Lily’s Ashton

January is of course the time for reinvention, when you spend a good fortnight or so pretending you’re going to become some better version of yourself that rarely makes the transition to February. I’d like to say I’m adopting a healthier lifestyle, but what I’m really trying to do is get into a couple of suits that appear to have shrunk somewhat in recent months. We can all pretend we’re committed to a new regime for its own sake, but what generally pushes us over the edge is the more mundane sight of catching oneself in the mirror from an unusual angle and wondering why there’s a darts player in your bedroom.

I’m not doing Dry January, although I haven’t had a drink in 2019. I just don’t want to set a time limit on it, although I realize that is sacrilegious to the martyrs of brief abstention and their self-congratulatory Just Giving pages. However, if you want to lose an inch or two off your waist, a Guinness moratorium is not a bad place to start. I’m not doing Veganuary either, although I did consider it for about thirty seconds until the reality of organizing it set in and, you know, ham. Nonetheless, I have tried to cut down on meat and dairy, to the extent I now have almond milk on my cereal in the mornings which I would have laughed at in the way my father still does a few years ago. It would probably be a good idea to give up dairy altogether, but, unfortunately, cheese.

Someone who is a better person than me in these respects is teetotal vegan comedian Justin Moorhouse, who, as he describes in his excellent new show ‘Northern Joker’ is not your stereotypical idea of an alcohol-free herbivore. I’ve known Justin since I started in comedy, and he’d been promising to take me for a meal in Manchester for ages. There is much good food to be had there, but it is quite something that a city as funky, cosmopolitan and downright fab as Manchester doesn’t have any Michelin starred restaurants. This weekend, however, that was not what we were after, as Justin had promised to take me to his favourite – Lily’s, in Ashton, just outside the city.

We drove out of town with Justin’s daughter and niece and he told me a bit about the place. A former café set up next to the local Asian supermarket by the eponymous Lily in the early70s, it seems to have been full for the last four and a half decades. As a result, they recently moved a few yards away to a bespoke new restaurant, opened in a grand ceremony by a local celeb, one Mr J. Moorhouse. Lily is sadly no longer with us, but her entire family clearly still is, and they welcomed us all, and Justin in particular, into the restaurant as one of their own.

It was mid-afternoon, but the brightly lit, charmingly muralled room was already buzzing with customers, waiters and some seriously good smells. We were placed in a booth just inside the door to the neighbouring shop where various ice creams, pastries and Indian sweets were lined up in display cases, and we got to grips with what I can only describe as an exhaustive menu.

A couple of admissions – firstly, I’m not sure my opinions of a lot of the food count for much as it was clearly made by people who are experts in a cuisine I simply don’t know enough about. Secondly – I have a tendency to binge (which may explain both the ill-fitting suits and my decision to knock booze on the head for a while.) Luckily, we found a positive solution to these potential pitfalls by getting Justin to order. And he did. A lot. So it wasn’t my fault.

The poppadums arrived first and that was when the good news began. We’ve all sat around sickly mango chutneys, tired onion salads and icky lime pickles. I have eaten many, many poppadums in my time, and the condiments here were the best I have ever had. Each with it’s own punchy flavor, and as far from a jar of Sharwoods as it’s possible to travel. This could have been lunch and I would’ve been happy. Then the first wave of proper food began.

Justin ordered so much we didn’t actually have space for any more on the table, and these were only the starters. Delicate little chaats – crispy yellow lentil flour shells filled with boiled potato, brown chick peas and a delicate mint pouring sauce were a hit with me and Justin, if not the girls. Crispy okra was a crisp yet chewy sensation, and a whole selection of samosas and bhajis kept coming, with various dipping sauces. Pretty sure we had some Lentil kachoris (a kind of spicy lentil pasty,) and Bateta wadis (spiced potato dumplings in a gram flour batter) but I may be wrong. It was getting quite hectic by now. There was a lot of chilli going on, but that delicious kind of heat that is a catalyst, rather than the flavour itself. And if things got too much, there was plenty of yoghurt about to cool you down (not vegan admittedly, but then again, neither am I.) To give you an idea of the taste explosions going off all over, I didn’t even think about meat, and if your idea of a meal out has to involve bits of animal, in a rather neat reversal, I’m afraid it is you who are missing out.

A number of uneaten bhajis and samosas were put into a doggy bag and greatly appreciated in the ComedyStore dressing room later on – as often happens with Indian food, the flavours were, if anything, more pronounced when eaten cold. But back at Lily’s we were working our way round our main courses. These included some spectacularly fragrant rice, slippery chilli tofu and a smooth and flavoursome spinach and mushroom curry. I’d ordered a naan as I’m clinically unable not to. We had two types – plain and garlic, chilli and coriander – which were a further delight for mopping up everything else, as well as some rotis. Having spotted one on another table, the girls also ordered an uttapam – an enormous rolled lentil pancake containing, oh, you know, some really tasty vegetable stuff. I was eating, not taking notes. One dish stood out above all others though, and that was the Gobi Manchurian from the Indo-Chinese menu – stir-fried battered cauliflower florets that we actually ended up fighting over in a very polite way. By this point, the odd dish may have remained unfinished, but these bronzed little nuggets stood no chance.

Slowly, we eased to a stop, like some sort of overladen steam train. Somehow the girls managed to find space for a couple of ice creams, but obviously that would have seriously screwed with my diet. As it was, I had eaten my bodyweight in vegetables, and as we all know, on the calorie front, that simply doesn’t count. Service was beyond wonderful, and I get the impression that would be the case whether you attended with the chief ribbon cutter or not. Rarely have I felt so welcomed, or so satisfied after a meal. I’d like to give you an idea of the price, (I know that it was very reasonable from the pricing on the menu) but I can’t tell you the exact figure, because Justin very kindly picked up the bill.

You can give up whatever you want for the New Year, but it’s perfectly possible to be more positive, and find something new to do instead. Next time I’m in Manchester, I’m pretty sure I’ll take the tram up to Ashton and pay Lily’s another visit. Obviously I’ll see if Mr Moorhouse is available to escort me, partly because I owe him lunch, partly for a little reflected North West celebrity gold dust, but mainly because there is no more fun place to be a teetotal vegan for the afternoon at any time of the year.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Jan ‘19

Justin is taking ‘Northern Joker’ on tour which even includes dates in the South. You can find venues and tickets here:

Spielburger, Barnet Everyman

I hate horror movies. I just don’t particularly like the sensation of being scared, weirdly. That is why Hal Cruttenden took me to watch Halloween 2 as part of an idea we had for a podcast, which presently consists of two middle-aged men bitching at each other for six hours in search of an editor. The Barnet Everyman is a cracking cinema – a tastefully decorated art deco number with enthusiastic staff and a lovely vibe throughout. Hal bought us a couple of excellent burgers at Spielburger on our huge expense account beforehand, and then we headed to the auditorium.

To our surprise, we were enthusiastically greeted at the entrance by a man with an extravagant moustache bellowing ‘I told her I first saw this TWENTY YEARS AGO and she had NO IDEA WHAT I MEANT!!!’ at us. Being English cowards, we both nodded politely, walked round him and sat on our comfortable sofa before turning to each other to question what we’d just seen. We soon found out, because our moustachioed friend added greatly to the atmosphere with helpful comments from the back like, ‘Well THAT wasn’t very nice!’ as Michael Myers sprayed gore across the screen. Nothing ruins the tension of a decent piece of cinema like a bellend commentating on it, and this was brought to something of a head when he strolled down to the front row (with his bottle of wine,) sat down and addressed a few more well chosen remarks to the screen. Eventually, some poor, hapless, (and considerably braver than us) teenager was dispatched by the management to ask him to vacate the room, at which point he stood up, declared us all to be ‘C*NTS’ and swept out with an enormous amount of dignity for someone who didn’t appear to have any.

The upshot of this is we were offered free tickets to a future Everyman screening as recompense for the extra entertainment, and being a generous soul, Hal gave me his. I took advantage of these on a rare date night last week to take my wife to see ‘The Favourite’ which was very good, although not quite as good as it thinks it is. I mean, if you can’t win an Oscar for playing a gout-ridden, bulimic, lesbian monarch who has a stroke in the final act, you probably shouldn’t be allowed in movies anyway. I could have won an Oscar doing that. But that is not why we’re here.

I’m on a bit of a January health kick/detox/Christmas cheese belly removal program at the moment, so I had essentially starved myself all day in the expectation of another Spielburger, and we arrived with plenty of time to sit down in the ‘distressed diner’ surrounds of this rather good little burger joint attached to the foyer.

I was going to have the ‘House’ burger I had last time – basically a good old fashioned cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato and a choice of cheeses and/or bacon. Having ordered blue cheese, the waiter mentioned a special version with French mustard and onion chutney, so I went for that with sweet potato fries, while my wife had the House with gruyere and regular fries. The menu is pretty sparse otherwise, but I did notice some padron peppers while we were waiting and added these to our order.

Everything was excellent. Succulent, tasty burgers, although I wish I’d had the House, or someone had stuck some lettuce and a slice of tomato on my special. They also had jars of Beaver Coney Island Hot Dog Mustard which seems to be a kind of American Piccalilli I advise you to go out and buy immediately. The fries were exemplary, especially the sweet potato version in their salty, crispy skins and the peppers were faultless, even if you do have to be going some to screw them up. They were, however, served in a cup and there were maybe ten of them. I have a pack from Sainsbury’s in my fridge – there are fifteen and they cost £1. The Spielburger Ten (two more than The Hateful Eight, two less than The Dirty Dozen,) were £5.50. We also had a bottle of mineral water each, and the bill for our meal came to £35. That is quite a sum I’d not quite realized Hal had spent on me. I must remember to thank him, and possibly not complain so much about having to spend a similar amount on my wife. BUT – that is A LOT of money for two burgers and fries. Yes, they were very good, but I’m not sure any burger is that good.

For years I have been annoyed by the mark up on food at cinemas and the ridiculous deals involving vats of popcorn and litres of sugary drinks, and I know it’s really where they make their profits, but this does seem excessive, even for much better food. I’m just really glad we didn’t have to pay for the film, otherwise, with babysitter, a Tuesday night at the pictures for two would have cost £90. Plus petrol. That. Is. Mental.

I love Everyman. I love the way they look, the way they present the films, the sofas, the fact you can take a drink or even food into the auditorium, the enthusiasm of the staff etc etc. But I’m sorry to say, next time, I probably won’t go the extra mile to Barnet. I’ll do the classic Hatfield Odeon/Nando’s run and still have change out of £60. I can’t blame Everyman for the cost of the babysitter, and I can’t really fault Spielburger for the quality of the burgers. I’ll just have to make sure every time I go there from now on, Hal Cruttenden buys dinner and there’s a nutter in the auditorium as well as pricing the menu. And with prices like these, who needs horror movies?

Jan ‘19

Hal is presently on tour, which he rarely mentions. If you go along, he’ll probably buy you a burger. Tickets are available here:

The College Arms, Hertford Heath

Guinea Fowl

The Sunday lunch is a venerable institution for very good reasons. Really, it should be simplicity itself, but it is not always so. We have all sat around cold plates of shoe leather in brown water, presumably left over from cooking the vegetables over (several) nights, which does at least soften the accompanying pucks of hardened batter in a futile attempt to make them more pudding, less Yorkshire. However, as the UK continues its journey away from international culinary laughing stock to experiment with more complex and divisive reasons for the rest of the world to dismiss as peculiar self-harmers, the dreadful Sunday roast has, thankfully, become that much harder to find. I make a good one. My wife makes a better one, much as it pains me to say so. What I think everyone can agree on is finding a pub near you that does a really good one is a discovery to be cherished, and once you have done so, that pub is likely to be the beneficiary of your custom for years to come.

I could wax lyrical here about any number of regular haunts over the years, but we all have our own, so, as a generous soul (but particularly lazy writer,) I’d like to invite you to take a moment to remember some of yours.

There. Nice, isn’t it?

I think I may have found the latest incumbent of the hallowed title of ‘Alistair’s local’. We’ve been to The College Arms about four or five times now, and it has only varied in standard from the very good to the absolutely excellent. We’ve even taken my parents there and they are the KISS OF DEATH to any establishment, as I think I may have mentioned previously.

Since getting married, moving out of London and becoming a dad, the biggest change to my Sunday lunches is they tend to involve more people and I don’t get to read the paper any more. Oh, and a bit more food ends up on the floor, which means the dog is happier too. My brother-in-law was staying with us, so we made a last minute decision to book and thankfully they found space. There is a restaurant if you call a little earlier and are not well disposed towards our four legged friends, in which case I don’t particularly want to sit next to you either. As it was, we found ourselves neatly tucked away with a high chair in a corner of the snug next to another family with a baby and a dog, like the sort of advert that makes you throw things at the telly.

There is a decent a la carte of relatively typical gastropub staples, but with a couple of dishes that hint at more ambition – a beetroot and butterbean slider, or a Catalanfish stew – but I have no problem with staples. These dishes are there because done well, they taste really good, which is exactly how The College Arms does them. We didn’t even have starters, but went straight for mains. My wife and her brother both had roast lamb, which was just about as spot-on as a Roast Lamb Sunday Lunch could be – perfectly cooked, moist and tasty meat in generous portions with the sort of Yorkshires my wife can make and I can’t (an extra one is another 50p, so they even have their own price tag.) What really elevated the whole experience though, was the perfect vegetables. It’s so easy to get bits of a roast wrong and they just don’t. I, naturally, went a bit more poncey and ordered the guinea fowl because we have history. About a decade ago, I lived with a dear friend, comedian and filmmaker, Barry Castagnola, who very kindly put me up in his flat when I was very much in need of being put up with. Early in my stay he told me about the local pub and the fact they did a good burger. When I came back he asked how it was, I airily said ‘Oh, I had the guinea fowl’ and he has not let me forget it ever since. This one was served as a supreme with crispy skin in a red wine jus, on a bed of kale with wild mushroom sauté potatoes and was every bit as epic as that sounds. I even splashed out on a Yorkshire pudding as it didn’t come with one (sacrilege!) and sent Barry a picture.

Obviously dessert was a requirement after this, and once again the kitchen proved that a little care goes a long way. My brother-in-law had an excellent chocolate tart that I would like to tell you more about but he was only handing out pieces too small for anyone else to taste. A square of bread and butter pudding with apricots running through it and sat in a large pool of custard might as well have had ‘comfort’ tattooed across its knuckles. I was left with a slightly deconstructed apple and rhubarb cheesecake. Now, in my book, a cheesecake needs a base – this had a ginger ‘crumb’ casually tossed across it. If I was being ultra picky I would suggest this left it as more of a splodge than a slice, but as I ate it, I (almost) became converted. Small blobs of rhubarb jam gave the cream cheese something to work with, and wafer thin slices of dried apple gave it further acidity and the textural contrast the crumb was trying to achieve. It was delicious, even if I thought it wasn’t at first, and that is quite a feat.

Service was exemplary throughout. Well, they forgot a pint of lime and soda, but I almost hope that was just to remind us how little else they got wrong. £80 for three and a half of us, including service, seemed a fair price for a truly lovely meal. If you are looking for the perfect Sunday lunch, I would recommend The College Arms unreservedly, but I won’t, because I still want to be able to get a reservation.

Jan ‘19