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.