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