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.


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.