Tag Archive for: Bees

A head for heights? Most certainly as long as I‘ve a cocktail in my hand or, better still, a series of small plates arriving against a panoramic backdrop. To satisfy my needs, every high rise development these days seems to come with a rooftop bar or restaurant. At the Manchester version of Soho House, due later this year, they are even throwing in a swimming pool eight storeys up below its bar and I note that the ubiquitous Gino D’Acampo has been getting in on the act over in Liverpool, opening an eponymous Sky Bar Terrace at the top of the INNSiDE by Meliá hotel.

It may be that city’s highest alfresco restaurant and bar, but at 270 ft it’s a mere molehill compared with the tallest viewpoint I’ve visited – Chicago’s Willis Tower, the Western Hemisphere’s third highest building at 1,730ft. One caveat, its Sky Deck with jutting-out glass Ledge is the same height (1,450ft) as the top of that old stager, New York’s Empire State.

Both dwarf our own Shard in London, which stands at a mere 1,020ft. One advantage is that the 72nd floor viewing gallery is partially open air, offering views of the pinnacle, as well as 360-degree views around the building. I’m still gob struck by how tiny Tower Bridge looked from 800ft above.

All of which brings us to Manchester’s 20 Stories, whose major selling point is its huge outdoor terrace and bar (with appropriate shelters for when the city’s weather lives up to its reputation). At 300ft, it’s a glamorous, stunning spot to take in the ever-changing skyline and cityscape (see main image). You can understand its appeal as a special place for a drink and a people watch. The wine list is arguably the best in town, but food quality has been variable with a constant change of head chefs since its inception in 2018. 

I dined there recently, road-testing their new five-course tasting menu, available Monday to Thursday, 5.30pm-8.pm. It started well with a vegan opener of broccoli steak with horseradish and lemon, but after that it didn’t live up to its £65 a head price. A better bet is to pick from the more casual Terrace Menu, perhaps mixing and matching tomato, basil and parmesan arancini, truffle fries and BBQ flat iron steak tacos with a tipple or two from their Aperol Cocktail Menu.

Black Friar, Salford – keeping it down to earth

Casual and al fresco is a good way to go in this sweltering summer and the maturing  ground-level garden of the re-born Black Friar is a choice spot, even if there is no view to speak of. Well, who would want to ogle the traffic hurtling down Trinity Way? By chance, it has chef connections with 20 Stories. Aiden Byrne, launch chef there, was scheduled to do the same for the Black Friar but pulled out around Pandemic time; his replacement Ben Chaplin came from… you guessed it. 

His 20 Stories fine dining pedigree was obvious when I first sat down to eat in the newly planted garden with its big fence two summers ago. A couple of dishes were over-elaborate for what was aimed as a gastropub. The menu has since settled down  from trying to balance all this with ‘pub classics’, maintaining high quality ingredients while  taking fewer risks.

It is good they are still making the most of their urban greenery, though when we went recently to sample their summer ‘Garden Menu’ gusty showers weren’t doing it any favours.This particular menu is served straight from the outdoor bars, so we benefited from its canopy and ski heaters. And a couple of goblets of holy Gavi to heal the soul. There’s a choice of three amply topped flatbreads, including an artichoke version for vegans, who can also dive into a Falafel Friar Bowl. Alongside the charcuterie and cheese platters sat our big extra temptation, definitely not plant-based: Honey-glazed Ham Hock with Welsh rarebit and pickled onions. The Black Friar is very generous with its pickles and, alas with a mountain of coleslaw that accompanied the hock. As a £17 sharing plate this was a meal in itself. We took the half-stripped bone home with us. Combined with yellow split peas and stock, it formed an un-seasonally  ballasting soup that lasted us all next day. As blazing sunshine reappeared.

Queen Bee with a red dot, signature vol au vents – it must be Climat

The other end of Blackftriars Street and Chris Laidler is showing off his stings on the rooftop terrace of Climat, now home to four hives and 40,000 bees, including a Queen, marked with a red dot. The wine-led restaurant’s founder and his exec chef Luke Richardson also brought back from Hampshire a further 50,000 bees that are now ensconced at their respective homes in Wrexham and Chester – all contributing honey to Climat and sister restaurant Covino in Chester, a place I also really love.

Chris tells me they expect the total of 90,000 bees will swell to 500,000 over the summer before reducing in size to weather the winter months. He’s resigned to the occupational hazards of bee-keeping – despite wearing the full gear to handle them. He’s more worried that there’ll be enough opportunities for his charges to pollinate in Manchester city centre, even though it’s leafier than you think.

And there is competition. Chris points across the road to the roof of the car park behind the brutalist former Ramada Renaissance, slowly being transformed into the Treehouse Hotel. Here Manchester Cathedral have installed a total of 10 hives in addition to the six already on the cathedral’s roof producing ‘Heavenly Honey’.

It’s amazing what your eye takes in from a great height. On the eighth floor of Blackfriars House, Climat actually benefits from not being up in the stratosphere. I prefer the more intimate nosiness of being level or slightly above rival rooftops, so you don’t miss intricate features. Seen from the outside terrace (well away from the swarms) or through floor-to -ceiling plate glass. Perhaps with a 500cl carafe of Bourgogne Aligoté at your elbow – ‘is that honey on the nose?’ – and a signature vol au vent while awaiting a small plates parade of what Luke dubs his ‘Parisian expat food’.

Is it fanciful to judge chefs from the books on their restaurant shelves? Obviously there to make a statement. True, what they put on the plate is paramount, but any committed artist is in part the sum of their influences. Take the wondrous Moorcock Inn at Norland. Among some hefty cookbooks in the bar you’ll find the (out of print) eponymous cookbook of Kobe Desramaults. At his legendary Michelin-starred In de Wulf in Belgium he was once mentor to Moorcock chef/patron Alisdair Brooke-Taylor and the legacy shows.

Aspirational younger chefs are keen to display an inventory of their own inspirations. Just a couple of impressive examples I recall – Steven Halligan at Restaurant Metamorphica in Haslingden and Paul Sykes at Hyssop in Glossop. 

A shout-out for the latter restaurant which was gutted by fire recently. Paul and his partner Jess have launched a Crowdfunder “to help raise the funds to get us trading again, on a smaller scale, while the bigger project of rebuilding Hyssop starts.” Well worth supporting.

Newly crowned Manchester Chef of the Year Eddie Shepherd’s own book collection sits in his living room – as do we at one of his acclaimed Walled Gardens dining experiences along with eight other foodies. He calls it his ‘Underground Restaurant’ suggesting some Hobbit hole or a homage to the Beat Poets, but the bijou setting is in a Whalley Range housing development. To call it a ‘gated community’ would bely its charm. There is something otherworldly about it. His enclosed garden is home to the beehives and herbs that fuel his perception-challenging project. His home is his laboratory. The knives on the wall he forged himself, few domestic kitchens could host his cutting edge molecular gastronomical kit (a £10,000 electric homogeniser, anyone?) and the names on those book spines above our table … El Bulli, Noma, Alinea, El Celler de Can Roca. It’s a roll call of the runes of experimental cuisine. 

So how does self-taught Eddie, a philosophy graduate who found his kitchen calling by chance, fit into the lineage of Ferran Adrià, René Redzepi, Grant Achatz and the brothers Roca? 

Impossible to compare a solo suburban explorer like Eddie – let’s call him the Alchemist of Alexandra Park – against their beefed up brigades and well-stoked international hype. He is a one-off.

For starters let’s explore one of the 13 dishes in the £85 tasting menu he serves us across a Sunday afternoon of recurrent delights. A visual feast too. Made all the more enchanting by his modest refusal to detail at length the intricacies of preparation for each dish, though he was happy to answer questions from the exclusive gathering. For all the answers visit his exhaustive You Tube channel.

With BYOB the meal itself is an absolute steal. He’s been doing it here for six years, three long weekends a month and has no plans to open a conventional restaurant.

Cured mushrooms with vanilla and beetroot is a stand-out among stand-outs. He explained its gestation to my Manchester Confidential colleague, Davey Brett: “Eddie takes a mixture of mushrooms, thinly slices them, dehydrates them and soaks them in umami stock to rehydrate them, taking on the stock’s flavour. He then sets them in a block with an enzyme and this compressed block is cooked for two hours, cut into small pieces, smoked with oak, before finally being seasoned and marinated in oil.

“The whole process takes several days and concentrates a punnet’s worth of fungi into roughly two mouthfuls of cured mushrooms. It’s a ridiculously luxurious dish, but when you consider the steps and processes that go into a raw Wagyu steak or traditional cured meats, is it really that bonkers?”

It tastes as extraordinary as it sounds, coming after he has served us a lemon verbena and grapefruit G&T with his own gin and infused tonic and an ultra-instagrammable dandelion petal fruit pastille each. Soundtracked deliriously by REM’s Shiny Happy People. Northern Soul and Gomez also feature in Eddie’s eclectic playlist, which adds a surreal homely feel.

Next up is even more visual (see main image), his latest in a series of dishes investigating the culinary potential of blue algae. Yes, this miso is very blue, a light below exaggerating the effect as it cradles a cube of tofu garnished with pickled mushrooms. Another glowing (sic) report for the extraordinary range and subtlety of the plant-based palette of flavours.

The sole dairy presence comes with the only ugly course. Split open that black charcoal carapace and inside it is a rose and koji marinated halloumi. To accompany, a pot of rhubarb molasses. It’s a playful rejoinder to the bad old days of the grilled Cypriot cheese as token veggie dish on a menu.

Playful also sums up carrot charcuterie as a dead taste ringer for the real thing, topped with a show-stopping dehydrated carrot tuile. It is cultured with koji and cured with juniper and black pepper, and smoked before drying. Not necessarily all in order. I smudged my notepad.

Superficially more conventional nettle soup, a fluffy aligot featuring potato, truffle and Blue Wensleydale and a glorious treacle and walnut bread provide ample comfort eating. Eddie bakes every day, but he admits none of his own cultured butter can match the bright yellow ‘Bungay’ he has set before us.

This is hand made in Suffolk by the folk behind Baron Bigod cheese using the same raw milk from their grass-fed Montbeliarde cattle. For my close encounter with this breed in their native Jura follow this link.

Another daily task in the Shepherd household is the preparation of proper tortillas, inspired by Eddie’s travels in Mexico. Most Gringos wouldn’t trouble to grind corn into masa to make their own. I’ve tried it in Tijuana once; it’s messy. You have to niximalise in an alkaline solution the corn (in this case heirloom olitillo blanco from Oaxaca), grind it to make fresh masa and then press and cook the tortillas fresh at service.

During this visit our host takes Mexican fave one authentic step further with his huitlacoche (pronounced whee-tla-KOH-cheh) topping – a direct link with the Aztecs, They prized this staple, thought to have more protein than than regular corn and high amounts of lysine, an essential amino acid.

Whatever its attributes huitlacoche – also known as corn smut, fungus or Mexican truffle – is essentially a plant disease that grows on ears of corn around the kernels in puffy, grey clouds. I looked all this up afterwards. A meal at the Walled Gardens is nothing if not thought provoking. The taste? Mushroomy, a hit of smoked chipotle, a dash of gooseberry salsa that works a treat. Gone in one. 

Puddings are equallly left-field obviously. Chamomie and Raspberry, Honey and Wildflowers (bees are his current passion along with knife construction), Pinecone Sorbet and finally another example of mind-blowing technique with a purpose. 

Scotch Bonnet Truffles are created by distilling the searingly hot chillies at low temperature in the rotary vacuum evaporator to capture their flavour but remove any spice and heat.

The resulting distillation is blended with double fermented Valrhona Itakuja chocolate to make the truffles. All the vivid aromas of the chillies without the burn. The dish is finished off with shards of fruit glass, in this instance made from passion fruit. I think. For more information on Eddie’s Youtube there’s a video and a printed recipe if you want to attempt it at home. I’d suggest instead you high-tail it down to the Walled Gardens. Eddie will soon be offering slots into 2023. What has been a hard booking to arrange probably got that little bit harder.

For a full list of winners at the Manchester Food and Drink Awards and my thoughts on the event visit this link.