Thursday, 3 March 2011

A taste of Manchester

Last weekend (and the two days before) was a Manchester-based smorgasbord, which included a number of elements – some sweeter tasting than others.

There was equal pay in Bury, where the goings on brought to mind Alan Bleasdale's GBH, and attempts by Bolton council to close a mini zoo where parents and grandparents have been taking their children since the 1930s (and it had been open as a menagerie since Victorian times), which have now been put on hold, thanks to a super campaign by the local community (including primary schools and playgroups) and UNISON.

Then there was the football, which itself included an assortment of highs and lows, from a certain young Italian who is, on the one hand, fabulously talented, but on the other, prone to behaving like a spoilt brat at times, to the wonderful atmosphere created by 5,000 Greeks, who also turned out to be bearing gifts.

But in between all this, there was some eating to be done.

On Thursday, finding that the Pizza Express at Piccadilly Gardens had an early evening queue outside, and seeing as those 5,000 fans of Aris FC were having a party in the gardens themselves, prior to being marched to Eastlands for the evening's match by the local constabulary, I decided to get ahead of them – and concentrate on getting to the stadium.

I was hungry by this time, but settled for pie (cheese and onion) and chips. It was no better than I expected – but no worse. It was stadium fodder that did what it needed to and kept the wolf from the door.

After a game that was thoroughly enjoyable, and included some passages of exquisite attacking play from City (even with David Silva missing through injury), I was lucky enough to get one of the first buses back into the city centre – and find a table for one in the aforementioned restaurant, which has become a regular venue for a meal when I'm in town.

Equally ritualistically, I ordered a thin crust with pepperoni and jalapeno chilis, with a beer on the side to quench the fire, followed by a couple of scoops of coffee gelato. All quite enjoyable – and it got the old endorphins flowing pleasantly.

Friday saw a trip to Bury, which was preceded by an early lunch – a ploughmans in Harvey Nicks, that was not only very good, but also surprisingly good value too, when you consider the cost of ready-made sandwiches etc.

It included really lovely pork pie, thin, smoked ham, and two cheeses – although I'd have personally preferred a 'tastier' Lancashire than that available.

But Friday night was my big meal out. I'd booked a table for one at Michael Caines @ Abode.

Once there, the maitre d' suggested that, since I can't eat big portions, perhaps I should try the grazing menu: small portions that would allow me try more number of dishes than otherwise.

The executive chef is Mark Rossi, but I deliberately opted for three of Caines's own signature dishes. Then, after my order had been taken, I had the attentions of the sommelier, who made some fascinating suggestions for each dish.

So, to start: Scottish organic salmon, with salmon jelly, cucumber, sevruga caviar, honey soy, wasabi and a Greek yogurt vingarette.

The fish was not thin slices, but incredibly soft pieces from a fillet. I don’t know wasabi as a flavour to pick out, but the entire dish was beautifully balanced, with sweet, sour and bitter flavours – and the cucumber ribbons were a revelation. Fresh and clean, it was a delight.

To follow, came roast duck liver, orange braised chicory, caramelised walnuts and marinated raisins in an anise-spiced sauce.

So the sweetness of the liver, the tartness of the sauce and the bitterness of the chicory – again, sublime balance. And the recommended wine – going entirely against the red-with-red-meat mantra – was a sweet Riesling, which worked wonderfully.

Now being me, if these were ‘regular’ portions, I’d have been stuffed by this stage.

But there was plenty of room for some Lake District saddle of venison, served with smoked bacon, chestnut purée, roast root vegetables and a red and blackcurrant wine sauce.

When you look at that description, you can see straight away the balance of flavours here too. And, as with the previous dishes, a wonderful mix of textures aswell.

For dessert, I opted for another Caines signature dish – a caramel and cardamom parfait with milk chocolate mousse, nougatine and a cardamom foam.

The parfait was … well, it made me think of an incredibly grown-up version of a butterscotch Angel Delight. And utterly gorgeous.

And I was even more delighted on realising that there was a Banyuls available as a dessert wine – a welcome reminder of the warmth of the Mediterranean.

This was a sumptuous meal, with balance as the key.

Service was excellent and the atmosphere was very pleasant (although the jerk at the table next to mine, who was playing possessiveness games with the woman with him, managed to maintain a remarkably consistent level of sheer irritatingness).

It was back down to culinary earth on Saturday.

After chilly, drizzly Bolton (thank goodness the rain cleared before we went outside to do the photography!), I found Tina’s Market Café in the covered market in the town.

This was ‘the full English’ at its most basic – even down to the slightly chipped and stained white mug that my tea came in – but boy, did it hit the spot.

That evening, I resorted to pizza again – with red onion, goat’s cheese, pine nuts, capers, black olives and sultanas. There’s nowt wrong with decent pizza. And then a very odd tiramisu, which seemed to be made of sponge cake, rather than sponge fingers.

Sunday morning saw me turned away from two Weatherspoons on Piccadilly, for the ‘crime’ of wearing football colours on a match day in a football-mad town. I found consolation in the unexpected peace and quiet of Bella Italia, which actually serves an Italianised version of an English fry up.

The last real food experience of the trip came in the Arndale. It’s decades since I wandered around there: I don’t really ‘do’ shopping malls, but had time on my hands.

It has never struck me before how many shops play loud music: loud, fast music, at that. Even the Disney shop plays fast music – albeit a bit less rock ‘n’ roll than the clothes shops, for instance. Presumably it gets the old adrenalin going and the punters are, therefore, more likely to splash their cash (or credit).

Waterstones, with very soft New Agey background music, was a respite. And so, later, was Druckers, a ‘Vienna patisserie’. After gazing at the cakes, salivating, for some time, I opted for a mint chocolate mousse. It was pretty decent – although I was a tad surprised that it was served in a plastic sleeve, even though I was eating in. Would that have happened in, say, Vienna?

That aside, though, it wasn’t a bad old few days for the food. But Michael Caines @ Abode was, without a shadow of a doubt, a superb culinary experience on every level.

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