Lunch break @ Tampopo

I’ve always been a bit of a Tampopo fan. I like the understated noodle bar style of their Albert Square branch, I used to like the temporary kitchen they set up in the summer at Canteena in Castlefield and I even like the faux shanty town feel of the Trafford Centre eaterie so the newest outlet in The Triangle had to be given a road test.
The first thing to note is the different style of this recent opening.
There’s a more sophisticated, lady-who-shops feel to the place with the long cylindrical lights dangling over the tables, but the format of being seated traditional noodle bar style is still there, and all the old favourites are still on the menu.
But there’s one very unusual move – unisex toilets. Very Ally McBeal (if anyone can remember that!).

I’m not sure personally. I know it’s illogical but there’s something not quite right about reapplying your lipstick or adjusting your hair in the same room as a strange hairy fella – however civilised he might be.

Forgetting the toilets, the menu offers the same choices as the other outlets – healthy, fresh stirfries, noodles and soups with crisp, clear flavours and distinct seasoning.
We chose off the value Express menu which is available from 12pm until 7pm and costs £6.95 for two courses from a limited selection.
The side dish of vegetable dumplings (gyoza) was the only slight let-down in an otherwise fulfilling lunch with the filling being a bit detached from the casing – perhaps a little over steamed. But this is small criticism, and I will forgive them.
The vegetarian ramen was a delight of mushroom, beansprout and greens in a garlicky base soup – a pretty pond of a dish – while the Khao pad rice dish was not without fire but still cleanly flavoured.
With an accompaniment of green tea, this is a lunch that’s a tonic for the taste buds – especially on a dark, blustery, wintery day.
Tampopo sets the standard for noodle bars being value for money and using quality ingredients in a pleasant surroundings – whichever part of the growing empire you choose to sample their wares.
Plus: Healthy, fresh and tasty.
Minus: Sorry but it has to be those unisex toilets.
Value: Good value for money in a sophisticated setting – two courses for two people with tea £17.50.

Know a better noodle bar? Let me know below.

Girl power? Give me drink

Is this pink port perfectly patronising?
It’s apparently a tipple to attract the ladies. M&S have taken that bastion of after dinner accompaniment to the cheeseboard and created pink port which they’ve released onto an unsuspecting womankind this week.
The Pink Port is meant to be served chilled over ice as a refreshing drink, its label says.
As regular readers will know, I haven’t been able to taste it due to my current wagon riding status but I’m not sure I would want to if I could. (Perhaps its this self-inflicted abstinence that’s making me come over all curmudgeonly about it!)
What exactly is the point of it? Port is a fanatstic drink in its own right, it doesn’t need girlifying it by making it pink and flowery. I generally find women have sophisticated palates with the ability to appreciate vintage products. Don’t you?
But across the drinks industry there seems to be a trend for this sort of thing.
Now I’m happy to share a good rose along with the next girl, but do women really want specially packaged products and dubious creations of pinkness in their tipple?
Wine with added this and that, disco glittery labels and sickly sweet concoctions of fruit or herbal infusions over an alcohol base?
Please spare me this girl-power-revival-wrapped-in-soft-tissue-wafted-with-butterfly-wing-secretion nonsence and just pass the port – and the stilton.

D is for diet, despair and determination

D Day arrived this weekend. I guess I’ve been ignoring the signs, wanting the truth to be different but Saturday morning proved to be the decisive moment.
Recovering from complete over-indulgence and liver abuse inflicted during Saturday’s dining awards, I sought refuge in a sauna and spa.
Shock one. The bikini felt a little too snug. Shock two. It was almost like there wasn’t just me and Himself attempting to sweat out those toxins. Something was coming between us.
Yes the dining out, cooking spectaculars and a rather robustly healthy interest in the wine deals at my local supermarket has started to show.
It’s time for drastic action – but can a diet really be on the cards?
How can someone who lives their life through food be on a diet? Being a life-long believer in good food being good, not only for the soul, but also for mind and body I can’t reconcile denial being a healthy state of being.
Having a widening girth is often treated as a stage of life – middle-aged spread, a time for slowing down, being comfortable with your body.
WIDE, COMFORTABLE, SPREADING – are these words to make you proud of your person?
Well this cosy, cardi wearing image of womanhood is not for me – I declare here and now that I resist it!
I’m horrified that I might no longer be in control of the bits and bobs, that they might develop a life of their own and just grow and grow until I end up fronting some Government anti-obesity campaign with my shame on show for all to see.

So the idea of a diet has entered my thoughts. As yet it’s untouched and grubby on the shelf of future plans, looking like a particularly unsavoury bottle of medicine. It’s one which I definitely don’t want to consume, but fear I may have to.

I have a month to lose one stone and I’m determined to do it. A month until my birthday, that day of the year when numbers rule.
The plan so far is to first ditch the unnecessary. So booze is out. Those empty calories which do you no good (don’t pretend you guzzle it for the anti-oxidant levels) is the first thing to go.
A more concerted effort at the gym (you mean you don’t burn calories by chatting?) and another weigh-in later in the week and we’ll see if anything more drastic is required.
Expect the food reviews, recipes and blog entries to take a lighter feel for the next few weeks and any flab-busting tips will be gratefully received.
Just please, pleeeeease don’t put me on a diet.
Btw, the picture is there by way of inspiration. It’s not me – yet.

Hi-Life Dining Awards 2008

It was quite a night at last night’s Hi-Life Dining Awards. Held for the second year at the Hilton Hotel on Deansgate it was a celebrity studded spectacular to honour those restaurants voted the best by the club members.
Unlike other awards of this type, this club membership system means the selections are made by the restaurants’ own customers rather than by the critics and know-alls who too often see establishments putting on their best coat for their arrival.
It’s a sort of people’s dining Oscars.
Some award winners were deservedly uncontroversial – Alison Seagrave (Harvey Nichols 2nd floor) was named best chef for the second year running and Stock was named best Manchester restaurant.
But it’s not all about Manchester with the club members also voting on the best north east retaurant ( Blackfriars of Newcastle) as well as Merseyside (Negresco Deco), Lancashire (Thyme @ Sirloin), Yorkshire (Casa Mia Millennium) and Ireland (Deanes of Belfast).
A couple of awards were, perhaps, a little more surprising – Grill on the Alley was deemed to have the best atmosphere (not something I noticed) and Castlefield’s Albert’s Shed was voted best overall restaurant.
A full list of winners to follow.
But what of the food for this prestigious occassion where celebrities and customers mingle to celebrate everything food?
Serving several hundred foodies must be every chef’s nightmare but the Hilton pulled it off. (Having been to a similar occassion at London’s Park Lane Hilton I can confirm that Manchester’s was not only a more interesting menu but also better presented.)
To start there was homemade gravadlax which was good if cut a little too thinly for my greedy taste. This was accompanied by celeriac and a perfectly dry, grapey, rounded New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
The main course saw the chef pull a culinary joke on us. Fillet of lamb accompanied by mini shephards pie made from shredded and, almost muttony, shoulder of lamb. It was a strong effort but looking aroud, didn’t seem to suit everyone’s taste.
The dual dessert of lemon tart and the strongest, most powerfully Ribena-inspired blackcurrant sorbet I’ve ever tasted completed this robust meal.
See more pictures from the event – and share your own – at the Flickr group for this blog.

Another food blog to entertain

Another food blogger makes it onto my foodie blog roll.
A childhood name led to the food blog GastroGrrl, its creator told me.
“The name was just something my fiance and I came up with after throwing a few things around, partly influenced by what my dad used to call me (my surname is Gross, he used to call me ‘gastric Gross’ as I used to always want to know when lunch/tea was. He’s a doctor in that field, so it’s not as odd as it sounds!)”
She’s now been blogging for just over a year, writing about the food scene in her Macclesfield home town. She’s also a regular on the subject of vegetarian provision.
” You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find a restaurant that doesn’t just give you risotto…”.
If you’ve got a food blog, let me know below, by email, at the Facebook group or on the Flickr group.

No stars in this city – again

Another year – and still no city centre Michelin star. Congratulations to Juniper – again, but when will Manchester have restaurants we could even see being in the running for the coveted award?
Sadly, I can’t add much more to last year’s blog post on the subject.
But does it matter? Are we missing out or are the days of exclusive eateries over? Are we bovered?
If you are, here’s the full list of great restaurants to visit which aren’t in Manchester.
If not, recommend your favourite place to dine below.

School children must learn to cook

Today’s announcement that cooking is to become a compulsory in schools has to be welcomed.
The idea that people start home unable to cook themselves a meal and exist on nothing but takeaways and ready meals seems to be becoming an obesity reality if recent reports on buying habits are anything to go by.
According to today’s Mirror, there will be eight key meals taught but what exactly those are, will be chosen by the public in a sort of dinner idol contest.
So far commentators seem to have been concentrating on “traditionals” such as roast chicken or cottage pie and “new” favourites such as curry.
Schools Secretary Ed Balls says the emphasis will be on making sure pupils can master simple, healthy recipes using fresh ingredients.
From this September, every 11-14 year-old in the 85% of schools currently offering food technology classes will be taught practical cookery.
The remaining 15% of secondaries will be expected to teach the compulsory classes by 2011.
This all sounds very positive and a world away from my own cookery lessons where tooth-cracking rock buns and fat-laden cheese and onion pie were the order of the day.
So to help the Government along with this plan, I’ve come up with my own suggested eight dishes everyone should master – feel free to suggest your own below:
1.Vegetarian curry. Get a good helping of the daily five with this easy to cook favourite.
2. Hunter’s chicken. Easy, tasty and relatively cheap.
3. Lentil salad. Because cooking isn’t just about hot food.
4. Baked apples. Because everyone needs something sweet now and then and these are virtuously tasty.
5. Spaghetti Bolognese . Worth learning something that could also help when starting dating.
6. Smoked mackerel pate. Perfect for lunchboxes or dinner parties.
7. Baked Italian-style tofu. Because there’s nothing to fear from vegetarian (or vegan) products.
8. Fish pie. Because no-one’s life is complete until they’ve had this!
Your suggestions please.

Kimchi tried and tasted

The Korean delicacy of Kimchi was the first rather unusual taste test for this year.
This new so-called “superfood” is a traditional Korean dish made from fermented cabbage. We tried a hot and spicy variety from Seoul Kimchi at the city’s Upper Brook Street.
The first thing to note was the smell. As it permeated the office it caused a few held noses and some spraying of perfume bottles being a very distinctive and strong odour.
The closes thing I can think of to describe would be wet old socks. So, not a great start. However that first mouthful was enough to convince even the sceptics.
A good kick of chilli was obvious followed by an undercurrent of fish sauce, garlic and ginger. the cabbage was surprisingly crisps, almost pickled with the sauce packing in the flavour.
I couldn’t vouch for any health-giving properties but, on taste alone, it’s a winner for me.
Seoul Kimchi also sells Korean lunch-boxes and other products and can be found at Upper Brook Street, Manchester. 0161 273 5556/0161 273 1077.

Easter comes early this year

Easter seems to have come early this year.Yes, less than a month after Christmas, the great God of consumerism that is the supermarkets appears to have decided that it is now officially Easter.
I brought these hot cross buns from a local Tesco and, as you can see on the picture, not only are they labelled as such, but they also bear the message “Happy Easter”.
Now as every schoolchild knows, Easter is indeed a movable feast being based around the Paschal Full Moon, but it certainly is unusual for that to occur in January.
So to find out what’s going on I consulted some schoolchildren. These youngsters at Woodlands Junior School have certainly been working hard at their website on the subject and they say that Easter Sunday is on March 23 this year.
They also provide plenty of information about the tradition of the buns (eaten on Good Friday) after a period of fasting (Lent). And isn’t that part of the pleasure? After some self-induced denial, the warm, sweet, spiced fruit delicacy for breakfast is a mouth-watering treat. Served up in January it’s little more than a toasted teacake.
I have no other information to suggest that the cyber-whizzkid’s at this school could possibly be wrong so I can only assume that the supermarkets are making a bid to change the entire Christian calender.

Christmas will no doubt be next. Surely it would be more sensible to have it in August so that summer sales of turkey kebabs and twizzlers could be improved. The festive meal would then also build on the sales of chipolatas and bacon dung the summer period. I can see the packaging now – a nativity scene together with a “perfect for BBQ” sticker.

Then all they’d need to do is make the American Thanksgiving dinner a firm part of the winter celebrations in order to keep the end of year turkey sales constant.
Any supermarket execs reading this blog – you can have that idea for free. Just think two turkey peak selling opportunities every year. What are you waiting for?

Sweet Mandarin @ Northern Quarter

Not long now until the Chinese New Year celebrations take place here in Manchester and it’s hard to believe that I haven’t enjoyed a single oriental meal for 2008.
A situation easily solved with a visit to Sweet Mandarin . This charming restaurant has been tucked away in the Northern Quarter since 2004 and I’m not quite sure why I’ve never made it in before now. Having called this weekend, I certainly wish I had.
According to its own website, Sweet Mandarin’s concept “is based on a simple theme: quick service, delicious oriental and pan asian food and most importantly value for money. ”
We put them to the test for an early evening meal before the crowds got going in what I think has become the most diverse and bustling streets in the city for food. Where else can you choose from Chinese, Japanese, game BBQ, curries, bar snacks, pizza and vegetarian wholefood?
For starters we shared the veggie combo(£7). The selection included “seaweed” with no pretence about its cabbagey heritage having both dark and light varieties included plus the simple looking but stunning tasting salt and pepper mushroom. It’s the mark of good cooking that such humble ingredients – mushrooms, onion, chili – become such an interesting taste sensation.
The main courses were equally good. Himself got a bit nostalgic for some reason and ordered a portion of sweet and sour fish(£11.50). A far-off look entered his eyes as he remembered how we frst met in a fish and chip shop where he’d called to got a portion of what to my mind is a rather sickly delicacy. The batter was lighter than that memorable predecessor and the portion more generous.
I tucked into a house speciality “Mabel’s vegetarian claypot” (£8.50). This was a good heart way of cooking tofu with chunky veg and plenty of fiery slices of ginger.
The service is friendly and informal and the atmosphere is one of a community, neighbourhood restaurant. The interior is decorated in a simple way with an almost homely style.
You can check out the interior with the brief clip above.
I enjoyed our simple meal there and could well be back for more.
Sweet Mandarin is at Design House, 19 Copperas Street, off High Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester, M4 1HS. 0161 832 8848.
You can also find out more about the interesting history of the restaurant with this clip: