Monday 23 May 2016

Quique Dacosta at Iberica, Manchester.

As an observer, the manic energy of a kitchen performing at full strength is insane. Even though I'm pretty tall (and wide), I might as well be invisible as long as I don't get in anyone's way that is. Such is the intensity of concentration which I try to capture in the images of the chefs in the Ibérica kitchen below. After months of planning, the Nacho Manzano and Quique Dacosta collaboration here in Manchester is finally upon us.
Both of these heavyweight chefs (with seven Michelin stars between them) are working on the stoves too along with Ibérica head chef César García.

As you might imagine, Ibérica really pulled out the stops in the kitchen, some chefs are over from Quique Dacosta's eponymous three Michelin star restaurant in Denia. (See our upcoming review soon). Quite how they send all the food out at once amazes me. But of course they do, these are the best in the business.
When it was just a vague idea I had, it didn't seem real, just something that would happen sometime in the future, now it's real all right. There are so many people here, customers and staff. The room is buzzing.
I return to our table as the food starts coming out. We begin with Crushed Tomatoes (from Quique Dacosta). So beautifully simple, a very fine thin delicate tomato cracker, I have no idea how they make these.
Next up Sea urchin, served with cream, aromatic spices and yoghurt (from Casa Marcial, Nacho Manzano). These are cooked rather than served raw, how they'd usually be prepared. Perhaps they weren't sure how people would take to these. We love them, in fact this one is one of our favourites of the night. It's served at the same time as the Lemon Fish (from Vuelve Carolina, Quique Dacosta) served in actual lemons prepared by Quique himself.

We continue with Soft Shell Crab (from Casa Marcial, Nacho Manzano) and Hake Salad with hollandaise sauce and dried eggs (from Gloria, Nacho Manzano).
We all adore both of these dishes from Nacho. The latter, Nacho's take on a 'humble' plate of food that many Spaniards eat for lunch. What I love about this dish and much of Spanish cuisine at every level, is that it's not in the least big pretentious, it's just simply good, very good. Dishes that were high end a year or two back are often converted into tapas dishes, as chefs like Quique, Nacho, Albert Adrià, Paco Roncero and Ricard Camarena serve them in their more humble bistros. This combination of innovation in a casual tapas setting is what Nacho & Friends is all about and is why I feel Spain is one of the best countries in the world in which to eat well.
Red berries Gazpacho with prawns (from Mercatbar, Quique Dacosta). This wonderful fresh dish is now available on the normal Ibérica menu (from the 23rd May). I'd visit just for this at lunchtime.
Ashes rice (from El Poblet, Quique Dacosta). When asked which our favourites of the night are, we pretty much list the whole menu, but this rice course (inspired by burning rice fields I think) is up there, utterly luxurious and divine in chewy texture and intense flavour.
Roasted Apple with rosemary cream and cloud of cider (from La Salgar, Nacho Manzano). It was too dark at this point to take any decent photos and my brain was much too cloudy from the generous levels of alcohol taken.
We sampled some lovely wines from Bodegas Mustiguillo in Valencia.
(Photo above shot by my friend Karen). 
White MESTIZAJE BLANCO 2015, Merseguera, Viognier & Malvasia.
Red FINCA CALVESTRA 2014, Merseguera 100%
Red FINCA TERRERAZO 2012, Bobal 100%

Also some cider and sherry - incredible value for £60 including wines. 
Not only is the food some of the very finest we've ever seen in Manchester but the service is superb (some front of house are from Quique Dacosta's restaurant including the restaurant manager Didier). So we were looking at Michelin star tapas and service too.
The event was indeed a huge success which means there will be more to come and that Manchester really is ready for this style of food now.

More photos in high res here.

Monday 16 May 2016

The Marram Grass Café, Anglesey, Wales.

We've been to The Marram Grass Café before, a couple of times, way back in 2012 before I started this website. We had mussels I seem to remember. We liked it so much that we returned the following day for fish and chips. It's clearly come on since then with a recent brilliant review from Marina O'Loughlin . So we had to return.
It pays to book ahead, even on Friday lunchtime the place was completely full. It still has it's shabby chic charm but they've naturally updated it since our last visit.
We begin with some wonderful Baked Dwyran Oysters. Home-reared pork pancetta, cream oyster sauce and Hafod cheddar gratin. (£7.50).
If we have to choose a favourite dish, this would be it, the creamy sauce, melted cheese & local oysters make for a perfect combination. Also the Menai Mussels White wine, shallots & leek with Sourdough (£8.75). We love the hot liquid broth and dip their lovely, spongy home made bread in, savouring all the precious juices.
For mains we go for the Beef Shin (Osso Bucco, £17.50) which turns out to be the wrong choice for us. Although well presented, the meat is fairly dry and needs gravy to save it, only a tiny puddle of 'jus' isn't enough. I regret not ordering the fish and chips jealously looking at plates going out to other tables.
The chowder (£17.50) is better with a similar creamy soup base to the mussels, I would have liked to have seen a bit more luxury seafood in there, a couple of big prawns perhaps (especially for the price) but it's another good choice.
There's a giant bowl of properly good home made chips which look way too big to eat in one go but seem to go down quickly. Fine seasonal veg too.
The desserts are both small and perfectly formed although a little expensive. Anglesey Apple Pannacotta, Celeriac and hazelnut ice-cream, cloves & star anise (£7.50) and a lovely light Rhubarb (a pricey £8.50) finish us off nicely.
The bill comes to just short of £80 (without alcohol) which is a little more than we'd anticipated at lunchtime for good bistro food. It was more marginally expensive than lunch at the new El Gato Negro in Manchester for instance with it's huge city centre rent, million pound interior and expensive product (Carabineros prawns). In comparison, using inexpensive produce (like the osso bucco), small portions (the desserts) and what must be marginal rent in a relatively rural area, it seems a little overpriced to me for this style of food.
However, The Marram Grass Café is still a really lovely place to eat. The food is good and the staff are charming. It's justifiably popular for this reason, surely proving that there is a market for decent local food. I'd love to see this coastline dotted with similar restaurants but sadly this isn't the case. North Wales generally isn't really the easiest area to find decent places to eat at any level (believe me, we've tried). Fresh fish is perversely hard to come by too (apart from the obvious usually piss poor greasy fish and chips). Because of their scarcity, we should cherish places like The Marram Grass Café even more and hope that this encourages others to follow.
*You can combine The Marram Grass Café with one of the finest beaches in Britain as we did. Nearby Newborough or Llanfairpwllgwyngyll if you prefer, is a perfect place to walk your dog then snooze in the sun after lunch. 
* The Marram Grass Café is fully dog friendly too, even inside.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Ynyshir Hall, Wales.

What to do on a cold and grey, rainy Bank Holiday Monday? The answer is of course to visit a wonderful restaurant where it doesn't matter if the weather is bad as it inevitably is when we have a day off. I didn't tell Mrs Bacon where we were going, we just set out after I secured a last minute lunch booking that morning. Ynyshir Hall had been on my one to try for some time but I had no idea how good it'd actually be. Two and a half hours from Manchester and driving through torrential rain, we finally arrive and things brighten up. It's a 'country house hotel', these places can sometimes be stuffy and the food very 'safe' but not so here.
We're shown to the kitchen table which is a semi private open bright space. The whole experience for the next four hours or so is one of the most memorable all year. Head chef Gareth Ward (previously of two starred Sat Bains) is one of the friendliest down to earth chefs we've had the pleasure to meet (they're not all so modest, believe me). In fact the whole team make our time sat at the kitchen table such a fantastic experience.
Onto the food, it's exquisite, the flavours are just so powerful bold and punchy, Gareth tells us that if it doesn't knock his socks off, a dish never makes it onto his menu. We ask for a few extras to the lunch menu and agree on £55 which ends up being 16 small courses.
We begin with a dish that's always on the menu, Not French Onion Soup, a complex taste explosion of slow cooked onions, miso, tofu, sea purslane, onion oil, pickled shallots and dashi. This sets the scene for everything else we eat that afternoon. The food here is all very much of it's own unique style.
The bread is as good as anywhere (including Hedone), a crunchy charred crust and springy chewy crumb, so perfect I had to beg for another piece. I could eat the accompanying Welsh Wagyu dripping with a spoon from a vat.
Chef Gareth tells us about his passion for carefully picking local suppliers where he can. One just for the Wagyu beef, another for the lamb etc.
Sweet & Sour Mackerel. Plating is considered but not obsessive, here it's so much about those all important  flavours.
Turnip, Crab.
Wild Garlic Prawn. It has that intense deep sea flavour you find in a good prawn head but in the sauce mixed (I think) so effectively with verdant green wild garlic. Gareth told us of his plans to use the wonderful seasonal wild garlic in quite a few of the dishes at the beginning. We love it we assured him, it links many of these spring dishes together.
Asparagus - Wild Garlic Salt Pollock. A cracker of a dish, beautiful.
Fruit and Nut Duck Liver. It's foie-gras I tell Mrs B, trying to make it last as long as possible. One of my dishes of the year, I can't recall the exact complex processes chef told us he uses, (with tofu I think) I just know it was mind blowing-ly good! 
River Bacon - Garlic Pork Belly. Again as good as any pork belly we've ever had. To paraphrase Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel, these flavours are all turned up to 11. There is something a biting acidity which can occasionally be at the very top end of my own palate. 
Caesar. The flavours of a caesar salad in concentrated form.
Shiitake Salt Wagyu Rib. My word, this aged Welsh Wagyu is incredible stuff, we get four different small plates utilising it, one of the many highlights of the afternoon. The little burger is insanely good, pure concentrated meat flavours times about a thousand.

The Wagyu 'fudge' at the end is a genius touch. I would happily part with good money for a box of these.

All the desserts too are extremely accomplished. 
Shiso - Lime 64% Manjari, Tiramisu & Marjoram Rhubarb Pudding.

Nettle. (A little theatrical smoke giving the scent of nettles across the table).

It really was an incredible afternoon at Ynyshir Hall. The kitchen table is a unique experience, we were able to relax and lick the plates where necessary, in our case this was pretty much every dish. This was without feeling we had to be on our best behaviour in front of other diners. Also to be able to talk restaurants and food with Gareth and the whole team was truly inspiring. Not only must Ynyshir Hall be the finest food in Wales, I think even if it were in London, it would be considered one of the capital's best.
Above the nearby beach at Borth.
* We paid £55 each for an extended lunch menu.