Saturday, 30 November 2013

Kowloon Correspondents' Club - Barton Arcade, Manchester

Them Liquorists, Manchester's self-styled sauce slingers, tellers of tall tales and the purveyors of the most innovative/high class bar crawls I've ever been on, have done it again.

This time they've only gone and got themselves a proper bloody bar in Manchester city centre, which has popped up for the next two months to serve you beautifully crafted Belvedere cocktails (guess who they've partnered with...), an injection of oriental glamour and, as they informed me the other night, 'to get a bit of our luxury into your mouths,' - a phrase which works somewhat better when you see the (lecherous) faces they pulled with that.

To bring you the Kowloon Correspondents Club, The Liquorists have taken over a unit in the graceful, victorian Barton Arcade mall. Barton Arcade has been one of my favourite architectural gems since I first moved to Manchester twelve years ago and unfortunately has become a little underused these days, so it's great to see people using it again in a creative, playful way.

We kicked off our night with a Belvedere masterclass; tasting different expressions of the gin and the brand's signature Zephyr cocktail (heavy on the pink grapefruit). I'm not going to wax lyrical about the aceness of Belvedere because I've done that before, but I will wax on about KCC (as the kids are calling it).

Kowloon serves cocktails made of Belvedere vodka and some other stuff (skillfully) thrown in for good measure. As the staff are all part of The Liquorists you know that they know their stuff and that they know their way around the bar - if you go early, before the rush, they're also all pretty nice chaps who will explain anything you need to know about the drink you are drinking.

KCC is offering free Belvedere masterclasses so get yourself down there early - not only will you get some free booze, but you'll learn some knowledge that will make you sound super cool in front of your friends AND it's genuinely a very fun way to start of an evening.

So pop down to Barton Arcade, marvel at the beautiful victorian engineering and then slip into the moody/cosy/quirky space that is KCC - be quick, it's only there for a couple of months.

Ps good news - between 5 and 7pm EVERYTHING at the bar is half price. Would be rude not to...

Kowloon Correspondents Club is open Thurs through Sat, 5pm  - midnight.

Kowloon Correspondents Club, Off Deansgate/Off St Anne's Square, Manchester M3 2BW - Twitter

Saturday, 9 November 2013

San Carlo Bottega - Selfridges, Manchester

I'm not saying it's my best trait, but I'm known for being slightly, ever so slightly, competitive (slightly? Your uni housemates nicknamed you 'Monica' - ed).

If I were to pop psychoanalyse myself (as one does in the wee small hours), I would say this all stems from having a father who, instead of playing family games in a manner which allowed his small children a slight advantage, ruthlessly exploited our weaknesses to completely own whichever board it was we were playing on. 

When a challenge is laid down, I'll take it; hence why when Alessandro DiStefano of the San Carlo Restaurant Group, picked up my last blog post on Cicchetti and then laid down the challenge that if I thought that was good, I'd positively love Bottega, their new opening at Manchester's Selfridges; I couldn't say no, could I?

Bottega is an extension of the successful Cicchetti concept; small, tapas style plates to share, that come out when they're ready. What's the point of opening another place just like the one down the road (I hear you say)? Bottega's premise may be similar, but there are differences - instead of purely Italian cuisine, Bottega injects some French-style dishes to the menu, which is great because a) I bloody love French food and b) it makes a change from the raft of like-for-like Italian joints that Manchester is overrun with.

Decor is similar to the pared back opulence and marble found at Cicchetti and San Carlos, but with the most beautiful duck egg blue leather seats looking out over the twinkling lights of Exchange Square. I could take about the bar and the window of Italian produce, but enough of the decor, this is a food blog, so let's talk food.

Zucchini fritters are always a must and dare I say it, Bottega's were even better than the ones at Cicchetti (I know!); a super light batter surrounded slightly crunchy veg, all perfectly seasoned (think licking salt off your fingers level of seasoning).

As I said at Cicchetti, if I'd had the San Carlo pizza at any other restaurant, I'd be raving about it, but as everything else we ate was so good, the pizza just because another great dish among many; smokey from the oven, warmth from the chillies and savoury loveliness from the meat on top.

Chicken spiedino, ordered from the specials menu, was a moist, charred and salty skewer of pancetta wrapped chicken, sweet peppers and red onions. A dish of toulouse sausage was served with just an egg to dip in; anything more would have taken away from the sweetness of the fennel and the absolute quality of the sausage. Lemon sole and black shrimp was impeccably cooked, the flesh just off translucent - the shrimps, a spicy hint of mace and a squeeze of lemon kept the dish simple but memorable.

But the star of the night, the dish we are still talking about and the dish I will order every time I go back to Bottega, will be the tuna tartare. You may wonder what can be special about this dish; many places serve it and it doesn't particularly push gastronomic boundaries, but the classic simplicity and theatre of being served the dish is why it's so magic.
Frederico, tartare king

Tuna tartare at Bottega goes something like this; the waiting staff bring a sliver platter and set it up next to your table. Upon the platter they place a bottle of tabasco, a lemon, some oil, some balsamic, some salt and some pepper. And they leave you with that for a moment. You wait, you muse, you eat some more zucchini.

Tuna tartare - dish of my dreams
A plate is then brought to you; tuna, rocket, onion, caper, mustard and red onion - you are shown all of the finely chopped ingredients and you are asked if you like all of them (you can create your tartare to your exact tastes, adding or leaving out any of the ingredients you wish). Ingredient inspection over, your waiter expertly mixes everything, stopping to show you each step; an understated spectacle.

And then the dish is placed between you, you eat it, the balance of flavours is so exact and so clean you can't say anything and you don't. Tip, ask for Frederico to serve this dish to you. He's a master.

I ate all these
We finished with pudding, three of them between the two of us, for research purposes of course. If you like pannacotta, eat the Bottega one, I swear it's made with the creamiest cream you can cream off a cow. The rum baba is also worth a mention for sheer 70's nostalgia of puddings lovingly created for me by my grandma; light, boozy, making me feel like a happy little child (but don't eat the vanilla cream on top, a little too sweet and overbalances the dish somewhat).

Throughout the evening we'd been cossetted by very friendly staff. Like their other restaurants, San Carlo has invested heavily in customer service and it shows. Professional, knowledgeable, slightly cheeky and nowhere near dour, the staff made our evening.

I accepted the challenge to like Bottega and I can unequivocally say that I do. The decor is beautiful without being OTT, the staff are so friendly they make you feel like family, the food is spot on and the inclusion of french dishes is an inspiration, truly making Bottega stand out from the crowd. The only downsides? They'd run out of cassolet (my favourite dish bar a bouillabaisse) and they only open till 8pm - they have to close when Selfridges does. Just means I'll have to have some 'long lunches...'

Now, which one do I prefer - Bottega or Cicchetti. Not sure I'll ever be able to decide (obviously needs more 'research' - ed).

Dishes are Bottega are priced between £6 and £12, you need about six between two people with health appetites, but could get away with one pizza for a light-ish lunch.

Food - 8/10
Service - 9/10
Atmosphere - 7/10
Value for money - 8/10

Total - 32/40

Go again - yes. As with Cicchetti, I plan to become a regular and maybe even just move in.

Bottega, 2nd Floor Selfridges, 1 Exchange Square, Manchester M3 1BD - Twitter

Please note, I was invited to Bottega, they knew I was there and my food was free - however as with any freebie, I mark harder than if I've paid and you know me, I'll tell you when something is rubbish.

San Carlo Bottega on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Cicchetti - Manchester

Unlike swathes of my friends, peers and fellow mancunions, I had yet to have eaten at Cicchetti, the latest (though not that new now! Get with the times etc! - ed) offering from the San Carlo group.

Part laziness, part skintness and part 'every-time-I-go-in-the-service-is-appalling-and-I-leave-before-I'm-seated-ness', has kept me away. Till now. Because we were very hungry and mother was paying.

Packed, even on a rainy mid-week lunchtime, we were asked to wait at the bar; we ordered a coffee, we watched the world pass and this time, we were treated with impeccable service. The relaxed opulence, the hurry-scurrying of the waiters and the fact everyone seemed to either be speaking in Italian (staff) or to be extremely tanned (well-heeled customers), made us feel 'like us on us 'olidays, in Italy, like.'

Buzzy, busy - Cicchetti at lunchtime
Capricious menu
Cicchetti's premise and inspiration, is the cicchetti bars of Venice; where small plates are brought out with drinks, tapas style. The menu is quite vast and I could have happily eaten most of the dishes on there – however we were advised that five between two would probably satisfy (and they were correct, pudding was noted to have 'pushed us over.' Mother was smug, she didn't eat pudding).

Despite sitting in an Italian restaurant and feeling rather continental, Mother and I bickered in the most British of fashions, suggesting dishes and immediately deprecating said suggestion in favour for anything the other suggested. Luckily I went back five days later and ordered all the dishes I'd conceded.

In the end we settled on the Goat Ragu (this month’s special), a meaty, soft, delicate and satisfying dish with some of the best pasta I’ve eaten (family gossip, my little brother has started making his own pasta) and the best dish of the day (we may not have agreed on which dishes to order, but we both agreed on this important fact).

We also chose the buffalo mozzarella with tomato; a very small dish, but the sheer amount of flavour, seasoning and quality made up for it. There were butterflied sardines on toast with a caper and roasted tomato sauce, more capers were needed in my opinion, but Mother was happy as she hates them (this was a dish she had conceded to me, her special spoiled princess).

We also ordered the duck and apple salad, expecting more apple than duck, a la everywhere else I’ve ever eaten. Instead we were confronted by what must have been at least a quarter of a duck; super soft and sweet, with peppery rocket and fine slices of sharp apple to cut through the buttery meat.

And then there was the dish of green beans. This could be construed as a boring choice, actually it was my attempt to inject something healthy into the meal. The beans may have been green, but I would guess that at least 200g of butter had been melted over the top of 100g of beans. This is how beans should always be served. Take note.

Quick aside - run down on the dishes I order five days later minus mother, plus friend who I practically bullied into these choices:
1. Terra board - the creamiest, dreamiest mozzarella scattered with slices of charcuterie.
2. Calamari - my 'kitchen competency test' - just cooked, the sweet squid was encased in the lightest, well seasoned batter.
3. Courgette 'chips' - see beans above. Everything that applies to them applies to this dish.
4. Mushroom pizza - anywhere else this would be an amazing dish, but with everything else on the table, this was obscured.
5. Dolce cicchetti - a big board full of puddings, great for sharing, not a patch on affagato (see below).

Full, satisfied and utterly charmed by our waiter, we finished on coffee – well Mother did, I had the affagato, because coffee is always better when it super strong, poured over ice cream and finished with a good kick of amaretto.

Cicchetti’s a rare place where you can either order a quick, small plate for one at lunch (sit at the bar, listen to the waiters, pretend you’re in Venice and have sunny fantasises before heading back to the office) or sit down for hours, order plate after plate of inspired, brilliantly cooked food and share them with sunny laughter, gossip, wine and friends – and anything in between.

I'm not sure why I stayed away for so long!

Price for five small dishes, two glasses of wine, two coffees and one pudding – £53.35

Food – 9/10
Service – 9/10
Atmosphere – 9/10
Value for money – 8/10

Go again – see above. Yes, yes, YES!

Cicchetti, House of Fraser Ground Floor (private entrance off King Street West), Deansgate, Manchester M3 2QG - 0161 839 2233 - - Facebook - Twitter

San Carlo Cicchetti on Urbanspoon