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…

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The GlassBoat//7thFEB|2017

Superlative Steak That Matches Up To Its Own Hype

When I was tipped off about The GlassBoat – a floating restaurant in Bristol – I was initially sceptical.

Bristol is a town that has been constantly juggling with identities for decades now. First it wants to be a historically rich port town, capable of drawing in international tourists. Then it wants to be a rough’n’ready student village, that can hold its own with the likes of Manchester and Liverpool. Now, with rent prices looking to join the upper echelon’s of the English landscape, its hoping to appease the masses of Londoners, keen to leave the Big Smoke for a slightly smaller Smoke.

Sitting in line with my expectations of this mixed up city is The GlassBoat. With its kooky setup and water location, alarm bells were ringing in my head long before I made the trip down South.

Those bells were ringing loud and clear until I discovered that not only has the restaurant been open for the past 30 years, but that its also had the guiding hand of Freddy Bird, the acclaimed chef behind the inviting Lido (also in Bristol). After a quick check online, my suspicions were allayed and I quite happily booked a table in the 100-cover restaurant, hoping to taste, what the website boldly claims is, ‘the best steaks in Bristol’.

Although the prices in Bristol’s top tier restaurants have been inching up for the last few years (we’re looking at you, Nettle & Rye) you’ll be pleased to hear that The GlassBoat’s prices are reasonable, with the lunch Prix Fixe costing only £15 for 3 courses. With such a bold claim on their website, though, I was only ever going to be eating their steak. From good stock (Herefordshire, Shorthorn, Aberdeen Angus) and raised on local farms, I ordered the 250g Rump at £19.50.

Whilst I waited for my food, I admired the efforts that the owners had made to keep this decades old business afloat. From the exterior, the boat’s traditional design makes one think of twee postcards and chocolate box villages. Once inside, though, this disconcerting quaintness gives way to modern aesthetics and the smells of roasting meat assuage any remaining doubts. Seated by a pleasantly mannered young man, the service is relaxed – without the faux-friendly cloying attitude that seems to be slowly invading our country’s restaurant industry.

The meat arrived, after a brief interlude, gloriously pink in the middle, with decent colouring on the outside. Whilst I may have tasted better Bearnaise sauces, the plate as a whole, arriving with golden fries and a hearty salad, was more than worth the money. With the sun setting into the river, I took my time finishing the excellent Chateau Pineraie and considered how poorly I’d judged the city of Bristol.

Yes – its suffered from the same kind of gentrification that has left the, once vibrant, neighbourhoods of Shore Ditch and Camden a culturally vapid playground, of exposed brickwork and bare bulbs; but does it really deserve the ire of this writer?

Buoyed somewhat by the excellent wine, I left a handsome tip for the deserving staff at The GlassBoat and almost left Bristol with nothing but positive impressions. That was until I lost my footing on a curb and stumbled into a group of smartly turned out, bespectacled millennials, who referred to me as a ‘Tory bastard’ and told me to ‘clear off’ (expletives omitted).

You were so close Bristol – maybe next time.

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