Fame, fun, food and fights at San Carlo Manchester

In my opinion – and probably the opinion of many – a visit to Manchester is never complete without a visit to San Carlo.  The Italian restaurant is a popular favourite in the city for reasons which are totally apparent the moment you walk in. The place oozes atmosphere, charm and (I don’t really ever use this word, but it seems applicable here) – bonhomie.

We went there over the Easter weekend for a  shopping trip and decided to push the boat out and give the day the full works with a lovely lunch.

Picture of hams hanging in San Carlos

Everything about this place looks great

This place has been a firm favourite for celebrations in my family for years. Largely because it has all of the ingredients for a fantastic meal out: great food, great feeling and crucially, great gossip.

Obviously central to this is the food – which is truly fabulous Italian fare – (but with a kind of Berlusconi ‘devil may care’ attitude towards cheese, cream and butter, which couldn’t be justified in most people’s day-to-day life).

My favourites are the starters. I don’t think the pizza bread can be beaten and I’m always incredulous that something as simple as cantaloupe and parma ham can taste so much better here than anywhere else. (I think the wow factor comes from the quality and freshness of the ingredients).

Picture of cheesy pizza bread

Cheesy pizza bread – never lasts long enough to be photographed in its original state

I always tend to over-order starters and then be too full for the main event. But then it is perhaps my nature (I’d always choose Advent canapes over Christmas dinner). For those more interested in the pasta and pizza side of things – the salmon ravioli in vodka sauce comes highly recommended. I always order something classic and nostalgic like carbonara or lasagna – as I find they both come with a side of magic.  Oh and you must get sides – the peas with pancetta and also the spinach are particularly good. (Do you see now how things can end up spiraling out of control with the ordering here?)

Melon and parma ham and pizza bread

San Carlo starters are the best

But the San Carlo experience does not end with the food – it starts from the moment you walk in to the hustle and bustle of a restaurant that is always packed full of fun- reminding you just how bloody lucky you were to get a reservation. And then there are the flock of waiters that rush to welcome you – they are all for some reason male – and Italian, suited and booted and full of ‘character’.

Seafood on display at San Carlos

Seafood and eat it

But, perhaps the best bit is the razzle-dazzle. The walls are adorned with pictures of celebrities who have visited over the years. Which means you do spend a lot of your time with half an eye on the door, whispering ‘who is that over there?’

I am completely clueless when it comes to star spotting and rely totally on the people around me. But in the North West you can usually start with the common denominator of football or ITV. We did (apparently) see Martinez at Christmas at the Liverpool San Carlo (wearing a very dapper velvet jacket). This time round there was someone causing a stir in a pair of very conspicuous sunglasses, who we were convinced was the wife of a footballer (I know right – in Manchester – er…hold the front page). My claim to fame is I once saw Liz McDonald from Coronation Street (played by Beverly Callard) in the toilets. I was THRILLED. That is my kind of celebrity sighting (for real).

Pictures of celebrities on the wall of frame

San Carlo Wall of Fame

But the great thing about San Carlo – which I appreciate not everyone will necessarily agree with- is that all of life is here. While San Carlo might be seen as a celebrity hang-out it is not at all stuffy and pretentious, you get real life and real people. We witnessed a rather breathtaking drunken table fight kicking off, which did provide much excitement when five or so of San Carlo’s best were forced to step in and flank the table. Something told me the waiters had done this before. And as they frogmarched a man off one waiter turned to me with a wink  – and rather impressive dramatic timing –  and said ‘I love my job. We always bring a free show at San Carlo’. I absolutely couldn’t agree more.

Picutre of San Carlos staff with David Beckham

David Beckham is a proud fixture on the wall

For me San Carlo is best in the North West – perhaps because I associate it so much as a staple of ‘going home’ – but there are various versions of this restaurant across the country (all slightly nuanced) including Signor Sassi in London’s Knightsbridge, which is also great fun.

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PS Topshop I love you

It struck me, last year, that I don’t much like shopping for clothes anymore (the stress, the unforgiving changing room lights, the cost, the not knowing which shops and trends are now meant ‘for me’). Around the same time apparently everyone else had also noticed I was wearing only one (quite shit) outfit all the time. Black jeans, navy converse hi-tops and a white saggy jumper.

This outfit must have been so irritatingly ‘on repeat’ that my family booked me in with a Topshop personal stylist.

Topshop personal shopping entrance sign

Famous Last Words

I had a proper ‘outraged from Wandsworth’ tantrum at this intervention. “I don’t have the money to spend on new clothes, let alone personal shopping. I have more serious priorities!” (You know – spending my money paying for council tax, wedding presents and my addiction to M&S Simply Food…).

My second argument was that ‘I am too old to shop in Topshop now….’ This was supposed to shut down the conversation by entering it into amber zone – the sensitive territory of my approaching 30th birthday that everyone knew I wasn’t handling well…

But there was no getting out of it. I went, imagining an intimidating selection of outfits that only ‘Little Mix’ could pull off and massive pressure under the code of British politeness to buy at least three.

I hate admitting I am wrong – but the reality was very different and I am now totally converted.

The team at the Manchester Arndale Centre store (particularly the gorgeous Jo Drew who had been recommended to us) instantly put me at ease and hand-picked a lovely selection of pieces for work and weekends that felt so intuitively me I might have chosen them too. (Well – if I had Jo’s taste, and the store had turned off the music, emptied out all of teenagers and locked me inside so I was unable to talk myself out of trying stuff on…).

2014-04-18 13.59.50

The rail of fun awaiting me this time round – no I did not buy it all…

This is ultimately what the personal shopping experience is for –you are stowed away in a calm, serene section of the store where your sole focus is on something both as minor as clothes  – but as major as how you look and feel about yourself! You can try on as many outfits as you like in a private fitting room while a dedicated stylist brings you different sizes and options for around 1.5 hours. (Along with drinks and cupcakes of course…).

Almost a year to the day that I first shed that saggy jumper, I returned to Topshop Manchester last weekend, to see the lovely Jo for another wardrobe overhaul. This time I brought some  friends along for the experience. And it turns out the stars were aligned in our favour as we found out Instyle Magazine was running a 15% offer on Topshop personal shopping. (I honestly had no idea about this beforehand, as I had booked the experience as a treat with family and friends weeks ago).

The day, of course, was all it was meant to be – fun, special and luxurious. But for me the greatest value that personal shopping brings is guidance on assembling ‘whole outfits’. All of the clothes selected are intended to work together, interchangeably – from jackets, through to jewellery, bags and shoes – something I had never really thought about before whilst shopping. Previously I tended to be attracted to jazzy items like a magpie, with no thoughts about what they would go with. Other vices included panic buying weird coloured jeans and wearing everything with a black jacket or long white cardigan.

The stylists also encourage you to try some pieces which may be a little out of your comfort zone, but they feel are worth considering. Not all of the options will do it for you, but it is worth taking their advice. I spent last summer wearing a white play-suit and a pair of grey and lime printed trousers that I wouldn’t have had the courage to look directly at previously.

I know some people will feel personal shopping is excessive. I did probably spend more in Topshop in one fell sweep than one person should. But if you are prepared to buy your clothes in bulk or save up,  the store offers great high street value and the personal shopping service is free. Personally, I think the expert stylists help me spend my money better on clothes than I could alone, so it goes further and isn’t wasted  (I know I am starting to sound brainwashed to the point of being in a Topshop cult). But, for example, I got a great outfit for a wedding – when previously I would have talked myself into spending more on a ‘safe’ and expensive dress in Reiss.

I left with a capsule wardrobe for the season, not needing to enter a shop for a long time, but also with the confidence to know where to start if I wanted to. For me, (without wishing to sound like a Mastercard cliche), that’s been priceless.

Image of (too many) Topshop shopping bags

‘The damage’ from our recent return trip

A few notes:

  • Topshop personal shopping is available free in selected stores nationwide, by appointment only
  • I chose Topshop Manchester as it was part of a trip home to the North West and I genuinely prefer shopping outside of central London when I can – but I have also been to Topshop London for personal shopping which was very good and very fun too.
  • The service works best if you give the team a detailed brief relating to your size and style, along with an indication of your budget and what you are looking for (i.e. wardrobe overhaul or just one dress for a special occasion).
  • I know I sound totally obsessed with Topshop now (oh how people can change) but there are lots of other personal shopping services available too. I have it on recommendation from other friends that House of Fraser do a good styling service too if you want more brand options (although I have never tried it). Reiss and Whistles have also just launched personal shopping services at selected stores in London too – pricey but probably good options for occasion wear.

Easter: Football, family and Welsh lamb

So we traveled up to the North West for Easter and in this part of the world – as I’m sure is the case in many others – the season is all about family, football, chocolate and Welsh lamb.

Image of Easter place settings with rabits and chicks

I am always given the job of setting the table

Football is particularly in focus this year for my family as Liverpool Football Club have edged up the league, with the chance of winning for the first time in my living memory. In my family LFC is like blood. The sound of the male voice choir of football fans chanting – on radio and TV –  was the soundtrack to family weekends for years. Everything stopped for the match today. And even I, who can barely name significant players from the line-up and never catch a game,  paid attention (I think they call us glory supporters?).

Then family came over and lamb was on the menu. Jamie Oliver’s ‘Best Roast Leg of Lamb with garlic and rosemary with hassleback potatoes (the only way to do potatoes in my view). Only yesterday we were admiring all the lambs frolicking in the  hills (always amazes me how many sheep there actually are here in Wales). Bit awkward.

And afterwards was of course desert – a combination of chocolate puddings and Easter eggs so calorific it could have been on Renee Zellweger’s meal plan to put the weight on for Bridget Jones the movie (have always thought that sounded like an amazing work project). But we’ll deal with that and the rest of real life in the morning.

Until then, here are some beautiful reminders we are now into spring…..

Happy Easter x

Cherry blossom is everywhere. So beautiful.

Cherry blossom is everywhere. So beautiful.

 

My awkward obsession with TV psychopaths

This year I have become worryingly obsessed by two men. Both homicidal psychopaths. Both (thankfully) fictional.

Before you start judging…I’m not the only one. It seems anyone with a TV or an internet connection shares my homage to Walter White in Breaking Bad (played by Bryan Cranston) and Frank Underwood in House of Cards (starring Kevin Spacey).

I lost most of January to Breaking Bad (series 1-4 in four weeks – I know…impressive…thanks). And last week I averaged six hours of sleep a night as I finished series 2 of House of Cards through a succession of late night binges. I came home from evenings out and still thought I could soldier on with an episode or seven (no…couldn’t…woke up at 5am with my ipad on my face).

I’ve had many insightful ‘deep and meaningfuls’ with friends about the uneasy guilt we feel at our capacity to get behind Frank and Walter.

<<SPOILER ALERT>>

For most of us there is a tipping point where we descend into ‘outrage’ – (for me when Walt let Jane die and when Frank threw Zoe in front of that train). But most of us concede, after the initial shock of such betrayals, something in us still roots for these characters, we’re still on their side. We can rationalise their horrific crimes as necessary collateral damage.

The anti-hero is an interesting phenomenon (well to me at least). I know its been happening since before Shakespeare, but I’ve only just really noticed it on TV. I never got into The Sopranos, managed to resist the snake charms of Dom Draper and was just generally too busy watching Coronation Street (…not joking I genuinely record it – reminds me of home).

But it was Walt and Frank who turned me.

With Breaking Bad we see Walt White descend into darkness and hope for his redemption…sort of.  But the audience ends up in that dark place too. Each warped decision becomes somehow defensible. In a show many see as a modern day Western, Walt has his own lawless code. We’re on his side against the world – because, after all, its an unfair world. He was the nice guy who did everything right, played the game and got screwed by life.  For me, without wanting to sound too lofty/totally crazy, he represents the little man’s protest against an unjust society. Like Bryan Cranston said of his character in an amazing interview in Rolling Stone: ‘everyone is capable of being dangerous’.

With Frank Underwood he seems to have been born dangerous – our obsession lies in the why and how. There are times when I’ve genuinely hated him (why, WHY did he need to kill Peter and Zoe). There are scenes when Claire is reminiscent of a glistening Twilight-esque Vampire and you almost expect them both to rip away their beautiful faces to reveal Voldemort style evil skulls beneath.

HOC  is limited in that it offers no credible alternatives – no one on the show can challenge the Underwoods – there is no ‘good’ to their ‘bad’. And don’t get me started on how the media are crushed Hitchcock style in a way I don’t think is plausible for today.

Bu that charisma, that humour, that knowing look Frank gives you? Its seductive. Its impressive. Worryingly, its familiar. I’ve seen lesser versions of it on Newsnight.  I’m sure we’ve all see people like that in work. You know – the successful, unflappable ones.Come on – who hasn’t watched HOC and then considered trying to mimic Claire Underwood’s polished poise in meetings? OK then er… just me. Once, it lasted about two minutes. Turns out I can’t speak that slow or dress that well.

And I’m sure I’m not alone in occasionally thinking in difficult  situations – ‘what would Walt or Frank do?’

Brownie Points

I consider myself a fairly modest individual but if anyone asks ‘what are you good at?’, I normally answer ‘thinking of the worst case scenario possible’ or ‘making brownies’. We’ll save catastrophic thinking for another post (always fun), and stick today with making brownies, which even for a cynic like me tends to have a bang on amazing outcome.

My chocolate nemesis

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

This is not my recipe. It belongs to the lovely and legendary cook Jo Pratt. I am a little obsessed with our Jo. I have two of her cookbooks ‘In the Mood for Food’ and ‘In the mood for Entertaining‘.

Image of Jo Pratt's 'In the mood for food' and 'In the mood for entertaining' books

I have been known to read Jo Pratt before bed as a treat

The thing about Jo is she really does put you in the mood for cooking. Opening up the pages of her recipe books triggers ‘Easy Like Sunday morning’ on full blast in my mind.  Her food is different but not difficult. Elegant and tasteful, but in no way pretentious.

I imagine her to be the opposite of those mothers of more middle class friends who used to terrify me in the 90s with their ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano and pancetta tagliatelle’. Instead you’d feel at total ease to say, ‘what is parmigiano Jo?’ and she’d probably chuckle and say ‘oh just nice cheese’.

So without getting into any more fantasy conversations with Jo (as it is starting to sound rather weird), whether you want a fried jam sandwich or a delicate apricot chicken tagine, Jo is your woman. But my favourites are her chocolate brownies. These are really simple to make, but I’ve not found anyone who hasn’t liked them yet.

Ingredients  – (one thing to point out is Jo makes them with chocolate and walnuts or chili – but I like to make them plain)

  • 200g unsalted butter
  • 200g dark chocolate –  Jo says use 70% cocoa solids, but I tend to use one pack of milk and one pack of dark cooking chocolate as this gives it a particularly toffee like consistency
  • 3 large eggs
  • 300g granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 125g plain flour
  • a pinch of salt

In Jo’s words here: “Preheat the oven to 180ºC/fan 160ºC/gas 4. Grease and line an approximately 20 by 30cm rectangular baking tin, 3 to 4cm deep, with greaseproof or parchment paper. Melt the butter and chocolate either in a bowl over a pan of simmering water or gently in the microwave. With an electric hand whisk, beat together the eggs, sugar and vanilla extract until they are lovely and thick and creamy. Mix in the melted chocolate and butter. Finally stir in the flour, salt, cherries and walnuts. Pour into the baking tin and cook for about 25 minutes until the top is cracking and the centre is just set. Leave to cool in the tin for about 20 minutes before cutting into squares.

Nom nom nom x

Finding France in Wandsworth

If you can’t go to France, you could always go to dinner at Bellevue Rendezvous, as this quirky and cute little restaurant is one of the best (affordable) French restaurants south of the river (in my opinion as a English/Welsh national). .My friend first took me here in winter and introduced me to their fantastic ‘table d’hote’ offer of two courses for £20 – including wonderful onion soup and lemon chicken and mash.

Images of cookery books on display  at Bellevie Rendezvous

Cookery book browsing shelf at this cosy French place

The menu changes with the seasons and in a typical French style it makes no apology for waiting time or changes to the familiar fare. We went there for the onion soup – but they now  only serve ‘fish soup’ apparently and there may be no plans to reintroduce onion soup back for a while – which sounds totally ridiculous for a French restaurant but you forgive that because it makes sense they can’t just ‘defrost and microwave this stuff up’. It probably needs hours to cook, including some kind of some kind of wizardry.

I gather – from walking past a few times – the best time to come is the weekend, when families and groups of friends seem to descend to drink carafes of wine, read the papers and play board games.

This place is so authentic it doesn’t even seem to have a website but you can find out more information here

Oui tres bien x

Favourite fancy London restaurants for Spring

In an attempt to document more of the places I’ve been (and would recommend) I wanted to write about a few restaurants I’ve been to this spring. (As established in earlier posts on eating that this is what I mostly seem to get up to):

1. Roka.

Image of sushi chefs cooking at Roka restaurant

Get your rocks off at Roka

An old friend is getting married and as I’m not able to go to her hen party, I wanted to take her out to celebrate. I had a feeling she would like Roka  as she is a big fan of Japanese and fish and was wanting to try here for her 30th (but Roka weren’t keen to accommodate a big party). Sadly for me (I’m told) I detest fish. I can only manage to eat fish which is deep fried and served in newspaper whilst on a beach – anything else turns me into a total child. So my affliction made it slightly hard to share all of the sushi and sashimi on offer, which Roka is famous for. But we managed. I loved the Japanese grill (and the theatre of being able to watch the chefs in action), and of course, the cocktails…But we ended the night in a proper British pub with a bottle of pinot, as every (alternative) hen night should…I think Roka is a great , but perhaps best enjoyed by people who actually eat sushi…

2. Simpsons on the Strand

Image of two chefs carving roast beeft at Simpsons restaurant

The best roast beef in London

There is something of the Orient Express about Simpsons on the Strand (as you’d expect of the Savoy) – an old fashioned gentility and oak-paneled tradition that provides such a sense of occasion, even I am tempted to shun my Northern roots and say I went there for ‘supper’. I’ve always wanted to go, but you need a reason. So we went there for my friend’s 30th, with her family, which made the experience fittingly grown up. Simpsons has a lovely menu – but the stand-out order is the roast beef, which comes complete with two carving chefs who are generous with insights and (importantly) slices of meet. Its the kind of place you expect to spot a politician. Like Winston Churchill.

3. The Modern Pantry

Image of Modern Pantry menu

Yes I know this menu is impossible to read…

I don’t often go to East London – I’m definitely not cool enough (and practically, I just live too far away). But I do have some trendier friends and a group of us we went for a lovely dinner in Clerkenwell to the Modern Pantry. I’d describe the menu as elegant. Just like my friend whose birthday/engagement celebration it was. So it was a perfect place to raise a glass to her by fairy light.

4.  Paramount

 

View of London from Paramount restaurant

A lovely view of London from an old favourite

There is a lot of buzz about the latest restaurants with ‘sky-high views’ currently…(and I am very excited about my first trip to the Duck and Waffle for a birthday dinner in May, and will inevitably join the throngs and visit the Shard and Sushi Samba  as soon as I can). But the fact is these places are wildly popular and almost impossible to get into. So for an early Mother’s Day treat we went for Sunday lunch at a rather forgotten favourite – the Paramount restaurant at centre point. It was very pleasant – lovely food,  peaceful and private (we even spotted a few celebs) and had great views of London (which I’m sure are just as beautiful, whether you are on the top of a crane, in an office block or at the top of the Heron Tower).