Alabama’s & Pieminister//4thMAR|2017

I’m always game for a trip up North – especially when it involves a day filled with eating.

I jump at any opportunity to escape London.

A long lost friend’s birthday? I’ll be there. Brother-in-law’s mate’s stag do? Sign me up – any excuse to hop on a train and leave the city for a day.

When an old University friend of mine (now residing in Manchester) announced on Facebook that he was quitting his job of 20 years to start an oven cleaning business, I saw a perfect reason to reconnect and celebrate a new beginning.

Thrilled by the prospect of heading up North, where the people are down-to-earth, fashionable and friendly, I planned a day of eating at a couple of small places that wouldn’t break the bank, giving me plenty of time to quiz my old friend over just why he’d decided to make such a drastic life decision.

After a dozy train ride up to Manchester, I splashed the sleep off my face in the train station loo and made a dash to Alabama’s, the (relatively new) self-proclaimed ‘All American’ brunch place in the city’s popular Northern Quarter. My friend was waiting outside and we stepped into the brightly lit dining room just as they were opening up.

Over a rather indulgent plate of Crab Cakes and Poached Eggs on Muffin, the intricacies of the company, that my excitable friend had just invested in, were laid bare to me. Between detailed descriptions of grill scrubbing techniques and profit margins, small exclamations were made pertaining to the ‘smashing’ Hollandaise that graced the plate. My Parmesan Omelette (I was playing conservative at the start of a long day) was ably cooked, soft in the middle and wonderfully cheesy. We paired our meals with a couple of Breakfast Martinis, which certainly made the oven cleaning stuff easier to listen to.

Settling the bill we happily tipped the capable chefs and made our way to the next venue on the menu.

The North of England is famous for its pies, so famous in fact that its easy to forget that London has a similar reputation for producing quality pastry. That’s where the founders of Pieminister hail from, although they took their inspiration for their own spin on the classic British food from pies eaten in Australia, of all places. After setting up the company in 2001, the two founders have served their food to the Queen, graced the fields of Glastonbury and opened restaurants – lots of them.

Their cafe location in Manchester was a little too close to comfort from our breakfast spot, so we took our time and hooked round through Piccadilly Park. My friend is such a good salesman that I’m starting to warm to the idea of cleaning ovens for a living. As the weather begins to warm up as well, I imagine a life spent driving around the country, getting paid to do the one domestic job that no one wants to do. Before I ask about the cost of investment, though, we arrive at our destination.

There are a baffling array of pies on the menu, thirteen in total, as well as a host of sides and toppings to choose from. I surprise myself by ordering the ‘Saag Pie-neer’ (I usually avoid dishes involving awful puns, but there’s no escape at this place), whilst my pal goes traditional with Steak and Stilton (‘Moo & Blue’). Both pies arrive in timely fashion and with a smile from a slightly dazed look waitress – a heavy night before, perhaps.

The vibe is relaxed, with a nice canteen style feeling, robbed from the Americana restaurants that have been popping up all over the country for the last 5 years. Its a nice fit, no wonder there are already over 10 locations spread across the UK. The pastry is buttery, the sides (mash, minty peas, thick gravy) are exuberant and the Elderflower Cider I pick on a whim makes for a surprisingly good pairing with the Indian flavours in my pie.

With my head swimming a little from the two drinks I’ve consumed before midday, we leave the cosy cafe only £12 lighter. If only I could find such hospitality and food for this price in London!

What then followed was a rather indulgent tour of Manchester’s fantastic pubs and many pints of ales – the less said, the better. Suffice to say, I won’t be leaving the critic business to scrub ovens any time soon, but I wish my friend all the best luck.

If only more of my old friends could make such brave decisions…