Monday, 5 August 2019

Armeni Restaurant, Oia, Santorini, Greece.

Thinking back, the most memorable meals are those that are so engrained in specific a time and place, those unique singular moments in life where there's almost magic in the air. So it was with our dinner at Armeni Restaurant, Santorini.
It was the last night of a wonderful trip away, mainly in Naxos but with a few days in Santorini before we were due to fly home. The island itself is just as breathtaking as you imagine it to be. The picture postcard white villages and blue domes hanging on to the top of a volcanic crater are already so familiar from stock photos of Greece, you can hardly believe you're actually there.
I'd pre-booked a table at  Armeni as I'd got a tip from a pal on twitter. It shuts at 9pm so actually a 7.15pm booking is pretty much the latest you can eat in the evening without rushing. Google maps told me it was just a short walk from our apartment in Oia. I knew it would be downhill but it was slightly treacherous in parts with a minor landslip of small rocks but nothing that can't be handled if you're fairly able. Actually the walk down the cliff face was part of the whole experience.
We arrive to a warm welcome as is usually the case in Greece. Greek people really are the most hospitable folk. The taverna is at the very bottom of the volcanic crater right on the seafront. They have sun-loungers for customers going out to the quay and kids are running round with locals cats. The whole scene is so Greek with an informal slightly scruffy sea swept charm.
We order loads of smaller plates althought they offer you a look at the catch of the day.
All the dishes pretty much came at once which we didn't expect but it was all great, anchovy, smoked mackerel, octopus, scallops and smoked eel... It's just one of life's joys to eat food like this on the seafront as the sun is setting.
After we'd eaten they mentioned to us that we could have arrived on their complimentary water taxi from a nearby port as it is easier to manage the return walk up the cliff to Oia. So we took up their kind offer of a return boat ride back around the cove.
The water was choppy and a the ride a bit bumpy but right there and then was one of those moments you never forget. Fortuitously just as we turned the corner into the little port, the sun was setting on one of those famous Santorini sun sets. We couldn't have timed it better if we'd have tried. It was one of those rare moments in life when just fleetingly, life is perfect.

Thanks to Markos on twitter for the tip.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Mana, Manchester.

It’s 2.30 in the morning of the hottest, sweatiest night of the year and I can’t sleep. I’m thinking about our meal last night.
Mana Head chef, Simon Martin appeared to be in a massively bad mood which permeated throughout the huge dining room. He did not look happy at all. Unsmiling and and none communicative on occasions when he brought the food over to our table, it really did put a dampener on the night’s dinner. Was it something we did? I try to find a reason why it might be our fault as you do at 2.30am and you can’t sleep.
Early on in the evening we had mistakenly ordered a bottle of white rioja but taking a sip, I immediately realised it wasn’t the right wine for us all. The highly rated Viña Tondonia White Reserva (I think) was just way too mature and sherry like for what we were looking for. We asked to change it to a different wine and were told they’d have ‘to try and sell it to someone else’. I think it was our fault in hindsight but It felt like we had really put them out and it wasn’t the reaction I had expected.
Or had we been too loud or too drunk? I hadn’t thought so, no more than usual anyway.
Was it the presence of the Guardian photographers who were there shooting for a new, yet to be published review? I also got the distinct impression that me snapping away wasn’t going down too well either. (I later ask for permission to photograph the chef).
The narrative of the story I‘d assumed I was going to tell, is that I’d been wrong to leave it until now to come to Mana, that it had been amazing like everybody else says it is and a fine night was had by all. It didn’t turn out quite like that for us.
Firstly, the food. It was good with flashes of Michelin star brilliance. It wasn’t the overly challenging style that I had mistakenly believed that I wouldn’t like. The flavours are generally all there. The oyster with chicken fat was beautiful, the yakitori-style eel, is now one of Manchester’s best ever dishes. That tartare, again, such a gorgeous mouthful. That bread is superb. He’s a talented chef.
It was just that we were hugely let down by the service. If they’re attempting to win a Michelin star, then on this occasion, they fell well short of that. It made me realise again that front of house and service is at least as important as the food if not more so, as it has the capacity to completely spoil a night and overshadow everything else, even if the food is good. Dining at the best restaurants can make you feel like a million dollars, this just made me feel regretful and disappointed.
Service was slow and inconsistent. Dishes were explained on some occasions but not others. If the chef is going to bring the dishes, maybe it’d be better to smile, be friendly and chatty rather than have a face like thunder and leave the table just as one of our party is in the middle of asking you a question. This happened twice.
It just doesn’t put us, the customers at ease. Two dishes of hogget were brought out but there were three of us eating it. When we asked where the third one was, they explained two dishes were to share between three of us. This didn't seem quite right to us.
I never felt the presence of a manager who was taking care of us and was steering the ship as such. A strong character with effortless charm like the brilliant Kamilla Plonska of the French or Fernando Marques of Tast. I believe they had a manager, Anthony Barnes but he seems to have left.
At one point I asked if it were possible to speed up the pace a little as it seemed an age between each course and was told that essentially this pace could not and would not be changed. That he could ask the kitchen but ‘it wouldn’t really make any difference’. Really? Is all this for the benefit of the kitchen or the paying customers? 
Earlier on in the evening Mrs B politely asked them if it were possible to turn the music down a little because it was quite loud. She was told, “I’ll ask the chef!” Everything seemed to be for the benefit of keeping the chef happy and the customers were just an after thought.
I’d like to make a suggestion that if the restaurant wants to achieve Michelin star levels of service that perhaps they take extra training by a true experienced specialist. We were saying that they need someone along the lines of Didier Fertilati, (manager of the Quique Dacosta restaurant and the greatest FOH manager we‘ve had the pleasure of meeting), to observe and give them some pointers.
I’ve asked my dining partners their views on the evening too.
Dr Dawn is a GP. She’s also the most level headed person I know. She’s been with us on countless restaurant trips to here in the UK and Spain. On this occasion she wasn’t drinking much so her memory of events are likely to be even clearer than mine.
 What were your impressions of Mana and the whole night?
Let's start on the happier part, the food. Some of my dishes were great (not amazing), the oyster, the eel, the starter snacks. My main (none meat) was disappointing as it had no real flavour.
How was the service? Possibly the worst  service I have ever had at any level of dining. I was made to feel uncomfortable,  and there was an awkward atmosphere. I suspect  this may have started at 'winegate' but at this level of dining you must be able to say when a wine is not suitable. Some wine advice should have been  given at the start. This was  a very expensive meal for a none Michelin restaurant and at this price the service should have been at top level.
Would you return? 
I would not return and would not recommend it. If  an inspector gets a similar experience I would not expect it to get a star, there was a 'we are too cool to be trying to serve you' attitude and the chef rules everything. The chef was obviously not that keen on bringing us any food and  had a pained  expression of ' I have to do this' and there was no communication. Plus 'hogget gate', were they trying to  recoup the wine money? There was no info given.

What would you score it? 
6/10 for food, 3/10 service.  3 points for the young girl bringing out the food and the nice man with the beard and the wine man.

As we left, Dawn said "I don't think the chef liked us."
Can you imagine that as a paying customer that this is even a fleeting thought you have when leaving a restaurant you’ve just paid a lot of money for? If you’re in a bad mood and in the service industry, you would probably need to be able to cover it up I’d imagine. Or does it not matter as you’re fully booked for months anyway?
 Ms Arroz, a pharmacist, has also been on all of our restaurant based trips. Again I've asked her for her feedback.
What were your impressions of Mana and the whole night? It felt very modern in layout. There wasn’t much room for waiting, staff were Ok until the wine incident, I think this was the start of the surly service. Overall it was a great night out with friends. The food was good but not that memorable except the eel. The atmosphere was blighted by the house staff and ‘the hogget incident.‘
How was the service? As above. The front of house made too many excuses not to deal with our requests and questions. I thought it was interesting that the sommelier is leaving after only a few months. I thought the chef could have made more of an effort.. And the Hogget thing? Maybe that was payback for wasted wine....
How was the food? It felt it was trying for a Michelin, some dishes shone. I was expecting the food to be challenging but it wasn't, it was not the NOMA type food I was expecting.
Would you return? Only if another friend wanted to.
What would you score it? 6
Will it get a Michelin star do you think? They might if the inspectors went on a good night.

Pinned to his twitter page chef Simon Martin has this quote:“I’m a firm believer that the most important thing in my role is making sure every single person who walks through our door is blown away by the time they leave..”
This is a wonderful sentiment and aim but I’m really sorry but we weren’t blown away. The food was good but the bottom line is that we didn’t feel welcome and that ethos comes from the top. I can’t recall ever having such an experience in a restaurant at this level. We were sadly, hugely disappointed and nobody is more sorry than me especially as we’ve paid a not unsubstantial amount of money for the pleasure. Mana didn't feel to me like a happy place to work or to dine as a customer.
Simon Martin is clearly a talented chef but food is only a part of the experience.
I really wanted to love it but they desperately need an experienced manager who has had worked at the highest level and is able to put customers at ease. I might add that I think that we’re very easy going customers.
Despite our experience, I still hope they get a star in the new guide as they’re clearly aiming for one and the food probably deserves it. It will be wonderful for Manchester. But if a star is partly based on service as well as food (I believe it’s for food alone Michelin say) then they may be as bitterly disappointed as we were.
Food: 7/10
Service 4/10.
Mrs Bacon's Score.
Food: 7/10
Service 3/10. 

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Le Cochon Aveugle, York.

We're sat in one of my favourite restaurants in Britain and me and Mrs Bacon are sharing stories with co-owner Vicky about how much Anthony Bordain meant to us. As huge fans for so many years we all feel like we knew him personally.  Of course we didn't but this is why his death has effected so many of us. We immersed ourselves in all of his books and TV shows so his became the most saddening of any 'celebrity' deaths. We're still not really over it. I still think of him often. We followed Bourdain to Spain to wherever he recommended, and I know Vicky and chef Josh travelled around Paris to where he ate.
It's no secret that we're huge fans of chef Josh's food and that I've been commissioned to photograph their restaurant a few times but we decided to return as punters for our wedding anniversary. After a quick drink at their sister bar, the wonderful Cave du Cochon, and finally deciding on our favoured wine with Vicky, we make a start on the taster menu as follows:
Crispy chicken skin, chicken liver parfait & pickled walnut ketchup.
Whitby crab & wasabi tart.
Ken Holland's carrots & goat's curd.
Boudin noir macaron. (Pictured below). This is as good as it looks.
L'Arpege egg. Just so lovely as ever.
Oyster flamboir a lard. Gorgeous.
Homemade sourdough, cultured butter, beurre noisette & sea salt. Embarrassingly, I possibly had three or four portions (servings not pieces) of this fabulous bread.
60 day-aged beef tartare, cauliflower & sauce tonnato.
Hand-dived Orkney scallop cooked 'a la ficellel in sea urchin butter. This is the finest scallop I've ever eaten. Even better than the one we had at Hedone in London. The quality of this product is seriously impressive.
Pollock cooked over coals, smoked butter, Yorkshire asparagus & confit lemon.
Fattened guinea fowl, 36 month-old Parmesan, wild garlic & Vin Jaune sauce.
'Guess' Elderflower panna cotta, frais de Bois, wild strawberry sorbet & vinegar granita. I'm afraid we failed in the taste test with this one, I blame the booze.
Pain d'Epices egg. A wonderful end to a supreme taster menu from chef Josh.
Le Cochon Aveugle is a seriously good restaurant with wonderful food and fine service from Vicky and the team. They deserve all the accolades they get.
I'm sure Anthony Bordain would have loved it here and at Cave. There's not much more of a recommendation I can give than that.

Monday, 3 June 2019

My Top 10 Pintxos Bars in San Sebastián.

These are my personal favourite pintxos bars from several trips to Donostia over the years but are not necessarily 'the best'. There are often occasions where one or two bars really shine (I've tried to account for that on this list) but standards in general always remain extremely high in San Sebastián. For our next trip in December it may change again and we're always on the look out for bars we've not tried before. Please let me know your favourites and I'll try to visit them if we've not already.
1. Borda Berri.
A couple of times now the first thing we've done on arriving is go to Borda Berri for their supreme risotto. When those wonderful plates of brothy mushrooms and idiazabal (Basque cheese) arrive, I'm in seventh heaven. Also the beef cheeks are not to be missed. Must eat: Mushroom Risotto.
2. Bar Bergara.
As we're usually staying in the old town, whenever we make a trip over the river, we always head here. It's all good (and different) but I love the little pintxos pastries they do at Bergara.
Must eat: The Udaberri, courgette and crayfish tart.

3. Zazpi. 
We always head here for a long boozy lunch. It's a wonderful place to drink the lovely Keller beer and eat as many of the beautiful little plates of food as possible. Must eat: Oxtail Ravioli.
4. Zeruko. I'm always excited to try new and different stuff whenever we visit Zeruko and our meal at the new sit down Zeruko was impressive too. Must eat: La Hoguera (smoked cod).
5. Casa Urola was shut on our last visit, otherwise I'm sure it'd be further up our list. Must eat: Scallops.
6. La Cuchara de San Telmo.
We've rarely been here and it's never less than packed out but this place has to be done when in town so you must fight through the crowds. Must eat: Carrillera de Ternera.

7. Atari. We always end up at Atari at some point in the evening often for cream cheese ice cream but having tried quite a few things at random here, (like the foie) it's all so good. Must eat: Cream Cheese Ice Cream.
8. Mendaur Berria.
This more modern bar with a large TV screen showing football doesn't look that promising but I can assure you that the cooked to order pintxos are tip top. Must eat: Sea Urchin.
9. Gure Txoko. Another must visit in Gros.
Must eat: Soft Shell Crab.
10.  A Fuego Negro. 
We always find ourselves drinking here late at night, usually worse for wear. Must eat: Mini Burger.
Finally my top tip. I just realised looking at this that I rarely pick up pintxos from the bar tops. The best ones are always cooked to order.
What didn't make the list. Ganbara is great but quite expensive so it's not one of my personal favourites. I know Nestor is a lot of peoples top tip for the txuleta but the timing of adding your name to the list never quite works out time wise for us plus we have a few none meat eaters in our party. There are others still I've never been to Bar Antonio, Bar Sport and loads more.  Oh I just realised I never added La Viña for their cheesecake which is a must too.
So what would make your Top 10?
Further reading: Another recent list I like is this one from LuxEat.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Enxaneta at Tast, Manchester.

On our previous visit to Tast, manager Fernando Marques told us of their plans to open the upstairs room and create a high end dining experience, much closer to chef Paco Pérez's two Michelin star restaurant in Barcelona, Enoteca Paco Pérez.
Enxaneta at Tast has been open for a few months now. Just a quick look at the menus online, I notice for instance that the squab dish in Barcelona is described in the same way as the one we had in Manchester. So although it may not be exactly the same dish, I think quite a few dishes would be similar variations of those found in Barcelona and elsewhere. This can only be a good thing, we're getting tried and tested world class Michelin star dishes from a two star restaurant but here in Manchester at last. (This is one of the reasons why I believe Enxaneta at Tast will get a star in the next guide, more of that later).
 We finally sampled the 10 course menu (£95 per person) as follows.
A few nibbles to start: AMANIDA CESAR  (Caesar salad). PADRON PEPPER.
BUNYOL DE CAÇA (Squab Bunyol in tempura) we swapped the squab for the prawns in tempura.
PESOLS PURS (Pure Peas).  All these snacks were lovely and set us up beautifully for the main courses.... OU BENEDICT, MARI. (Sea egg Benedict).

XAMPINYONS EN LA SEVA DIVERSITAT (Button Mushroom Diversity). This dish is what it's all about for me. The intense woodland mushroom flavours were just so pleasing to eat, this is honestly one of my favourite dishes anywhere. It was just so good.

CANELÓ D’ESCAMARLANS (Langoustin Canelon). Another beautiful plate of food. We love the rich flavourful sauces Paco Perez is fond of.
ARRÒS DE POLLASTRE I LLOBREGANT (Chicken and Lobster Rice). They've completely perfected these rice dishes. Again, it's the sheer intensity of the flavours which so impressed, and a wonderful chewy mouth feel of the sticky rice. These four dishes were our favourites of the evening.
Head chef Miquel Villacrosa in action in the kitchen (above).
COLOMI, BLAT I MOLE DE 1000 DIES (Squab, corn and 1000 days Moie).
Desserts: LLIMONA, YUZU I MANGO (Lemon, Yuzu and Mango).
XOCOLATA I GALETES (Chocolate and Biscuits).

To conclude, we were extremely impressed with Enxaneta at Tast. The food is spectacular and the service from Fernando Marques and head sommelier Filippo Zito is stellar (we know both of them from The French).
As I told the team at the time,  I believe this restaurant will win a Michelin star in the next guide. Why am I so sure? The brilliance of the food leaves me in no doubt at all. That and the pedigree of Paco Pérez (who has several stars at restaurants in Spain and elsewhere) along with head chef Miquel Villacrosa (formerly at 1 Michelin Star Restaurant Cinco in Berlin).
Enxaneta at Tast is a world class restaurant. It is without doubt the finest high end food we've had in Manchester.

The photos in this review were shot quickly as I ate. 
To see my proper photographic portfolio of commissioned work and to commission me please see my website here.