Friday, 19 November 2010

Bubble Cafe, Manchester

A tea party with a difference!

If you don't want your tea hot or in a bag, where do you go? If you're sick to death with the cheesy marketing of Innocent Smoothies and want to avoid those annoying ubiquitous drinks chains, where do you seek your refuge? If you want to drink, rather than eat a buffet in Chinatown, where do you chill out? Readers, I have the solution.

The Bubble Cafe in Portland Street has plenty of tea varieties but not as we know it! It is a Vietnamese owned cafe and sells smoothies, hot chocolate and tea with a twist. The name of the game, the USP if you may, is the fact that everything comes with bubbles. But what are bubbles I hear you ask?

Bubble Tea is an Asian trend (and not a fad as the menu in BC says) and consists of iced teas in varying flavours having tapioca balls in the bottom of the glass. These balls ave a distinct chocolatey flavour and a chewy texture and add to the drinking experience. You can suck them up through the fat straw provided or scoop 'em out with a spoon. BC offers a special combination of tapioca bubbles and coconut jelly, enhancing the experience. This is one of those unusual combinations that happens to work, a bit like chips and vinegar, and once you've tried it, you will definitely return for more. All the trendsters in Taiwan can't get enough of this delectable drink and Bubble Tea chains spring up all over the place there like mushrooms. Manc will be following suit, if the popularity of BC is anything to go by, promoted for free by student groups' word of mouth and bloggers like myself. If you wander through Chinatown and peruse the menus, 2 more outlets, namely Ho's and Try Thai are jumping on the bandwagon- before you know it, ~Manchester will be gripped by bubble fever!

For a winter treat, you can also take hot choc with bubbles and coconut, and for those balmy summer nights, try my favourite, the mango slush with bubbles. The staff are ever so helpful and realise the Bubble phenomenon is new in the UK, and are happy to advise and explain. BC will also be launching some Vietnamese dishes like spring rolls and casseroles, so watch this space for a possible restaurant review!

So, if you're ever thirsty in Chinatown, or got some time to kill waiting for the coach (BC is opposite Chorlton St bus station), pop in to BC and become part of the Bubble Phenomenon. Trust me, you will be hooked....

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Dragon City, Manchester

Veggie unfriendly and rude staff!

While I love Try Thai, being the inquisitive foodie explorer I am, I need to explore other eateries in Chinatown and update my database with my findings! After so many bad buffet experiences of cold food, I made sure I went with the business lunch option rather than feed your face. Stumbling through Chinatown, I spotted the sign of a traditional Chinese- a restaurant with ducks hanging up in the window. Yes, I know I'm a veggie, but to me, this is a sign of authenticity. The confusing thing was, I spotted ducks, but the rest of the exterior looked contrastingly plush! Let me introduce you to Dragon City, a restaurant of contrast.

Upon entering DC, I realised that we were the only diners in there- was that a bad sign or were we just early? I sat down to a frosty reception, menus slammed down in front of me. Surly staff aside, the restaurant looked plush and with interesting artwork adorning the walls. In contrast with the very British carpeted floor, the window set the scene of part of the kitchen with a bubbling urn of jasmine tea on the go and a chef hard at work tending to his drying ducks hanging by their necks in the window, beaks intact. That is when the first crack in this polished turd's exterior became apparent- the chef handled raw meat then he wiped his hands on his rotten apron. Hello- environmental health on speed dial please!

The second crack showed when the menus were plonked in front of us. The menus' covers were made of metal; imagine a drunken reveller in the mood for fighting getting their hands on this potential weapon! Speed dial to a health and safety jobsworth please!

These quibbles aside, it was time to get down to business and eat. From the £5.50 business menu, I chose a veggie Hot and Sour soup followed by satay veg with EFR. Still no smiles from the staff. My soup came, and the first mouthful I had contained chicken! I asked for veggie! As readers of the blog will know, I have not touched meat since 1995 but I still recognised the distinctive taste. I immediately sent it back but got no apology whatsoever. However, the final product was absolutely divine, with the right amounts of hot and sour elements. Now for the main course. The EFR was beautifully fluffy, the portion sizes just right. Delicious. The one thing that dampened the otherwise fabulous feast was the endless pacing up and down of the staff like members of the Third Reich on patrol.

Dessert was either Jasmine Tea, Coffee or ice cream. I spotted a naughty jar of instant behind the counter so coffee was a no-go, the ice cream in Chinese restaurants is always Asda Smart Price so Jasmine Tea it was. The tea was freshly made,no bags involved and left a refreshing taste in the mouth, a perfect way to digest a feast!
While supping my tea, I was interrupted by the most almighty racket; the staff having a screaming match at the workman. What a way to conduct yourself in front of diners! Furthermore, isn't it a hygiene risk getting work done in a food prep area? It was to get more Fawlty Towers- esque when one of the ladies started cleaning the lampshades in the eating area. Polishing the polished turd indeed! Dragon City, please ensure your restaurant is clean before you open, not only does it look rude otherwise, but the dust will get into the food and cause your more vulnerable customers to have allergic reactions.

Despite this chaos downstairs, I was pleasantly surprised by the toilets- ultra modern with Molton Brown smellies! However, the loos weren't enough to tempt me back to this Fawlty Towers hellhole. What a shame, as DC's food was actually delicious when they actually get the orders right. With a bit of improvement, DC might actually be a shining star in heavily competitive Chinatown. Unfortunately, right now, it will remain a polished turd.

Dragon City on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Buca di Bacco, Liverpool

A real Italian experience sadly confined to the past!

In 2001, I was desperately seeking an authentic Italian experience in Liverpool. Fed up with the plasticky grub served up in chain restaurants, I craved checked tablecloths, kitsch decor and authentic tastes. Stumbling around the business district, I found Buca di Bacco's by spotting their confidently-stated sign ' the best garlic bread in Liverpool'. Being an Italy connoisseur myself, I detest being served the ready-meal style garlic bread and love the pizza base style bread.

Vindaloo Queen went down to the basement of Buca's, not knowing what to expect. Was it to be a rip-off merchant like Allerton's La Scala? Was it to be a bland affair like Be**a Pa*ta? Or was I to be transported to the Amalfi Coast?

I was instantly enveloped in the passion that is Italy. The smell of garlic bread, the checked tablecloths and the menus in the shape of Italy's famous boot shaped coastline. Only the Scouse accents of the staff and the sounds of the sixties CD playing reminded me that I wasn't in bella Italia!

The garlic bread was certainly the best in Liverpool but I have to say,the Minestrone was severely underrated. This soup should be promoted as the best soup in the city! Every time I visited Buca's (several, over the course of 8 years!) I ordered this veggie treat without fail. And as I am the Vindaloo Queen, only the spiciest dish on the menu was good for me, so I always gorged on Penne Arrabiata. Portion sizes were always decent here, unlike some other Italians in the city. Yes, Villa Romana, I DO mean you.

Dessert was always a treat. The potent coffee was served with a Flake and the selection of cakes changed each day, my fave being the carrot cake. Canny bargain hunters like myself would always squeeze in their Buca fix midweek before 7, as two courses plus coffee was only £6.99- perfect for combatting those midweek blues.

However, the wonder that is Buca's wasn't to last forever. On a recent visit back to the Pool of Liver, I noticed my beloved basement of Bacco had transformed into yet another club/bar showing footy and didn't look like the inviting Italian I knew and loved. The homely atmosphere had gone and looked like another brash bar. Apparently, they still serve Italian dishes, but that's no good when the atmosphere is like Wetherspoons.

Please, bring back my beloved Buca's! You were the best Italian in Liverpool and I've told everyone about you!

Buca di Bac on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Golden Phoenix, Liverpool

The once loved Chinese that is now a building site....

My very first Chinese in the early 80s was at the Golden Phoenix. Downtown in Hanover Street, this Chinese was an institution in the city loved by families, clubbers and businessmen alike. Its banquets were legendary and the decor was a throwback to the 70s, a time when eating out was more special. However, when the restaurant really came into its own for me was of a lunchtime.

Business lunch in the Phoenix was a plentiful affair, you were left in peace to linger over it if you weren't stuck for time. The last time I went was in 2006, just before its closure and a slap up lunch cost £5.50. The starter was always chicken and sweetcorn soup, the veggie soup of the day or bizarrely sometimes even a glass of orange juice! It was always served with crusty bread...mmm!

Main course was heaven. Served with either EFR, chips or boiled rice, veggies could order practically anything and your fussy friend who hates foreign food could even get a roast! I always had the veggie vermicelli or veg curry.

The folks at the GF always went the extra mile for dessert- yes, the ubiquitous ice cream in a metal dish was there, but they also offered a hot pudding with custard and these were so moreish! Once I even got one served with a piece of plastic in it- what a tasty garnish that could choke! This little slip aside, the GP always come up with the goods to please my choosy veggie tastebuds.

If you wanted to splash out, you could have had a cheeseboard for another quid with 5 different cheeses, crackers and grapes. Or, if you had more room in your belly, why not take a trip to Dessert Island?

Dessert Island...oh the memories! In the middle of the restaurant was an ornate island of gateaux and more with a huge statue of a fish in the middle of it. I always joked that I wanted one in my house. The coffee here was suitably potent as well, and always served with mints.

On the way out, guests could always help themselves to more mints or if you were cheeky as I was, you could help yourself to the kiddies' chocolate bars- Phoenix guests were well and truly spoiled!

The staff here were friendly and took the effort to get to know their guests, I was nearly invited on the staff nights out as I was so regular here. The toilets left a lot to be desired here, the seats painted maroon and the paint chipping off, and I'm pretty sure Environmental Health give them a big fat fail. Another quirky memory I have of the place was on entering, you were greeted by a glass display cabinet filled with cat statues and you got a whiff of the NCP next door- yes, it shared an entrance with the aforementioned car park but the combining scent of petrol and egg foo yung added to the ambience of the GP!

I am saddened to think I will never return to the GP, thanks to the greed of those pesky Liverpool One developers. A true icon of my childhood has now been destroyed, along with many others, paving way for another boring set of chains like N***o's, C**ta and Gourmet B****r Kitchen.

If the owners are reading this, what have you done with Dessert Island?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Kebab House, Liverpool

A long gone favourite where many a raucous night was had!

Back in the old days,a good night out always started off with a meal. Clubbing was fun, but it was better when you got some energy in you beforehand to ensure you could dance the night away! Nights out can be pricey, so the best way to combat this was to combine the meal and the dancing part into one!

I first visited the Kebab House in 2000 when I was 17 and if my stash of photos is anything to go by, what a jolly time I had. From the outside, it looked like a low key restaurant, but then upon further exploration, there was a basement. The 'Sleazy Basement' as my friend Lizzy christened it. In the so-called sleazy basement, you could eat your slap up meze and have a dance along to live Greek music and some cheesy 70s tunes when the musicians were taking a breather. Admittedly, the food was not a patch on Zorba's and the kitchen seemed a bit grotty, but the atmosphere was second to none. Checked tablecloths and 'traditional' blue and white decor set the scene with lots of souvenirs glued to the wall, perfect for recreating the holiday vibe.

The tables were centred around a stage and dancefloor and pride of the restaurant were the musicians, Nikos and Costas. Nikos was a slip of a man who wore clothes 2 sizes too big and sometimes smelled of happy cake, while Costas was a cross between Tom Jones and James Bond character Jaws. They sound like a right pair of menacing characters but Nikos had the voice of an angel, while Costas played the bouzouki like a pro. Often, fat old hens on a hen night would don the beer goggles and throw themselves at these two gents, whereas the male guests would go gaga for the scantily clad belly dancer. Diners would get pulled up and embarrassed on the stage by being asked to perform Greek dancing- I became quite a belly dancer I tell you! Things always got raucous when the chef brought out plates for a little smashing session- yes,
you heard right, we all smashed plates in there, cue a few injuries (I wonder what environmental health made of this!)

After all the hen parties and drunken Scousers departed, the Kebab House took on a new twist. Packs of international students and the odd gangster descended on the basement, people were crammed in and Greek pop got blasted out on the stereo! Everyone danced and supped ouzo and Greek coffee, tables were danced upon and English was barely heard. It was like the Basement had been stuck in a Tardis and flown to Greece. It would stay open till 4am (naughty in those days!) and the international revellers would overspill into Charmers, a secret nightclub on the first floor that only foreign students and their friends knew about. This place was an oasis of friendly, happy party animals in boozed up Liverpool and was the gateway of meeting lots of interesting characters.

The Kebab House was definitely a hidden gem in the fact that a quiet meal could become a lively, Mediterranean style night out, a refreshing alternative to the usual nightspots. Sadly, the Kebab House is no longer with us, nor is Charmers, so if the old owner is reading this, please come back! You made my student years complete!

Kebab House on Urbanspoon

Friday, 5 November 2010

New Beijing, Manchester

cold food but oh so helpful staff!

Hi readers! Hope I'm not boring you with my over enthusiastic blog posts on Chinatown- sorry, I just LOVE the place so much and the novelty of having such a glitzy place 15 min walk from home hasn't worn off yet. If you're a new reader, don't worry, I do discuss other foods too- even ready meals! I had a visitor from Liverpool this week who was desperate to visit Chinatown in Manchester; if you've been to Liverpool lately, you can't fail to miss the sad decline of our once glorious Chinatown, so Manc Chinatown is on the itinerary for Scousers hungry for authentic dim sum!

Time was of the essence, so we decided to eat at the first place we stumbled across, which was the New Beijing. Situated in a basement, the NB looks a bit like a bus station cafe- basic but nonetheless friendly, the type of place you can eat at as a sole diner and not stand out like a sore thumb. What attracted our attention was the fact that the tables were green and glittery and they sparkled up at us invitingly, a bit like Alice in Wonderland's 'Eat Me' biscuits. The buffet was a snip at £5.50 and half a litre of fizzy water was £1.20- not bad!

I explained to the staff that I was veggie and they were ever so helpful, pointing out 'safe' dishes. I helped myself to a bowl of seemingly veggie Hot n Sour soup and the kind gentleman rushed over before I managed a spoonful, explaining that it was in fact made with chicken stock. What honest, veggie friendly staff! My starter is pictured above- curried veg samosas, spring rolls,seaweed, mashed potato sesame toasts and battered aubergine with a chili hot, Vindaloo Queen approved dip. These dimsums were extremely tasty, but the only problem is, they were luke-warm to cold. It was like being at a kids birthday bash picking at cold pizza and sausage rolls. I ate them with a grimace, hoping that they were going to come and offer me usage of a secret microwave.

Now for the main course. I sampled veggie vermicelli, foo young, veg in garlic sauce and EFR. These too were cold, despite heatlamps being on full blast. These dishes looked well prepared but it was such a shame they were freezing- if the starters were reminiscent of a kids tea party, then the main course was either school dinners or a homeless hostel! It pains me to criticise the restaurant, as the staff were lovely but I am honest in my blog; constructive criticism is only a positive thing after all.

The only time food should be cold are when it involves salads and desserts, let's just hope they get the sweet temptation right! I feasted on beautiful, plump seedless grapes, gateau, mini individual Swiss Roll and juicy pineapple wedges. The dessert was easily the best part of the meal.

Overall, the New Beijing was a pleasant experience- if they can get the oven to work, I will definitely return and give it a re-review! However, MAN Chinatown is huge with so much competition, there are plenty more fish in the sea and more culinary delights to explore!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Aeroplane food by Thomas Cook!

Come fly with me....

As a former air hostess, I extended my foodie heart into the murky world of aeroplane meals. These are often slated but I have hardly ever been disappointed with the veggie selection on offer by the UK's major carriers. I had the joy to sample this exquisite Penne Arrabiata on a Thomas Cook flight bound for Gran Canaria and no, I'm not being sarcastic, it was beautiful! If you've ever been to GC, you'll know the food tends to be awful, Gordon Ramsay, if you're reading this, this is one destination to avoid.

If only all the meals in this chavtastic resort could have been so nice....

Zorba's, Liverpool

Keep the holiday memories alive!

Back in 2000, I made an excellent discovery that has been a mainstay on my food itinerary ever since. I was out celebrating the end of my A-Levels and even back then, I was a foodie. A night out wasn't just about clubbing, it had to start with a meal to give you the energy for clubbing in my opinion! I stumbled across Zorba's, Liverpool's oldest Greek and was immediately enveloped in a warm yet fresh atmosphere of stonebaked bread, Mediterranean sun and undertones of mint. Fast forward 10 years later and it hasn't changed.

Zorba's is a textbook example of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. The menu is identical to that of 2000, the only changes have been the inflated prices and the expansion of the place, a testament to its popularity. The decor consists of vines, cool blues and whites and a mishmash of Greek holiday souvenirs like plates and stuffed donkeys (not on the menu thank God). Adding to the mood is my beloved Europop playing in the background- Greek pop gets you in such a summery vibe and transports you to a sunny beach, try it!

The portions here are massive and leave you feeling as if you have had a good proper meal out. Being the creature of habit I am, I always start with Melitzanosalata,a beautiful aubergine dip served with crusty bread and as my main, the Vegetarian Tourlou, a mix of assorted delicacies as pictured above. All mains are served with tomato rice, homemade chips, crusty bread and a splendid Horiatiki (Greek salad) with a sublime mustard dressing. The above dish costs £10 and is money well spent. Devour the mintiness of the stuffed vine leaf, savour the Kolokithakia (courgette fritter), feel the smooth Gigantes beans slip down your throat and marvel at the Greek take on Cheese Pie in 'Spanakopita'. The variation of these dishes is nourishing, filling and makes for an exciting meal. This dish is perfect for those like myself who get bored of 'samey' dishes like pizza and pasta and whose tastebuds are crying out for variation.

I must stop this review, I am making myself hungry and I've not even got to desserts! The coffee is filter so of moderate potency and the desserts are a mix of traditional Greek pastries like Baklava and the ubiquitous ice cream filled orange.

If you want to get away from chain restaurants and need a holiday from curry and Chinese, come to Zorbas for some homespun hospitality, a warm sunny welcome and the feeling that your meal out has been a journey for the senses.

Gia Mas!

Zorbas on Urbanspoon