Tuesday 29 May 2012

Manna - Bristol

I’ve eaten at new Bristol restaurant Manna twice in recent weeks and both times it’s really impressed, so much so, that right now, I’d say it’s already edging into my first place choice for dinner in the city.

I say city, but it’s actually located just on the outskirts of the heaving Brizzle metropolis, in suburban Westbury Park, up beyond the crest of Whiteladies Road and partway into the vast green expanse of The Downs. This across the road offshoot of Italian parent restaurant, Prego, is serving a very interesting selection of Spanish influenced small plates, with an apparent emphasis on offal and cheaper, more interesting cuts.

Although ‘Spanish small plates’ throws up a mental image of tapas, this definitely isn’t. Think much more gutsy, substantial dishes, small main courses really, designed and priced for sharing. Throw in a selection of charcuterie and artisanal British cheeses and the menu shapes up rather nicely.

The restaurant itself has been nicely decorated, designed and fitted out with a definite eye for detail. It all looks very slick. I particularly like the diner style leather booths.

Saying that a chef has a fine pedigree makes them sound like a horse, but it must be noted that Manna’s chef has worked at some very good restaurants, including Moro, The Lido and Flinty Red. It’s probably not surprising then that the food is excellent.

Having eaten there on both occasions with compadres who like stuffing their faces just as much as ‘E’ and I, it’s fair to say that between the lot of us, we’ve given the menu a pretty good workout. Here’s a run through of most of what we ate over both visits.
A plate of chorizo from the charcuterie section was decent enough to pick at whilst sipping some Manzanilla, but it was the well made, paving slab thick, chunk of pork rillettes that really signified that we’d rolled across the start line towards gluttony. I signalled for more bread, with a ‘forward ho’ arm movement.
‘E’s Artichoke, Goats Curd, Hazelnuts and Sweet Herbs was reduced to a desultory green sprig in seconds. Forks flying in from every angle around the table. Despite such a fleeting taste, and me, on that occasion, being slightly sherry fuelled, I remember it being a lovely, light dish. The earthy flavour of the artichokes working well with the acidity of the goat’s curd.
Beautifully cooked, charcoal grilled squid, with an accompanying heap of fresh, sharp chopped salad was extremely good.
As was a pretty hefty portion of salt cod, potatoes and piquillo peppers.
But it was the rolled crispy pig’s head with sauce Gribiche (a classic French cold egg sauce, spiked with cornichon, capers, parsley, chervil and tarragon) that really caught my attention. Almost like slices of deep fried bath chap, the contrast of the hot, salty crunch of the pork against the piquant chill of the sauce was incredible.
A light, very simple, but nicely put together dish of Perroche (a soft goats curd cheese from Neals Yard Creamery in Herefordshire) with accompanying tomatoes and basil was stunning. Generously portioned, fresh tasting and perfectly judged for spring. I could have eaten another plate, easily.
Another standout dish was Veal Cheek cooked in Pedro Ximénez with Morcilla and crispy sage. Straining hard against the small plate boundary, this was a fair old sized plate of food. The veal perfectly cooked and easily pulled apart with a fork, atop a slice of bread to soak up the rich juices, with accompanying pucks of black pudding. At £10, really very good value for money.
Showing a lightness of touch, and a bit more subtlety, a dish of slow cooked rabbit with Butifarra (a type of Catalan sausage), peas and spring onion was immensely uber. Perfectly seasoned, the rich rabbit meat and sausage, in a clear broth with the fresh peas. It was bloody amazing basically. I mopped up the lot with bread.
Another light, yet superbly cooked dish next, almost rivalling the rabbit. Slow Baked Sea Trout with Tabbouleh, Yoghurt & Tahini Sauce. The fish, so soft and translucent it almost melted on the tongue, when eaten with forkfuls of the accompanying herb salad and yoghurt dressing was just phenomenal.

There are a couple of desserts on the menu. Simple but well made, nothing too fancy.
We shared a very good rhubarb tart priced at £3, which is probably the cheapest dessert I’ve seen on any menu for years.
And a bowl of rich chocolate mousse, studded with cherries soaked in rocket fuel and kirsch. Nice enough, but I couldn’t eat more than a couple of spoonfuls it was so rich. ‘E’ didn’t seem to have any trouble though.

It’s hard to believe that Manna has only been open barely a month. On both visits it was packed, the service was excellent and the kitchen was slinging amazing food out of the kitchen at a blistering pace. All very slick indeed.

On the second visit, three of us spanked the menu extremely hard, loads of dishes ordered, cheese, bottle of wine and glass of Manzanilla apiece. The bill was £40 each. Which I’d say is pretty bloody good value, especially when the cooking is this good.

I’d say Manna is pretty much doing everything right. The restaurant itself is pleasant and relaxed. The staff are very friendly and on the ball. The food is very good without trying too hard. Really nice, simple, well-cooked gutsy dishes and an interesting menu. Despite the small plates tag, I’d say it’s portioned for greedy bastardos like me to share happily within a group, probably with no arguments and subsequent punch ups. Which is always a bonus. And it’s not expensive.

Like it. Like it a lot.

2B North View,
Westbury Park.

Telephone: 0117 970 6276

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Essex Eating does Jerez - Part 2

Whenever I happen to be abroad, one of my favourite pastimes is wandering around a supermarket. It can keep me amused for hours. On my recent sherry jaunt to Jerez, I had ample opportunity to indulge. It doesn’t have to be a posh delicatessen, full of premium produce, I’m more than happy playing the tourist in the foreign equivalent of Co-op. I find it endlessly fascinating. Marvelling at the shelves stocked with exotic ingredients and staring uncomprehending at all kinds of no doubt mundane, yet intriguingly mysterious items with suitably unpronounceable names. I mentally compare prices with the UK; study the locals and what they’re buying (in a totally non creepy way) and just generally be a total supermercado geek 
So, bearing this in mind, imagine how I felt when confronted with Jerez’s massively impressive indoor market. Jam packed with locals shopping, gossiping and bustling around a huge hall filled with fishmonger’ s counters, each piled high with a bewildering array of fresh seafood of every kind imaginable.

Massive prawns, (which as fans of comedian Stewart Lee will know, signify quality of life). Tiny little jumping shrimp, heaps of beautiful looking fish, next to heaps of ugly ass sea monsters. Flat fish, fat fish, catfish. Gigantic cross sections of ruby red Tuna and something that looked a hell of a lot like shark. Basically the whole cast of Finding Nemo, caught, gutted and displayed on ice for your viewing pleasure. I was endlessly impressed.
Radiating out from the fishy heart of the market, surrounding areas specialise in fruit and veg or charcuterie, whilst outside, there are small ramshackle looking stalls selling foraged herbs and greens. Out back, in an alley, there’s a small café seemingly frequented by market traders. At 11am, I notice approvingly, they’re already knocking back the sherry.
Although it’s hardly surprising when you consider that Jerez is sherry city, and an ice cold glass of Fino in any bar will set you back around 1 Euro 20, (96p). Being an absolute sherry fiend, and with the sun beating down in an appropriately scorchio fashion, I took full advantage of the fact and drank frigging gallons of the stuff at every opportunity. Don’t mind if I do.

Obviously, all this amazing boozing needs accompanying grub to soak up the alcohol and the Spaniards have it totally covered in the form of tapas. As with the sherry, in Jerez it’s ridiculously cheap. Around 2.5 Euro for a small plate, which meant that as well as spending most of my time suitably leathered, I was also stuffing my face silly, pretty much constantly. As you can imagine, it was hellish.

At this point, I have to mention one of the best things I ate, Chicharones, deep fried rendered pork offcuts flavoured with rosemary. Extremely porky, meaty and surprisingly soft and ungreasy. These were crazy cheap and sold by the kilo. Holy Moly, that’s what I’m talking about. Despite realising that my arteries were noticeably hardening as I stuffed one after the other into my already addicted gob. I just couldn’t leave them alone and kept going until I’d eaten the whole frigging lot. Disgusted with myself, I vowed to cleanse my innards with more sherry.

I’m pleased to say that as well as eating whilst walking around, I also found time to munch sitting down. 
There were a couple of places I particularly liked. Although a little touristy perhaps, the rather impressive looking El Gallo Azul, right in the centre of Jerez, just across from the market served up some lovely tapas. We spent an entire afternoon there, sitting in the sun, perched at a barrel, eating our way through the menu, drinking La Ina Fino and people watching.

Salmorejo, a southern Spanish dish, like gazpacho but much thicker, was excellent. As was a deep fried piquillo pepper stuffed with oxtail. A tuna steak assemblage with grilled vegetables and alioli was also cracking. In fact, everything we ate was decent and so ridiculously dirt cheap that when the bill arrived, we both instantly broke into disgustingly smug grins.
El Almacen, a little battered looking but atmospheric bar situated down a cobbled street was another great find. Sat up at the packed bar in the evening, drinking glass after glass of Tio Pepe Fino, snacking on bowls of picos (small bullet like, breadsticks) and wolfing down hot, battered, deep fried aubergine slices drizzled with honey, I couldn’t have been happier, evidenced from a general instability when I finally slid off the stool and staggered out into the evening air, which being Jerez, was fragrant with the smell of orange blossom.
Another evening saw us in the nearby coastal town of El Puerto De Santa Maria, and eating in a seafood restaurant called Romerijo, which features a long refrigerated cabinet with pretty much every creature that calls the sea it’s home, laid out in it’s fluorescent glare, ready to be pointed at, selected and scarfed in the restaurant out back.

We got to try all sorts of fresh seafood, razor clams cooked a la plancha, hot deep fried Hake with alioli, Tortillitas de Camarones (fried shrimp pancakes) and unusually, percebes or goose barnacles, ugly ass, expensive crustaceans that could be best described as looking like a kind of alien pigeons foot. Apparently, harvesting these from the rocks can be incredibly dangerous, and people have died in the process. Personally, after having an experimental nibble, and finding them a bit chewy and briney, I’d say they aren’t really for me.
On Sunday, ‘E’ and I, feeling a bit adventurous managed to exercise our entirely non-existent Spanish language skills and somewhat surprisingly, found our way onto a bus to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a city about 25 kilometres West of Jerez, where famously Manzanilla sherry is produced (like Fino, but with a touch of saltiness due to the sea air). 
As we made our way into the outskirts of Sanlúcar It was interesting to note the localised allegiance to Manzanilla – and in particular to local producer, La Gitana, every bar displaying their livery, whereas in Jerez, It’s mostly Tio Pepe. 

Unfortunately, on a Sunday all the Bodegas (wineries) were closed, so with the sun’s rays tanning my bronzed Essex hide, we gravitated towards a central square with a fountain and absolutely packed with locals. Enclosed on all sides with tapas bars. I decided it could have been worse. 

Working our way around the square, drinking ice cold Manzanilla and eating a few things there, a few things here I managed to stuff myself with excellent pork cheeks braised in sherry, some kind of local seafood stew, like a really wet paella, and only served on Sundays, Oxtail croquettes and a sort of grilled fish that the menu reckoned was hake, but ‘E’ and I weren’t so sure.
We also, once again, encountered a perennial problem for Pescetarian ‘E’ whilst in España. The Spanish do like to stick ham in absolutely everything, entirely unannounced. Even a safe looking dish titled ‘Aubergine La Gitana’ ended up being a kind of pork mince lasagna, much to ‘E’s dismay. Obviously, I feigned sympathy whilst happily stuffing the lot. 

It was a muchos Manzanilla marinated duo that fell back into the return bus later that afternoon.

Jerez is probably one of the nicest small cities I’ve visited, anywhere in the world.  The plentiful sherry at bargain prices and the generally excellent tapas, which happily, is also dirt-cheap, makes it a real destination if you’re into good food and wine. I highly recommend it. Unfortunately, Jerez airport is served from the UK by RyanAir who, I think most would agree, are frigging abysmal in just about every regard. So grit your teeth and take the pain or tranquilize yourself silly for the flight, but do go. At the other end, it’s bloody lovely.   

*Once again massive thanks to everyone at Gonzalez Byass and to @justinjerez for introducing me to Chicharones*

Friday 11 May 2012

Essex Eating Does Sherry in Jerez

A few years ago, if you’d offered me a glass of sherry, I’d have laughed in your face, assuming you were winding me up. Sherry not being a drink for a young thrusting hipster, man about town like me, but more suited to senile, blanketed OAPs, rocking catatonically by the fire smelling faintly of stale biscuits and piss.

How wrong could I possibly be?
Massively it turns out.

My eyes were well and truly opened, when one day, I was introduced to Fino and Manzanilla. Two similar, pale, crisp, bone-dry types of sherry, utterly opposed to the sweet, cloying dark cream varieties so beloved of grannies. It was a revelation. I was completely blown away. I just couldn’t believe no one had told me about this before.

Perfect with most types of food, served chilled, refreshing and incredibly drinkable, Fino and Manzanilla are nowadays, very often my alcoholic drinks of choice, and I assure you, I’m well hip, and I don’t often wrap myself in a blanket, or smell of urine, that much. I’m definitely a card carrying, full on convert to the sherry cause, and have been for quite some time.

So, bearing this in mind, you can imagine how I felt when one of the major sherry producers, Gonzalez Byass, makers of Tio Pepe, recently offered me the chance to visit their bodega (winery) in the Spanish town of Jerez, and basically drink a load of amazing sherry and eat tapas.

Oh go on then, If I must *sigh*

Jerez, an attractive small city in the Southern Spanish province of Cadiz is known as the capital of sherry and one of the three principal areas forming the ‘sherry triangle’ the others being Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. In Spanish law, for a product to be called ‘sherry’, it has to be from this area.

All of the sherry producers have bodegas around the area and dotted throughout the city. The bone white earth of the surrounding countryside is patchworked with vineyards growing the Palomino and Pedro Ximénez grapes used to produce sherry. Unsurprisingly, every bar sells it, and displays their allegiance to one of the city’s sherry producers with liveried umbrellas and signage. It’s without a doubt the centre of the sherry universe.

The first thing that struck me about Jerez, arriving in the evening was the warm night air heavy with the strong scent of orange blossom. It’s everywhere. Lining every main road and in every public garden. In springtime, the whole city smells incredible.

The next day, and onto something else that smells incredible, the Gonzalez Byass bodega, spread over a fairly large area and situated smack bang in the centre of town, right next door to the Cathedral and a moorish fortress. The overwhelming whiff upon entering is the deep almost raisin like aroma of sherry maturing in barrels. It’s absolutely lovely and I spent a fair bit of time inhaling deeply with an inane grin on my face.

Being shown about the bodega, on the surface, it almost felt like a sherry theme park at times, with a mini train to cart tourists around the site, but upon being ushered into the cool shade of the darkened, vast old warehouses where the sherry is matured, it feels like something else entirely. This is serious. There’s an almost church like quiet and something akin to a feeling of reverence. There’s no one around, you’re hemmed in on every side by massive oak barrels filled with ageing sherry, stacked one upon the other 3 or 4 deep, neatly layered in the solera system, and stretching off as far as the eye can see into the gloom. It’s epic, a cathedral of sherry.

Every place of worship needs its relics and the Gonzalez Byass bodega is stuffed to the gills with them. Variously, the very first barrels used to produce sherry from the company founding in 1835, a gigantic special barrel of sherry produced for the Queen of Spain, the original musty cellar where Tio Pepe was originally conceived (still in use) and numerous barrels chalked with the signatures of pretty much every heavyweight celebrity and statesmen of the past 100 years or so. Not forgetting the founder’s tasting room, preserved in a Miss Havisham style, exactly as it was when he died, and now suitably layered in a thick blanket of dust.

Of course, the real business of visiting the bodega is to taste the goods, and to this end, our group were introduced to the rather elegant Head Winemaker, Antonio Flores who apparently knows what’s occurring in every single barrel of sherry on the site, numbering thousands. Which isn’t actually that surprising when we learn that his Father also worked for Gonzalez Byass and he himself was born (and conceived!) in a room upstairs, above the original cellar.

With the aid of Christopher, his English interpreter for the afternoon, we were led back into the cavernous, sherry cask-stacked warehouses where Antonio picked out specific barrels for us to try, plunging a venencia, (basically a cup on the end of a stick, specifically designed for extracting sherry from casks) into the barrel and then in a swift easy, very stylised movement, at arms length poured us each a glass.

We had an opportunity to try using a venencia ourselves. Antonio made it look incredibly easy. Under his direction, I got a little in the glass and the rest over my feet.

It’s explained to us that tasting sherry from the barrel is as good as it ever gets. The Fino sherry in the cask, protected from exposure to air by a layer of yeast called flor is absolutely pristine, lively and fresh. Despite best efforts to bottle it and capture this straight from the barrel taste, it always loses a little something in the process.

We get to try a few of Antonio’s favourite barrels, including what he considers to be one of the very best, Del Duque, a vintage amontillado, an amber type of fortified Fino which is slightly exposed to air, so oxidises, hence the colour. It’s bloody incredible. Bone dry, nutty, slight salty. Straightaway I added a bottle to my already lengthy mental shopping list.

I also took part in a more formal sherry tasting which was a real eye opener, even for me, someone who loves the stuff. I was only really familiar with three sherry styles, my favourite, Fino – pale and bone dry, Manzanilla – basically a Fino with a touch of saltiness from it’s sea air ageing (It’s only produced in the costal town of Sanlucar) and finally Pedro Ximénez, the dark raisiny sweet stuff. In fact, there are a number of sherry types that fall in-between; Amontillado, Olorosso (Dry and Sweet versions) and Palo Cortado among others. Basically there are so many styles and variations to declare that you don’t like sherry is almost like saying you don’t like wine.

My particular favourites, apart from Fino, were (getting sweeter as you head down the list);

The already mentioned incredible Del Duque, a 30 year old amontillado.
Alfonso Olorosso Seco
Leonor Palo Cortado
Solera 1847 Olorosso Dulce
And finally, a 30 year old syrupy PX, called Noe.

I should mention that I stuffed my suitcase to bursting with bottles from this list and only just scraped past the baggage allowance on the flight home.

My visit to Gonzalez Byass Bodega was absolutely awe-inspiring. I love sherry, but had no real comprehension of how it was produced and what it took to make one variety over another. I learnt a ridiculous amount and filled in a lot of the gaps in my knowledge. But the main thing is, I got to sample the good stuff straight from the barrel and that’s not something you’ll get to do everyday. Yes, I realise, I’m one lucky bastardo. If you ever get the opportunity to visit, I highly recommend you leap at the chance.

Whilst staying in Jerez, I had a few days to explore the town, visit the market, stuff myself silly with a ridiculous amounts of tapas, get the bus to nearby Sanlucar (home of manzanilla) and do my best to drink every bar I encountered dry of sherry (Hello 1 Euro frigging 20 a glass of Fino!!!!). I’ll be following this post up soon with another describing all of that.

Thanks to everyone at Gonzalez Byass, Rachael, Liz, Jeremy, Louise, Claire, Christopher and Antonio for hosting such an unforgettable visit.