Sunday, 26 November 2017

Moonstruck

It's difficult to miss the Urbis Building, the space-age monolith a stone's throw from the Arndale Centre and home to the National Football Museum. But blink and you'd miss the entrance to The Rabbit in the Moon, chef Michael O'Hare's Manchester venture with Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs. If you did miss it you'd be missing something weird and wonderful, slick and surprising, challenging and, er, chewy? Actually, come to think of it, none of the dishes was that chewy. Some of them were challenging though, but it was a challenge worth accepting.

Through the door and up in the lift and into the bar we went, being invited to order a cocktail before our meal began. It was here we faced our first challenge - eating the first course of oyster topped with a ginger 'pearl' whilst reclining on one of the unfeasibly squishy chairs. I'm inept at eating oysters at the best of times but managed to slurp down the appetiser without wearing it. Job done, we were invited to follow our waiter downstairs to the actual dining floor of the restaurant.

Oyster and ginger 'pearl'

Anyone who's visited O'Hare's Leeds restaurant The Man Behind The Curtain will instantly note the similarities: the large, open-plan eating space, the 'graffiti'-covered pillars and the exact-same design of chair. The menu choice, or rather lack of, is also the same - which is to say you get what you're given. Luckily, what you're given is very, very good.

The menu at TRITM is a play on the British love of Oriental cuisine and takeaways. Only, to my knowledge, none of my local takeaways serve octopus, or calf brain, or rabbits' ears. OK, so the 'ears' were actually pointy-shaped prawn crackers which you used to scoop up a delicious dashi crumb at the start of the meal proper. I had to ask the question though, and if they had been ears it wouldn't have surprised me one bit.

All of the courses were smallish, ranging from a tuna melt that you devoured in one go to a more substantial sweetbread slider which needed a few bites and some deft handling to avoid covering yourself in it. It was excellent by the way, lightly crisp on the outside, rich and buttery in the middle. There was no one 'starter' or 'main,' rather a series of courses often served in groups of two or three together.

Sweetbread slider

The last of the savoury servings was probably the most diverse: the aforementioned calves brains delivered up with a nigiri of Wagyu beef tartare and caviar and a number of foie gras foam-covered nuggets of duck breast, to be eaten in that order. These helpings were accompanied with both a red and white wine from the matching wine flight, and our excellent waitress suggested we drink each wine with each of the dishes to taste the difference they made to each of the mouthfuls. She was right too, with the white seeming to mellow out the rich flavours while the red made them more intense.

From top to bottom: brains, beef and duck

Highlights of the rest of the meal included a pleasingly-rich beef and onion 'bird's nest soup' and a fantastically-spicy 'Thai green curry' which was poured onto some shoelace-thin crispy noodles and cooked them as you ate. The pick of the desserts was the passionfruit gyoza, with its crunchy but light pastry giving way to a burst of tropical goodness.

Service was prompt, friendly and knowledgeable throughout, in particular with regards to the wine. The decor was perhaps a little more formal than The Man Behind The Curtain but still quirky and interesting. I can understand that the background music might not be to everyone's taste - ranging as it did from Portishead to Eric B and Rakim - but we thought it was great.

We had only two minor gripes: a Cappuccino we ordered was served up as an Americano but was replaced without fuss when we pointed out the error. The other blip concerned the bill. Upon booking we had to pay a £30 per-head deposit, which the website informed us would be removed from the final bill. When we received the bill however it still included the £60, which isn't a small amount. As with the coffee this was resolved as soon as we mentioned it. In a busy service these things happen, and this certainly wasn't the worst bill-related mishap I've ever encountered...

All paid up, our trip to the moon was over. There was no dark side to this moon, just a tasty, interesting and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Fly me to the moon? You betcha. I'd board a rocket back again right now.


Sunday, 29 October 2017

So good they named it twice

Anyone who knows me reasonably well will know that I don't like flying. Over the years I've grown to tolerate it though. Strangely, however, I was more excited than scared before our recent visit to New York. Partly due to excitement about our destination, partly because of the prospect of flying in a bigger and better aeroplane than I'd flown in before. For whatever reasons, there was far less dread than usual as we soared into the sky to head over the Atlantic on our way to the Big Apple.

Day 1

Seven hours later. Well, that wasn't so bad. A bit wibbly-wobbly due to strong winds on our final approach, and some pretty sharp braking once we'd touched down onto the runway, but on the whole the flight wasn't too unpleasant. Going through customs took a while but soon we were on the metro en route to our hotel. Upon arrival we checked in and made our way to our 20th floor room. Peering out of the window, the scale of New York started to hit me. Normally in a room so high up you'd be looking down on your surroundings, yet here the nearby buildings still dwarfed us. A quick wash and brush-up later and we were strolling down 7th Avenue to our dinner destination for the evening.

View from the room

7th Avenue by night

Virgil's Real Barbecue was recommended to us by a friend who'd visited a few years previously. Upon arrival and being shown to our table it was instantly appealing - the archetypal American diner with the well-stocked bar taking up one of the walls. As we'd been well-fed during our flight we didn't go for starters and only ordered a couple of mains and accompanying beers - of which my nitro stout was deliciously thick and creamy.

The black and blue burger looked great, nicely charred with a pink middle and generously coated with blue cheese. My Maryland crab cake was fantastic. Crunchy on the outside, soft and delicious in the middle with a lovely strong flavour of crab. This was served with a cornbread muffin, coleslaw and a choice of two sides. Of these I went for the mashed potato and gravy and the collard greens, and very nice they both were too. Service was bright and breezy and the whole experience was just great, and a brilliant start to our visit. Happily full we headed back to our hotel to sleep before our first full day.

Day 2

So, this is what jet lag is like. Though still tired from the day before I was wide awake at before 5AM and just not able to drop back to sleep. Ah well, it's not like there wasn't going to be anything to do today! A quick coffee for us and pancakes for James and it was back on the underground to the Staten Island Ferry. The bright but cold day allowed us great views of the Statue of Liberty on the ferry journey out and the immense Manhattan skyline on the way back.

No caption required

Manhattan skyline

Next up was a detour to see the incredible new World Trade Centre building (and a quick scoot round Century 21 for some bargain hunting) before grabbing a sushi lunch and heading back uptown. As we were still pretty pooped from the day before we spent a couple of hours in the afternoon snoozing (with a beer break in the middle) to make sure we were fresh for our evening at the basketball. We were off to the Barclays Centre to see the Brooklyn Nets host the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The new World Trade Centre


En route to Brooklyn across the Manhattan Bridge with the Statue of Liberty in the distance


The Barclays Centre (well, Center)

I know next to nothing about basketball but our resident expert James informed me that the Nets weren't the best of teams. Indeed, upon arrival at the very impressive Barclays Centre it seemed to me there were more Cavs fans around than Nets. Certainly the Cavs' star player LeBron James received a bigger cheer upon his introduction than any of the home players did!

The Brooklyn Nets cheerleaders (the Brooklynettes!) warming up the crowd

The match was really exciting, with the result being in the balance until literally the final minutes. The lead changed hands several times before the Nets finally prevailed, and the whole evening was incredibly enjoyable. They really know how to hype up the match with the announcer being particularly funny in the way he greeted every Cavs score gloomily but every Nets one with nothing short of hysteria. Our hotdogs were great too, but the beer was ridiculously expensive, so we made sure to nurse it through the whole match. Beer and basketball done, it was back on the metro and back to the hotel to refresh ourselves once again.

Day 3

Thankfully we all managed a bit more sleep this time round! Before hitting Central Park we refuelled our tanks with breakfast at the Times Square Diner and boy, were our tanks refuelled!

The Times Square Diner had got really good write-ups and the queues outside suggested it deserved them. Thankfully though we weren't waiting long before being seated and treated to a breakfast to remember. Waffles for one of us, French toast for another and for me the Loaded Times Square breakfast: four doorstop-sized hunks of French toast with egg (scrambled in my case), bacon, sausage and ham. Oh, and potato hash with onion too. Lordy. I managed most of it but the hash was just one carb too far. All this was washed down with mugs of pleasingly strong coffee and it all served to set us up nicely for the day ahead.

Breakfast of champions (and tourists)

Another hop on the metro took us to Central Park for a very pleasant wander around Strawberry Fields and a nosey at the lake and the boat house. Then after running the gauntlet of cyclists and squirrels we made our way to The Met to check out the Van Goghs and Monets. The Met is huge and you could easily spend a whole day there alone. That wasn't our plan though - we'd finished seeing Monet and felt like spending money instead. So with this in mind it was off to 5th Avenue for Bloomingdales and Macy's. Our evening meal was booked in pretty early today so we couldn't spend too long at the stores - which was probably just as well - so after a quick nap and change back at the hotel it was off to Greenwich Village to the Minetta Tavern.

Van Gogh's self portrait at The Met

We wanted to have one special meal during our visit to New York but we didn't want to go too contemporary, so after a bit of research it seemed like Minetta Tavern would tick our boxes. The menu seemed very traditionally American and - as we discovered when we arrived - the setting most definitely was too. With its checkerboard flooring and wood-panelled walls it looked like the sort of place that Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci would've rocked up at in Goodfellas. This is a good thing.

Minetta Tavern

As we were booked in for the earliest sitting at 5:30PM and arrived a little early we were ushered through to the small bar area for a drink first as the tables were still being readied. Once all was set we were shown to our table and presented with the menus and wine list. The grilled oysters looked good for starters and indeed they were, lightly seared and coated in chilli butter. The special of the scallops was also delicious, served cold and plump with a vegetable garnish.

After having read so much about the black label burger it was the only choice (well for two of us anyway, with the other going for the Minetta burger instead). Our waiter advised that the burgers tended to be cooked under rather than over so we went for medium rare to be on the safe side. This proved a wise choice as the burgers were all still very pink. Indeed the black label burger was more like a steak tartare than a burger, albeit one with a beautifully seared exterior. It was served with a lightly grilled and not too hefty bun, a generous helping of crunchy fries and a nicely sharp gherkin. No foams or airs here - just perfectly cooked food.

We accompanied our meal with a couple of excellent cocktails and finished off with a foamy cappuccino each - it somehow seemed more fitting given the surroundings. The evening wasn't cheap but the food was delicious and I think it's great that Michelin recognises this. You don't always need frills and fancy presentation for a dinner to be memorable - and our dinner at Minetta Tavern was just that.

Day 4

Our last day. Boo. The time had gone far too quickly and there were so, so many things we hadn't yet done. One of these things was sampling some authentic New York cheesecake, so after a bit more retail therapy and a walk back up sunny 7th Avenue we paid a call to Junior's.

The cheesecake defeated us all

Once we'd eventually found it (thanks for nothing Google Maps) we ordered nothing but cheesecake. Three portions in fact: one red velvet, one carrot cake and one traditional New York vanilla. When the slices arrived they were enormous! Particularly the carrot cake and red velvet. I tried to finish mine - I really did - but it was just too rich and creamy to manage. Still, our excellent waiter reckoned we'd made a decent effort so that was enough for me. The cheesecakes were all delicious and I'd recommend Junior's to anyone wanting to sample a taste of New York indulgence. And that was pretty much that. It was back to the hotel to collect our luggage and wait out the time until we needed to get back to the airport.

Oh yes, our hotel - the Sheraton Times Square. It was really rather good. The location was fantastic - a few minutes walk from both the heart of Times Square and Central Park - and also close to a number of metro stations, one of which was perfect for the journey from and back to JFK Airport. Check-in on the first night was quick and efficient and our room was spot on. A decent size with an impressive view onto 7th Avenue.

The Sheraton Times Square

Wi-fi wasn't advertised as free but when we asked to buy some we were given it free of charge, which was a very nice touch. The room was quite warm but the aircon soon cooled it down if required. We had been told we'd have a free bottle of mineral water left in the room each day but we never found it, and consequently made the mistake of taking a bottle from the mini-bar thinking it would be free. Let's just say we were wrong! Still, as we hadn't been charged for the wi-fi we couldn't really complain. There was also a room available to leave our luggage which was great as we didn't fly until the evening. A small charge was required for this service but it was worth it for the convenience.

When we visited Venice a few years ago I remember feeling that the experience was somehow surreal, and I felt the same about New York. The sheer scale of the city is astonishing - the buildings, the roads, the press of people, the food helpings! - all of it is almost a bit daunting. However it's also very easy to get around and there's just so much to do that I doubt I could ever feel bored there. The flight time seems like nothing more than an inconvenience rather than a thing of horror. I really can't praise New York much more highly than that.



Sunday, 17 September 2017

Alchemy at Alchemilla

I'm always proud to think that Nottingham plays host to one of the country's finest restaurants and I've often hoped that one day another might come along and pique the interest of the Michelin inspectors. With the opening of Alchemilla, that hope may be closer to being realised.

Based in a refurbished Victorian coach-house and less than ten minutes walk from the city centre, Alchemilla is the brainchild of head chef and owner Alex Bond, who was previously a chef at, amongst other places, the aforementioned Restaurant Sat Bains. Before Alchemilla opened, the building in which it resides had been derelict for over a hundred years so this is no small investment and gamble for Bond. If its early days are anything to go by however, the gamble will pay off handsomely.

Upon entering the building the first thing you see is, unusually, the open kitchen where Bond and his team work their magic. Just past this is the main dining area, all open-brick arches and ferns on the walls; while off to one side is a more contemporary-looking bar area. Our group forwent any pre-dinner drinks though and settled straight down for the evening. We'd already decided in advance to go for the ten course tasting menu (they also offer five and seven course options) before caution and frugality were thrown to the winds as we chose the accompanying wine flight for our drinks. After some warm and crunchy home-made sourdough bread was polished off the fun and games proper began.

Our seven savoury servings ranged from good (the crab and kohlrabi, celeriac and mushroom and leeks, cheese and hazelnuts), to excellent (the cauliflower fungus(!), squid carbonara and duck and carrot) to "Oh my God that's heavenly." This was reserved for the black pudding, eel and beetroot. A slab of the softest black pudding I've ever tasted was covered by a small slice of smoky eel and smeared with a beetroot sauce. Puffed wild rice added a touch of crunch to finish the whole delicious creation off nicely.

Crab and kohlrabi

Duck, carrot, rhubarb and nasturtium


The three dessert courses were also top notch. Freeze-dried apple pie retained all its crunch and flavour when it thawed and was served with a warm poached apple; a crunchy chocolate tuille sat atop rich chocolate ganache and banana ice-cream while slivers of lime zest and a smudge of miso caramel added wonderful saltiness and zing; and finally blackberries and an almost-sour 'cultured cream' were matched with a deep and delectable beetroot sorbet.

Each of the ten courses was served with a well-matched wine and there were some real crackers - in particular the Beaujolais which accompanied the black pudding and the sweet Chateau Doisy-Vedrines served alongside the chocolate dessert. The final wine was a red Lambrusco, which was something I didn't realise existed.

Service was very good. We were there for a long time but never felt like there was too much of a wait between courses. Our wine waitress was excellent, taking time to provide detail about each wine and explain why it had been matched with the particular course. Similar explanations for the food were unfortunately missing however - it would have been nice to have learned a bit more about each dish, in particular the unusual ones such as the cauliflower fungus.

My only other grumbles are so small that I almost feel guilty writing them. There was no amuse bouche. (#firstworldproblems) You may argue that with ten courses you don't need an amuse bouche, and you'd be right; but it's always nice to feel you're getting a little something more than you paid for. Also we were sometimes left guessing which cutlery we should use for each dish, as a number of the courses were served in high-sided bowls and consisted of both solid and liquid elements. This is me being very picky however and none of the above detracted in any way from our experience.

The meal and wines represented really good value for money, service was slick, smooth and friendly and the environment was very smart indeed. If Alchemilla can tick all these boxes within two months of opening then the future really is bright and I can't wait to see how it develops over the years to come. I hope the people of Nottingham recognise they've got a real gem on their hands here - and I hope the Michelin inspectors recognise it too.




Monday, 28 August 2017

London, Lille, Lovely!

After a fun weekend in Lille in 2016 we decided another trip was in order. This time though, rather than sampling the city's brasseries we booked something a bit more special. More of that later though. To make a full weekend of it we had a day in London en route. But what to do in the evening? What's that you say? A three course meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant for £38? With a cocktail? On a Friday evening in Mayfair? Where do we sign up?

Where do we get in more like?

We were so busy reading the plaque denoting the place where the Queen had been born that we walked straight past the entrance of Hakkasan Mayfair and had to double-back. The well-hidden doorway took us through to the plush interior before we were ushered to our seats in the downstairs dining area.

As we were dining before 18:30 we each chose the "Taste of Hakkasan" menu: three courses and a cocktail for the incredibly reasonable sum of £38.00 per person. Though this menu doesn't include the full choice of what Hakkasan has to offer it still has a wide variety of dishes. From the menu we both went for the dim sum starters; for our mains I had the Sanpei chicken claypot whilst Clare chose the stir-fried beef in Merlot.

The starters were tremendous. Three dumplings each, including plump, juicy prawn and a caviar-covered scallop, a wonderful chilli sauce with brown shrimp and the same venison puff that Hakkasan's sister restaurant Yautcha also serves. Light, flaky pastry with a shiny-sweet sheen encasing rich chunks of venison.

Dim sum starter

Our mains were equally impressive. The beef was full of deep and smoky flavour while the chicken packed a pleasingly spicy punch. The meat was accompanied by a generous helping of jasmine rice and a bowlful of crunchy asparagus.

To finish the evening we opted for a cherry delice and a Jivara bomb. The former was a slab of cherry mousse on a crunchy base, accompanied by a deep cherry sorbet and pistachios. The Jivara bomb turned out to be an impressive ball of rice crispies coating some delicious hazelnut praline ice-cream. Our waiter poured hot, gloopy chocolate sauce over the spherical sensation whilst a nutty crumb and freeze-dried raspberries completed the plate. A pinch of popping candy provided the explosion!

Jevari bomb

A notable mention must also be given to the cocktails. Clare's "Hakka" was a tropical mix of vodka, Sake, lychee and coconut; and my "Green Destiny" was, no, not a sword with ornate markings, but a refreshing blend of vodka, cucumber, kiwi and apple.

Service was good. It took a little while for our starter to appear but our waiter duly apologised and, to be fair, we had turned up earlier than our booking time and been seated immediately. The whole experience was excellent and represented brilliant value for money and they certainly didn't skimp on the portions. For anyone wanting to try some top-quality Oriental food in London, Hakkasan is definitely worth the visit.

And so, on to Lille.....

La Table is based at the rather charming Clarence Hotel in Lille, which itself is barely five minutes walk from the city's Grand Place. As usual we arrived early, but this wasn't a problem and we were swiftly escorted to our seats in the beautiful, wood-panelled dining room. Rather than enjoying an aperitif on the terrace we dived straight into our meal and wine choices for the evening.

We opted for the "Pur" menu of four courses and a dessert. Rather unusually this didn't contain any meat. Our first starter was purely vegetable based while the other dishes all contained fish. Apart from the dessert of course. That would've been weird. Before any of these arrived however we were treated to the amuse bouche which included a nicely grilled and crunchily-coated oyster and a seafood bisque with, unusually, some slivers of rich cheese. This being France we were brought a wide range of breads accompanied by a trio of butters of which the fish one was particularly tasty - almost like a really light mackerel pate.

Starter one was a runny egg yolk with some crunchy courgette, nicely-salted courgette crisps, a piquant pepper puree and some caramalised almonds to add a touch of sweetness. This was a very pleasant mix and beautifully presented with a blaze of colours and a real vibrancy to the plate.

Chapter one of the subsequent seafood trilogy consisted of slivers of perfectly cooked squid covered in an intensely nutty pistachio-based vinaigrette. Creamy avocado and crunchy balls of lightly-pickled cucumber rounded out another excellent dish.

Squid

Next up was lobster, and boy was it good. A couple of respectable chunks of sweet meat were complemented by a small, fried, pea pierogi, peas and sweetcorn, buttery strings of grilled leak and wonderfully salty bacon slices which were nothing so much like Frazzles. That's a good thing. Oh, and it was all drizzled in a lobster sauce so good it had us both wanting to lick the plates clean (but retaining our dignity and not doing so).

Our final main was an impressive slab of flaky hake, perfectly seasoned and nicely salty. It sat upon a saffron sauce and shared the plate with tomatoes of varying sweetness and texture, earthy chanterelle mushrooms and a crispy cuboid of polenta. All very lovely.

Hake

Dessert was a baked fig which resembled an upturned mushroom. With this was served some zingy lemon yoghurt ice-cream, a blizzard of blueberries and an odd, chewy slice of what seemed to be a blueberry jelly encrusted with crunchy nuts. Together it resulted in a light and not-too-sweet end to a very impressive meal. After-dinner coffees were served with some excellent petit-fours including Amaretto-soaked plums and a small, rich chunk of salt-covered chocolate.

Our whole evening at La Table was an absolute delight. The dining room was opulent without being stuffy, the meal was delicious yet not overly heavy and the service was really, really good. I'm not sure a non-English speaker in London would get their menu and wine choices read out to them so clearly in their native language but that's exactly what happened here. Special mention must go to the sommelier Romain who was utterly charming.

For a special meal in a fantastic setting in a wonderful little city, La Table at the Clarence Hotel in Lille will take some beating.










Tuesday, 6 June 2017

An Impassioned Plea

I know you’re probably all sick of politics right now but I make no apologies for posting this.

This general election is probably the most important one of most of our lifetimes. It’s not just defining what kind of place our country will be for the next five years, but likely for decades beyond that.

This could be the last chance for five years that we’ll all have to have any kind of say and influence on the direction of our country, and if we don’t make our choice wisely the country could end up taking a direction that many of us do not want.

We can do something about this. Our vote does matter. In our local election recently, the majority of the winning candidate was less than forty votes. You may think politics is boring – and you’re often right. But thinking that it doesn’t affect you or that you can’t affect the outcome is totally and utterly wrong. It does, you can and you will – but only if you get out and vote.

As for who you should vote for, that’s obviously up to you. Anything else I say will be biased and you’ll probably choose to ignore it, but I’m going to say it anyway. On a personal level, the recent years under the current Conservative government haven’t affected me profoundly. However, they won’t be getting my vote in the election – Labour will. Why?

Because I know I’m very, very lucky. I have a job, a house and my health. Many millions of people don’t have any or all of these things. I also realise that life is fickle and fragile and these circumstances can change in an instant – a fact which has been brought sharply into focus after the last few weeks. All it takes is being in the wrong place at the wrong time and your life can be turned upside down. I believe that if I needed a government to support me and my family if something awful did happen, I couldn’t trust a Conservative one to do it. Irvine Welsh sums it up far better than me: "When you're not doing so well, vote for a better life for yourself. If you are doing quite nicely, vote for a better life for others."

I'm also deeply concerned for the future of our country. We’re about to enter a massively important set of negotiations with the European Union where we have no idea what the outcome will be, and we don't enter these negotiations from a position of strength. Theresa May keeps telling us that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ but she’s never actually said that that means; for me, for you or for the whole country. She’s also seemingly proud of going into these negotiations to be ‘difficult.’ How will that help? Surely we should be going in to reach as mutually beneficial an agreement as possible? We don’t need someone difficult. We need someone collaborative and empathetic and Theresa May is not that person. Jeremy Corbyn may not be either, but he appears to have more of those qualities than the current Prime Minister does. And that could be hugely important in the months and years to come. Labour also have Sir Kier Starmer as their Shadow Minister for Exiting the European Union. A highly respected and experienced QC. An individual who's far more likely to be able to negotiate a better deal than David Davis.

How can we trust a leader who calls a massively important election; then, instead of debating with the other party leaders in front of millions of concerned voters on TV, sends a colleague still grieving the death of her father a couple of days earlier? How can we trust a leader who’s had – as Home Secretary and Prime Minister – seven years to work on the issue of terrorism but comes up with a ‘plan’ four days before an election? Not to mention that during that time as Home Secretary she presided over a 20,000 cut in police numbers and over 1,000 cut in armed police. How can we trust a party whose entire campaign seems to be based around the ‘strength and stability’ of this leader, when she’s shown herself to be anything but? Mrs. May seems obsessed with telling us all how strong and stable her leadership is. To me it sounds more like she’s trying to convince herself. How can we trust a party whose Foreign Minister – the country’s representative on the world stage – appears to be a bumbling fool, but is in reality a calculating, vainglorious career politician who gambled the future of the country for his own political ambitions?

The Labour manifesto appears fair, balanced and inclusive and contains – albeit at a high level – costings of how they’d pay for things like scrapping tuition fees and more funding for the NHS. The Tories' manifesto scraps free school lunches but introduces breakfasts. At 7p per child per day. It pledges £8bn ‘extra’ funding for the NHS without saying where it’s coming from (although one of their ministers has said it’s just repurposing existing spending). And that’s before we even get started on social care, cutting spending on public services, fox hunting and the ivory trade.

You may not want to vote Labour, and that's fine. None of the parties are perfect. However, by voting tactically, there's still a chance to stop the Conservatives from claiming an overall majority and forcing through their plans for the next five years. You can find out how to do it here. Five more years of Conservative policy and a Brexit deal that's no good for anyone but the richest could leave our country on its knees. Please don't let this happen.

Finally, to anyone reading this who’s between 18-34 years old, I imagine you could be disengaged from our politicians. If so I couldn’t say I blame you. However, you’re probably the most important group of prospective voters in this election, and you’re also probably the group of prospective voters to whom this election is most important. You might be at university, or thinking of going there. You might be looking for work, or just started it. You might be trying to get onto the property ladder. Which party do you think will help you the most? Which party has the interests of the young at their forefront? Your vote matters so much, it’s vital that you use it. If it’s sunny on June 8th get out and vote. If it’s raining, get out and vote. If there’s a plague of frogs and locusts, get out and vote. Because if you’re not happy with the Conservative government then this is your chance to temper them – the only chance you’ll get for a while. And you can guarantee that, whatever the circumstances, the majority of their supporters always vote.

Whoever you do vote for in the end though, the most important thing is that you get out and vote. If you don’t like the direction you think the country is heading in, or even if you do, you have the chance to influence that direction. Around 30% of eligible people didn’t vote in 2015. If they had voted they could’ve made a difference. Please don’t be one of those this time round.

Thank you.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Safety Dance

So, the season at the City Ground finished much as it had begun, with the stadium bathed in sunshine and Nottingham Forest scoring freely and securing three points. That doesn't tell the story though, not a bit of it. This is some of the story...

51 x points
2 x away wins
3 x managers (albeit one interim)
2 x of them no longer manager
3 x takeover attempts
2 x of them failing
4 x different goalkeepers
1 x undersold bright young prospect
1 x sold captain
Hundreds x fans blocked by Fawaz on Twitter
2 x Directors of Football
1 x league double (thanks Ipswich)
2 x goal difference keeping us up
1 x new hope?

All the above, and so much more, led us to midday on Sunday 7th May. The objective was clear: match Blackburn Rovers' result, ideally by winning, and winning by enough goals to make their task away at Brentford as difficult as possible. We couldn't rely on anyone else, we had to do this ourselves.

The fans played their part, resulting in the highest home attendance of the season; even the weather did too, with early clouds giving way to glorious sunshine. Could the players live up to the billing though, which they'd failed to do all too often this season...?

Early signs weren't great - in fact they couldn't have been much worse - as Blackburn and Birmingham triggered the Doomsday Scenario by taking 2-0 and 1-0 leads in their respective matches. Forest dropped into the bottom three. The only crumb of comfort was that we hadn't fallen behind, but we so nearly did. Only the outstretched left hand of wrong-footed goalkeeper Jordan Smith kept us level; incredibly palming onto the crossbar a deflected Dominic Samuel shot. It's not too great an exaggeration to say that Smith's save saved the season.

And minutes later its importance became clear, as Jamie Ward latched onto Eric Lichaj's throw-in, lifted the ball over Ipswich keeper Bartosz Bialkowski and got comprehensively cleaned out. Watching from behind the sofa at home as I was (#notarealfan) I was just gutted that the ball had been cleared off the line. I never even thought of a penalty. The referee did though and that's what matters. Up stepped Britt Assombalonga to sweep the ball into the top corner and rekindle hope. For the moment, Forest were safe.

The moment nearly didn't last long though, as an Ipswich corner found the head of Christope Berra who glanced it just wide. Half time came with Forest outside the drop zone by the most slender of margins. A goal in any of the three relevant matches could change the whole picture, and it wasn't long into the second half before the goals came.

Firstly Brentford clawed a goal back against Blackburn, giving Forest a bit more breathing space. Not long afterwards, Chris Cohen received the ball outside the Ipswich box, drew back his left foot and let fly. And fly it did - via a Town defender and into the top corner. The emotion on Cohen's face reminded me of when he scored the brilliant 3rd goal away at West Brom in the first of Billy Davies' playoff seasons, so long ago. Safety was close now - so close we could almost touch it.

It should've been closer still when Assombalonga's pass released the outstanding Ward who drew a foul in the box and another penalty. Britt couldn't seal the deal though as Bialkowski brilliantly tipped over. Would this cost us? Was there to be one more twist? Not this time. For, minutes later, Assombalonga ran onto David Vaughan's quickly taken free-kick, drove into the box and smashed his second into the roof of the net. Relief all round. A third goal from Blackburn ultimately proved futile and it was they who slid into League One. But it was close. Far too close.

In the end, season 2016/17 finished much as the previous one had, with Championship status preserved and the club potentially on the cusp of new ownership. If the deal should be completed this time (and I'm certainly counting no chickens yet) then who knows what lays in store next? Out of the frying pan, or a new hope? Only time will tell.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Wow For Yauatcha

"Are you sure you want to order that?" asked Lisa, our charmingly chirpy waitress. "It's a lot of food." "We'll be fine," we assured her. Had she seen how much we eat? Plus, well, it's a Chinese isn't it? We'll be hungry again half an hour later. After polishing off our desserts and feeling like Jabba the Hutt after he'd pigged out on those frogs he eats however, we had to concede that Lisa was right.

Having never visited Yauatcha in Soho before and having been flummoxed by the sheer choice on the menu (and not knowing what some of it even was), we'd decided that the Yauatcha Signature Dim Sum Menu was the way to go. If I were to go again - which I certainly would as it was excellent - I'd be braver and make my own choices.

Anyway. Before the menu proper we'd been presented with some slivers of cucumber and dipping sauces (soy, sweet chilli and slap round the face chilli), and selected our drink for the evening; a carafe of sake served in a cunningly-fashioned bottle with a reservoir for crushed ice which kept the drink cool yet undiluted.

First up was a tremendous venison puff: crisp, sweet, flaky pastry encasing rich meat. From then on things became a blur of dumplings; each of them light, some steamed, others boiled, and all packed full of wondrous fillings. The 'lasagne' - tubes of rice-flour 'pasta' crammed with mushrooms - was particularly good. The crab salad from the menu wasn't available. However, the duck salad we received in its stead was fabulous. Rich, flaky duck with a mixture of leaves, herbs and pomegranate seeds.

It was the seafood soup which first made us realise that Lisa knew her stuff, as the dumpling it was served with was truly a giant amongst dumplings. A tasty giant though - stuffed as it was with scallop and crab meat. More duck, shredded in front of us and served up with pancakes and a deep Hoisin sauce, was next, before crispy squid and baby pak choi finished the job. We couldn't quite manage to do the same though, not without leaving a bit of room for dessert anyway.

Service was brisk and friendly, and Lisa seemed mortified to learn that we'd been given the bill before our dessert had arrived. As we'd turned up earlier than our reservation time and been told we'd need to vacate the table by 20:30 we'd actually thought it was just the restaurant being efficient rather than a mistake. No harm done anyhow. Value-wise, Yauatcha was pretty good. Our tasting menus, the sake and the service charge all included came to just over £100, which for the quality and quantity of food was a steal. If we'd picked our own dishes we could've probably knocked that down into double figures.

I'd definitely visit Yauatcha again, and would probably make my own menu choices next time. My belt would definitely thank me for it.