Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Tampopo, The Trafford Centre

I needed to buy some stuff, so after working late last night I headed for the Trafford Centre. Regular readers (by regular readers I mean people who mistakenly click on the Twitter links and end up here again) may recall that I don't much like the Trafford Centre, but on a Tuesday evening it's a far more amenable prospect than on a Saturday afternoon. I bought the stuff I needed and on account of having no food in the house, decided to stop for a bite to eat.

I've been to Tampopo before on a couple of occasions, and have generally left satisfied so I thought I'd give it another try. It's a canteen sort of place with bench seating very much in the Wagamama sort of style, and covers similar ground with the food as well. The menu is fairly extensive, but sticks quite sensibly to dishes from South-East and East Asia which at least have common themes, rather than randomly selecting dishes from all corners of the globe like another local chain whose name I won't mention. I ordered the Laksa with a portion of Goi Cuon on the side.

The Goi Cuon (Vietnamese summer rolls) were lovely and fresh tasting as they should be, with plenty of crunchy vegetables, but not as good as the real thing which usually have prawns or pork or both in them as well. This isn't really a criticism though, as they are advertised as a veggie version on the menu.

The condiments provided at the table are worth a quick mention at this point, as they are a good basic Asian selection; - Kikkoman soy sauce, Ketjap Manis (a sweetened, syrupy Indonesian soy sauce) and Sriracha Hot Chilli Sauce (a Thai classic). Some combination of these three will liven things up if your meal is a bit dull.

The Laksa was a decent effort. Laksa is a dish of noodles in a rich, heavily seasoned coconuty, curry broth with some sort of protein and assorted veggies. The broth was a bit underpowered, it needed a good squirt of Sriracha as it was a lot milder than the 'three chilli' warning on the menu would suggest. It was also too sweet. Having said that it also had some fine attributes. Many of the extensive range of flavours often found in food from the Malay peninsula were present including coriander, mint, lime leaves, garlic, chillies, coconut and even a hint of pungent shrimp paste. Prawns, tofu and chicken provided the protein, with cucumber, red onions and breansprouts on the veg front. All were fine except the chicken which seemed to be rather poor quality and tasteless. The whole made for pleasant if unspectacular eating.

In summary my opinion of Tampopo hasn't changed much after this visit. It's a decent option. I'd rather eat there than most of the other places in the Trafford Centre, but it's overpriced. Any small independent restaurant doing the same sort of food (I could name Vietnamese, Chinese, Malaysian and Korean places that fit the bill) would generally charge in the region of £5 - £8 for a dish like this, whereas I paid £10.75 at Tampopo. Any dish costing over a tenner at Middle Kingdom or Hunan would be served in something the size of a household bucket, and have about a kilo of meat in it. In total I paid £18.25 for the food, a lime soda (£1.90!) and service. Ok, but I wouldn't make a special trip.


The Orient,
Trafford Centre
M17 8EH

Plus various other branches

Tampopo on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Koffee Pot, Manchester

This place is bloody brilliant, and here is why.

The Koffee Pot serves breakfast until 2pm daily. The full English will set you back £5.50 including a tea or coffee. Just about every component of my fry-up was lovely, so here is a thorough examination of what made it so.

1. Bacon
Quality is important here, you don't want the really thin cut stuff that exudes white foamy stuff when you cook it, then shrivels to virtually nothing. This is not that. It's thick-ish with plenty of piggy flavour, and is cooked just right so the fat has crisped up.

2. Sausage
A budget sausage lets down many a fry-up. This is a decent sausage; a thick, juicy, well-seasoned plain pork banger. Perfect for breakfast. I don't like excitingly flavoured sausages in the morning, anything with leeks, apples or heaven forbid garlic in it is inappropriate at this time of day as far as I'm concerned.

3. Black Pudding
It's hiding behind the bacon. A nice slice of Bury black pudding. The good stuff. No further comment required.

4. Egg
I'm open to any variety of egg on my breakfast, today I stuck to the classic fried. It was timed correctly, with a soft golden yolk and no trace of hideous snotty uncooked bits of white.

5. Beans
Certain purists will tell you that beans should not be included in a traditional full English breakfast. They are wrong. Essential tomatoey lubrication.

6. Hash Brown
An often optional extra, but perfectly welcome when fried properly, which this was. Nice and crispy. Undercooked hash browns that turn into a greasy mush on the plate are not pleasant.

7. Tomato
It's not exactly prime tomato season yet, but they managed to serve a grilled tomato with some sort of taste, so full marks here.

8. Toast
Two slices from a bog standard sliced loaf. No complaints here, this just works with a fry-up. Not buttered with butter though. I've said it before and I'll say it again, everything is better with butter.

9. Tea
Served in a mug, with the bag left in allowing the punter to choose the strength of their own brew. Good.

10. Condiments
HP sauce is positioned in large bottles on every table. Ketchup is also available if you're that way inclined.

I ate the lot rather too quickly, and sat back to read the paper basking in a warm, porkulent glow. The portion size was just right, I was fully satisfied without needing to resort to digestive hibernation. If you're exceptionally greedy they do a larger breakfast that is essentially two breakfasts piled on the same plate.

Tea and Cake
My first visit to the Koffee Pot was just for a cuppa. I'd planned to check out North Tea Power, but it was rammed to the rafters and I couldn't be bothered to wait for a table. Plenty were available down the road.

I ordered a mug of tea, then the dicussion with the nice chap behind the counter went something like this:

Me: Have you got any cakes or puddings or anything?
Chap: We've got this toffee cake (points to a large loaf of not very interesting looking cake half covered in cling film).
Me: (pause, waiting to see if there are further offerings) Ok then I'll have a slice of that.
Chap: I could warm it up with some custard for a quid if you like mate.
Me: Sounds perfect (assuming it's a quid extra on top of the usual cake cost).
Chap: That'll be £1.90 please.

£1.90 for a mug of tea, a large slab of cake and a lake of (I think) tinned custard. The cake was actually rather nice too. Good music playing in the background as well (a bit of Marvin Gaye).

If I was cool and lived in a converted warehouse flat in the Northern Quarter, I'd probably come here every day. Unfortunately I'm not and I don't, but it's probably a blessing in disguise as I'd get too fat too quickly from the all the fry-ups and cakes and tinned custard.


The Koffee Pot
21 Hilton Street
Stevenson Square
M1 1JJ

Yadgar, Manchester

From a Leeds curry institution last weekend, to a Manchester curry institution this. The curry cafés of Manchester are a wonderful thing, and I wish we had them in Leeds as well. If you're not familiar with them, they all offer variations on the same theme. This being a basic, rather scruffy canteen serving pre-cooked curries, any choice of three on rice, usually for under a fiver. I've been to several of them, and have always been fed well for not much money.

On Friday night I chose Yadgar, one of the better ones on past experience. Here we have cauliflower, lamb and lentils. Unfortunately it wasn't great. On my previous visit to Yadgar I was quite impressed by the distinctive flavours of the curries, but this time everything seemed a bit muted and bland. The portion was rather stingy as well. It looks large, but it's mostly rice with just a smear of curry on top.

Nevertheless it fulfilled a need, my hunger was sated and it was still better (and probably more wholesome) than a fast food chain meal. Most of the curry cafés are scattered around the Northern Quarter, with a few in various other suburbs such as Cheetham Hill. For a comprehensive listing check out Flavours of Manchester. Which is your favourite?


90 High St

M4 1ES


Thursday, 24 March 2011

Barbakan Delicatessen, Chorlton, Manchester

Barbakan Deli is a rather good bakery and delicatessen in Chorlton. Up until last Saturday I'd strolled past it a few times, and even had a glance inside, but had never actually made a purchase.

On weekends they have a barbecue (they call it that but it's actually a couple of huge frying pans over a gas burner) out the front serving an interesting selection of sausages and burgers including German bratwurst, Polish smoked slaska and lamb in both forms. I nearly walked straight past, put off by the long queue, but curiosity got the better of me and I joined the back of it. It doesn't always work out that way, but in theory very popular ought to equal good.

In this case, the mob were correct. I ordered a bratwurst with fried potatoes. The bratwurst was lovely;- a dense, bouncy, porky sausage with plenty of fried onions on the top. Presumably the bread was baked on the premises, as it was much more than an afterthought. It was a large, slightly chewy roll with quite a yeasty flavour. A genuinely good example of a classic hot dog roll. With a large dollop of dijon mustard the whole thing was great fun to eat. Shame about the potatoes though, they were rubbish. Underseasoned and undercooked, they were mealy in the mouth and tasted of little.

The bratwurst cost £2.75, plus an extra pound for the potatoes.  I'd probably give the potatoes a miss next time, but the sausage was great and more than big enough for lunch. Well worth a visit. If you're lucky you might be able to grab a seat on the terrace next to the barbecue.

8/10 for the bratwurst (but 3/10 for the potatoes)

67-71 Manchester Road
M21 9PW

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Pickled Pepper, Holbeck, Leeds

We're getting spoilt for choice with good quality lunch spots on the South side of Leeds city centre. After recent successful trips to Riverside Sourdough Bakery, La Bottega Milanese and Wokon Noodle Bar I stopped off in Holbeck last Friday to give Pickled Pepper a try.

The dining area was full when I arrived, but all of the hot food is available to takeaway in addition to a range of sandwiches and salads. Dishes costing around £5.50 to eat in are all priced at a very reasonable £3.50 to go. I chose the pie and peas.

The pie was meat and potato, a good hefty wedge with a nice short pastry. The filling was very good, comprising big chunks of tender beef alongside the potato with just a touch of gravy. The peas were little petit pois rather than mushy peas, the sweetness of them worked well with the savoury beefiness of the pie. My only slight criticism is that it could have done with a bit more gravy.

The guys behind the counter were very friendly and the salads in the counter looked fresh and interesting too. I'll almost certainly be back.


Pickled Pepper
3 Saw Mill Yard
LS11 5WH

Monday, 21 March 2011

Sheesh Mahal, Leeds

As far as I'm concerned Azram's Sheesh Mahal is a genuine Leeds institution. If you're not already familiar with the place, and you live in Leeds, then you either don't like curry, or you've been asleep for the past twenty years.

The Sheesh Mahal is an authentic British curry house. I would normally mean that as an insult, because many of them are rubbish. Curries that are all the same slop in various colours and various levels of chilli heat, flock wallpaper, drunk people, jazzy carpets, dry bright red tikka, too many pints of gassy lager, you know the sort of thing. (I don't really know what flock wallpaper is by the way, it's just always included in the crap curry house clichés, so it seemed a shame to miss it out).

Although Sheesh Mahal looks the part, the crucial difference is that the food is good. Not the best curry you've ever had good, but solid, reliable, always glad you went good. I've been dining there from time to time for over 12 years now, and hopefully will be for another 12 and more.

My most recent visit was last Friday night, after a trip to the Leeds Beer, Cider and Perry Festival. As you can probably imagine, myself and my dining companion had been drinking beer, cider and perry, so a curry was called for to soak up the booze.

We were a bit late arriving (they close at midnight and we didn't arrive until gone half eleven), so skipped starters and ordered a meat laziz special, a chicken chana balti, a pilau rice, a plain nan and a couple of chapattis. And two pints of lager of course.

As expected everything was reliably good. The meat laziz special is a dish of slow cooked lamb chunks in a nice tangy, reduced sauce with a lot of lemon and pepper in it. The balti came sizzling in its pot and was very gingery and garlicky. I think they use chicken thigh pieces too, a much better option than breast which dries out far too easily (this is another sign they are not a rubbish authentic british curry house - many of these advertise that they only use chicken breast as a selling point). The nan bread was great too, nicely crisped and not too doughy.

Sorry about the poor photo quality, it was dark and I'd had a few ales. But as you can just about see we polished off the lot. The bill came to not particularly much, and service was as efficient as ever. They also didn't rush us out too quickly even though we were in there way after closing time. The food is probably worth a 7, you can get a better curry in Leeds, but I'm going to bump them up a mark for their enduring consistency and reliability.


346-348 Kirkstall Road

There's another branch in Chapel Allerton, but I've only ever been to Kirkstall Road.

Sheesh Mahal on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Cod with clams, blood oranges with whipped yoghurt

I started writing this blog with the sole intention of recording my experiences eating out. I didn't want to write about my own cooking because I didn't think I had anything much to say. I think I've changed my mind. I'm a passable home cook and recording my regular weeknight dinners would probably be very dull, but once in a while I come up with something that I really, really enjoy. Last night's supper was one of these occasions, so I thought I'd share.

I bought most of the food for this meal in Chorlton. This is worth mentioning as there are several great food shops in this area. The seafood came from Out of the Blue, which is quite probably the best fishmonger in the North. The vegetables and lemons came from the Unicorn Grocery which stocks a wonderful array of fruit and veg at reasonable prices. They have beautiful, huge fat sicilian lemons at the moment, for the same price as ones a quarter of the size in Morrison's down the road.

Cod with clams

For the main course, a piece of cod with clams in a light broth and a few greens. The key to this dish is cooking every component for the minimum time possible, until only just on the verge of doneness. The fish should just flake into big white slivers, if it flakes into little bits it's overdone. The greens should retain their colour and texture, and the clams should be soft rather than chewy. The end result is light, but packed with briney flavour, as the clams give up a huge amount of liquid when cooked. You will have plenty of this broth left over, which is perfect mopped up with some crusty bread.

You will need (for 1):
a large piece of cod (or other chunky white fish. Hake would be good)
a big handful of clams
a large glass of white wine
some greens (I used spinach and purple sprouting broccoli, samphire would be good)
olive oil
a lemon
salt & pepper
crusty bread

1. Set a frying pan over a moderate heat and add a little olive oil and butter. Salt the fish on the skin side. Place the fish in the pan skin side down and keep an eye on it. You can see the heat progress up the side of the fillet as the flesh changes from translucent to opaque.

2. Whilst the fish is cooking prepare your clams and greens. The clams will probably need a rinse under cold water. For the veg I used spinach and purple sprouting broccoli. Samphire is even better, enhancing the briney flavour of the dish, but I couldn't get hold of any yesterday.

3. When the cod is about two thirds done (about 6-7 minutes for my piece) turn it over and fry flesh side down. Get two more pans on the heat, one to steam the greens and another the clams.

4. Pour a large glass of white wine (I used sauvignon blanc) into the clam pot and allow it to bubble for a minute or two to burn off the alcohol. As soon as the alcohol has burned off throw the clams in and put the lid on.

5. Check the fish. You want it just cooked through so that it flakes beautifully. If it's done transfer it to a warmed plate. If not turn it back over to finish off cooking skin side down. The total cooking time will depend on the thickness, mine took about 12 minutes.

6. Steam the greens, adding the broccoli first then the spinach a minute or two later. The broccoli should take around 2-3 minutes, the spinach no more than a minute or so.

7. By this time, the clams should be ready. They should only take 2-3 minutes or so. Remove the lid and have a look. If they have nearly all opened they are done so remove them from the heat.

8. Place the cod on top of your greens, pour on the clams and their delicious cooking liquor, season to taste (squeeze of lemon, pepper, salt probably won't be needed) and you're done.

Blood oranges with whipped yoghurt

For pudding, blood oranges with whipped yoghurt and honey. Another beautifully light, fresh, fragrant dish this. You can tell I was feeling healthy after the previous night's beer festival and curry (we went to Sheesh Mahal after the festival - review to follow) exploits. The deep, tart flavour of the oranges is offset by creamy, airy yoghurt and the sweet fragrance of honey.

You will need (for 1):
About 150ml greek yoghurt (full fat)
1-2 blood oranges
icing sugar
runny honey

1. First prepare the yoghurt. The purpose of whipping it is for the texture. As with whipped cream the yoghurt becomes aerated making it seem somehow lighter and fresher. Whip the yoghurt with a scant teaspoon of icing sugar and set aside.

2. Peel and segment one or two ripe blood oranges, removing as much pith as you can be bothered.

3. Place the segments in a bowl, keeping a couple to one side, then add the yoghurt and a drizzle of honey.

4. Squeeze over the juice from the remaining segments, and eat at once.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Leeds Beer Festival

I went to the annual Leeds Beer, Cider and Perry Festival last night, and had a very merry time. I've written a guest post about it for the website my life in Leeds. Read all about it here.

Photo attribution: Rob Sexton

Thursday, 17 March 2011

A few good things to eat (volume 2)

Here is the second edition in what might turn into a regular series of posts singing the praises of food I've eaten, and possibly a few drinks I've imbibed. The first edition can be found here.

Stinking Bishop, available at good cheesemongers

Stinking bishop is a rather pungent washed rind cheese. The name is actually nothing to do with the smell, but comes from the name of the stinking bishop pear used to make the perry that the cheese is then washed in. Cheese rinsed in booze. Mmmm. It does stink though, so the name is apt. The flavour of the cheese rather belies the strong odour, as it's actually quite mellow and fruity. It also has a very smooth, shiny, spreadable texture that reminds me of processed cheese spread. I like to think of it as a sort of turbo dairylea (in a good way).

It's very good when left at room temperature to ooze for a while, then scooped up with some plain oatcakes. I also ate some stuffed in pancakes, which was a rather decadent pancake day treat. I bought mine from the Westmorland Farm Shop services (Tebay) on the M6. It seems to be fairly widely available so you can probably find it in a good cheesemonger.

Wilsons Pies, Crossgates, Armley & Morley

Wilsons of Crossgates are butchers renowned for their pork pies. I first fell in love with them while living in the Crossgates area some years ago. The Crossgates centre is pie heaven. Unless things have changed there are about 17 assorted bakeries and butchers within a 200 yard radius.

In recent years Wilson's seem to have expanded the pie side of the business. Their other shops in Armley and Morley focus on the pastries rather than the meat, and they also have a mobile pie van that can be found at all Leeds Rhinos home games.

The pies are not what I'd describe as a gourmet product, but they are bloody lovely. They're salty, porky, a bit greasy, have a nice, crisp crust, and are just delicious. Small pork pies are 95p each. I suggest you go buy one, or maybe several. Preferably several.

The Gentleman's Relish (Patum Peperium), widely available

The fish version of marmite. As a dedicated lover of all things fishy (thai fish sauce, asian shrimp pastes, anchovies etc etc) what's not to like. It's a simple concoction of anchovies, butter and seasoning of some sort ground into a fine paste. Stick to the recommendation on the tub and eat it spread sparingly on hot, buttered toast. I prefer it on granary. Yum.

Bundaberg Ginger Beer, available in deli's, posh sandwich shops, etc.

I like this. It's not gingery enough but it has a rather lovely aftertaste of toffee and is more refreshing than the colossal sugar content would suggest. Try as an alternative to Irn-Bru when feeling delicate! Probably not worth importing from Australia though... Fentimans is better and comes from Newcastle.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Reliance, Leeds

I've been to the Reliance once before, what must be seven years ago or more. I went for breakfast with friends, on a Sunday, all of us with significant hangovers. At the time they offered unlimited toast with the cooked breakfasts, and so it was that we loafed about, drinking tea, reading the papers and munching toast for what seemed like about five hours. I don't recall that we were asked to leave at any stage for eating them out of bread and butter, and while my memory for the details might be a bit sketchy it was definitely a long, leisurely and rather pleasurable brunch. It's a nice space too, tall windows making it light and airy with lots of blonde, unfinished wood inside. The upshot of this is that I've been holding the place in high esteem (lots of toast with lots of butter is a wonderful thing) and planning to go back ever since. I finally made it back last night.

I was feeling vaguely celebratory as it was my Birthday so three courses were always likely to be ordered. While the three of us perused the menu some good quality bread, butter and olives were brought to the table. The Reliance 10th anniversary celebration beer on draught was also very good.

To start with I opted for the mussels only to be informed a few minutes later that there were none. Slightly strange this, as a chap on the next table who arrived at least half an hour after us was later spotted slurping a great big bowl full of them. I did consider chinning him and stealing them, but I don't like to cause a fuss. No matter, game terrine wrapped in reliance home cured bacon, cumberland sauce and sourdough toast it was then.

Game terrine

Apologies for the poor quality of the photo's on this post. The room was fairly dark and using a flash can be a bit rude and intrusive for other diners. The terrine was a little disappointing, it was pleasant enough but not very gamey. I would have guessed it was a coarse porky pate if I hadn't known otherwise. It was also served a bit too cold. The cumberland sauce tasted exactly like marmalade, and was a nice tart, bitter foil to the meatiness. The sourdough toast was fine and cut from a decent bit of bread.

Shoulder of mutton

For my main course I opted for Roast shoulder of mutton with a haggis, swede & potato cake & lamb reduction. This was the best main of the three, the mutton was tender and deeply flavoured, like lamb but somehow stronger and earthier. The lamb reduction (gravy) didn't quite match up to the meat for depth of flavour, I'm not sure why they didn't serve a mutton reduction (gravy) with mutton. The potato cake was sweet, meaty, nicely caramelised at the edges and worked well with the meat. The other main courses were less successful. A rump steak was cooked as requested and full of flavour, but it was a very sinewy, chewy piece of meat for the price, even for rump. A special of pork cheeks were the opposite, slow cooked to lovely soft, fibrous strands but tasting rather bland.

Rum and ginger cake

And finally pudding. Just the one to share between us, a rum and ginger cake with pouring cream. What appeared wasn't really what I was expecting. The description suggested something dark and treacley looking, whereas this was a pale, plain looking slice of cake. It was doused in rum, but I couldn't detect any ginger in there at all. A thicker pouring cream would also have been better, as this was very much single cream and made the whole thing a touch soggy.

Overall this was a pleasant meal, with one particular high point (my mutton main course). Some of the other dishes were a bit hit and miss though, and it didn't really live up to my high expectations. Our bill came to £63 for 2 starters, 3 mains, 1 dessert and 3 beers, but before service (which was fine). It's not cheap but probably par for the course for a gastropub sort of menu. I would definitely return, but probably for a weekend brunch and papers session rather than an evening meal. If they still do unlimited toast I'm there tomorrow...


76-78 North Street

The Reliance on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Dosa Express, Withington, Manchester (revisited)

I had a dosa craving on the way back to Manchester this afternoon so decided to pay Dosa Express another visit. After a rather substantial, pork filled breakfast (cheers Chris!) I opted to stay veggie and had a madras masala dosa.

The dosa was crisp and light and the spiced potato filling was soft and warming. The three chutney's on the side (coconut, coriander, tomato) were all fresh and tasty, and the sambar was better than on my last visit (less salty, more veggies in the portion). My only criticism is that it was a bit small for a dosa, they usually turn up hanging off the edges of the plate.

I didn't quite manage to stay vegetarian though, as I ordered these on the side. Oops. Two mutton rolls were fantastic, greaseless and crispy with a heavily spiced mutton and potato filling. I could eat these all day.

The bill came to £6.50 including a bottle of water. Definitely worth a visit.

19 Copson Street
M20 3HE

They also have another branch in Derby.

My last visit.

DosaXpress on Urbanspoon

Friday, 11 March 2011

Middle Kingdom, Manchester

Middle Kingdom is one of a growing band of restaurants in Manchester showcasing regional Chinese cuisines. The focus here is on food from Hunan and Szechuan provinces both of which have big, bold flavours and lots of spice. A good thing if you ask me.

The menu is extensive and doesn't specify which dishes are Hunanese and which Szechuan, but if you avoid the Cantonese section (usually there to keep any unsuspecting punters after a 'normal' Chinese happy) you should be fine. Here's what we ate:

Fried Dumplings

A platter of fried dumplings to start were fine specimens, quite thin skinned with a chunky pork & spring onion filling and good crispy edges.

 Lamb Skewers

I'm familiar with lamb skewers from eating at Silk Road, a London restaurant serving food from Xinjiang province in North-West China, and one of my favourite restaurants anywhere, ever. The meat on their skewers is interspersed with chunks of lamb fat that keep it moist, both meat and fat coated in a moreish dry rub of cumin, chilli and salt. You have to eat them fast while they're hot, as the fat is not so lovely when cold. Middle Kingdom's skewers were meat only, but still rather good. The dry rub was similar, with the addition of szechuan pepper to the mix. Delicious.

Aubergines with the flavour of fish

Aubergines with the flavour of fish (I think this dish is more commonly known as fish fragrant aubergine) doesn't actually contain fish, I believe it's so named because the seasonings used are the same as for cooking fish in Szechuan cookery. Whatever you want to call it, it's not a dish for the faint-hearted. The aubergines had been fried in a substantial quantity of oil, to which more oil had been added. The flavour was actually quite mild; sweet and garlicky with just a hint of chilli heat. The aubergines were nicely cooked, lovely and soft without being mushy or slimy. I probably wouldn't order this dish again though, as we struggled to make much of an impression in the portion due to the colossal oil quotient.

Duck on the bone with chilli and taro in chinese beer

This, for me, was the high point of the meal. Duck on the bone with chillis and taro in chinese beer. The duck had been braised long and slow in a beer based stock laced with generous amounts of chilli, szechuan pepper and garlic, rendering it beautifully tender and deeply flavoured. The level of chilli heat and the numbness from the szechuan peppercorns was just right and the mild peppers, pickled peppers and spring onions added a vibrant, fresh contrast. Not really a big fan of the taro pieces though, they're sort of like grainy, floury potatoes in texture, and added little to the dish flavour-wise.

A wonderful meal, and another great Chinese restaurant to add to the list with Hunan and Red Chilli. This sort of food is always great value as well. Prices on the menu can look expensive, but are anything but as the portions are always huge. Main courses in the £7-9 pound region will serve two, and anything costing over a tenner is probably family sized. Our bill came to £50 for two including service and three beers each. Stick to water and a feast will set you back about £15 per head. Service was also friendly and efficient throughout. Thoroughly recommended.


86 Princess Street
M1 6NG

Middle Kingdom on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Terraces Hotel, Stirling, Scotland

I've just returned from a two night stay for work in Stirling, a rather attractive little city in central Scotland. Nothing much to report on the eating out front, Monday night I dined at a predictably poor chinese buffet restaurant, and last night I ended up in McDonalds (I was running late for the football, and couldn't find a pub with food and big screen TV). That's probably not a fair reflection of what Stirling has to offer, but sometimes dining alone in a deserted restaurant is too depressing to contemplate. Cold, wet Monday evenings in early March, in a small place, are not generally conducive to a lively atmosphere.

The breakfast offerings at my hotel are worth a quick post though. The Terraces is a fairly small, cheap townhouse hotel, the kind of place that can be a bit Fawlty Towers if you're unlucky. Fortunately it was much better than that, the rooms were spacious and clean, the staff were friendly without being overbearing, and the breakfasts were cooked to order. This morning I chose poached eggs, black pudding and potato scone.

The black pudding was great, lean and peppery with plenty of oatmeal. The egg yolks were runny as they should be, and the potato scone made a good alternative to toast. Toast on the side was rubbish though, as it was made with very cheap sliced bread. Buy better bread please and your breakfasts could be fantastic!


4 Melville Terrace

Monday, 7 March 2011

Where to find the best Spanish food in the North?

I'll warn you now, by the time I've finished writing this post it may well have grown into a long and rambling eulogy to the joys of Spanish food.

I fell in love with Spanish food and the Spanish way of eating as recently as last year. I always had a sneaking suspicion that I was a fan, but had never really experienced Spain properly (Costa's notwithstanding) until I was lucky enough to spend two long weekends in Madrid and Valencia last spring.

Madrid was a revelation. I had planned it as a foodie weekend, with the intention being to explore the bars and immerse ourselves in the tapas culture. I went with high expectations, but never thought I'd be so blown away by the sheer generosity and variety of it all. Madrid bars generally offer a free tapa with every drink ordered and the range is astounding; - peanuts, olives, salt cod & chickpea stew, tuna pastries, manchego cheese, jamón offcuts, braised mushrooms, mussels in white wine, hunks of chorizo, open sandwiches topped with ham, cheese or pate, crisps, pork scratchings; - all of these things and more were served up with small glasses (cañas) of beer, beakers (copas) of wine or glasses of wonderful sherry rarely costing more than a couple of euros apiece and sometimes less. During an evening of barhopping the freebies were supplemented with paid for tapas or sometimes a larger portion (ración) of whatever tickled our fancy. In this way I ate some of the best ham (jamón ibérico de bellota), some of the best seafood (galician style octupus - pulpo a la gallega), some of the best spuds (patatas bravas done perfectly) and some of the best deep fried goods (wonderfully light croquetas de jamón or de bacalao) I have eaten in my life.

We didn't really dine in restaurants in the evenings, preferring to stick to the bar crawls, but did frequent a couple at lunchtime. Generosity, value and quality were once again to the fore, as many bars have a dining room (comedor) offering a set menu at lunch. In the most memorable of these I dined on a nourishing salt cod & spinach soup, a rich, reduced oxtail stew served with (proper home-made not frozen) chips, a large slice of custard flan, half a bottle of passable red and mineral water for the princely sum of eleven euros. None of the food was mindblowing, but it was all cooked on the premises, substantial and tasty. This kind of thing would amaze back home, especially for a tenner, but in Madrid it seems to be pretty much the norm.

Snacks and breakfasts were also in keeping with the rest, in that they were invariably delicious, readily available and great value. Freshly squeezed orange juice, crusty sandwiches de jamón, and of course the magnificent churros with chocolate (freshly fried long doughnut type things with thick, dark, bittersweet chocolate to dip them in), which the Madrileños like to eat in the early hours after a night on the town (slightly classier than your average doner..).

All in all, my brief sojourn in Madrid was nothing short of a foodie awakening. Valencia had a lot to live up to. The first potential pitfall was that the Valencia trip was a stag do, not usually the type of break associated with dining well.

I needn't have worried. It wasn't quite Madrid, but Valencia put up a pretty good fight, giving me reason to believe that any large Spanish city is likely to be worth an eating and drinking weekend. The food highlight of the visit was an outstanding beef chop (chuletón de buey), up there with the best steaks I've ever eaten, and this from a restaurant selected completely at random in the centre of town. Honourable mentions also go to the quality of lamb and pork purchased from the supermarket, the melting-fat deliciousness of a five euro plate of ham scoffed in a scruffy bar in the local town where our villa was situated, and a paella for twelve people served up in a seafront tourist trap that could have been expensive and dire, but was neither.

At this point, if anyone is still reading this, you may have realised that I rather like the food in Spain. You may also have recalled that this post is titled 'Where to find the best Spanish food in the North?', so you may reasonably be wondering why I have waffled on about Spain at such length. So, in a rather roundabout way, to Britain.

In Britain, we don't really do Spanish eating properly. Let us take tapas, as the majority of Spanish restaurants in this country tend to focus on the tapas theme. Tapas restaurants in Britain are not really like tapas bars in Spain. For starters most of them are restaurants, rather than bars, which rather defeats the object in the first place. I don't mind this, as Britain is not Spain. Unless there is some huge, unexpected cultural shift we are not going to have bars in the Spanish style in any significant quantity in British towns and cities. As I've already said, I don't mind this, as bemoaning this fact would be like complaining that you can't get a decent pint of cask ale on every corner in Madrid, i.e. a bit silly.

So if we are going to have to sit down and eat our tapas all in once place what we can do is focus on the quality and value of the food, and in this respect a lot of the tapas places in the UK seem to fit into two camps.

In the first corner is La Tasca and it's ilk. Fairly cheap, but mediocre at best food that I'm pretty sure all comes pre-packaged and frozen for assembly line reheating. I have been to La Tasca twice in the last year or two, neither occasion of my choosing. The first occasion was with a large group of blokes, and the party menu had been pre-ordered. What this means is that they bring out all of the food all at once, on huge platters. This bears no resemblance to tapas, it's basically just a massive, shit buffet (you know the sort of thing; - manky chicken legs and budget frozen garlic bread). The second occasion was after more than a few drinks, when one of our group had 50% off vouchers for the food. As expected it was all dull if not actively bad. I recall that the pork ribs came with a particular recommendation for being tender and delicious. The meat was indeed tender and fell off the bones, but unfortunately was drowning in a horrid brown, gloopy sauce tasting of sugar and artificial smoke-flavour. I am not a fan of La Tasca.

In the second corner is the increasing number of upmarket Spanish places that serve very good food, but at generally very enthusiastic prices. Now I understand that certain Spanish foodstuffs are very pricey because they are the finest, most exquisite of their type (yes I'm looking at you iberico ham), but this does not apply in all cases. Charging six or seven quid for a single scallop or a tortilla (it's just eggs!) is taking the michael however well executed the dish. These are the type of places where you will eat some delicious food, but leave feeling peckish and not even slightly pissed having parted with forty of your finest english pounds. I'm not really sure whether this type of Spanish restaurant has spread to the North in abundance yet, as I haven't sought them out since returning, but their numbers have grown rapidly in London over recent years.

So what am I actually looking for? Some sort of halfway house really. Good quality, well cooked, generous, unpretentious, good value Spanish food. Like in Spain. Sounds like a simple formula, but obviously isn't.

Here is a very short list of places that I have compiled from searching the web and reading a few reviews. I have only been to one of them, so I don't know whether the rest fit the bill or not.

Liverpool - Salt House Tapas

Manchester - El Rincon de Rafa

Ripponden - El Gato Negro Tapas

Leeds - El Bareto

El Rincon and El Bareto look like they are in the Spanish bar style, hence their inclusion. El Gato and Salt House are much more in the new, upmarket pricey mould but are included on my shortlist for their great value lunch deals. El Gato I know is great, because I went a couple of years ago at lunchtime and it was excellent, and Salt House is getting some fine reviews from some trustworthy sources.

All being well I'd like to visit those on my shortlist over the coming months, but would love to hear any comments or suggestions that anyone has to offer. I can't be jetting off to Madrid twice a year, got to satisfy the craving somehow...

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Tiled Hall Cafe, Leeds Art Gallery

Yesterday afternoon I spent a couple of hours exploring central Leeds, just generally wandering around some of the more forgotten corners to see what I might find. I stumbled across an Ethiopian Restaurant in the very forgotten corner that is the Merrion Centre market. A quick googling swiftly put paid to my thinking I might have discovered a hidden gem, as it's actually rather well documented. I'll be back to try it at some point.

My best discovery of the day (at least it was a discovery to me) was in a place that is busy, bustling and not the least bit forgotten. The Tiled Hall in Leeds Art Gallery is the original reading room of the adjacent library, restored to it's former glory and put to wonderful use as a cafe.

Photo credit: bethmadethis

What a wonderful space. I really can't think of a better spot to while away an hour or two in Leeds. Unfortunately the food didn't really match up to the surroundings. I opted for the daily hot special, beef stew served with a crusty roll.

The stew was just rather dull. The stock base was watery and lacked flavour, it needed something, anything to give it some depth (bones, onions, wine, mustard, more browning of the meat, worcester sauce - any of these would have been an improvement). The beef itself was a bit dry and chewy, but the vegetables were nicely cooked. It was also a very meagre portion, at seven pounds overpriced by at least a couple of quid. The bread was freshly baked, but almost certainly from a bulk freezer pack of part-baked rolls.

A shame really, as the room is genuinely lovely. I would recommend a visit for coffee and cakes, or perhaps a glass of wine.


The Tiled Hall Cafe
Leeds Art Gallery
The Headrow

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Wokon Noodle Bar, Leeds

Wokon is another expanding mini-chain offering an alternative to the usual fast food behemoths. I'd put them in a similar category to Rice and Barburrito and after my recent visits to those two were distinctly poor and average respectively I didn't have particularly high expectations for Wokon.

I was pleasantly surprised. The menu sensibly sticks to Asian food, with most of the stir-fries listed being Chinese with a couple from other countries thrown in (Thailand, Indonesia). I ordered a Nasi Goreng with prawns and pork (Indonesian style fried rice).

The portion was generous with plenty of prawns and loads of pork (those little cardboard containers look deceptively small, they really pack it in). The prawns were fresh tasting and the pork was flavoursome if a bit chewy and unnecessarily red. There were plenty of veggies in the mix and the requested spiciness was present and correct. It cost a reasonable £5.49.

I went to the branch on Briggate. There are others on New Station Street and in Headingley. Hopefully more branches to come...


Wokon Noodle Bar
156 Briggate

Wokon Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Gale Lane Fisheries, Acomb, York

I seem to have eaten fish and chips again. That's three times in the past few weeks. Must be something to do with being back in Yorkshire more often. I genuinely believe that the best fish and chips are to be found in Yorkshire. I could pontificate on what is wrong with them in various other parts of the country, but it would probably be very boring so I won't.

These fish and chips were quite good. Good sized, flaky haddock. Crisp batter. Chips with the right balance of crispiness and greasiness. Bucket loads of scraps. My only criticism is that the fish wasn't freshly fried, so had dried out a bit.

I think it was £4.60 for fish, chips and curry sauce. I didn't pay though, my Mum did. Thanks Mum! Not worth a special visit, but good if you're in the area.

I'm hoping to see more of York this year, so there may be more posts to come. I don't know it very well at all, but have recently discovered it has a number of rather enticing pubs and bars to investigate. Thanks beer bloggers!


Gale Lane Fisheries
218-220 Gale Lane
YO24 3AQ

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Byker Vista Cafe, Newcastle

A very brief jaunt to Newcastle today, a few hours work, a quick lunch and back down the A1 to Yorkshire. What a glorious day it was though, I could have easily ditched work for the rest of the day in favour of strolling around the toon in the sunshine.

Unfortunately duty called, so lunch and five minutes fresh air would have to suffice. The Biscuit Factory was somehow on my radar (Twitter? Random googling? Who knows?). It's a commercial art gallery with a cafe inside, promising views across the Ouseburn valley. Sounded spot on for a sunny afternoon, so I headed over.

The cafe is located on the first floor, and does indeed have a fine view over the valley. Beautiful in an urban, post-industrial way if you like that sort of thing, which I do (think railway lines, warehouses, tower blocks etc). The room makes the most of the setting too, huge windows with barstool seating running their length.

 It's always sunny in Newcastle!

Food-wise it's fairly standard stuff; - sandwiches, panini, quiches, and some rather fine looking cakes on display (afternoon teas were advertised). I had the broccoli and stilton quiche (£5.50) with a bottle of Fentimans Ginger Beer to wash it down.

Fentimans, Warehouses

The quiche was pleasant, good creamy filling but a bit light on the stilton. Coleslaw on the side was obviously homemade, with a pleasing crunch to it and the salad wasn't bad either.

 Quiche, Coleslaw, Salad

The food was nice if unremarkable, but it's a lovely venue particularly in good weather. I also had a wander round the gallery which is well worth a look. The building is all exposed brickwork and wooden vaulted ceilings and there's a range of interesting art on display. I'd recommend a visit for afternoon tea on a fine day.


Byker Vista Cafe
The Biscuit Factory
16 Stoddart Street
Newcastle Upon Tyne

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Cooking the perfect steak (or at least trying to)

I've been attempting to cook the perfect steak for a few years now. I rarely go out for steak, as dining on the good stuff in restaurants tends to cost a fortune. Budgetary constraints mean it's usually a better option to buy a decent piece of meat and cook it at home.

I've had some success with the cook it hot and fast, followed by a long rest method as recommended here, but recently stumbled across this method that recommends cooking over a much lower heat for a longer period of time. The general idea is that the slow frying in butter builds up a crust, rather than actually chars the meat, and that it's this crust that enhances the flavour (something to do with the Maillard reaction).

So here is my attempt. First you need to procure some beef. To use this method you're going to need a steak at least 1.5 inches thick. Mine was a 600g (about 21oz) bone-in sirloin from the Ginger Pig, and was just 1.5 inches exactly.

Next, congratulate yourself on the fine piece of beef you have purchased by opening a drink. Cooking steak is thirsty work!

Stage 1 of the cooking process, get your pan over a medium (not high!) heat and fry the steak on it's edges. There are two reasons for this, first some of the fat will render out which will then be part of the cooking medium for the next stage, second it looks nicer and helps to crisp up the fat. You may also notice that I'm not using a griddle pan. I always find I get an uneven crust/char with the griddle pan (due to the ridges), whereas what I'm looking for is an even crust over the whole steak, hence the frying pan.

The method recommends 10 minutes cooking on the edges, followed by 10 minutes on each side. As my steak was only just 1.5 inches thick I stuck to the 10 minutes for the edges, but reduced to 7 minutes per side. Next up, stage 2 of the cooking process, add butter to the pan and fry on each side for 7 minutes. This photo is just after turning after the first 7 minutes. After the first turn you should change the butter as it will eventually start to break down and burn. You can see the nice crust starting to build up, but it's a bit patchy and not as even as I'd hoped for.

After turning, each side should be salted and basted with butter to help keep the crust developing. And here is the finished article, transferred to a plate for resting. This is the final stage of the cooking process. Place the steak in a warm oven (about 70 deg C) for around half the time you cooked it for. In my case this was about 11 minutes.

While the steak is resting, time to finish off the accompaniments. Parboiled potatoes straight into the steak pan to crisp up in the butter and beef fat.

And some lightly dressed rocket, for health purposes.

Then it's time to remove the steak from the oven, keeping fingers crossed that I haven't ruined it. The moment of truth:

Looking pretty good. I'm glad I opted to reduce the cooking time a bit, as any longer and it would have been overdone (it ended up medium rare). Pour a nice glass of red, and we're ready to serve:

This was a very, very good steak. Meat from the Ginger Pig is always delicious, hung for ages it develops a rich, almost creamy flavour. I like this cooking method, but it still wasn't perfect. The crust just didn't develop as well as I'd hoped for. What I'm after is a deeper, browner, saltier, crisper crust with a slightly rarer interior. The quest continues.

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