Monday 29 June 2015

Bringing Carabineros to Manchester.

Carabinero or Scarlet Prawns are considered amongst the very finest in Spain and are highly prized by locals. (Along with a separate variety, the Gamba Roja which includes the famous Palamós Prawns which we had recently at Asador Etxebarri).
They're so called because they match the uniforms of Spanish customs police. I've spotted carabineros on menus such as at London's Barrafina but I've never seen them in Manchester. Why is that? Well they're pretty rare over here. By all accounts, London restaurants hoover any up and also they cost more because they're so coveted. They are prohibitively expensive for Manchester restaurants where there will be little demand anyway.
I gave the challenge to my local and brilliant fishmonger Out of the Blue. Within a few weeks they'd arrived. I'm not sure why I rushed in to get them, no local restaurants will touch them as anticipated. (Meanwhile the likes of nearby Croma sell a few tiny, tasteless, Iceland style prawns for about £6).
I'm shocked by how gigantic they are, they're almost lobster sized. That's how they really should be considered too. There's that unique striking scarlet colour, which is how they already are pre cooking.
We buy a couple of disposable BBQ's and invite a couple of friends over. They go on the hot BBQ for four minutes each side, timed to the second. (Give or take for size).
They're divine. A sweet but robust taste of the sea. You open the head up and suck the hot brain juices out, a real connoisseurs trick. If you've done this once, you'll never go back, it's like the most supreme, hot, rich fish soup you ever had. We experiment with cooking times, with a slightly longer cooking time, the flesh is decidedly firmer but that distinct flavour is still there. These are like the crustacean version of the chuleta steak you may have seen in previous posts on this site.
After we've devoured the lot, the shells go into a fantastic stock that stinks the house out for two days despite all doors and windows being open. It's all worth it though.
If you want the best you have to pay more for it but this is currently the only way to get this fantastic produce (that I know of) in Manchester and even then supply is limited. Get 'em while you can.

A dozen Carabineros cost me £50.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Levanter Fine Foods, Ramsbottom.

Fiona and Joe were amongst the first people to commission me for photography, in fact we were the very first customers when Levanter first opened last May. (I can't believe it's already over a year ago). As they were taking a much deserved break in San Sebastián, I suggested a few places for them to try, one of which is Bar Nestor in the old town. It's a unique little bar, you have to turn up at a certain time (7.15pm) and put your name down on the list. There are two lists, one for steak and the other tortilla. There is a tomato salad too. That's it! I love the idea of a restaurant just doing a few things brilliantly. In a town of brilliance of course the chuleta steak (which comes out at 8pm), is a world beater. They're said to get through 500 steaks a week! I first read about it via Melody & Nemanja, aka, MrTxuleta who is also supplying Volta with their Basque beef. You can read all about that here if you like.
Fiona and Joe returned full of inspiration and with the name of the supplier of the steaks at Bar Nestor, Greys Fine Foods. (Although this weekend it'll be actually MrTxuleta's beef you'll be eating). Joe has also taken to experimenting to perfect a similar tortilla to the one he had there. They invite us up to sample (in exchange for these photos) after seeing we'd already tried the ones at Volta. Funny really that I'd more or less given up steak until recently, now I seem to be eating nothing else! We'd already had a few light fish dishes at The Shoulder up the road so begin with a delicate and lovely Hake (Merluza, sun-dried tomato and salsa, £6). We ate a lot of this in Spain so it's become  a real favourite now.
The Tortilla (£4) is absolutely superb. As opposed to the standard dull variety you often find all over Spain, this is much more moist. It's at the top end of saltiness (it just about holds back) but it's the liquid centre and gooey texture which is such a simple joy to eat. The trial and error really paid off. You'll be hard pushed to find a better tortilla in the whole of the UK. What a thing of simple beauty!
The huge Txuleton from old Galician Dairy cows (at least 8 years old) arrives with some ceremony. Joe is a little disappointed that it's not quite as rare as he's wanted, there is only a minute or so in it, he will take a minute off next time. (We're the happy fat guinea pigs). Although it's still rare enough for most folk and the deep, intense fatty flavour is so prominent. They're selling this at a bargain £45 (with a salad) and it very easily feeds at least two. It's cooked the Bar Nestor way:
"Bring it to room temperature, scoring each side with a fine blade, sea salt both sides & leave for half an hour, letting the salt drawing the moisture out to help get a crispy skin. Cook on a full-heat plancha for 5 minutes each side or 6 minutes if it's an exceptionally big steak (over 4cm thick) but 4cm is optimum size."

We can't manage it all so we take a load home and make some cracking buttys with mustard that evening. (With some old vines garnacha from the friendly Vineyard Wine Shop next door).
Joe tells us that he plans to make the steak a regular Sunday thing. We think it's amazing that you can actually get the same wonderful produce of San Sebastián over here in Ramsbottom. We always highly rated Levanter but this Basque steak and tortilla are as good as any you can get in Spain, they're on a different level. I'll certainly drink to that ¡Salud!
More photos here.

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Wednesday 24 June 2015

The Shoulder of Mutton, Ramsbottom.

I crossed off an ambition recently by designing a pub sign (logo and branding) for The Shoulder of Mutton up in Ramsbottom. I was commissioned for photography too which is great as I really wanted to integrate the two to produce a whole package.
Head Chef Chris Yates has returned home after a year or so with a brand new grazing menu. The  cynics amongst you may cry bias at this review but the dishes looked so good that we had to return on Friday as paying customers. (I rarely eat when working). In any case I've previously said that I think Chris is one of the best chefs in the North West and these small plates below were the most accomplished food we've ever had at The Shoulder.
Coincidentally the dishes we sampled were actually new additions since I did the shoot. Chris is still perfecting and tweaking the menu as some things naturally sell more than others. (Sadly the Haddock Scotch eggs had to go as nobody wanted them). They've also had to integrate the grazing menu into the a la carte as it was taking too long to explain to older customers who perhaps are not so used to tapas style eating.
Sweet Potato Soup. Potato nuggets, roasted cumin, curry oil. 
This is a gift from the chef. It is absolutely gorgeous, whipped up silky and bubbly with just the right touch of crunchy potatoes and spice. We're proper impressed already.
We're going along to Levanter later for some steak and tortilla, creating a wonderful Ramsbottom taster menu that few local restaurants could actually match! So we opt for some lighter fish dishes. It's a wise choice, Chris shows a delicate touch way beyond most chefs in our regions pubs. (He has worked at the likes of Michelin starred Northcote amongst others). The Cornish Crab with Asparagus, Radish, Fennel and Cucumber (£8) is beautiful and fresh.
Roast Onion & Artichoke Risotto, Violet Artichoke, Pecorino and Onion Caramel (£12) is a tad too sweet although the texture of the risotto is bang on.
We both love the Salmon with Roast Cauliflower, Cous Cous & Curry Flavours (£7).
Chris takes great pride in his plating, presentation is polished and the flavours are always spot on. Look at this one, beautiful, Yellison Goats Cheese Mousse, Baby Beetroot and gel with toasted seeds and watercress (£6).
You can go the The Shoulder of Mutton and get standard pub food if you want and I guess many do. They have to appeal to a wide section of locals who just want to go in for a burger or a butty at lunchtime. But you'd be missing out on what we reckon is some of the finest food you can get in a pub in the north west. The new logo doesn't look too bad either.
*Sadly Chef Chris Yates has since left The Shoulder so I cannot recommend it.

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Monday 22 June 2015

Tariff & Dale, Manchester.

My sister came up to Manchester for the evening and as I want to take her somewhere new, we decide on Tariff & Dale. It's a handsome newly converted old warehouse on the corner of my favourite street in the Northern Quarter, Tariff street. (You'll find Kosmonaut , El Capo ,Takk and The Whiskey Jar on the same block). We head downstairs and claim a booth at the end of the row near to the kitchen and impressive wood fired pizza oven. Naturally it's all exposed brick and industrial styling but it is cosy enough. 
The beer selection is pretty good with cans from Beavertown (my go-to brewery right now, always fantastic) although I'm not sure why Kona always appear on these menus, they must have a really good rep is all I'm saying. I try a few Outstanding IPA's and Pale Ales which at £3.60 for cask seems a relative bargain for the area.
I go for three starters which our waiter presumes we're all sharing equally. You presume wrong my friend, I may let Mrs Bacon and my sister sample a little bit though!
The Pork Nuggets (£5.50) are tip top. Well moist porky croquettes, I'm guessing chef Chris Vernazza may have picked these up when working at the likes of two starred The Hand and Flowers in Marlow. The Sausage Rolls (£7) are equally as impressive, beautiful flaky pastry and more porky juicy, goodness. I pop them in my fat face in one go with great pleasure. If there are better sausage rolls in town, I've not had them although I'm willing to try.
The Beef Tartare (£8.00) needs tweaking. Frost's quality meat is lost as it's over seasoned and unbalanced, you don't get that lovely fresh clean raw beef flavour coming through enough. My sister thinks it tastes 'weird' Mrs B agrees that a little holding back on seasoning and it'll be reet.
I'm not a fan of thick cut chips like these, much preferring fries, these are more like wedges than chips, the problem being that the potato can be too hard and bland in the middle as they're way too thick. These are slightly undercooked and they're as dull as ditchwater to eat, barely better than boiled potatoes, not a treat at all.
 I watch the Sourdough Pizza (N'duja + goats cheese, £11.00 + £2) come out of the impressive wood fired oven. I'm happy to see they're unusually generous with the toppings. I plough through the spicy hot sausage and half of Mrs B's too. (I ask them to omit any green salad leaves on my pizza, a pet hate).
The base needs a bit of work though. It's much too thick for a start and there's precious little leoparding. As you may have seen, this has had a fair bit of discussion on-line, #Leoparding. Much I suspect is due to us pizza geeks being able to use the little leopard emoji at free will. Leoparding if you didn't know refers to the charred spots you get on the edge of pizzas (not on the underneath, that's charring). If you want to know what it looks like, see the finest pizzas in Greater Manchester from Honest Crust.
Getting great pizza from an oven like this is not as easy as is may first appear.  It takes time and trial and error to perfect. That's not to say the pizza here is bad at all, in fact we all enjoyed it and Tariff and Dale (more than I thought if I'm honest). A few minor tweaks and they'll have the makings of a very decent restaurant and bar and a fine addition to the Northern Quarter.
There is a cracking soundtrack too. They played quite a few real favourite tunes whilst we were there ~ Dirty work- Steely Dan, Come live with me Angel - Marvin Gaye, Jazz Carnival - Azymuth, Erykah Badu - Honey‬, La Fleur - Minnie Riperton....

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Wednesday 17 June 2015

Ibai, San Sebastián.

I've noticed recently that 'productos' is a word that pops up again and again in self titled descriptions of Spanish restaurants online. As previously discussed on this website, the Spanish know that only if you start off with the very finest produce can you hope to achieve real excellence. You often see it in 'normal' everyday Spanish restaurants too. I realised this when we went to a fish restaurant in Anglesey recently. The quality was completely lacking and hugely inferior to that found in Spain. I'm guessing that customers here may not demand superior produce because they are not used to it so cannot recognise it.
There are some places that are elevated by their world class 'productos'. One such restaurant is Asador Etxebarri. Another is Ibai in the back streets of that foodie capital; San Sebastián.
Ibai is a temple for food travellers. But it's not your obvious choice like the famous starred places that people tick off their list like Arzak or Mugaritz. It's almost a secret, hidden behind an unassuming pintxos bar. The very idea of Ibai; the hidden cult status and the elevation of the product to mythical levels. All this is so attractive to me, I just knew I had to book. But it's notoriously difficult to reserve a table. You'll need a friendly Spaniard to phone for you unless you're very confident speaking another language on the phone. (I wasn't). They only open weekdays for lunch too.
We wait at the bar with our drinks until being shown to our table in a small traditional but cosy dining room, similar to many others we've been to over the years. The menu is at the bottom of the page but around half the items listed are not available on the day as explained by the friendly lady serving us. Some explanations are achieved through Spanish, others by mime! (We didn't find any unfriendliness at our lunch here at all). They strictly only use what are the very freshest ingredients available that day.
We make our choices.
Bread arrives. Strangely it is the average sort you get at usual Spanish restaurants not exceptional at all as you'd expect. We begin with a plate of warm rich Chorizo much better than the usual stuff with a dense texture and rich flavour.
Dining with good friends, I had been concerned that Ibai wouldn't be 'fancy enough' for our companions as we usually go to starred places together. But Ms. Rice declares the Lobster Salad the best lobster she'd ever eaten. It would be hard to disagree. The lobster is firm and full of flavour like it had only just left the ocean that day.

Guisantes. As good and as fresh as the ones at Asador Etxebarri. The confidence of the chef, serving just a plate of peas. You're unlikely to find better anywhere.
Forest Fungi. Hongos y setas del bosque. A simple but perfect dish of earthy mushrooms 'from the forest' another case of letting the finest product speak for itself.
Kokotxas or Hake cheeks (or chin more accurately) are a favourite of ours and locals. These are served the traditional way in a green sauce. I love the unique oily, gelatinous almost oyster like texture and full-on flavour. Not for the faint hearted though this one. I can't recall a better example of this dish anywhere.
Next, Squid. Chipirones de anzuelo del dia. In squid ink in this case, another beauty, perfectly balanced.
The fatty, rich  beef chop Chuleta de Vaca again is equal to the one at Etxebarri. Great chips too, I could have eaten more. 
I've seen cooking described as accurate elsewhere and you couldn't describe Ibai more perfectly. Everything in it's own genre here is about as simple and as perfect as it can possibly be, using without doubt the freshest, finest produce in this part of the world or in any world for that matter. We all loved it here, it really was a mighty fine lunch. Although it's the antithesis of 'fancy fine dining', that is indeed it's charm and part of the whole experience. My only reservation is that it's somewhere I could imagine being a little bit of a bargain but it isn't at all. Locals I hear describe it as overly expensive and in anyone's book, it is. With a Michelin star restaurant you can see where your money goes; service and staff. That isn't the case here.
The question is would I return? Even though we all enjoyed it, I wouldn't, as we've experienced it now. There are too many quality choices here in  San Sebastián for a lot less money too. You pay your money you take your choice but as a one off experience and with 'producto' of this quality, Ibai is hard to beat.
Payment by cash only.