Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Moor the Merrier

For all the wonderful food in the world, there's something eternally satisfying about a good steak. Pink, spongy interior with a charred, salty crust; a well cooked steak is a thing of beauty indeed.

Hawksmoor is a London-based steakhouse which certainly cooks a good steak. Only now it's not just London-based - it also has a restaurant in Manchester - and it was to this restaurant that we made our way recently to celebrate Clare's birthday.

We'd been to the Seven Dials Hawksmoor before and the interior of Manchester's version compares favourably. Rather than the cellar-like feel of Seven Dials, Manchester is open and airy with smart and comfortable furniture. But, we weren't here to eat the furniture, so what was the food like?

I'm happy to say it was every bit as good as it's London counterpart. Our medium-rare Porterhouse (half sirloin, half fillet) was maybe a tiny bit less pink than we've had before, but still beautifully soft and retaining the wonderful chargrilled exterior. The half lobster was sweet and succulent. Triple-cooked chips were crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle. And the greens, mushrooms and Bearnaise sauce rounded the meal out perfectly. Cocktails were impressive too.

As far as steak goes, I'm yet to try a better one than Hawksmoor's. I just wish they'd open up in Nottingham...

Monday, 21 March 2016

Nuts About Ginger's

Well, technically the title should be 'Nuts About Purnell's Bistro,' but that's not quite as catchy.

Purnell's Bistro - and Ginger's Bar - is Birmingham-based chef Glynn Purnell's second city-centre eaterie. Barely a few minutes walk from his eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant, the Bistro is a little more laid-back and a bit easier on the wallet, but no less impressive in quality. We'd been to Ginger's bar for drinks a couple of times but never eaten, so we were really looking forward to our Saturday lunch. After ordering a couple of very reasonably-priced cocktails we were shown to our seats.

Although there was a 3 courses for £20.00 prix fixe menu available we decided to swing for the a la carte option. Whilst more expensive it offered far more choice. We weren't disappointed.
My starter of lamb croquette on a bed of lentils was crunchy, earthy and delicious. Clare went for seared mackerel on a beetroot and goat's cheese tart, which looked equally impressive.

Lamb croquette
For our mains we swung for the ox-cheeks and duck respectively. My (well, the ox's) cheeks were tremendously rich and sumptuous. Our waiter challenged me to eat them without using a knife and the melting softness of the meat made this an easy task. Clare's duck was pink and springy with a lightly crisped skin and it was every bit as tasty as the cheeks. For a side I ordered the confit duck cabbage - pleasantly salty cabbage paired with shredded duck meat. Delicious.


The one slight blip in proceedings concerned the dessert. This wasn't down to the food however; my chocolate moelleux was missed off the order and arrived a few minutes late. It was worth the wait though, with rich, gooey chocolate sauce covered an a spongy crust and topped with almond ice-cream. To make up for the error we were given coffees on the house, which was a welcome but unnecessary gesture as we were happy enough with the food and service anyway.

Purnell's Bistro is every bit as impressive as his main restaurant. If you fancy top quality food at a very reasonable price then it's most definitely worth a visit.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Just Short of the Marc

If you've watched any reality TV-style cookery programmes over the last few years then you'll recognise Marcus Wareing as the steely character who's caused many a novice chef to tremble in their aprons. And a few of the more established ones too. Happily, since taking over the mantle of judge in MasterChef: Professionals from Michel Roux Jr., Wareing seems to have mellowed somewhat. As we made our way to his eponymous restaurant located in the Berkeley Hotel, we were excited to see what it had in store.

Being a Saturday night, the a la carte option wasn't available so it was 8 course taster menu or bust (though there was a vegetarian variant too). This taster menu did offer a choice of lamb or duck for the main however. After making our choice (both duck) and enjoying our amuse bouches of puffed potato balls, goats cheese and a prawn cracker, we were brought our bread and first set of cutlery before being asked to choose our wine for the evening. This was a little odd though hardly earth-shattering, and indeed our freshly-selected bottle was served up midway through the first course proper.

I can't fault any of the food, or the service, or indeed anything to do with the evening; yet I was left slightly and strangely unfulfilled. Each of the courses was cooked perfectly and all were delicious, and there were a number of real highlights: the quail breast served with pigeon tartare and blood orange was wonderful. The crossover dish of Nottinghamshire (yay!) Colston Bassett Stilton with candied walnuts packed a real punch and the gooey sauce which seated the second dessert was a joy. But these were highlights of an evening - not a lifetime. That's the best way I can put it. I'll be talking and thinking about certain dishes from other meals for years to come, and I just don't think I'll be doing that with any of the courses we were served at Marcus.

Quail, pigeon and blood orange

As an example of a high-quality classical restaurant Marcus ticks all the boxes; but if you're looking for something a bit more contemporary, challenging or innovative then you might be better served looking elsewhere. This isn't a criticism in any way and, of course, food is a very subjective thing, but it was Storm Imogen that nearly blew us away on the evening, rather than anything we'd eaten.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Curtain Call

If Salvador Dali had hung up his paintbrushes and moved into the restaurant trade, the result may not have been unlike The Man Behind The Curtain. This wonderful Leeds eaterie has a touch of the surreal to it, along with more than a small dollop of brilliance.

The quirkiness begins before you even get to the front door, as to enter the restaurant you need to walk through one of the city's higher-end clothes shops. But while the threads seemed a bit overpriced and guilty of style over substance, The Man Behind The Curtain was totally the opposite.

Head chef Michael O'Hare went down a storm in the 2015 series of the Great British Menu and his restaurant has definitely benefited from the exposure. There's not a Saturday booking to be had throughout the rest of 2016, so we thought ourselves very lucky indeed when we were ushered into the main eating area, which looks more like a modern art gallery than a Michelin-starred eating establishment.

Upon taking our plain-looking but comfortable seats we were presented with the menu and wine list. The food choice was easy - which is to say there wasn't one. Of an evening only the 12 sequence tasting menu is available (there's a 7 sequence version available at lunchtimes). The wine selection required some thought however, and we plumped for the accompanying flight, degustation or whatever you wish to call it.

It's fair to say that the food was the most eccentrically presented we've ever eaten. But this wasn't just frivolity for the sake of it - there wasn't a single dish that didn't taste fantastic. Starting with langoustine tartare and octopus, taking in the sights of rabbit paella and deep-friend snail on the way and ending with a cupcake in an edible case, this was a wonderfully judged and varied meal. The highlights included the 'Emancipation' fish and chips dish which wowed the notoriously hard-to-please Marcus Wareing on the aforementioned BBC2 programme. Deliciously flaky cod was smothered in squid ink and dashi and topped with an unruly thatch of grated potato, which was great in itself but really elevated by scraping it through the vinegar powder which dusted the plate.

Emancipation (or fish and chips)

However, as good as this was it was bettered by the main course and the first dessert. The former was some perfectly pink Iberico pork, joined on the plate by sour and salty anchovies and a pile of edible 'cinders' (tiny shards of crunchy, squid ink infused bread). The latter matched crunchy, rich, dark chocolate cunningly disguised as tinfoil, with silky potato custard (yes, really), beetroot tinged puffed potato (yes, really, again) and violet ice-cream. Sounds bizarre, looks incredible and tastes sensational.

Pork, anchovies and 'cinders'

Tinfoil chocolate and puffed potato

Service was slick throughout and the staff were knowledgeable and engaging. The wine accompaniments were excellent and brought an extra dimension to each of the dishes, though they were all trumped by an incredible, orange-and-olive infused red Vermouth. An eclectic mix of music set a relaxed atmosphere and there's generous space between the tables. The lighting was a tiny bit dim, but was regularly punctuated by the cameraphone flashes of any number of gobsmacked diners. This level of restaurant doesn't always feel like value for money but The Man Behind The Curtain did, with both the food and matching wine together costing less than many a tasting menu at similar establishments.

If you can't get there during the week then you may have quite a wait before sampling the wonders of The Man Behind The Curtain. Believe me though, it'll be worth it.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Sublime to the Ridiculous

If you're a Nottingham Forest fan, or indeed if you just live in Nottingham, it's highly likely that you'll be aware of I Believe in Miracles; Johnny Owen's recent film. Charting the rise of Forest under Brian Clough - later joined by Peter Taylor - from second-tier mid-table obscurity to Champions of Europe, the film recently enjoyed its World Premiere at the City Ground and, since general release, has been garnering positive reviews.

Having finally been able to see IBIM my first feeling, after the film-long smile had vanished from my face, was envy. Being born in 1973 I was just a bit too young to fully appreciate what that Forest team accomplished. Indeed my first memory of them was being taken to one of the European Cup parades - the second one I think - by an auntie and uncle. My first taste of watching Forest play live wouldn't come until a few years later. I realise that compared to some, younger, Forest fans I've still been quite lucky with what I've seen the Reds do first hand: winning Wembley cup finals, a third-place Premier League finish and an unlikely UEFA Cup run are not to be sniffed at. But you're talking about winning arguably the world's pre-eminent club football competition here. Twice. In a row.

After the envy came the wonder. I hadn't really realised just how good a player John Robertson became, but the film really brought this to life. Watching him jink past opponent after opponent, whip in inviting crosses and score the odd goal was an absolute joy, and I can only imagine the buzz that must've gone round the crowd witnessing it in person.

Nor had I truly appreciated the quality of football that Forest team played. Obviously they were good - the trophies and 42 game unbeaten league run bear that out - but the results weren't at the price of style or entertainment. The common conception is that football now is much faster, and indeed it may be. However, unless my viewing of IBIM was in fast-forward it still looked pretty rapid to me. Attacking football back then was also hampered by pretty-much uncensored defending and pitches that you wouldn't be surprised to see some previous evolution of humankind dug up from, perfectly preserved in the gloop. Think Jake Buxton, but slightly more intellectually advanced. Yet the team in red (and sometimes yellow) overcame this, and the footage in IBIM was filled with intricate triangles, pinpoint passing, galloping runs and clinical finishes.

I'm pretty sure most Forest fans will have seen I Believe in Miracles by now. If not, and if you can, please do. If you can't; get the DVD pre-ordered. If you haven't got a DVD player then buy one. You really won't regret it.

By now you may be wondering where the 'ridiculous' part of this blog comes in. Well, foolishly (but luckily), I booked my trip to the cinema on the night that the current incarnation of Nottingham Forest were playing a live televised match away at bottom-of-the-Championship Bristol City. There's not really much more I need to say.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Nottingham Forest 1 - 2 Middlesbrough

It's been a fair few years since anything that could be termed as hair has covered the majority of my cranium. Usually I lament this fact. However, following Nottingham Forest's home defeat to Middlesbrough, it was probably for the best; because any lustrous locks I had left would have been lost, strewn over the concrete of the Trent End having been yanked out in pure frustration. You see, for all Middlesbrough's attacking play and created chances, their two goals both came from Forest mistakes. Forest themselves passed up two gilt-edged scoring chances. On such margins are matches decided.

Once again I was surprised by Dougie Freedman's team selection, though this time it was the attacking nature of the line-up which was the shock. Forest gave home debuts to Chris O'Grady, Ryan Mendes and Nelson Oliveira, kept the same back five that started against Birmingham City and dropped Jamie Ward to the bench, with Henri Lansbury, David Vaughan and Ben Osborn completing the midfield. The visitors included their big-money summer captures Stewart Downing and David Nugent, enhancing an already strong team containing the likes of George Friend, Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton.

Barely three minutes had passed before one of these recruits - Nugent - had given Boro the lead. An underhit Matt Mills backpass allowed Albert Adomah a clear run on goal. The winger's shot was saved by Dorus de Vries but Forest never properly cleared, and eventually Friend's cross found the former Foxes frontman who steered the ball home.

Minutes later Mills had atoned for his mistake by hauling the Reds level. Lansbury's corner found the centre-half in space and his neatly volleyed finish gave visiting keeper Dimitri Konstantopoulos ('Dimi' on his shirt - and for the rest of this review) no chance. Phew - what a start!

It wasn't long before the visitors troubled de Vries again, this time following another Forest corner. After Boro's defence had cleared the danger Downing raced clear, only for the sprawling Reds stopper to repel the attempt with an outstretched leg. The breathless beginning to the match saw a momentary pause as Mills slumped to the ground with an injury and was replaced by Jack Hobbs. One hopes it was just a precaution rather than anything serious, as Mills and Wilson were beginning to look like a formidable partnership.

Unfortunately there was little formidable about Forest's defending through the remainder of the first half. De Vries continued to earn his corn with a double save from Nugent and Adomah before Boro were awarded another corner which they played short. The resulting cross found the head of Wilson whose back-header only picked out ex-Forest loanee Daniel Ayala. De Vries rushed out but could do nothing to stop Ayala nodding home to restore the visitors' lead. Neither side was to trouble the scorers again before the interval so it was Boro who ended the first half with their noses in front.

Their noses nearly Pinocchioed further ahead after the restart as de Vries saved yet again from Adomah, but Forest themselves should've been level moments later. Willianesque winger Mendes found himself clear through but his shot was smothered by the spreadeagled Dimi. The better option would've been to square the ball to the unmarked Oliveira, but that's easy to say with hindsight.

The match was really open now. Forest cranked up the pressure but Boro continued to play through them at will. Oliveira and Jamie Ward - who had replaced Osborn at half time - both went close with long-range efforts before the moment which ultimately decided the match. A long ball from the Reds defence could only find visiting defender Ben Gibson. His attempted chest trap rolled down his arm and the handball was spotted by the linesman who flagged for a penalty (well, he actually pointed his flag towards the corner rather than putting his flag across his chest, but the spot-kick was still given).

Up stepped Lansbury to drill his penalty down the middle as he had the week before against QPR. However, unlike Rangers goalie Alex Smithies who obligingly dived out of the way, Dimi hung out a leg and deflected the ball away. Not only that, but he was quick enough to get up and tip Ward's header from the rebound wide of the post. Forest continued to press, making Jonathan Williams the fourth new Tricky of the day, but they were unable to find the equaliser and, in a reverse of last year's result, Boro claimed the spoils 2-1.

It's hard to be too critical of the effort that Forest showed. Had the two mistakes which led to Boro's goals been avoided, and the penalty and Mendes chance been taken, they could easily have won this game. If they attack with the vigour they showed against Boro they'll win more than they lose. Though, if they defend like they did at times then....well.....

De Vries could do nothing about either goal and made some excellent saves. Mills, Wilson and Hobbs all had uncomfortable moments in defence but Eric Lichaj and Daniel Pinillos were solid at full back - against quality opposition. O'Grady was muscular up front and Oliveira showed real quality at times. Mendes could be a real find if he can sort out his decision making but the pick of the bunch was Lansbury. Once again he played deeper, protecting the back four, and once again he was outstanding - penalty miss aside. A real captain's performance.

Taking this game in isolation it was disappointing to lose. However, I'd have taken a win and two draws from the three matches against QPR, Birmingham and Boro, so two wins and a defeat is by no means a bad return. The team is certainly playing better than earlier in the season. Sort out the defensive mistakes and be a bit more clinical at the other end and we'll be OK. If the Boro game is anything to go by, we'll certainly be entertained.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A Co'g in the Machine

The day before transfer deadline day, I asked someone - who would've known - if there was any likelihood of any incoming players at Nottingham Forest before the window closed. This person confirmed that manager Dougie Freedman was hoping to bring a striker (and an attacking midfielder) to the club. When I enquired about the chances of this deal being completed, I was told that Forest were confident, as nobody else was likely to want him. Hardly a ringing endorsement. 

When the name of this striker was revealed as Chris O'Grady, I wasn't as disappointed as some, as I remembered him having a decent game and scoring against us for Barnsley a couple of seasons before. It's fair to say that his career had stalled though, following a £2m move to Brighton and Hove Albion. 

As the deal was completed on deadline day, the entirely ridiculous but entirely predictable Twitter backlash was in full swing. Some observers were guaranteeing our relegation, as we were bringing in O'Grady to replace Michail Antonio - whose move to West Ham United was edging ever closer. If you looked at the numbers you could see what they meant: Antonio had scored 15 goals in the previous season and assisted almost the same amount - from wide midfield; while O'Grady's return was 1 solitary goal. Numbers, however, don't tell the full story. 

Anyone who had seen Forest play this season would have realised that asking a still-maturing 18 year old Tyler Walker, or a worn-and-torn, twice-long-term-injured Dexter Blackstock to play up front alone against strong, rugged, experienced Championship defenders was expecting too much. They needed help and, working within our well-publicised restrictions, O'Grady was the man. 

I won't lie; first impressions against Queen's Park Rangers were not too favourable. Good hold-up play was spoiled by poor layoffs which failed to find their targets, and a neat turn was rendered pointless by lacking the pace to escape a defender. Gradually though, O'Grady grew into the game. A couple of neat, chipped passes from Matt Mills were controlled and given smartly to more gifted teammates; and a lovely ball through the legs of a defender set Eric Lichaj through on goal. 

Then, after Forest had fallen behind in the second half, came the moment which turned the game. O'Grady chased down an awkward-looking back-pass and pilfered the ball from Rangers' keeper Rob Green, who had failed to control it. Green hauled him down and the referee was left with no option but to give the penalty and dismiss the hapless goalie. Henri Lansbury dispatched the spot-kick and Forest were back in the game. 

The best was yet to come though. A flicked headed pass from O'Grady found fellow debutant Ryan Mendes. The Cape Verdian (yup) scampered away and his threaded pass released the third of Forest's deadline day acquisitions, striker Nelson Oliveira. His low drive eluded the Rangers' substitute goalkeeper and gave Forest an unlikely but welcome victory. Cue one Man of the Match award and a pleasingly emotional interview for O'Grady, and a thoroughly satisfying debut was at an end. 

It would be foolish to get too carried away after one game, just as it was foolish to write O'Grady off before he'd kicked a ball in the Garibaldi. I don't see him being a prolific scorer; indeed I'd be surprised if he reached double figures this season. However, he seems to know how to play in Freedman's preferred system, and if he can continue to show the strength and effort he did against Rangers, and chip in with the odd goal as well, then he'll prove a few Forest fans wrong. For the team's sake, let's hope he does.