Monday 19 May 2014

Mughli, Rusholme, Manchester

The Curry Mile is not somewhere I'd ever have rushed to normally. I'm not a huge fan of Indian food, finding it too often too heavy and formulaic, and designed for post-pub alcohol mopping up. I don't really get on with lots of chilli or a heavy hand with spices generally.

But a few months ago, Mughli suddenly burst onto my radar, and then, lo and behold, while I was watching Nigel Slater on the telly, even he suddenly appeared at seeking advice on spice at Mughli.

The sudden burst of recommendations on twitter tended not to mention curries, but other more interesting sounding dishes.  Looking at the menu online, my attention was particularly drawn by the words "charcoal pit" and the mention of lots of street food, snacky type things.  Talking with the owner (one of the owners?), he even suggested he'd prefer if people stuck to the street food and charcoal grilled stuff, rather than the normal curries.

You certainly can't miss Mughli on Manchester's Curry Mile: the facade is about as subtle as Jay Rayner going undercover to play D'Artagnan in a Bollywood version of the Three Musketeers.  Inside, it's a bit more discreet. It looks dark and a bit canteen-like at first, but it isn't.  There is an open kitchen area which contains the charcoal pit (actually just a charcoal grill rather than anything especially pit-like, I think), with another kitchen with the stoves and ovens beyond.

There seemed little point messing about, as it was the street food that we'd really come for, so we just ordered the lot. It amused me that, rather than writing our order down, the waiter just stuck the menu in the kitchen's tab grabber.

The charcoal pit
The chef looking very smart in his whites and toque

In general, I thought it was terrific, with a judicious, skilled use of the various spices employed.

Onion & spinach bhajis were one of the weakest of their streetfood selection we thought: a bit heavy and lacking the sophistication of some of the other dishes. Still better than some though.
Onion and spinach bhajis

Chicken pataka - "firework" chicken supposedly (according to the menu) tossed with sesame seeds, though I can't say we particularly detected them. But it was good & tasty, although might be improved with slightly larger pieces of chicken.
Chicken Pataka

Tamarind masala-battered fish was terrific: pieces of very good haddock deep fried in a masala batter and served with a chilli, tamarind and lime dressing.  A nice light, beautifully spiced batter. This worked really well, and it's worth saying that the size of the pieces of fish were just right so you got the perfect balance of fresh clean fish and crisp, spiced batter.
Tamarind masala fish

I loved the pani puri: little crisp hemispherical puris, filled with chickpea and potato chaat and served with sev, yoghurt and pomegranate seeds, and a sort of tamarind(?) water dressing to spoon over.  Such fresh, bright flavours. Why would anyone have poppadums when you can have these?
Pani Puri

Halloumi Menander - slices of halloumi, in a spiced batter - were one of real highlights of the street food menu for me. Admittedly a very similar (if indeed not the same) batter as the haddock, and really just as good. The halloumi was firmer than the haddock, so it didn't feel like the same dish.  The halloumi also avoided any trace of squeakiness.
Halloumi Menander

Samosa chaat is weird but very moreish. A vegetable samosa topped with chickpea & potato chaat, tamarind, sweet yoghurt and crisp sev so that the samosa goes soggy. The idea of piling stuff on top of a crisp samosa until it goes soggy seems very strange to my eyes, but the flavours are great, and the soggy samosa itself is curiously moreish too. 
Samosa Chaat
I've never had anything quite like the samosa chaat before. Genuine question: is it an actual Indian dish, or the rather fortuitous result of the Mughli team playing with their food as children?

Gunpowder chips are sweet potato fries with chilli salt & lemon.  Crisp on the outside but almost marshmallowy inside. Stunning and very, very addictive.  I had to slap myself to stop myself ordering an extra portion on the way out to eat in the car on the way home.
Gunpowder chips

Obviously I couldn't avoid the charcoal pit. Meat+charcoal=lust. So there came some excellent charcoal-grilled lamb chops (easily the equal of the possibly unjustifiably famous Tayaabs in London) and charcoal-grilled huge king prawns, looking liked small children's fists that have been skewered and marinated. Two separate dishes, I should add.  The lamb chops were amazingly good. But I thought the king prawns had just been a little over-basted with the marinade, which meant it ended up masking the flavour of the prawns.
Lamb chops from the charcoal pit
Giant king prawn from the charcoal pit
Chicken lollipops were something that was not currently on the menu, but on a specials menu that seemed to be somewhere between imaginary and invisible, but ultimately on its way eventually should they get round to it.  These were juicy chicken thighs, on the bone, deep fried I think. Sort of like a cross between American fried chicken and chicken piri piri, but nicer than any of either of those I've ever had. Sort of like a Nando's lorry and a Kentucky Fried Chicken lorry crashing into an Indian restaurant, but better than you'd imagine.

Chicken lollipops

Chilli okra fries: in Mumbai batter apparently. This was the poorest dish.  It had decent flavours but the okra were dried out, rubbery and very chewy.  This was the only thing we couldn't finish.  We pointed out they were a bit rubbish, but on reflection we should simply have sent them back.

Chilli okra fries

Chicken kati roll was a roomali roll filled with good tandoori chicken pieces, fresh spinach and red onions.  Good, but a poor relation of the tava roll that came next.  This kati roll was almost too packed with chicken, making it a bit monotonous to eat. Reasonably tasty, but it really needed some chutney or yoghurt within the roll to add moisture: the dressing provided on the side, didn't quite do that.

Kati roll

The tava roll didn't need anything else though: excellent juicy, spicy lamb kofte wrapped in a butter basted roti strip.
Tava roll

inside of the tava roll
Indian restaurants don't normally do desserts.  I thought Mughli was the same, and when some kulfi lollipops were offered, I assumed that was that.  But I see from other reports of meals at Mughli there may be a bit of a dessert offering, which - given what I had - it might be worth leaving room for.

Kulfi on a stick (chai flavoured kulfi, I think)
Back home where I live, all the Indian restaurants are strictly moslem, with no alcohol (not even BYO) allowed.  So a particular note for the cocktail list at Mughli.  Some really interesting, and extremely delicious cocktails, including a number of non-alcoholic versions for drivers.  I liked the watermelon lemonade mocktail, but commented that it felt a bit sweet.  When I ordered another, it was adjusted to be less sweet. That's good service. A delicious drink, with some ginger adding a hint of fire.  I must try engineer being able to try the alcoholic version (with gin) some time.  I had a quick taste of a Goan Martini (lychee, guava, vodka, lime) which was extremely delicious: you could so easily find yourself on the fifth or sixth one of those!

Mughli on Urbanspoon

Mr Cooper's House & Garden, The Midland Hotel, Manchester

As I understand it, this was the space that the Midland Hotel originally wanted Simon Rogan to take over, but a bit of clever bargaining meant he got The French as well, which was where attention was focussed, and which opened first.

I haven't been to The French: it's easier for me to get to the mothership, L'Enclume in Cartmel, than the French, so I just don't see the point of collecting Rogan restaurants purely for the sake of it.  I'm also not sure what I think about the complete makeover of The French's decor, given that it's a restaurant that holds many memories.

The last time I was in the space (and it's definitely more of a space - a very big space - than a room) that is now Mr Cooper's House & Garden, it was when the great Nico Ladenis opened Nico Central at the Midland in the 1990s, with Clive Fretwell in the kitchen.

Mr Coopers must be the airiest restaurant in Manchester, with massively high ceilings and a light cool interior, particularly in the garden section (the restaurant section: the bar that's key to a Manchester restaurant's success is in the house and library section of the House & Garden).  I'm not entirely sure about the use of garden furniture, but it was on theme and wasn't uncomfortable.

The menu is clearly Simon Rogan stretching his legs beyond the narrow focus of British ingredients, and there's a lot on the menu that I find attractive.  Actually, that's not correct.  I've just looked again at the menu online, and there's nothing on there that I don't find attractive: I'd happily order the lot.

At a recent meal, the starter of anise crusted sweetbreads with saffron risotto and fried leeks was excellent.  I don't think I've come across the combination of sweetbreads and anise before, but it worked so well, and also then in combination with the saffron risotto.  A great dish, but not perfect. I'd like larger pieces of sweetbread - fewer naturally in a starter, but it would also make a great main course if scaled up a bit. When asked, the waiter responded confidently that it was veal sweetbreads, but the smallness of the pieces made it difficult to confirm, and I wondered if it wasn't a bit of a waste chopping a veal sweetbread up like that when you could achieve the same result with lambs' sweetbreads.  The fried leeks were beautifully crisp without tasting overcooked, though so crisp in fact that one speared the top of my mouth and I had to pull it out with my fingers! Not very elegant, and if you happened to witness this, sorry.

Anise crusted sweetbreads with saffron risotto and fried leeks
A steak main course, served with truffle pudding and purple potato latkes was an excellent piece of steak, perfectly cooked and with a good flavour.  The truffle pudding - essentially a bread pudding along the lines of a German Semmelknödel was exceptionally good, definitely threatening to overshadow the steak.  The latkes were a disappointment, however, and again it was an issue of size: they were just too small, which meant they became a tiny potato fritter garnish (you can just about see I think three of them on top of the steak in the photograph below) and lost all latke characteristics.
Cumbrian rib steak, truffle pudding and purple potato latkes

My dessert was White chocolate cake with pineapple-cardamom compote. A warm, moist sponge filled with a layer of pineapple-cardamom compote & then a generous amount of foamy white chocolate sauce.  Of course it was sweet: it couldn't be anything else with white chocolate and pineapple to the fore.  But the balance of flavours - again an unusual combination, I think - was excellent, and there's no doubt it was a well-conceived dish.
White chocolate cake with pineapple-cardamom compote

Service throughout was excellent.  The style is so different to L'Enclume that it easily repays the trip.

Mr Cooper's House and Garden on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Hambleton Hall, Rutland

Hambleton Hall is a very fine country house hotel on the shore of Rutland Water near Oakham.  I have been occasionally over the thirty odd years since Tim Hart opened it.  The number of visits have been restricted both by its distance from my usual stamping grounds and the fact that it comes with a price tag to match the luxury setting, at least if you want to stay over: if you're in the area, they have some good value lunch deals.

My last visit to Hambleton Hall was in 2009 when I joined a group of friends in a private dining room for an evening looking at wines from the 1989 vintage.  At such events, the food often takes second place, but the quality and finesse of the food and its cooking kept it very much in the foreground.  So when I learned I was going to be treated (not by anyone related to the hotel, I hasten to add - everything was paid for) to a couple of nights at Hambleton Hall earlier this year, it was certainly something to look forward to.

The hotel side is as you would expect: everything is in elegant order, staff manage to appear as if by magic whenever you need something, fires are lit, cushions are plumped.  But it's more of a comfortable place, than a grand place. Outside there are a croquet lawn, a small swimming pool, well kept gardens and, I think, a tennis court. You could easily imagine a Noël Coward play or a Poirot novel set here.

The view over the garden to Rutland Water

Our bedrooms had the sloping ceilings of the eaves, such that in my room at least there was no way you could take a shower as there wasn't room to stand upright in the bath, which in real luxury style seemed big enough to hold half of Rutland Water: a bath designed for long soaks and total immersion. Bliss.  Though it's worth noting that my room was a "standard" room up the back stairs (you could almost see where, on the ground floor corridor, the green baize door would have been): the bedrooms in the "family" half of the house may be grander. Beds have the really high quality sheets you would expect.  Housekeeping is of the highest order.

Downstairs there is just one lounge, plus some seating in the entrance hall and a relatively cosy bar.  The lounge tends a little too much to hushed conversation and I felt that the bar was more relaxing.
The lounge
Hambleton Hall has held a Michelin star since 1982 and the kitchens have been under the control of head chef Aaron Patterson since 1992 (I actually ate there in his first week as head chef!).  The restaurant is classically and formally decorated with decent sized, well-spaced tables, with all the quality napery, cutlery and crockery you'd expect. Service is excellent, if formal.  Lighting is a little subdued, so apologies to both readers and Aaron Patterson for the less than perfect photographs.  Aaron Patterson's food fits well in this setting: there's a solid classical foundation with a few modern twists.  We ate over two nights and our overall impression was of a little inconsistency, with some dishes being truly excellent, while others just fell a little short.

Dinner starts with drinks in the lounge or the bar, with canapés. On the first night, the canapés were a "fig bubble" topped with a little shaved ham, deep-fried goujons of bream with a saffron mayonnaise and some delightful gougères.  On the second night, the real standout of the three canapés were the little beetroot macarons.

Canapés (day 1)
Canapés (day 2)
As well as a £75 5/6 course tasting menu, there's a three course à la carte for £65, with a separate "gourmet corner" of a starter, main and dessert with supplements.  There's also an absolutely fabulous wine list with prices that really aren't that gouge-y, especially for the class of establishment.  We had a delicious, maturing 2008 Le Soula and an equally excellent JJ Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett from 2009.

Once at the table, the meal starts with a demitasse of good but ultimately forgettable soup - forgettable in the sense that while I remember it was French onion soup one night and both had some good texture, I've completely forgotten what the other was.
Amuse bouche
A bouillabaisse terrine was excellent. It looked picture perfect, had great flavours, reminiscent of a bouillabaisse, but with a much more elevated set of prime ingredients: lobster, tuna and hake, all of which were cooked perfectly. Really extremely impressive.
Bouillabaisse Terrine with a saffron dressing

Similarly, a lasagne of of black Perigord truffle, combining truffle, artichokes and a perfect chicken mousse, was a stunning starter and there were no regrets about the £6.50 supplement.
Lasagne of Black Perigord Truffle
Another excellent starter came from the tasting menu.  No eyebrow was raised or anything when we asked if we could have the red mullet with blood orange and almond, a dish which appeared only on the tasting menu.  Really excellent fish, perfectly cooked, and I adored the orange and almond accompaniments which almost lent it a slightly Moorish feel.

A fillet of beef was decent enough, nicely cooked as requested and served with slow cooked Jacob's ladder and watercress and wasabi purée.  But as a dish, it felt much safer and lacked impact both visually and on the palate. The wasabi in particular was much more muted than it needed to be.

A roast duck breast was again perfectly cooked: beautifully tender and a good flavour, served with tamarillo that worked well with the duck.  A cassoulet of duck, apparently flavoured with fresh turmeric, was served separately.  The confit duck leg was excellent, and it was great to see the duck heart so prominent.  But the cassoulet itself was a let down: I found the beans just too undercooked, to the point that I asked for it to be taken back to the kitchen so that the chef could check it was how he expected it.  The answer came back that that was how Aaron Patterson wanted to serve the beans.  Fair enough.  I didn't like it though: the not-quite-crunch of the beans was not a texture I appreciated and, it seemed to me, detracted from what should be a quintessentially comforting dish.
Roast Great Dalby duck with tamarillo purée
Duck cassoulet flavoured with fresh turmeric
Fortunately an Assiette of Rabbit restored our faith in Aaron Patterson's abilities.  This really was a stunning, complex dish, with a sauce lightly favoured with licorice, that also made the Prüm riesling really sing in my view.  The loin was wrapped in (I think) a light rabbit mousse; the rack roasted with a herb crumb; a rich, braised leg, served with a pearly barley risotto and that excellent licorice sauce.  Really beautiful dish, showing off the kitchen's skills. Perfectly seasoned in all elements too.

Assiette of rabbit with pearl barley risotto & liquorice flavoured sauce

A pre-dessert of a sort of granita comes in a shot glass.  Fennel, orange and rhubarb one night; "taste of mojito" the next.  Refreshing, and just a taste.  For me the fennel, orange and rhubarb was very much the superior.
Fennel, orange and rhubarb pre-dessert
"Taste of Mojito" pre-dessert

Those shot glasses quickly reappear with dessert proper. The three desserts we had were all fine, with lots of technique, but if there were one area where Hambleton Hall might look to improve the menus, I would respectfully suggest that it would be desserts.  There was nothing wrong with any of them, but (with the exception of the Brillat-Savarin tart) there just seemed to be a little too much effort and too much technique which rather minimised the impact of the named main ingredients.  The other way to look at it is, I suppose, that the pastry section likes doing very refined desserts. This was particularly the case with a dish of "Tastes of Lemon & Violet" which just seemed to miss the point somehow.  Terrine of Rhubarb was better, but for me there was just a bit too much going on on the plate, to the point that it was the lime leaf ice cream that really stood out for me.
Terrine of Rhubarb with lime leaf flavoured ice cream
A Brillat-Savarin tart seemed to be in a different league: clean, and focused. A nice idea well executed, though even here the shot glass had to reappear (was it a celery granita & foam??).
Brillat-Savarin Tart with figs, walnuts & grapes
Detail of the Brillat-Savarin tart

Breakfasts were very good, though curiously more generous on the second day.  The breads were excellent, as you would expect given that the brilliant Hambleton Bakery is in the same ownership.  The small muffins in particular merit particular mention (I bought lots from the Bakery to stock my freezer), and played no small part in having some jolly good Eggs Benedict on the second day.

We enjoyed some excellent food at Hambleton Hall, as you would hope.  It is after all, what one beer company once called reassuringly expensive. If you choose well, it's no doubt not merely worth it, but also good value, especially as portion size is far from skimpy.  If that excellence could be transferred to all dishes, then Michelin's one star would start to seem a bit mean.

Hambleton Hall on Urbanspoon

Paul Leary, The Woodhouse, Woodhouse Eaves, Loughborough

Paul Leary, The Woodhouse
43 Maplewell Road
Woodhouse Eaves


This is one of those restaurants that gets a good write up in some guides, but doesn't appear at all in others.  We were on our way from the M6 to Hambleton Hall in Rutland and happened to read the right guide.  Thank goodness for satnavs though: I don't think we'd have found this restaurant without one, situated as it is up a residential street in a smallish village midway between Loughborough and Leicester.

We hadn't booked, as we had no idea when or indeed if we might be passing, so it was great to be welcomed with a warm "of course we can do lunch for you."  Other customers soon followed.  The decor was a bit, shall we say, 'individual' but none the worst for that: the main thing was good size tables, and comfortable chairs.
There was a really excellent value 3-3-3 lunch menu for £12.95 for two courses, £15.95 for three, which read well, and was certainly popular with most of the other tables that were in for lunch that day.  But as we were passing through and unlikely to return till the next time we were in the area (assuming it was worth returning to), the slightly more involved dishes on the à la carte caught our attention.  The carte is a set price too: £32 for two courses including an amuse; £37.50 for three courses including an amuse and a pre-dessert.

The amuse was a Broccoli velouté with a gratinated garlic foam, which managed to be much better than it both sounded and looked. The gratinated foam was interesting and something new to me.
Broccoli velouté with gratinated garlic foarm

A pig's trotter dish had perhaps refined the trotter a little too far, reducing it to very neat panéd cubes, which were also just a touch dry.  Everything else on the plate worked well though: confit egg yolk, black pudding and gremolata.
Pig's Trotter
The idea of a "Cheeseboard Risotto" is the most intriguing thing I've seen, or even heard of, on a menu in a very long time.  It was no less intriguing on the plate.  Or maybe it wasn't. There were all the frippery elements of a cheeseboard that I'd normally ignore (grapes, celery,  apple, oatcake biscuits and walnuts), with truffled brie, merged into a very good risotto.  It was odd.  It was very nice. It was odd. Very odd. Really interesting combination of flavours and textures, though I found the apple segments a little too large: thinner slices, or a dice would I think be better, as the apple just felt a little bit dominant and separate. Yet despite it being odd, I'm pretty sure I'd order it again if it were on the menu next time I visited.  Did I mention it was a bit odd? And very nice?
Cheeseboard Risotto
A whole boned lemon sole with shrimps, wild garlic dumplings, asparagus and hollandaise was excellent classic cooking, with beautiful, clean, classic flavours. A terrific dish.
Lemon sole with wild garlic, asparagus and hollandaise

While it was tempting to have the cheeseboard risotto again, as a cheese course instead of dessert, there was a less odd, much more normal, and stunningly wobbly lemongrass pannacotta that just about managed to hold itself up.  One of the best pannacottas I've had in a long time, and the gentle lemongrass flavour lifted it into the sublime.
Lemongrass pannacotta

This was a really excellent meal combining some fine cooking and some interesting ideas. Service was excellent throughout.  The wine list is pretty good, with fair prices: we had a 2011 Pinot Blanc from Pfaffenheim in Alsace, which for £22 we couldn't argue with at all.

We'd definitely go again.

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