El Gato Negro, Manchester

The Michelin guide in Manchester reads like an night-time astronomical report for their persistently dreary and overcast weather: No stars. It has a handful of recommendations for the city centre, though without us wishing to splash over a ton a head at Manchester House, we’re desperately short on options for a pre-gig Saturday lunch. We settle on El Gato Negro, a very popular Spanish restaurant housed in a townhouse on the nicer part of town.  We are placed on to a corner table on the 1st floor, squeezing past the wine guzzling bigot who is happy to squeeze the staff a little too much and likes to share a view on Nazi Germany that would appeal to Trump fans. He singlehandedly ruined lunch until the food arrived and took over the baton.

The dishes we ate are much like the long list of my ex girlfriends; pretty but ultimately underwhelming. It is food that has had a boob job when a heart operation was required. Baby monkfish fillets look the part on a lipstick red salsa and caper dressing, but tastes of very little. Even the quenelle of tapenade on top is flat. We reach for the salt grinder – a move that we would become familiar with over a two hour lunch.

Considering nine dishes are ordered, the pace is awkward. Everything comes in ones, with large gaps between some. Morcilla scotch eggs come as three pert bosoms, nipples and all, straight out of Total Recall. The quails eggs are runny, the blood pudding mixture smooth but bland. The mushroom duxelle base tastes of nothing, as do dots of apple puree. It is a dish conceived on appearance, not flavour. Tomato bread suffers from being ordered two days after eating a brilliant one back home. It simply pales in comparison.

They do best when stripped back and unrefined. Padron peppers are occasionally fiery and always delicious because of (hurrah!) a liberal hand of sea salt. Same goes to a whole rack of pork ribs, slowly cooked and glazed in a sticky sherry glaze. We carve and gnaw to the bone. At thirteen pound it is the only time it feels like value. Onglet beef is in a puddle of a dark and heady sauce that we love but feels like a fifteen quid jaw workout thanks to some distinctly chewy meat.

Three vegetarian dishes highlight just how inconsistent lunch has been. Sweet potato is a victory of coherency, dressed in a mango and chilli yogurt dressing that simultaneously sharpens and soothes the root veg. The sauce with the patatas bravos is allegadly spiced, which may be the case if sugar were a spice, but were at least edible. Horror dish of the day is the one that I insist on because I liked the sound of it. In principal carrots, manchego, pesto and aubergine sound delicious together, had the latters purée not been watery and the carrots boiled to the point they are falling apart. They go unfinished.

Pricing here is keen with the bill hitting over £120 for the three of us and the portions on the small side. Afterwards we put my girlfriend’s mother on a train and watch The National play a perfect set of intelligent indie. It more than makes up for an incredibly lacklustre lunch. The food of Spain is one of vibrancy, colour and boldness – here it tries too hard to be stylish with very little reward. Not that my opinion counts for anything of course; on the afternoon we dine they are turning away customers. Obviously the people of Manchester see a very different restaurant to the one that I did.


Lord Clyde, Bollington, Cheshire

I find myself in Macclesfield for the weekend, secretly shitting myself that I will make an idiot of myself in front of my prospective future in-laws.  I am on my best behaviour, something that I never knew existed, curbing my foul mouth, opening doors, and cooking meals badly.  It’s nice here, far nicer than others would have me believe.  It’s not even raining.  I know, I can’t believe it either.  We go for long walks in the Peak District that remind me of the beauty of the Lake District, only without the, err, lakes.  In the evening we are to dine at a pub in a nearby village where I will be grilled, possibly both in conversation and over flames should my answers not be correct.

The pub in question is the Lord Clyde, a quaint low ceilinged space in the village of Bollington, where the white washed walls jostle for attention with the darken wooden beams.  This week, and completely unbeknownst to us at the time, it reached the lofty heights of the 63rd best restaurant outside of London, which I believe makes it the 63rd best restaurant in the country without a God complex.  The menu is concise and well-formed, with starters topping out at eight quid, mains typically around mid teens.  It takes us some time to decide what to order.


Whilst waiting for the starters to arrive we get a nibble of chicken liver parfait on a potato crisp, radish and a little dandelion.  The parfait is textbook; deep and full of offal flavour.  The rest works to play support to this, though the potato base is a little greasy and flimsy, as if the wet ingredients had been on it for too long at the pass.


Three of the five starters are ordered.  We like the simplicity of the pork loin most, with it’s battered shallot rings, spinach, and black pudding puree that completes the dish once we have added a little more salt to it.  Asparagus with duck egg and hollandaise is a classic.  The sauce is correctly sharp, the addition of radish a clever one, but I would have personally have taken the woody stems of the asparagus a little higher.  Ham hock croquettes are properly crisp, with tussles of the pork lightly dressed in grain mustard.  Pickled red onion has enough inherent acidity to cut through it all, with a creamy aioli full of buttery garlic notes.  It’s rustic cooking in the best possible sense.




I never order steak at a restaurant because I feel like I have a duty to write about more interesting stuff, but tonight I am that man.  I order it because the rib eye is aged for 50 days, a period of hanging that should only be reserved for bits of cow and all of Piers Morgan.  It’s accurately cooked to the medium rare I request, the thick pockets of milky white fat only just starting to melt.  It’s a very good bit of beef, a fraction under seasoned, but still deep in bovine flavour.  The peppercorn sauce is expertly made, as are the Jenga pile of chips that crack and fluff.


The other two mains are a mixed bag.  The duck is genuinely lovely, crisp skin with a consistent baby pink meat.  There is another stellar sauce (sauces are an obvious high point here) with salty nuggets of pancetta that lift the seasoning across the plate.  Claire thinks that the gnocchi are not as good as the ones she made at Simpsons, but then she would say that.  I tried them and they were good.  It’s a very good plate of food.  The trout is more timid.  The lentils, samphire, and mussels are all coheshive, but it needs something else to get the dish going.



Portions here are on the Northern side of generous and we debate whether to order dessert at all.  In the end we order one portion of sticky toffee pudding with four spoons, using only two of them.  The pudding is lighter than it looks, the additions of honeycomb and a very good vanilla ice cream more than welcome.  What lifts it is the salt content in the sauce that gives further depth to the sweeter elements.  It is a technically accomplished and well thought out way to end the meal.


The bill hits fifty quid a head between four with a two bottles of wine listed without vintage.  We all enjoyed Lord Clyde, which delivered attractive plates of food cooked without skill.  That said, it was not without fault, namely some erratic seasoning issues that need addressing.  It’s a handy place to stop for food and with the trips up North looking likely to increase, is a place that I can see myself giving frequent returns to.


Lord Clyde Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Yew Tree Inn, Bunbury

The entrance to The Yew Tree Inn proudly lists the various awards they have won in recent years.  Rural Pub of the Year?  Check.  Cheshire Pub of the Year?  Double check.  Cheshire Dining Pub of the Year?  Double check again.  There’s more, too.  Prior to our visit they were recently awarded their first AA rosette, had another mention in the Michelin Guide, and secured a place in the Top 50 Gastropub list.  All of this points towards a rewarding lunch as we work our way back to Birmingham after a long weekend in Cheshire.  Yet I’m sceptical of these awards.  I know all too well that the best man doesn’t always win after losing out on a Food Bloggers award last year to a discount card that could be described as a blog if you took the boundaries, tied them to the back of a car, and drove them off a cliff.  I’m not saying that these awards are not important, because they clearly are, but what I am saying is that there are many factors other than the worthy winner, such as popularity and PR intervention.  And I say all of this fully expecting to win said award this summer.

img_8446 Now lets move away from my ego and back to the pub.  Is it worthy of all of these accolades?  No.  Not by a long shot, based on my visit last weekend.  It started well enough with chorizo croquettes from the snack section.  The outer was crisp, the filling full of the spicy sausage, with a chilli sauce that clings and heats.  These are worth four quid of anyone’s money.  A ham hock terrine starter was rustic and comforting, the meat chunky, with the occasional bite of carrot set within the aspic jelly.  It works well with a not overly pickled piccalilli.

img_8449img_8448We also like the wellington of roast vegetables, the ratatouille covered in an upturned field mushroom and lattice pastry.  It is the kind of vegetarian cooking I admire, a change from the usual half-arsed pasta offering, and enough to make an ex non-meat eater turn the protein down for a day.  And she was pleased, which is more than I have managed this year.


And then it all falls to pieces.  A stone cold pie takes an age to return to the kitchen.  When it returns it is passable, but not much else.   The beef is a touch tough and considering that the word ‘pepper’ makes a third of its description, it is woefully under seasoned.  A hockey puck masquerading as a beef burger has an odd soggy texture throughout that breaks down the brioche bun it sits on.   It’s tough going, though we take solace in the bacon and fried egg being decent.  I bet they do a good breakfast here.  Chips on both dishes had the back note of fat and were far from crisp.


We order a hot chocolate and salted caramel because the next tables reaction as it oozed across their plate merited one.  Ours was overcooked by several minutes and ended up more akin to a Rolo than the liquid dessert expected.  I assume that the wedge on top of this was honeycomb.  I assume this because my teeth would let me nowhere near it, in the same way they couldn’t crack the spun sugar decoration on top of a rhubarb and orange tart.  In that case the pastry was good, the filling bland.  We should have seen the signs and quit long ago.  We only have ourselves to blame.



Service was pleasant, though slow and there is no apology offered in any way for the cold pie.  The bill for the sits around £30 each, hardly a fortune, yet still disappointing given the expectations.  And there lies the problem; rightly or wrongly these accolades do come with expectation, expectation that they fell well short upon.  I could list a dozen pubs nearer to home more deserving in my opinion.  But that is all subjective.  What matters is we had a lunch that was littered with errors, where nobody left satisfied.  And that simply is not good enough.


The Bells of Peover, near Knutsford

The Bells of Peover, aside from sounding like a urine infection, was not our first choice for dinner en route to a 60th party in Macclesfield – that option fell to The Wizard in nearby Alderley Edge. Somewhat fortunately, the lady who answered the phone for The Wizard had been taking customer service notes from RyanAir and spoke to me with a disdain not seen since The Cold War. A quick search on the internet, followed by a much nicer phone call and we were soon driving up the cobbles into this tucked-away gem.


Inside we are led to the safety of a burgundy Chesterfield that sits handsomely in the square dining room.  The beams and white-washed walls suggest little has changed since George Bell took over the pub in 1871, though these walls have history:  During the 40’s American troops were billeted nearby, with Generals Patton and Eisenhower making D-Day plans over lunch here.  This explains the two flags outside and also the reason why the lighting inside the dining room was set to Blackout.  Not even the camera flash could save some of the photos I attempted to take.


Pancetta came breaded and treated to the kind of heat that softened the porcine fat inside to a luscious jelly, whilst the meat stayed reassuringly firm and tasted of a good pig.  Sharing the plate were also a fried duck egg and fig sauce which had a HP brown sauce level of spice and depth.  It was the perfect breakfast served at sunset in Cheshire.  Hummus was the pillow for sun-blushed tomatoes, pesto, and olives, all of it scooped onto flat bread and enjoyed.


High praise was given to my partners gnocchi and butternut squash main, with her declaring it one of the best dishes she had ever eaten in a public house.  The gnocchi was  light yet substantial, given poise by ricotta and a summery intensity by both sun dried tomatoes and fresh basil.  My main was nearly as good; lamb fillet with its own faggot of all the gnarly bits.  The fillet, cooked a little passed the medium I like, had to fight for attention with a port sauce.  Potato pave and carrot purée added earthy notes, whilst new season asparagus and peas gave freshness. The menu listed it at £16.95,  it appeared on the bill at £13.95.  Either way, it was exceptional value for some very skilled cooking.  Bravo to the cheery waiter that talked me into having it over the pork or beef.


Dessert was a baked chocolate cheesecake which was too heavy for me to take seriously after so much food.  There are other options which I probably should have chosen, though I am often too greedy for my own good.  The bill, with wine and good local beers, crept over seventy quid, which is incredible value for the standard of cooking. On the Monday following our trip up north I emailed a work acquaintance whose business is nearby, who confirmed my opinion and said it was highly regarded locally.  As pleased as I was for him, The Bells of Peover deserves more than regional recognition.  It is an absolute cracker of a pub.


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