The March of the Irish

After the local food delights of February’s Guestrant at Electrik with local chef Deanna Thomas, my appetite has been whetted at the prospect of more pop-up restaurant action. So when Deanna casually mentioned on Twitter she was cooking a St Patrick’s night dinner at the lovely North Star Deli in Chorlton it seemed like a no brainer to make a beeline for the event. My companions and I arrived at North Star Deli on the night to find ourselves warmly welcomed and shown our seats. Adam, the deli owner and Deanna’s brother, set the scene as we met a selection of the other attendees, an interesting and diverse selection of fellow food lovers. I’d never been to the deli before even during normal hours, having moved out of Manchester around the time it opened, and was taken by its individual charms and how well suited it seemed to intimate after-hours dining.

As this was the inaugural session of the pop-up restaurant evening not all the tables were filled, but the conversation was lively and the anticipation grew heady before the chef came out to introduce the starter. The venue itself has an open kitchen behind the counter, perfect for peeking over to see what’s going on. Not that I did so much, I’d tried hard to avoid finding out what was on the menu as I wanted to be surprised by what was on offer at this ‘Irish inspired feast’.

Irish food has historically reflected the fruits of the land, rivers and sea; whether simple working food, or a more grandiose country house style. However to many people Irish food is perceived as plain and indistinguished. Thankfully over the past few decades a generation of producers, writers, chefs and general food lovers have challenged the standard, simple stereotypes of ‘everything with potatoes and cabbage’, instead introducing or rediscovering more artisanal flavours, combinations and techniques. As a result Irish food in the twenty-first century is as dynamic, exciting and experimental as anything in the UK, hopefully continuing to develop despite the recent economic crisis.

A cursory glance on the ‘net around St. Paddy’s Day throws up a pretty frightening selection of green-dyed beer and leprechaun-themed gubbins (predominantly from our American cousins who seem to have a somewhat confused take on their culinary heritage from the Emerald Isle). Don’t forget the impressive marketing muscle of Guinness either,: they’ve managed to turn St Patrick’s Night into an event synonymous with their most famous dark drink. I was hoping tonight’s fare would be more exciting than a dodgy Irish Stew, a pint of the black stuff, and a Lucky Charms-themed dessert though.

The starter bode well. We started with wheaten bread and beautifully formed little star-shaped butter pats being brought to our tables. The wheaten bread was the foil to a deceptively simple crisp green salad studded with wonderful bacon, surrounded by roasted beetroot, and finished with a Cashel Blue dressing and a chive garnish. Cashel Blue is one of my favourite blue cheeses, and internationally acclaimed too so I’m not being overly biased with my recommendation of how good this Irish farmhouse blue is. It makes for a sophisticated blue cheese dressing with a selection of complimentary ingredients which left one wanting more. Earthy beet, tangy cheese, fresh leaves, sweet salted bacon proved to be amicable and perfectly partnered bedfellows.

When the chef came out to introduce the first course, explaining that the recipe was based on Richard Corrigan’s version of this favourite bread, she was unsure of the reaction from the diners. She had nothing to fear: this was wonderfully good wheaten bread, and I speak as a lifetime fan! Generally wheaten bread is a wholemeal soda bread, and owes much of its character and flavour to the use of baking soda as a raising agent (rather than yeast, so good for those who are yeast intolerant) and use of tangy buttermilk. It’s straightforward to make and doesn’t require too much hard work: in fact it’s one of the few breads I can confidently make. I once flew to the Netherlands with a freshly baked loaf, just so I could present it to friends as an accompaniment for a shared meal. We’re serious about bread in our part of the world. Side note: a slice or two of decent wild smoked salmon, served on some buttered wheaten bread with a squeeze of lemon juice is one of Ireland’s great food pleasures and most satisfying starters… at least in our family.

The main course, a beef & Guinness stew with potato pastry crust, was a wee bit more of a nod to ‘traditional’ Irish cooking whilst maintaining a modern character. First came bowls with healthy portions of fine chunky beef, glistening with rich dark gravy. These were topped with a triangle of light pastry. This in its own right was very good, two different cuts of meat in a beer gravy working well in that time-honoured combination of ox and stout, but more so when paired with the diminutive carrots and mash. Especially the mash – a hybrid colcannon/champ mix which prompted both an audience participation game on what best to call it (champannon, colchamp) and also a full-scale rush to clean the bowls it came in. You have to go far to beat the pleasures of good mashed potato with a rich stew… and I was pleased to hear a previous post of ours had influenced the introduction of scallions to the mix. By the time the course was over it was a potato-free zone on our table and elsewhere.

Dessert, as we’d expected after last month’s stunning chocolate torte from a chef with a serious track record in pastry, was a cracker*. A beautiful slice of apple and almond tart, served with Irish cream and a Guinness caramel sauce. The tart was perfectly light, the sweet and sharpness of the apples playing off against the pastry and almonds. The Irish cream, whipped up with Baileys, sat decadently with an rather tongue-in-cheek bright green shamrock candy astride it. Meanwhile elbows were sharpened and fingers utilised so everyone could enjoy the caramel sauce to the maximum. Seriously good, and provoking debate and discussion around the tables as to what gave it such a deep range of flavours. If memory serves me correctly the mystery ingredient turn out to be cassis: I hope I don’t get in trouble for spilling the beans!

The evening was hugely enjoyable: superb food, lovely setting and a great selection of diners. It was great to meet so many interesting folk with a shared interest in food. Thanks to Adam and the staff at North Star Deli for their enthusiasm and service, and of course to Deanna Thomas for a great Celtic-inspired menu. Let’s hope there’ll be more of these events in the future.

* With thanks to Frank Carson… it’s the way I tell ‘em!

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