Saturday, 3 December 2011

Bao down

Meat bao: £1.50, other fillings are less.

Newport Court,

Baozi look unappetisingly like a member of the frontbench caught with a rentboy - pale, puffy, doughy, sweaty, clammy to the touch. Of course, the resemblance is purely aesthetic, we all know that Tories taste of the babies they had for dinner last night (single mums, if they're on a diet), while baozi leak porky soup all over your hands on a cold winter's afternoon.

At the top of Newport Court in Chinatown, there are two places selling baozi. One is a shop with two impatient women behind the counter, the other is a stall (affiliated with Yang Guang Supermarket, according to their bags) with one impatient woman behind the counter. Impatience is their only similarity.  The stall's pork baozi are hefty, meaty things. A bite through the inch-thick dough reveals a large meatball, flavoured with ginger, garlic and chives. Hours of steaming in the stall's glass cases produce a thick, slightly fatty juice that collects at the bottom of the bun, imbuing the sticky dough with meat. When (not if) this juice gets on your fingers and around your mouth, the flavours seem to linger even after washing. The vegetable bun is the same, only minus the meat, and with a hefty dose of ginger that will perk you up no end. The red bean paste bun sinks sweetly into your stomach, obviating the need for a meal any time soon.

The baozi shop's pork buns are a different beast from those at the stall's. Rather than a meatball, their smaller buns contain chunks of pork sitting in a thick sauce of what tastes like soy, sugar, ginger and garlic. The sweetness seems extraneous, the meat too salty and in too-small chunks. The shop also sells skewers of various kinds that they will cook and then dip in a variety of sauces. The meat ones, especially, look like they are worth trying. Weirdly, the shop doesn't take coppers. Not the policeman, but the coins, which is why I tend to go to the stall - they'll gladly take my shrapnel.

Two baozi shops on one street (albeit in Chinatown) is, I hope, the first step towards pork buns becoming ubiquitous in London.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Phad Thai

41 Broadstone Road,
Stockport SK5 7AR

Main dishes between £4-6

Reddish - one of Stockport's many down-and-out suburbs - is an unexpected place to find a Thai restaurant, let alone a good one. Having been burned by my last visit to a Thai restaurant in an unlikely locale, I was not expecting much despite my parents' rapturous expressions when they talked about their previous visits. Not only does Phad Thai serve up classic dishes, it also branches out into those from north-eastern Thailand on its E-Sarn menu. Sadly, my hunger got the better of me and I ordered before I knew this.

The soup - a hot and coconutty Tom Kha - was packed full of buttery button mushrooms and chicken that had been cooked in the broth.  The beef Massaman curry packed a meaty punch with its thickly tingling sauce, toothsome meat, uncompromisingly large chunks of vegetables, and balanced use of heat and more subtle spices. The inclusion of potatoes that had absorbed a lot of the sauce added an extra dimension to an already excellent dish.  The Penang curry was hotter but did not obscure the underlying flavours that tasted like more than just a shake of the Five Spice bottle. My mum's pineapple curry not only contained chunks of fresh-tasting pineapple but the sauce also had a pineapple sweetness that avoided being cloying.  We ordered egg fried rice to accompany all of these dishes, which contains a tasty mix of spices and finely chopped vegetables.

After such a successful meal, I have cast asunder my preconceptions about what a Thai restaurant in Reddish might be like. While Reddishers might look as though they are auditioning for Trainspotting 2, I hope that such an unprepossessing area can continue to support this a gem of a restaurant that would be able to charge double the price if located in snooty south Manchester.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

London - Yum Cha

Yum Cha on Urbanspoon
As a student, it doesn't get better than the promise of half-price dim sum.  Yum Cha in Camden offers just that until 7pm, meaning that semi-adventurous lunches and early dinners can be had for little money.  Their dim sum menu is fairly extensive, covering the usual dumpling fare to more intriguing cold dishes such as Jellyfish and Sliced Smoked Pig's Knuckle.  They have a few nods to other parts of East and South East Asia, but the main focus is on mainland China and Hongkong.

When I went with my friend Sarah, we were both hankering after as many dumplings as we could fit in our hungry mouths (and neither of us like jellyfish).  The dim sum dinner menu is packed with different types of dumplings, and we tasted almost all of them, from the gelatinous Crystal Scallop and Prawn Dumpling to the hot and soupy Minced Pork Shanghai Siew Long Bao (normally known as xiao long bao or "xlb") to the steamed and meaty Pork and Prawn Shumai, as well as a good number of others.  With four dumplings per serving with each dish priced around the £3.80 mark, the 50% discount really makes a difference, giving penniless students the ability to eat their way around China's favourite snack foods.

Properly meaty, full of ginger and garlic flavours, their skins just the right thickness and texture to firmly hold their ingredients, the dumplings were a joy to keep popping into my mouth.  My favourite were the Siew Long Bao as there's something deliciously raffish about sucking the hot and juicy soup out of the skins.  The Panfried Shanghai Pork Dumpling were also excellent, the bottoms slightly thicker and a little charred from being fried, giving them a sticky texture that contrasted nicely with the filling.

There were two let-downs. The Honey Roast Pork Buns could have been so much better had their fillings not been so cloyingly sweet and if the puffy white shells had been freshly prepared - biting into these buns should be akin to biting into a pillow made of savoury marshmallow not like fluffy sawdust. Similarly, the ingredients of the Chinese Prawn and Chive Dumpling tasted stale.

For cheap Chinese that tastes like Chinese food in an area trying so hard to be pretentious that having a sleeve tattoo is mandatory, Yum Cha is the place to visit.  To maximise your potential for eating your way around China, it is best to go when their very generous deal is on.

Friday, 28 October 2011

London - Yasar Halim

Green Lanes is becoming my go-to destination when I don't have anything in the fridge for lunch.  Partly because of its proximity to my front door and partly because of its plethora of good restaurants, cafes and grocers mean that I always have a choice.

Yasar Halim - a double-fronted, Turkish Cypriot grocers and bakery - is my current stop-off when I'm jonesing for something either stickily sweet or salty-savoury.  The bakery offers eight tulumba (crispy, oval gulab jamuns) for a quid, a price that I can't imagine being bettered.  The warm and gooey baklava leak sugar all over your fingers and face.  Similarly good value are the boreks (rectangles of puff pastry filled with feta, spinach or lamb), either the small for 55p or the large for £1.20.  The boreks' fillings, and I have tried all of them, are consistently good - the feta is partially melted and contains strands of herbs, the spinach seems almost healthy with hints of citrus, and the lamb is nicely spiced.  My favourite baked good, however, is a bun that contains layers of cooked black olives and slices of spring onions.  The bread is dense and yeasty, the olives salty, and the onions caramalised, making this one very reasonably priced bun a perfect meal.

Next door in the grocery side of the shop is every conceivable type of fruit and vegetable, along with a wide range of Turkish and Greek products, a thousand or so types of yoghurt, and a very cheap meat selection.  I regularly pop in to grab whatever's seasonal in Cyprus - figs (five for £1!) and giant pomegranates last month, juicy oranges at the moment.

Even without the rest of Green Lanes, including the Antepliler mini-empire, the local Turkish community would be well-served with just Yasar Halim.  I know that I need to break my habit and go elsewhere, but it's just so convenient and always delicious.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

London - Petek

Petek on Urbanspoon

Mains: £10-16

94-96 Stroud Green Road,
Finsbury Park
London N4 3EN

The Finsbury Park/Green Lanes area is stuffed to the gills with Turkish and Kurdish restaurants, cafes and groceries.  I am making it my personal mission to experience all of them.  I have been to Petek's, a two-room, be-lanterned, mid-scale Turkish joint on Stroud Green Rd twice now, and both times the food has been top-class.

Petek's owners clearly love meat in all its forms, as long as it's grilled.  You can choose one of their fish or vegetarian options if you want, and the vegetarian moussaka is delicious, but the succulence and flavour of their lamb and chicken dishes should be ordered by everyone apart from the most vegetarian of vegetarians.  Most dishes are served with a mound of spiced and fluffy rice, green salad, and a thick and sour yoghurt that is perfect for slathering onto the juicy meat.  Due to a mix-up with their wine delivery, their house red is currently much better than you would expect for the price, which I can attest to after drinking a lot of it.

Before you order, citrus-y olives, a fresh salsa of pureed tomatoes and chillies, and generous slabs of pillowy bread are brought to the table gratis.  The trick is to avoid filling yourself with the moreish bread, as hard as that is.  Scoffing down various combinations of bread, olives and salsa really slows down the ordering process - just as you settle on what you want to eat, you feel the urge to tear off yet another hunk and you forget everything but the salsa's sparky tang.

Although more expensive than the school-table kebabis lining Green Lanes or Blackstock Road, Petek's portions are plentiful and they compose high-standard ingredients into dishes that will satisfy both your tastebuds and your stomach.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Moving down to London town

...well, actually, I've already moved down. I'm here doing an MA for a year, so am on a serious budget (under £50 a week). Luckily, I'm game for trying to eat my way around the world without leaving the capital's confines or busting my budget. I'll happily walk everywhere I can in order to put less money on my Oyster and thus have enough for another bowl of pho, or a gozleme (Turkish pancake), or a Trinidadian roti wrap, or a pork baozi (puffy dumpling), or an artisanal ice cream, or some baklava from a specialist baklava bakery, or....well, the list is endless.  So while I might be irregular in my updates, know that I'm still out there finding you (and me) the cheapest, tastiest food I possibly can.

Monday, 12 September 2011

London - The Lido Cafe

The Lido Cafe on Urbanspoon

Lunch dishes: £4-9

Brockwell Lido
Dulwich Rd
Herne Hill
London SE24 0PA

There is little better than open-air swimming on one of the few sunny days of the summer (well, September, but we have to take what we get).  In fact, I love Brockwell Lido in south-east London so much that I went twice in a weekend, and both times ate at the Lido Cafe, which serves up decent-sized portions of interesting food to hungry swimmers and locals.

Sitting on the canopied terrace, the service is frustratingly slow, but it is a very pleasant way to pass an afternoon. Or a morning. Or an evening. The cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, although the kitchen tends to get overwhelmed towards the end of each service and shut down early.

The best value for money is probably in the salads - decent-sized plates piled almost-high with various combinations of veg and starch that you can mix and match should you so want.  The burgers - hefty, meaty blocks, are served with chips that practically crackle at you, so crispy are they.  The ratatouille tart has all the right vegetables in all the right places, although my friends and I couldn't place the filling - egg, cream, cheese, or some combination thereof? Its drink selection is comprehensive and fun, they have got you sorted from milkshakes to small-production beers.

Overall, the Lido Cafe should be a destination if you are near Brockwell Park and are too hungry to take the bus to Brixton.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011


Lunch: 2 courses for £17.50, 3 courses for £21.50
Aumbry on Urbanspoon

This blog usually concerns itself with the cheapest of cheap (and usually ethnic) food.  Aumbry, a pocket-sized restaurant in Prestwich, is neither cheap nor ethnic, but I had such an incredible lunch there that I want to review it just so I can relive the experience.

The restaurant is a little like someone's dining room - dresser in the corner, plain wooden chairs, unfussy table settings.  You can watch what's going on in the tiny and busy kitchen.  The staff take turns in serving you and will come over for a chat about the food if they aren't busy.

Like the restaurant, the menu is small.  Two choices for the starter, two for the mains, one for dessert.  They are, however, very accommodating - my coeliac mum was offered the choice to switch out a dish for one of the dinner options, and my ever-hungry brother was given extra potatoes at no extra cost.  And the bread - homemade, springy, and either a sourdough-like brown bread or a rye-ish white, with Jersey salted butter or browned butter to spread. My mum, the coeliac, was offered homemade gluten-free bread that tasted of actual bread and wasn't toasted (if you're a coeliac, you'll know how unusual both of these things are).

Before the starters, amuse bouches are served.  Both are topped with a thin slice of vinegary pickled cucumber, with goats cheese for the vegetarians/coeliacs and chunky liver pate for everyone else.  Whether veggie or no, both are served with a bubble of honey and jasmine that bursts as you eat it, flooding your mouth with a fragrant-tasting palate cleanser.

Once your palate is cleansed, the starters appear - mushroom soup with chives and extra virgin rapeseed oil, or fancy scotch eggs (two soft-boiled quail eggs wrapped in Bury black pudding and deep fried served with tomato ketchup, mushroom relish, on red pepper and mushroom).  The soup tastes of mushrooms, and I'm not sure there are any other ingredients aside from stock.  The scotch eggs are phenomenal, the outside crisp yet yielding, the yolk dribbling out and soaking into the black pudding, the ketchup tangy, the relish earthy.  It was a rhapsody in northern childhood.

The mains - either mackerel served with pickled potatoes or duck served with potatoes and baby leeks - are done to perfection.  The mackerel was nice and oily, its texture contrasting with that of the pickled potatoes (a hint of bite and vinegar), although there is no sauce.  The duck, pinky-red and with the fat left on, tastes like steak and has a tomatoey confit sauce pooled around it.  The portions are sizeable and the vegetables that accompany each dish are well-thought through and aesthetically arranged.

And finally, if you haven't burst like an amuse bouche, on to dessert.  The sole sweet option (we didn't try the cheese plate) is a grapefruit posset with celery granita.  The posset - the juice of grapefruit combined with cream and sugar - was just tart enough and had the texture of the creme part of creme brulee.  The granita brought out the sweetness in the celery and was an exciting green colour, contrasting with the honeyish posset.  Both flavours were matched with a grapefruit sherbet that puckered your cheeks as it went down.

For £17.50 for two courses (£21.50 for three) before tip and drinks (although tap water is available), Aumbry offers high-end dining for a reasonable price.  With food that uses local ingredients in interesting ways, and appears to be influenced but not dictated by the molecular gastronomy trend, the Michelin people are surely already on their way up Bury New Road.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Lana Thai

219 Burnage Lane,
Manchester M19 1FN

Mains from £7-9

Lana Thai on Urbanspoon

A Thai restaurant in Burnage is not the most promising of propositions.  I was hoping it might subvert expectations, perhaps cater to Burnage's previously unknown Thai population, cook up authentic and exciting food in a grim south Manchester suburb.  My hopes were wildly off the mark (of course), but Lana Thai isn't too bad, although it does tend towards the unimaginative and is pettily priced, charging £2 per meagre serving of plain white rice and (and this is the most egregious error) serving up instant noodles.

What?! I hear you scoff. Instant noodles!? In a restaurant!? A restaurant that charges you £2 for the privilege of eating some re-hydrated ramen!? A Thai restaurant!? Thai food being famous for its use of rice noodles!?

The answer to all of those exclamatory questions is unfortunately an emphatic YES.  After this revelation, the meal could have been the best example of Thai food this side of Chiang Mai and I would still be seething over Lana Thai's temerity.

The rest of the meal, while not the best example of Thai food this side of Chiang Mai, was better than the use of insta-noodles would suggest.  All of the dishes were punched-up with stalks of lemongrass, plenty of spices, and layers of flavours.  I ordered a beef red curry with coconut milk and peanut sauce, and I could taste each of these components.  However, my dish lacked any ingredients outside of its purview, with no extra vegetables slipped in.  My mum's green curry was lemongrassy and contained a lot of Five-Spice, while my dad's dish trod a different path having a clearer and more liquid-y sauce that, although sweetly spicy, was not as interesting as the curry dishes.  The amount of sauce that came with each dish necessitated at least one order of rice per person, automatically bumping any pretence at reasonable pricing (almost all dishes are between £6.75 and £8) onto the pricier side.

Other irritants included charging £1.80 per small bottle of water with no option of tap water (I know this makes me seem stingy, but when you're eating spicy food it's nice to have a steady supply of free water on hand), the menus being irregularly priced (some menus had lower prices than others) the waitress being unable to speak English (making it tricky to ask about dishes), and slow service.  On the tap water issue, it seems to me that East Asian and South-East Asian restaurants almost always charge for water while South Asian restaurants do not.  I don't know why this is, but considering the amounts of MSG put in Chinese food (and in Lana Thai's dishes if my unquenchable thirst later that evening was anything to go by), a large portion of the bill can end up being spent on bottled water.

Eating at Lana Thai feels like booking an Easyjet flight for a tenner, only to be forced to add another couple of quid with every subsequent click, resulting in a flight for forty quid by the end.

Sunday, 31 July 2011


13 Shaw Rd,
Heaton Moor,
Stockport SK4 4AG

Chorizo sandwich: £6.55 (all prices are for eating-in)
Soup and buttered bread: £4.25
Slice of chicken pie: £6.95

I try so hard to love Heaton Moor's lunch scene.  On the one hand, it's burgeoning, it's occasionally imaginative, and it's found in a number of terribly nice delis.  On the other, it's expensive.

Pokusevski's epitomises this dilemma.  After a recent refit, its Scandinavian-esque interior and white-walled back yard provide a soothingly cool place to eat your over-priced sandwiches.  The menu board above the deli counter is misleading - its (incredibly reasonable) prices are for take-away only, it is only once you're seated that the lunch menu is brought to you, and you realise that this is yet another "seven quid for a panini and bits of green" place.  Once you read beyond the multiple takes on the [insert name of fancy organic European meat product] + [insert name of slightly unusual cheese or vegetable] hot/cold/panini sandwiches, the menu is creative and more unusual than that of Kro or the Orangery.  Slices of homemade pies and quiches, both containing plenty of honest ingredients but priced around the £6-7 mark, along with good breads and interesting soup combinations, mean that it would take a while to get bored of what they have to offer.

I had the butternut squash soup with buttered bread, and the soup was delicious. Sweet, slightly nutty, and creamy, each mouthful was a delicious, sunset-coloured slurp. The bread tasted like rye but appeared to be wholewheat, and was cut into thick slices.  My brother's grilled chorizo sandwich came on ciabatta but with only a smear of chilli mayonnaise, although with an unadvertised helping of tangy and crisp coleslaw.  You can't really go wrong with chorizo, but the sandwich could have done with an added ingredient to justify its £6.55 price tag.  My dad's slice of chicken pie contained large chunks of chicken and plenty of softened leeks, as well as coleslaw on the side.  The pie was bland as neither the chicken nor the leeks had much flavour, and could do with a couple of other ingredients to give it some oomph.

Although Heaton Moor might be middle-class paradise, it would be nice to be able to eat lunch for under £8, after the tip and a drink have been taken into account.  As the credit crunch begins to hit even the solicitors, consultants and yummy mummies, Heaton Moor's cafes and bars are going to have to readjust their prices in order to survive.  Maybe they could start now.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Food Trend Wishlist

Food trends that I’d like to see in Manchester.

1)       Pork buns
2)       Dumpling shops
3)       Chipotle peppers
4)       Food trucks

Manchester tends to cotton on pretty quickly to national and global food trends: we have cupcakes and handmade noodles, and Vietnamese and South Indian are starting to figure on people’s Friday-night-dinner maps.  But some things are still missing.

New York’s continuing and growing obsession with pork buns (pillowy white buns filled with succulent roasted char siu pork) does not yet seem to have crossed the Atlantic.  Seeing as they are portable, delicious and cheap, they should be well on their way to becoming a national obsession here.  Manchester’s Chinatown is the second largest in the UK, and has been undergoing a bit of a culinary renaissance recently, moving away from the kungpao/black bean/General Tso’s chicken menus that previously predominated.  Now, with Hunanese, Szechuan and Korean cuisines becoming commonplace, the next step will hopefully be East Asian snack foods, including pork buns.  Both Chinese bakeries – Ho’s and Wong Wong - sell pork buns, but these are poor imitations of those available in New York (and China), with stodgier buns, fattier pork and unappetising fillings (only in Wong Wong, where pork buns come with either pineapple or scorching-hot honey).  Either the current providers need to reinvigorate their products, or new pork bun stockists need to come on the scene.

Similar to my obsession with pork buns is my one with dumplings.  Thin-skinned, soupy, pork or seafood, I love them almost equally.  It should be possible to get a take-away serving of six or so freshly made dumplings for a reasonable price.  Unfortunately, this is not currently the case.  Perhaps the East Asian snack food bar dreamed of above could provide these along with tasty pork buns.

Chipotle peppers are smoky and spicy, imbuing whatever they’re cooked with a unique Mexican aroma and flavour.  They tend to come either dried or in sauce in a can, and can be used with everything from eggs, to sauces, to vegetable dishes to meats.  Their smokiness adds an extra dimension to whatever they’re used in, and becomes slightly addictive after a while.  Chipotle hummous and mayonnaise may sound like unorthodox combinations, but hit all the right tangy-spicy-smoky notes.  As a nation that prizes spicy things and sandwiches, we really can’t afford to miss out on the chipotle fever that has swept the United States over the past couple of years.

Last, but possibly most important, is the issue of food trucks.  Currently taking London by storm, they’re an excellent idea.  Manchester has a relatively compact city centre with a lunch scene that manages to be both pricey and moribund.  Vans selling fresh-cooked falafel, curries, wraps, noodles and sandwiches would provide good quality and cheap lunch and snack foods to a working and shopping population that tends to have little time to spend on lunch but requires enough top-notch fuel to get them through hectic afternoons and evenings.  Being able to spend under a fiver on lunch would be beneficial to the legions of low-paid office workers inhabiting Manchester’s glass and concrete blocks, and the take-away aspect would satisfy the most time-conscious of bosses and workers alike.  For people looking to test their culinary skills in the open market before starting a restaurant, café or catering company, food trucks provide venues that can be based in the city centre but don’t have the sky-high rents attached.  Everybody wins, as long as the health-and-safety brigade ensure the trucks remain proper standards of hygiene.     

Wednesday, 29 June 2011


Claremont Rd, at Claremont Primary School
Moss Side,

Keye Watt: £4

Firstly, my thanks to TomG, who commented on my Dubay Caffe post with a recommendation for an Ethiopian place near Claremont Primary School.  I was in Rushholme buying cheap spices, so I schlepped up Claremont Road to find it.

The place that I presume he was talking about is a small Ethiopian and Somali restaurant.  The owner is lovely and kept coming over to chat and give me extra injera (a sour pancake-like bread).  On the walls are various posters and leaflets pertaining to Manchester's Somali and Ethiopian communities - a poster of Manchester City's Somalia-born Abdisalam Ibrahim figures prominently.

The food itself is cheap and plentiful.  I chose the keye watt - a dish of diced beef and onions in a spicy sauce with shredded lettuce and a dish of sauteed carrots and cabbage as accoutrements.  All dishes are served on a big disc of injera, which both soaks up the sauces and is used to transfer the food from the plate to your mouth.  No cutlery here (well, there might be, but I couldn't see any).

All of the elements of the meal were spot-on.  The keye watt's beef and onion pieces were tender and tasted like they had stewed in the sauce for just the right amount of time.  The spicing lent heat but did not overwhelm, and the double-whammy of sauce (first on the beef, then soaked into the injera) suited me fine due to how delicious it was.  The vegetables were sauteed in a light, yellow and mildly sweet sauce and retained their crunch and flavours.  The dressing on the lettuce was citrus-y and provided a nice contrast to the bolder flavours of the keye watt.  The injera appeared fresh - hot with crispy edges, but soft and spongy throughout.

I have no idea what Ethiopian cuisine was like prior to Italian colonisation, but I definitely detected Italian influences in my food.  Apart from there being small jars of olive oil on every table, the lettuce came with a dressing of olive oil and herbs, and the keye watt sauce tasted of a tomato base, not unlike a much spicier and thinner pasta sauce.

For £4, I was able to eat enough to last me for two meals (I didn't need dinner).  The quality of the food and the attentive attitude of the owner means that this place deserves more custom than it currently gets.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Dosa Xpress

19 Copson St.
Manchester M20 3HE

Dosa Meal Deal (masala dosa, idli, medhu vada): £4.99
Salt lassi: £1.49
10% student discount available.
DosaXpress on Urbanspoon

Dosa Xpress is, by my count, Manchester's fourth specifically South Indian restaurant (the other three being Sindhoor in Burnage, Lily's Vegetarian in Ashton-under-Lyne and Lotus in Northenden).  I'm crossing my fingers that is the the beginning of a food trend.

Dosa Xpress has a sister restaurant in Derby, which, if its Withington location is anything to go by, is well worth the visit.  My friend Al and I both went for the very reasonably priced Dosa Meal Deal, which included a masala dosa (thin pancake containing spicy mashed potatoes), idli (a steamed thick rice cake), medhu vada (a ring of fried lentil dough and spices with a doughnut-like consistency) and five chutneys.  Both of us have student cards, and so all of that cost a very reasonable £4.50, and gave us the energy to power our four-mile walk into Manchester.

The chutneys were a real highlight.  Dosas usually come with three - sweetish coconut, green (probably coriander) and red (probably tomato-based), with varying degrees of spiciness.  A curry-like sambar (thin lentil stew) is also included .  Dosa Xpress' stand-out chutney was moreish red and vinegary with a good kick of heat.  Using the idli, the medhu vada and the huge expanse of dosa pancake, Al and I made short work of the chutneys and sambar, leaving nary a hint that they had ever existed.

The dosa pancake was good - thin, light and crispy on the outside but soft on the inside where it counts (you need the spongy side to soak up the sambar).  The filling needed a hint more flavour, but the potatoes were a good consistency (unlike at Chennai Dosa in London) and tasted of the spices that had been used.

Throughout, we'd been supping on salt lassis (nice and tart), and were tempted by the wide range of items available on the menu.  The Dosa Xpress menu is heavy on the dosas (no surprise there), and doesn't really veer off into North Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi food, which is a good thing.  Before our food arrived, we could hear it being cooked (very noisily) in the kitchen, attesting to its freshness. Well-situated for lunch and dinner crowds, and priced to appeal even during the recession, it's a good restaurant offering solid, freshly made and flavoursome food in an area that is a bit of a culinary deadzone (until you hit Burton Rd).  

Monday, 13 June 2011


360 Barlow Moor Road,
Manchester M21 8AZ

Bento Box Meals: £8.95-9.95

Yakisoba is emblematic of Chorlton.  A fusion of good ideas, some of which work and some of which don't, priced slightly higher than it should be.

At Yakisoba, bento boxes (fancy compartmentalised lunch boxes) rule.  The idea is that you get a bento box of salad, some sweetly salty cashews, miso soup (if you aren't having a soup-based main dish) or a vegetable croquette (if you are), slices of melon and orange, and deluxe prawn crackers.  Along with the bento, you order a main dish - the menu is extensive and covers noodle soups, dry noodle dishes, stir-fries, rice dishes, vegetarian; you name it, they've probably got it. The bento not only provides you with something to nibble while you wait (not long at all) for your food, but also provides respite in the midst of the over-large main dish portions.  The vegetable croquette is crunchy and faintly oriental, the nuts are moreish, the prawn crackers really prawn-y.

I ordered the Cha Sui and Roasted Duck Noodle Soup and my friend Claire ordered the Vermicelli Singapore Style.  A massive bowl (I could have used it as a helmet) overfilled with thin ramen noodles, vegetables, and two long stacks of duck pieces covered in an almost-spicy sauce and sweet and smoky char sui pork slices.  The broth tasted of stock and there was a slight film of oily grease on it, possibly from the meat. The meats were good, although after eating my way through the stacks I had little room left for the noodles, broth and greens.  The veggies, which included crisp slices of taro, crunchy green beans and pak choi were clearly fresh and tasted as though they had been cooked in the soup broth; definitely a good thing.  By the time I had gotten down to the noodles, they were soft and disintegrated readily, which was unfortunate considering the super-sized stack of them sitting in the soup.

The Vermicelli Singapore Style was also enormous, and Claire took home half of it.  The bowl of noodles was stir-fried, yellow, and chock-full of coriander, vegetables and prawns with well-aimed spicing that provided a good tingle but allowed room for the other flavours.

Yakisoba should give the option of cutting the portions and prices in half and offer its customers a "small" option.  I hate wasting food, and yet, barely halfway through my meal, I couldn't eat any more noodle soup.  In the recession with prices rising across the board, people don't want to pay for food they can't eat, and few tables were occupied on a Saturday lunchtime.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Orangery

Sandwiches: £6-9

It's been a bit London-centric, recently, probably because I've been spending a lot of time down south.  Well, I'm back now, and forging onwards and outwards (in terms of my waistline) with the food available in Manchester.

First stop, The Orangery in Heaton Moor.

As previously mentioned, Heaton Moor's lunch scene is booming.  The Orangery is one of the stalwarts, having been feeding Heaton Moorians for almost a decade.  With the sun (in theory) streaming in through the stained glass roof, it is a pleasant place to sip coffee or cocktails.

The sandwiches, while bordering on the expensive (especially when considering the prices a few shops along at Back's), are large and served on fresh ciabatta rolls or slices of bread.  My sandwich, the harissa chicken with coriander mayo, had a nice kick of chilli in the harissa although the coriander was barely detectable.  My cousin's spinach and goats cheese sandwich came with two sizable roulettes of goats cheese, while my aunt's club sandwich was three towering layers that she found difficult to tackle even with a knife and fork.  All of the ingredients taste fresh and, while the selection is not unusual, the combinations are well-thought-out.  Similarly large portions of apple pie and a very chocolatey chocolate cake followed, both of which are served with an espresso cup filled with cream.

The Orangery sits in the middle of the area's price scale, not as expensive as Damson or Town but more expensive than Back's or Kro.

London - Master's Superfish

191 Waterloo Road,
London,SE1 8UX
Masters Super Fish on Urbanspoon

I wanted an American friend (we'll call him Jacob because that's his name) to experience the most English of English things while he was visiting England. We went to the British Museum (mostly full of non-English things pillaged by English men), to an old pub where we drank cider, we walked around the City's confusing labyrinth of streets (no grid system here, hah!).  And, of course, we also went for fish and chips.

I had done some research beforehand (thanks, unemployment) and it was a toss-up between new venture Poppies or old venture Master's Superfish.  We were closer to Waterloo, so Master's it was, and it turned out to be an excellent choice.

Unprepossessing, Master's Superfish has a definite air of granny about it, from the black and white photos of long-faded stars on the walls to the lack of pretension in presentation.  Upon ordering, free baguette and three bright pink prawns are brought to your table, and there's always a wandering waiter laden with gherkins and pickled onions should you be so inclined.  The food appears in no-nonsense portions, too.  You get a forearm's-worth of battered cod sitting atop a hill of fat, non-greasy, skins-still-on-in-places chips for £7.25.  While I wouldn't pay that sort of money back home, I would pay if for a hearty meal of fresh food in London.

The cod is perfect - white, firm, still moist, breaking easily with each prod of your fork, it comes away in nice chunks encased in a light yet sturdy batter.  Getting the fish right is the hard part, and I would say that this fish is on par with that of my local chippy.  The chips are spot-on, too, although there are no crispy bits hiding amongst the great big fat ones.

Master's Superfish is worth a visit even when you aren't toting an American tourist.  Good fish and chips are hard to find and places like this should be treasured as cultural artefacts.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

London - Mooli's

50 Frith St

London W1 DSQ

Mooli's on Urbanspoon

Mooli's, a roti-wrap take-out in the heart of Soho, markets itself as hip and fresh, serving "zingy and delicious" food to central London's huddled masses.  For around a fiver for a wrap, they do well to provide you with unusual ingredients and combinations, although the flavouring lacks punch.  The paneer wrap was a lot of salad and not much paneer, although the sauce covering the paneer worked well with both components.  The roti was nothing special, although perfectly passable, and retained its stretch despite contending with a not-inconsiderable amount of sauce.  Considering the lip-smacking heard from the man next to me, the goat roti is the way forward.

For interesting and well-priced food in central London, Mooli's does a good job.  It could do with knocking about 50p off its prices in order to maintain its cheap-and-cheerful-and-quality image, but it won't break your bank, especially because it will keep you filled until your next meal.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

London - Guyanese Roti Truck

Brixton Market comes up trumps again.  While its international array of acclaimed cafes and restaurants get all the press, delicious food can be had in the streets surrounding the covered market, too. The Guyanese roti truck is green and parked up alongside a couple of other carts down Brixton Station Road. The lady inside - her regulars call her Aunty - is brusquely friendly, and makes everything she sells.

Out of the choices of curried goat, jerk chicken, chickpea curry or potato curry, I chose the potato curry roti, partially because it was £2.50 and partially because the man in front of me was ordering four of them.  He had good reason to be that keen.  The curry is heated up in the microwave (there isn't enough room for an oven in the van, although there is a stove top for making the rotis), before being wrapped up burrito-style in a fresh roti.  Chunks of potato are covered in a thick paste-sauce flavoured with your typical curry spicing (garam masala, ginger, cumin).  The roti is toothsome and, while tasting slightly of oil, is not oily or greasy.  The roti also easily holds the amount of curried potatoes, so there is no spillage as you are walking around, and the excess sauce is soaked into the bread at the bottom.  One potato roti kept me going for eight hours, a marvel for only £2.50.

When in Brixton and looking for very cheap and deliciously cheerful food, avoid the Guardian-acclaimed Kaosan or the chi-chi coffee shops in the arcade.  Head outside, along Pope's Road and Brixton Station Road, where Brixtonians get their fixes, for a better deal and no yummy-mummies and hipsters ruining your lunch.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

London - ICCo Pizza

46 Goodge St,
London W1T 4LU

Pizzas from £3.50

Italian Coffee Company (Icco) on Urbanspoon

Little needs to be said about ICCo Pizza on Goodge Street. It's a student-on-a-budget fave, with cheap and large pizzas served up at speed.  They aren't the best pizza you will ever taste, they certainly aren't Franco Manca, but £4 for an 11 inch margherita in central London is a deal that the hungry will grasp eagerly with both hands.  A little grease, an unhealthy amount of pooling cheese, and tomato-y sauce atop a dense crust, and you're full for the next eight hours or so while your digestive system curses you and your taste buds roll over in happy submission.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

London - Le Gia

41-42 Deptford Broadway, 
London SE8 4PH

Rare Beef Pho (Lunch menu): £4.50
Coconut drink: £1.80
Le Gia on Urbanspoon

Vietnamese food was the initial impetus for writing this blog.  I loved it and could not find it in Manchester (until I did).  Being in London for a week, I could hardly ignore the wealth of Vietnamese on offer, and made my way to Deptford.

On and around Deptford High Street are a fair few Vietnamese places. Le Gia, situated in a cavernous white building, was the only one open for a 3pm lunch on a Monday. Fair enough.  Inside, it looks a little like a school canteen, with high white walls and utilitarian tables.  The school vibe is smashed by the room's well-stocked bar and small shrine, however.

I got the rare beef pho and a coconut drink that was flavoured with long strips of coconut flesh.  The pho was close to perfect - chewy rice noodles, a broth silky with meaty depth and fragrant flavours (and not just the kind from the "Thai Five Spice" shaker), and delivered hot enough to partially cook the thin strips of beef but keep them tender.  The accompaniments - beansprouts, sweet and spicy basil, lemon wedge and another earthy-spicy herb I couldn't identify - were barely needed due to the on-target flavours of the broth and meat, but the basil added a sweet note that was otherwise lacking.  No additional chillies were offered, and the broth barely tingled, but any heat would have seemed superfluous due to its superb quality.

Deptford is hardly a destination for most people (although it is easily accessible) let alone a food destination.  A quick peek around the Deptford High Street area, however, brought to light a plethora of small restaurants (mostly Vietnamese, but some Indian and Caribbean) that are gaining increasing recognition on websites such as Chowhound. Should you venture to Deptford during lunchtime, a stomach-expanding bowl of unusually good pho for the bargain price of £4.50 should be on your must-have list.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Dubay Caffe

Claremont Road,
Moss Side

Rice and Chicken: £4.50

Deep in the heart of Moss Side, further up Claremont Rd than most people ever go, past the Sudan Satellite shop and the cheap mattress places, is a Somali restaurant-cum-takeaway called Dubay Caffe.  Gathered outside are collections of Somali men and boys, inside is the owner - a cheerful Manc-Somali who doles out hefty portions and happily explained everything when I told him that I had never eaten Somali food before.

Until I read this review, I had never even thought about Somali cuisine.  Somalia, best known for its vicious civil war and lack of functioning government since 1993, does not figure on most people's culinary maps.  If Dubay Caffe is representative of Somali food, however, more people should get out of the Indian-Chinese-Italian rut and try some.  Somalian is a very accessible cuisine, seemingly drawing elements from Ethiopian (injera-like bread), Indian (pilau rice, rotis and chapattis), and Italian (spaghetti and tomato sauce) cuisines, in addition to using recognisable ingredients like potatoes and carrots and including little more than a tingle of spicy heat.  Nothing too scary, here!

I ordered the rice and chicken and the owner threw in a curry for free.  Each of these dishes filled its own take-away container, which is exceedingly good value no matter the cuisine.  The chicken came with large chunks of potatoes and strips of carrot, all covered in a dry rub of spices and salt.  Although a little too salty, the chicken was moist, the potatoes perfectly cooked, and the carrots retained both their crunch and taste.  The free curry was fruity and much less salty than the chicken, containing small pieces of lamb (not too fatty) and large golden pieces of potato that had soaked up all the juices.  The rice, unusually, was the stand-out dish featuring cinnamon and cardamom spicing, gloriously sweet slivers of caramelised onion, the occasional golden raisin, and a meaty undertone that lent it depth.

With Dubay Caffe now firmly on my list of new favourite places to eat, I hope to find other Somali cafes and restaurants to experience.  After I had eaten Ghanaian for the first time, I wondered whether African food could ever become mainstream in the way that Indian has.  If Dubay Caffe is anything to go by, African food should have no trouble.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Back's Deli

Heaton Moor used to be overrun by wine bars and hairdressers. Now it's swiftly becoming overrun with delis. Between Back's and Pokusevski's at the railway end, and Blue Corn and the newly opened Easy Fish Co in Moor Top, lunchtime is now a difficult decision.

Back's sells a wide range of reasonably priced sandwiches, cakes, deli foods (stuffed peppers and vine leaves, potato salad, coleslaw etc) and snacks. To drink, you can get an orange juice pressed in front of you in a contraption that brings to mind a gadgetry tv show for kids.  Or they can blitz you up a smoothie, which at £2.10 for a good-sized (but non-recyclable plastic) container is a healthy bargain.

Rather than a sandwich, I plumped for a selection of deli foods so that I could pick and nibble throughout the afternoon.  Piquant peppers stuffed with really good cream cheese and floating in olive oil.  Some more cream cheese. Olive and sun-dried tomato tapenade made in the kitchen at the back.  Good-quality ham and chorizo. Dense and moist carrot cake with tangy cream cheese icing and a liberal sprinkling of nuts. It was an excellent selection.

The Back's staff are all friendly and there are a few chairs and tables inside for when the weather isn't as glorious as today's.  When in Heaton Moor, do as the Heaton Moorians do and grab delicious and home-made food from one of our delis.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Afghan Cuisine

86 Wilmslow Road

Manchester M14 5AL

Kobeda and naan: £3.50

Afghan Cuisine inhabits a shop in Rusholme that previously hosted three restaurants in as many years.  Luckily, Afghan Cuisine's killer combination of delicious food and reasonable prices means that it should be able to stick around for a while.  Rusholme is increasingly changing from the Curry Mile into the Kebabi Mile, with an increasing number of Middle Eastern kebab-and-flatbread places opening up with their roots in Iraq, Lebanon and the Arabian peninsula.  Afghan Cuisine offers slightly different options and has an Afghani and Central Asian clientele, judging from my fellow diners on a sunny Friday afternoon in April.

Unfortunately, I didn't have the time or the money to eat any of the more interesting sounding dishes, so I settled on a kobeda and naan, both of which were cooked fresh by the friendly man behind the counter.  The naan was the best I had eaten in a long time.  Thin in the middle, fat and puffy around the edges, plenty of air bubbles, and a stretchy and flavourful dough.  It was almost as long as my forearm, and formed the bed for a long kebab scattered with chillies.  The kebab was served with two sauces - a minty yoghurt and a chilli and coriander one that reminded me of salsa.  Both enhanced the spices in the kebab without being pugnacious.

Along the increasingly identikit Curry Mile, Afghan Cuisine provides dishes that are different from the norm.  Next time I visit, I intend to sample them, especially if they are as good as their kobeda and naan.

Monday, 4 April 2011

This & That

3 Soap Street
M4 1EW

Rice and three curries: £4.80

This and That on Urbanspoon

This & That is one of Manchester's many curry cafes, serving large portions of cheap and generally authentic Pakistani food to the city's huddled masses from wipedown-friendly hole-in-the-wall premises.  Unlike other curry cafes, though, This & That (tucked halfway down an alley at the Shudehill end of the Northern Quarter) does not serve curries packed with the kind of flavourful spicing and distinctive flavours that are these cafes' hallmark.  Instead, I was served watery and uninteresting curries that had little to distinguish one from the next, were cooked to a uniformly mushy texture and were made from ingredients that were neither fresh or fresh-ish.

The saag lamb was mostly saag, which is not a bad thing when it is cooked with plenty of spices and has not been boiled into submission, a la Yadgar.  This & That's version leached an unpleasant amount of water onto the plate (as did the other two curries), felt slimy, and tasted of little more than over-cooked spinach way past its use-by date.  The two pieces of lamb were dry and tasted more of the saag than of meat.  The two meat curries - one chicken and one lamb - looked different but tasted the same.  The chicken, spongy and clearly reconstituted, had no flavour, and the curry reminded me of the sort of yellow stodge served in institutional canteens.  The lamb in the lamb curry was marginally better than that in the saag, but while the curry was orange-brown it could barely be distinguished from the chicken one. The heat on both curries packed a punch, disguising their flavourlessness.  This & That's website (yes, a curry cafe with a website! describes their food as "unique." It is unique, because every other nearby curry cafe serves better food.

This & That, once many people's favourite, should be delivering better food.  On a Friday lunchtime just after Jumma prayers, it should be packed out with lunchers from the nearby mosques. Instead, it was me and a couple of men talking vividly about their friend who glassed someone. It could be time to call time on this Manchester institution.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Making Food

I love cooking as much as I love eating at new curry cafes, Latin American joints, or South Indian takeaways. A lot. So I decided to start a new blog about cooking so that this one wouldn't get cluttered. If you're interested in making good quality, cheap and tasty food, check out

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

London - Chennai Dosa (East Ham)

177 High Street North
East Ham
London E12 6PQ

Masala Dosa: £2.65
Channa Bhattura: £2.90

Thattukada was packed out on a sunny Saturday afternoon, so I strolled a little further up East Ham's High Street to the non-vegetarian Chennai Dosa (there is a pure-veg version on the same street). One of a small chain of South Indian restaurants scattered across the areas of London and the South-East with enough South Indians to make a business profitable, Chennai Dosa offers up cheap-n-cheerful South Indian snacks and meals.

I ordered the masala dosa (pancake containing spiced and mashed potatoes and onions), because I love masala dosas, and the channa bhattura (chickpea curry and puffy fried bread) because I had read about it on Chowhound. The dosa, comically larger than the metal tray it was flopped on, was a disappointment.  While the pancake was springy and soaked up the coconut, chickpea and chilli sauces (which were fresh and full of flavour), the potato and onion mixture was bland and too smooth.  Luckily for me, there was not very much of the mixture, so I quickly finished it and moved onto the channa bhattura.

Although the bhattura was oily, it was piping hot and clearly had just come from whatever contraption is used to make this outsized disc. The top of the bread was full of thin-skinned air bubbles with the thicker layer underneath. Like everyone else in the restaurant, I was eating with my hands, tearing off small chunks of dough to dip into the coconut-y chickpea curry, which was made with fresh chickpeas and plenty of chillies and contained all the flavours that the masala dosa had lacked.

For a quick and tasty lunch or dinner, Chennai Dosa is good value and serves up freshly made food. While the masala dosa was a disappointment, the channa bhattura ensured that my schlep out to East Ham had not been in vain.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

London - Franco Manca

Unit 4, Market Row
London SW9 8LD

Pizzas: £4.50-6.95
Organic lemonade (250ml): £1.90

Franco Manca on Urbanspoon

It was a little intimidating when my Brooklynite friend, exhausted from hunger, chose Franco Manca as our lunch-stop. New York has, arguably, the best pizzas in the world (if you like thin crusts and ignore all of Italy), whereas Britain's sole contribution has been the haggis topping found in Scotland's more nationalistic takeaways.  I should not have worried, however; Franco Manca, a high-end pizzeria in Brixton Market, is staking out Britain's pizza legacy with its sourdough bases, locally sourced ingredients, and toppings that aim higher than the Saturday-night margharita or Hawaiian.

Franco Manca is always busy, even on a Friday afternoon, and chances are that you will be doubled-up with another party on a table. The service is also a bit on the lethargic side (it took a while for us to get our bill), but the waitresses are friendly and not intrusive.

We ordered a pizza each. Mine - the mozzarella and wild broccoli with Wootton organic pecorino cheese (from Somerset) - was a white pizza strewn with wilted broccoli leaves and a generous amount of both mozzarella and pecorino.  The broccoli tasted a little of olive oil, but retained some of its natural flavour, and complemented the thick layer of milky mozzarella.  The pecorino, globbed onto the pizza, was sharp and salty, contrasting with both the mozzarella and the broccoli.  

Brooklynite's pizza - home-cured Gloucester Old Spot ham, mozzarella, buffalo ricotta and wild mushrooms - had a sauce base.  The sauce was nothing special, but tasted strongly of tomato, which is always a good sign.  Although I thought that the ham would be the most interesting ingredient, it was torn into too-small and paper-thin slivers, rendering it nearly invisible against the strong flavours of tomato and mushroom; even the mozzarella had a tendency to overpower it.  The mushrooms (possibly sautéed beforehand) were the stand-out ingredient, as their earthy flavour cut through the tomato and cheeses.

Franco Manca's signature sourdough bases are chewy, dense and sour, and are most certainly not the reheated cardboard of Domino's or the over-fluffed deep-pan of Pizza Hut.  Although the tomato sauce somewhat smothers the base's own distinct flavour, my sauce-less pizza and mild mozzarella meant that it could shine through.  Thin in the middle and just thicker on the outside, these bases are hand-made and a satisfyingly large size, although mine had a couple of burned bits that were bitter rather than sour.

To drink, I had the organic lemonade.  It had the same colour as apple squash, and tasted of lemons, apples and sugar, although I don't think there was any apple juice in it.  It was delightful, and although a little expensive I would have it again.

If you have a spare hour or two to queue up on a Saturday afternoon, or can take time off during the week for a slightly less hectic experience, Franco Manca is well worth the visit.  Its pizzas are better than anything else similarly (and even higher) priced, and its local and organic ingredients mean that you can assuage your cheese-stuffed guilt with every bite.

Monday, 14 March 2011

London - Cafe Bay

75 Denmark Hill

London SE5 8RS

Banh mi - £2.80 £3.
Cafe Bay on Urbanspoon

Cafe Bay is exactly the sort of cafe that you would expect to find between the gentrifying ends of Camberwell and Brixton: folksy exterior (ooh, look at that whimsical table in the window), plenty of exposed wood inside, and nothing so recherche as a paper menu. Of the three blackboards dominating the left-hand wall, only the one with the Vietnamese sandwiches sets apart this arty-yuppie-hipster-indie place from the other overpriced, undernourished, and (largely) underwhelming caffs elsewhere in the area (hi, there, Johansson's and your tiny open smoked salmon sandwiches for almost a fiver!).

At Cafe Bay, a fiver would get you almost two substantially sized, fresh and crunchy baguettes containing slices of marinaded meat (beef, chicken, pork, prawns or tofu) amongst equally interesting veggies that are certainly not an uninspired afterthought. I chose the beef skewer banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich), which came with cucumber, pickled carrots, daikon (East Asian radish), chillies and coriander.  All of those ingredients except the daikon were excellent, and had the daikon been put into my sandwich then I'm sure it would have been excellent, too. Although the banh mi was not traditional - as well as the missing daikon, there was also no sign of the spicy mayonnaise that banh mi always have - it merged distinct flavours and textures into one delicious sandwich.

The beef skewer was a juicy and spiced mince kebab. Surrounding it were ever-so-slightly vinegary strips of carrot, a lot of sliced red chillies, and a long stalk of coriander. Instead of mayonnaise, there was a sweet and spicy chilli jelly that blended nicely with the beef's flavours and the carrots' vinegar. Should you ever be peckish or starving on your way to Brixton, Cafe Bay provides a nice stop-off point with food that punches far above its price category.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon

230 Burton Road
West Didsbury
Manchester, M20 2LW

All cupcakes: £1.50-£2
Hot chocolate: £2.20

It seems safe to take a stand and declare that what was previously the cupcake fad is now here to stay.  The Dish Ran Away with the Spoon, a deliberately charming cafe in middle-class paradise, provides an excellent introduction to what I had long considered jumped-up versions of fairy cakes (and I've lived in America, too, where cupcakes are king).

The Black and White Bomb was, deliciously, a moist chocolate sponge dotted with pockets of semi-melted chocolate chips, topped by a whirl of creamy vanilla and chocolate butter cream icing.  Crowning this whirl was a chocolate button. An excellent combination, and worth the £1.50 (there's a stall in the Arndale Food Market where cupcakes are £1, though).

The hot chocolate was thick and chocolatey, tasting of actual chocolate rather than the powdered and over-sugared stuff usually served elsewhere.  It came in a normal glass, which was a little disconcerting and prevented immediate imbibement as I didn't want to leave Dish with only burning blisters for fingerprints.

Although my friend L and I arrived at Dish half an hour before it was due to open, the staff obligingly let us come in, sit down, order and gossip loudly about boys, when they could have sent us packing back into the rain.  Between the excellent service, the beautifully presented and moreishly edible cakes, and a hot chocolate that tasted of the real thing, I thoroughly enjoyed my first step on the road to cupcake conversion.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Top Quality

37 Derby Street,

Manchester M8 8HW

Biryani (Fridays only)/Rice and three curries: £4.50

Cheetham's Top Quality curry cafe really lives up to its name.  Down a street filled with fabric and tat wholesalers, it is a tiny shop front in the midst of five-storey warehouses.  Dingy outside and in, it looks like nothing much but delivers up food that they could sell for a lot more than £4.50 for rice-n-three were they not so out of the way.

Fridays, I was reliably informed by the Flavours of Manchester blog, is biryani day.  Lamb or chicken biryani substitutes in for rice in the rice-n-three and at no extra cost.  A heaped plate of biryani and three curries is an incredible deal, and one that I don't think is found elsewhere.  The biryani is spot-on.  The rice is well-cooked, the spicing is flavoursome but not overpowering, and the chicken tastes like chicken.    The chicken tastes better than chicken, in fact, because the pieces are cooked to succulence and  covered in spices.  Apart from the occasional small white pockets, the rice is uniformly spiced and flavoured and there's hardly a hint of oil or grease in the large portion.

In terms of curries, I thought I was being a wimp when I chose to eschew ones with meat in and only eat vegetables.  I was wrong.  Both curries (chickpea and mixed veg) were hotly spicy, burning my mouth slightly, but mitigated by the presence of the biryani.  The sauces are thick and both flavour and are flavoured by their vegetables.  The chickpea curry was a stand-out: soft chickpeas melting into a sauce that definitely had cinnamon in it, along with a handy dose of chillies and garam masala.  I took my time eating it, torn between letting my mouth cool down between bites and wanting to eat every single delicious mouthful.  When it came for me to stand up, I realised just how full I was. I could feel my stomach muscles groaning, and got a stitch from walking anything quicker than a pensioner's stroll.

When I visited, Top Quality was packed with Muslim men just out from Jumma prayers at the mosque and Sikh men leaving the massive gurdwara that is just down the road.  Everyone was eating with the same amount of gusto, albeit much quicker than I was, adding kheer and freshly baked naans to their substantial orders.  Should you want authentic Pakistani food that tastes better than that served in most restaurants and cafes in Manchester (and for a much lower price), Top Quality is worth the 1.7 mile trek from Piccadilly station.  It's even less from Victoria.  Just give it a go.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Brazilian Place in the Arndale Food Market

Arndale Food Market
High Street,
Manchester M4 1EA

Sfirra de frango: £1.80
Risole de carna moida: £1.60

Jonesing for more South American food (two hits and I'm an addict) but unable to afford the increasingly ubiquitous meat-on-a-stick Brazilian joints that have popped up all over Manchester, I decided to try the Arndale Food Market's very own Brazilian snackbar. My first attempt to find cheap South American food in Manchester ended in tasteless, soggy, disappointing disaster.

I will admit that I have never had Brazilian food before.  However, unless Brazil is the black sheep of the South American culinary family, I do not think that my experience is indicative of Brazilian cuisine.  Does Brazilian food deliberately eschew all spices and flavours? Do Brazilians see chicken and think that it needs to be ground up into dry and tasteless shreds and then compacted into damp lumps? Must Brazilians use canned vegetables that taste and look past their use-by date? Are breads designed to be wetly gluey? I am pretty sure that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding "no."

My first disappointment arrived in the form of a sfirra de frango, ostensibly a bun filled with skinless chicken breast.  From the outside it looked nice: the bun was a pleasant golden colour designed to make it look like it had been wrapped up in dough.  Unfortunately, it was gluey and limp.  Inside, there was no evidence of the skinless chicken breast or, in fact, any chicken at all.  Instead there was mush, mush interspersed with pieces of anaemic sweetcorn that had clearly a) come from a tin and b) seen better days.  I deduced by process of elimination that the mush must be the chicken.  There was certainly nothing that tasted or looked like any sort of chicken, let alone skinless chicken breast, but the reconstituted mush, with the appearance of a block of ramen and lumps that were dry on the inside while soggy on the outside, could not have been anything else if the sfirra de frango's ingredients list is to be believed.

Setting aside the bun, I took a bite out of the risole de carne moida, advertised as a breaded dough filled with mincemeat.  The risole would have been better had the dough not had the overwhelming taste of cheap fishfingers in addition to a texture that reminded me of chewed paper.  I nibbled through to the meat, which took me a while as there is not much of it, and was met with something that looked like mince and onions but tasted of nothing.  It was a confusing experience as I have rarely eaten something that tastes of so little.  I gave up, leaving the unfinished detritus of my hopeless attempt on the table.

I hoped that Manchester's Brazilian snackbar would fulfill my need for the spicy, flavour-packed food I had eaten from Colombian joints in London.  Sadly, it did not.

Friday, 18 February 2011

London - Las Americas Cafeteria

26 Pope's Road
London SW9 8JJ

Two arepas con queso: £2
Selection of baked goods: £4

I have discovered the definitive hangover cure: just-fried churros rolled in cinnamon and sugar and filled with syrupy caramel.  Or, if you have a savoury tooth, arepas con queso (cornmeal pancakes made with cheese) fresh off the griddle.  If you live within London, you are a fortunate soul: both of these the-morning-after-the-night-before slayers can be picked up from Las Americas Cafeteria on the Pope's Road end of Brixton Market.

My experience at Restaurante Santa Fereño converted me to my newfound excitement about Colombian food, and another mid-morning wander around Brixton brought me to a cafe-takeaway-butcher specialising in Colombian meats and snackfoods.

Las Americas Cafeteria is easy to spot as you walk down Pope's Road.  Once you have reached the door between the woman frying churros and the grizzled Colombian man flipping fresh arepas on an outdoor grill, you are in the right place.  Inside, amidst the crowd of Colombian women at the counter idly flirting with the man behind it, are stacks of empanadas, bunuelos (fried balls of dough), pandebono (sweetly cheesy bagel-shaped breads), papas rellenas (large yellow balls of dough stuffed with rice and meat), and a lot more besides.  Across the room is the butcher's counter, filled with morcilla (black pudding), pork belly, fatty chops, something pink with green flecks, and other meats not found in your traditional butcher's shop or Tesco counter.

Knowing barely a word of Spanish, I asked for a beef empanada, a bunuelo (the name of which I only recently googled), papa rellena, and a pandebono, in addition to the two arepas the man outside was preparing for me.   It was mainly a case of pointing and hoping, and so it was a nice surprise that everything I ate tasted good, although the bunuelos are a little uninteresting.

The empanada was just how I like them: fried and with some bite to the shell, and crammed with spicy shredded beef.  The pandebono was warm, bready and dense, with slight veins of cheese running through the already cheese-infused dough.  I had hoped that the bunuelo would be something similar, but although the bread inside the fried crust was springy and light, it did not taste of much.  The papa rellena, however, was the surprise hit, as I had no idea what would be inside the bumpy and vividly yellow doughy exterior.  The ball contained a mix of spicy yellow rice and shredded beef.  About as big as two fists clenched together, it packs both carbs and protein, and would make a good lunch.

I had decided that I would take home some Colombian food to my dad in Manchester, but that I would eat the arepas as breakfast.  It was a good choice.  The arepas, burningly fresh as they were, not only warmed my hands but cleared my hangover with their soft and cheesy insides.  I like to think that I was the envy of the top deck of the 59 bus as I scarfed down the hand-sized pancakes, but my greedy eagerness, fueled by the arepas' all-round deliciousness, probably just made me look like a crazy person instead.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

London - Beigel Bake

Brick Lane Beigel Bake on Urbanspoon

159 Brick Lane,
London E1 6SB

Salt beef beigel: £3.50
Pastries and small breads: £0.50-£1.00

Beigel Bake is one of the last remaining mementos of Shoreditch's Jewish past.  Efficiently doling out dirt-cheap beigels (smaller, denser bagels), platzls (crisp and airy bread rolls), strudels and other heavy Eastern European baked goods at all hours of the day and night, it is one of the few places that is on the mental maps both of East London's hipsters and manual labourers.

At the weekend and around mealtimes, the queue stretches out of the door as London's hungry wait for their salt beef beigels.  There is nowhere to sit in the tiny shop, which contains nothing more than waiting space and a counter with all of the goodies behind it.  In the window, the counter holds great slabs of salt beef being carved by the brusque women who run the front-of-house operation.

Salt beef, for the uninitiated, is essentially that.  Beef that has been boiled in brine and falls apart into tender and irregular chunks and slivers at the slightest touch. On a warm beigel, it is heaven, the cure for hangovers, hunger, and most other ills.  The beigels are almost stickily glutinous and ever so slightly sweet, contrasting with the beef's no-doubt dangerously high salt content.  It would be foolish to limit yourself to just eating a salt beef beigel from Beigel Bake when their other breads and pastries are so cheap, tasty, and hard to find elsewhere in London.  Asking for strudel results in an enormous slab of flaky pasty filled with cinnamon and apples being slapped onto the counter.  The onion platzls are light bread rolls with fried onions baked into the top of the dough; those on top are crispy while the ones that fell into the crevices are buttery and soft.  You cannot make a bad choice, so go ahead and just point at the large bread baskets labelled with names that have too many consonants.

In London's ever-changing ethnic landscape, Beigel Bake (and its nearby neighbour and rival Beigel shop) has carved out a niche for itself amongst the tacky Bengali curry houses by providing good quality and cheap food for absurdly low prices a mere hop, skip and jump away from central London and the City.  Having become a firm favourite across the class divides, it looks like Shoreditch won't lose its Jewish roots any time soon.

Restaurant Names

Also while in London I started to notice the fantastic names some places had.  Starting a business or a restaurant is a huge financial commitment, and the name is meant to attract people inside. Alongside the Anointing Mini Market (what is it anointing?), there was Mixed Blessings Bakery, the Walworth Chinese restaurant called Winner and, my favourite, the Chinese take-away in Clapham called Hoover.

Now that I'm back in Manchester, I absolutely will  be taking notice of what's on restaurant and cafe signs and posting them here. In a world of Jade Dragons, Taj Mahals, Jerk Joints and Krunchy Fried Chickens, I want to celebrate the unusual, the imaginative, and the downright strange.

I Do Not Want To Go There

On my travels round London, I kept coming across restaurants and cafes that promised combinations of food never previously dreamed of. The least appetising top three were: Thai and Ethiopian deep in Stockwell (I'm not sure injera and green curry is a combination I want to think about for too long) Thai and Egyptian near Oval, and Thai and Caribbean in Brixton.  Clearly some people have cottoned onto the idea that sticking a couple of Thai dishes on the menu might encourage customers to try other dishes from the less well beaten culinary track, but still.  I have eaten fusion food that worked incredibly well, and I love Thai, Ethiopian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean food, but  I have no desire to mix up the incredibly distinct and contradictory flavours of each of those cuisines.

I will continue to look out for other bizarre marriages of cuisines and ingredients now that I am back in Manchester (where there's a Thai and Indian restaurant in the heart of Rushholme).

London - Restaurante Santa Fereño

Atlantic Road
London SW9 8PS

Pork chops and arepas: £3
Milkshake: £2
Beef empanada: £1

The area around Brixton Market is swiftly becoming my new favourite place. Not only is there the market itself on Electric Avenue, with its halal butchers aiming either a "Come on in, babes" or a "Salaam, brother" at you while the Eastern European fruitmongers perfect their cockney patter, there is the Pope's Road end with its food trucks and outdoor canteens amongst the knock-off clothes stalls, and also the indoor Brixton Village Market.  The indoor section mirrors the eclectic selection found outdoors - Sierra Leonan grocers alongside gluten- and dairy-free bakeries - but there are more sit-down cafes, restaurants and coffee bars from Morocco, New Zealand, Ghana, the Philippines, the Caribbean, Colombia and a few other places in between.

In fact, Brixton Village Market hosts two Colombian cafes and two Colombian butchers, quite a feat for a community that I had not realised existed in Britain until last week (the Office for National Statistics reckons that there are 22,000 Colombians in the UK while the Migration Policy Institute puts the figure at 90,000).  Guided by the relatively little money in my pocket, I went into the cheaper of the two Colombian cafes - Restaurante Santa Fereño.

On a Saturday afternoon, the restaurant is standing-room only, with the clientele split evenly between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking customers.  The staff are all Colombian and are very friendly when explaining the menu and what other people are eating.  I ordered a beef empanada (a smaller and spicier version of a pasty), pork chops and arepas (cornmeal pancakes), and a milkshake that was not on the menu but all of the Spanish-speakers seemed to be drinking.  The empanada was larger than I had expected, the thin pastry casing fried but not oily, and filled with spicy shredded beef and vegetables.  The pork chops were a bit disappointing, especially as a lot of people were eating them, as they were fried and had little meat, although the meat was tender once you had found it.  They were enlivened by the hot sauce made of chillies and coriander, that lent both flavour and fire to what would otherwise have been a bland dish.  The accompanying arepas tasted more of corn than I had expected, and their slight crispness on the outside contrasted with the barely-done insides.  Eaten with pieces of pork and lashings of chilli sauce, they were delicious and may become part of my staple diet.  Rather than have dessert (not that I didn't want dessert, but my funds were running low), I enjoyed a thick, slightly sour milkshake instead.  This was not on the menu and various internet searches have turned up no name or recipe for this, but it tasted like there were small pieces of fruit in it, and it was delicious.

For a very filling meal in London, this was a very cheap choice, and in an area filled with cheap and unusual food, I would say that seeking out Colombian should be on every foodie's list of things to do.  The restaurant's menu was extensive, and their diverse patrons' empty plates attested to the standard of the cooking.  Although let down by the pork chops, this was one of my favourite meals in London, partly because of the food and the restaurant's friendly and welcoming atmosphere, but also because of the discovery of another type of cuisine to add to my ever-growing seek-out list.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

London - Sara's Food Store

93 Leather Lane
London EC1N 7TS

Lebanese falafel wrap: £3.25
Moroccan falafel wrap: £4.25

Falafel shops are ten-a-penny across the UK, but only those made at this grocery-cum-hardware shop are made by the self-proclaimed Falafel King.  The King is a portly Middle Eastern man, who takes theatrical pride in his mass production of ten wraps at a time, joking with his customers as he ladles hummous, sprinkles tahini, and casually berates the other staff.

There are two varieties of wrap: Lebanese and Moroccan.  The Lebanese version is the kind that everyone knows and loves; a large, round, paper-thin flatbread with little taste in itself, providing a good foil for the distinctive flavours of the wrap's ingredients.  The Moroccan version, whilst smaller and more square, is thicker and is akin to an onion and herb paratha; it has much more robust flavours that complement the bursts of lemon and cumin brought by every bite. 

The falafel are crisp and light, and three per wrap is a good deal.  There is only so much you can say about falafel, however, and instead it is the wrap's accoutrements that really shine.  The cucumber and tomato salad converted me to eating raw tomatoes, thanks to its citrus tang, while the tahini retains the flavour of sesame seeds.  Despite being pounded into shape before going under the grill, the wrap's ingredients retain their flavours, making each bite different and the King worthy of his title.