Wednesday 3 October 2012

Artisan Restaurant, Booths, Lytham

Eating in-store is usually an unrewarding last resort of the desperately hungry.  Eating in a supermarket all the more so.

But, to borrow a phrase, Booths is not just any supermarket.  Indeed some years ago they specifically dropped the word supermarket, and I like to think of them as a small chain of grocery shops.  They have long been champions of local food, and have more recently been working with Slowfood UK on bringing some of England's Forgotten Foods onto their shelves.

Booths is often called the Waitrose of the North, but it would be more accurate to call Waitrose the Booths of the South, as Waitrose is something of a newcomer compared to Booths.  Edwin Henry Booth opened his first shop in Blackpool (then little more than a seaside village) in 1847: it would be nearly fifty years before Wallace Waite and Arthur Rose opened their first shop in West London in 1904.  An Edwin Booth is still at the helm of Booths.

Lytham was the first branch (originally opened in 1879) in what has become a chain of 28 shops across the north west, though the current store is a new construction.  Booths has long had restaurants attached to its stores (indeed, my grandmother worked in the café at Booths in St Annes in the 1950s), but in the last decade there has been something of a renaissance, beginning at their Kendal store, for which Steven Doherty, the first British head chef in a Michelin 3-star restaurant (Le Gavroche), consulted when the Artisan restaurant there first opened.

The Artisan restaurant at Booths in Lytham, is a large airy space above the store, adjacent to the art gallery (oh yes, there's an art gallery in this branch of Booths too ... you don't get that in Asda...).  The menu is nothing especially striking, and as you would expect, given the location and its association, seeks to be many things to many people. There is a fairly extensive breakfast section, which from 11.30 a.m. gives way to a fairly standard brasserie menu, drawing heavily on produce available on the fresh food counters of the store below. Which made it all the more odd to be told that they had run out of burgers.  How do you run out of burgers when there is an extensive butchery counter, including various varieties of pre-made burgers, attached to the restaurant?  But it's not all shop and serve: there's some real cooking going on too.

I started with some Eggs Benedict.  Rather than the standard English muffin, these came on a larger base, which I suspected might have been Greenhalgh's oven bottom muffins.  There was a very generous helping of excellent roast ham, with a couple of neat, poached eggs on top.  In contrast to the generous amount of ham, I thought they had been a little mean with the hollandaise, which itself could have done with a bit more punch.  But for £5.95, it's difficult to criticise, and I'd have no qualms about ordering it again.
Eggs Benedict
 The main menu is supplemented by a brief daily specials, so brief that you wonder if it's worth printing it.
For a main course I chose the Pan Fried Hake with shrimp risotto from the specials menu.  The only criticism I could possibly have of this was that it might have been better described as shrimp risotto with pan-fried hake, given the relative proportions.
The hake itself was perfectly cooked (which is not bad going for the graveyard mid-afternoon shift, when you might expect the cooks to be out the back having a smoke), and the risotto too was spot on - not overcooked and gluey, as can so easily be the case.  There was a very generous helping of shrimps in the risotto: it would have been nice to think they were Lytham shrimps, but I suspect it's more likely they were (unfortunately) the Dutch brown shrimps (equally unfortunately) usually sold in Booths stores. If anyone from Booths reads this and would like to enlighten/correct me, I'd love to hear from you.  But they and the risotto that contained them were still very tasty.  This really was a very impressive dish by any standards, and all the more so, given that it came out of a grocery store café at half past three on a Saturday afternoon.  It was also excellent value at £9.25 - in fact, most main courses are under £10.

Readers of my website and blog might have picked up that I'm a bit of a sucker for what we used to call French Fried Onions, but which now seem to be just called battered onion rings. (I wonder when and why that changed?)  They're not a bad test of a kitchen: can they make a good batter?, do they clean their deep-fryer regularly?, can they deep fry food accurately?  The beer batter on these was obviously quite thick to start with (probably a batch of batter made earlier in the day), and also quite thickly applied.  The kitchen failed a little here, as the cooking was a bit uneven, with a couple of rings really needing a few seconds more in the fryer.  Being that little bit underdone gave them a bit of a feel of an onion-flavoured doughnut.
Hake with onion rings towering in the background
 Presumably as it was mid-late afternoon, I wasn't shown a wine list, but looking at it later, it serves it purpose well, and, with prices between £10 and £20 a bottle, isn't going to damage anyone's wallet.   I think it might be nice to see a corkage deal on wines bought downstairs, and what I particularly missed was the opportunity to buy a glass of  Booths' latest wheeze, #BoothsSecret, an unlabelled great value, cheap red, only available retail by the case.

I just had a small bottle of ginger beer, and also decided not to have coffee after seeing two utterly vast bowls of coffee being brought to the next table, with the announcement that these were their flat whites.  I have to say I've never seen anything looking less like a flat white.  I think some barista training could be useful, if that were typical.  Service, however, was very good.

So, in summary, not faultless, but an impressive performance, and undoubtedly a useful addition to the restaurants of Lytham, which, since the closure of The Hastings, generally lack distinction.

Note that Booths Artisan Restaurant is open daytimes only.

Booths Artisan Restaurant & Café Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Cheese judging at The Chipping Show

I recently spent an afternoon as one of the cheese judges at Chipping Show, in the Ribble Valley. It's not the Nantwich Cheese Show, but is more than a village & produce show too.  All the cheeses entered were commercially available, not ones from hobby cheesemakers.

I was the only one of the judges who wasn't a professional cheesemaker, though my great-great-great-great grandfather won prizes for cheese and butter at Whitewell and Whalley Shows in the 19th century.

There were around eighteen classes of cheese, most with 5 or more entries in each class.
Some judging was done in pairs, some just by one judge.  I helped with the three types of Lancashire (creamy, crumbly and tasty), Red Leicesters, Wensleydales & other crumblies, and the blues.

There were two classes of cheese with "additives" (cheese with bits in) for which volunteers were called to judge.  Everybody took the proverbial one step backwards, including me.  Fortunately, Terry Hudson from First Milk (up Glasgow way) noticed nobody had done the Wensleydales yet and invited me to join him judging those, leaving the devilry that is cheese with additives to a couple of others.  The howling of pain and imitation vomiting sounds from the 'additives' judges made me most glad I'd not be subjected to that. 

It was interesting that, although they all make them, my fellow judges (all cheesemakers, remember) also seemed to pretty much dislike the additives cheeses on principle. But they sell. The occasional one is ok if you think of it in terms as a ready made rarebit, or cheese & pickle sandwich. Some of the drier cheeses like Wensleydale do take to a bit of fruit (or fruit cake), so you can sometimes see where the inspiration comes from. But most are just vile, not least as the manufacturing process seems to make the texture of the cheese go nasty. The winner in the savoury additives class was one of the few I recognised. A soft goats cheese flavoured with lemon zest and black pepper, made by Gill Mcmanaman, from Captra Goat Products of Longridge, who sells her goats cheese and milk at many of the local farmers' markets, and who's a good - if occasional - source for goat hearts and goat kidneys, both of which are delicious.

Like all good wine-tastings, all the cheeses were tasted blind.  There were a couple that I knew what they were (e.g. Blacksticks Blue was pretty unmistakable), but for the most part there was nothing to identify them.  Of course, it was only blind as to producer: it was, inevitably, blatantly obvious which were the industrial blocks and which were the artisan truckles.

Just like wine-tastings, there were some very good cheeses,some that were simply just a bit a dull, and (apart from those with additives), I think only one that was actively unpleasant.  As we judges had to give a written tasting note in four categories (appearance, texture, body, taste) for each cheese, some of the descriptors I use when I'm trying to be kind in wine tasting, came in rather useful.  "Muted" "Backward" "Closed" etc.    ;)  

One thing I found particularly interesting is that one of my prejudices was shattered.  I've always worked on the basis that the best cheeses are the ones that look the most rustic, cloth-bound truckles, unpasteurised milk, bit of mould; that sort of thing.  And the corollary is that those large oblong blocks of highly industrial-looking cheeses are the ones that are best avoided.  That prejudice was completely blown out of the water.

It reminded me of the difference between "ordinary" wines and "natural" wines.  Natural wines are like the more natural, rustic-looking cheeses.  When they're good, they're great, but bottle variation is enormous, and the wild, funky notes can increasingly take over, losing any regional or varietal typicity.

Interestingly, the only cheese that was actively unpleasant was the most artisan-looking of the lot, with some rather wild-looking moulds on the exterior, and one I was particularly looking forward to, based on its appearance. It was revealed to be a Wensleydale that the dairy (I forget which) had pretty much forgotten about at the back of the store. But the texture had gone all grainy, yet pasty at the same time, the flavours were completely unbalanced, and - in wine terms - it was a real Musar or Beaucastel of a Wensleydale: all volatile acidity and animalistic sweaty horses!

The differences between cheeses in the same classes was remarkable, and not just between "natural" and more industrial types, though it was only when judging the tasty Lancashires that I and my fellow judge disagreed, though not hugely. 

If you'd told me beforehand that I'd give a Red Leicester looking as plasticky as this the gold award over something like Butler's Rothbury Red, I would never have believed you.

Butlers and Mrs Kirkham (probably the two biggest names in Lancashire cheese outside the region?) did reasonably well, though we had to disqualify one of the best cheeses there, a Butler's tasty Lancashire that had been entered in the creamy class.  Lovely cheese, better than the tasty they'd entered in the tasty class, but a bit like passing off a Chilean Bordeaux Blend as Claret. 

Some Tasty Lancashire rounds, all traditionally cloth-bound and then waxed
A couple of unwaxed, traditionally cloth-bound Lancashire rounds (on the left)

After the reveal, I was very surprised to hear that all three of the Lancashires to which I'd given the gold, were from the same producer: Greenfields, a small family dairy in Inglewhite.  I know them mainly for their Sykes Fell, a Lancashire-style cheese that can't be called Lancashire, because it's made from sheeps' milk.  You tend not to see many of their Lancashires, and I'm really not sure what their main outlet is.

All the judges got together to retaste all the gold medal winners from the different classes for a handful of awards, and an overall champion.  The overall champion was a blue cheese - sold as Lancashire Blue - made by Carron Lodge, also near Inglewhite, but whom I know mainly as wholesalers and importers of cheese, rather than as cheesemakers. 

The trophy winners
This was an interesting afternoon, which I hope to repeat.  My thanks to Faye Kitching of Leagram Dairy for the invitation and to Terry Hudson of First Milk for introducing me to some of the more arcane aspects of cheese judging.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Dim Sum lunch at the Yang Sing, Manchester

Manchester's Yang Sing has been in business for 35 years now and is rapidly approaching grande dame status.  It has fallen a bit out of favour over the last ten years.  I could go on at length on what I think are the reasons for that (in fact I did, but deleted that), but, while there have been ups and downs in service, I've never really experienced any particularly noticeable drop in the standard of the food.  There has, of course, been the odd dish that hasn't worked, but that's true of virtually every restaurant I've ever been to.

But I've mainly only gone at lunchtime, usually primarily for dim sum, for which they have little competition.  The dim sum menu (which oddly has never been on their website) also seems to change more frequently than the main à la carte menu, which goes on for page after page.  The dim sum menu is also pretty much on-trend in that they are looking to regions outside Canton, and are pulling it off (as in the Tianjin buns mentioned below).  I think the Yeungs should think about how and where the main à la carte menu can be modernised too. It would be nice to see something like a specials of the day menu, and waiting staff more able to say that such and such is really good today, etc.

We had been meaning to return to the Yang Sing for some time, when I saw at the end of July that they had suffered a fire in the kitchen.  15 years ago, they had been hit by a fire which saw them forced to move into temporary premises for almost two years.  Fortunately, this time, the fire had been contained in the kitchen, and within a week or so they had been able to re-open, but when we went they were effectively only camping out on the ground floor of the building, with a somewhat limited menu (the cheung fun steamer had been destroyed and they had no access to the ovens for roast meats).  I've often thought how much I would prefer to be on the ground floor than in the basement, which is the only room they usually have open. This meal showed I was right: it was much more pleasant having proper daylight and even, strangely, sunshine. It was also quite a bit busier than it has been on my last few visits, though still not back to the days when you used to have to queue for a table.

As already mentioned, because of the restricted kitchen facilities, the dim sum menu was equally a bit restricted, but it's still a huge selection, taking in many of the usual suspects and a number of more unusual items.  On this occasion, we noticed quite a few new dishes, and these are largely what we concentrated on.
The "limited" dim sum menu
But before I'd looked properly at the menu, a waiter came round with a tray of goodies - the closest the Yang Sing now gets to a trolley service. I couldn't resist some of the char sui puffs off the tray, not least as it's something they've sold out of in the past.  These are little pasties with a deep, rich char sui roast pork filling in the lightest, flakiest, shortest pastry ever.  This time the pastry was even shorter than usual that I wondered how it possibly had the structural integrity to stand up on the plate, let alone on its way to the mouth. Always impressive, but these were even better than usual.
Char sui puffs (someone had eaten one before I took the photograph)
Next came some sui mai.  I'm not sure why: I didn't order them, and they're not near anything on the menu I might have pointed at when ordering.  The language barrier can still be a teeny issue, I think.  If the waitress did think I'd ordered them, I wonder what I did order and didn't get?
Sui Mai
Sui mai (steamed prawn and pork open dumplings) are actually quite a good test dish, not least as there are some quite passable ones available to buy-in.  I'm pretty certain these weren't bought in: as you might be able to see in the picture above, they're a little plumper than often found, and the taste was very fresh and the texture very good indeed.  I'm glad they came.

One of the weaker dishes today were these cuttlefish balls with a molten prawn centre.  Not because they weren't delicious: minced cuttlefish deep fried in panko breadcrumbs - what's not to like?  No, the disappointment was with the molten prawn centre.  The waiter had warned us to be careful eating them because of the liquid filling.  But he needn't have bothered, as there wasn't really much of the molten prawn filling, and I didn't really get much of a prawn flavour from it.  If you'd just given me them, I'd have loved them, but on the day, they didn't quiet live up to the billing.
Cuttlefish balls in panko breadcrumbs with molten shrimp sauce centre
By contrast, steamed Tianjin pork buns were absolutely terrific.
steamed Tianjin pork buns with wood fungus and Chinese celery
Interior of the Tianjin pork bun
Unlike the more common char siu bao, typical of Cantonese cuisine, these originate from Tianjin in northern China.  Here, they have a fragrant minced pork filling, liberally laced with black mushrooms, and just a background hint of celery.  The bun was very light and pillowy. Really delicious.

Steamed honeycomb tripe with satay sauce was also absolutely terrific.  The honeycomb tripe made a nice change from the library tripe I usually have at the Yang Sang.  Nothing more to say: the picture says it all.
Honeycomb tripe with satay sauce

Prawn & vegetable dumplings came in a beautiful, clear consommé. Really nice flavours, both in the dumplings and in the broth.
Prawn and root vegetable dumpling in consommé
The final savoury dish today was not the most photogenic of dishes: steamed shredded mooli with Chinese sausage and dried shrimp.  Probably the most challenging of today's dishes to a western palate, as the textures and flavours are quite unusual. But it was really good too. I've had cooked radish and cooked mooli before, but not cooked like this, to a texture not entirely unlike glutinous rice.  Apparently mooli was eaten in times of famine instead of rice, though this feels far too luxurious to be based on famine food.
Steamed mooli with Chinese sausage and dried shrimp
Not really much prettier when served

Our last dish was the disappointment of the day.
Crispy lai wong bao
I've always loved these custard filled hedgehogs (or crispy lai wong bao), but today they seemed to have been a little overcooked and there was a bit of an odd taste to the crust.  When I raised this, it was acknowledged: they might just have been overcooked, but it was also suggested that they were experimenting with British rape seed oil, and that might have been responsible for the flavour.  I got the distinct impression this was going to be investigated and fixed.

So, some pretty terrific dim sum, and there are still plenty of new dishes on the dim sum menu that we need to try.  Service was mostly very good, but not entirely immune from what seems to occidental eyes as an abruptness.

I suppose one issue that is worth raising here is that they continue not to have itemised bills.  You get a bill which is essentially only broken down into food and drinks, supported by a number of dockets in Chinese.  I think in these days they should upgrade their till systems so that it's much easier to check the bill is correct.  That said, as I'd taken a photo of the menu earlier, I was able to quickly add everything up, and the bill was correct, and on previous occasions it's always been around what I've thought it should be, so I'm not suggesting any impropriety at all.  I just think it should be easier.

I want to end on a positive, however, and will just repeat that the food was very good and very interesting, and they deserve credit for continuing to innovate. 

Yang Sing on Urbanspoon

Monday 27 August 2012

A return to the Freemasons Arms at Wiswell

Just a quick report of a recent meal this time: all of what I've said previously (including here) still holds, though front of house service is now very much improved.  The Freemasons presents itself as a country pub; yet the prices and the style of the food show that the main competition is with nearby Northcote.  I have to say that, if Northcote can have one Michelin star, and Tom Kerridge can (bizarrely in my view) have two Michelin stars at the Hand & Flowers, then one star is well within chef-patron, Steve Smith's grasp.  I'd come to the Freemasons at Wiswell rather than Northcote (or the Hand & Flowers, though that's at the other end of the country) any time.

I started with an English Pea and Parmesan Soup with Beans on ToastThis was a pea soup topped with a parmesan espuma and what were not entirely dissimilar to salt and vinegar wotsits, while on the side, was a gorgeous crostino of broad beans, liberally laced with truffle shavings. The soup and the espuma both had a beautiful texture, but were a bit under-powered, but the main reason for having this dish was the "beans on toast" which is so good, it completely puts the soup in the shade.

English Pea and Parmesan Soup with Beans on Toast
Next came a Ragout of Wild Mushrooms, Summer Truffle, Crispy Hen's Egg.  Very nice, all perfectly cooked, though more variety in the mushrooms would have helped, as once again, it was the incidentals that shone in this dish.
Ragout of Wild Mushrooms, Summer Truffle, Crispy Hen's Egg
My main course was a dish called Anna's Happy Trotters. Bizarrely, this had no element of trotter in it: it was a sizeable hunk of tenderloin (possibly lightly smoked?), some slow cooked, glazed gammon, a piece of roast pineapple, a smear of black pudding purée, pork pie sauce, and some airbag crackling sprinkled over.  A very good dish.  Perhaps the tenderloin could have done with a bit more "natural" cooking, as it had a bit of a pappy texture.  But why on earth is the dish called Anna's Happy Trotters?  One of our table specifically didn't have this dish because of the assumption it would revolve around pigs' trotters.
Anna's Happy Trotters
The first dessert was a Summer Berry Soup with berries, goats' cheese, crispy rice and some pieces of (pistachio?) sponge. A really good, balanced dish, in which all elements had a full role to play.

Summer Berry Soup
The second dessert, and final course today, was Peach Melba.  A deconstructed peach melba, riffing on (according to the menu) roast white peach, vanilla and raspberry.  This didn't work quite as well for me as the chilled berry soup, even after I'd got over the (hardly earth-shattering) disappointment that they were regular peaches, not white peaches.  It's difficult to put my finger on it, but I think it was essentially down to the deconstruction taking Escoffier's invention a little out of balance: I think it needed more peach. But that's really just down to personal taste, and it would be difficult to criticise anything in the execution.

Peach Melba
Jugs of iced water arrive automatically.  There are a few interesting real ales, and an interesting wine list, which is pretty well chosen, with lengthy descriptions of most of the wines, and a healthy number by the glass.  Wine prices quickly move into uncomfortable territory though.  We drank a stunning bottle of 2009 Spinifex Papillon that was so good we ordered another.  Interestingly, the second bottle was substantially below the excellence of the first, though without an obvious fault, and had we not had the first bottle, we'd have probably just put it down as not a particularly brilliant wine. A third bottle was much closer to the first, but still not quite as good.  The front of house staff handled this not only extremely well, but also with interest.

Coffee (an unfortunately crema-less, but decent-tasting espresso for me) came with excellent petits fours.

The Olympic flag flies over Wiswell

Freemasons at Wiswell on Urbanspoon

The Cartford Inn, Little Eccleston, Lancashire

The Cartford Inn is a country pub on the south side of the Cartford toll bridge over the River Wyre, near Great Eccleston. It has been in the hands of its current owners for about five years now: they (or previous owners?) closed the micro-brewery of which one occasionally still reads mention, and have extended the building substantially to include additional hotel accommodation and a new, riverside dining room, with views over the Fylde countryside, and several (modern) windmills, to the Bleasdale fells in the distance.

The decor of the main bar area is a little, shall we say individual? Garish some might say, but the new riverside dining room is rather more calmly decorated, as well as being brighter thanks to the large picture windows.  Admittedly, I've only been at lunchtimes, but it does seem to lack a bit of atmosphere.

The immediate impression is of a nice, spruced-up place - really quite big now, with a log fire at one end of the original bar area.  A remarkably long bar suggests there is perhaps still some drinking trade, though when I've been, everyone has seemed to be there for the food.

Sometimes staff are really good, other times they're ... well ... a bit rubbish: the inevitable problem of relying on essentially amateur young people in a rural area.

The food tends to the simpler end, but that's good as it means it's well within the kitchen's abilities.  Indeed the odd disappointment has been with the more interesting-sounding dishes.  Stick to the simpler things and you'll do well.

At a recent meal, a starter of Curried leek, Lancashire cheese and crème fraiche tartlet had a good filling, with each of the flavours well balanced.  I had expected a small pastry tartlet, or a wedge of a larger tart, but evidently the kitchen isn't confident in its pastry skills, as it was served in filo pastry.  I thought proper pastry would be an improvement.  On this occasion, I wasn't over-impressed by the quality of the accompanying salad leaves.
Curried leek, Lancashire cheese and crème fraiche tartlet

An oxtail and beef suet pudding is the self-proclaimed signature dish, and is a jolly good example, with a pretty thin suet crust and a rich, deep filling, though the cold beetroot salad, with large hunks of beetroot, is a bit of an odd accompaniment.

But for me, the fish pie is the standout dish: it's almost deconstructed in that there are lots of salmon, prawns and some white fish in a very rich cream sauce that's gratinated, then topped with a large quenelle of good mash, which itself is glazed with Lancashire cheese. Without the starter, the bit of dressed salad on the side would have been welcome, for it helps cut the richness. But as it was identical to that served with the starter, it jarred a little for me.  On previous visits, the salad's been better, but I suspect it's always out of a packet. Some excellent, ungreasy and clean-tasting battered onion rings were a side dish I'd ordered separately.
Fish pie
There is a tidy, but unexciting wine list that has me, as a wine-lover, ordering a pint of one of the nicely kept ales, including one ("Giddy Kipper") brewed for them by the Bowland Brewery in the nearby Ribble Valley.

Desserts (which I've not had here for some time) suggest a kitchen that knows it's reached its limitations, as sticky toffee pudding is bought in from the Cartmel Village Shop company, and ice creams come from the local Wallings of Cockerham.  Crème brûlée, in varying flavour incarnations, appear, however, to be homemade and pretty good.

Nice view from the dining room

 Cartford Inn on Urbanspoon

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.