Monday, 29 July 2019

Kala, Manchester

I made a promise, shortly after a visit to Burnt Truffle on the Wirral back in 2016, that even if every other one of Gary Usher's restaurants ended up being identically good, that even if I couldn't uncover a single original observation or unique thought about anywhere else he ended up opening, I'd still make an effort to write them up as what these restaurants collectively represent is too precious to go unrewarded and too important to risk the loss of momentum from lack of coverage. It's a public duty, telling people to eat at Sticky Walnut, and Burnt Truffle, and Hispi, and Pinion, and Kala, because I remember what eating out in small towns in the North West was like before people starting giving a shit (or at least, anyone with any idea on how to improve things started giving a shit), and changing it took not just skill and passion but genuine, brass-plated bravery.

Unfortunately, I broke that promise a few months later when I visited Hispi in Didsbury and didn't write about it, but in my defence there were a couple of mitigating factors. Firstly, it was very dark in there and all of my photos of the food ended up looking like something returned in the sample tray of a deep-sea biological factfinding mission, and it seemed unfair to put them on permanent record. Secondly, it was the end of a long day and I was a bit drunk, and though I'm absolutely convinced all the food was great and the service sparkling, as it absolutely usually is in those places, I'd perhaps struggle to explain in detail exactly why. There was a custard tart, though. I remember that.

Anyway, Kala. The Sticky group's most ambitious (and largest) site so far, right slap bang in the middle of Manchester's King Street, comes with its own set of expectations and potential pitfalls. Whereas the original Sticky, and Truffle, and to an extent Hispi, were self-consciously unpolished, homely and local, Kala is aiming at being a flashy city centre bistro, with its snazzy split-level downstairs bar and upstairs restaurant, open kitchen and cloakroom (whatever next!) and I get the very strong impression that while the heart and soul of the food produced is still as generous and life-affirming as ever, I feel like the presentation of certain dishes have been, shall we say, upgraded slightly for the Instagram generation.

Take their beef tartare, for example. Isn't it beautiful? Beef and croutons neatly arranged like a cubist sculpture, dotted with a judicious number of blobs of mayonnaise and topped with miniature oyster leaves, it's the kind of exact and tasteful presentation more in common with Farringdon than Fallowfield, and tasted every bit as good as it looked. I'm not saying the visual flourishes of Kala are in any way cynical, just that it feels like in order to fill this dramatic space, the food has to work that little bit harder. And work it does.

Burrata with glazed carrots and puffed rice was actually a lot more refined than my clumsy photo makes it look - a fresh, fluffy dairy element combined with a good amount of crunchy texture, and the glossy, sweet carrots underneath provided a nice filling base. It's notable that though the Sticky group has its signature dishes - featherblade with parmesan chips is a familiar favourite - the head chefs at each location are given plenty of room for their own ideas on each menu.

Duck breast, neatly fanned around a deep, dark sauce of mysterious intensity (though let's face it, probably involving duck stock) was another impressive bit of presentation. Perhaps I'd have liked the duck a little bit more pink but this is one of those moments when I have to remember that Kala's business model survives by cooking for the normal people of Manchester, not pretentious bloggers like me. Anyway I still loved this dish - the sauce was fantastic, and the little blobs of lovage cream added a lovely vegetal/metallic note.

There was also a salmon fillet with mussel cream, although I was clearly so preoccupied with my duck I completely forgot to take a photo of it. I didn't remember to try it, either. But I'm sure it was nice.

It's to my lasting regret we didn't have room for desserts - having followed Kala's Instagram account with interest I think I would have gone for the banoffee choux bun, which looks great - but maybe next time. Even without testing the skills of the pastry section we'd come away seriously impressed with the place, from the well-drilled service (especially impressive considering it's only been open a few months) to the precise, mature cooking and everything inbetween. Kala is a proper, grown-up restaurant and Manchester is very lucky to have it.

But it's worth repeating - none of this is easy. Sometimes the Sticky group make it look like running a fantastic neighbourhood bistro is the most straightforward and obvious thing in the world, but decades of miserable experiences and the continued existence of thousands of miserable neighbourhood bistros is evidence that, actually, finding just one place worthy of your dinner money on the average British high street, never mind five, is a rare thing indeed. So look, make sure you make the most of them. They're one of the few defences we have against Prezzo, Zizzi, Nandos and Pizza Express swallowing up all before them, they come highly recommended, and I guarantee you'll have a great time. Here's to many, many more.


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