Friday, 8 October 2010

A Big Day in the North (and the Story of How I Became Mr Noodles)

Manchester Wheel - looks bigger than it is
Mr Fussy, Italian Shetland Pony, Mr Frosty and the Black Widower are amongst the first friends I made when I moved down to London as a callow 21 year old. Most of them have since left the smoke but we try to meet up at least once a year. This year's reunion was in Manchester and by the time we all pitched up to the hotel, it was time for lunch.

We decided to visit Chinatown, which for me was also a trip down memory lane. It's hard to believe that it's over thirty years ago since my parents first brought me here. It's from my parents that I have a passion for food but the reason why I love noodles is all to do with Manchester.

Are you sure this is Chinatown? Give me the map!
During school holidays, we'd go on family outings to Manchester for dim sum with a healthy side order of noodles. Sometimes we'd order wonton noodles (雲吞麵), other times it'd be three roasts with crispy noodles (三燒麵) and let's not forget my old friend, beef ho fun (乾炒牛河). The noodles were a treat as we mainly ate rice and chips at home (everyone eats chips in Lancashire, even the Chinese). To this day, I adore noodles and that's why I adopted the moniker, Mr Noodles!

I fear I'm turning into Kevin from The Wonder Years so lets fast-forward to the here and now. Manchester's Chinatown has evolved from being pretty much 100% Cantonese to encompassing other Chinese cuisines, most notably Sichuan, as well as other Asian cuisines like Japanese and Thai. With such a bewildering array of options, I had no idea where to go. It also didn't help that many of the best places for dim sum aren't in Chinatown, e.g. my parents' favourite, Tai Pan. In the end, we plumped for The New Emperor because it was busy. I'd been here before but it was so long ago that I had no idea whether it'd still be any good.

Haam sui gok 鹹水角 and the scary Chinese-only dim sum order form
The clientele was mainly Chinese, as was reflected by the Chinese-only dim sum order form, and whilst there was a menu in English, it wasn't cross-referenced to the form. I ticked off as many items I knew the Chinese for (not many) before conceding defeat and getting our very helpful waitress to complete the order form.

The dim sum isn't the most delicate but it is freshly made, well seasoned and generously proportioned. I can't remember everything we ordered but I do recall that everyone really liked the ginger & spring onion beef dumplings (薑蔥牛肉餃). Consisting of beef and ginger wrapped in bean curd skin, these zingy treats were steamed with a soy-based sauce and topped with spring onions; a great combination of classic Cantonese ingredients.

There were one or two misfires but I could live with that as this veritable feast cost a mere £10/head, which included loads of dim sum, a giant platter of three roasts with crispy noodles (三燒麵), tea and a tip. An amazing bargain and none of us could remember the last time we ate so well for a tenner. It isn't as good as the best dim sum in London but it's certainly better than the stuff found in the capital's Chinatown.

But it wasn't the quality of the food or how cheap it was that made this meal special; it was the good company and the convivial atmosphere. I know I'm forever banging on about this but there really is something special about the vibe in old school dim sum joints like The New Emperor. I think the Black Widower had it spot on when he proclaimed this restaurant to be 'a classic of its genre'.

New Emperor on Urbanspoon

The New Emperor, 52-56 George St, Manchester M1 4HF (Tel 0161-228-2883)

Why is Manchester Town Hall not called Manchester City Hall? 
After lunch, we waddled over to the imposing gothic Manchester Town Hall, where the Manchester Food & Drink Festival was being held. As we were stuffed, we ignored the food and sampled a few local brews from the Greater Manchester Ale Festival bar. This was a more than pleasant way to spend the afternoon and these were followed by a few more snifters around town before dinner.

Dinner was always going to be a curry given that Mr Frosty, who currently resides in Helsinki, finds it hard to get a decent ruby in Finland. He also has a hard time in getting the Finns to smile but that's another story. Like its Chinese food, Manchester's Indian food is amongst the finest in Britain and the 'curry mile' in Rusholme tempted us.

However, we couldn't be arsed to get a cab to south Manchester so we ended up in East Z East just off Deansgate. This is an opulent restaurant with a plush interior that features palm trees! I was a bit suspicious of the bling but the selection of seven different pickles that arrived with the poppadoms allayed my fears that this place might be an exercise in style over substance.

"Take me to your leader" demanded the giant naan
I really enjoyed my main of chicken methi, this fenugreek based curry made a nice change from my usual order of dopiaza or jalfrezi. I also liked the giant naans that seem to divide opinion amongst curry lovers. I can't remember what everyone else ordered but judging by the largely empty plates, the food went down well. Highly recommended and the Italian Shetland Pony also rates the Preston branch of this mini-chain.

East Z East on Urbanspoon

East Z East (Riverside), Blackfriars St, Manchester M3 5BQ (Tel 0161-834-3500)

After a nightcap or two, we decamped to our hotel, the City Inn, a great choice by the boy Pony. In the morning, we kicked off with an above par full English that was cooked to order. Unfortunately, the dismal weather put paid to the rest of our plans so we ended up hanging out in cafés and wandering around the Arndale Centre. After leaving 'Eat Noodles Love Noodles' on assorted iMacs and iPads in the Apple Store, we went for a final brew at Druckers. I wasn't going to eat but I couldn't resist ordering a toasted currant teacake with butter.

None of that panettone crap, I want a toasted currant teacake
This Lancastrian classic brought back memories of a time when Britain wasn't shackled by the corporate chains of Costa and Starbucks, and traditional treats like these were more common. It was also nice to eat one as a final reminder of the beautiful North. As always, it was great to meet up with everyone and I'm already looking forward to the next reunion.

Postscript: There was one low point during the trip and that was Duckgate. At The New Emperor, we tucked into a platter of three roasts with crispy noodles. All of it was delicious but the roast duck was different class with its glistening crispy skin. So you might wonder what kind of a man would toss the skin aside with the bones. A betting man might've had Mr Fussy down as the prime suspect but it was Italian Shetland Pony who was guilty as charged. But don't worry; I ate the skin before giving ISP, a stern lecture on why crispy duck skin should NEVER be discarded.


  1. Awww...this post was kinda sweet in a mates and friends and nostalgia way. *sniff sniff*

    (funnily enough, my taxi driver in Helsinki also said the same thing about the Finns... though overall they are lovely people - just very solemn!)

  2. Never been to Manchester - something I really must rectify! Looks like there are quite a few foodie treats to make it worth my while

  3. Su-Lin - thanks! Finns aren't the cheeriest - must be something to do with the long dark winters!

    GC - to be honest whilst its Chinese and Indian food are good, other cuisines can be hit and miss in Manchester. In particular, there is absence of top notch fine dining. That said, its British food can be quite good.

  4. Great post, made me smile :) I particularly liked the guerrilla marketing in the Apple Store...

  5. What a nice little post and love the slight wonder years flash back, Kevin Arnold and all that :) I see why you're Mister Noodles :) Mr Frosty's name makes me laugh.. and yes it's a feat trying to get Finns to laugh, I should know, I am dating one ;) heheheh

  6. Kake - thanks! The guerrilla advertising was my mates' idea!

    Catty - I did get very nostalgic writing this post! Mr Frosty's name is apt as he is Scottish and now lives in Finland!

  7. lol. I love that (a) you put your site up on macs at the apple store, and (b) you didn't let that precious crispy duck skin go to waste. Shame on your friend!

    Also, that really is a ginormous naan. As Gourmet Chick said, you've piqued my interest in visiting Manchester.

  8. A-in-L - I gave my mate loads of grief about the duck skin! I also think that the 'family' naan is a northern phonomenon.

    I like Manchester and it's certainly worth an overnight stay although there's very little in the way of conventional tourist sights. If you plan ahead, train tickets cost £16 one-way and it's just over 2 hours from Euston.

  9. GDiva - thanks! I did start to feel quite ancient whilst writing this post!

  10. I love Manchester, it's a great town (especially for a stag do). I love the guerilla marketing, that's genius! I hate poncy Indian restaurants, me, usually means rubbish portions.

  11. Nuf - au contraire mon ami, the portion size at East Z East was more than adequate. Remember, there's no such thing as meagre portions t'up north. Anyway, it's been a while so we must catch up soon.