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.


Monday 22 July 2019

Sugo Pasta Kitchen, Manchester

Sugo Pasta Kitchen is one of those places automatically recommended when you mention you're going to Manchester, along with drinks at 20 Stories and a trip to the art gallery. In a relatively short time (I believe the Altrincham branch opened in 2016, and the Ancoats in 2018) they have become two of the city's favourite restaurants, punters attracted by their short, authentic menus of imported Italian ingredients, friendly service, and (perhaps most importantly) the fact that, well, the options for top-quality pasta in Manchester aren't exactly extensive.

Often when restaurants like this are hyped up to too much of an extent, the reality is forced to play catch-up, but I'm delighted to be able to report that Sugo does indeed serve world-class pasta, equally the match of anything available in the rest of the country and, for that matter, a good deal better than anything I found on a recent trip to Italy. Look, maybe I was unlucky, but it's not like I didn't try, and one half-decent plate of ravioli in an entire week-long trip to Como is not enough to get me singing the praises of the state of Italian cuisine in 2019.

Anyway, back to Manchester. With the understanding that not every blog post needs to be a 1000-word treatise on the state of the planet and UK restaurant culture in general (in fact, not any blog post needs to be like that), here are the three dishes we ordered at Sugo, and why they were worth every bit and more of the money asked for them:

Firstly, cavatelli loaded with an extraordinarily generous amount of mussels, squid and huge king prawns, in a gorgeous aromatic broth of ginger and chilli. Exquisitely balanced and perfectly seasoned, boasting excellent fresh, bouncy seafood, this was a genuinely great bowl of pasta.

And so was this, strozzapreti with crab, also containing a commendable amount of the main ingredient, enough white meat for sweetness and light and a good amount of dark to bind it all earthily together. With a punch of chilli and slices of cooling fennel, it was another expertly measured and executed dish.

Finally, my own strozzapreti involved a sauce made with anchovy butter and chicken stock, and so therefore was the best of the three (although I would say that). The flavour, as you might expect from such ingredients, was incredible - deeply rich and umami-led, with pinpoint seasoning and the same hearty, healthy texture to the pasta as in the other dishes. But there just seemed that extra sprinkling of magic dust on this one, an extra complexity in the sauce and punch from the chilli. It was about as good a plate of pasta as I've ever had anywhere, and though I don't pretend to be an expert on such things, well, I can tell you over the years I've eaten a lot of pasta.

Is Sugo perfect? Well not quite, but only because I hate communal tables with an absolute passion (there are none for fewer than 6 people sharing) and I'm afraid I'm duty-bound to dock them a point for that. But add in an incredibly reasonable drinks list, attentive service and a room that's bright and friendly despite the antisocial (or should that be overly-social?) seating arrangements and it's no wonder the place is such a hit. Apologies for the lack of scene-setting photos (they didn't come out), and for not having more than a few paragraphs to say about this brilliant little restaurant. But just like the menu at Sugo, sometimes less is more.


Thursday 11 July 2019

l'Ortolan, Reading

There are some restaurants that exist outside of the usual fads and trends of modern dining, that confidently serve the same food, to the same guests (if not at the same price), that they've done for generations. The most famous examples are places like Rules, or Simpson's on the Strand, where you've been able to sit down to a roast grouse or beef Wellington since shortly before the Napoleonic Wars kicked off; both come recommended (particularly Rules, which has a lovely bar). But there are other time-capsule delights dotted around the capital if you're prepared to look for them - any number of jellied eel emporiums whose signature offering boasts a recipe stretching back to the 19th century, or the pink palace Oslo Court which as far as anyone can tell hasn't changed its menu since the early 70s ("Pink grapefruit segments" / "Coquille St. Jacques" / "Steak Diane"). Sniff at these joints as anachronisms at your peril - once they're gone, that's another priceless piece of London food history lost forever.

L'Ortolan, tucked into the Berkshire countryside somewhere outside Reading, has an equally distinguished background and solemn abiding respect for its chosen period in the gastronomic timeline - namely, the early 90s. It's a fascinating period in the UK's culinary history, where Jamie Oliver's rustic Italian revolution was barely a glint in a TV producer's eye, most top restaurants cooked French haute cuisine (with only a passing nod to the seasons, and with most ingredients flown across the channel), and Gary Rhodes, Marco Pierre White etc. had just kicked off the age of the celebrity chef. Skills acquired in the grand dining institutions of France were in the next few years to transform the British dining scene into something recognisably of our shores, but not quite yet. For now, posh food was French and French alone. At l'Ortolan, the mercurial John Burton Race was in charge, and the odd touch of nasturtium or wasabi aside I'm sure would recognise a lot of what's still served today. Steak tartare, lamb rump with rosemary jus, strawberry and vanilla parfait - this is a menu that knows its audience, and is proud of its place in history.

As well it should be, because the food, though admittedly no longer cutting edge, satisfies and delights when it needs to, and is still worth the effort. We had snacks and cocktails in the garden, little crackers topped with cream cheese, pickled cucumber and salmon roe which had a lovely freshness of texture and taste, and mushroom arancini balls, greaseless and comforting. Cocktails were a bit on the warm side, and the martini in particular had a strange artificial lemony taste (?) but thanks to a nice sunny day and a very pleasant garden, were still enjoyed.

Inside, l'Ortolan impressed further with a nice plush (and very 90s) dining room, and their house bread - particularly an extremely edible sourdough with a parmesan crust. I'm not entirely convinced of the wisdom of serving a pre-starter consisting of 90% of the same ingredients as the salmon roe snack from the garden, but hey, their place their rules, and the puffed fish skin was fun.

First course proper was a colourful gazpacho, poured over a goat's cheese mousse and studded with basil leaves, olive crumb and that 90s classic, sun-dried tomatoes. It was very good - gently hot with garlic and using quality tomatoes - and felt perfect for such a sunny day, even eaten inside.

Steak tartare, neatly arranged on an oblong piece of toast and presented alongside confit yolk, was similarly enjoyable, if not exactly earth-shatteringly brilliant. I'm very sorry to all you beef tartare fans out there, but I've rarely discovered an example of this dish that was any better than "good". Now, the Bob Bob Cité version topped with caviar, on the other hand...

I just adored this lamb main course. If there's one reason you'd head to a place like this to see how people did fine dining 25 years ago it's to revel in things like perfectly-pink lamb chops, ultra-smooth pea purées and geometrically neat confit potatoes, all draped in a glossy, salty, herb-infused jus. There's much of what restaurants did in the 90s I don't miss, but it takes a lot of very specific skills to turn out a plate of food like this, and it's a real shame such technique and stubbornly silver-service presentation is as rare as it is. This lamb was worth the journey alone.

I didn't hear quite so many expressions of rapture coming out of my friend who'd ordered the pea risotto, but I blame her for ordering the pea risotto. I mean, how good can a pea risotto really be? How good could any risotto really be? There, that's the Italians annoyed again.

l'Ortolan boast a proper old-school cheese trolley, with some fine examples of British (mainly) and French (a couple) cheeses. Here, at least, is one example of modernity - I imagine the idea of serving British cheese back in the early 90s would have been given very short shrift. All in great condition and generously portioned out, that very lively looking washed-rind orange one in the middle was our favourite, tasting quite like an Epoisses. Sorry, I didn't write down the name, but hopefully someone can ID it.

Pre-dessert was a pleasant but largely unremarkable chocolate cake with ice cream, which we happily ate and then completely forgot about. If I didn't have photographic evidence of its existence I would have forgotten to mention it at all, in fact, but then maybe that's the point of pre-desserts.

My own dessert proper, various different ways with strawberry including a neat cube of vanilla parfait coated in dried strawberry powder, had a lot going on but all of it good, from the smooth and powerfully-flavoured sorbet to the jewel-like slices of compressed fruit. I enjoyed every bit of it, particularly the flourish of a bright-green spun-sugar "stalk" making the parfait look like part of a surrealist fruit salad.

Sadly raspberry parfait, despite looking the part, suffered from a very crumbly, crystalline inside from being (presumably) kept too cold for too long. If there's one thing that's improved the lot of the pastry chef since the 90s, it's the invention of the Pacojet, which would have been very usefully employed here.

But you know what, such slips were hardly about to spoil our lunch, and I still left the place very happy that l'Ortolan exists and is still doing its thing far its rapt local (and, er somewhat senior - we were the youngest people in the room by about 30 years) audience, informality and rustic stoneware and foraged apple marigold be damned. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is not a phrase you often hear about the restaurant industry, with its constant reinventions and relaunches designed to keep your business featured on Instagram feeds (or if you prefer the 90s equivalent, the papers). But l'Ortolan hit upon a successful formula 25 years ago and see no good reason to change it. And neither, for that matter, do I. Let's hope in another quarter century, Brexit and global climate catastrophe allowing, I can make a return trip as one of the oldest people in that dining room, and enjoy those wonderful lamb chops all over again.


I was invited to l'Ortolan to try their weekend lunch menu, so only paid for cocktails and calvados.

Tuesday 9 July 2019

Inver, Loch Fyne

There is an awful lot to like about Inver. I thought I'd better say that up front, because, in the end, with so many different bits to cover and with the negatives easier (and, let's face it, more entertaining) to write about than the positives, I'm afraid this post may end up looking like one big whinge. But the point is, I don't regret booking a weekend here, we didn't have an awful time, and it was almost worth the journey itself (very pleasant actually; a flight to Glasgow and then an hour and a half's drive) just to gaze out over Loch Fyne of an evening with a glass of Caol Isla in my hand, as the sillouette of Castle Lachlan broods across the bay.

That whisky on the terrace was just the first night though. On the second evening, thanks to a combination of rain showers and a biblical plague of miniscule biting culicoides impunctatus (midges), the terrace, and the lovely highland outdoors more generally, was out of bounds, and the only way to appreciate the stunning vistas were via the relative safety - if not comfort - of our own personal hot boxes- sorry, bothies.

Look, I'm sure for much of the year the bothy concept works marvellously well. These super-insulated eco-lodges with their floor-to-ceiling windows and large en-suite bathrooms are clearly lovely places in which to hole up when it's blowing a blizzard outside, and only an idiot would build any kind of accommodation in this part of the world without making pretty damn sure they were winter-ready. The problem is that Scotland has summers too, and when it's 26C during the day, the bothies (we discovered) soak up the sun like tropical greenhouses, and thanks to the aforementioned plague of midges keeping either the front door or the bathroom window open just isn't an option. Why don't Inver fit mosquito screens over their windows and/or doors? Why don't they even have standing fans to use in the rooms? Well, you'll have to ask them. All I can tell you is that across two nights we had the choice of sleeping or being bitten alive, and in the end settled for a rather unpleasant combination of both.

But anyway, dinner. Snacks are taken in the bar, and got things off to a very promising start. There was a kind of cockles en gélée thing, featuring plump little beasties in a take on the East End classic eel jelly...

...cute litte carrots with spectacular plumes of leaves attached came with a lovely salty tarama, topped with thyme buds which gave it an interesting extra colour (flavour-wise)...

...asparagus mousse, perhaps a little underpowered but clean and fresh tasting and served on cute wooden spoons...

...and the most successful of all, these wild mushroom and parmesan tarts which had a fantastic funky, earthy flavour and dissolved beautifully in the mouth. These were a set of snacks, perfectly pitched, tastefully presented, showcasing a mastery of different cooking techniques and with top-quality ingredients, that you'd be happy to be served at any Modern British fine dining restaurant in the country. I was utterly convinced, after these, that we'd made the right decision coming to Inver.

And then we were reseated in the charming, bright dining room, and served a peach melba. It wasn't a peach melba of course, it was heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella ice cream, but because it looked so much like a peach melba, with the thickly-sliced and peeled orange tomatoes very much resembling tinned peaches, and the frozen mozzarella on top looking for all the world like a scoop of vanilla, the disconnect between eating what my eyes and brain told me was a dessert and the strange cold salad my tastebuds were receiving, resulted in a deeply unnerving experience. With tomatoes that looked a little more like tomatoes, and perhaps normal mozzarella instead of frozen, maybe some crunch or other texture to balance it out, this could have perhaps been quite a nice starter, but I'm afraid I didn't enjoy this at all.

Next was cured trout and pickled green strawberries, which suffered from a similar lack of, for want of a better word, textural balance. There was plenty of trout - four or five thick slices of it - and though on one level you have to admire their generosity, there's really only so much cured fish it's comfortable to eat without any carbs or crunch or sauce to make it a bit more interesting. The pickled strawberries were nice enough, but sat alongside rather than complimented the fish, and an advertised "broth" was scarce to the point of invisibility. Again, it was a bit hard to eat.

In the interests of objectivity, I have to ignore both the fact that Friday night's guests at Inver had been served lamb as their main course, and also that I'd heard from various sources, not least a couple of people on the terrace while I was drinking my whisky the day before, that said lamb is world class. I have to ignore this - or at least try - because the crushing disappointment of not being served it is unfair to all concerned. The pork was decent - good, even - with a very tasty little sausage element and some neat slices of just-pink loin, but suffered, like the trout, from a tendency to under-sauce (barely a tiny puddle under the sausage) and accompanying raw greens were clumsy and chewy.

I didn't get to try the fish (halibut) alternative to the pork, but was told it was overcooked to mushy, and there's no excuse for that really. Seems like it came with plenty of sauce though, so that's something.

There was a pre-dessert of an incredibly concentrated summer berry granita over some kind of ice cream, which performed well enough...

...and then dessert proper was this "burnt strawberry & elderflower" tart thing, which had all sorts of different textures and techniques going on (including a lovely custard and I always appreciate a good custard) and a very nice summer fruit sorbet element. It was good, you know. Maybe I'd have appreciated it even more if I'd had a better night's sleep.

But you know, there's always that view. And searching through the rockpools in the bay for crabs and whelks (when the midges aren't biting). And drinking a whisky on the terrace when the sun's out (ditto). Oh, and the breakfasts are lovely. There is, despite my whingeing, a lot to like about Inver - Lord knows enough people have sung its praises that all of the above could be dismissed as an anomaly, an unfortunate by-product of unrealistic expectations, a mini-heatwave and a short supply of lamb. In the end, though, all I can do is report as I find, then slink off back to London ready to whinge about something else. So I think I'll do just that.


Thursday 4 July 2019

The Oystercatcher, Otter Ferry

Other than automatically assuming the worst about every upcoming meal, which would be a pretty miserable way to live your life even if it was possible (which it isn't), there's really nothing you can do about the power of expectation and/or anticipation to make or break a restaurant experience. This was very neatly illustrated indeed on a recent weekend trip up to Loch Fyne, where one place I was expecting one of the greatest meals of my life fell rather flat, whilst another I had essentially earmarked for nothing more elaborate than a bowl of soup and a pint to cushion the effects of the long journey north turned out to be quite wonderful.

Expectations are nobody's fault really, at least nobody's in particular. Blame, if you like, a number of gushing national reviews and enthusiastic Instagram posts from trusted friends for the disappointing evening, and blame the sheer lack of coverage completely - nothing so much as a mention in a local paper since 2014 - for the surprise hit, but even if Otter Ferry had been showered with slavering reviews, chances are I'd still have been very skeptical of this unassuming lochside pub near a campsite, half an hour's drive from the nearest post office. Places like this - I'd assumed - existed just to satisfy any hikers bored of camping stove beans on toast, or give locals somewhere to head towards on dog walks, not to be a shining ambassador for Argyll seafood. And yet, take a look at this menu:

Is there anything on it you wouldn't eat? Putting aside the worrying fact they consider sweet potato not to be poison (which of course it is), this is a menu that sings - attractive, accessible, full of high-end seafood at surprisingly reasonable prices, and with the odd interesting dash of international flavour, it's the kind of thing you always hope to be handed in any given gastropub but so rarely are. I'm pretty sure I would have been very happy just picking dishes at random, but ask anyone who's ever met me what they think I might order, and they'd say the langoustine and the crab and chips. So just to prove I'm not hopelessly predictable, I ordered the langoustine, followed by the crab and chips.

These absolute beauties, four huge, healthy looking things with claws as big as some entire langoustine themselves, seductively posed over a huge chunk of buttered house bread, were an insane £10.50. Now I don't know the last time you were lucky enough even to be able to order langoustine in a restaurant, even as part of a seafood platter bulked out with horrible things like whelks, but to give you just one London Elite Bubble example, Scott's in Mayfair are currently doing them (subject to availability) at £5.50 a pop (plus £2 cover charge, naturally), and I can't imagine they're any better than these. Landed at Tarbert, the menu said, which is a town on the west of the loch - in fact, the town is so famous for them that another name for langoustine is "Tarbert prawns". I think I might like to visit Tarbert.

Other starters were also impeccable. Grilled sardines were served on more excellent house bread, and draped in a lovely salsa verde. With a delicate crunch on the skin, and the flesh inside dense and meaty and moist, this was a masterclass in sardine cooking, with that same stripped-back St. John feel to presentation.

House gravadlax - generous chunks of thick-cut salmon, in a delicate dill dressing - was similarly tasteful, and another superb advert for the area's produce. And with that, with one round of starters, the Oystercatcher had won three new fans. From here on, we could not only relax but be supremely confident that whatever followed would be as enjoyable and immaculately prepared as anything that had come before.

As indeed it was. Squid salad, the seafood gently charred and overhung with live fire smoke, lay on a bed of Thai salad, with peanuts, coriander, lime and chilli in the mix.

A Scottish classic, Cullen Skink (a seafood chowder usually made with smoked haddock) was perfectly seasoned, full of huge chunks of fish, and as comforting as a soft tartan blanket. The fact it held its searing heat for a good 15 minutes wasn't quite needed on the hottest day of the year (it was 26 degrees celsius, even this far north) but rather too hot than too cold I suppose.

Behold the crab. Crab and chips is one of those unbeatable combinations that ordinarily doesn't really need messing with - just boil it up, hand me the requisite tools and I'll be as happy as Larry. But Oystercatcher serve theirs in a wonderful chilli and ginger sauce, which somehow made the dark head meat even more rich and powerful, and leant the delicate white meat in the legs and claws a deeply addictive aromatic note. Chips were golden brown and crunchy, and perhaps would have been nicer without the skins but that's just a personal bugbear. It was still, for £15, an extravaganza of technique, generosity and superb seafood.

Probably due to seafood-induced delirium, I didn't take a photo of the desserts, but homemade rhubarb sorbet was full of flavour with a charming rustic texture, and though the treacle tart could have done with a lot more of the advertised crème Anglaise (there was barely a squiggle of it, beneath the tart itself), it still was polished off.

With a couple of drinks (you don't want to be driving around these parts with less than full control of your faculties - it's largely single-lane roads with about half as many passing places as would be comfortable) the bill came to £80 for three people, and though some of us had two starters it's still an incredibly reasonable ask for what turned out to be a near-flawless parade of exquisitely prepared and tastefully presented seafood cooking, matched by attentive service and a idyllic, almost dreamlike location. I still, over a week later, still can't believe it happened - we'd ended up here purely because it was the nearest restaurant to where we were staying that wasn't the restaurant where we were staying, and we'd hoped it would be merely passable; in the end it turned out to be good enough to warrant a trip up to Scotland all by itself. Which is just as well, considering what was coming the evening after. Watch this space.