Monday, 23 July 2012

SoLIta Bar & Grill, Northern Quarter, Manchester

SoLIta Bar & Grill
Turner Street
Northern Quarter

I've now typed the odd mix of upper and lower case twice, and that's enough: it's hard to type and looks weird. It indicates the abbreviation of South of Little Italy, which reflects the location south of the area of Ancoats in Manchester that was once known as Little Italy, in the same way that Manhattan's Little Italy got its name from the number of Italian immigrants who lived there.  The Little Italy name stuck in New York, but faded from memory in Manchester. The name of Manchester's Solita also, rather neatly, hints at the former occupant of the building, the fairly well respected Sole restaurant, that folded before I ever got there.

Before I proceed, I should set out some disclaimers and caveats.
1) I was the guest of Solita at a preview evening: I did not pay for the food and drink provided, but equally, I have received no payment for writing this, and my costs of going to Manchester are pretty much equivalent to a meal without drinks at somewhere more local to me.
2) I had been sent and commented on a very early draft of the menu.
3) This is not the style of food or restaurant that would normally particularly attract me, so my comments on individual dishes may not really be comparing like with like.  It is, however, pretty much on-trend with much of what's happening in London at the moment, where many new restaurant openings seem to aim to recreate the atmosphere of an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (repeated over and over again on the FoodNetwork TV channel).  I would characterise this as food to eat while you're out, rather than food you would go out for a meal.
4) This was a preview evening and, while the style seems to have settled, the menu and individual dishes were still works in progress.  Also, the food was presented as a bit of a tasting menu, designed to show off some of their signature dishes, so the presentation and portion sizes in the photographs below may not be typical.

Solita is in Manchester's trendy Northern Quarter, which is already well populated with bars and restaurants of varying quality, though few of high quality, and with the emphasis mainly on the bar side, as is common in Manchester.  Solita has taken the probably wise step of having a large bar in the basement in addition to the main ground floor dining room and further dining rooms upstairs.  As with much of the Northern Quarter, Solita's setting is not the most glamorous: the streets of the Northern Quarter are still mainly lined with tall commercial and residential buildings dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Solita is actually in a new building, and the old red brick buildings have stopped on the other side of the road too, though unfortunately there they have been replaced by a 1970s (?) NCP car park.

Turner Street is not one of the Northern Quarter's most glamorous streets
and even when the sun is shining it finds it hard to penetrate to street level
Solita has clearly derived its inspiration from American diners and dive bars, Russell Norman's London Spuntino and the Inka Grills purveyed by Franco Sotgiu, brother of the manager, Dom Sotgiu, both from long-established Bolton-Italian families, though originating way back in their family tree from Sardinia.  The Inka Grill is an enclosed barbecue oven that is fuelled with coconut husks and reaches temperatures of up to 500°C, though they said they usually run it at around 300°C here.

The decor has touches of urban industrial chic, though is more refined than Spuntino or the rest of the Polpo chain in London, and the chairs are the ubiquitous (though always comfortable) dark leather restaurant chairs.  Similarly, the food comes on proper plates, and the drinks come in proper glasses, rather than the plastic baskets and jam jars that have (drawing on the lower end of the American market) become popular in places like Pitt Cue & Co and Meat Liquor in London. Menus double as placemats, supplemented by a large blackboard. I would normally say that if they're printing menus daily (as I presume they are, given that they're effectively single-use), why would they need a blackboard for daily specials, but for some reason it seemed to work here.

Oddly for Manchester, the drinks offer seems rather limited, though that too is supplemented by the blackboard.  The "wine list" - at least in the preview week - is peremptory in the extreme: there's a choice of "House Wine" by the litre, half litre or glass, and that's it.  But there are some interesting beers and a brief list of cocktails, plus the house aperitif, the Aperol Spritz, a fantastic drink that has yet to make the same inroads in England that it has in Germany and its native Italy.

A quick peek into the bustling kitchen
Some goodies waiting to go in the Inka Grill:
burgers laced with bone marrow, hanger steak, chicken breasts, vegetables and rose veal t-bones

The first items of food to come out of the kitchen were from the small plates/bar snacks section of the menu.
 Rooster scratchings were very good, tasty shards of crispy chicken skin. Like pork scratchings, but lighter and with more of a chicken flavour than many pork scratchings have of pork.
The menu called these "Olives and things" - but were the "things" missing? Personally, I wouldn't have thought just a really good herby marinade/dressing counted as things. I thought the olives were really extremely good, quite firm, but with an excellent flavour.
"Salt cod balls" were exceptionally good salt cod fritters, served on a little blob of mayonnaise flavoured with salsa verde. The ratio of cod to potato seemed to me spot on, giving a good, light fritter, and the salsa verde in the mayonnaise worked very well indeed.

Pulled Pork Sundae
The pulled pork sundae is clearly designed to be one of their signature dishes. Pulled pork is a dish originating in American barbecue cooking: the shoulder of pork (called pork butt in America) is slow cooked, usually hot-smoked for hours until it falls apart into shreds.  The shredded meat is then mixed with a barbecue sauce.  Here at Solita, they've taken that and (presumably after one too many drinks) crossed it with the ice cream sundae, so that what you get is some really good pulled pork, still with some pork flavour surviving, topped with scoops of butter-laden mashed potato ("60:40 mash" according to the menu, i.e. 60% potato, 40% butter), and then, in lieu of a 99, a couple of strips of pork crackling.  The pulled pork was excellent, as was the crackling, but, while the mash had a fantastic buttery flavour, its texture and colour seemed a little wrong.  My suspicion is that the potatoes had taken on a bit too much water while being boiled, which is why the best mash is made from baked potatoes.  I'm surprised they don't bake the potatoes for the mash in their Inka oven, not least as they could then use the smokey-flavoured skins deep-fried and 'loaded' as a bar snack.  I have to say that the pulled pork sundae is also an incredibly rich dish, and one that you should never admit eating to your doctor.  It was so rich, that I felt there was something missing, something fresher or able to cut the fat, maybe some form of pickle - perhaps gherkins cut lengthways to replace the crackling 99s?

Bacon Jam
As if the pulled pork sundae was rich and sinful enough, next came the gastronomic equivalent of evil incarnate: bacon jam on sourdough bread.
Another American classic (there's even a recipe for it on Martha Stewart's website), usually made by slow cooking bacon, onions, sugar, vinegar, maple syrup, garlic and coffee. I can't vouch that that is exactly what is in the Solita version, but it was a strong, bacony, sweet, umami-laden hit of flavour. Delicious, but you'd not really want much more than one of those pieces in the photograph above.

Side Salad

Just ahead of the main courses, we were brought some salad: just lettuce and cucumber, but in a brilliant dressing.  Curiously - and not a little perversely - this was one of my favourite dishes, perhaps as it stood in such contrast to the heavy, rich meat fest that surrounded it.

The two small pots beyond the salad in the photograph contain a béarnaise sauce and a salsa verde, to go with the Inka-grilled meat that was to follow.  These were both spot on, really delicious.  The Béarnaise was much more punchy than is often found.  On the one hand this is good in and of itself, but it also meant it was better able to cope with the powerful flavours of the meat, its rub and the Inka grill that were to follow.  I did, however, wince at the price shown on the menu: £1.90 for each sauce.  They were both extremely good, but I feel one should be included with the steaks.

The first of the main courses to come out was a beefburger.  Burgers are big business and high fashion currently, with a "secret" burger pop-up operating sporadically in the Northern Quarter, not to mention London foodies' love affair-cum-obsession with burgers.  So the Solita burger has stiff competition.
Unfortunately, for me, this was the least successful dish to come out of the Solita kitchen this evening.  The raw burger (see the photograph at the start of this piece) looked good, with the pieces of bone marrow blended into the chuck steak looking very evident.  But on the plate, it was a bit over-cooked, but the main thing wrong was the really odd texture: it felt almost over-processed and even verging on the rubberiness of something like a commercial meatloaf or haslet.
 The even odder thing, however, was that it actually tasted very good, with a nice subtle smokiness and the bone marrow still keeping it nice and juicy. The burger was left to stand pretty much on its own, with just some Leagram's organic Lancashire cheese and some tomato topping it.  I think it would have been better if the timing of the cooking had allowed the patty to be put back in the grill with the cheese on to start it melting. 
The bun was good, serving its purpose and not disintegrating, and I thought was in reasonable proportion to the meat, though I heard others who thought there was too much bun.

After the burger came another highlight for me.  Billed as a side dish on the menu, this was one of the best dishes of the night: Inka grilled vegetables with smoked butter.
The vegetables were cooked just right, and the smoked butter had (thankfully) just a subtle smokiness to it.  I'd have quite happily put the lot between a couple of slices of good bread for an exceptional veggie not-burger.

Hanger Steak
Also from the Inka Grill section of the menu came a perfectly cooked hanger steak with some excellent triple cooked chips.  The steak had been marinaded in their house rub, which gave it a marked and pretty powerful flavour that, for me, dominated just a little, disguising what was clearly a very good piece of meat. It might be an idea to offer it with or without the rub.

The final savoury dish was a deep fried macaroni cheese - sorry mac 'n' cheese - burger with pulled pork (it also comes with a red onion marmalade for vegetarians).
A half portion of the mac 'n' cheese with pulled pork, revealing the interior
Macaroni cheese has been formed into patties, breacrumbed and deep fried, topped with pulled pork and then put on half a burger bun. Very, very rich, and the bun just seemed to be one carbohydrate too many.  But it's a damn good, and must be heading towards a prize for Manchester's best hangover food.  Looking at the menu, this would normally come with either the 60:40 mash or chips. Blimey.

The final dish was one which had sounded the most intriguing on the menu, and seemed straight out of the Texas State Fair: Deep Fried Coke.

I was assuming this would be a Coca Cola mousse or ice cream or just frozen coke, battered and deep fried.  What it actually is are churros, liberally covered in cinammon sugar and served with Coca Cola postmix syrup in the bottom of the bowl.  I have to admit that this wasn't the outstanding, innovative dish I had assumed it would be. The churros were ok, though a bit chewy; the coke didn't really come through, and when it did, I thought it fought with the coconut ice cream.  (Though I understand that it normally comes with vanilla ice cream, not coconut ice cream).

Before posting this, I thought I'd just check that I really did mean Texas State Fair: I vaguely remembered the American State Fairs as being hotbeds of deep-frying innovation, and the Texas one in particular.  Interestingly, I find that not only was my memory correct, but that at the Texas State Fair in 2006, one Abel Gonzales Jr. won the Most Creative prize for his Coca-Cola-flavored batter that was deep-fried and garnished with Coca-Cola syrup, whipped cream, and cinnamon-sugar: see number 9 on

I think the people behind Solita have been quite clever.  Without being especially innovative themselves, they have drawn inspiration from numerous sources and are, by and large, doing what they do very well.  I mentioned above that I'd seen an early draft of the menu.  On that menu, there was a lot of emphasis on the local sourcing of ingredients: that's been removed now (it just did not read right next to the style of food), but I think it's something they could make a bit more of on their website.  I think it also shows the care and thought that's gone into everything.

I started out this article by saying that Solita was not the sort of place I'd normally go to.  I still don't think I'd make a special journey to Manchester just to go to Solita, but if I'm in town I now think I'd be quite likely to return if I want a quick bite to eat, not least to see how things develop and if they can keep up the standards of both cooking and service.  Service is certainly worth a mention: apart from an almost obsessive desire to remove my side salad before I'd finished it, I thought service was very professional and appeared to be knowledgeable.

Solita Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon
For some reason urbanspoon has decided Solita
is in Tameside. It isn't: it's in the city centre in
the Northern Quarter.


Hungry Hoss said...

Great work Andrew - a fair review.

Tree surgeon Cheshire said...

Awesome post Andrew thanks for the share :-)