Sunday, September 28, 2014

Restaurant review: 4244 Edge Street


Halfway through our meal at 4244 Edge Street, I’m reminded of that Woody Allen quote: “Is sex dirty? Only if it’s done right.” If you can come to the end of a plate in this restaurant without running your finger along its surface to capture the last drops of sauce, you’re doing it wrong. If you can finish your bread and then not go on to scoop up the last bit of the nut brown butter neat, you’re doing it wrong. This is food that demands The Full Nigella. Granted, I may have taken things a bit too far when I finished off a little dish of beef dripping and pan juices by pouring it directly into my mouth. To her credit, our server smiled and pronounced me her favourite customer of the night. “It’s so deliciously wicked, isn’t it?” she said. “Would you like some more?”

And to think this sort of thing is happening in the back of Teacup. When I heard the sainted Mary Ellen McTague was opening a pop up here while her Prestwich restaurant, Aumbry, was being renovated, I wasn’t sure how it would work. The answer is: fine. It doesn’t feel much like the back of Teacup, though you can see people in the cafe. The lighting from the open kitchen shines out like floodlights – but some German botanical prints and an antique dresser have been employed to good effect. As at Aumbry, the china and silver are old fashioned and mismatched, and the big, nubbly linen napkins look like the sort of thing a Victorian housewife might have done the washing up with. They probably cost about £45 each, but they’re intensely covetable.

4244 is serving a single menu, four courses for £50 with wine on top (pairings at £36). Eccentricities abound: The wine list is all Croatian as they genuinely love the wines and want to showcase small producers from the country. I’m on board with that as long as they’re all as good as the big, powerful Cattunar Teran, which knocked us sideways like a fist swathed in silk. They make their own bread from biodynamic flour – yep, grown according to the phases of the moon – no idea if this makes any difference, but it’s the chewy, rustic stuff I love. And there’s that butter (made in Bolton). And the dripping. Ah, the dripping.

The food is exactly what you'd get at Aumbry, but no need to do anything new as this is a different audience. A frankly ridiculous number of good amuses was followed by wild mushrooms with curds, hay ash and birch powder. The textures were punched up with crispy, soft rounds of homemade malt loaf – but the taste balance was edgy. McTague likes bold, at times downright peculiar taste combinations and I love eating food like this, but it’s dangerous cooking. With this many powerful flavours shouting at once the result is not always completely harmonious. I don't mind that, though. It's the opposite of comfort food, and I mean that as a compliment.

Hare consomm√© reminded me a lot of a dish I’d had at The French, which I’d argue is the only place in town serving better food than this right now: cubes of barely cooked turnip, daringly rare rabbit and a rich, tepid broth poured from a wee teapot. But the star of the night was a slow cooked partridge pie of unsurpassing loveliness. Again, the textures were so beautifully balanced, and here the taste combinations were spot on, with the mellow shards of savoy cabbage, flaky homemade pastry, cooked-to-meltingness meat and the sweet pan reduction mingling with the celeriac cream.

Ratafia pudding is one of those 18th Century dishes of the sort that McTague likes to ferret out of her vintage cookbooks. Given the choice, I’d never order it. Thankfully, I didn’t have a choice. A cube of Cox’s Pippin, clear red and baked until buttery perched on a slab of sweet pastry, like a deconstructed Tarte Tatin with a dash of intensely cidery sauce. My Cattunar Muskat Ruza was pleasantly dry and green for a dessert wine, though I wished I’d gone back and ordered another glass of that glorious red instead. Next time. For I’m going to be saving up to get back there again before 4244’s six week run is over. Greedy? Maybe. But when it comes to this woman’s cooking I have very little self control.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: Romeo and Juliet, HOME at Victoria Baths



I’m not gonna to lie to you: I walked into Victoria Baths ready to be disappointed by HOME’s production of Romeo and Juliet. I loved their debut outing with ANU, Angel Meadow, so much there seemed little chance the second instalment in their site-specific season could top it. And then there was the venue. People always want to use Victoria Baths for events and performances and, while it is a truly spectacular building, it’s still a big, echoey swimming baths; sound problems are inevitable. They’re still here, but with mics you can just about understand everything. It’s a reasonable compromise to see these spaces used so inventively – designer Ti Green has delivered with a staging that fully inhabits the baths, in three dimensions. 

And this is by and large a bold, assured production that delivers more than enough on pure vision to make good theatre, even if it falls short of truly connecting with the heart of the play. From the very first moment, when an Eastern European folksong came at us out of nowhere, and then the Montagues and the Capulets emerged singing from the striped changing cubicles arrayed around the pool, you knew we were in safe hands. 

With such a stripped-down set much rests on costume and music and these are strong: all tight Eurotrash spangles and the rackety gypsy barminess of an Emir Kusturica film (in an interview this spring, HOME Artistic Director Walter Meierjohann mentioned the Serbian director’s work as an example of the feeling suggested by the baths’ grand decay, and they’ve nailed it.) Props are employed with great efficiency: a little smoke machine and a wooden bench are brought on and then we’re in the Turkish baths having a shvitz with Capulet, splendidly arrayed in black towels and gold chains, as he barks out orders for his party. 

The cast is good overall, with an ensemble that slightly overshadows the lovers, who always felt a little aloof. Griffin Stevens as bumbling Capulet flunky Peter and Rachel Atkins’ as Juliet’s nurse stole every scene they were in. And Ncuti Gatwa as Mercutio moved so beautifully I could have watched him dance all night. There were a few missteps – Romeo breaking into Love Me Do and Crazy in Love during the balcony scene can be excused as a well-intentioned bid to shake up the lines we can all basically recite, and there’s more than a whiff of ham about the penultimate scene, where Romeo writhes on a platform covered with a picture of Juliet’s face. 

But when the windows opened to the third location and light and music streamed into the dark, it was a powerful moment. We were led into the final pool which has been filled with 86,000 gallons of water, and what we saw there – well, that would be a spoiler too far. It’s a difficult thing to breathe magic back into a scene where everyone knows what’s going to happen, but HOME have done just that. 

Romeo and Juliet, through Saturday October 4, Victoria Baths. (Sadly it's sold out, and the waiting list is closed.)

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Ramsbottom Festival 2014 preview

Summer has gone from the Pennine Hills. Stepping out of the door in the morning, you can see your breath. The blackberries have just gone past ripe and the woods are rich with the smell of dying leaves. All are sure signs that Ramsbottom Festival must be just around the corner, and here it comes right on schedule, the weekend of September 19-21 at Ramsbottom Cricket Club. It's always a friendly festival and a very good time, and luckily for me it's within stumbling distance of my house.

The big news this year is that they've added another stage, so we can all get more music in. What's on the lineup then? Topping the bill on Friday it's The Levellers, veterans of many a festival. Bet they've got some stories.



Saturday's headliner is epic indie outfit British Sea Power, one of those bands whose name perfectly fits their music, and always conjures up images of Sellafield under stormy skies. Hopefully the heavens will open and give us some driving rain during their set for added effect (I'm only kidding. Oh god, watch it rain now and everyone blame me.)



Sunday's traditionally the big day for folk, so it's a bit of a surprise that closing out the festival action is 1980s/90s R&B superstars Soul II Soul.



Lower down on Friday's billing you'll find Jimi Goodwin, frontman of Manc indie outfit Doves. His first solo album is out on Heavenly:



Also on Friday, Colne husband-and-wife band Bird to Beast do retro-inflected folky poppy stuff.



Scottish folk pop band Admiral Fallow are back again, on Saturday:



Sunday things get seriously folky with Irish singer Cara Dillon:



Also on Sunday: ultralocal (think they live in Ramsbottom?) band A Harp and a Monkey:



But of course that's just the music. With kids' day tickets from just £6, there's plenty in the way of arty amusement for  small members of your party, with performers including Artful Playground, Pif-Paf theatre company and a folklore-inspired shadowplay installation from events wizards Walk The Plank. This is a festival that always takes its beer very seriously, and this year it's going to be provided by Silver Street Brewing Company and Bury's Own Outstanding Beers, with the usual array of good street food. And if we're really lucky, we'll see that guy in the stripey jumper with the stripey-painted face dancing barefoot through the puddles. I love that guy. See you there.

Day tickets from £24, weekend tickets £66. They're laying on buses from Manchester and Chorlton, or take the East Lancs Railway steam train. Full info and tickets on the Ramsbottom Festival website.




Sunday, June 29, 2014

Wild swim at Gaddings Dam, Todmorden





On the website of the Gaddings Dam Group they describe the path to Gaddings Dam as “a steep, poorly defined footpath.” This doesn’t really get across the effort involved here or give you any indication of exactly how long it will take someone to hike up to the dam while toting an overstretched old carrier bag full of buckets and spades and jollying understandably hesitant three and six-year-old girls up what is definitely the biggest hill they’ve ever climbed. The answer: approximately 30 minutes. At the top be sure to point out your car which is now a tiny speck, parked outside the Shepherd’s Rest pub (not great, nice play area.) Pack a picnic and whatever else you think you’ll need because there's nothing but water and rocks and bleakness up there.

Gaddings Dam is billed as the highest beach in England. This is kind of a joke, but there’s enough sand to amuse a bunch of children and provide a soft place to sit in what would otherwise be a rocky, inhospitable moorland setting. The dam is a stone bowl of cold, clear, black water at the top of the moors. An industrial reservoir built in the early 19th Century, it was purchased in 2001 by a collective who preserve it to be enjoyed by the people of Todmorden and the surrounding towns. When you dive in the water actually smells like ozone, like the sidewalk after a summer thunderstorm, and it brings home the fact that you’re swimming in rainwater that’s probably closer to its original source than anywhere you’ve ever swum before.

On a hot sunny day in June the water was plenty warm enough to go without a wetsuit, but I pretty much always think that and am aware that other people have different ideas about what is and isn’t too cold. The reservoir is a very quiet place – all you can hear is the occasional bleat from a lamb somewhere on the fells and the soft lap of water against the stone. There are cows actually standing in the water at the far end, but at 4 square acres it’s a pretty big body of water, so don’t let that faze you. After you’ve swum, be sure to allow some time for lying in the long grass in the adjacent meadow and gazing in awe at the incredible views dropping down across the Calder Valley – cloud shadows and green hills and pastures disappearing into the haze. Weirdly, dam base camp is accessible by public transport, though with one bus an hour heading up Lumbutts Road it’d require crack timing. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 09, 2014

First Draft and Next Draft

First Draft is good. It's a Manchester-based cabaret event, with people performing music, poetry, stories, comic monologues and short plays on the same stage. Great idea that. One format nights are all very well, but for those audience members with shorter attention spans (hand going up) changing up the kind of work being performed can really help keep things engaging. Your brain does sometimes start to wander a bit after the fifth flash fictioneer takes the stage, or the seventh slam poet, no matter how fantastic they might individually be, and that's only natural.

The idea is that this really is the first place to perform stuff that's still very fresh, so there's an off-the-cuff, low-risk feeling about it that can be quite freeing. The organisers (including the lovely Abi Hynes, above) work very hard putting the regular night together, and they really took on a big project with last month's Next Draft: a two-day event at the King's Arms produced with Studio Salford, aimed at giving past performers a chance to perform works that were a bit further along in its development.

I went along and enjoyed Jez Hewes and Andrew Williamson's daft mashup of three songs, a lovely nonfiction essay from Nija Dalal, a funny performance from Anjali Shah, a cheesy story from Fat Roland and Faro Productions' one-woman play about the fascinating Mata Hari. Unfortunately I had to leave before the second half so missed out on Papermash Theatre’s Happy Birthday Without You, from playwright and performer Sonia Jalaly. But they're back to their bi-monthly-ish slot at The Castle next Monday night with a fresh batch of performers ready to rise to the Empyrean heights of the challenge set by the theme 'Songs of Praise.' Come along, or get in touch if you're interested in performing here, the next one's in August.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Writing and blogging workshops at Manchester Central Library

Just a quick one to say that we at writing organisation Openstories have just announced a new series of workshops aimed at emerging writers and bloggers looking to brush up on their skills and try new things. Held at the new and improved Manchester Central Library in June and July, you can take part in sessions on:

  • Making your blog or writing website look good with tech wizard Chris Horkan (17 June)
  • Marketing your writing with poet Jo Bell (24 June)
  • Re-invigorating your blog with ME (1 July)
  • New approaches to creative writing with writer Steve Dearden (8 July)
For full info on the workshop leaders, what you'll actually learn at the sessions and the rest of the whys and wherefores head to the Library Live site, where you can also see other cool stuff happening at the library. All of the above sessions will be held on Tuesday evenings at the Library from 6-8pm and will cost £7 per place. Places are limited so if you're interested get over to our Eventbrite page and book yourself on.

Image courtesy Greater Manchester Transport



Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Short Short Story Slam (and why you should go see live literature in Manchester)

So. Manchester’s live literature scene, something happened to it while I was hibernating. It got awesome.

Last night was Flashtag Collective’s Short Short Story Slam at Gullivers. I’d heard great things about last year’s slam in Didsbury, but I wasn’t really prepared for the quality of the readings. Eleven writers all giving it their best shots, and there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. Standouts for me included Mark Powell’s surreal hijinks with Scoob and the gang, Mark Mace Smith’s deceptively simple stories, Joy France’s brilliantly filthy opener and runner-up Joe Daly’s bleak closer, which proved you don’t always have to go for the laughs. But there could be only one winner and Simon Sylvester was it with his strange, tightly crafted fictions and what was really a very fetching hat.

Much respect to these writers. It’s fucking terrifying reading your work before a live audience as it is, but to do so knowing that your story will be instantly judged right in front of you, that you will be either the winner or the loser... sheesh. And the Flashtag team were experts at wringing the maximum entertainment from the experience while also maintaining a friendly and supportive vibe throughout. It’s great to hear that they’re thinking of doing this every few months – judging by the big crowd last night it could do very well indeed.

But there's more. Next week, the ever-brilliant Bad Language is at The Castle next Wednesday, April 30 with Luke Brown headlining. Effed Up comes to The Castle on Sunday May 4 with a theme of outsiders’ views of Britain. Cabaret night First Draft is cooking up a special two-day showcase, Next Draft, at The King’s Arms on 5 & 6 May. Open mic  Evidently holds court at The Eagle in Salford every second Monday, storytelling night Tales of Whatever is at Gullivers every month…oh, I could go on. But you get the picture: it’s happening. Get in there.

Image courtesy of Flashtag.