Monday, 30 December 2013

Nottingham Forest 2 - 1 Leeds United

After four successive clean sheets Nottingham Forest finally conceded a goal. However, and more importantly, they were able to bounce back from letting in a late equaliser to record a hugely significant victory over playoff hopefuls Leeds United at the City Ground.

The Reds made one change from the impressive victory over QPR on Boxing Day, with Radoslaw Majewski replacing David Vaughan in midfield, meaning that Henri Lansbury had to take the more defensive role in the Forest engine room. Simon Cox had recovered well enough from his virus to take a place on the substitute's bench whilst Greg Halford kept his position as the lone striker in Forest's 4-2-3-1 formation.

It was Halford who was involved in the first action of the afternoon as he chased down a short back-pass and clattered into Leeds keeper Paddy Kenny. The referee gave a foul but Halford was entitled to go for the ball. Play continued after a lengthy stoppage for treatment to the portly stopper, but this very much set the tone for a scrappy and niggly start to the game.

Michael Brown clearly retains all the charm he learned at Sheffield United and escaped an early booking for hacking down Andy Reid. He wasn't so lucky a few minutes later though. Another wild lunge at Reid this time resulted in a yellow card and a free kick to Forest mid way in the Leeds half. Reid got up and swung in a super, deep cross which Halford headed home powerfully to give Forest the lead. This advantage was nearly doubled a couple of minutes later when Reid's long-range shot went narrowly over.

Forest were well on top now and the only disappointment in the first half was that the lead wasn't greater. Majewski forced a low save from Kenny before a great run and cross from Djamal Abdoun found Jamie Mackie, but he couldn't guide his low drive on target. So, 1-0 it was at half time then.

The visitors came out stronger in the second half, enjoying more of the ball without ever looking really threatening. The introduction of highly-rated right back Sam Byram gave them more impetus and they started attacking more regularly down that side, but they still didn't force Karl Darlow into any serious action. Then, late on, came the passage of play that eventually settled the game.

Andy Reid strode forward and thumped a glorious long-range shot which cannoned off the post and behind for a goal kick. Leeds attacked again down their right, and a through-ball found Byram in space. His cross was cleared off the line but the ball ricocheted in the area and landed right at the feet of the hitherto ineffective Ross McCormack. The Leeds striker slotted home calmly to give the visitors a goal they barely deserved and it looked like Forest would again be punished for missing chances.

Billy Davies threw on striker Simon Cox but it was another substitute, Matt Derbyshire - who had earlier replaced Abdoun - who was to have the final say. Straight from the restart Henri Lansbury played the ball forward where the third Forest substitute Nate Chalobah helped it on to Derbyshire. The former Olympiakos man took one touch and lashed a stunning shot from outside the box right into the top corner. It was a tremendous strike and gave Kenny no chance at all and, barely more than a minute after surrendering the lead, Forest had it back.

This turn of events seemed to knock the stuffing out of Leeds and they never looked like pulling level again. Forest closed out the game easily to record another three points and cement their place in the playoff positions at the end of 2013.

This was another impressive performance from Forest. Halford reprised his role as striker impressively again. Jamie Mackie never stopped running and harrying and Reid was, as usual, at the heart of everything Forest created. The defence looked solid with Jack Hobbs again outstanding but my Man of the Match was Henri Lansbury. In a fast and frantic game he always seemed to have time on the ball and whilst others would play it quickly and aimlessly he'd control, look up and almost invariably find a red shirt.

The big matches continue for Forest with Reading away next. Whatever the result we'll remain in fifth place; nicely positioned to - hopefully - strengthen the squad in January and start on the final push for the promised land in early 2014.

Happy New Year to you all.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Nottingham Forest 2 - 0 Queen's Park Rangers

Nottingham Forest finally ended their long, long wait for a home victory with a professional and pretty comfortable 2-0 victory over Harry Redknapp's (it's obligatory to call them that) Queen's Park Rangers at the City Ground on Boxing Day. QPR came seeking the victory that would've taken them back to the top of the table but history was not on their side as they'd never won at the City Ground. They never looked like changing that record to be honest.

A virus kept Simon Cox out of the Forest line-up meaning that Greg Halford was, again, deployed as a makeshift striker at the spearhead of a 4-2-3-1 formation. Andy Reid seemed to sit deeper alongside David Vaughan with Djamal Abdoun and Jamie Mackie patrolling the flanks ahead of full backs Eric Lichaj and Gonzalo Jara. With Jara, Halford and Lichaj all playing together I was tempted to start the chant 'We're just a team full of right backs.' I feel it would've been unlikely to catch on though.

The visitors were without suspended (shock horror) Joey Barton and injured former Forest target Charlie Austin. They still had a team packed full of experience though, including ex-Red Jermaine Jenas, and could also call upon a bench including Junior Hoilett, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Yossi Benayoun.

The first quarter of an hour drifted by with honours even before Forest started to get a grip on the game. A great run by Halford saw him through on goal but his low shot was kept out by the outstretched leg of Rangers' keeper Robert Green. Another Halford shot was blazed high over and Henri Lansbury fired just wide after winning the ball well on the edge of the QPR box.

For once this season Forest managed to turn a spell of sustained pressure into a lead. Jamie Mackie's hard work saw him win the ball on the left flank and give it to Abdoun. The bearded Algerian teased the QPR full back before firing in a lovely cross that Halford couldn't - and didn't - miss, and his close-range header gave Green no chance and Forest a deserved lead. This lead stayed comfortably in tact through to half time, though Nico Kranjcar curled an effort narrowly wide of Karl Darlow's left-hand post.

Rangers, presumably on the end of a wobbly-jowled tongue-lashing from Redknapp, came out stronger in the second half but, although they were enjoying more possession they were hardly beating down Darlow's metaphorical door. Indeed the clearer chances fell to Forest as Mackie's cross found Halford unmarked but he could only shoot straight at Green. Shortly afterwards the Rangers keeper dropped a Reid cross which eventually fell to the feet of Jack Hobbs. The defender's goal-bound shot was cleared off the line by former Forest loanee Clint Hill though and the score remained 1-0.

The match was all set up for a tense finish before, with ten minutes of normal time remaining, the pivotal incident occurred. A QPR corner was palmed clear by Darlow and the industrious Abdoun kept the ball in play deep in the Forest half. His long pass up the left touchline was aimed at Halford but his attempted flick never made contact, allowing the ball to find its way to Andy Reid who had a clear run on goal.

On the far side of the field the referee's assistant flagged for offside, much to the disgust of the Forest bench, but referee Keith Stroud overruled him and waved play to go on. Reid slotted calmly past Green with the outside of his foot and, following a discussion between referee and assistant, the goal stood. Having seen replays since the decision definitely looked correct, as Halford didn't touch Abdoun's pass before it reached Reid. I can understand Rangers' annoyance though as I'd have been disappointed if Forest had conceded such a goal.

Forest could've had a third as Reid fired just over from long range. Kranjcar's 25-yarder which went wide was QPR's only other effort of note and the game finished in a richly deserved and long overdue home win for the Reds.

The match sponsors made Andy Reid their Man of the Match and I'd definitely agree as he was excellent. Besides his usual creativity and the goal he worked incredibly hard and threw himself into challenges all night. It was hard to find fault with any Forest players in truth, though more clinical finishing from Halford could've made the margin of victory greater. Special mention also has to go to referee Keith Stroud who was, by some distance, the best officiator we've had at the City Ground all season. I'm not just saying that because of the second goal either - his calm authority kept the game under control at all times.

So, the January Transfer Window is nearly upon us and Forest sit well in contention in fifth place. If, if, if we could just get a prolific goalscorer to put away some of the chances we're creating and also, hopefully, sign David Vaughan at least until the end of the season, then we'd be pretty well placed to have a real go for the rest of the campaign. I really think there's nothing in the league for Forest to be scared of - they just have to believe it too.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Now: That's What I Call a Meal

Since Clare and I got married just over five years ago (at the time of writing), we've made it something of a tradition to go for lunch at Purnell's in Birmingham on the Friday of the week of our anniversary. Due to a scheduling clash this year though, we took the opportunity to make a weekend of it in the second city and enjoy an evening meal there instead. And enjoy it we certainly did.

After a pleasant day of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, gluhwein from the lovely German market and an afternoon nap, we made our way to the Jewellery Quarter where Purnell's is located. Following a helping of tasty olives and a fine glass of rum and gin, we took our seats for the meal.

Head chef and owner Glynn Purnell had (again, at the time of writing) recently launched a new menu, meaning diners were given a choice of two tasting menus: the six-course 'Reminisce' - which includes some of Glynn's classic recipes that had done so well on the Great British Menu, and 'Now' - which boasts twelve courses of more seasonal and contemporary dishes. As we've been lucky enough to have sampled some of the more tried and trusted dishes before we plumped for 'Now.'

There was no amuse bouche this time - boo, but with twelve courses it probably wasn't necessary. Anyway, the opening salvo was a delightfully gooey mix of cep Hollandaise with a runny egg yolk, accompanied by a crisp (yes, just one) and some freeze-dried Savoy cabbage to add texture and flavour. Following this was the unhelpfully named 'Autumn Salad,' which turned out to be an escabeche of beetroot, pickled red cabbage and a lilac-hued globule of cabbage purée. Both opening dishes were good, though the escabeche could have been a little more sour. The cabbage elements were delicious however, as was the creamy cep sauce in dish one.

Up next were two circlets of curry-cured salmon, sharing a plate with a strewing of wasabi crumble and some blobs of cucumber ketchup. The latter was cool, refreshing and surprisingly flavoursome while the salmon was soft and subtly seasoned. The wasabi crumble added a pleasing crunch and just a hint of heat from the Japanese horseradish. Dish four was one of my favourites of the evening; a ragout of pigs head (not as gruesome as it sounds), with crispy pork puffs, onions and a sprinkling of rocket leaves. The pork puffs were fantastic, think of pig flavoured popcorn, and the onions were sweet and crunchy. As for the ragout - tremendous. A warm, rich, hearty stew of slow-braised pork cheeks. It was very rich and salty - slightly too much so for Clare's liking but perfect for a sodium chloride fiend like myself.

The porky pleasantries didn't stay top of the tree for long as the next course was even better. A duo of sweet helpings of Cornish lobster were served up with strands of fennel, a shiny disc of Chorizo mayonnaise and a dusting of paprika honeycomb. This was clever and tasty stuff to be sure. Succulent lobster was beautifully matched with an aniseed tang of the fennel and the sweetness of the honeycomb. The mayonnaise too was excellent, creamy and warming without overpowering the seafood.

The halfway point of this gastronomic expedition was simply called 'Remoulade 2012' and came in three parts. A salt-baked cube of earthy celeriac was followed by a surprising ball of the same vegetable. Surprising because it looked solid, but when popped it in one's mouth it exploded to release a wholegrain mustard sauce. The last element was a shot glass of apple and celery - yes, celery - fizzy drink. Sounds bizarre? It was a little but it was also packed with flavour and cleansed the palate nicely in advance of the second half of the menu.

Dish seven took us back to the sea with a slab of tender and flaky red mullet. Surrounding the fish were smears of parsley purée and rings of pickled shallots whilst a bowl full of stones also held two small potatoes which had been cooked in salted water. The humble potatoes were elevated by the saltiness of their skins and the shallots added some acidity to balance the dish. As with the whole menu, everything was designed to provide a number of taste and texture sensations and it certainly did the trick.

A meat course was next, in the form of some wonderfully pink and squidgy venison. It sat next to a fallen column of salsify and a smooth spread of onion purée. Decorating the plate were two lines of intense liquorice and the dish was finished by a rich source. Liquorice isn't my favourite flavour but it went very nicely indeed with the deer meat. We were approaching the home stretch now.

As many tasting menus do, this one included a crossover dish and this particular example was one of the nicest I've ever had. A golden-brown mini potato waffle was topped with a small and beautifully crafted quenelle of foie gras 'butter.' Sticking out of this was a square of crispy and smoky chicken skin and drizzled over it all was some sweet maple syrup. Clare's not keen on foie gras and her version of the dish had sour cream instead and beetroot rather than bacon and chicken skin. When she saw the gusto with which I devoured mine I think she wished she'd had the same.

The final quarter of the menu comprised three desserts. First up were two apple and pear flavoured lollipops which looked and felt like Mini Milks (but were far tastier then they'd ever been. These nestled in a bowl of nutty crumble which soon became combined with the ice-cream. Our waiter gave us a spoon to 'pick up the deliciousness' as he put it. He wasn't wrong.

At number eleven in the hit parade was the nicest of the dessert triumvirate, 'mint choccy chip.' A bowl of mint essence was coated in liquid nitrogen and billowed forth clouds of minty smoke. Whilst this covered our table in a refreshing fog we enjoyed a chocolate sauce and crunch which was concealing some minty ice cream. Alongside this was a nugget each of chilled, mint infused chocolate which was more Vienetta than Mint Aero. Ending the meal was a rum baba, pineapple purée and frozen passion fruit. The frozen fruit was intensely flavoured and delicious and the baba was warming and sharp with alcohol.

This menu was quite different to our previous visits to Purnell's. The food has always been modern but this time it seemed even more experimental and really challenged the taste buds at every turn. Service was, as always here, exemplary though it was a shame that the immaculately groomed French Adonis of a maitre'd has departed to pastures new. Well, Clare thought so anyway.

We finished off our evening with a stroll round the corner to Glynn Purnell's recently opened bistro and bar: Ginger's. It serves an interesting range of cocktails and some of the dishes on offer make it look worthy of a visit itself. As for the main restaurant, this visit was probably our best so far and we'll certainly be back again next year.