Monday 23 March 2015

Ibérica, Manchester.

The gap between tapas restaurants over here and in Spain used to be huge. Both in terms of variety but most importantly for me, with the quality of the product which has always been paramount in Spain. I used to visit Madrid in the early 90's and be amazed at the variety of seafood on offer. Most likely much of it was fished off Scottish waters and exported over there in huge quantities. Meanwhile we were left with rubbery squid and boring patatas bloody bravas. The difference was striking.
In recent years there's been an explosion of quality Spanish restaurants opening in London; Brindisa, Barrafina, Moro, and Ibérica etc. So to say the arrival of Ibérica to Manchester has been highly anticipated would be an understatement. It's been a long time coming.
 We went twice last week and I'll nail my colours to the mast early on; it was excellent.
At first we're not too keen on the glitzy ground floor bar area. It's only 4.30 and already it's rammed with suits. The site of the camera has heads swivelling round my way. We move upstairs which we much prefer, especially the more private booths down one side. It's like a completely different restaurant up there.
We kick off with Fried Chorizo Lollipops with pear alioli sauce (£5). What's not to love about these? They're gone in one juicy, deep fried mouthful.
Serrano Ham Croquetas (£6/10, always a favourite) are bloody good too. Golden, crisp, plump pillows, they explode on your tongue, oozing hot creamy béchamel sauce. Surprisingly, chef Nacho Manzano has said that British milk is creamier than Asturias and makes excellent croquetas.
The Arroz Negro (Creamy black rice with squid, prawns & alioli sauce, £8, is another staple of ours when in Spain). This is spot on too. This dish is all about the tar-black stock and luxurious silky rice rather than the showy prawn laden paella.
Incidentally it's hard to get good paella even in Spain now, so much so that we rarely order it. We intend to return here to see if they can pull it off. The fact that they ask you to pre-order it when booking is a good sign.
The twice cooked Lamb, marinated cherry tomatoes & red peppers from El Bierzo (£9) is superb too. The flaky, rich meat is just right. When they mistakenly bring another one later, I eat that too and say nowt.
Equally as glorious is the decadently fatty Crispy Confit of Suckling pig, apple purée & frisée salad (£15). This is a Denomination of Origin (D.O) from Segovia where you will famously find the finest suckling pig in Spain. You can even get the whole animal for £190 if you give them 12 hours notice. I'm tempted.
Prices as with Hawksmoor are higher than perhaps Manchester is used to but as I said before, it's worth paying a little extra for quality and their set lunches are pretty reasonable. We also enjoy their twist on Fish & Chips (£5); deliciously moist hake with little potato cubes. We ask for some alioli as an accompaniment and think this should always come with this dish as it works so well.
Another winner is the pretty scarlet Gazpacho with red berries, beetroot & anchovies (£4). They add a little blob ice cream made with soft fresh cheese, I only wish we hadn't elected to share this one. (You can get the recipe for this here).
Mrs B insisted on a vegetarian dish, so we have the Milhojas de escalivada of smoked & roasted aubergine & red peppers (£5). No complaints about this one either.
 The Pan con Tomate (£2) is pretty good although the tomato is fridge cold and I've had better versions with slightly crisper bread like a sourdough.
There is also Confit of cod (brandada) with olives & white grapes (£4).
The only misfire for us are the burgers. Like little sliders, the Ibérica burger with 'secreto' pork loin & Piparra peppers sets us back £7. They are way too small for the price and I forgot to ask for them pink.
We finish off with some Ibérico ham and some Cecina (air-cured beef) from León (£10).
The Jamón (From Montánchez, D.O. Extremadura £8) is absolutely exquisite, some of the best we've ever eaten. Even an amateur glutton like myself can detect the rich and complex flavours. It melts on your tongue. It maybe my imagination but I think I can actually taste those acorns the pigs are fed on.
The Cecina is top of the shop quality too. Finally the Spanish cheese selection (£10). Urgelia (pasteurised cow cheese), Tous del Tilers (raw cow cheese), Manchego with rosemary & Valdeón (blue cheese).
On one occasion I pair the food with an Alma de Blanco Godello from the impressive looking wine list (to my eyes anyway).
I'm no expert on wine and food pairing but when you're eating a variety of dishes, this neutral clean and dry white works a treat, similar to Albariño.
Service on both occasions was stellar, they have a lot of staff milling about and are well rehearsed although there will always be a few gaps in their knowledge as they're all new to the job. I even spot executive Michelin star chef Nacho Manzano on one occasion. I'm hoping they add a few dishes contributed by Albert Adrià from Tickets in Barcelona up here as they have in London.
They have however, thankfully not watered down their restaurant and product for Manchester. I'd like to see some more unusual dishes (like kokotxas de bacalao and perhaps some Carabinero prawns which can be sourced from our local fishmongers Out of the Blue.) But I'm sure they know what sells more than me.
It may be a chain but I've never had tapas of this quality before in Manchester. It's not only London levels of food but it's on a par with Spain too. Ibérica has already become one of my favourite restaurants in the city. I'll certainty drink to that. ¡Salut!

Ibérica. on Urbanspoon
More photos here.
*Invited to the soft opening on one occasion, paid in full on the second.

Monday 16 March 2015

Casamia, Bristol.

Me and Mrs Bacon agree on most things, especially when it comes food. In restaurants we do tend to share more or less the same tastes and opinions. We have jointly experienced almost all of the high end meals over the last sixteen years, so it seems natural and obvious. But not always. I thought it'd be interesting for us both to give our thoughts on a recent trip to one star Casamia in Bristol.
Mr Bacon. Whilst I enjoyed the experience there was something missing for me. It is true that my expectations were very high but I just felt that I wanted to be utterly overwhelmed with food, that one sublime moment. Although it was all good. I was expecting a signature dish and at least another meat or fish dish for the price. £68 for the taster menu is about right in the week but it's £88 at the weekend which isn't quite worth it for me in comparison to restaurants of a similar ilk. We can now only afford restaurants like this a few times a year so the stakes are so much higher.
We have a brief chat with chef Peter Sanchez Iglesias and he mentions that it is a bit trickier in Winter as they have fewer ingredients that they prefer to work with, in comparison to the other seasons. Could they then not adjust their criteria a little? I know the seasonal, local thing is a very important and integral concept at Casamia (there are wintry photos adorning the walls) but if I'm visiting in Winter I still want to be blown away as I'm spending nearly £90 plus wine and service.
The service at Casamia is absolutely wonderful especially from Mr Sanchez Iglesias Senior. We all enjoyed chatting about Spain and food and wine with him. He is such a large part of the enjoyment of the evening.
Mrs Bacon. 
This has developed due to our difference of opinion. Although both Mr Bacon & myself strive for the ‘blow away’ dish and the ‘mmm’ moment, I am a little bit country and he’s a bit rock and roll. He’s more into richness, such as the meatiness of a wonderfully cooked (and seasonal) Hogget. Although I enjoy rich intense flavours too, they can slow me down on a mega taster menu. I love the subtle tastes of veg and fish as well.
We kick off with a pretty little pre starter snack on cracker.
Mrs B. A deliciously crunchy cracker encompassing tasty blobs of all things crisp and creamy, it impresses me from the start. I know it’s going to be a good night!
Then Sage & onion Broccoli, Colston Bassett, beautiful luminous green little tart-lets.  Mrs B. Biting into what appears to be a well manicured garden bush, can only be described as the most intense broccoli experience that I’ve ever had. Then follows a fabulous wave of cheesiness.
Sourdough, Ivy house butter.
Mr B. The bread is excellent but for me, it shouldn't be a separate course. In a restaurant like this it should be offered regularly and generously throughout the evening. I feel a bit awkward asking for more later, like Oliver Twist. It is so good though that I can't not have another piece.
Mrs B. A lovely piece of bread. Reluctantly I give half  to Mr Bacon, I need to last the distance!
Winter salad, goats curd. Mr B. Pleasant enough, it reminds me of a Simon Rogan salad. But that's often when you have about 15 other courses on a long taster menu surrounding it.
Mrs B. Beautifully sculptured this dish for all of us feels reminiscent of our experiences of Simon Rogan’s way with vegetables, especially the drawing out the distinctive flavours,  eg. the turnip is so turnipy! Then there’s the delightful contrast of the goat's curd.
Mushroom, spelt.
Mr B. I'm not wholly convinced by this one either. It has a vinegary kick which doesn't quite work for me although it's not unpleasant. I really want that creamy comforting feeling that you often get with a risotto.
Mrs B. Not really a risotto, although I don’t think it’s even trying to be. Here I really love the powerfully flavoured wild mushroom goo combined with melted cheese and crunchy spelt, mmm…
Brown trout, cabbage. Mr B. A pleasant winter dish, it's fine but just that.
Mrs B. Not a remarkable dish but still enjoyable, especially the crispy cabbage.
Fallow deer, parsnip.
Mr B. My favourite of the mains, the deer like a wonderfully rich steak.
Mrs B. An amazing cut of tender meat, prepared to perfection. (Firstly I had to tell Mr Bacon that there would absolutely not be any going spare!)  I nearly cried when I finished my last piece!
Venison belly, hoisin sauce, venison bread crumbs, hay mayo.
Mr B. An extra course and another winner for me.
Mrs B. As this arrives at the table the aroma of smoky hay just hits you. Then the exploding bonbon of gorgeous venison, for me is an absolute wow moment.
Mr B. All the desserts are excellent, very strong. Personally speaking I'd prefer only one or two puddings to be replaced with a few more mains.
Tunworth, pear.  
Mr B. Like the best cheese cracker you're ever eaten. Mrs B agrees!
Celery root rice pudding. 
Mr B. This comes in a puff of smoke and is absolutely gorgeous.
Mrs B. A dish of gloriously creamy yum, yet not too heavy.
Blood orange, rosemary. Another beautiful winner we both agree.
Variations of rhubarb. Mrs B. Again, I can’t fault it. Loved the sorbet element, which with its’ subtleness was perfect to end on.
Finally Petit Fours; Vanilla, fudge Dark chocolate, pistachio, lime Marshmallow Bromley turkish delight Cherry Newell.

So there you have it, two slightly differing opinions about the same  meal at Casamia.
As accomplished as it is, I found it to be a little short on absolute total joy but that may have been tempered by my own preconceived expectations too. In the end it all comes down to personal taste though as Mrs Bacon doesn't quite agree.
In conclusion, Casamia is very firmly in the one Michelin star category and I would return but in another season perhaps.

Casamia on Urbanspoon