Food-lovers delights and sights of York (not Berlin)

Have you checked the expiry date on your passport recently?  In case you were wondering, no, you will not be allowed to travel with your expired passport, even if you pack your bag, check-in online and turn up at the airport ready for your birthday-treat short break in Berlin, with hotel booked and Pearl Jam gig tickets in hand.  You are not leaving the country anytime soon!

My partner was devastated on discovering her passport was invalid – especially as the whole trip was planned for my birthday and I’d been excited about the holiday and about seeing Pearl Jam play live for months.  On top of that I was run-down and exhausted from the final year of my PhD studies, and was desperately anticipating this trip as a much-needed break.  Yes – there were tears, but they didn’t really change the situation, as we stood forlorn in Liverpool John Lennon Airport.  The only sensible thing to do was to say ‘hey – we have time booked off work, we have a bag packed with clothes – lets go somewhere else!’  A quick scan of the internet to find places accessible by train and within a 3 hour radius of home, and we were off and traveling again – on our way to a short break in York.

The Dalai Lama once said “remember that not always getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck”. 

My disappointment about Berlin was a direct result of unmet expectations about what I thought I was going to be doing that week – I had denied the possibility of there being circumstances that I couldn’t control.  My visit to York however was unexpected, and therefore unanticipated – how could it disappoint?  There were no expectations or preconceived ideas about what we would find, what we ‘should’ do while we were there and no planned itinerary to stick to.

We could discover the city as it unfolded before us.  We were free to decide where to go and what to do from one minute to the next.  When we arrived off the train, tired and hungry, with no idea of where to find the city’s main restaurants, we discovered quite by accident the best curry we’ve ever eaten outside India.  The Kings Ransom curry house wasn’t flashy or expensive, but impressed with its soft fluffy naan bread, fragrant pilau rice and their willingness to make a vegetarian version of any dish on the menu (I’m reliably informed their Rajasthani Tikka Gosht was pretty special too).  Actually that is the only bowl of rice that I have ever wanted to eat completely on its own, just to enjoy the flavours and spices skilfully woven into it.

When the heavens opened, we dashed into the nearest pub for shelter, enjoying a spontaneous pint in what turned out to be Guy Fawkes’s birthplace (although I recommend the pub we found in similar drizzly circumstances the following day – the friendly Three-Legged Mare with its fantastic selection of real ales).  I had time to settle down with a (non-academic) book for the first time in months, and made the most of the browsing opportunities in the multitude of bookshops we stumbled upon.

The next day we couldn’t get a seat in the first cafe we chose – so continued up a quiet street only to discover the most amazing deli stocked wall to wall with barrels full of every type of olive oil and balsamic vinegar imaginable.  We squeezed into the last available table in their tiny back room cafe.  If that first cafe hadn’t disappointed us with its overcrowding, we’d never have discovered the gastronomic delights served up at the Hairy Fig – one of the most satisfying lunches I’ve ever enjoyed!

Oils and vinegars at the Hairy Fig Deli

One of the highlights of the trip was the moment the sun came out – after weeks of incessant rain and heavy flooding in that part of the UK.  We simply sat in a park, determined to make the most of it.  That hour of people-watching and sky-gazing was the most relaxed I’d felt in weeks.  And I know myself well enough to realise I don’t ever ‘plan’ to do ‘nothing’ – so I wouldn’t have enjoyed that sunshine break had I been consciously trying to pack the most into my trip.

It turns out that York, England is quite a different place from Berlin, Germany.  But its independent shops, foodie-delights, real ale pubs, bookshops, city walls walks and medieval streets offered something new to discover on every corner.  You just need to be open to enjoying the moment, rather than missing something you never had.  I could have got angry with my partner about the passport or I could have spent days moping around feeling sorry for myself because I missed out on the trip I’d been expecting.  I preferred to enjoy time together in a new place, seeing new things, and remembering what holidays are actually for – relaxing!  The sky over York was filled with clouds that week, but they definitely shone brightly with their silver linings.  If you ever happen to find yourself without passport but wanting a nice weekend away – I would recommend York without hesitation!

(Dining) Hall of Shame: Vegetarian Horror Stories

I’ve been a happy, healthy vegetarian for about 12 years now – I love my food and I love to eat out.  Unfortunately there are a handful of restaurant meals that I’ve been served over the years that still stick in my memory, for all the wrong reasons.

Restaurant-owners please take note – if there is only one vegetarian meal offered on the menu, its not strictly accurate to describe it as a “choice” or an “option” for vegetarian diners (unless you are referring to our “choice” to eat that or eat elsewhere).

Here’s my countdown of Top Five vegetarian meals out I’d rather forget:

5. Vegetable lasagne

This first entry does not refer to a specific meal experience in a specific restaurant.  My ‘beef’ with vegetable lasagne is that it is everywhere.  It has become the favourite lazy-chef’s idea of a vegetarian “option” on pub and restaurant menus across the country.  Not only lacking imagination, these are rarely homemade or well-prepared – order vegetable lasagne in most eateries and brace yourself for something sloppy, watery and ‘fresh’ from the microwave.

4. Tomato and Basil Pasta

Slightly boring, but acceptable if you mean freshly made pasta served with a well-seasoned, thick and delicious roasted-tomato homemade sauce.  Not acceptable if you mean some pasta twists from the packet with a tin of tomatoes dumped on top.  True story.  And to add insult to injury, this was the main course at a London hotel’s £35+ vegetarian Christmas menu – Merry Christmas it was not.

3. Breaded Mushrooms

Unfortunately one awful hotel in Wigan (I was only there because of a work conference, trust me) seemingly ‘forgot’ to cater for any vegetarian diners.  When I asked if there was a meat-free alternative to the carvery, the staff looked a little confused.  But after a lengthy wait, they did come up with something for me – five mini button mushrooms in breadcrumbs, rolling around looking lonely on a large and otherwise empty plate.  Of course, I could ‘fill up’ on the potatoes cooked in goose-fat or the beans wrapped in bacon, but that wasn’t really my kind of thing…

2. Cheese with Rice on the side – aka Parsnip and Goats Cheese Risotto

Now, I’m not a big fan of goats cheese (although its frequent appearance as a vegetarian ‘option’ on menus suggests I should be).  However, I was staying in a very nice fancy hotel where this was the only vegetarian meal available – and I really do enjoy a good risotto.  Stomach rumbling and taste-buds tingling, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of my meal from the kitchen.  The waitress arrived and placed down my plate – a large wedge of cheese surrounded by some parsnip crisps.  The rice (boiled, not even risotto) came in a small bowl as a side dish.  I was actually rendered temporarily speechless and was still staring aghast at my plate when our waitress returned a moment later to ask “is everything okay with your meals?”  I managed to blurt out “this isn’t a risotto!” to which she instantly agreed and whipped it away, leaving me to repeatedly check the calendar to see if it was April Fools Day (it wasn’t, and that meal was no joke).

1. Chicken

A noodle bar near Camden Market, on the day my friend went to get a tattoo (the tattoo isn’t especially relevant to the meal, but I just remember the occasion – probably because we both felt a bit faint and needed a good meal).  I selected a tofu chow mein dish from the menu.  When it arrived, I thought the first bite didn’t quite taste right – and looked more closely  – yes, I had been served meat by mistake.  I called over the waitress, and explained – “this is chicken”.  Her reply – “Yes.  You ordered chicken”.  Not exactly the apology I’d been hoping for, and it took me longer than it should have to persuade her that – especially as a vegetarian – it was highly unlikely that I’d ‘accidentally’ ordered chicken and that she should correct the restaurant’s mistake.  I got a new meal – but the apology never arrived.  A poor show, that left a fowl taste in my mouth.

Please – hit the ‘reply’ button and share your own horror stories – vegetarian or otherwise.  This is your chance to submit your nominations for my Dining Hall of Shame.  Or, even better, let me know of any vegetarian experiences you’ve had that are memorable for the right reasons.

Original art by Josephine Scales

Visiting Brussels…

Illustration by the delightfully talented Josephine.

At an excellent Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) women’s event last night (review to follow) I was telling my friends about going to a conference in Brussels last week. I loved Brussels and had a great time but based on what I told them about the trip the ‘other’ Antoinette was not impressed. I left with the following scribbled on a bit of paper and promised I would share it on our blog as a warning to you all.

5 top reasons not to go to Brussels, by guest blogger the ‘other’ Antoinette.

1.They burn your hand with molten waffle sugar
2.They won’t let you through security with camembert
3.They suggest, as an alternative, you go and eat the whole camembert quickly and come back to security
4.They don’t provide crackers, pickle or even a plate to let you do this
5.They fill you up with excellent conference food [and waffles] before the airport so you don’t even want to eat the camembert

Spire Restaurant, Allerton.

Sea bass with artichoke puree, potato pearls, peas, carrots and white wine sauce

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to visit Spire twice in 5 days. The Monday night was our anniversary so we celebrated with the incredibly good value two courses for £14.95. Then the following Friday my mother came to stay and I had been going on about Spire so much she demanded to try it. Don’t worry though, I’ll only focus on the Monday night experience otherwise this could turn into a nine million word review with details of ten different dishes!

Prior to that week I had only been to this little restaurant off Allerton Road in Liverpool once before and I was worried it would not live up to the excellent experience of our first trip in January.

Walking in I was again a bit disappointed; the decor is a bit dull (polystyrene ceiling tiles?) and there doesn’t seem to be much atmosphere. However, I can totally forgive this as the food makes up for any shortcoming in the venue. Given that the set menu is so reasonable (mains on the a la carte are usually around £15-£20) the quality is exceptional. The meal started with acute five inch diameter focaccia which was sweet, soft and warm with a crispy top. It comes with butter and a deliciously fresh basil oil that I could happily eat with a spoon.

For starters I had a piece of wonderfully soft slow-cooked pork fried in crisp breadcrumbs. It came with a delicious sweet apple puree and lovely earthy mushrooms that added a great umani element. My lady friend had a salad. The crisp saltiness of the grilled halloumi was a great contrast to the sweet pomegranate seeds and a really rich, garlicky (but somehow not overpowering) dressing and crisp romaine lettuce made it into a more exciting version of a caesar salad.

For main course we both had sea bass with artichoke puree, potato pearls, peas, carrots and white wine sauce (pictured). It was £3 supplement but worth every penny and definitely the star of the meal. The fish was perfectly cooked with crispy skin that worked to enhance the ‘fishiness’. The sauce was smooth, creamy and sweet and the peas were delicious (which is a bold statement for me as I usually find them an incredibly dull vegetable) The potato pearls were very pleasing and soft but still perfectly round. The dish was topped with shredded radish and microleaves which added a great fresh element and cut through the rich sauce. Overall incredibly satisfying and I could happily have eaten two.

For pudding we shared an apple tarte tatin which was rich and sweet with a crisp base and generous chunks of apple. It was sat in a vanilla sauce and vanilla ice cream. The house Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is good and great value at only £15. Our total bill came to £50 which I think is almost a steal for food of this quality.

The second time I visited that week the stand out dishes werea rhubarb sorbet and the duck and the chicken liver parfaits (bothpure joy and better than any parfait I’ve had in France – they feel like they have been whipped for hours and are probably about 40% butter). After dinner we each had a glass of Californian Black Muscat which was such a revelation we ordered a second glass each and tracked down a bottle at Scratchards Wine Merchants the next morning. I don’t usually get enthusiastic about dessert wine but this was like damson gin, but smoother, fruitier and incredibly drinkable. The bottle in my fridge is already half empty.

I like Spire, I really like Spire. It is such a refreshing restaurant that serves good quality, exciting and reasonably priced food. It is doesn’t feel pretentious or add £10 to each main just for the name above the door. Being out of town seems to keep the prices down and it is better than all the chain restaurants in town that serve unexciting food for the same price. I have now been three times and only once have I had a less than perfect dish (a trio of fish that was a bit overcooked). This restaurant is small, feels personal and the service is friendly.

In fact, I have decided I love Spire and I am officially declaring it my favourite restaurant in Liverpool. We’ll have dinner there for my birthday I think fellow Picklers (do you mind if I call you that…?)

www.spirerestaurant.co.uk
Number One, Church Road, Liverpool L15 9EA.