Tuesday 30 April 2013

Hard Rock Café Manchester.

This is the blog post I had no intention of writing. You see when the offer of a complimentary tasting of all the burgers Hard Rock Café had to offer, I thought that it wasn't really for me. We don't really 'do' chain restaurants, not because we are snobs about it (as I will eat pretty much everything), but they just don't appeal to us. Consequently, I've never been to Nandos, or Jamies, and I've not 'hit' The Hut since the 80's. I will admit to an occasional McDonalds milkshake when I am nursing a hangover though.
But three things changed my mind.
Firstly Mrs Bacon was mithering* me to go, "How bad can it be?" She said, it's free! "Lets just go and see for ourselves!"
Secondly, fellow local blogger Foodgeek had gone, and thought it was actually pretty good.
Thirdly, I enjoyed London food blogger, Cheese & Biscuits '10 Worst London Restaurants in London' article and Hard Rock Café was at Number 2!
Strangely, like a moth to a flame this made me actually want to go to see for myself! Surely I should have an open mind to see what it was like? Also, the Manchester branch were apparently proud of their burgers, and I am supposed to be eating my way through all of the burgers in town. So it was my duty to taste them, for research purposes you understand. The things I do for you dear reader!
So we went along to have a look.

As we arrived, I thought I'd made a terrible error. As I walked in I could tell it wasn't the sort of place I normally like in any way at all. It reminded me of The Trafford Centre, and I hate it there. A corporate version of what 'rock and roll' is; plastic and inauthentic, like the Ben Elton script for "We will Rock you!" There were TV screens everywhere and loud music playing, you know how I feel about that. See here if you don't.

It was also totally rammed, at 5.30pm on a Thursday evening We were shown to our booth. I have to say all the staff we met all night were lovely. They have their customer service absolutely spot on, a very good first impression on that front. They were really busy, so they must be doing something right.
Without further ado onto the burgers.  Firstly the negative point is that they're shipped over from Germany. This can never be a good thing. However, a lot of other produce they do obtain locally and seasonally. They do have a strict criteria with the meat though, they don't buy on the open market, so had no worries on the horse meat scandal. Do average Hard Rock Café customers care where the meat is sourced though? In light of the scandal, I would hope that they do. I believe they are moving towards local sourcing of meat for their burgers though. (If I remember it correctly).
The mini burgers arrived on Vinyl records. I got Toto IV. I was happy with that as it has Africa on it. I'm partial to a bit of MOR Yacht Rock.

Mrs Bacon got Thin Lizzy. Which is ironic as we're both heading for fats-ville if we keep eating like this!

 The burgers themselves were surprisingly edible, and cooked quite well. Medium rare, pink inside and actually tasting of meat, which strangely some burgers don't.

 My favourite in the first batch was the SOB Burger which had Monterey Jack cheese, guacamole and chipotle purée. The burgers kept coming, and John the manager told us in detail what was on each one. (Rather like getting road directions I'd immediately forget which one was which).

This man loves Hard Rock Cafe, is really passionate about his job and is proud of their food. So much so that it felt a little like that episode of South Park where the family try to go on a free skiing trip but are indoctrinated at every turn by the reps selling a time-share. By the end of the night, we were thinking, where do we sign up to be shareholders!
By the time last vinyl record of mini burgers came, we were all 'burgered' out. The dry bread rolls were beginning to take their toll, and I felt like Man vs Food. Not before my favourite of the night, The Blue Cheese Burger, which had a very pleasing tang to it. (Mrs Bacon's favourite was the Hickory Smoked Burger.)
 We didn't really rate the veggie burger or the lamb one and the onion rings were unbelievably salty, even for us, totally inedible in fact. Sorry to say the chicken wings weren't up to the ones we had at All Star Lanes recently or Dog Bowl.

But, in the end we actually enjoyed our evening at Hard Rock Café, despite my misgivings about eating in a 'mainstream' chain restaurant.
It was interesting to go somewhere none 'foodie' for a change and as broad as it comes. The service was actually excellent, this is one of their USP's I think. We were asked what music we'd like on the screens. I sent for Bowie, Mrs B went for Shiny Happy People which was quite apt. We were fairly happy after complimentary Prosecco and the spicy Gini Hendrix cocktail (which was invented at this branch.)

The burgers weren't the best in Manchester by a long way, they never could be as they're not made on the premises. There's been a revolution in 'luxury' burgers over the last few years. You can go to Almost Famous or Solita, and you know it's top quality meat by local butchers Frosts, I've even seen pictures of the cattle on Twitter!
I have to be honest in my blog, why anyone who loves food would go to Hard Rock Café over the likes of those that I mentioned is beyond me. Almost Famous for instance is an independent, plus it's cheaper, cooler and the burgers are ten times better, as well as being locally sourced.
But Hard Rock are clearly doing their best within the necessary frame work of a chain restaurant. (The meat like the steaks and ribs are actually from Scotland, so that's a good thing definitely.) But you know what; the burgers were surprisingly not that bad. Similar to other chains like GBK I'd say.
However Mrs B tells me the prices of some of the burgers were £13!  This is too expensive in our view, but you pay your money and you take your choice.

Would I go back to Hard Rock Café and pay for a meal? In all honesty no, as there are too many competitors that are in our view doing this food better, and with Byron Burgers opening up round the corner shortly, we think HRC need to up their game even more. The burgers were pretty good, but they are not currently locally sourced which is just not something we can endorse.
But like I say it wasn't a bad meal at all.
 Anyhow, you don't really go to Hard Rock Café for the very best food in town, it's the combination of everything that they do. It's a successful brand, it's noisy, it's brash, it has excellent customer service (on our visit) and it gives people exactly what they want. People buy into the brand, and fair play I say if they enjoy it.
Yes it might not be the sort of place we'd choose to go, but it was actually an enjoyable evening, even for us.
To conclude; I have learnt two things, one; don't judge a book by it's cover and two you can actually eat too many burgers.

*For Southerners: Mithering is a Northern word  meaning to pester.

Disclaimer: Please note all opinions are our own.

We will consider 'comped' meals like this one, but will always tell the truth how we see it anyway.
Constructive criticism is hopefully helpful to those concerned, but if there are any factual inaccuracies, we are happy to correct them.

Further reading: In Defence of the Dirty Burger: Why we've never had it so good.

Hard Rock Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday 29 April 2013

Asda Extra Special Wine.

Asda are not really known for their wine, in fact they are probably the weakest of the main supermarkets for the wine choice. Especially the one in Hulme that we occasionally frequent. However they have improved it of late with some decent additions to the Extra Special Range.
First I tried the Primitivo Pugila 2010.

I remember where we were when we first drank this grape. We'd asked the sommelier if they had any American red Zinfandel at Abode in Manchester. We love this wine, especially if you get a good one. I presume it's unfashionable as you don't often see it. (M&S used to do a good one; Zamora but have sadly deleted it). He advised us that Zinfandel is the American ancestor of the Primitivo grape. So there we enjoyed our first bottle of Primitivo.
I bought this Extra Special Puglian Primitivo as it was only £5 from £7. (I actually trust Asda more than Tesco that this wasn't a 'fake' bargain.)
It's not a fine wine for a special occasion it's just great for glugging on a Saturday night. It was exactly the wine I had in mind to go with pizza or pasta. It's sweet, dark cherry and rich ripe blackcurrent. It has very soft tannins, and is a bargain no frills Italian at just £5 right now.

The next wine is not a million miles away, despite it being a new world wine, as it's another soft easy drinking bottle, the Extra Special Malbec Mendoza 2012 (£6.48).

It is a lovely soft velvety juicy affair, and another one that I enjoyed with pasta. It's like ripe berries in a bag picked on a hot summers day. It may be overly ripe for some, but I enjoy this style very much. It's apparently made by Trivento, the Argentine arm of Concha y Toro, and it shows. They have adopted this grape in Argentina, and I've not drunk a bad one yet.
Excellent, though I still preferred the Aldi one.

So a big thumbs up in general for the Asda Extra Special range from me. They're no frills everyday drinking wines and provide excellent value for money.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Pie & Ale Bar Manchester.

I went into the Northern Quarter to Pie&Ale for lunch today. It's next door (and connected to) Bakerie. It's a brand spanking new space with panelled wooden walls and high ceilings.

I ordered a Steak & Stilton Pie, with mash and peas sides (only 85p each) plus a pint of Black Jack Brewery First Deal which was on offer at only £2. (I counted six real ale hand-pumps). So the whole lunch came to only £10.50. 

I took one of the cosy looking booths behind the bar. (There's also an upstairs area).
The pie was pretty big, much larger than I expected, with a really firm thick crust, (possibly this could have been slightly thinner) and a generous jug of gravy. You could really taste the Stilton and also the red wine in the gravy which was rich and flavourful. (I sneakily drank this when I thought nobody else was looking as there was no spoon).

I could have done with a bit more mash, but speaking briefly to the manager afterwards he said that the pie was too much for most people, so they'd made the portion of mash a little smaller as people were leaving it. But if you're a big eater like me, they will give you more if you ask for it. I have to say though, after the pie and a pint, it was more than enough in the end, even for me .
The pie was good, it tasted proper home made (they make them on the premises) and the price was fair, plus the bar staff were really friendly.
I like eating pies and I like drinking beer, so Pie&Ale bar was always going to be a winner with me to be honest, and it was.


Pie & Ale on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Sher Akbar, Chorlton.

I'm not going to lie to you, I'd enjoyed a couple of beers. Well three to be precise. Unfortunately those pints were of Redwillow IPA which at 5.9% ABV is quite high in alcohol. It was gorgeous though, and pretty good value costing me just £3.40 at the Marble in Chorlton. But it's super strong, and my eyes were rolling round my head when we went to eat. I knew just what was needed; a curry!
I'd booked a table across the road at Sher Akbar. We went a year ago and found the service wanting, but it was time to revisit. There were eight of us, so I'd reserved the large booth. This works brilliantly if there's a group of you, as often on long tables you can only talk to your near neighbours.
The restaurant is quite plush inside, they've clearly modelled themselves on 'glamorous' Indian restaurants such as Eastzeast and Akbars, they even have the 'hanging' nans which are faintly ridiculous.
It's like a mini version of the chandelier at The French.

This trip to Sher Akbar was a lot more successful than the first. To be fair it was when they had just opened so teething problems are to be expected. The service was now spot on. We can be a rowdy bunch our lot, especially after several cold refreshments. They dealt with us with good humour and aplomb. I think we even entertained them. To be honest, the night gets a bit hazy at this point, but I'll do my best to recall it. Firstly the poppadoms were fresh and they brought them over without delay. The dips were good. I'm not sure if the onion needs to be so red though, but the poppadoms were clearly made to order, and hadn't been hanging round for a while that's so often the case.
I had two starters being a greedy guts as I am, Lamb chops tikka (£3.95) which were nicely char-grilled and a Seekh kebab (£2.50) which I enjoyed (I think).

For mains I had a Chicken Karahi Punjabi (£7.95) this was fairly decent, spicy and flavourful. The garlic nan (£2.20) was pretty good as well, crispy and not too oily. The beers (Cobra, a reasonable £3.50 a pint) kept coming, and a fine time was had by all.

The food perhaps wasn't up there with my favourite The Great Kathmandu, but it was gratifying, spicy and fresh, and a whole lot better than the last time that we went. The service was excellent, the atmosphere was congenial and the booth worked really well for our large boisterous group.
Overall the whole experience was a really enjoyable one, whilst it may not be the greatest Indian restaurant in the world, the surroundings and the service make it one that I'd be happy to return to again and again. It's a lesson to competitors that a good restaurant is partly about the food, but you need to get the service and the atmosphere right too or it won't be as agreeable as a whole.
Sher Akbar had all three just about right, so it's now one of the best Indian restaurants in Chorlton along with Coriander in my opinion.

Price: Good value.
Service: Excellent, they looked after us well.
Food: Good.
Score: 7/10.


Sher Akbar on Urbanspoon

Tandoori Flame, Chorlton.

I think we were some of the first people to go and try Tandoori Flame a few years ago when they opened. To be honest, we didn't expect much from this little Indian restaurant in Chorlton, the decor looked like a scruffy Rusholme Café and it was empty.
The food though was sensational. We've been back several times since. But here's the problem. The interior is still awful, there is no atmosphere and there is often no other customers in there. The decoration is so amateurish with black walls and terrible lighting. Although they have spruced it up recently a little with fairy lights.
We decided to just get take-outs from there from now on, for that fantastic spicy home cooked comfort food.
There's another problem though. The service. We clearly have a situation where the husband is the chef and his wife is the (reluctant?) front of house. But here's the thing; I don't feel that she has a natural aptitude for this type of work. (I know I wouldn't be able to do it either). When you see a really good waiter or waitress who have real charm, it's an admirable skill, but not everyone can take to it immediately. A gregarious sociable character trait is helpful in a client based industry. They never seem to remember us, despite us being fairly regular for years, and sadly I don't detect much warmth which is useful when dealing face to face with customers. However, this can be worked on with a little effort.
Running a successful restaurant is a lot more than good food, but for me, Tandoori Flame currently only has this one element right.

So we ordered a take-out, we had Chicken Makhani Ka (£7.95) which comes with Pilau rice, also a Garlic Nan, (£1.95) with some Poppadoms which are included as our bill was over £15. I calculated that our total should have come to just under £18, but we were charged over £20. It was either a mistake or the extra poppadom I'd asked for cost me £2. This was quite irritating as most local take aways give you a few extra anyway.
The Chicken Makhani's were delicious, warm comforting and creamy with a hint of spice. Slightly lacking the smokiness of my favourite, The Great Kathmandu, but very enjoyable all the same. The poppadoms were not quite as fresh as they could have been, but the dips were excellent. The nan was pretty good with real pieces of garlic, the chicken quality was passable, and the rice was ok.
But £20 for a takeaway for two is just a little too expensive.

It's sad to see a restaurant like Tandoori Flame not do as well as it should.
I always try and be constructive in my criticisms, but I have to be honest. With so much competition for Indian eateries in Chorlton and with Coriander soon to be their next door neighbours, these are my main points;
1. Re-decorate. The room is uninviting and poorly lit as it currently is. It needs a little imagination, small can be cosy, this space isn't. Why is the new Indian restaurant Sher Akbar in Chorlton so busy when their food may not actually be any better? There's your answer (in part, customer service is another).
2. Work on customer skills. Be interactive. Make an effort to ask them how they are, chat - you want them to return! I love the food, but will go to a competitor who treats me like he wants me there and is delighted to see me again, he treats me like a long lost friend. He understands that a happy customer is a returning customer.
3. The pricing needs attention. Don't forget you want me to return again and again. Repeat customers are your lifeblood. Give me a few extra poppadoms, offer me some shots of cheap baileys at the end if I sit in. You may lose a few pennies, but you'll gain plenty of pounds when I return.
It all works to entice me back.

These are some of the reasons why Tandoori Flame appears to be struggling.
I'd love to see it survive, but they have to understand that a profitable restaurant is not just about great food it's about making the effort to give the customer a pleasant experience as a whole.
A successful restaurant is partly the food, partly the service and partly the atmosphere.
Unfortunately right now Tandoori Flame has only achieved success in one of these areas which is why they are so often empty.

Price: £20 for a take away for two is not value for money.
Service: Not overly friendly.
Atmosphere: There is none.
Food: Great.
Star dish: Chicken Makhani Ka.
Score: 5/10.

This review is based on several visits.

Tandoori Flame on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Coffee Love.

I always start my day off with a coffee from my Classic Gaggia machine, my pride and joy. How bloody middle class does that make me? I don't care, I love good coffee so for me it's worth it. It takes about 3 minutes more to make than a crappy horrible tasting instant. I enjoy the process of making the coffee as well. I don't go to the lengths of grinding my own beans, I just buy Illy Espresso Dark Roast, although that is quite expensive, so I often go for Taylors of Harrogate Espresso Dark Roast which is about half the price of the Illy. For a machine like this one you need very finely ground powder or the water just runs through too quickly resulting in a weaker brew. It needs to be very slow, and the quality of the coffee shows when you get a nice crema on the top. (The foam with creamy texture made as a result of the pressure).
I've not found better than Illy yet. I also enjoy making my cappuccino's with the foamer, especially when I do it for someone else. (I pretend I'm working in a coffee shop for a moment). Of course, I add the powdered chocolate on top.
A couple of years ago my machine blew. Luckily I found a fantastic repair man who comes to your house and sorts it out for you at a very reasonable cost. His website is here: http://www.gaggiamanualservice.com/
With coffee in mind, there's a Chorlton Coffee Festival coming up on the 28th - 30th June, which is a fantastic idea, especially suited to our area where we have so many bars and cafés.
You can see more details here:

All Photos ©Bacononthebeech.com.

Monday 22 April 2013

The Square, London.

We were never meant to be eating at The Square. It all started when I was organising a trip to San Sebastian in May. I couldn't decide on which restaurant I wanted to eat at. Aklerarre or Arzak? I decided on Akelarre, but as Arzak were opening up a London restaurant, I thought we could go there instead of the one in the Basque country. It was opening in springtime, I was excited, so booked a table two weeks in. Then the reviews started coming in for Ametsa with Arzak Instruction.
They were mainly awful. Clearly the translation from Basque to English wasn't working. We don't eat at this level that often, so £100 per head was too much of a gamble for me.
But we still had the train tickets, so I cancelled our lunch booking and started looking for a replacement. I wanted a high end Michelin starred restaurant with a taster menu. Obviously I was spoilt for choice in London. I ended up whittling them down though. Dabbous was fully booked for the rest of the year (I managed to get lunch booking in November though!) Hedone is in Chiswick, which is too far to travel as we were only in London for the afternoon. So it was down to The Ledbury or The Square. There wasn't much between them but I went for The Square after some extra advice from Twitter. It was a 'safe' bet.

When you enter a Michelin Star restaurant  like The Square totally sober (not something I do a lot of of be honest), it can be a little intimidating. There's is like a hushed reverence. When you have working class roots, there's something inside your head that screams, 'this place isn't for the likes of you!' (I can't be working class now though, I eat falafel for a start).

Thankfully that passes, and I start getting into it. The first thing you notice when you arrive at a restaurant like The Square is the service. It's impeccable, earnest and totally efficient. Mrs Bacon thought it was like a ballet watching two waiters avoid each other with the grace of dancers. I think it's like a quiet well oiled machine. I ordered a beer, I decided to avoid the wine to save money and to drink a whole bottle at lunchtime would actually not make the experience better for me. Plus I couldn't quite bring myself to pay £10 for a glass of red.

The three sorts of bread were of course excellent.

Without further a do, we go straight into course one of the 9 course taster.
1. Rillette of Smoked Mackerel with Horseradish and a Smoked Eel Soldier. A perfect starter, the crispy Eel toast and rillette was so flavourful. We looked at each other knowingly. We knew we were at the beginning of a wonderful very expensive indulgence.

2. A Tasting of Spring. This was unbelievably divine. There were three elements, an amazingly fine veal tartare with quails egg, a rich green jelly with truffle and a jug of wild garlic foamy liquid which was poured into the jelly pot, plus a crisp parmesan 'frazzle'.

A lyric from the band James came to Mrs Bacon "If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor." I should tell you at this point that my wife is always reminding me that her job pays her "minimum wage" so I guess it's apt. Shame we have such expensive tastes. I was in my gollum faze, where in my head I whisper, "Mine, all mine".
3. Salad of Rolled Guinea Fowl with White Asparagus, Truffle Cream and Pea Shoots
This does nothing for me this dish to be honest. I don't understand the appeal of it. Just give me more of that delicious stuff! The fault probably lies with me and my lack of knowledge, but it was just a bit dull, perhaps subtle is a better word. Naturally, every course on a taster menu can't be the same note. Mrs Bacon thought it was fresh healthy and tasty.

4. Sauté of Langoustine Tails with Parmesan Gnocchi and an Emulsion of Potato and Truffle. Simply stunning. This was really heavenly. I think I had an out of body experience as I don't remember eating it at all. Mrs Bacon decided she felt sorry for anyone who'd never eaten it. I just felt lucky to be alive and eating it.

5. Lasagne of Dorset Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam. This was not on the taster, but I was given the heads up by fellow blogger FTTBYD. Thanks to him! We looked at each other incredulously and giggled.

6. We were supposed to have a Turbot dish next. I decided to be clever and tried my luck changing it to a Roulade of Pig's Trotter I'd seen on the a la carte. What's the worst that can happen I said? They can only say no. Well the worst did happen. The waiter had misunderstood and brought the Pot au Feu of Pigeon from Bresse with Asparagus, Morels, Barley and Hazelnut Dumplings. I could have done a Michael Winner, but I just don't have it in me. I quite liked it.

My wife was not happy though. Again perhaps this shows my ignorance, but when we get any 'unusual' meat like pigeon, rabbit, or anything 'gamey' more often than not, I'm glad I tried it, but I rarely feel that I prefer it to a 'mainstream' meat like lamb or beef. The pigeon was good though with a pleasing texture, and the Hazelnut Dumplings were rich and flavourful.
7. Tasting of Windrush Valley. A lovely dense goats cheese, we both enjoyed this dish, it was light and fresh.

8. Brillat-Savarin Cheesecake with Passionfruit Glaze and Yoghurt Ice Cream. Mrs Bacon declared, "Well we're not going to get a better dessert this year."

9 Banana Soufflé with Milk and Granola Ice Cream. This was probably the best Soufflé  I've ever had (including La Gavroche), it was so light and fluffy with the melting gooey ice-cream dipped in the middle.

The bill came to (takes sharp intake of breath) £261 including 4 drinks. (One soft drink three beers at £5 each!) They also added on 12.5% tip. I'd prefer it if they didn't do this (possibly as at nearly £30 for the tip alone, maybe I wouldn't have tipped quite as much as that!) Also £2 for charity. Of course you could ask for it to be removed, but who is going to do that? To be honest I was a little annoyed and could imagine doing a Larry David on that one, as I think I should decide myself if and when I give to charity, but perhaps I'm just being petty. What's £2 when I've just spent £261 on lunch! My mother should never know, she'd have a heart attack!
We really enjoyed our lunch at The Square, the food is superlative and service is impeccable. With a taster menu you rarely love absolutely everything on there, but 3 dishes for us really stood out as being amongst the best food we've had; A Tasting of Spring, Sauté of Langoustine Tails and Lasagne of Dorset Crab.
There maybe more 'exciting' fashionable options in London right now, but for exquisite food and excellent service you can't go wrong with The Square.

Price: To be honest, I had misgivings, it's a lot of money. Especially for us.
It's about a months worth of 'big shops' at Aldi!
Service: Stunning. You won't get better.
Food: It's 2 star. It's going to be fantastic, and it was!
Star dishes: A Tasting of Spring, Sauté of Langoustine Tails and Lasagne of Dorset Crab.
Score: 7.5/10.

Lyrics from 'Sit Down' by James.

  Square on Urbanspoon