I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to writing about Manchester’s very own Gastro Club, which is arguably one of the most exciting dining experiences to hit the city in rather a long time. On the second Tuesday of each month, a group of intrepid (and very hungry) culinary obsessed Twitterers flock en masse to one of the cities numerous restaurants to eat interesting food, drink excellent wine and generally have a good old natter with each other about food, life, love and everything inbetween. I adore Gastro Club – so much so in fact that I don’t even mind undertaking the hellish morning rush hour Manchester to Liverpool commute with a hangover the next day. If what’s being served up to me is tasty enough, frankly, I can even put up with being elbowed in the face by businessmen on a packed train. The lengths I go to for a good feed eh?
The last Gastro Club saw us all decamping to The Mark Addy in Spinningfields which had been turned into a festive Narnia wonderland, reached by walking through a cupboard and into a world of candlelit delights. I feasted until I popped on Mythical Beast, Herb Soup and Bread ‘Mice’ with ‘Cheese’ soup, and even managed to knock over a Christmas tree onto a man dressed as Mr. Tumnus (whilst shouting ‘SORRY MR. TUMNUS!’ rather loudly to boot. Sorry Mr. Tumnus). It was one of those magical dining experiences that will forever live on in the memories of those who were lucky enough to experience it. Alas, last time my camera decided to have a funny turn and none of my pictures came out. When it was announced that the next Gastro Club was going to be held at Harvey Nichols in Manchester, I was determined not to make the same mistake again.
When I got to Harvey Nichols, I was – to be honest – feeling a little harassed. It had been a long day at work and whilst I was doing my make-up on the train, a complete stranger walked up to me and told me to ‘smile’ as I was apparently ‘looking really miserable’. Well yes – you wouldn’t look particularly cheery too if you were attempting to put eyeliner on whilst on a moving vehicle matey.
To add insult to injury, I’d decided to give up booze, potatoes, rice, pasta and bread for Lent, so this was my last night of indulging in all of those tasty things before 40 days and 40 nights of self-imposed abstinence. It was time for a cocktail – and an ‘Angry Sailor’ which contained pineapple juice, Sailor Jerry’s and (rather worryingly) a rather large amount of chillies hit the spot nicely. A proferred glass of Bucks Fizz was even nicer, and went down a treat with the various snacks we were served up – big fat olives and deliciously smoky sweet pecans. I had to stop myself gobbling down a whole bowl of them before the main courses arrived. Although I never have been particularly good at restraint, I must say.
Our starter, a pressing of Goosnargh chicken, with a morel with truffle dressing looked elegant, and thankfully managed to avoid going looking like posh catfood (a problem afflicting a few of the terrines I’ve had served up to me recently). It seemed to act as more of a palate cleanser than anything else – dainty, delicate and with the merest hint of Christmas dinner about it.
I adored the next course – a Portland crab raviolo with fennel and saffron. The saffron sauce provided a beautiful burst of golden sunshine to the plate, and provided a wonderful contrast to the tender, flavoursome crab, and the sharp aniseed bite of the fennel. Usually, I’m not the biggest fan of fennel, but here it worked perfectly, its crispness providing the perfect counterpoint to the toothsome pasta of the raviolo. As I took a large slurp of my delicious Sauvignon Blanc, I couldn’t wait to see what would be served up to me next.
Sadly, it was (for me) the only dish of the night that I felt didn’t work – the Cheshire ox cheek and celeriac with Savoy cabbage. Each element of the dish was cooked perfectly – the ox cheek falling apart into delicate litle shreds as soon as I prodded it with my fork, and I adored the pumpkin seed brittle it was topped with. However, I felt as though it didn’t all come together into one harmonious whole. It felt too rich, too dense, as though I was eating mouthfuls of velvet. I would have liked something a bit sharp on the plate to cut through the intense heaviness of it all, and I finished it longing for something light and zingy.
Thankfully, that came in the form of a British classic. Rhubarb Crumble. I’d never eaten rhubarb before that night (blame my American mother, and a father who despised the stuff after being served up stringy overcooked portions of it throughout his childhood) , so this was something of an epiphany for my tastebuds. Short, sharp and sweet, the frozen base reminded me of a pimped up sherbert, whilst the amaretti tasting crumble added a nice bit of texture to the softness of the sorbet. I’ve already made a mental note that I really have to get my hands on some rhubarb so I can attempt to recreate this in my kitchen at home. How has such an amazing ingredient eluded me for so long?
However, the Rhubarb Crumble was but a prelude to the dish of the night, Manuka set cream with a lime confit and smoked macadamia crisp. If this pudding was a man, I would have leapt on it after one bite and done exceedingly dirty things to it . The smoked macadamia crisp had the texture of honeycomb, yielding yet brittle, snapping delicately between your teeth. It went perfectly with spoonfuls of the manuka cream – soft, dreamy and delightfully creamy – the kind of honey that bees leave reserved for very special people indeed. The cubes of lime jelly practically fizzed on the tongue, yet didn’t feel out of place amidst such a variety of rich ingredients. In fact, this dessert was so good, I was compelled to finish my dining companions when they said they couldn’t eat another bite. Well, it would have been a shame to see it go to waste after all.
The evening finished with coffee and petit fours – smokey chocolate truffles with a raspberry ganache, and delicate strawberry macarons which looked almost too dainty to eat and – when you bit into them – tasted of the strawberry fondant you find in pink wrappered Quality Street chocolates.
Being one of those relentlessly greedy types, I’m ashamed to say I snaffled a few away in my pocket to scoff in the taxi on the way home.
All in all, it was an amazing evening, filled to the brim with good food, good company, and more than a few glasses of excellent wine to boot. Plus it was only £35 a head without wine, a very reasonable price for an exceptional dining experience. I woke up the next day with a huge smile on my face as well as a cracking hangover. But it was all worth it. I couldn’t have wished for a nicer way to see in Lent and 40 days and 40 nights of abstinence. Gulp.