Category Archives: eating out

Skint Lunch Club: 81 Renshaw Street

Soup and a Sandwich

Streaky Bacon, Cream Cheese & Spring Onion sandwich and a large bowl of Sweet Potato and Chickpea soup.

Hands up who’s skint. Well, that makes two of us. I looked at my bank account last week and let out a wail that could probably be heard across Merseyside. To add insult to injury, January looks to be the month where everything I own suddenly decides to break or run out. Eyeliner, jeans, PC hard drives, you name it. It’s like one long Monday where your bank manager has you on speed dial and you can’t afford to drown your sorrows in overpriced cocktails.

However, like the brave little soldier I am, I refuse to allow my straightened circumstances to stop me indulging in the odd lunch out every now and then. Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to work in an area of Liverpool where I’m spoilt for inexpensive lunch options, one of these being the recently opened 81 Renshaw Street.

81 Renshaw Street is an ‘arts cafe’, which opened with relatively little fanfare a few months ago. It’s the kind of unassuming little place you could easily walk past if you didn’t already know it was there. Like so many recent Liverpool openings, it’s decorated in ‘shabby chic’ (Christ I hate that term), so there are lots of old cabinets full of vintage crockery, rickety-looking tables, large squishy sofas and a gas fire that I’m sure my Nana June owned back in 1989. Where in other places this kind of ‘I’ve just accidentally wandered into a jumble sale’ style looks contrived, here it works – although this may just be because you can tell it’s there with no sense of irony whatsoever.

I had the soup and a sandwich, which consisted of a Streaky Bacon, Cream Cheese & Spring Onion sandwich and a large bowl of Sweet Potato and Chickpea soup. The sandwich itself was fairly utilitarian – two slices of crunchy streaky bacon and a large smear of spring-onion-studded cream cheese on a crunchy ciabatta roll – yet salty, creamy, crunchy and delicious. Plus, it wasn’t filled with any of the limp lettuce and watery tomato slices that can so easily ruin a perfectly good sarnie.

The real star of the show, though, was the Sweet Potato & Chickpea Soup. It’s always good when you see a simple dish done right, and this was as warm and welcoming as a bear hug. Hearty, slightly sweet and heady with toasty cumin, here was a soup that actually tasted of something, a delightful change from the bland fibrous mulch I’ve often had served up to me in other places. As a testament to how good it was, I overheard a woman at one of the other tables asking her waitress for the recipe, which she duly scribbled down. You don’t get that at Subway.

Flourless Clementine Cake

Flourless Clementine Cake

But woman cannot live on soup alone, so I decided to buy a slice of Flourless Clementine Cake for the road. Packed full of almonds and sour-sweet clementine peel, this was a squidgy slice of tasty complexity, and a cake that I will definitely be attempting to recreate in my kitchen sometime in the next few weeks. While I was there, I also had a sample of their Banana Bread in my mouth and didn’t instantly spit it out and cross myself. As regular readers will know, I deem bananas to be the devil’s own fruit, so the fact I managed to eat something containing them without wanting to wash my mouth out immediately with antiseptic is definite progress.

With its ramshackle charm, minimal web presence and really good homemade food, there’s a refreshing lack of pretence to 81 Renshaw Street. While its food is never going to win any awards for originality, it will win plaudits for being simple, tasty and full of heart. Plus, you can eat like a queen and get change from a tenner. And, in these times of economic hardship, you can’t really say fairer than that.

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A postcard from New York: Momofuku Noodle Bar

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I turned 30 yesterday. In testament to the fact that I am now (allegedly) a thoughtful and rational adult, I celebrated my third decade on this earth by running away to New York, pumping loads of money into a jukebox in the East Village and dancing badly to ‘Abracadabra’ by the Steve Miller Band. And then, because no birthday would be complete without me eating my own body weight in at least one meat product which will inevitably cause me to have a massive coronary before the age of 65, I went to Momofuku noodle bar to stuff my face with pork belly and noodles. LOTS of pork belly and noodles.

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I’ve longed to go to Momofuku ever since I first read about David Chang and his legendary pork buns on Serious Eats. I’ve recreated some Momofuku and Momofuku Milk Bar recipes at home with varying degrees of success, but knew that I wouldn’t be entirely satisfied until I’d tried the real thing for myself. A quick Internet search revealed that I wouldn’t be able to go to Momofuku Ko unless I had booked six days in advance, and didn’t mind spending a ridiculous amount of money on my tea. However, the noodle bar looked like just the thing to slake my thirst for an authentic bowl of ramen.

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Mr. McMc and I rocked up fully anticipating to wait for an hour or more before we could get a table, but as it was we were seated within five minutes of arrival (they must have guessed it was my birthday). We also managed to drink what might possibly be the world’s biggest can of Asahi (one can = two pints. Not too shabby considering the tiny glasses we were given to drink it from).

We started with the legendary pork buns (pictured above). Comprising of a giant slab of pork belly wrapped in a squidgy white bun and garnished with pickled cucumber, these were consumed with almost indecent haste. Porky fat, soft melting meat and the wonderful hit of pickles to cut through the richness – these were heavenly, and I only wish that I’d ordered more of them. (They were so good in fact that Mr. McMc scoffed half of one while I was in the bathroom before I could take a picture of it).

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Smoked chicken wings weren’t as smoky as I maybe would have liked, but were still absolutely delicious. Punchy with soy, pickled chillies and garlic, the meat practically disintegrated off the bone at the first bite. These were a perfect example of bar food done well, and were just the thing to soak up a pint or two.

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I was slightly unsure of what to expect from the Roasted Rice Cakes I ordered. Being a carb fiend, I just knew that I really wanted to try this typically Korean dish that I’d heard so much about. I need not have worried. A firm crunch of toasted rice gave way to deliciously firm, chewy insides. Smothered in a fiery red sweet-yet-spicy sauce, punchy with ssamjang (a fermented bean and chilli paste) they were like nothing I’d ever eaten before. Indeed, I’m already thinking of where I could visit in Manchester to try them again.

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The highlight of the meal was undoubtedly the ramen bowls. I ordered the Momofuku Ramen and Mr McMc ordered the Spicy Miso Ramen. Both were absolutely stunning – my bowl was full of pillow-soft pulled pork, chewy toothsome noodles which were firm and springy to the bite and topped with a perfectly poached egg. I also found the thick, fat slab of pork belly to be a nice touch. I could have drunk the broth like a cup of coffee. It tasted like the absolute essence of pork, rich, fatty and slightly salty. It was a bowl of perfection – the ramen which all other ramen I eat from now on will be judged against. Mr McMc’s ramen was equally good. It tasted of spicy, smoky chicken, as though the world’s best portion of KFC had been liquidised and served up to us.

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By this point, we were feeling pretty drunk on good food (as well as that gigantic can of Asahi) but I felt that the whole experience wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t try at least one of their signature desserts. A soft serve scoop of peanut butter and ritz cracker soft serve seemed to be almost too salty at first bite. Then, the pow of salt gave way to a slow, creeping sweetness, helped by the twist of grape jelly (jam) the ice cream had been layered over. It reminded me of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches of my childhood, served up to me in ice cream form.

The total bill for four courses of belly-bursting-goodness came to 90 dollars (roughly 60 pounds in UK money), an absolute bargain considering how much food we ate. While I’m in New York for another four days, I have a feeling that eating at Momofuku Noodle Bar will be one of the highlights of my trip, and something I’ll look back on fondly for years to come. It’s certainly set one hell of a precedent for the rest of my 30s.

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Introducing #Scousetroclub

For the past few weeks, I’ve been helping my friend Sid of Sid’s Food Fascination on a secret project. It’s a secret project which has seen us meeting up in pubs across the city, drinking far too much beer, eating burgers and thinking up interesting names. So, after a lot of discussion (and more than one mild hangover), I’m quite happy to see that he’s launched Scousetroclub, Liverpool’s first (and so far only) dining club.

Modelled around Manchester’s award winning Gastroclub (@gastroclub_mcr), Scousetroclub is a chance for gastronomes across Merseyside to get together,  enjoy great food, meet new people and discover new restaurants. Each restaurant will be producing a special set menu for each event (This won’t be  food that you can walk in off the street and order). It also gives you the chance to try something new and different, prepared by a professional chef in a top Liverpool restaurant.

I’ve been to quite a few Gastroclub nights in Manchester, and I’ve never had a bad meal. Indeed, the Gastroclub evening held at Harvey Nichols in March stands out in my mind as being one of the best dining experiences I’ve had this year. So, I’m excited to see how Scousetroclub is going to take off  – and the chance to meet some cool, interesting new people.

The first Scousetroclub is being held at Lunya on 1st February 2012, and the meal menu will include a cava sangria on arrival and a five course meal for £29 per person. I’ve long been a fan of Lunya (and their amazing chorizo sausage rolls). Indeed, I’d even go so far to say that it’s one of my favourite restaurants in the city. I think it’s the perfect place to hold the first event, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Peter Kinsella and his team will be serving up.

Liverpool’s had an awful reputation for food in the past – one which (in my opinion) is really quite undeserved. Hopefully, events like Scousetroclub, the birth of the (reportedly excellent) Liverpool Supper Club, and the legion of new restaurant openings that we’ve seen in the city over the past twelve months will go some way to convincing outsiders that it is possible to get a damn good meal in this city.

If you’re interested in attending Scousetroclub, a place can be booked by emailing scousetroclub@me.com. Alternatively, keep an eye on their website, and on their Twitter account.  I’ll see you there.

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Miss Cay eats London: Breakfast at Dishoom, Lunch at Scoop, Dinner at Byron

It’s been five years since I moved away from London, and there’s a lot of things I miss about the place. I miss my friends, and seeing my reflection illuminated in the coloured lights of the Wellcome Institute. I miss the smell of tube stations – that strange combination of dirt and history. But most of all, I miss the food. London is home to some of the best restaurants in the UK and – like it or not – arguably the most vibrant and involved food culture. Living in Liverpool, and reading numerous blogs posts about the most exciting recent openings, always makes me feel as though I’m pressing my nose against the glass of what’s out there. It also makes me determined to eat at as many amazing restaurants as possible whenever I pay the capital a visit.

I’m lucky enough to visit London regularly (at the moment, it’s around once a month) which provides me with ample opportunity to tick a few of the must-eat-at restaurants off my list. And this visit was no exception. I spent yesterday running around the city with my American cousin in tow, eating some seriously good food and remembering just how much I hate the tourist areas of London, and the huge swathes of humanity who somehow feel that it is their god given right to cluster outside the entrances of tube stations.

We started our eating adventures at Dishoom, a Bombay style café situated in Covent Garden. I’d heard amazing things about their Bacon Naan rolls, and I’m pleased to report that they didn’t disappoint. Deliciously plump rashers of bacon had been grilled to perfection, crispy and thick with smoky fat. The naans were warm, soft and delicious – more chappati like in texture than the pillowy specimens I’m used to getting from my local takeaway (although this is no bad thing). However, the highlight was undeniably the homemade chilli jam which came on the side. This sweet zingy condiment turned a good breakfast into a sensational one, and I found myself picking pieces of out of my naan just so I could dip them into this amazing condiment.

Honourable mention should also go to the cups of chai we ordered to wash our breakfast down. Spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, it provided the warm kick we needed to face walking around an unseasonably wet London.

It’s Dishoom’s first birthday at the moment, and they’re giving away lots of free food and booze providing you whisper some magic words to their lovely waitresses (these can be found on their Facebook page). A swift singsong of HAPPY FIRST BIRTHDAY! led to us getting a free breakfast which, in case you were wondering, is always a sure fire way to win my heart.

After walking around the seventh circle of Hell which is Topshop on Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon (NEVER AGAIN), I decided that gelato was required.  Thankfully, we weren’t that far away from Soho, so it was time to make a swift stop at Scoop. 

I was introduced to Scoop by my friend Jess last September and now no trip to London is complete without me indulging in tub of this heavenly stuff. Walking into Scoop, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. The counter displays rows upon rows of brightly coloured frozen delights, all whipped up and looking like the world’s tastiest rainbow. If you’d like to try before you buy, the friendly lady behind the counter will be more than happy to hand you a small taste of each different flavour, so you can get a taste before you dive into the main event.

We decided to go for two scoops each – both of us got the Dark Chocolate Sorbet (Cioccolato Fondente) and my cousin opted for the Torroncino whilst I got a scoop of the raspberry sorbet. The Cioccolate Fondente was outstanding – black as night,  fruity and rich with 70% cocoa, it managed to be so much more than just a simple concoction of chocolate and frozen water. I adored my raspberry sorbet, sharp, tart with just the right amount of sweetness, it was just the thing to cut through the richness of the chocolate.

At £3.50 for three scoops, this is one of the cheapest means conceivable of getting your rocks off. Don’t be put off by the calorie charts behind the counter either. Indeed, just forget about the diet altogether, and dive into a pot of fats and sugars which is so good, the UN should hand it out to warring nations to promote world peace.

The last food stop of the day saw us schlepping down Charing Cross Road to enjoy a burger at Byron.  By this point of the day we were both exhausted. We were cold, tired, incredibly wet and fed up of various tourists poking us in our delicate places with their umbrellas. We required booze and a Cheeseburger the size of our own heads. Each. When I saw the Byron sign emerging out of the rain like a beacon, I knew that this was the place for us.

I’ve heard numerous things about Byron – most of them good – and have wanting to try out the burgers offered by this burgeoning chain for a while. I was also intrigued to see whether they could replace the Meatwagon’s infamous Dead Hippy in my affections.

Whilst my Byron Burger was excellent, it still pales into insignificance compared to the mighty Dead Hippy. Saying that though, I liked the bun which was hefty enough to stand up to the weight of the burger and toppings, and didn’t fall apart after a few bites.  I was also pleased to see that it was cooked to a perfect medium rare, with a nice crust on the meat although I’d have preferred it if some juices had oozed out when I bit into it (but hey, perhaps that’s the American in me talking). The cheese and bacon were both delicious, although a dab more of the signature Byron dressing wouldn’t have gone amiss either.

The side of courgette fries were superb  – thin strips of courgette coated in a tempura batter. Each strip was brilliantly crisp and worryingly moreish. I demolished a bowl of these, vowing whilst I was eating them that I would attempt to recreate them in my own kitchen. My American cousin was also thrilled to see that they served A&W Root Beer (the only real root beer in our opinion) and, that for an extra 50p, you could get it as a float. Our bill came to £30 altogether and whilst it may have been more expensive than a train station Burger King, it was a hell of a lot more satisfying.

We wobbled back to Euston satiated, happy, and probably a stone heavier. Once again, London didn’t disappoint on the food front. I’m looking forward to my next trip where I intend to tackle the infamous Hawksmoor. Waistline, I apologise in advance.

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Red Chilli, Portland Street, Manchester

Dan Dan Noodles

It was Sunday, I was cold, it was raining, and I was a tad hungover after a night on the sauce with Dad Cay and Mr. Cay. There was only one thing for it. Chinese food – and lots of it.

Apparently the night before, after more than one bottle of red booze, I had promised my beloved that I would take him to Red Chilli – arguably Manchester’s finest Szechuan restaurant – for his lunch. It was a promise he was determined to hold me to. Hear me now, and hear me well. Be careful of the promises you make when you’re shitfaced. People will often try and make you keep them (well, it’s how I managed to get a hamster off my parents when I was 10 anyway).

Luckily for me, Red Chilli is a gem, and just the thing for when your head is aching and your belly is craving spice. I had been there once before, in 2007 with (vegetarian) ex Mr. Cay. He wasn’t impressed by the numerous offal-based dishes I ordered which came swimming in a soup of peppercorns and dried chillies, whilst I felt as though I had died and gone to an exceedingly fiery heaven. Thinking about it, it’s no wonder that we weren’t really meant to be.

Current Mr. Cay however, is well aware of my love of foods which set your mouth on fire with joy, and your heart on fire with acid reflux. Indeed, he has often joined me in scoffing down huge plates of chilli laden food which would make a lesser person weep for the health of their downstairs area. Reader, to paraphrase Jane Austen, there is a reason I’m marrying him.

However, seeing as we were feeling rather fragile, we decided to start slowly with a starter of poached chicken with a soy & ginger dip, and beancurd skin with spring onion. Both were delicious – the chicken was soft, tender and wonderfully moist – the perfect receptacle for the delightfully sharp and sweet dip. It was impossible to have just one piece of this, and I found myself nicking small slices of it with my chopsticks when Mr. Cay wasn’t looking. My beancurd was equally tasty, although its chewy rubbery texture might not be for everyone. The savoury, umami-rich sauce it was coated in was a delight, turning what can so often be a bland ingredient into a plate of sensory delights.

We’d decided to save the heat for the main courses, and were justly rewarded. My (huge) bowl of Dan Dan noodles arrived swimming in a slick, angry looking red broth. As the waitress was spooning it into my bowl, I could already feel its heat swimming and bubbling away on my tongue. Rich with fatty pork mince, slippery unctuous noodles and smoky fruity chilli oil, I could feel my hangover melting away after just one bite. And by the time I’d inhaled two bowls of the stuff, I felt almost human again (although that feeling was swiftly eradicated when I walked outside in the damp Mancunian afternoon).  The portion sizes were immensely generous to boot – this was a dish which could have easily fed four people.

Mr. Cay’s pork with green beans and crispy noodles (not pictured) was equally as good, although I’m not entirely sure he was as keen on the crispy noodles as I was. I enjoyed the snap and give of the noodles underneath my teeth which provided a nice contrast to the softness of the pork and preserved vegetables. Simple, yet delicious, it was more warming than spicy and a perfect example of unfussy ‘homestyle’ cooking.

Sad as it sounds, for me, the highlight of the meal was the exemplary Spring Onion Pancake we ordered as a side dish. Crispy, flaky, multi-layered and wholly delicious, it was the perfect thing to soak up all of their fiery soup from my Dan Dan Noodles. Despite reading numerous blog posts about this side dish, it was the first time I’d tried it for myself – and it certainly won’t be the last. I ate my portions of this in record time, and am now determined to try and recreate this in my kitchen at home.

In a city like Manchester, where you can easily pay ridiculous amounts of money for mediocre food, it’s nice to see a place like Red Chilli thriving. We only paid £35 for two courses and a whole lot of soft drinks each, and we were both forced to leave food on our plates because our bodies couldn’t physically hold any more noodles. Indeed, if there was one gripe I had about the place, it was that I practically had to chase a waitress around the restaurant for our bill. But, this is only a minor blip in a meal which soothed both my body and my soul. I will be visiting Red Chilli again. And soon. If only because I’m determined to try the rather exotic sounding ‘Dry Braised Frog’s Legs with Onion, Mangetout & Red pepper in Big Grandma’s Chilli Sauce Stew’.

Red Chilli
70-72 Portland Street
Manchester
M1 4GU

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#Meateasy, New Cross, London

I’d like to believe that I’m the type of person who is relatively immune to hype. I blame it from my days of working as a music journalist – seriously, if I had a quid for every band who used to send me their demo swearing that they were the ‘next big thing,’ I’d be a very rich lady by now. However, when it comes to food (and especially food in London), I am ashamed to say that I often find myself following the herd. You could blame this on the fact that I live in Liverpool and so am always going to find myself being riddled with jealousy whenever I hear food bloggers raving about places such as Hawksmoor, Bob Bob Ricard and Spuntino (three restaurants that you’re more likely to find on the Moon than you are to find them in the North West of England). Or you could just blame it on the fact that whenever I’m in London, I usually have so little time to spare that I’d rather ensure that I eat somewhere good rather than schlep across the Northern Line for an unappetising Burger and Chips. So, when I found myself in New Cross a week ago, I decided to pay a visit to the legendary Meateasy. After all, it would have been rude not to.

The Meateasy isn’t so much a restaurant as a dining phenomenon – a beautiful conglomeration of word of mouth recommendations, social media frenzy and tasty tasty burgers which was born after some inconsiderate dickslap decided to nick Yianni Papoutsis’s Meatwagon street food van. I’d heard rumours about the Meatwagon from various Londoners in the know over the past few years. How it would mysteriously appear in the carparks of South East London with little-to-no warning (from what I can gather, people were only aware of its existence via chinese whispers and smoke signals). How people would flock for miles around and often wait up to two hours to get their jaws around a cheeseburger. And that it served up possibly the best burgers in London – if not the whole of the UK. I didn’t care if I had to follow a centuries old pirate map and perform a ritualistic dance around a wheelie bin in a Sainsbury’s car park – I had to try one of these burgers.

Actually finding the place was a bit of a feat in itself, seeing as it’s housed at the top of a relatively run down looking pub. Once you’ve walked up a terrifyingly rickety staircase (no mean feat when you’re schlepping a suitcase around with you, I can tell you), you open the door into another world – a world populated by noise, crowds, smoke and a hell of a lot of good looking women banging bin lids (considering they all looked like models with size 8 waists, I guessed that they didn’t eat there very often). Then, when you’re in, you’re handed a ticket and told to wait until your lucky number is hollered through a loudspeaker. And what do you do whilst you wait? Why you drink of course.

I’d heard rumours that I could be waiting an inordinate amount of time before I got fed, so I decided to fully lubricate my jaws before I wrapped them around a huge slab of meat. The bar – run by crack cocktail team Soulshakers – is worth the trip alone. Pick a spirit, and a taste sensation you’re looking for, and they’ll create it for you there and then. Although they weren’t able to satiate my friend’s lust for all things Jaegermeister, they did manage to whip her up a Michelada (a kind of beery Bloody Mary). Salty, spicy and refreshing, it slipped down alarmingly easily and I had to push it away before I gulped the whole glass down in record time.

When I first saw the plates of food which were being plonked onto our table, I worried for a moment that perhpas my eyes were bigger than my belly. I needn’t have worried. Onion Rings the size of a baby’s head were crisp, sweet and terrifyingly moreish – I defy anyone to not eat an entire plateful of these in one sitting. Even better, they didn’t disintegrate in your hands leaving you with limp batter and raw onion. I wolfed a plate of these down in the space of two minutes and immediately regretted not ordering more.

Of course I couldn’t as I needed to leave room for the main event – the infamous Dead Hippy. Modelled after In-n-Out Burger’s legendary ‘Double Double’, this bad boy is two patties of mustard grilled, 100 per cent, 28 day aged chuck steak, placed lovingly onto a sourdough bun and smothered with secret sauce. After one bite, you soon realise that this isn’t so much a burger as a religious experience. A very very messy religious experience. There’s a reason why huge slabs of kitchen roll are placed on each table, and it’s not so you can delicately dab at your mouth after dainty wee bites. As soon as you chomp into this thing, rivers of burger juice run down your arms and chin, making you feel like some kind of cannibal. At first, I felt slightly self conscious about eating something which was so messy and which was causing me to openly make sex noises in public. And then I took another bite. And another. And I saw that people around me were having the same experience. And I decided to just leave my airs and graces at the door and get stuck right in.

There’s very little I can say about this burger that hasn’t be said by others already. About the perfect crust and char of the meat which manages to pack it full of flavour without losing any of that key moistness. About the fact that it is served up perfectly medium rare. About the sheer heft of that bun, which manages to soak up all of those divine flavours without disintegrating into a pappy mulch. But in the end, they’re just words. This is a food experience that really need to be tried to be believed.

Another highlight was the truly immense looking Chilli Dog that was served up to one of my friends. This wasn’t so much a Hot Dog, as a Hot Wolf – a huge hulking beast of mustard, chilli, melted cheese and a lone frankfurter looking slightly forlorn underneath it all. It seemed to be almost impossible to pick this up and eat it with your hands, but we somehow managed to succeed by passing it around the table and gently cradling it from person to person between bites. The dog itself was perfect – firm, smoky and juicy, a far cry from the rather forlorn looking things my Nanna used to pluck out of a tin when I was a kid. The authentic bean free chilli was spicy and rich without being overwhelming and provided the perfect foil for the mountain of thick yellow American cheese it was covered in.

Buffalo Wings were rich, sticky and crispy, reminding me of the type of wings you often get served up in dive bars in America. Whilst the blue cheese dip was a bit too funky for my tastes, I put this more down to the fact that I’m not a great lover of blue cheese rather than any fault on the part of the dip. If I’d not already consumed a large burger and my own bodyweight in chilli, I could have easily demolished a good few portions of these.

The only low point of the Meateasy for me were the fries – weedy, inconsequential little things which didn’t appear to be totally capable of standing up to the mounds of chilli they were saturated in. It would have been nice to have tucked into some slightly crisper specimens rather than ones which tasted like they’d come of the deep fat fryer a fraction too early.

After all that, you might have wondered how I managed to fit in a large portion of dessert. However, I undid that belt buckle, rubbed my belly and decided to take one for the team. Solely in the interests of research of course. Thankfully, the Fudge Brownie Sundae was a delight – a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream which sat proudly atop a dense, cakey brownie and had been smothered in a delectable fudge sauce. It reminded me of a more grown up version of the sundaes you tend to find in American diners (and that I used to beg my parents to buy for me when I was a kid). The vanilla ice cream cut through the rich sqiudgey brownie perfectly, combining to form something which was almost obscene after all of that grease and meat. I could practically feel my arteries turning into tubes of coagulated fat whilst I was eating it, but by God it was worth it.

There’s a certain rough and ready charm to the Meateasy, and it’s impossible not to find yourself getting wrapped up in its raucous spirit. And whilst some may baulk at the idea of plastic cutlery, drinks served in jam jars and people openly licking their fingers after a good meal, to me it felt that this was what good dining should be about – good food, good booze and good times. As I waddled down the road back to my friend’s flat, I genuinely couldn’t remember the last time I’d enjoyed myself so much whilst dining out. Best of all, a meal there won’t break the bank either – a shedload of food and two rounds of cocktails only came to £30.

Indeed, I’d happily go back there in a flash if it wasn’t for the fact that the Meateasy is closing its doors on 16th April (that’s THIS Saturday) so that the pub it’s housed in can be fully gutted and refurbished. So, if you live in London and you haven’t been yet, you need to go before this place passes into folklore forever. Hopefully this isn’t the last we’ll see of Yianni and his brilliant burgers. And, when he does make a reappearance, I’ll be travelling down from Liverpool in homage. Take my word for it, Meateasy is a very special dining experience indeed. Believe the hype.

The Meateasy, Goldsmiths Tavern, 316 New Cross Road, London.

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Gastro Club – Harvey Nichols, Manchester

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to writing about Manchester’s very own Gastro Club, which is arguably one of the most exciting dining experiences to hit the city in rather a long time.  On the second Tuesday of each month, a group of intrepid (and very hungry) culinary obsessed Twitterers flock en masse to one of the cities numerous restaurants to eat interesting food, drink excellent wine and generally have a good old natter with each other about food, life, love and everything inbetween. I adore Gastro Club – so much so in fact that I don’t even mind undertaking the hellish morning rush hour Manchester to Liverpool commute with a hangover the next day. If what’s being served up to me is tasty enough, frankly, I can even put up with being elbowed in the face by businessmen on a packed train. The lengths I go to for a good feed eh?

The last Gastro Club saw us all decamping to The Mark Addy in Spinningfields which had been turned into a festive Narnia wonderland, reached by walking through a cupboard and into a world of candlelit delights. I feasted until I popped on Mythical Beast, Herb Soup and Bread ‘Mice’ with ‘Cheese’ soup, and even managed to knock over a Christmas tree onto a man dressed as Mr. Tumnus (whilst shouting ‘SORRY MR. TUMNUS!’ rather loudly to boot. Sorry Mr. Tumnus). It was one of those magical dining experiences that will forever live on in the memories of those who were lucky enough to experience it. Alas, last time my camera decided to have a funny turn and none of my pictures came out. When it was announced that the next Gastro Club was going to be held at Harvey Nichols in Manchester, I was determined not to make the same mistake again.

When I got to Harvey Nichols, I was – to be honest – feeling a little harassed. It had been a long day at work  and whilst I was doing my make-up on the train, a complete stranger walked up to me and told me to ‘smile’ as I was apparently ‘looking really miserable’.  Well yes – you wouldn’t look particularly cheery too if you were attempting to put eyeliner on whilst on a moving vehicle matey.

To add insult to injury, I’d decided to give up booze, potatoes, rice, pasta and bread for Lent, so this was my last night of indulging in all of those tasty things before 40 days and 40 nights of self-imposed abstinence. It was time for a cocktail – and an ‘Angry Sailor’ which contained pineapple juice, Sailor Jerry’s and (rather worryingly) a rather large amount of chillies hit the spot nicely. A proferred glass of Bucks Fizz was even nicer, and went down a treat with the various snacks we were served up – big fat olives and deliciously smoky sweet pecans. I had to stop myself gobbling down a whole bowl of them before the main courses arrived. Although I never have been particularly good at restraint, I must say.

Our starter, a pressing of Goosnargh chicken, with a morel with truffle dressing looked elegant, and thankfully managed to avoid going looking like posh catfood (a problem afflicting a few of the terrines I’ve had served up to me recently). It seemed to act as more of a palate cleanser than anything else – dainty, delicate and with the merest hint of Christmas dinner about it.

I adored the next course – a Portland crab raviolo with fennel and saffron. The saffron sauce provided a beautiful burst of golden sunshine to the plate, and provided a wonderful contrast to the tender, flavoursome crab, and the sharp aniseed bite of the fennel. Usually, I’m not the biggest fan of fennel, but here it worked perfectly, its crispness providing the perfect counterpoint to the toothsome pasta of the raviolo. As I took a large slurp of my delicious Sauvignon Blanc, I couldn’t wait to see what would be served up to me next.

Sadly, it was (for me) the only dish of the night that I felt didn’t work – the Cheshire ox cheek and celeriac with Savoy cabbage. Each element of the dish was cooked perfectly – the ox cheek falling apart into delicate litle shreds as soon as I prodded it with my fork, and I adored the pumpkin seed brittle it was topped with. However, I felt as though it didn’t all come together into one harmonious whole. It felt too rich, too dense, as though I was eating mouthfuls of velvet. I would have liked something a bit sharp on the plate to cut through the intense heaviness of it all, and I finished it longing for something light and zingy.

Thankfully, that came in the form of a British classic. Rhubarb Crumble. I’d never eaten rhubarb before that night (blame my American mother, and a father who despised the stuff after being served up stringy overcooked portions of it throughout his childhood) , so this was something of an epiphany for my tastebuds. Short, sharp and sweet, the frozen base reminded me of a pimped up sherbert, whilst the amaretti tasting crumble added a nice bit of texture to the softness of the sorbet. I’ve already made a mental note that I really have to get my hands on some rhubarb so I can attempt to recreate this in my kitchen at home. How has such an amazing ingredient eluded me for so long?

However, the Rhubarb Crumble was but a prelude to the dish of the night, Manuka set cream with a lime confit and smoked macadamia crisp. If this pudding was a man, I would have leapt on it after one bite and done exceedingly dirty things to it . The smoked macadamia crisp had the texture of honeycomb, yielding yet brittle, snapping delicately between your teeth. It went perfectly with spoonfuls of the manuka cream – soft, dreamy and delightfully creamy – the kind of honey that bees leave reserved for very special people indeed. The cubes of lime jelly practically fizzed on the tongue, yet didn’t feel out of place amidst such a variety of rich ingredients. In fact, this dessert was so good, I was compelled to finish my dining companions when they said they couldn’t eat another bite. Well, it would have been a shame to see it go to waste after all.

The evening finished with coffee and petit fours – smokey chocolate truffles with a raspberry ganache, and delicate strawberry macarons which looked almost too dainty to eat and – when you bit into them – tasted of the strawberry fondant you find in pink wrappered  Quality Street chocolates.

Being one of those relentlessly greedy types, I’m ashamed to say I snaffled a few away in my pocket to scoff in the taxi on the way home.

All in all, it was an amazing evening, filled to the brim with good food, good company, and more than a few glasses of excellent wine to boot. Plus it was only £35 a head without wine, a very reasonable price for an exceptional dining experience.  I woke up the next day with a huge smile on my face as well as a  cracking hangover. But it was all worth it. I couldn’t have wished for a nicer way to see in Lent and 40 days and 40 nights of abstinence. Gulp.

For more information about Gastro Club, read this ace blog post by Inside the M60, or you can follow them on Twitter at @GastroClub_mcr

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