Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Shaken and stirred to do list

1. Anyone who had tickets for the Vampire Weekend gig tonight at the Academy is SOL: they've pulled a sickie. But they ask us to "please send positive health vibes our way." Consider it done.

2. The Viva film festival, featuring the freshest cinema from Spain and Latin America, hits Cornerhouse next week. Have seen some great films there over the years that I'd otherwise have been completely ignorant of. Get your tickets early as each film only screens a couple of times and it's usually quite deservedly mobbed. And don't sit in front of me and talk to your friend or check your texts.

3. Ever wondered about those shadowy figures writing for Manchester's literary journals? You know you have. You can see some of them for real at a mega reading event featuring way too many writers from Ugly Tree, Lamport Court and Parameter, and enjoy the cool malty tipples of the ever-reliable Briton's Protection at the same time. Monday night 6:30 for 7.

4. Got a bike, unicycle or frankenwheelie? Grease it up and join the hordes for Manchester Critical Mass on Friday. Meets at 6pm at the Central Library.

5. If you're the least bit obsessed with the Obama-Clinton primary (and may I say, what's wrong with you people? I at least have the excuse of being a US voter) you might get a kick out of watching this campaign commercial that's currently airing in my home state of Vermont, which votes on Tuesday. Hear that heart-stirring theme swelling up in the background? Remind you of anything? Aww. It's amazing how close you can get to the West Wing music without actually playing it.

6. The ill-advised Manchester supercasino has once-and-for-all bit the big one. But maybe we'll get some more money as a consolation prize. And did anyone read this Jonathan Jones piece in the Guardian about public art and, specifically, the B of the Bang?

"'s bad art; in fact I think the word "art" overpraises it. It's a piece of design, like a decoration devised for a shopping centre. There's something planned and corporate about it."

I couldn't agree more. What say we keep that money in East Manc and use it to fund a groundbreaking project that would recycle B of the Bang into another totally different artwork that neither quietly crushes your soul nor threatens passersby with grievous bodily harm? Schematic proposals on a postcard please.

7. As a follow up to the bewilderingly popular post about Manchester restaurants, I ate at Isinglass in Urmston for the first time last night. Everyone says how good it is. It was good. It's also a lovely place, with very atmospheric lighting and branches on the walls for decoration. I tried rabbit pie and venison but they had a smoked eel and beetroot tart on the menu too which I faintly regret not getting. If you haven't been, maybe you should go sometime.

Friday, February 15, 2008

New blogs: the dyspeptic edition

Three days later, I am still recovering from judging the North West Fine Food awards. Judging food awards seems like a great gig until you find yourself facing 19 varieties of sausages with additives at 9 o'clock in the morning, and then realise you have to eat steadily until 4:30. Eeek.

But there's no cause for indigestion to be found in this week's heaping plate of new blogs (do you see what I did there?) Which is good, cause my hoard of imported Tums is dwindling fast. First up we got Mini Manchester, which is a blog about kids' activities in the region by Manc journo and mum Ruth Allan. She's asking for like-minded parents to share news of interesting kid-friendly outings around the city.

Another new music blog: Just Press Play has lots of samples to taste.

nine chains to the moon
is the blog of Sally, a Manchester writer, who uses it as a place to post a mix of fiction, poetry and random musings. She has this to say about it:

"It is weird that someone left a comment because it made me realise people other than my friends might read this blog. I wonder how anyone would find it. I am sorry to anyone who was excited by the title and thought it might be about geodesic domes or something. I feel peculiar when I imagine strangers reading it. When I think of it I get a kind of creeping shivery excited sick feeling. But that is the point isn't it? Is it very narcissistic to want to write a blog? I feel more vulnerable than gratified at the moment. But I think it will be good to Toughen Me Up and get some bits of writing that I do out into the open, and also gathered in one place where I can keep an eye on them."

I think that's a really apt summary of how many people feel about their blogs.

Does Christopher Walken like hotdogs? You can find out at manc dj and pubquizmeister Elliot Eastwick's new World Famous Blog.

And an interesting take on a personal blog is Cotton and Coal, subtitled "The adventures of a bachelor cotton trader, his friends, lovers and carrier pigeons in a Manchester steaming towards boom or bust." Writer Batson Bargreaves adapts events from his life into the voice of the narrative, which is decidedly old-school.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Rayner: Manchester restaurants "not quite"

"What is it with Manchester? Why, when it comes to restaurants, is it always so nearly, but not quite? Why does every restaurant I visit fail to deliver? Is it me? Do they hate me so much that they decide to show me such a mediocre time I won't return? Or is it the city? It's a big buzzy place, Manchester, full of interesting-looking people, and there are lots of Mancunians with money - exactly what you need for a thriving restaurant scene. And yet almost every time I eat here, I return home wallowing in disappointment, as though a little bit of me has died."

That's the lede of Jay Rayner's review of Grado, Paul Heathcote's new Spanish place on New York Street, in yesterday's Observer.

Rayner is one of the few national restaurant critics I have much time for. He's down to earth and clearly loves food, but never takes it too seriously. He seems like the kind of guy you wouldn't mind sitting down to eat with yourself, unlike most of the pretentious, self-worshipping windbags sharpening their steak knives on restaurants these days. And most of all, he's fun to read. ("It's all very well to source Iberico ham, but to then machine-cut it is an insult to the pig. To cut it thick and serve it fridge-cold is to jump on the pig's grave while howling at the moon.") I've always wondered why he doesn't review more Mancunian eateries, and I guess now I know why.

To be fair, Rayner goes on to praise my beloved Red Chilli to the skies. But his indictment of the city's dining scene is pretty damning. And in a way, I think he's got a point. Not neccessarily about Grado (I haven't been there yet, mostly because Heathcotes places are, in my experience, kinda boring) but about the standard of eating here.

I don't have a huge eating out budget; I love food and seek out good restaurants when I can. But in the five years I've lived here, I've found that lots of places the local press made much of (The Bridge, The Ox, Yang Sing, Obsidian) didn't live up to the hype, while others (Le Mont, Establishment) never appealed enough to try. I haven't been to the Michelin-starred Juniper yet, but am dutifully trotting over there before Paul Kitching leaves. Like most people, I'm happy to stick to my less-exalted favourites in the city: This n' That, Red Chilli, or the wonderful Market if I have some extra cash. Still, for a rock-solid special occasion meal, I'll usually be heading into the surrounding bits of Lancs and Yorks, which isn't what I would have expected before moving here.

Rayner speculates that Manchester's culinary shortcomings are down to the calibre of cooks in the city's kitchens, which could well be. For my part, I think too much time and money goes into creating a restaurant that looks flash, while less attention is paid to what comes out of the kitchen - and with an increasingly savvy dining public up here this tendency is starting to seem out of place.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Northern Quarter coffee wars

What's with all the coffee? There's a new caffenero/starbucks/costa on practically every street, and we're even finally getting some more good independents. Two opened recently in the Northern Quarter, and I went and checked them out:

is very nice indeed... a big, light and airy storefront cafe on Thomas Street with previous occupants Vox Pop records crammed into the back. The place reminded me a bit of the much-missed Suburb, but quirkier. Cup's menu had a small but fairly nice selection of soups and sarnies - I had scrambled eggs and fake bacon on a bagel, which hit the spot. And they sell Tunnock's teacakes there, so I was happy. Forgot to ask if they have wireless though.

This place is going to be deservedly popular, so I'd suggest swapping a few tables of merchandise for eating tables; the five they had in there the day I visited with Mancubist didn't cut it. And as much as I love designy china sets, I love smoothies named after Iggy Pop more. (photo courtesy Flickr user Marky1969.)

Interestingly, right next door is the newest incarnation of Love Saves the Day, competing for your Latte alliegance. You'll remember the original one in Tib Street became the massive one on Oldham Street which then closed. And what makes it interesting is that, for a while, LSTD was running a cafe concession in Vox Pop, which is now CUP.

Whatever. It's the same lovely people serving the same lovely drinks and snacks in a joint that's considerably more stripped-down and cosy than their last digs on Oldham Street. And unlike the one on Deansgate, you can actually sit down in there without worrying about barking your shins on a rip-roaringly expensive vat of single estate olive oil. And along with Odd and Trof there are now four or five places to caff up on Thomas Street that weren't there a year or two ago. Good stuff.

Good news on Afflecks, Queer up North

So this week two much-loved Manc institutions got a reprieve. First we learned that Queer up North would not have their funding axed by the Arts Council, which is wonderful news for a festival that has made a genuine effort to re-invigorate its programme in the past few years.

All those people who signed the petition online and wrote letters and emails should feel pleased as punch, because the public outcry really did make a difference here. Looking at the other organisations saved from a funding cut, it seems the squeaky wheels got the grease. And remember that the best way to continue to show your support is by actually buying tickets to an event at this year's festival, which I hear is going to be especially good.

Then we got the good word that Afflecks Palace is safe. Honestly, I'm a bit skeptical about whether the threat to it was quite as acute as some local media outlets would have had us believe (the headlines shrieking "Afflecks Palace to Close!", for example). But getting reassurance that it's important to the city is definitely a good thing. A Manchester without Afflecks would be a Manchester with a slightly smaller and less colourful soul.

I just hope new owners Bruntwood understand the importance of allowing the place to stay just as it is: scruffy, quirky and vaguely disreputable - a splendidly ragtag emporium of treasures and tat. No Triangulation on Tib Street, please, or we'll have to kick you with our massive boots.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Service bulletin

I got this comment today:

"Appreciating being kept up with new blogs - but what's happening to your own blog? We've not heard from you, yourself, in ages. What fun are you having without us, eh?"

Indeed. Well you might ask. I'd like to say that my social life has become so thrilling that blogging has simply fallen by the wayside, because I can't find time to log on between all the champagne brunches and late suppers and falling out of taxis and dancing on tables 'til dawn. Ha.

In actual fact, I am rather pregnant. A few blogging folks already know, having seen me in my (increasingly) fleshy incarnation, but I've not written about it here because... erm, well, I get a bit shy sometimes. But I'm having a girl sometime in early May. I'll definitely keep you posted. In the meantime, here's a picture:

And so, that's why I haven't been blogging as much lately. Because being pregnant makes you very, very tired. Most of my creative energy is apparently going into constructing a tiny person, and what's left over is spread pretty thin. Frankly, it's all I can do to keep up with the day job, and sometimes this even involves leading workshops in which I am teaching lovely people how to write blogs, and I am chagrined to note that my own blog doesn't exactly conform to the "post at least once a week" rule.

I have continued to post updates about new blogs because it's important, and because there are so many new ones being born every month in Manc that I am determined to keep up with them. But I am aware that my blog has been (whisper it) kinda boring and impersonal lately. I'm working on it. Your patience is appreciated.