Review: District, Manchester



It’s all about the vibe at District, a modern Thai tasting menu place in Manchester. Seriously. If you’re not into the vibe, you’ll hate it no matter what the food. And if you’re into the vibe, you’ll love it and maybe overlook the odd missed beat in the cooking.

The vibe is cyberpunky. You’ve got the clash of clean monochrome surfaces with industrial brickwork. The eye-catching logo printed irridescently on the black menu. Neon tubes and a silent cyber cityscape projection on the wall. And a pounding soundtrack of synth/rock/pop with an Asian slant.

Sea bass

Sea bass

I loved it. Even if some of the cocktails we tried were better in the naming than the tasting. Dream Gun didn’t have much bang. Though I’ll admit that Robot Blood was eye-catching and had a massive zing of uplifting lemongrass.

Some of the dishes were superb; the raw sea bass with blobs of vivid thai basil aioli in a slick broth of bright salty/sour/hot Thai flavours made for a great start. The little taco and tostada pair on the next plate were both good, the tartare beef with spicy “nam tok” (mint/lime?) on a black tostada the better. Later on, a splendid cube of chicken with crispy skin sat in a puddle of insanely coconuty but also cleanly spicy green curry, with char-grilled pieces of shimeji and baby corn that took the whole dish up a notch.



There were a couple of dishes that were still fascinating but could have been better. The pork coppa was nicely charred but had too much connective tissue to be lovely eating, and its sticky tamarind glaze clashed with the complex flavours of the sweet/sour/hot som tam salad served with it. This swapped out green papaya for kohlrabi, an intelligent change I’ve tried myself, and played around with a slippery tomato broth and sweetened little tomatoes. Interesting, but had lost a bit of zing. The local hogget belly was a really intensely flavoured piece of meat. Like sticking your nose into a sheep’s woolly flank and breathing deeply. Kinda magical, actually, but totally overwhelming any of the Thai flavours that tried to meld with it.

Pudding (“It was only a dream”) was a lovely mango cheesecake with puffed rice, and a nice ending. Overall I love what they’re aiming for at District, and I hope they never tone it down. At £40 each for the small tasting menu it’s really splendid value; the dishes that weren’t quite there are to my mind just some rough edges to sand off of a really top experience.



Review: Paradise, at home



After perhaps a dozen different “posh takeaways” across lockdown, I’ve now got an absolute red hot favourite to recommend. It’s perhaps not a surprise; if I ponder my way across the cuisines of the world, this one stands out for having an astonishing range of bold, bright flavours and a diverse mixture of flavours and textures, all backed by a solid street-food and sharing-feast culture. That makes for an excellent combo to put into a food box feast that can be served up with just a bit of reheating.

Have I spun out the announce long enough? I should also add that I am honourably excluding Dastaan. There simply couldn’t be a takeaway better than what you get from the best straight Indian restaurant in the UK (my award, no arguments brooked). But it is literally a takeaway; I can get it home still hot and put it on a plate. So on those tenuous grounds, I’m excluding Dastaan from the “Best lockdown food box feast” award.

And the award goes to… Paradise, Soho. We fell in love with our first meal there, back in the days when restaurants were open; they seemed intent on doing for Sri Lankan food what Kiln around the corner was doing for Thai. And everything they do translates superbly to a food box.

You’ve got your aubergine moju (oh gods I love moju!), you’ve got your pol sambol, you’ve got a spicy little empanada with tamarind mayo to start the meal. Cleverly, you’ve got your seeni sambol in the form of seeni sambol butter, to slather on the huge hunk of soft and cloudy paan bread (you’re instructed to toast this yourself). Oh wow… this was one of the best flavoured butters ever. Ever ever.

You’ve got the true Sri Lankan turmeric dahl, full of deeply smoky and earthy flavours but less velvet-buttery than the best Indian dahls. For the main event you’ve got a wonderfully flavour-packed pulled pork shoulder with plenty of warm spices and a fragrant palm sugar caramel to pour over it. Oh, and an astonishing dollop of smoked coconut yogurt that I WANT AN ENTIRE VAN-LOAD OF RIGHT NOW. I have no idea how they got that much flavour and silkiness in there but I would eat it with everything.

We cheated, I admit. We ate it all with our fingers. Food always, always tastes better when you eat it with your fingers. Doesn’t matter, this would still have been the best food box.

There was a nicely sticky cinnamon rice pudding for after, and a bottle of fresh Sri Lankan ginger beer. And this was a generous box too. Basically we had enough extra of everything to have a cold Sri Lankan brunch the next day.

Paradise feast

Paradise feast

Recipe: Polenta, creamy

I tried to make creamy polenta four times, following recipes, including Felicity Cloake’s usually spot-on Guardian pages. Every time it would land on the plate with a thud and be a solid block by the time we were eating. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a block of polenta: you can slice it and pan-fry it, delish. But if you want a creamy porridge of polenta to go with some roast chicken, that ain’t no good.

So I played with the recipe and got it to work. So here’s mine:

50g fine polenta
150ml milk
350ml water (I use chicken stock for more flavour)
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper
40g parmesan

The main point is: make your polenta with a ratio of 10-to-1 liquid-to-polenta. You can change the amount of milk, or use no milk, you can skip the bay leaves, but you need 10:1 liquid to polenta.

Get the milk, water and bay leaves up to a boil, then sprinkle in the polenta while stirring. Sprinkle slowly otherwise you’ll end up with lumps. Your polenta should already have thickened up to thick wallpaper paste. Then just drop it to the lowest simmer and stir every minute or so for 25 minutes. Then you can season it and stir in the parmesan (and a lump of butter would make it even richer).

Saturday night fish

After buying a whole lemon sole and then butchering it to pieces with my general purpose kitchen knife, I indulged myself in the purchase of a shiny new Sabatier filleting knife. Which is a bit weird, because I’ve always been a total minimalist in the kitchen: one knife, one chopping board, one wooden spoon and one pestle-and-mortar; that’ll basically do me for any and all cooking tasks. But I love my new filleting knife! And I love the daft sense of satisfaction I get from filleting a fish (fairly) well.

So these are the various fish we’ve tried on our new “lockdown Saturday night fish suppers” along with a few comments on the fish, the filleting and the accompaniments…

Sea bream was good. We had it with roast garlic and butternut squash puree, leeks and plenty of chilli sauce. Pan fried, floured first, it was perfect white fish with a distinctive taste (maybe from being farmed?). It was okay filleting it; cut behind the gills, then cut along the spine to the tail, then carefully cut free the fillet. Scraping off the scales was a bit of a pain, and the pin bones were big enough to need removing.

Skate wing is always excellent, pan fried. It usually needs the lid put on the pan with the heat off for five minutes, just to make sure it cooks through. Often put a spoonful of capers in the pan once the fish is out, and then spoon that caper butter over the fish. Usually we serve with potato and leek, and perhaps some kind of sauce. Romesco is good.

Gurnard is a good fish, meaty texture without being chewy, and flavourful. Filleting is not much trouble, just cutting in behind the head and then down the body. It was good with a ravigote sauce; easy to make and nicely mustardy, this time with a boiled egg chopped into it to give extra body.

Lemon sole I like a lot. Its a big floppying thing to fillet, you stick your knife in one end beside the spine and work down between spine and edge to the tail, then cut away the meat over the sticky-up spine, and finally cut the rest of the fillet away. As usual I floured it and pan-fried; it’s a thin and delicate fish so really needs about one minute each side.

Dover sole is very different from lemon sole, being altogether more meaty and very delicious in flavour… almost nutty? We had a monster that actually made two meals; you start filleting by cutting right down the centre line on top of the spine, and then fillet away on either side, so you end up with four nice fillets. First time we had it with potato and leek along with a very pungently smoky romesco sauce.

Arctic char is a pale pink colour and quite firm, in some ways it feels like a bit of a cross between salmon and white fish. I may have slightly overcooked it, but I’d say on the whole it deserves its price point of “cheap fish” – it’s not quite as good to eat as salmon, but still perfectly delicious with some flavoursome sauce.

Brill is another flat fish, and I found it to be closer to lemon sole; white and delicate (almost crumbly). It’s a similar process to fillet it, and actually I now understand that the process I’ve sketched for lemon sole vs dover sole really works for any of these flatfish, it just depends whether you want four fillets or two, and probably a bit on the size of the fish. Fennel salad is lovely with any fish: mandolin half a fennel bulb, then toss it with the juice of half a lemon, some extra virgin olive oil and a good pinch of salt and pepper.

Recipe: Potato scone

This is useful. It goes insanely well with goulash but would work with anything you’ve got that has gravy to soak up. Or, heck, just as an alternative to bubble-and-squeak.

Mash 200g potato nice and dry, then beat in 1 egg, 50ml olive oil and 100ml warm milk. Put 120g plain flour in a bowl with half tsp salt and 1 tsp bicarb of soda. Dump the potato goop in with the flour and mix it all together.

Now get a small cast iron pan hot on a medium-low heat. Get some butter and/or oil hot in the pan and then tip the mixture in, settle it down. Cook on a low heat for 4-5 mins, then free the edges and shift it out onto a plate so you can turn the pan upside-down, put it on top, and tip the thing over to cook the other side. About 4 mins on this side.

Then it goes in a 200C oven for about 7-8 minutes. You should get some bubbles and rise from the bicarb so you end up with a soft and fluffy scone.