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.