This Easter Weekend an extraordinary Japanese home cooking project found a permanent base. Its tangled global roots encompass the northern island of Hokkaidō, Hong Kong, Australia and Scotland. Affluent Manchester suburb Didsbury took Midori to its heart and arguably its finest bar, Wine and Wallop, is now the prime outlet for gyoza, glass noodles, daikon pickles and other quietly challenging dishes that subvert that tired culinary template of sushi rolls, commercial ramen and crude katsu curry.

A long lunchtime pre-launch road-testing convinced me that the food put out by Claire ‘Midori’ Cassidy and her partner Ruari Anderson lives up to the almost Studio Ghibli back story evoked on their website.

Claire trained as a journalist and it shows. Let me quote: “Unbeknownst at the time to founder and creator Midori (the name means green), her appreciation for soulful Japanese home cooking was born one autumn afternoon in the early ’90s, as she watched her late grandmother Reiko chop fresh vegetables picked that very morning from the ‘hatake’ (communal allotment) down the road. There, in Reiko’s humble kitchen, Midori’s mother, aunt and grandmother sat cross-legged on cushioned mats, skilfully wrapping gyozas whilst chatting, laughing and bickering…

“During the long and harsh Hokkaidō winters, temperatures would typically plummet to -10°C, house-bounding the citizens of Otaru, a rural fishing village situated on the west coast of Japan’s northernmost island. In anticipation of these looming conditions, the ritual of preparing food in bulk – from pickling and fermenting vegetables to wrapping gyoza – would take place annually with the combined efforts of family members and neighbours.”  

Flash forward to Lapwing Lane on a decidedly unsettled Bank Holiday Weekend in 2024 Britain. The Midori menu at Wine and Wallop will be available here (not at W&W Prestwich or Knutsford) 12pm-9pm daily. Claire won’t obviously be at the stove all the time. She and Ruari have to supply their amazing gyozas to cherished local stockists and promote the brand online, too. With all the pressure I was pleased she found time to answer a questionnaire I put to them…

Tell me about yourselves. Your Japanese background, Claire? Your grandmother in Hokkaidō was a major influence, I believe? The Hong Kong connection? The Scottish connection? Where did you both first meet?

“I am Hong Kong born and (for the most part) bred Japanese/Scottish “halfie”, though I’ve attended schooling in various other cities like Vancouver, Edinburgh and Melbourne due to my Dad’s basings as a commercial pilot. Ruari and I met in Hong Kong in 2013 when I’d returned home from Oz (uni), and discovered we had lived mirrored lives – he too had attended the same secondary school in HK and had completed his sixth form at a boarding school in Scotland and university in Australia – all eight years apart (Claire is 34, Ruari 42). 

“My summer holidays were typically spent at my grandparents’ in Otaru (a port city not far from Sapporo) where the women in the family were big foodies – as you may know, Hokkaido is a hot spot for tourists from other prefectures and SE/East Asian countries for its fruit, seafood and artisan offerings. 

“Ruari was born in Stirling to Scottish parents and subsequently spent his childhood in Dubai and Bahrain until the Gulf War, then 25 years in HK. We believe our international upbringing and being ’third culture kids’ has been the reason behind our strong foundation and adventurous appetites. Also, my first job as a flight attendant opened my tastebuds to new flavours and intensified my obsession with food.”

How was the Midori brand born? How does it differ from the sushi/ramen offering that is everywhere in the city now? Explain the secrets of gyozo making. Why are yours so much better than the commercial frozen variety?

“The brand was born out of a lack of options in Manchester for home-style Japanese cooking; dishes I’d consider to be ‘comfort food’ and off the beaten track of westernised sushi rolls, ramen and katsu curry. We moved to the UK in 2016 and being homesick for quite some time, I really craved these familiar flavours. During lockdown, Ruari (day job care sector worker) and I ordered dumplings from a dim sum house in the city centre and with delivery fees, it was extortionate – and not very tasty! 

“Becoming disillusioned with the rat race and the absence of nearby East Asian grocers (other than in town) were the main triggers behind the decision to make my own and launch our product, using my grandmother’s recipes and wrapping techniques. Thankfully, this was well received in Didsbury and from there, we grew into serving at local festivals in the summer and pop-ups.

“There are obviously other frozen gyoza brands that are much cheaper and contain more per pack, and we have tried and tested them all, but they lack flavour and contain many preservatives. Aside from that, they have a 30:70 filling to wrapper ratio – mine are packed to the brim with only high quality, locally-sourced meat and allotment-grown veg where possible with strictly NO dodgy additives. 

“As I’ve learned through this journey, there are many tips to creating the perfect gyoza, from removing moisture from veg (like cabbage and mushroom) with high water content to intensify the flavour, using meat with a 15-20 per cent fat content to ensure maximum juiciness and keeping the filling and dough below room temperature. In regards to wrapping, each gyoza must be fully sealed with no air pockets to retain meat juices and uniform in weight to ensure even cooking. As it turns out, this skill has proven difficult to teach part-time in an economically efficient manner as it’s all down to speed and muscle memory!” 

Check out Midori’s gyoza cooking tips here.

Is what you do essentially Japanese home cooking? Are authentic ingredients the key? How important are local suppliers such as your Didsbury butchers?

“It is paramount that we use authentic ingredients to capture that true, recognisable flavour of Japanese cooking and we have a great relationship with Axons (who as you know, supply our meat and stock our products). Since starting this venture in July 2022, we’ve been so impressed with the support we received from Didsbury’s ever-growing community of grassroots businesses – something that simply doesn’t exist in Hong Kong’s ‘dog eat dog’  corporate mentality. Up until fairly recently, it’s been a struggle to source certain ingredients like daikon radish and sashimi-grade fish locally – lucky for us, neighbourhood greengrocers like Fresh Save and Family Mart have started stocking Asian veg and fishmongers like Evans and Out of the Blue offer sushi ingredients.”

Explain the Wine and Wallop/Didsbury connection?

“We kind of found Didsbury by accident. We first moved from HK to Cuddington in deepest Cheshire and it was simply too rural for us there. Being five minutes down the road from ours, W&W was my go-to whenever I got cabin fever while WFH. How we came to collaborate with them was down to pure luck; I walked in one day for a coffee and Rachael (the previous manager) offered me a one-off pop up. It was a success so that led to monthly events, supper clubs and private sushi and gyoza making workshops. We’d even go as far to say it has become our second home.”

My favourite Midori dishes (and matching cocktails)?

The gyoza are the stand-out. Pork, lamb, miso mushroom, fanned out on a sharing platter (£28 for 15 pieces), a wonderfully soft, creamy offering. That’s not to diss the tsukune, teriyaki-glazed chicken meatballs (four pieces for £7.50). Changing tack, more challenging were sunomono (£5), slithery, sharp cucumber and glass noodles in tangy umezushi plum vinaigrette and natto gohan (£6), which tops rice with whipped fermented soy and cured egg yolk shavings. I liked both dishes but maybe marmite for bar punters?

I relish a Japanese pickle and the tsukemono take on daikon radish (£7.50) is glorious, while similar perfect bar food is the renkon (£4) lotus root crisps and the absurdly moreish wafu fries (£5.50), which are topped with Worcester-like okonomi sauce, kewpie mayo and roasted seaweed and bonito flakes. Beer fodder for me, but don’t neglect barman Jack’s appropriate cocktails – the Bloody Mary equivalent, Blood Moon/Kaiki Gesshoku featuring gochujang, and the Martini based on bisongrass vodka and yuzu and topped with a shisho leaf, called River Tiger/Kawatora.

Wine and Wallop, 97 Lapwing Lane, West Didsbury, Manchester M60 6UR.

I’ve been taking flak for concentrating too much on reviewing new restaurants in London. In redressing the balance I have broken an unwritten rule – never go in too early. Let the paint dry, the initial glitches get fixed.  Apologies then for my haste to this Northern trio – Bavette, neighbourhood bistro in Horsforth near Leeds, ‘veteran’, open all of three weeks; The Lamb of Tartary dining pub in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, just a handful of days in; and Eight at Gazegill, organic farm restaurant in the lee of Pendle Hill, that officially opened only this weekend gone. Each brings something special to their respective patch, each is helmed by a chef with an inspiring cv, each is bravely tackling the harsher hospitality environment outside the capital.

Bavette – echoes of the legendary Racine

I’ll start in this same order with Bavette, which has hit the ground running. The top end of Town Street in Horsforth has more than its share of ‘To Let’ signs; down towards The Green business looks healthier. Nowhere, though, has near the élan of this bistro arriviste, set up by a Leeds lad, back from London success, and his French husband. Sandy Jarvis is the chef and Clèment Cousin, front of house and sommelier. Their is a smart fit-out with the open kitchen set well back. 

What takes my eye is the bookshelves that divide the space. I like a chef who wears his influences on his sleeve (or rather dust jacket). There is Le Pigeon, a cookbook celebrating chef Gabriel Rucker’s Portland Oregon take on classic French food. To prove it can be done well beyond La Belle Patrie, though a dinner I had there on a 2017 West Coast road trip didn’t live up to the recipes I’d cooked from at home. A large illustrated tome devoted to Pâté en Croûte nudges me into believing the Gallic torch might burn brighter this blustery lunchtime a 20 minute bus ride from Leeds centre.

So, of course, I ordered the Venison and Pork Pâté en Croûte (£12.50) along with another quintessentially French starter, a Seafood Bisque (£11). The former was a juicy morass of tangled meat flakes in a taut pastry casing, the icing on the croûte a savoury Earl Grey jelly; the latter came with a pimento-spiked rouille and dinky croutons and was a deep dip into pure poissonnerie. Earlier, nibbles had been a quartet of croquettes (£6) oozing with molten Comté. My accompanying glass of white, like much of the list, comes from natural  specialists, Wayward Wines of Chapel Allerton, so the crisp 100% Saugvignon Mikaël Bouges La Pemte de Chavigny was an old friend. Clèment Cousin’s family are iconic minimum intervention winemakersin the Loire and there’s a sub-section of half a dozen ‘family specials’ bottles.

The Bavette partners met while working at Covent Garden’s groundbreaking Terroirs natural wine bar, now closed. Sandy’s route there was not typical of the hospitality trade. After studying chemistry at university  in Manchester he enrolled at Leith’s cookery school in London, where he was inspire by a guest speaker, also a personal hero of mine – Henry Harris of Racine. With his cooking diploma but no cv to speak of, he persuaded Harris to take him on at the Knightsbridge bistro that was more authentique than most such establishments across La Manche. It’s a decade since the original Racine shut, less than a year since Harris joyously revived it as Bouchon Racine above a Farringdon pub. When I, unaware of the past link, tell Sandy, now 39, it was the best of its kind since my Bouchon blow-out in May he is more than delighted. You sense, after carving out an impressive London career (Brawn, Culpepper), this a dream realised of doing the French bistro food he likes best in a place of his own.

Catching up on my research later, I discover a pork chop would be his desert island main. Arguably mine too now after sampling his Pork Chop à la Grenobloise (£20) – a pretty fan of sweet fatted tenderness, dressed with capers, parsley and lemon, accompanied by a potato puree as smooth as Joël Robuchon’s classic version. I feel almost a traitor to veer off to a a glass of Italian red. Crucella is from the Campania, a blend of Merlot, Freisa and Sangiovese offering soft tannins and a beguiling lick of liquorice.

The mains choices inevitably also feature a bavette steak with shallots and, a source of next table plate envy, sea bream with a vin jaune sauce, buttered leeks and fondant potato. Among the puddings is another Sandy desert island must – a Paris-Brest, created in 1910 to honour a bike race between the French capital and the Breton port. It is designed to resemble a bike wheel, with its ring of pâte à choux, or cream puff dough, split horizontally and filled with a praline mousseline. So French. Maybe next time. I have no regrets about finishing with a with old stager crème brûlée with Yorkshire rhubarb. My digestif? A quince liqueur from the Gaillac region. Santé, Bavette.

The Lamb of Tartary – legend in the past, maybe in the making

I love heavy curtains over an entrance. Historically they were to keep out off-street draughts. As at the aforementioned Racine. They are in situ too at The Edinburgh Castle, which has this year debuted in the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list at no.24 under the stewardship of Shaun Moffat (ex-Manteca, Berber & Q in London), who has just scooped Chef of the Year at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival. Now some spectacular drapes garland the way into what was Castle stablemate Cottonopolis, re-invented  as The Lamb of Tartary. Exec chef Shaun has been charged with putting his own food stamp in place of a tired formula of NQ bar with bee motifs, Czech tank beer and Asian-inspired dishes.

Already it looks jazzier, the fabric wow mirrored in the booth furnishings in what is otherwise quite a pastelly re-furb. When I test the all-day food offering very early on it definitely shares much of the Edinburgh Castle nose-to-tail, respond-to what’s-on-the market ethos Shaun made much of in a down to earth 2022 interview with me. The dishes bely the poncy pub moniker, which namechecks the legend of a lamb that manages to be both a true animal and a living plant. Vegans look away now. The belief was that cotton plant Agnus scythicus of Central Asia fed sheep that grazed around it via a kind of umbilical cord. When all accessible foliage was gone, both plant and sheep died.

So, yes, I do order the Texel cross lamb saddle chop, sourced not from Tartary but near Knutsford. Costing £32, it’s part of the grill menu. Ideally I’d have preferred the lamb fat crisper but that’s a minor cavil. A pubbier use of the lamb is in a Scotch egg but, early days, that isn’t quite ready for the pass on our visit. A surprising triumph from the grill is fleshy salt-baked celeriac (£15). Glorious. From Pollybell Farm for all you source nerds, it is served with Polyspore mushrooms and bitter leaves. And naturally I add a side of triple-cooked chips because a Shaun’s kitchen does them so well.

The rest of our lunch consists of small plates that seem well placed as superior drinks ballast, for the aim is for an all-day dining pub – in contrast with so many ‘gastropubs’ that are clearly restaurants in disguise. There’s proper, funky brown crab meat in a crumpet for £8, a Belted Galloway steak tartare (£12) that comes with quality potato crisps, home-cured sea trout in a heady caper mayo with Pollen sourdough (£12) plus another impressive veggie plate, plunging purple sprouting and burrata into a chlorophyll rich sauce (£9). And to start it all off there had been Achill oysters from Ireland given Shaun;s trademark rhubarb mignonette dressing (main image).

Puddings were still a work in progress they weren’t even on a printed menu. There’s a dense concoction of chocolate and cherries and a quieter pannacotta, smothered in forced rhubarb compote that I marginally preferred. As at The Edinburgh Castle the wine list is well priced but not very adventurous and there are couple of cask pumps (go for the Buxton Brewery). Would I pop in for a casual beer. Probably not, with Pelican Bar across the road and Port Street a two minute walk. For food? I can’t wait to return.

Eight at Gazegill – I remember when this was all fields…

Well it still is, almost. I’m cheating here. Canapes and Bolney fizz at a aunch party can’t generate a review, but I’m so keen to plug this daring, remote eco venture I’ve already previewed towards the end of its seven gestation. It is on an award-winning organic farm with zero miles access to all their livestock and produce. Ian O’Reilly and Emma Robinson are custodians of 250 acres of unspoiled  farmland, with hay meadows and more than 50 species of wild flower and herbs, that has been in her family for 500 years. Last year Gazegill won Countryside Alliance Rural Oscar for Best ‘Local’ Food & Drink Retailer in the UK. Now the next step.

The new, ultra-sustainable restaurant building wouldn’t look out of place in a vineyard in the Napa Valley, but this is the Ribble Valley. The plan is for Eight to join all those other places that have turned it into a major foodie destination. To make their intentions clear they have hired Doug Crampton, who learnt his craft at the legendary Anthony’s in his native Leeds and ran James Martin’s Manchester restaurant for nearly a decade.

It’s called Eight because it’s an octagonal, 100-cover oak structure with large Pendle-ready picture windows, the whole space powered using stored solar energy generated on-site by a wind turbine and solar voltaics. The open kitchen boasts a wood-fired oven, central both  to a casual daytime dining operation and to tasting menus Fridays and Saturday evenings. Spring arriving, the outside terrace can host a further 60 folk.

The evening we arrive for the launch it is very un-springlike but the welcome is warm and generous. A harbinger of good times ahead came in the shape of a simple chipolata. Made with Gazegill’s own nitrite-free organic pork, it is flavoured with wild garlic from the fields we are looking across at. The farm employs its own regular forager. The glaze on this delicious bite is made with honey from their own bees. 

Suburbs, cutting edge city quarter, unspoilt countryside… the seeds of some great northern eating places have been sown.

It’s well over a year now since that ‘miracle on the moors’, The Moorcock Norland, closed its doors for good. Chef patron Al Brooke-Taylor is back in his adopted home of Australia pursuing his passion for pottery. I follow him from afar via @natural.ceramics on Instagram.   Yet, while I respect the ceramic side of his complex creativity, I do miss the food he put on the plate. Well even from the start it arrived on his own rustic bowls, crafted in part with the ashes from the wood-fired grill central to his culinary vision.

Back in April 2018 I wrote the first ever review of that groundbreaking menu, chalked up on a board alongside what remained a proper Yorkshire pub bar in the hills above Sowerby Bridge. Look beyond the hand-pulled Taylor’s Landlord to the printed drinks list and you discovered treats that set it way apart from any normal local – rare Belgian beers and cutting edge natural wines, curated by e[ic sommelier Aimee Tufford, Al’s then partner.

Aimee remains a presence in the north, still promoting the drinks she loves, sometimes in conjunction with natural wine pioneers Buon Vino, but she is also running supper clubs and tasting events with the talented Tom McManus, Al’s kitchen sidekick. For more details visit her Curve Wine website.

Through Aimee I discovered a lifeline back to my favourite Moorcock dishes. The Brooke-Taylor Natural Ceramics blog now features a handful of his signature recipes. He started on New Year’s Eve with his general philosophy on a well-stocked pantry, since when he has posted a sequence of recipes and, fascinatingly the reasons behind them. Yeast mayo was one, but that is forever bound in my mind with its accompanying the Moorcock’s incomparable Crispy Smoked Potatoes and, yes, that recipe is its blog neighbour. Apparently this longest running dish on the menu (the deep-fried herring bone debuted and then disappeared forever) sparked poems, even an erotic short story, from fans desperate to know the recipe’s secrets.

I have a print-out to go on but also a mole from the Moorcock camp. My daughter Emily was part of the kitchen brigade for a while. She was at my elbow as this week I attempted to recreate the dish. I bought the very suitable pink fir apple spuds and pre-roasted them in the Aga, but she was the one who gave each the squidgy massage to gently tear them before I smoked them with my Camerons stovetop device. A poor substitute for the Moorcock grill embers she once helped stoke, but it worked. Then a swift deep-frying and Voilà! as they say in these parts. In place of the yeast mayo or cultured butter I served them with wild garlic mayo and sprinkled with smoked sea salt. Did my spuds match up? Not quite. They lacked the deep wildness of the original. I shall pursue.

Genesis of the Crispy Smoked Potatoes

The idea was to mimic triple fried chips without all the repeated deep frying, explains the blog entry…

“In the first year I took them off the menu for 2 weeks when the variety of potatoes I liked to use went out of season, which came with a hard boycott. One of the few times my stubbornness in the kitchen was over-ruled. 

“The dish relies on the variety of the potato used, not all are created equal. We were constantly testing through out the year to find the perfect spud. Varieties we had the best success with were Mayan Gold, Pink Fir Apple, Wilja, Carolus, Maris Pipers and Russets. The key is finding a potato with earthy flavour with as little sugar and moisture as possible. Once the potatoes decide its time to get ready to sprout they convert to sugar, then they burn before they crisp and the search for the next talented variety continues. The same for a wet or waxy potato, they just stay soggy. The wild card in that list of potato varieties is the pink fir apple. They are a waxy potato, strong flavoured. Usually good for boiling and using in salads. Surprisingly they do make wonderful crispy smokes…

“So there are four stages – baking, massaging, smoking, frying. The baking stage gelatinises the starch, the massaging makes the centre of the potato fluffy and soft to mimic the over cooking second fry in triple cooked chips, the smoking dries the outside of the potato thickening the starch layer on the outside and frying crisps the potato.”

For a further deep dip into the whole process do visit the website. It’s a fascinating journey through what is now past, though young Tom ‘keeps the fires burning’ with his projects. On the shelves of the Moorcock one cookbook stood out – the mission statement of Kobe Desramualts, Al’s mentor at Michelin-starred In de Wulf in Flanders.

If the Moorcock had survived past its five year span who knows if a cookbook of its own might have sprung from such a fertile kitchen? There may yet be time.

Last summer I wrote a love letter to Soho, reflecting both the louche legend and its current crisis of identity. During that June visit I lingered over lunch or dinner at the likes of Quo Vadis, Mountain, Noble Rot and 64 Goodge Street (in adjacent Fitzrovia). Enough said. And all within easy reach of my habitual Soho base camp, the Z Hotel at the end of raucous Old Compton Street.

A recent return was similarly gastronomically reassuring with forays to old fave Kiln and newcomers The Portrait by Richard Corrigan, the all-conquering Devonshire gastropub and Filipino standard bearer Donia, my most exciting destination of the year so far. 

A further spice hit was tagged on with an expedition to champion of the Sri Lankan diaspora, Rambutan, out at Borough Market. There was a tentative Soho connection even here; the plan had been to investigate neighbouring Camille, from the same small plates and natural wine stable as laid-back Ducksoup in Dean Street. But, once down by London Bridge, I couldn’t resist the Tamil-influenced treats of chef patron Cynthia Shanmugalingam, who I‘ve written about before she opened up on Stoney Street a year ago.

But back to my Soho jaunt… and a Sunday evening just off Carnaby Street. Kingly Court at first glance is just an atrium of bland offerings, but the Top Floor has been the spawning ground for some laudable food – Indian served up by the all women brigade of Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express and the cuisine in exile of Imad’s Syrian Kitchen. Now they are joined by Donia, open for just 10 weeks. 

It is an ambitious offshoot of a London-based Filipino food group, defined previously by their bakery and ice cream specialities. I really can’t gauge the ‘authenticity’ of the Donia menu. My conception of Filipino food is of a melting pot of south-east Asian, Chinese and Spanish culinary influences; my only real experience a street food tub of national dish adobo, a stew featuring marinated meat and vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, black pepper and bay leaves. 

This is on a thrillingly different level. Maybe I did over-order, Blame it on the covert grande dame of food reviewers, Marina O’Loughlin, whose adulatory Instagram post first alerted me to Donia’s delights. She described the lobster ginataan as “so sweet and rich with coconut milk we basically had it for dessert.” After that I couldn’t resist. As a solo diner I restrained myself to just the half-crustacean (still £42), after which I hug on in in for the real signature pudding. The ube choux (£12) is a crunchy craquelin pastry with coconut chantilly and an initially off-putting cream made from purple sweet potato. Be brave. It might be a contender for London’s best dessert de jour.

Then again the large house pie (£27, main image), made for sharing really (heroically I had to go it alone), is also a triumph. Traditionally caldereta is a Filipino goat meat and liver spread stew. Donia’s version encased in pithivier-style pastry is altogether more refined, but both the lamb shoulder filling and the stew ‘jus’ pack a chilli kick.

Offal is very much a Filipino thing. The meal gets off to a blazing start with a £3.50 chicken heart skewer, six smoky nuggets perched on an adobo sauce. The dish that follows is a more elaborate culinary statement. Brown butter lime sauce is the base, on top lashings  of roseate white crab mayo and a crumb crowning a trio of prawn and pork wontons. £15 and worth every penny.

I enjoyed a glass of my favourite French rose, Triennes,  with this hugely impressive procession, but I’d suggest cocktails are the way to go in this joyous, simple dining room, First a palate cleansing ‘Pipino’ (£12, cucumber, sesame, gin, lime, coconut), then a ‘Plum’ (for a quid more a potent Negroni where mezcal replaces the gin and the Japanese plum wine umeshu supplements the vermouth).

Denman Street is just a five minute walk away from Kingly Court. En route, you’ll find my Soho ‘local’, The Lyric. I couldn’t resist a pint of the regular Harvey’s Sussex Bitter. That stalwart real ale pub was heaving but tumbleweed compared with much hyped newcomer The Devonshire, which is shifting Guinness at, well, a Guinness Book of Records level. Co-founder Oisin Rogers is from Dublin and particularly proud of his keeping of the black stuff. He’s convinced the punters. They were six deep outside a rammed downstairs bar. 

Upstairs across two floors of dining rooms is where the food action is with tables being snapped up a month ahead. First floor is home to the Grill, furnace-like pumping out the heat. No charcoal used; it’s all embers of kiln-dried oak, I’m told as I gingerly inspect the operation and feel for the rosy-faced team loading beef steaks from their own ageing room and iberico pork from equally  impeccable sources. It all looked amazing and so I regretted having already ordered beef cheek and Guinness suet pudding for my main (check out that encounter here).

I dined in the top floor Claret Rooms, as atmospheric as if Dr Johnson or that hyperactive   Mr Dickens were expected imminently. Solo, resisting an inviting wine list, I stuck with a couple of pints of Guinness. The stout was particularly suited to accompany a crab salad that spoke of the team’s commitment to the freshest of produce served simply. So worth all the hype? Positive vibes, but perhaps It needs to settle into its skin perhaps.

Oisin’s compatriot, Richard Corrigan, is a chef/restaurateur long settled into his own skin and his latest venture puts to bed the old stereotype: you’ll never handsomely dine in a major public museum or gallery.

The Portrait is pretty as a picture (sic), on the top floor of the magnificently refurbished and recently re-opened National Portrait Gallery, just above Trafalgar Square. The rooftop views from the dining room are spectacular, but would that also be the case with the £39 set lunch? Fear not, it may be a definite downsizing from the a la carte but it is a canny offering matched by a consummately smooth service. Corrigan is class. Each ingredient speaking for itself. A slice of romaine lettuce on a slick of romesco, wrapped in pale, subtle Bayonne ham, then conchigliette pasta with rosemary infused braised rabbit and a flurry of pecorino, blood orange sorbet with the fruit both softly sliced and and stiffly confited. 

Kiln, in Soho proper, is a far different beast, its gap year inspiration some uncompromising food shack in North East Thailand. Primitive fire and smoke applied to almost feral ingredients in clay pots and iron woks as you sit mesmerised at the walk-in counter, it was a game changer when it arrived in Brewer Street back in 2016. 

The formula remains the same. With an hour to spare mid-afternoon I revisited old favourites – raw mutton laap (£12.50) and clay pot based glass noodles (£7.85). The hand-chopped laap, a kind of Northern Thai tartare, is spiced with makhwaen, garlic, star anise, coriander seed and dried chillies and served in cups of radicchio.

The glass noodles are simmered with slivers of rare breed Tamworth pork belly and brown crab, both UK sourced, with the boost of pungent fish sauce and soy. After which, yes, I did require a further Harvey’s quencher at The Lyric. So easy to become a Soho flaneur.

Harvey’s is also a fixture in another fine old London boozer, the Market Porter, cheek by jowl with Borough Market. It’s my usual refuge from the multitudes swamping this foodie magnet. 

On this occasion I walked past 50 metres to the very different Rambutan. Set across two floors, it is a casual, almost canteen-like dining space specialising in the cuisine of northern Sri Lanka, though the first dish I order, a green mango and yoghurt pachadi (£6.70) is the kind of raita you’d also find across the water in Kerala. It is a cooling antidote to a red northern prawn curry (£17.40), dense with tamarind, that ratchets up the scoville count (to nowhere near Kiln levels) after a subtler starter of gundu dosa (three for ££5.30). 

These are nothing like the now ubiquitous dosas of India (or Drummond Street next to Euston Station), similarly made from fermented rice-lentil batter but more akin to mini doughnuts. You bite through the crisp exterior and encounter a soft texture spiced with chilli and mustard seed. Extra oomph comes when you dip them in a jungle-green chilli  and coriander chutney. Rice and a flakey, paratha-like roti completed the good value lunch order. And so back to my Soho manor.

Factfile

Donia Restaurant, 2.14, Top Floor, Kingly Ct, Carnaby St, Carnaby, London W1B 5PW.

The Devonshire, 17 Denman St, London W1D 7H.

The Portrait by Richard Corrigan, National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE.

Kiln, 58 Brewer St, London W1F 9TL.

Rambutan, 10 Stoney St, London SE1 9AD.

• I paid for my meals at all five restaurants with Donia kindly on the night offering me a ‘friends and family’ discount.

I stayed at Z Hotels Soho, 17 Moor Street, London W1D 5AP. This is a bargain lodging for somewhere so central and handy; it’s best to  book well in advance. Claustrophobes take note: some of the rooms lack a window. Pay a bit more and land lucky, like I did this time, and you get a wizard view over Cambridge Circus and the the Palace Theatre, currently hosting Harry Potter & The Cursed Child. The Z Hotels group have 10 further hotels in London and three others – in Bath, Liverpool and Glasgow.

Consider the Rag Pudding? I never had until a decade ago when I was doing the words for chef Robert Owen Brown’s Crispy Squirrel and Vimto Trifle (MCR Books £12.99). Among 50 recipes celebrating the traditional food of the north, this speciality of Oldham millworkers was one of Rob’s less glamorous dishes. Just mince and onions in a suet crust steamed inside a ‘rag’. No need even for a pudding bowl, just freely available muslin or cotton cloth. Poor folk’s food, dispensing with even herbs or spices. 

This Saturday on our beloved Bracewell’s butcher’s stall on Todmorden Market there were  rag puddings on sale, sourced from the sole surviving commercial producer – Jackson’s Farm Fayre of Milnrow, who sell direct boil in the bag (or microwave) eight packs for £12.80. They are made by hand but using a hi-tech material instead of the original `rags’.

Suet remains essential also to more ambitious meat puddings and two high-profile specimens were mine to compare two days apart. First up was Ox Cheek and Guinness at The Devonshire pub in Soho, then Braised Short Rib with Red Wine and Somerset Cider Brandy at the Manchester outpost of Hawksmoor

This was hardly thrifty fare. The Devonshire pudding in its pool of jus cost £26, but duck fat chips were £6 extra and other veg sides a fiver;  the Hawksmoor came in at £25, but it was more substantial and the whole deal included beef dripping chips, mushy peas and extra gravy. Very chippy tea – in a restaurant. Pubbier than the Devonshire, which has arrived in the capital to great fanfare as the epitome of an old school dining hostelry.

Two of its co-founders bring impeccable food skills. Heston Blumenthal acolyte Ashley Palmer-Watts, once of the Fat Duck and Dinner, is there to elevate gastropub staples, Charlie ‘Flatiron’ Carroll to ensure the live fire cooking in the Grill Room does justice to the in-house butcher’s sourcing. But it is the the third of the Devonshire trio that has sparked all the social media attention. Oisin Rogers created the legend that is the Guinea Grill Mayfair, deservedly so. 

He has a thing about Guinness. In the Devonshire downstairs bar I witnessed the unbelievable amount of the dark stuff pouring through the pumps. Quite a buzz about the place. Maybe I prefer the pint you’ll get at the less manic Cock Tavern in Phoenix Street near King’s Cross, but it’s great to see Oisin’s well-tended stout playing an essential role in the ox cheek filling for the Devonshire’s suet pudding. Tasty, yet perhaps the reduction was too sticky for me, just as the chips were too dry and flakey. Collapse of all those Metropolitan stout parties bigging them up up.

The chips were better, fluffier inside, at Hawksmoor as I sampled their new lunchtime specials, which include that – superior – slow-braised short rib and root veg pudding. What tickles me about this total triumph on a plate is Oisin Rogers’ own accolade for it. When my fellow Manchester Food and Drink Awards judge and committed carnivore, Louise Rhind-Tutt Tweeted about the Three Year Aged Somerset Brandy twist to the filling he replied: “I wished we’d thought of this. Kinda genius.” And it is.

Suet and its savoury secrets

The distinctive blue, yellow and red packaging of Atora is the supermarket standard bearer for beef suet. From it tumble pellets of the shredded stuff, base for “for fluffy dumplings, pastries, puddings and pies”. Plant-based alternative on the shelves is vegetable suet, but there are issues with the presence of environmentally unfriendly palm oil. 

Nothing for me, though, is as satisfying as the real deal – the soft fat from around the kidneys that protects them from damage. Deep yellow in colour, it is rich in vitamins and essential fatty aids. Order it fresh from a proper butcher’s; they can remove impurities and mince it for you. Or you can grate it yourself. It keeps in the freezer. The umbrella term is tallow but that includes dripping, which is rendered fat from across the beast. 

Fresh beef suet has a bland taste (the mutton variety is more challengingly sheepish) and a dry, crumbly texture. When it’s incorporated into sweet dishes – think traditional Christmas Pudding – it brings a richness, yet somehow avoids making them taste meaty. For pie crusts, it creates a flaky and crispy texture that absorbs filling juices beguilingly.

Introducing the other new Hawksmoor lunchtime specials

Rump steak and chips keeps its place on the menu and is joined by, alongside the suet pudding, at prices ranging from £16 to £22…

Shortrib au poivre 

Slow-cooked for 10 hours until tender, brushed in mustard, dipped in cracked pepper and coated in peppercorn sauce then served with buttery mash or our beef-dripping fries.  

Flat iron steak

This tender shoulder cut  is char-grilled and served in the style of the hottest restaurant in 1930s Geneva: Café de Paris – with beef dripping fries and a salad of watercress, shaved radishes and cornichons in a mustard dressing. 

Charcoal-roasted hake

With slow-cooked peppers, onion, garlic, thyme and olive oil and finished with fresh basil leaves. 

Tunworth Royale patty melt

This burger/toasted cheese sandwich hybrid was invented in 1950s LA by William Wallace ‘Tiny’ Naylor (nerds note: he’s on the cover of the Beastie Boy’s 1994 album, Ill Communication). Hawksmoor makes theirs between slices of Texas Toast. with their stalwart burger patty, plus unctuous Tunworth and mozzarella for ‘maximum string factor’.  

Salt-baked celeriac

The veggie option, served with Hen of the Woods mushrooms glazed with soy and whipped ricotta celery leaves, capers and fresh marjoram.

A boon in life to have always been well fed. The same goes for my extended family. Far too many are not so lucky. It has been on my mind a lot of late as, at my stove, I enjoy the privilege of cooking for pleasure, not for hard-pressed subsistence. I’ve just prepared a herb-fragrant keema pau of minced mutton with a kachumber salad. It’s a favourite recipe from the ravishing Dishoom: From Bombay With Love cookbook, celebrating the Irani cafes of Old Mumbai and promoting the nine-strong Dishoom UK restaurant brand.

This huge success story is the creation of cousins Shamil and Kavi Thakrar, whom I first met on a press trip to their London bases in advance of their branching out to Manchester in late 2018. It proved to be more than just the usual junket.

What struck me in their establishments was their mastery of authentic style alongside an accessible menu that still felt a refreshing antidote to curry house cliché. Also, thanks to a kind invitation to a family gathering in the presence of Shamil’s mother Rekha, I began to understand the ethical undertow to all they do. It was most evident in their determination to run their restaurants without barriers of prejudice. 

Their website offers a mission statement: ”We get Muslims and non-Muslims to celebrate Eid, and Hindus and non-Hindus to celebrate Diwali. We tie Knots of Protection on each other. We bring people from all cultures and all walks of life together in our restaurants, and we feed millions of children.”

That last commitment sounds staggering, but it is true. So far, they have donated the cost of 20 MILLION meals for charities – supporting in the UK Magic Breakfast, dedicated to providing meals so children don’t go hungry before school starts, and in their Indian homeland the The Akshaya Patra Foundation. This is a behemoth of an operation that has so far served up a staggering 3.5 BILLION free school meals. That’s healthy hot nourishment to 2.2 million children in 20,000 schools daily, dished in tiffin boxes out from 68 mega kitchens across the sub-continent. This remarkable video shows how they do it, mass producing sambar and rice for southern states, dal and roti for northern. 

Since 2020, separate from the Dishoom tie-in, Akshaya’s remit has also covered meals to children and vulnerable groups in North London The reason? 800,000 children in the capital alone are at risk from food poverty, while across the UK 1.7 million children of low income families are not eligible for free school meals. The figures I’m quoting are from Akshaya Patra’s own annual report, but I have no reason to doubt they are true. This is Marcus Rashford territory.

Their London hub is based, with unconscious irony, on Imperial Way, Watford, but a new pilot venture also takes in Nottingham, providing a hot meal for after school clubs. These are aimed at youngsters who have no surface at home where they can do homework and, possibly, parents with no educational confidence.

The importance of food charities for education

‘Akshaya’ means limitless and ‘Patra’ means a bowl of food. The guiding principle in India is to encourage kids to continue in education rather than forced to go to work too young or even beg. Across the sub-continent at least 35 million children aged 6-14 years do not attend school. And for those who do lack of nutrition seriously hinders their attention in class.

Let Ashkata UK Ceo Daniel Adams explain: “When hunger is a barrier to education it also becomes a barrier to social mobility. A child that is not fed can become a teenager that did not learn and an adult that stays in poverty. We care deeply about breaking down these barriers. It’s a social justice issue with long term benefits. To quote Nelson Mandela: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’.

“Dishoom are an extremely generous corporate patron who help power our programme. We make natural bedfellows through a love of for and nutrition with shared Indian roots. We are so grateful to them.”

Stalwart campaigner Jamie Oliver is on the case, too: “I truly believe that if every child had access to good, nutritious food, they would concentrate better in school, giving them a far greater chance at a better education, which in turn helps create a much stronger future generation. Akshaya Patra  is an incredible organisation, and their dedication, passion to make this happen is inspiring.” 

Dishoom’s pact with them came into being at Ramadan 2015. The Muslims have a name for it: Zakat. It’s a form of obligatory charity that has the potential to ease the suffering of millions. The literal meaning of the word is ‘to cleanse’; the belief is that paying Zakat purifies, increases and blesses the remainder of their wealth. The Thakrar family fortune originally sprung from their Tilda rice empire. For their Zakat Dishoom chose Akshaya and Magic Breakfast. At the Hindu Diwali the same year they made this joint partnership permanent.

For every meal (or home meal kit) Dishoom serves, they donate a meal to a child who would otherwise go hungry. More recently in Manchester they have also contributed handsomely to Eat Well, the restaurant and chef collective that delivers up to 1,000 meals a week to support people sidelined by poverty. 

Dishoom, Manchester Hall, 32 Bridge St, Manchester M3 3BT. 0161 537 3737. To donate to Akshaya Patra visit this link.

All the images are courtesy of Akshaya Patra, except for the two for Dishoom.

I’ve lost count of the number of Manchester Food and Drink Awards gala dinners I’ve attended, but this celebration of the region’s hospitality industry remains joyously upbeat despite the perils that still threaten to torpedo so many independent operators.

The Awards themselves had been pushed back from their usual October slot when the mothership Festival foundered. Hopefully, it will return in 2024. Meanwhile these 2023 Awards flew the flag in a fresh venue that really worked – New Century Hall – and opened with a defiant political edge. 

In person on stage Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham. En route to Depeche Mode at the nearby Arena, he rallied the 350 hospitality troops gathered for the occasion. On film Sacha Lord, his night-time economy adviser (I reserve ‘czar’  for Russian potentates), and a clutch of North West chefs demanded the Government slash VAT on the industry back down to 10 per cent. Lord kicks off the challenging This is an Emergency video chillingly: “I know people staring at the cliff edge.”

After the dinner sourced from traders in the New Century Kitchen, down to the main business of the night. The 18 award winners announced reflected the city’s current high global profile. 

Last week the The Edinburgh Castle in Ancoats debuted in 24th place in the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs; now its kitchen dynamo Shaun Moffat followed up by scooping Chef of the Year. A huge double also for Higher Ground. On the same day they won a Michelin Bib Gourmand they were named MFDF Newcomer of the Year. They are also in the frame for the national Best New Restaurant at the Good Food Guide Awards 2024. I was also delighted that Ancoats small plates and natural wine stalwart Erst finally won Best Restaurant.

Across the evening there was strong recognition for Manchester’s unrivalled craft beer scene. Track won best independent drinks producer, the Marble Arch best beer bar/pub, Bundobust best plant-based offering for the Gujarati-inspired small plates that accompany the beers it brews in town and James Campbell received the Outstanding Achievement Award for two decades as the driving force behind cutting edge breweries Marble, Cloudwater and, currently, Sureshot. 

Sign of the difficult times, one of the nominees for best drinks producer, Squawk Brewery, has just been forced to close. So high jinks celebrating an amazing food and drink scene tinged with sadness at the steady drip of closures. Time to make a stand on that crucial VAT drop issue. Watch the Sacha Lord film, also featuring the likes of Simon Wood, Michael Clay, Mary Ellen McTague and and emotional Simon Rimmer, who was forced to close his flaship restaurant Greens recently, and sign the associated petition.

All the fantastic winners at Manchester Food and Drink Awards 2023

Here is this year’s awards list in full (for addresses visit this link)…

Restaurant of the Year – Erst

Shortlisted: Higher Ground, Climat, Another Hand, 10 Tib Lane

OSMA, The Spärrows. mana, Erst.202

Chef of the Year – Shaun Moffat (Edinburgh Castle)

Shortlisted: Joseph Otway (Higher Ground), Danielle Heron (OSMA), Luke Richardson (Climat), Julian Pizer (Another Hand), Patrick Withington (Erst), Seri Nam (Flawd Wine), Mike Shaw (MUSU), Shaun Moffat (Edinburgh Castle)

Newcomer of the Year – Higher Ground

Shortlisted: Climat, Restaurant Örme, Fold Bistro & Bottle Shop, The Jane Eyre Chorlton, Madre, New Century Kitchen, Stretford Canteen, Higher Ground

Plant-based Offering of the Year– Bundobust

Shortlisted: Lily’s Indian Vegetarian Cuisine, Bahn Ví, The Walled Gardens, Maray, Speak in Code, Flawd Wine, The Mekong Cat, Bundobust.

Takeaway of the Year – Burgerism

Ad Maoira, Unagi Street Food & Sushi, Ciaooo Garlic Bread, Fat Pat’s, Wright’s Fish and Chips. Maida Grill House, Al Madina, Burgerism.

Independent Drinks Producer of the Year – Track

Shortlisted: Sureshot Brewing, Stockport Gin, Cloudwater Brew Co, Tarsier Spirit, Pod Pea Vodka, Manchester Union Brewery, Squawk Brewing Co, Track.

Independent Food Producer of the Year – Pollen Bakery

Shortlisted: Cotton Field Wharf, Great North Pie Co, La Chouquette, Gooey, Yellowhammer, The Manchester Smoke House, The Flat Baker, Companio Bakery, Pollen.

Foodie Neighbourhood of the Year – Stockport

Shortlisted: Levenshulme, Altrincham, Urmston, Prestwich, Monton, Sale, Stretford, Stockport.

Coffee Shop of the Year – Grapefruit Coffee

Shortlisted: Cafe Sanjuan, Another Heart to Feed, Idle Hands, Bold Street Coffee,  Smoak, Ancoats Coffee Co, Siop Shop, Grapefruit.

Food Trader of the Year – Fat Pat’s

Shortlisted: Baratxuri, Chaat Cart, Triple B, Tawny Stores, Yellowhammer, Little Sri Lankan, Pico’s Tacos, Oh Mei Dumplings, Fat Pat’s.

Affordable Eats Venue of the Year – Ornella’s Kitchen

Shortlisted: Nila’s Burmese Kitchen, Great North Pie Co, Cafe Sanjuan, Noodle Alley, Tokyo Ramen, Lily’s Deli, House of Habesha, Ornella’s Kitchen.

Food and Drink Retailer of the Year – Cork of the North

Shortlisted: Ad Hoc Wines, Out of the Blue Fishmongers, Littlewoods Butchers, Wandering Palate, New Market Dairy, Petit Paris Deli, La Chouquette.

Pop up or Project of the Year – Platt Fields Market Garden

Shortlisted:  Our Place, Tawny Stores at Yellowhammer, SAMPA, Little Sri Lankan, Suppher, Fare Share, Micky’s, Platt Fields Market Garden

Pub or Beer Bar of the Year – The Marble Arch

Shortlisted: Track Brewery Taproom, The City Arms, Runaway Brewery Taproom, Fox & Pine, Reddish Ale, Station Hop, Heaton Hops, The Marble Arch.

Bar of the Year – Schofield’s Bar

Shortlisted: The Jane Eyre Ancoats, Blinker, Red Light, Sterling Bar, Hawksmoor, 10 Tib Lane, Flawd Wine, Schofield’s Bar.

Neighbourhood Venue of the Year – Stretford Canteen

Shortlisted: Restaurant Örme, OSMA, Ornella’s Kitchen, The Oystercatcher, Yellowhammer, Fold Bistro & Bottle Shop, The Jane Eyre Chorlton, Stretford Canteen.

Great Service Award – Hawksmoor

Shortlisted: Higher Ground, Schofield’s Bar, Where The Light Gets In, Climat, Wood Manchester, Sterling Bar, Tast Catala, Hawksmoor.

The Howard and Ruth Award for Outstanding Achievement – James Campbell

Recognising people who have contributed something outstanding to the hospitality industry in Greater Manchester.

Name your favourite pasta. If it’s spaghetti hoops I suggest you’re reading the wrong blog. For brothers Michael and Alex de Martiis it has to be rigatoni. That’s why they’ve invested in a state of the art extruding machine to create daily batches of this ‘pastasciutta’ (dry, a bronze die giving it a useful rough texture) to be sauced up and served at their back to basics new project called, naturally, Rigatoni’s.

That’s the rebranding for all four pasta-led eateries formerly known as Sud, which originated as Sugo in Altrincham back in 1915. Reviewing it then I was wowed by the sugo, just like Nonna used to make – a dense sauce of beef shin, pork shoulder and spicy Tuscan sausage that felt like it had been simmered for days, if not decades. It coated a substantial bowl of that ear-shaped pasta called orecchiette, fresca (ie fresh) as in the de Martiis family’s native Puglia.

Unfortunately, nonnas are thin on the ground in the pressured world of eating out Italian style 2024 and change is necessary.

At a launch for the new menu at Rigatoni’s Ancoats Michael defends their decision to concentrate on a single basic, if adaptable, pasta treated with simple fresh sauces. “The days are gone when we could a spare a member of the team to stir rich meat sauces for hours or roll out a variety of pasta shapes. Our starters too are simpler, yet no less delicious.”

On this first acquaintance i can’t see what all the dumbing down accusations on social media are about. A selection of focaccia toasts, topped with grated tomato, garlic and salt or black olive and caper spread splendidly partner a carafe of fruity house Barbera. Even better at a quid more (£6) is the whipped gorgonzola and honey topping.

But the pasta is the thing and my sharp topping of brown crab, vodka sauce, and tarragon at £12.50 is 50p less than that ragu of eight years ago. A FAZOOL! white beans, garlic, fresh chilli & parm is just £9.50 and a cacio e pepe take with lots of extra-virgin is a remarkable £7.50. Amatriciana and Puttanesca options cost a tad more.

Tasty food for straitened times; I get it. Only the Italophile foodie in me seeks something a little more adventurous. Which brings me to that divisive Roman rigatoni speciality you’ll never find in the UK, let alone Manchester – Con La Pajata.

Not for the squeamish – a classic quinto quarto dish

Just as I always associate rigatoni with that great Sicilian speciality Pasta alla Norma, so ‘when in Rome’ it’s essential with traditional rib-tickler Carbonara. But the Eternal City also offers a classic offal-based rigatoni sauce that was banned in 2001 in the wake of Mad Cow Disease and only allowed to be reinstated on menus in 2015.

You’ll mostly come across rigatoni con la pajata (rigatoni con la pagliata in Standard Italian) in the old school trattorie of the Testaccio (it even sounds like balls) district. Until 1975 this was home to the city’s main slaughterhouse and the nose-to-tail culture lives on. The Italians call it quinto quarto (the fifth quarter) cooking, ie using leftover bits such as oxtail, feet, tongue, testicles, intestines and tripe.

Pajata is the name for the intestines of an unweaned calf (one fed only on its mother’s milk, never grass). They are cleaned and skinned but left inside is the chyme – the pulpy acidic fluid consisting of gastric juices and partly digested food. Stay with me.

The intestine is cut in pieces 20–25 cm long, that are bound together with thread, forming rings. A long cooking progress, allied to the enzymes present coagulate it, forming a creamy, ricotta-like sauce.The rings can be simply grilled or stewed with tomato, aromatics, lardo and spices to make a classic sauce for rigatoni. Top with oodles of pecorino romano, per favore.

So out of reach, but maybe not. In Florence I was wary of trying lampredotto (the stewed fourth stomach of a cow in a bread roll) and loved it. Now I’m scanning the schedules for air tickets for Rome. Will the suckling veal soon be in season?

Rigatoni’s, 46 Blossom Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6BF. Also in Altrincham, Sale and Exhibition Manchester.

There is a thesis to be written on the key role railway hotels have played in the development of French cuisine. Sometimes at the exalted level of the 3-star La Maison Troisgros in Roanne. Legendary ‘nouvelle cuisine’ dishes such as ‘salmon in sorrel sauce’ were created by the brothers Jean and Pierre Troigros in the family hotel opposite the sleepy town station.
In 2017, under Pierre’s son Michel, it moved to a more luxurious site. Another culinary birthplace, though, will still be in situ to greet you three hours to the north in the Sologne. Get off the SNCF at even sleepier Lamotte-Beuvron and cross to the Hotel Tatin, home of the caramelised apple pastry that turned the dessert world upside down. You can also file the now ubiquitous Tarte Tatin under ‘dishes created by happy accident’.

The legend goes that the tart was fortuitously invented at the turn of the 20th century by chef Stéphanie Tatin (b 1838), who ran the hotel with her sister Caroline (b 1847). It was the opening Sunday of the hunting season and a traditional apple pie was expected by the hungry chasseurs. In the kitchen a flustered Stéphanie left the apples cooking in butter and sugar for too long. In a bid to rescue the scrape (sic) she was in she opted to simply chuck the pastry base on top and stick it in the oven. 

Voilà, the succulent, caramelised apples soaked into the pastry, the lunch party loved it and it has never been off the menu since… here and in countless places around the world.

A major boost for it originally was its adoption by Maxim’s on the Rue Royale – one of the great Parisian celeb restaurants of the Belle Époque and beyond. Recently restored to its previous glory, it charges 18 euros for its tarte tatin (compared with 10 at the humbler Hotel Tatin). On a frugal pre-Christmas visit to the French capital I never got to eat it there, but I did BAKE MY OWN at another Parisian institution, the Galeries Lafayette Haussmann, a 15 minute walk away.

The Galeries were in full Dream Before Christmas mode, from an awesome twinkling tree soaring into the department store’s dome and animated window displays from fashion designer Charles de Vilmorin showcasing his “epic story of the little girl and the magic paintbrush who travel to an imaginary land.”

I went one step further, and checked into the Ferrandi’s Kitchen cookery school on the third floor of the Lafayette Maison and Gourmet Store. At the end of my own rainbow a pot of goldenly caramelised apples, no less. There to guide me into not burning the fruit or rolling out the wrong texture of pastry was chef/tutor Lucie Lafontaine.

We were an eight-strong group, so, if necessary I could hide among teamwork. Still, I had made tatins before at home, using apples, plums, quinces and pears, and, less successfully rhubarb and gooseberry, which turned to mush. Pineapple, though, was a success. An apple that holds its shape during caramelisation, such as a Cox, is best. Lucie introduced to us a rival French one that was equally perfect. I‘ve seen instances in restaurants of savoury tarte tatins, but that seems just wrong. As does using puff pastry. 

At the end of our two and a half hour stint all our efforts tasted like the real thing. We had well earned our signed certificate, chef’s toque and goodie bag and got to keep our posh monogrammed apron. 130 euros is the cost of such a course, where savoury dishes are also on the changing roster on offer. Book here.

So, if you can’t make it to Paris or Lamotte-Beuvron, what’s the secret to a true tarte tatin?

Best leave it to the indefatigable Felicity Cloake in her ‘How to cook perfect…” series in The Guardian. Even her researches barely scratch the upside down surface with so many chefs tweaking their own versions.

This is her distillation, which I have employed since returning from Paris and it gets it spot on: “Toffee apples for grown-ups, the tarte tatin is all about the flavour of the fruit – crisp pastry, firm, juicy apples and that sweet, buttery caramel topping, holding the whole lot together. We may have the best apples, but the French really know what to do with them.”

Ingredients

7 medium apples: 4 Cox, 3 Granny Smith
200g white sugar
50g butter
175g ready-made shortcrust pastry 

OR
225g plain flour
2 tbsp caster sugar
120g cold butter
1 medium egg, beaten

Method

Peel, halve and core the apples, then put in the fridge, uncovered, for 24 hours. Put the sugar into a 20cm heavy-based ovenproof frying pan along with 50ml water and leave to soak for a couple of minutes, then cook over a medium heat until golden and fudgy. Take off the heat and stir in the butter, and a pinch of salt, until well combined, then carefully arrange the apples in the pan, round-side down, bearing in mind the caramel will be very hot, and put back on the heat – you may need to cut some of the apples into smaller pieces to fill in the gaps. Cook for 5 minutes, then take off the heat and allow to cool completely.

If making the pastry, sift the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the sugar and a pinch of salt. Grate in the butter, then rub together until it is coarse crumbs. Mix the egg with 2 tsp cold water and sprinkle over the mixture. Mix together into a soft but not sticky dough, adding more water (if required) very gradually. Shape into a ball, and then cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes before rolling out.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Roll out the pastry (you’ll probably have some left over if you’ve made your own) to 5mm thick, and cut out a circle slightly larger than your pan. Put back into the fridge to rest.

Put the pastry on top of the pan and tuck in the edges around the fruit. Bake for about 30 minutes until the pastry is golden, then remove from the oven. Allow to cool for five  minutes, then place a plate, slightly larger than the pan, on top and then, very carefully, using oven gloves, invert the tart on to the plate. Best served warm, with crème fraîche. Serves 6.

• To discover what else I got up to in Paris visit this link.

Remember Fleet Foxes, Seattle-based purveyors of glorious indie folk harmonies? Eventually they broke up…  like the waves against the pine-fringed shores of Mykonos. The Greek island gave its name to one enigmatic b-side, offering “a vision of a gentle coast/and a sun to maybe dissipate/shadows of the mess you made”.

Its echoes oddly haunt a shimmering Mykonos-influenced lunch in the very different surroundings of on-the-up, post-industrial Manchester. The ‘wine dark’ Irwell flows nearby with Factory International aka Aviva Studios on its banks, making its eye-wateringly expensive cultural statement. Soho House, come spring, is set to provide a playground for the well-heeled colonisers of the former Granadaland. Shall we all sport something Chanel for the opening?

Shiny new £7m Fenix is, of course, feeding off this vibe. If you thought, Tattu, debut restaurant of brothers Adam and Drew Jones, sprinkled gold dust on the dining scene, this new project is pure platinum – a dreamy homage to the destination that has become the ‘Cycladean Ibiza’. Curvy, sea cave surfaces, an ‘olive tree’ naturally and lighting that glows like an Aegean sunset. The bar is dark and moody, the upstairs restaurant, in contrast, boasts “ash-toned driftwood dining chairs paired with decadent marble tables and refined tableware.”

There is no Zorba, Demis or Nana soundtracking our visit. Less bouzouki, more ambient beats. Whatever, I’m not paying much heed. The quality of the small plates arriving grabs me. Starring roles for taramasalata, octopus, lamb and the fluffiest of pitas, all taken to a level way beyond the vacation tavernas of Shirley Valentine (filmed on Mykonos).

I haven’t quite expected this, having sniffed at the presence of Cantonese spiced ribs, wagyu, ceviches and Andean antichucos on the menu (thankfully no Nobu-esque black cod). Then again Tattu never set out to be totally ‘authentic’ Chinese. 

Let me quote the Fenix ‘story’. Every restaurant has to have one these days.“In Greek mythology, the Phoenix represents triumph over adversity, cyclical regeneration and rebirth. Only one of these rare creatures can exist at a time, and each lives for 500 years. As that lifecycle ends, a nest is built and set on fire. From those flames new life arises, and the process continues. Fenix was born into uncertain and challenging times, and its character is its destiny — breathing fresh energy into a Manchester dining scene when it’s most needed.”

Key players in all this are the two chefs they have hired with strong Mykonos links. Executive Head Chef, Ippokratis Anagnostelis and Head Chef, Zisis Giannouras worked together at the high end Kenshō Ornos suites hotel on the island. Anagnostelis’s CV reads like a roll call of Greece’s finest dining spots, including the Michelin-starred Hytran in Athens, putting a contemporary spin on traditional dishes. The influences are obvious at Fenix, but it feels more relaxed than most destination restaurants with service especially impressive just a week in.

So which dishes did I particularly like?

(Once I‘ve decided to pass on the Wagyu Stifado (£85), one dish that has made it over from Kenshō. A treatment where striploin is glazed with wagyu jus, then served with braised onions, spices and cumin potato emulsion, seemed a deconstruction too far.)

Sea bass off the robato, to share (£95)

For a tenner more, a dish that isn’t strictly traditional but feels heart-stoppingly Hellenic – the boned fish stuffed with spinach and shiitake is served with a lemon-yuzu dressing. Oh, and it looks amazing.

Athenian Tartare with Caviar (£19)

No apologies for hitting a bass note again so soon. Fenix offers it ceviche style with a South American dressing of tiger’s milk, avocado, kiwi fruit and jalapeño, but this fresh treatment serving it with saffron, citrus and Ossetra caviar surpasses it.  

Grilled Octopus (£18)

Can’t resist tender cephalod and this comes with an earthy split pea cream and parsley vinaigrette that’s so powerful.

Orzo with langoustine and feta (£32)

A glorious take on a risotto with the rice-like pasta suffused with a rich bisque cut through with the sharp cheese

Broken Down Tart’ (£14.95)

Meat at last. I presume the presentation is an affectionate homage to the Greek taverna tradition of plate smashing (somewhat suppressed nowadays by health and safety issues). This is basically slow-cooked lamb shank and parsnip cream baked tarte tatin style in delicate pastry.

All this came off the a  la carte, which can soon add up, but there is a variety of set menus, including an attractive lunch deal for £31.50. The wine list is a well-balanced, global offering, straying off, as you’d expect into some mega-expensive ‘trophy’ choices. I’m a huge fan of Greek wines and there is representation from quality operators such as Gaia, Thymiopoulos and the late great Haridimos Hatzidakis, who put Santorini on the map as a cult wine spot.

There’s also an inevitable cocktail project, celebrating the four elements that shape the mythical Greek Isles; Water, Earth, Air and Fire. One example: ‘Whirlpool Fizz’ inspired by Charybdis the sea monster that sucked ships to their doom, combining gin with “a silky backbone of stone fruit and tonic”. Down in one then.

Fenix, The Goods Yard Building, Goods Yard Street, Manchester M3 3BG. 0161 646 0231.

  • I was a lunch guest of Fenix’s owners, the Permanently Unique restaurant group. My main image is of Wagyu Stifado.