Saturday, 22 December 2012

Downtown (formerly Top Chef) Berry St, Liverpool


April 2012

I'm currently having a break from Dubai desert life and am holidaying in my home town of Liverpool, a city famous for the Beatles, football and more importantly, home to numerous foodie hidden gems! Since I have left the city, old favourites have fallen victim of the recession, such as Buca di Bacco, some have hiked their prices and reduced their food quality like Zorba's but on a positive note, some delightful new eateries have opened, offering competitive prices, huge portions and eclectic menus. Step forward Top Chef.

Now, I've always been dubious about restaurants that have a self-important name like Number One and Best Kebab, but Top Chef is more than deserving of the title. Suffering from Dubai withdrawal symptoms, I ventured into Top Chef as its menu was packed to the brim with Arabic favourites like falafel and halloumi. Normally, I default to Kimos when craving Levantine cuisine, but after a recent disappointing visit (not to mention overpriced), I am currently 'on a break' with them to quote a line from Friends. Top Chef has a practically identical menu to Kimos, albeit cheaper with bigger portions and the added bonus of beer on the drinks menu. 'Kimos with booze', one of my Twitter pals affectionately called it. Despite its Mediterranean offerings, Top Chef is located on the fringes of Chinatown at the Bold St corner of Berry St, the crossroads of Liverpool foodie heaven in my humble opinion.

I ordered the falafel pitta (above) which was approx £4- sme price as Kimos but as you can see, this came with chips and a well dressed salad garnish. The falafels were amazing, as good as, if not better than any I have tried in Dubai. These fist sized balls of chickpea pleasure were fried but not greasy and served with a choice of houmous or tahini. Arabic fast food heaven. The Carnivore had a chicken kebab, another popular Dubai staple and this scored highly too. The chicken was fresh and not that nasty processed variety you encounter in the likes of Chicken Bazooka, served with a shovel-load of chips, salad, rice and pitta. Who needs Dubai when you have Top Chef? The meals were washed down with a couple of deliciously potent coffees at £1.30.

If Arabic grub isn't your thing, fear not as they also have a selection of pizzas, fry ups and paninis to fill your belly. Step aside Kimos, make way for Top Chef, Liverpool's new king of kebab.

December 2012

UPDATE- Top Chef has now been renamed Downtown and have changed their focus to have more chippy-style dishes. The Arabic food is still there and is just as good, my only complaint is that in the toilets, the soap dispenser is filled with washing up liquid. Classy.

Top Chef on Urbanspoon

Cafe de Pearl, Bold St, Liverpool

Finally, Bubble Tea has made it to the streets of Liverpool! After making a slow-burning impression on to the Manchester foodie scene, it was high time it tested the waters of the Mersey. Cafe de Pearl has replaced the modern Chinese eaterie Tea House (maybe it's the same owners? Who knows.) with the premise that it is a bubble tea joint. However, after visiting twice before I decided to blog about it, it left a sour taste in my mouth. Literally.

Cafe de Pearl reminds me a bit of Ryanair, ie lots of hidden costs. Although it advertises itself as a cafe, it sees itself as a restaurant, the staff shoving food menus in your face and asking about 3 times whether you want any food. And here's silly me thinking it's just a cafe. To be fair, the food looked lovely, but don't advertise yourself as Cafe de Pearl if you don't want people coming in just for a drink.

I ordered a bubble slush at a jaw-dropping £2.80 and I noticed no bubbles were actually in it. I was told it would be an extra 50p for bubbles. Ridiculous. It's like charging for sugar with a coffee. The slush was nothing special, it tasted like a poor quality version of a Blackpool seafront Slush Puppie. The staff here should really work for a budget airline. On my second visit some months later, I tried a mango bubble tea in the regions of £3. The mango taste wasn't evident and it tasted like one of those cold cappuccinos packed with Coffee Mate that you get on Easyjet. The tapioca balls were bland and didn't have the consistency of previous bubbles I have experienced around the world. This was disappointing as I was looking forward to trying this eaterie with so much potential, hopeful that Bubble Tea would catch on in my home city. This fun, quirky drink has won the hearts of many faddy foodies around the world, I definitely thought it would be a good gamble in Liverpool.

I am expecting some sort of catty, defensive commentary about this review, probably from someone called 'John Smith of Liverpool', saying I am a 'jealous rival'. I'm just speaking the truth. I've had bubble tea in Manchester, Toronto and Dubai so believe me, I know my way around a mouthful of tapioca balls.

Cafe de Pearl on Urbanspoon

Monday, 17 December 2012

Villa Madina, 5955 Latimer Drive, Mississauga, Canada

Eagle-eyed followers of Vindaloo Queen on Twitter and my Facebook friends will have noticed that I am visiting Canada! I'm just outside Toronto in a city called Mississauga- it may not be on the tourist trail, but they have some fabulous multicultural treats readily available here including the rare (in the UK) Bubble Tea. This time last year, I was braving the intense heat and desert sandstorms of Dubai and was feeling strangely nostalgic. What better way to indulge nostalgia than eating food that stirs up memories? Thankfully, I was pleased to discover that Middle Eastern food is popular in this neck of the woods; time to track down tabouleh and feast on falafel!

Villa Madina is a chain not dissimilar to Dubai's Karam Beirut- a food-court based setup offering meal deals, platters and an extensive choice in salads. They serve familiar Lebanese staples like Shish Taouk, Falafel and Tabbouleh that are ubiquitous in Dubai so it was a format I was used to. I opted for their vegetarian platter at approx $7 which included either falafel or vine leaves plus as much delicious salad and dip you could cram on! I chose Tabouleh, hummus, spicy potatoes, Greek salad, olives, okra stew (bamia)and that beautiful illuminous pink turnip that brightens up every Middle Eastern feast. My only bugbear was that bread was charged extra, something that all Middle Eastern countries offer for free with the meal.


The potatoes were as good as, if not better, to some of the similar ones I experienced in Dubai- roasted without being greasy, a hint of spice similar to Spanish Patatas Bravas. The Tabbouleh and the other salads came in generous portions and I had no complaints, other than the price/portion ratio was not as bargainous as Dubai. The Carnivore ate Shish Taouk with a similar verdict to me- tasty by all means, but a tad pricey for the food court setting.

Villa Madina on Urbanspoon

Gulshan, 50 Wicker, Sheffield

So far, my South Yorkshire curry adventures have been a bit oily and distinctly average. In a part of the country that is saturated with chippies and pub grub, I found myself here again desperately seeking spice. Wanting to give Sahib another chance after a heartburn-enhanced incident a few years ago, I discovered it had now become a Kebabish- bad move. Kebabish is synonymous with bad service for me, after being greeted with hostility in both their Manchester and Edinburgh branches. Spice Lounge wasn't going to be given a second chance either as my local mole tells me that despite its glowing reviews on TripAdvisor, seasoned curryholics have reported several Imodium Moments after consuming their greasy bhunas.

After circumnavigating the region on a discovery of spice, I finally found a street known simply as Wicker which seemed to be the nearest thing Sheffield has to Manchester's Curry Mile. Bright lights, a smell of spice in the air and rotating kebabs- hopefully I'd be on to a winner here. Enter Gulshan, the curry house whose USP is simply affordable curries.

Gulshan is not posh, nor kebab-shop style plastic tables, but a small yet modern curry house suitable for sole diners, stags or couples, depending what time of night you go. Its blue lighting gave it a great moody feel not too stark on the eyes, plus you could peek in the kitchen. It's a BYO with no corkage charge, plus they do soft drinks at only £1.50, not to mention mango lassi. The service was friendly without being intrusive and overbearing- a pet hate of mine when I'm in an empty restaurant and the staff are earwigging on my conversation!

Due to the absence of Vindaloo and Madras on the menu, I ordered this chili-hot Veggie Rezala:


At only £4.80 , it was a bargain, probably the cheapest restaurant curry I've had in the UK for years. Packed to the gills with potatoes, chickpeas and the vital ingredient chillies, this was a more than sufficient substitute for vindaloo. The Carnivore, set in his ways, ordered Chicken Dhansak, also £4.80 which was met with much 'mmmms' and 'yums'. We ate our curries with brown pilau and peshwari naan, £2 and £2.20 respectively. The peshwari was infused with sesame seeds, a take on Pesh I'd never seen before but was ever so moreish.

My only two minus points about Gulshan were the absence of Kulfi on the dessert menu (a staple requirement for me!) and the toilet facilities. There is only one toilet and it's a bit cramped and smelly, plus it's a bit of a Krypton Factor challenge to get to. It's bang next to the bar and kitchen but the hand-dryer and an additional sink are outside the toilet cubicle right by where the staff are passing by. However, our bill only came to around £16 for the two of us, so I shan't be complaining too much!

Gulshah Balti House on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Mughli, Wilmslow Rd, Manchester


I've not had a very positive view of the Curry Mile lately. Once the place what a Vindaloo Queen's dreams were made of, it's become infested with cockroaches and even worse, rip-off merchants. The recession seems to have brought make or break to the Mile, with restaurants either going bust, putting their prices up and skimping on quality or opening new, smaller, non-curry eateries. After being treated rudely in Kebabish, being ripped off in Shahenshah and my old favourite Lal Haweli now a Turkish eaterie, I jumped at the chance to visit Mughli when my workmate who lives near the Mile invited me for curry one evening. I had previously been apprehensive about trying Mughli as it is strikingly modern, somewhat trendy, a characteristic I don't normally associate with a traditional curry house, but a change is as good as a rest.

Early evening, Mughli was heaving while most of the Mile stood empty, Shahenshah's staff desperately touting for business outside with empty promises of free drinks. Mughli didn't need any gimmicks. We managed to get a table, albeit a rubbish one next to the cooking area which was boiling hot and noisy. Serves us right for not booking, I suppose. Despite being uncomfortably hot, it was a great view of the cooking area and the smells were out of this world! The USP of the restaurant is its clay pit, where all the carnivorous treats are rustled up. The restaurant is decorated in orange tones, making you feel like you are literally in a clay pit. No twangy music, no booths and not a chintzy carpet in sight, you could almost be in a trendy nightclub.

The staff were like 4 of the seven dwarves- happy, grumpy, dopey and bashful- but to be fair, they were rushed off their feet. There was no personal touch to the service, making it a bit Pizza Express-esque; I like to have a chat to the staff about my food but it felt a bit difficult in here.

The prices are a bit dearer than average for Indian food in the area, but the quality was amazing. There was no need for starters, the popadoms were plentiful with a bountiful chutney tray, presentation immaculate.

I went for a vegetable Madras, garlic Naan and pilau rice, no change there. The Naan was presented in an unusual, eyecatching way, quartered and skewered on a stand- a brilliant way of sharing when you're a bit funny about where other people's hands have been that you're dining with! As you can see from the pic, the rice was served in a cute little bucket as well- top marks for presentation and usage of interesting tableware. The curry was amazing- a punchy, spicy fusion of chillies and vegetables, the veg fresh and not out of a frozen bag like its Curry Mile neighbours. Portion size was generous as well- there was no room for dessert!

For a modern Indian, Mughli has really impressed me. Plus points include the food quality, efficient service and great atmosphere. Minus points nothing serious, just that the A/C needed to be turned up and the staff need to personalise their service a bit more. Worth a visit if you're ever in the area.

Mughli on Urbanspoon

Monday, 19 November 2012

Cafe Latino, Bold St, Liverpool

Liverpool's eateries seem to have got a bit pricey in recent years and bargain cuisine, especially Italian, seems few and far between. Since the demise of my beloved Buca di Bacco's and the increase of chains in the likes of Liverpool 1, I've been yearning for a cosy, caffeine fuelled, garlic infused, traditional Italian treat. Enter Cafe Latino, Bold St's hidden gem.

Tucked away on the first floor, Cafe Latino is an unassuming doorway that you could easily miss. It relies more on word of mouth and has no web presence, giving it true hidden gem status. For those not as eagle-eyed as me, here's a helping hand:


This doesn't look like an Italian to me, I thought as I went up the unassuming staircase. Am I in the wrong place? Then a wonderful smell hit me; a combo of garlic, rosemary and freshly brewed coffee. Definitely on the right track. As the name suggests, Cafe Latino has an informal cafe style setting as opposed to a restaurant, making it the kind of place you could go on your own with a good book to linger over a slice of carrot cake. However, today was all about chowing down on Italian cuisine, not a coffee crawl. I was greeted warmly by the staff- excellent first impression. As I scoured the menu, I was delighted to see all the main courses were just £4.99 and from what I could see from the other diners, the portions were pretty generous. I ordered a penne rustica, the Carnivore ordered penne Polpette, we shared garlic bread and had a mineral water each. The mineral waters are only £1.50 and come in 600ml bottles- one would have definitely have been enough for two of us.

The garlic bread was £3 for 4 slices and it was delicious- big hunky crusty chunks, the garlic not too overpowering. Here is my Rustica- a combo of a rich goats cheese, tomatoes and rocket. A party for the tastebuds indeed, and a more generous portion than some of these pretentious Italian eateries that seem to have popped up all over Liverpool.


The Carnivore was more than happy with her Polpette, an Arrabiata-like sauce combined with a generous helping of meatballs. Her verdict? 'Far superior to Casa Italia. It used to be good in Casa's back in 2002 but it's rapidly gone downhill, and expensive. I'll be coming back to Latino!'


In typical Vindaloo Queen style, I left no room for dessert, but I managed to grab a look at the table of the caffeine-fuelled pensioners next to me. A veritable feast of fudge cake, carrot cake, Danishes... something for everyone. My only negative point of Cafe Latino is that it closes at 17:00, so if you want an after-work Italian treat, it's over to the city's rip-off merchants.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Uncle Sam's, Bold St, Liverpool

Back in 1999, the days before those monstrosities Nando's and Frankie and Benny's polluted our tastebuds, bargain hunting Scousers liked cheap grub in Renshaw Street's Uncle Sam's and Caesar's Palace. Conveniently located across the road from then shopping Mecca Lewis's and a stone's throw from nightlife in Hardman St and Bold St, these were THE places to eat. Even the most fussy eater could find something here- from greasy grub like burgers and pizza to the more exotic like enchiladas and tapas plates, not forgetting the huge ice creams and potent coffee, there was something for everyone in Caesar's and Uncle's as they were known. And ladies- how could you forget the international hunks who worked there? Talk about dish of the day. I would have a crush on a different Middle Eastern staff member every week.

Fast forward to 2012 and Liverpool city centre has shifted away from Renshaw St and co; Lewis's has gone bust, the Adelphi has a horrendous reputation and even the nightlife has relocated. While Caesar's has chosen to remain in Renshaw St (future blog post!), Uncle Sam's has moved to a smaller location in Bold St. Will it evoke memories of me partying like it's 1999? Or has it too been swept away with Liverpool's newly pretentious image? Only one way to find out... blog!

I was delighted to see that the menu had remained unchanged and the prices were still budget conscious. Taking a wander down memory lane, the dishes leapt out like reminders of the past, a bit like listening to a Now 2000 album and hearing THAT S Club 7 song. The Chuckwagon burger, the Baked Potato Engine...all these quirky names served as reminders of my past! The staff seemed to be all male (yippee!) and did I detect some cute foreign accents? This place would be hilarious on a hen night, think of all the flirtatious banter and photo-ready staff. The only thing missing is the fact the new premises don't have a fish pond. Might be something to do with those Health and Safety jobsworths- back in 1999 a drunk 'lady' actually fell in it.

I ordered a veggie burger and a potent cup of coffee- after the previous night's exploits in the UNI (Veg vindaloo, peshwari naan followed by a massive mango kulfi), my belly couldn't possibly accommodate one of Uncle Sam's famous ice cream sundaes.


What you see is what you get in Uncle's- not gourmet cuisine, nothing fancy, nothing memorable, just normal grub. A bit like a greasy spoon/diner/McDonald's food. There's only so much you can write about burger and chips- it is what it is, which makes Uncle's a great place to go if the budget's tight, your dining companions are fussy eaters or you just want a simple filling meal before a night out. However, its selling point is its huge ice creams which come in a variety of flavours, adorned with cocktail brollies and a sparkler if it's your birthday! Uncle Sam's, it's great to have you back.


The Balti House aka Shah's City Balti House aka Spice City, Liverpool


STOP PRESS: The following review originally appeared on my blog in 2010. I am now pleased to announce SPICE CITY has now reopened! Sadly, I'm living very far away from Liverpool again, but I can't wait to revisit this much-loved old haunt when I return next year. Fill your boots curryholics! Anyway, here's my original review for your perusal:

A catalogue of imodium moments.....

For me, the Balti House, renamed the Spice City, has always been one of those places that people warn you about, you know you shouldn't go, but somehow, you are severely tempted to give it another chance. My first visit was 1995 and my most recent visit was July 2009. Back in 1995, it was a glorious place to visit, with an impressive fountain under a bridge. You were even offered a free Bacardi or Baileys at the end of the meal and you were made to feel welcome. However, even in the glory days of the mid-90s, food poisoning was extremely common here (as a veggie, I was never affected but the meat eaters were). The restaurant has had numerous name changes, visits from environmental health and visits from Border Control over the years, giving it a dubious reputation. The business lunches were famous for being the cheapest and most plentiful in Liverpool as until 5 years ago, they were only £3.50 for a two course feast!

The business lunch consisted of a wholesome Dal soup to start and the choice of Bhajis or Popadoms, the main was a Korma, Madras or Rogan Josh. All the starters were beautiful and I enjoyed most of my curries here, despite what people told me about the place. I tucked into my Dal soup, lightly spiced with Cardamom, keeping the image of people I know suffering from Balti House-induced gastroenteritis out of my mind!

By the new Millenium, the fountain had been ripped out to make way for an extra table and the opulent interior was starting to look shabby. The booths were scratched and my feet were stuck firmly to the carpet. In my student days, it became an alternative to a meal deal from Boots and used to go with my classmates of a Friday. Christmas 2003 remains imprinted in my mind as 'The Eyelash Incident'. Us language students went to celebrate the last day before Xmas and I ordered a dessert. The ice cream had a piece of cardboard stuck to the bottom and it was obvious that it had defrosted and been frozen again. Then I saw it, a long black eyelash crowning the ice cream. Around the same time, my dad ordered a Chicken Tikka Biryani and when cut into, the chicken squirted out water and had a strange grey colour. The following day was another gastroenteritis incident.

Halfway through the decade, a new name and a staff change. I chanced it again on a flying visit from Germany. I was an air hostess back then and missed good curry as I was living abroad. The service was abyssmal and the staff were the infamous immigrants who border control busted. Our plates were slid along the table in the style of Jackie Chan performing Kung Fu.

2009. My final visit. I was sorely tempted to visit again and the quality went up tremendously. Balti House, now Spice City was back on top form and trying to win a place in my heart again. Juicy samosas and my spicy vindaloo proved to me that Spice City had definitely upped its game. The 70s style booths were still intact and the friendly service was back again, even down to its complimentary After Eight. Sadly, unbeknownst to me, this was going to be my last ever visit due to its closure in 2010. I had moved away from Liverpool by this time, so didn't get to say goodbye. Goodbye my curry, goodbye my friend.

Edited Nov 2012

Spice City on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Regent Chippy, Regent St, Eccles, Salford


Eccles is one of those places that wouldn't usually spring to mind when someone says 'foodie'. A typical Northern town in decline with high unemployment, empty shops, Cash Converters and a cast of people that look like a mix of Jeremy Kyle meets Corrie, it isn't a place where you would normally make the effort to go on a daytrip. I mean, they don't even know what 'real' coffee is here! However, let me persuade you otherwise. If you yearn for times gone by, if you want something that little bit retro or you want a naughty, calorific treat, Eccles is THE place. You may have seen my previous post on Mario's Fish Bar, an Eccles institution. This time, I wanted to check out its closest rival, The Regent. A similar set-up to Mario's, the Regent is a sit-down chippy, a bit like what you find in seaside resorts. The Regent has a great location by the tram stop and bus station, the heady smell of salt and vinegar resulting in a steady stream of ravenous commuters. When I worked in Salford and used to get the 33 bus home, the driver would often run in the chippy and eat his chips whilst driving, sending all the passengers crazy with the smell! Talk about free advertisement for a captive audience.

The Regent's owner is Cypriot and has all sorts of Cyprus memorabilia adorning the seating area. For those who want to steer clear of chips, he even offers a Greek Salad on the menu! Both owner and staff are friendly and make the effort to get to know the customers. It seems a bit like Cheers Bar- everybody knows your name. I ordered chips with hot curry and the Carnivore went for the full monty- fish chips and mushy peas. Together with a tea and a Coke, this came to £9. The service was prompt and the portions were a damn sight more generous than Mario's. My curry sauce was more potent with a kick than Mario's efforts as well. Both the fish and chips weren't greasy, the Regent's USP being that they make everything fresh for each customer. For the health conscious amongst us, they will make your fish with less batter upon request. You can't be too health conscious in the Regent though, as they even have a dessert menu which includes old school favourites like sponge and custard and tinned fruit with ice cream. Desserts range from 75p to £2, perfect for eating out on a budget.

Spiceways, Liverpool

2010

You might have heard me mention Spiceways a few times in this blog. A relative newcomer to the Liverpool dining scene, Spiceways blasted onto the scene at Christmas 2009, a time when people are more interested in mince pies than keema naan. The folk of Childwall had been pretty hard done by in the past when it came to restaurants, it is known as the 'posh bit' of Liverpool but there were never any decent restaurants here! When I lived there, the closest Indians were Woolton's extremely dire Raj, Allerton's hit and miss Sekanders and freezing cold Millon's. How ironic is it that Spiceways opened once I'd left my hometown.

I had heard mixed reviews about it regarding prices and quality, so I went in there with an open mind (like you all should!) ready to go on a fact-finding blogging mission. On first impressions, it is glitzy and glam and could be mistaken for a trendy wine bar. (Think Abida in Edinburgh and Lal Haweli in Manchester). I was met by a beaming smile, the staff were extremely friendly and gave us a roomy booth with a view. Don't you hate it when you get a cramped table and eating a multi-course meal becomes a balancing act? Here was the opposite- roomy and enough room for 6 people although there were only 3 of us. The decor is modern and airy- no sticky carpet and red flock wallpaper but modern furnishings and quality cutlery.

To start, I ordered samosas coming in at £3.10. Full to bourst out of its pastry casing, the veg were chunky and fresh and came with a crisp side salad and a raita-style dip. Mmmm heavenly.

The main course surpassed expectations. I ordered a vegetable madras, expecting the worst. Some of the recent madras I had have been terrible- watery, cool and tinned-veg tastic. This, however, was sublime. Chunky potatoes, fresh carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and peas all sizzled in harmony in one of the most fiery Madras sauces I have ever sampled. This would be classified as a Vindaloo in most restaurants. Maybe even a Phal. It was so hot, my ears started popping as if I was on a plane. (Before you naughty people ask, I didn't need Imodium the next day!)The curry was dense and well-padded, unlike some of these gravy boats I have seen in my time cruising the Scouse restaurant scene. The pilau rice and the naan were perfect as well, light and full of taste and texture.


I couldn't manage a dessert, so I opted for coffee. However, I was extremely disappointed. Behind the bar, I spied a beautiful coffee machine and thought I'd be on to a winner. Instead, I met my old foe, cheapo Nescafe. FAIL! I overlooked this little quibble though as the food had been such quality and on the whole, the restaurant was outstanding.

The best was yet to come. I took a trip to the toilets and couldnt believe the effort they had put in to making their female diners feel fabulous. Perfumes, hair products, brushes and creams were laid out to help yourself to. A beautiful couch in the toilets provided a perfect relaxation opportunity for busy times too!

2012

My birthday saw a busy week off work fit for a foodie- I managed to squeeze in a Chinese, Thai, 2 curries, a Greek and a chippy! As part of my b'day celebrations took place in Liverpool, Spiceways was due a return visit so I killed two birds with one stone. I am pleased to announce it still has its VQ seal of approval- posh toilets, friendly staff, huge portions and non-chavvy ambience. Regrettably, it still gets minus points for lack of coffee machine, but there's always Lassi or Kulfi to round off the meal!

Spiceways on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 16 September 2012

U n I, RENSHAW ST, LIVERPOOL


2010

Upon stepping into the UnI (pronounced you and I), you are overwhelmed with a proper old-school Indian experience. Twangy sitar music (bizarrely interspersed with Rihanna and Enrique Iglesias), chintz carpet and heady smells. Now Asha, formerly Liverpool's oldest Indian has gone bust, UnI now holds the title of the city's oldest and most authentic Indian eaterie. This piece of local history isn't it's USP however. The reason that most diners flock to this gem isn't its location- it's surrounded by condemned buildings and empty shops in an area which was the Scousers' answer to the Curry Mile in the 1990s, but has now suffered under the double threat of the recession and the city's 2008 redevelopment. It's not its website or advertising either (trawl the net and you'll only find review sites such as this one and TripAdvisor coming up with info of this place). Its USP is, bizarrely, its famous booths. Wow. THE BOOTHS. What a unique experience. These aren't the usual booths from an old school curry house. These are curtained and complete with dimmer switch to add an intimate feel to the place. There is even a bell to press to order your meal. Both foodies and drunk clubbers alike are united in their love of The Booth, providing many a picture opportunity on nights out. The Booths are the place where gossip is shared and secrets are divulged, the diners being lulled into a false sense of security that the booths are soundproofed...

UnI has become wise to the fact that The Booths are a hit and have namedropped them on their napkins and new signage. 'The Cubicle Restaurant' is now its unofficial name according to the napkins. Still prefer calling them The Booths though.

I have been here numerous times, so I will try and sum up all of my meals in one review.

My perfect starter is Raita and a Vegetable Pakora. The pakoras here are plentiful and the veg fresh. One starter is good enough for two people. After much deliberation, I always choose a vegetarian vindaloo and am never disappointed. For the meat eaters, I spied a Malayan Chicken which looked like a nice, exotic alternative. If Biryani is your thing, I am pleased to confirm it DOES come with a fab fluffy omelette, a vital component that lots of curry houses are cutting corners on these days. If you squint, you may be able to see the Biryani in the above pic. As I am so engrossed in the atmosphere of this place whenever I go, I always forget to snap the food. I found this trimmed-down pic in my Facebook archives though- better than nothing!

I remember Christmas 2008 fondly as the period I ate two UnIs in a week. As it was the season to stuff your face and not feel guilty, I ordered copious amounts of pistachio kulfi for dessert and a mango lassi.Refreshing and sweet, it took me away from the stuffy festivities of Xmas and brought me to an exotic paradise!

UPDATE SEP 2012

After a year's absence from the UnI, I was overwhelmed with a craving that not even the Curry Mile could satisfy. I was staying the night in Liverpool and needed to visit my old favourite. I can happily confirm it's still on top form, the vindaloo still potent, the booths chintzy and the naan breads as big as your head. In addition to my usuals, I made room for dessert- a decadent Kulfi of Mango and Coconut, enough to feed two hungry curryholics.


Uni on Urbanspoon

Monday, 3 September 2012

Royal Siam, Chorley Rd, Swinton, Salford

Salfordian foodies seem to have a rough deal. People from outside of the area don't tend to flock to this enclave of Manchester as it's not exactly known for its haute cuisine. If you're not a seasoned Salford foodie, you probably think the most exotic dish on offer is the frozen curry in Morrison's cafe. However, scratch beneath the surface of chain restaurants at the Quays, delve deeper than the chippies of Eccles and eschew the sandwich bars of Monton and pay a visit to Swinton, Salford's haven of cheap eats and exotic treats. After much Googling, I decided to try the Royal Siam who offers a Thai business lunch for £7.50 for 2 courses. How will it match up to city centre offerings like Try Thai?

Royal Siam is cosy, clean and jampacked with exciting Thai artwork on the wall, providing diners with some great talking points while chowing down. I was pleased to note they had actually bothered to play Thai music rather than atmosphere-sapping Rihanna in pan pipes. The owner greeted us warmly and explained that any starter and main could be chosen from the main menu for the business lunch. Drinks were a snip too, with all soft drinks £1 and a pot of Jasmine Tea also £1. It seemed better than Try Thai already!

To start, the Carnivore ordered Chicken Satay and I ordered veggie spring rolls. Check out the amazing presentation:


They were delicious as they looked- not too greasy and the salad beautiful and fresh.
Here is the tofu and vegetable red curry that I ordered for my main. The portion was huge, although it was a cheap business lunch. More generous than Try Thai, the rice even came in a heart-shaped serving!


The two course bountiful Thai extravaganza left me too full for dessert, so I digested the meal with a pot of Jasmine Tea. I'd also like to give the toilets a special mention at this point- they were the most immaculate I've ever seen in a Thai restaurant. They even left real cloths for the diners to wipe their hands on, a fabulous touch.
The staff were extremely welcoming and despite being the only diners in there, we never felt rushed, they simply allowed us to relax and enjoy the meal. We easily whiled away two hours here and were rather surprised to open the door and find ourselves back in Salford, the Thai experience was simply that convincing.



Friday, 31 August 2012

Shahenshah, Wilmslow Rd, Manchester


Bank Holiday Monday. Manchester city centre was packed to the gills with Pride-goers and weekend tourists. Sick of visiting yet another overpriced sandwich bar with rude service or a brat-infested 'family' pub, the Carnivore and I decided to make a pilgrimage to an old favourite, the Mecca of all Vindaloo Queens- the Curry Mile!
Still fed up of falafel and tabbouleh after my Dubai adventures, I eschewed the new Mediterranean eateries in favour of an old traditional curry house, the Shahenshah.

I can hear you gasping already. Yes, I know what you're thinking, what is Vindaloo Queen going to this infamous hellhole that was fined by environmental health for? To be honest, I don't know. Maybe out of curiosity, in the name of research? Maybe because I just wanted to be objective? Maybe because I was yearning for a traditional curry house experience that was a bit rough round the edges from the time before the Health and Safety jobsworths took over our country? Who cares what I was thinking, I was just hungry and wanted a big fat curry.

We were greeted warmly by a gentleman outside, desperate for business, reminiscent of a Turkish holiday resort. At one point, I thought he was going to call me 'lovely lady' and invite me on his brother's boat. He promised us 10% off and free popadoms (this didn't materialise, but I was tired and hungry, my old fighting spirit was having a snooze and didn't bother challenging it.)

The restaurant seemed clean enough to me and the furnishings new, despite contrary reports and the atmosphere was cosy, bubbly and brimming with life, exactly what an Indian should be like. The staff were courteous, asking what our preferences were spice wise and prompt with our order. A basket heaving with popadoms was plonked down and a bountiful array of chutneys including a chili hot green one I've never seen before, which seemed to be in place of the lime pickle, Bizarrely enough, one of the dips was coleslaw. In all my years of eating at curry houses, this is the first time I've ever seen coleslaw and would love it if someone could enlighten me to its Indian origins.

For the main, I ordered a vegetable Sambar and the Carnivore a Chicken Dhansak, along with a peshwari naan and pilau rice. The Sambar contained fresh veg, not a tinned or a frozen carrot in sight and was vindaloo hot. The only thing that let this curry down was its oiliness. I nearly had to sponge the cauliflower down with a napkin as it had soaked up all the oil, it was like eating a sponge dripping in fat. The curry began to take on the appearance of a lava lamp. The Dhansak fared slightly better, but it was no match for Liverpool's UNI or Salford's The Naz. The Peshwari was extremely tasty and sweet and even contained glace cherries. It was definitely freshly made and not bought in but nevertheless, this also contained a layer of greasy butter. The rice was the only non-greasy item. I was dreading to think how much cholesterol I had just consumed.

The bill came to £30 for 3 popadoms, 2 curries, one rice, one peshwari, two pints and a coke, which seemed rather steep for the so-called free lunch. Considering the popadoms were meant to be free and they were supposed to be giving us a discount, this cheap lunch suddenly got rather pricey. Shahenshah is okay for non-discerning curry fans, it'll do for a stag night or if you're getting it paid for by someone else, but I definitely wouldn't make it my first choice on the Mile.

Shahenshah on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Sculpture Hall Cafe, Manchester Town Hall

This review is going to be a rather unusual one as no food or drink was actually consumed. A mere case of quaint British jobsworthiness if you like which causes so many businesses to fail, as witnessed on TV shows like The Restaurant/ Hotel Inspector.

For those who haven't visited Manchester, the town hall is an amazing Gothic structure, its imposing grandeur one of the focal points of the city. Inside the town hall, its well-preserved original features are a sight to behold. The cafe is awe-inspiring, its decor a cross between traditional tea room and gentleman's club, with a selection of artwork, sculptures and busts of Lord Mayors of Manchester from way back when. As a connoisseur of art and potent coffee, I was looking forward to exploring this interesting cafe. Only one other table was taken so I had the pick of seats. I waited to order my Americano. And waited. And waited a little more. 15 minutes later, a member of staff arrived, a brusque, foreign gentleman. Finally, coffee time. As I ordered my coffee, he snapped 'no, not just coffee'. Pardon me? 'Today is Saturday. Saturday is afternoon tea day. You can have a coffee, but you need to order an afternoon tea. Oh, or a scone'. I don't know about you, but that sounded like the biggest bunch of excuses since Little Britain's 'computer says no'. Why on earth wouldn't he be allowed to serve me a coffee without a cake? I'd understand if it was booze, but ordering a coffee in a cafe isn't that complex, is it? Would you go in a chippy and be refused a portion of chips? Obviously, the town hall cafe's boss is that greedy, he or she just wants to upsell. But isn't this greed going to turn customers away? Obviously it is, as only one table was taken at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon.

What a surprise turn from Manchester city council, who are normally so greedy with parking fines and council tax, but they turn away paying customers in their cafe. I'm still perplexed now.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Topkapi Palace, Deansgate, Manchester

Regular readers will have read my previous frustrations of not being able to get good quality Turkish food at a reasonable price in the North West. They're either overpriced, spartan eateries targeted at the WAG/ ladies who lunch brigade or the sloppy, buffet-style joint for stags, hens and chavs which feature the famous Turkish dishes of onion rings and profiteroles. Neither of these restaurant types emulate the Bosporus, more like the River Mersey. It's not to say I haven't found pockets of the Eastern Mediterranean in Manchester though, the Armenian Taverna and Kosmos being amongst my favourites, and while they offer Turkish dishes, they are not Turkish eateries. However, walking along Deansgate today, I spotted Topkapi Palace which appeared to tick all the boxes. Cosy decor? Check. Authentic menu? Check. Value for money? Check. The Carnivore and I decided to take advantage of the lunch deal for £6.99 for 2 courses. That's my kind of price.

The staff were welcoming unlike the rudeness I experienced at Efes. Good start. Now the difficult bit; the menu had so much choice for veggies and meat eaters alike, it took us 15 minutes to decide. A seasoned Turkey traveller, memories of Istanbul and the sumptuous mezes I experienced in the old quarter of Sirkeci were conjured up whilst I read the menu with the vigour of a menopausal housewife reading 50 Shades of Grey. Please note, if your only experience of Turkey is the dire tourist trap that is Marmaris, chances are you don't know much about authenticity.

After much umming and aahing, I settled on a Tabule salad to start, which was presented beautifully. It was even better than the Tabboulehs I'd chowed down on in the Middle East- well done Topkapi! Seasoned with mint, parsley and those delectable peppers which are ubiquitous in the Eastern Med, this was a promising start to the meal.


Meanwhile, The Carnivore went veggie this time and had Humus to start, a generous, well garnished portion served with a basket of pitta fresh out of the oven. Glad to see they didn't commit the cardinal sin of a restaurant giving a few misshapen scraps of cold stale bread and charging for it! For the main event, The Carnivore reverted back to his Dubai days and had a Tavuk Kebab, beautiful grilled chicken served with Turkish pilaf rice and a bountiful salad. I went for the spicy Patlican peynirli which if you know Turkish, you'll recognise as an aubergine and cheese dish. This was also served with a salad garnish and generous dollop of pilaf rice. Pilaf is amazing, it has more substance than its brothers Pilau and Basmati and has a beautiful milky taste to it. As soon as I ate it, it was 1994 again and I was eating overlooking the sea in Alanya on the south Turkish coast. It's brilliant how foods can conjure up memories and a simple taste can transport you back on holiday. The Patlican dish was done in a madras-hot spicy pepper sauce, the aubergines fleshy and succulent, soaking up the spice, the flavour heightened with garlic. Amazing.


Sadly, the desserts and coffee specialities were a bit pricy so the meal was rounded off at Caffe Nero. They do serve ultimate Turkish staples like Baklava and Turkish Coffee, but at £4.50 and £2.50 respectively, this seemed steep although I don't doubt that they'll be tasty. Drop the prices by £1 and they'll be snapped up like hot cakes (excuse the pun). If you need a little ray of sunshine in drizzly Manchester or want to extend your holiday, Topkapi Palace is full of Eastern promise.

Topkapi Palace on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 11 August 2012

4 Corners, Wesley St, Southport


The last couple of years have seen a rising trend in a new kind of restaurant hitting Britain's high street. Taking inspiration from all-inclusive resorts in Spain and tapping in to the dilemma of finding a restaurant that pleases everyone, world buffets are the latest hot trend. Flash in the pan food fad or a revolutionary way of eating? I'll leave it to you to decide.

After being ripped off in overpriced sandwich bars and facing Chinese buffet fatigue, 4 Corners world buffet seemed like a viable lunchtime option. Tucked away in Wesley St, away from the pushy crowds of Lord St's cafes, this sparkly new eaterie is the first of its kind in Southport. At £8.99, it seems expensive for lunch but when I done a quick calculation of the cost of a butty (which wouldn't fill me) and a dessert, it came to about £7, not too bad considering you can have as much cake until you burst! In all honesty, both me and The Carnivore fancied an Indian for lunch, but the curry houses were either shut or bereft of lunch deals and therefore stone empty. Thankfully, 4 Corners offered curry- yippee!

Upon entering, we were greeted warmly by the staff who explained that diners pay upfront for both drinks and food, and the soft drinks and hot drinks were a set price with unlimited refills, perfect for the thirst that ensues during an all you can eat extravaganza. The ambience was chilled at first, the seating consisting of large tables and cosy booths, however this tranquility was soon to be shattered by the invasion of the dreaded Chav Brigade. Hordes of kids out of control, screaming and playing with the food, along with obese parents who didn't give a damn ruined what could have been a pleasant lunch. The kids were left to run riot and play by the cake and salad display, which is probably why I took a week off work with the flu after visiting here. Sorry for digressing, I just thought I'd set the scene so you can imagine the cacophony I endured.

THe food was in abundance but I saw little evidence of the 4 Corners of the world, unless Costco is a country. Great Britain was represented in this food olympics, along with India, and I suppose the pasta salad and the fajita wraps were a token to Italy and Mexico. The staff were helpful in explaining what some of the more unidentifiable dishes contained, i.e. were they veggie friendly, but this must have been pretty tiresome for them. They could have followed the Chinese buffet example of putting signs on their dishes, saving them a job and cutting down on food wastage.

The presentation of the carvery and the Indian selection was excellent,with dedicated chefs on hand happy to assist, the food served piping hot and not left to go cold like some buffets. My veggie curry (above) was as good as any curry house I'd been to, which I enjoyed with popadoms, a chutney selection and basmati rice. There were 4 curries on offer, but the other 3 were meat so I can't comment on those, but The Carnivore's chicken curry was devoured in no time. On the carvery, the vegetables were plentiful and the salad bar had lots of tasty greens, delicious. The Italian selection was a bit bog-standard, comprising of what looked like frozen pizza and two pasta dishes, one meat, one veg, which weren't very inspirational. The 'Mexican' assortment consisted of wraps and a couple of dips, the filling of which reminded me of one of those kits you get from Aldi with the sauce that no matter how hard you try to get it to infuse well with the meat and veg, it never tastes quite right.

Time for dessert- the cake selection was immense. Lemon meringue, chocolate fudge cake, more fruit than a tropical island, this is where 4 Corners really shone. No matter how mediocre a meal is, as long as there's decadent desserts, you'll walk away satisfied.

My culinary voyage of 4 Corners drew to a close and I was sad that I hadn't actually tasted the four corners of the world and had to finish my meal with a Nurofen for my head thanks to the raucous clientele. As it's a relative newcomer, I'll give it a few months to improve before I return as I'm sure the discrepancies I mentioned are just teething problems that'll get ironed out. The staff are fabulous, so I'm sure they're up to the challenge to make some additions to their culinary journey!

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Britannia Hotel Carvery, Portland St, Manchester


In 2006, I had a disastrous day- it was just before Christmas, I had arrived at Manchester airport and was waiting for my case loaded with pressies and new clothes. I waited at the carousel, and waited a bit more until half an hour later, I was stood there like a desperate and dateless slapper in a low budget nightclub. Yes, my case was in Stansted. Christmas was officially ruined. After traipsing round the Arndale Centre buying a new wardrobe, I was much in need of nourishment and my nose led me in the direction of the Britannia Hotel. I had previously been to the Britannia Adelphi in Liverpool, a complete rubbish tip sponsored by the DSS and was disappointed, but word of mouth convinced me this place was going to come up with the goods, food-wise. It was absolutely fabulous and that's why, 6 years later, I'm back to give this place a glowing review!

Jenny's Carvery is situated in the hotel's basement and is reminiscent of old school Berni Inns and those steakhouses that seem to have disappeared to pave the way for pretentious tapas bars. It offers spacious surroundings and hearty smells! The starter was a choice between melon and soup, I opted for the smooth leek and potato soup served with a crusty brown roll. Once that was digested, it was time for the main event.

The veggie option of the day was a spicy pasta bake, beautifully prepared without that heartburny bechamel sauce. To accompany, I helped myself to the array of treats on the all you can eat buffet- rosemary potatoes, carrots, swede and a random Yorkshire Pudding (which was homemade- no Aunt Bessie's evidence there!) In addition, there is an array of salads with feta, mozzarella and green salad. The quality of the food was excellent and all were served piping hot (bar the salads obviously) unlike some other buffets who shall remain nameless....

After this big feast, I was fit to burst but then the realisation hit me- it's a three course meal which means dessert! I dragged my bursting belly off the seat and advanced towards the cake display. There to greet me were strawberry gateau, black forest, fruit cocktail and a tangerine-flavoured cake. I settled for the decadent choc cake- scrumptious. Needless to say, this feast set me up for the day, letting me loose on the streets to offer free promotion for this wondrous carvery.

Jenny's Carvery ticked all the boxes- veggie friendly, cheery staff, value for money, the feeling of a proper meal afterwards and an allround great atmosphere. Such traditional places are scarce nowadays and it makes me yearn for the bygone era of a good old Berni Inn! See, veggies can do steakhouses too.

UPDATE AUGUST 2012

On a recent visit to the Carvery, I am sad to report that although the food is still great, there seems to be a new tip-hungry group of staff working there. They are a group of foreign girls who drop hints like 'It's the end of my shift now'. In addition, the wine has doubled in price and the air con seems to be switched off, despite the heat we've been experiencing lately. Get your act together, Britannia, and bring back the humble staff you once had.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

BBQ Handmade Noodles King, Faulkner St, Manchester

I know what you're thinking. What a bizarre, nonsensical name for a restaurant. I'm sure it has another name in Mandarin or even Korean, the signage outside is written in another language I cannot decipher, but the English name is really BBQ Handmade Noodles King. (For the rest of this blog, I shall refer to it simply as BBQ as it's too much of a tongue twister). Inside the restaurant, it is sparsely decorated, the obligatory fish tank the only indicator that we were in a Chinese eaterie. Bizarrely, there was a Christmas decoration in the window, one of those stars made of fairy lights what you get from Poundstretcher. I glanced up and a few Christmas tree baubles hung forlornly from the ceiling. Curiouser and curiouser.

Now, don't let the name of this restaurant deceive you. You're not going to get burgers on this barbecue, nor are you going to be offered copious amounts of noodles. This eaterie is an interesting mix of Korean, 'real' Chinese and anglicised Chinese, offering dishes from the safe (chicken and sweetcorn soup) to the authentic, I'm a Celebrity Bushtucker Trial kind of dishes (lamb's ovaries and barbecued quail anyone?). The barbecue in question refers to Korean specialities that are flame and charcoal grilled, the handmade noodles are on the menu but not mandatory (EFR and boiled rice are still order of the day); there is also the usual options of set banquets, a dim sum list as long as a piece of string, and the increasingly popular Chinese Hot Pot. However, as the name of the blog is Bargain Cuisine, I plumped for the £6.90 three course business lunch.

The business lunch isn't the usual layout of starter, main and dessert but two starters and a main. The list of starters is immense; a far cry from the business lunch staple of soup of the day, a cold spring roll or a glass of orange juice. BBQ means serious foodie business- sure, spring rolls are on the menu, but so are charcoal bananas, grilled quail and flame grilled aubergine. I opted for a Vegetarian Sweetcorn Soup and my goodness was it a huge portion. Roasting hot, dense and evidently freshly made, the quality was excellent.


In addition, I ordered a barbecued eggplant (aubergine) whilst my dining partner ordered vegetarian wontons. These came with a seaweed garnish, which in the absence of soy sauce, I sprinkled liberally on my soup±


The wontons weren't the usual type, but rather like small pasties with a curried samosa-type filling. Nonetheless, they were delicious. My eggplant was out of this world. Flame grilled slices of skewered aubergine in a piquant chili marinade, this was an imaginative alternative to bog standard spring rolls. Definitely a demonstration of BBQ's USP. These two starters left us feeling full, unsure as to whether we would finish the main course!


The veg in black bean sauce was plentiful, the sauce of a superior quality compared to other business lunches I have experienced. Mange tout, water chestnuts and a variety of Chinese mushrooms made it a colourful, eclectic experience and the EFR was of the same high quality. The icing on the cake was the spring onion garnish on the rice:


As you can see, this generous portion easily fed two and there was plenty left over! Sadly, there was no room for dessert, but this bountiful businessman's kept me full until way past teatime. BBQ definitely knocks spots off the bog standard 3 course offers in Chinatown and those bland all you can eat buffets that litter Manchester. (I don't know about you, but I can never see more than two dishes I want to eat at these so-called all you can eats). Potent spices, eclectic menu options and the luxury of two starters, BBQ offers a lunchtime bargain without compromising size and quality.

BBQ Handmade Noodles King on Urbanspoon

Friday, 8 June 2012

Efes, Princess St, Manchester

I've always had a soft spot for Turkish cuisine. When I was 11, I visited Turkey, back when tourists still preferred the Costa Brava and it hadn't succumbed to egg, chips and Man United theme bars. Turkey was still pure, rustic Turkishness- all homemade flatbreads, dips reflecting every spectrum of the Scoville scale and freshly slaughtered lamb (I hadn't discovered vegetarianism at this stage!). In my early 20s, I lived in a Turkish neighbourhood of Berlin where every morning, I would be gently roused from my slumbers with the potent smells of Turkish Tea and sesame infused Simitci bread. As you have probably guessed, I became quite the Turkish food connoisseur. What really gets my goat is the fact that here in the UK, Turkish food is generally overpriced and what counts for street food in Turkey and Germany is billed as an expensive delicacy here. Put it this way, would you pay £10 for a chippy tea? Probably not.

Manchester's Efes cuisine offers a 'Mediterranean Buffet' of an afternoon for £8.95 so I thought this would be a bargain alternative to sample some of the treats I've been hankering after. My tastebuds were watering at the thought- I was imagining Imam Bayildi, Borek, Lahmacun and maybe a sweet treat of Kunefe to finish. Sadly, this was not to be the case.

Efes is tastefully decorated- modern without being stark, still managing to attain that cosiness synonymous with 1980s tavernas. It even had a dance floor and a stage for the night. I glanced at the 'normal' menu and it seemed delicious- all the traditional meze dishes were present and correct, albeit dearer than Turkey and Turkish expat communities. The staff didn't strike me as overtly friendly, a bit brusque, telling diners where they can and can't sit, a bit rich considering the restaurant was a sea of empty tables. The below pic illustrates why it was empty:



Does this cuisine look Turkish or remotely Mediterranean to you? Fair enough, chips are universal, but the only place this reminds me of is the leftovers of a council estate street party in Salford. The theme of it could be 'that's why Mum's gone to Iceland and stopped off at Farmfoods on the way back'. Let me talk you through the delicacies.

Starters- First of all was lentil soup, obviously a packet one, its only concession to Turkishness was that it bore the legend 'Mercimek Corbasi' (That's Turkish for lentil soup). At least there is someone Turkish speaking working here, or maybe they just googled it. Next was a bread selection which was really good- a mix of Turkish sesame seed bread and some lovely Continental seeded rolls. Salad was also delicious with some lovely dressings on.

Mains- a selection of pizzas which reminded me of Aldi's 3 for £3 big box of frozen pizzas that I was so fond of as a penniless student. Ok at a house party, but not at a buffet for £8.95. Also on offer were some onion rings, chips and other UFOs (unidentifiable fried oddities) that looked like Findus Crispy Pancakes but were something else from Iceland. A few hot dishes were on offer like Cannelloni and a few stews that looked a bit too stewed, including a veggie option of chickpeas in an unpleasant tomato sauce. I sought respite in the cold selection where I finally spotted some Med dishes- stuffed vine leaves, tzatziki and hummus. Phew, at last. This wasn't enough for the price though, If I'd have wanted some cold appetisers, I would have went to Katsouris and paid £5. Maybe the desserts would blow my socks off- I have previously been impressed in cheap Chinese buffets with their ice cream and gateaux, plus the Britannia 3 course deal for £6.50 always has amazing cakes that would cost £3 a slice in normal cafes.

What a letdown. The desserts included fruit- I love fruit but eat it all the time at home, not exactly a treat when you go out for a meal, profiteroles coated in a sickly chocolate sauce, bananas coated in same sickly sauce and Brioche. Now, I don't mind Brioche when I'm breakfasting in a cheap hotel on the Costa Brava, but it's not exactly a moreish dessert to round off a meal! Moreover, everyone knows they're a quid in Aldi.

Efes, you could do so much better. You have a great central location, a niche market and sound like an absolutely fabulous place to party the night away. Remember, you are first and foremost a restaurant and your 'cheap' lunch deal should either be that- cheap to compete with all the £6 buffets in the area, or a good quality product to entice people to come back of a night and spend even more money with you. People want to step into a Mediterranean paradise, not be reminded of school dinners and cheapo holiday all inclusive buffets. Sorry Efes, that don't impress me much.

Efes Taverna on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Katsouris Deli, Deansgate, Manchester



Regular blog readers will know that for me, eating out isn't just about the food, but it's a state of mind. The food and the ambience of an eaterie needs to take you on a little journey in your head and for one moment, it's nice to think you're someplace else. In my uni days, most of my friends were from more exotic shores and I was captivated by the way they lived life, their sunny, carefree Mediterranean personalities brought a ray of sunshine to my otherwise dismal life in drizzly Liverpool. Their beautiful sunny attitudes rubbed off on me and from that moment on, I decided to make every day a holiday- I listened to foreign chart music, immersed myself in languages and even found a Greek nightclub in the centre of Liverpool! (A hidden gem, sadly long defunct, but that's another blog post!)But most of all, foreign food made a big impact on my life. I sought out cheap lunch deals on my student budget and found where the local Continental delis were so I could recreate some holiday food at home. Fast forward 10 years later to 2011 and I am still sticking to these principles to make life that little bit sunnier.

Last Sunday, I had that horrid sinking feeling. You know the one I mean, the dread of Monday morning; but this was also combined with post-holiday depression. Always on a foodie mission, I dragged myself out of bed and headed for the foodie riot that is Manchester city centre. I was bound to find something here to put that smile on my face again and headed in hope to my beloved Armenian Taverna. Alas, it was closed until 5, a bit too late for lunch methinks. Then, like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I spotted Katsouris Deli. Ooh, a Greek name, I thought. They're bound to have something involving halloumi and olives for me.

Katsouris is cosy yet airy, a combination of deli and cafe. A good cross section of clientele- students, families, tourists and people on their own who just want to read the papers, this obviously translated as 'something for everyone'. And it certainly was. The prices were amazing, considering that over the road are the chainy rip-off merchants of Deansgate (Don't make me swear...)and best of all, the menu was eclectic with a firm Greek foundation of olives, feta and vine leaves. I ordered the veggie meze platter (pictured) which came in at an impressive £4.95- as you can see, it included huge chunks of lovely halloumi, dolmades, couscous, tzatziki and more. This was served with a generous basket of fresh bread. I washed this down with a vat of potent coffee which really hit the spot.

The deli offers a help-yourself meze bar too at varying prices, featuring faves like dolmades, dips, colourful salads and for the carnivores, a piping hot carvery of mixed meats awaits you. The sandwich selection is overwhelming and for those of you who aren't bothered about Greek food, there is a fab selection of German/Polish sausage and the ubiquitous British flavours. Canny Katsouris also tempts you further by displaying the products they serve on their deli counter to take away, so as you're draining your coffee cup, your eyes are drawn to the shelf display, almost as if they are screaming 'take me home'!

The only minus points are a lack of toilets and the early closing hours- I'd love to pop in for a coffee after work but they shut at 16:30! Be truly continental, Mr Katsouris, please, and extend your opening hours, European style!

All in all, a winning combination to spice up your lunch, and a further excuse not to go to chain cafes! Efcharisto Katsouri!

Katsouris Deli on Urbanspoon

Monday, 4 June 2012

Frankie and Benny's, Salford Quays, Salford

I know what you're all about to say. What was Vindaloo Queen doing in a chain restaurant? The thing is, I wanted to check out the restaurants in the city of Salford which a lot of people bypass in favour of Manchester's eclectic offerings, plus the kind folk at Frankie and Benny's PR agency offered me a meal for two in return for a review. I had previously visited F&B's in my past life as an air hostess, when I would frequent their airport branches due to my generous staff discount, but what are their high street brothers like? More importantly, how does chain restaurant food measure up to the independents I have become accustomed to?

As I approached F&B's at Salford Quays, one major plus point was obvious right away- free parking and for those who don't want to drive, there is a tram stop right outside. Although the food prices might be a little high compared to my favourite independent eateries, parking is £6.30 for 2 hours outside them so at Frankie's, the free parking offsets the high food prices. Swings and roundabouts. The fabulous sound of 50s and 60s music pulsated outside of the restaurant, giving us a taste of what it was going to be like inside. Was it to be a retro diner experience?

Although F&B's is a chain, it has successfully managed to steer away from that identikit look that some chain restaurants have- the Ikea warehouse look. This place has heart and soul, helped by its cosy furnishings, booths (an essential restaurant seating arrangement in my book), upbeat friendly staff and the retro music I mentioned earlier. It hasn't gone the full hog and made it a retro diner as I initially suspected, but has gone for a classic American theme.

The menu is an interesting mix of Italian food, typical burger bar staples, steaks, a low fat selection for the calorie conscious and traditional British puddings. Even the fussiest eater would easily find something they liked on the menu and veggies like me are well catered for. There were two menus on offer, the standard one and a 2 course for £10.95 special; I opted for the standard menu and The Carnivore went for the special. Drinkswise, it was 2 pints for the Carnivore and a J20 and a coffee (obviously) for me. Sadly, the coffee wasn't as potent as I like- there was no evidence of 'crema' on top which seemed pretty paltry for £2.35. It tasted more like filter than freshly ground.

My starter was this fabulous flat mushroom, filled with Grana Padano cheese and garnished with rocket. It was delicious and if I hadn't have known better, I would have thought I was eating it in a fancy French/Italian bistro:



Meanwhile, the Carnivore chowed down on this delicious Bruschetta which tasted as good as any Italian. The topping was reminiscent of Tex Mex Pico de Gallo- absolutely moreish!



After the starters, we had a comfortable wait in anticipation of our mains- not too long and not too short. What I really liked about this restaurant was that the fact that the tables were spaced far apart enough and the music turned to such a volume that you could actually have a private conversation in here without broadcasting it to the whole place! For the main course, I opted for my old faithful Penne Arrabiata. It was pleasant enough and I ate the lot, but I felt the sauce could have been spicier to make it more authentic, plus the pasta tasted pre-cooked as if it is ready-made and just warmed up. Definitely not worth £8. A nice touch would have been a bread basket like most eateries do, but it was an extra charge here.



Meanwhile, the Carnivore tucked in to burger and chips which went down a treat, but he thought the portion of chips was a bit paltry. Burger was good quality meat though!



For dessert, we had some deliciously decadent sundaes- the dessert menu is so extensive, it was a hard choice to make. We settled on a Knickerbocker Glory and a Cookies and Cream sundae:



Cookies and Cream was an interesting mix of cookies, ice cream and raspberry sauce and rounded the meal off nicely, while the Knickerbocker Glory was the pseudo-healthy option as it contained fruit! However, neither were deserving of the £5.25 price tag. After careful consideration of the ice cream, we decided it tasted a bit Mr Whippy, rather synthetic. They tasted pleasant and hit the spot, but they didn't measure up to my local ice cream parlour.

My overall impression of F&B? It's a cheerful, inoffensive restaurant that has dishes for everyone, but its price tag doesn't reflect the quality and portion size of the food. I did notice that the prices are the same up North and down South, so maybe some regional re-pricing wouldn't go amiss, especially in an area like Salford that has high unemployment. You can't deny that the staff are well-trained compared to most eateries, and in the case of F&B's bubbly Salford staff, a smile really does go a mile.

Frankie & Benny's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 27 May 2012

UPDATE: Try Thai, Faulkner St, Manchester



Three years ago, I had the most exquisite lunch in Try Thai, a glamorous restaurant in Chinatown, and enjoyed it so much I was determined to go back. However, I couldn't find it- please don't tell me my favourite place has gone bust! Thankfully, after much searching, I discovered it had moved next door and one floor up. Phew, relief.
TT's reincarnation is a feast for the eyes as well as the tastebuds (no, not Take That, Try Thai! Steady on ladies)and its refurb is miles away from its former self, a bit like the Madonna of the restaurant world. Its previous form was a chilled, pine, cafelike affair, its new one is all rich fabrics, interesting Thai statues, and moody atmospheric dark furnishings. Thankfully, the prices are still low for lunch, the staff are cheerful and smiley; so far so good, let's sample the food!

I perused the menu and it was like returning home to an old friend- it had not gone up by much and was now £7.95 for a 3 course, still plenty of veggie options and the delicious cocktail list was ever present. To start with, I devoured a strawberry kick mocktail, made with freshly pulped strawbs- perfection. For a moment I was swept away to a tropical beach.
My starter was the generous Vegetables Tempura (see pic), a selection of battered aubergine, babycorn, broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, onion and pepper served with a chili dip to dunk them in. This was extremely filling and was wondering where I was going to make room for my main! In addition, they have another tasty veggie alternative in the form of sweetcorn cakes- breadcrumbed patties seasoned with coconut with a moreish sweetcorn filling.
Vindaloo Queens and Kings- now this bit is especially for the hardcore spice fans, if you like kormas, look away now. My main course was the extremely potent Aubergine and Tofu with chili and holy basil. Sounds non- threatening, doesn't it? Never mind holy basil, this dish is the holy grail for all those lovers of eye watering cuisine. The dish consists of succulent braised aubergine and tofu, tender and juicy but secretly tucked away in between the tofu laid chillies of all variety in technicolour greens and reds, laughing cheekily at my watery eyes. I downed a litre of water during the course of this culinary masterpiece, enjoying the cleansing sensation of an ultra- hot chili.
After this chili delight, there was the choice of ice cream or potent coffee for dessert, needless to say, I chose ice cream to extinguish the flames. I wolfed my ice cream dessert appreciatively, just the antidote for a lunch on the chillies.

In addition, Try Thai have now converted the original restaurant into a funky bar. Keeping with the Thai theme, they offer the same extensive drinks menu along with special drinks deals in a tranquil surrounding. Clearly, Try Thai's new year's resolution was to come up with a new quirky drinks menu! Their new selection really pushes the boundaries of the imagination and I thought I'd share this pic with you all to prove it. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's actually a cuppa.



Take one massive wine glass, fill it with hot water and put an interesting, flowery ball in it made of flowers, herb and tealeaves. Watch it open, grow and colour the water. Once it is at full bloom, let it stew then enjoy. Green tea with a difference-teabags are soooo last year!

Try Thai? No, don't just try it. Devour it! Do not miss this fragrant beauty of a restaurant. Your senses will thank you.

UPDATE MAY 2012

After a year of discovering new restaurants both in Manchester and abroad, I decided to revisit our old friend Try Thai. Sadly, the Carnivore and I were greeted with surly service and were fobbed off with a rubbish table in a half-empty restaurant. We didn't settle for this and moved to one of the larger tables. My keen eye observed other couples trying to be moved to the rubbish table too but funnily enough, some people who were obviously friends of the staff got welcomed with open arms and given the good tables. Really, I expect that sort of behaviour from N*ndo's but not my beloved Chinatown! The service continued to be haphazard and surly, with the Carnivore waiting 15 minutes for his beer- his starter came before his drink. Since our last visit, an extra couple of tables seem to have been crammed in, making this once tranquil experience reminiscent of a 2 star hotel on the Costa Brava. Gordon Gekko's 'Greed Is Good' catchphrase perfectly sums up this place. Sadly, it is a far cry from its more humble beginnings when it was still a hidden gem on the Manchester culinary scene. On a positive note, the food is still amazing- I actually feel sorry for the obviously talented chef, whose masterpieces are overshadowed by the haughtiness of his fellow staff members. One for The Restaurant Inspector I think.

Try Thai on Urbanspoon

Wasabi Dessert Room, Faulkner St, Manchester


After the abysmal service and high prices at Try Thai, I was loathe to spend any more money there. I like to enjoy my desserts and post-meal coffee in a relaxed surrounding and Try Thai had the ambience of school dinners. Since the demise of my old favourite Bubble Cafe, I was desperately seeking a new Bubble Tea joint in Manchester. Enter Wasabi Dessert Room- Chinatown's latest, sparkly addition. Upstairs from Wasabi sushi, this far-Eastern twist on the humble ice cream parlour is a delight. Featuring 15 flavours of Bubble Tea priced at £2.50 (the pic above is Lavender flavour- delicious) along with traditional Chinese and Japanese desserts, this place is a far cry from grabbing a boring croissant at Costa Coffee! Its relaxed setting with Asian pop videos playing creates the perfect atmosphere for whiling away a few hours. An absolute must is its speciality, the Snow Ice dessert. Priced at £4.99 but serves 2 easily and possibly even a 3rd person, this concoction of fruity sorbet, fresh fruit and tapioca is a work of art.

Wasabi Sushi & Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Mandarin, Liverpool

I am still trying to find a replacement for my much loved Golden Phoenix and its super business lunch. One of Liverpool's oldest Chinese restaurants with charming 70s decor, friendly staff and the famous Dessert Island sweet display, it sadly got demolished during the Capital of Culture propaganda in 2007. Regular blog readers will be aware of my disapproval of Liverpool 1 and the city's 'regeneration', fabulous old businesses and buildings were and still are being culled in the name of modernisation and yet more soulless chains are being erected in place. Boring. Anyway, rant over, time to eat.

The Mandarin is on the fringes of the business district and has been around for years, but in its previous form, was on the opposite side of the road. Now it has hit back with a glitzy glossy refurb but still offers a cheap and cheerful business lunch for approx £7- 3 courses and a drink. Ornate furnishings and statues complement the interior, modern but not faceless and brash. The spacious interior is a godsend, there's enough space in between tables as not to eavesdrop on your dining neighbours' conversations. The staff are attentive and friendly, the menu extensive but not overwhelming- just like Gordon Ramsay and every other discerning restaurant connoisseur likes! The menu is conveniently divided into a Vegetarian and a Meat section which saves a lot of umming and aahing what we veggies often have to put up with in Chinese restaurants. (Veggies will know what I mean- 'do you do vegetarian hot and sour?' 'We can take the meat out''Veg and Tofu? Errm we'll see if that's possible or if there's a surcharge'. It's vegetarianism, not rocket science.)

To start, there is the choice between soup or 'Pancake' rolls. Here, this translates as spring rolls, not actual pancakes, but nonetheless a decent portion. I opted for the Sweetcorn soup- a decent portion albeit lukewarm. The Carnivore went for the non-veggie spring rolls, a generously sized portion of 2 fat ones.


My main was a sumptuous Veggie Vermicelli, one of my staple dishes when I am bored with Szechuan. The mix of carbs and fresh veg with a hint of spice make a healthy yet filling dinner. The portion was generous but there was a distinct lack of vegetables bar peppers. I would have loved to have seen some broccoli, sugar snap peas, maybe some mini corn. Nonetheless, it was tasty and the sesame seed garnish gave it some much needed bite. Meanwhile, the Carnivore chowed down on the meat version, which also had a distinct lack of meat. What meat there was, it was cut up into small cubes.

The dessert was a choice between coffee and mint or ice cream, the Carnivore didn't want one so I ended up with both. The ice cream (vanilla) was a generous portion and served in a stylish ice cream dish as opposed to the ubiquitous metal ones, but the coffee got thumbs down. Yes, it was instant which really got my goat as I'm pretty sure I spied a filter machine behind the bar. For a top class restaurant, instant coffee is a bit shabby, even if it was the business lunch. And there was no mint, despite saying so on the menu.

A drink was also included in the meal- a half pint, soft drink or glass of wine, but the Carnivore ordered an additional pint. At £3.50 and tasting a bit iffy, it had a bigger head on than Marge Simpson. Stay teetotal here, it's the better option.

The Mandarin may look the part, but it definitely hasn't replaced the Golden Phoenix shaped hole in my heart. A good standby for a cheapo business lunch, but not top of my list.

Mandarin on Urbanspoon