet, heavy Red Wine, Fig and Walnut Loaf and, lastly a muesli encrusted Bavarian Rye – I only tasted six of them… all were perfect, so don’t ask me to pick a favourite.

Amuse – a wonderfully cooked Helford oyster, served in a crisp batter with Wirral cress and flowers; a beautiful dish in its conception and execution.

Melon & Prawn – not prawn as the menu suggested, but lobster subtly scented with ginger foam. The three different types of melon were served in tiny fruity, juicy cubes and most impressively as paper-thin sheets, giving the appearance of a raviolo.  

Ibérico – served with decorative pea shoots, the most delicious and perfectly seasoned brawn fritter at atop of a disc of hock jelly and a pea Chantilly with flecks of high quality Spanish Ibérico ham; in terms of out and out flavour, the best dish on the menu.

Mackerel – here, the fatty, charred mackerel loin with the lightly pickled belly was delightfully served on a sweetcorn blini, which had superb synergy with the buttery French Baeri caviar.

Gressingham – the meat main was the only dish of the evening that disappointed; this was definitely for reasons of personal taste rather than execution. The duck itself was roasted well but I found the accompanying pain d’épice, cassis berries, liver and fruit de pâté pastilles overly sweet.

French tart – this dish, a modern take on a classic pissaladière, came out billed as a ‘cheese course’. The pastry was light and flaky, topped with onion confit and a smoky Brezain cheese.

Melba – with golden peach, a creamy vanilla mousse, a plump, fresh raspberry sorbet and a flaked almond topping, this made for a tasty palate cleanser.

Peanut Manjari – ‘manjari’ is a Sanskrit word that means ‘a collection’; this collection of flavours and textures included, sea salt, bananas, burnt orange, crunchy toasted peanuts with snappy chocolate and sparkling gold leaf.

Another top meal by Simon Radley at The Chester Grosvenor – one thing I would say is for a tasting menu for £90, portions are very small, so fill up on the bread. 

Friday 27 July 2012

The Garden by Simon Radley at Oddfellows, Chester

Located on Lower Bridge Street, ‘Oddfellows Hall’ is a building with a rich history as a private house, a school, offices, shops and of course, as the meeting hall of the Oddfellows’ Friendly Society – nowadays, its dapple-grey neo-classical façade gives little hint to the quirky, colourful interior and ornamented baroque decoration found within.

Since becoming a boutique hotel and restaurant a few years ago there have been a few changes to both the chefs and the menus at Oddfellows; including some hoo-ha when Michelin accused the owners of “misleading” customers by claiming ‘Michelin starred’ chef Richard Phillips was in charge of the kitchens at a time when he did not hold a star.

Fortunately, that is now all behind them as Oddfellows have recently reopened as ‘The Garden by Simon Radley’ - a chef who does currently posses a Michelin star, a couple of hundred yards away, at the Chester Grosvenor.

You can read a little about Simon and Chester’s history in my Simon Radley at The Chester Grosvenor post (see here).

During my recent lunch visit, I appeared to be the only odd fellow present – the rest of the diners seemingly made up from ‘the ladies that lunch’ set: there were several female pairs or groups with just one mixed sex couple and of course, me, the only solo diner.

I even ‘recognised’ a famous ‘actress’ having lunch – ‘someone like’ Helen Mirren or Alison Steadman, but not either of those... to be honest, she may have been a newsreader - the point I am making is ‘The Garden’ seems very much the place to be seen in Chester.

I may have been dining alone but I entertained myself with a game of musical chairs (to a ‘chilltronica’ soundtrack).

‘Seat number 1: the conservatory’ - having felt that I made a 'mistake' at The Ledbury when opting to sit outside, I declined the hosts initial offer and took a conservatory seat looking out into the garden. The décor is what I would describe as ‘botanical, lepidopterist and ornithologist quirk’ - I liked it.

Having ordered a drink, I begun to peruse the menu, which reminded me that the restaurant is called 'The Garden'. I quickly decided then to move to ‘seat number 2: in the Garden’.

A good choice; especially in light of the recent glum weather as it seemed a shame not to make the most of sunshine that was trying so hard to break through the clouds.

The outside space is as funky as the inside - design features such as: oversized lampshade tables; and galvanized bucket light fittings; gnome seats: AstroTurf, turf and white picket fences all helping to make a well deigned, modern and welcoming space.

There are a number of secluded areas and private cabins - as inviting as they looked, dining alone, I felt that I shouldn’t take a whole cabin to myself and instead opted for a small table in an exposed patch of ‘grass’.

My starter, a Goat’s Cheese Pannacotta promptly arrived… very promptly. I understand that all the components are pre-prepared but at least go through some pretense in the kitchen. The menu description also listed 'fig, shoots and lavender honey'… there was no mention of the mustard in the dressing.

The unannounced mustard, I felt, generally bullied the subtle flavours of fig and cheese. Only with careful loading of my fork with enough of the Pannacotta could I temper its potency but even with this measure, the goats’ cheese was all but lost - a real shame as I deemed the Pannacotta itself to be very good.

I found the Bread and Oil to be very good.

Breast of Chicken with black pudding creamed potatoes and mustard sauce - Ever since I started keeping hens* at home (for eggs) I rarely order chicken; I was, however, swayed by the accompanying Black pudding creamed potatoes. (I have three hens: KiKi, FiFi and CiCi or KFC for short.)

The chicken breast, although not the best and most tasty of qualities was perfectly well cooked and moist. Despite my already high hopes, the ‘mash’ was even better than expected – generously mixed with tasty bites of pearl barley.

Fittingly for a restaurant called ‘The Garden’, I did notice other diners receiving their chips in dinky terracotta plant pots. It was about this point that I moved to ‘Seat number 3: in the shade’ - having spent the previous three days cutting a large hawthorn hedge that borders my property, I had already started to burn on the back of my neck, so when the sun eventually won its ongoing battle with the clouds the shady spot was welcomed.

For ‘afters’, I was initially torn between the Sticky Toffee Pudding with Butterscotch Sauce and the “Strawberry” Eton Mess. Selecting the summery option there followed an incredibly long wait… you'd have thought it was a soufflé.

Eventually, an impressive looking ‘mess’ arrived, garnished with a Nasturtium Flower and Pâte de Fruit. I took a spoonful and it was delicious… it was smooth, it was creamy, it was studded with crunchy and chewy meringue… it was raspberry!
Not a problem – I like raspberries; in fact I prefer them to strawberries but I know some (my wife, for one) would have been disappointed with the surprise switch of one fruit for another.

My few gripes aside… I liked Oddfellows and will definitely go back. 

Oddfellows on Urbanspoon

Friday 20 July 2012

SoLita Bar & Grill, Manchester

WARNING! Below you will find pictures and descriptions of what could well be some of the tastiest and naughtiest food being served anywhere in Manchester at the moment.

DISCLAIMER: I cannot be held responsible for your imminent overindulgence and burgeoning waistlines. (Top tip: wear loose fitting clothing… preferably with elasticated waistbands.) Please also be aware that I ate all this as a guest of the restaurant and did not pay for the food! 

Another point to note is that the pictures contained below show ‘tasters’ and, in some cases, trial versions from the new menu. Expect real portions to be bigger and/or presented differently.

Readers who follow me on Twitter may be aware that on Wednesday I was invited to a special ‘press lunch’ – we were given a ‘Press Release’ but I’m not going quote from it as I’m pretty sure you will have read the information already in several blog posts, and various other print and online media.

Instead, I’ll give you some insight to some of the ‘behind the scenes’ previews that I was lucky to be a part of over the last few weeks, building up to what has been called the ‘hottest opening of the year!’.

Bacon Jam on Sourdough Toast
Before you get too excited… no, I cannot provide you with details of the secret ingredients in their SoLita Rub; reveal the mysteries of the delicious Bacon Jam on Sourdough Toast or the cloak-and-dagger techniques behind the infamous Deep Fried Coke.

Deep Fried Coke

Several weeks ago I got a phone call from Dom Sotgiu - the former Manager at the popular Teacup on Thomas Street (see here). Dom informed me that he was now managing a new restaurant based in the Margolis building; conveniently situated with easy access to the main thoroughfare of the Northern Quarter and Manchester’s Market Street.

Inka Grilled Veg with Smoked Butter
As “someone who knows about food”, Dom wanted my opinion on the proposed menu – this is before the SoLita name was born.

Mac 'n' Cheese Burger with Pulled Pork

From day one, dishes such as the Truffled Egg on Toast; Prestwich Salt Beef with 60/40 Mash and Mac ‘n’ Cheese with Pulled Pork caught my eye.

Whilst, I was the first to admit that a) this was not the cuisine which I generally write about, and b) the whole trendy NQ thing is not my usual scene – what peaked my interest and kept me returning to taste and advise* over the last few weeks was Dom’s passion to source good quality organic and free range ingredients; cook from fresh and with love. (*See me as a freeloading taste consultant.)

Rooster Scratchings
Drawing from Dom’s Irish Italian heritage as well as his knowledge and understanding of the unique vibe of the Northern Quarter, the menu soon started to take shape and look like something I’d like – a menu with obvious ‘New York’ Italian influences with a home-grown Manchester ‘edge’.

Salt Cod Balls with Salsa Verde Mayo
Striking a perfect synergy of all that is good from NY, Italy and MCR also come from the owner – a down to earth, Salford born, ex-army “scally done good” that I’d describe as a ‘proper Manc’ – not your choc-ice tweeting premiership footballer or fat tongued mockney that may own other ‘Italian’ restaurants in the city.

'Olives and things'

Of course SoLita is not just another Italian restaurant, the name refers to it’s location ‘South of Little Italy’ as Ancoats was once well known and not the cuisine - although the Italian influence can be seen on the menu with the excellent Inka Grilled Veg with Percorino and Orzo Pasta; the homely Uovo Pomodoro with Sourdogh Soldiers and some top notch Nocerella Olives (and things) from Sicily.

Cabrelli's Ice Cream with Bacon Candy
The Italian connection also come’s from the inclusion, on a number of the dessert dishes, of Cabrelli’s Ice Cream - one of the area’s original ‘ice-cream families’.

Uovo Pomodoro
Over the last six weeks I managed to blag my way to a number of tastings - some dishes fell by the wayside (I lament the loss of the Bury Black Pudding ‘Boudin Balls’)

Most however, with a few tweaks, developed into top notch menu items – a few, I’m sure, are set to become some of the most talked about plates of food currently being served anywhere in Manchester.

Pulled Pork Sundaes

One dish that has already caused quite a stir on Twitter is the Pulled Pork Sundae – at first I thought this was a bit of a gimmick but soon realised this dish can more than talk the talk. The 60/40 mash is a heart-stoppingly good combination of 60% potato and 40% butter; the pulled port is meaty and generous and the BBQ sauce is one of the best I have tasted.

Classic Burger with bone marrow and Triple Cooked Chips

When I hear the phrase ‘Dirty burger’, I think sleazy, greasy and wrapped in paper. SoLita’s Burgers are made with high quality chuck steak supplied by @frostybutcher and studded with bone marrow which melts in the Inka Grill to give that desired chin dribbling sensation – that served within the sweet demi-brioche bun makes for an altogether more high class level ‘sleazy snack’ – think the ‘Belle de Jour’ of burgers!

It's all about the INKA!

One thing that makes the burgers so good is the Inka Grill – I have written about the merits of these before in one of my posts about Aiden Byrne’s The Church Green (see here) but SoLita is the first restaurant in Manchester to have an Inka in their kitchen (MCFC have one too but they’re not a restaurant).

Hanger Steak and Triple Cooked Chips
Another Inka Grill dish is the Hanger Steak - prized for its flavour, this cut was traditionally kept back by the butcher, hence its nickname the "butcher's steak".

As with all steaks, tenderness can be sacrificed for flavour but the Inka Grill cooking method makes works wonders to readdress the balance. The result is one of the best Hanger steaks you’ll eat – it was certainly one of the most popular dishes amongst my fellow bloggers at the official tasting.

Jacobs Ladder
Another star of the Inka Grill section of the menu is undoubtedly the Jacob’s Ladder short rib – 48 hours in the sous vide water bath followed by a charring in the Inka makes for a cut of meat that tastes as impressive as it looks!

Inka Grilled Pineapple

For me, the Inka Roasted Pineapple, marinated in Havana 7 Rum and molasses is the standout dessert.

I could go on and on about the cocktails, craft beers, ales and ciders and house wines, served in carafes but you’re much better off going and seeing for yourself. There’s bound to be a tipple that takes your fancy – personal favourites include the Fentiman’s sodas, excellent coffee and unusual smoked Bavarian beer Schlenkerla Rauchbier.

With private dining spaces available and a stylish clubby basement, SoLita should surely become one of the city’s busiest hotspots - so get there early; be prepared to queue and remember my warnings!  

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