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.

Saturday 14 July 2012

The Sparrowhawk & Leagram's Lancashire Cheese

The Sparrowhawk, Fence, Lancashire
Taste Lancashire Produce Evening with Leagram Organic Dairy
11th July 2012

Disclosure: I attended this evening as the guest of Visit Lancashire, but I have not received any payment, nor even travel expenses for attending or writing this article.

This was the last in the current series of Taste Lancashire evenings, where Lancashire restaurants have been teamed up with a local producer to showcase both the restaurant and the producer.  On this occasion the restaurant was the Sparrowhawk in Fence, and the producer was Leagram Organic Dairy of Chipping.

Luke Payne
Interestingly, the Sparrowhawk had, earlier in the year, run a little competition among the kitchen to design a menu for tonight, and the winner was eighteen-year old Junior Chef de Partie, Luke Payne, who became head chef for the evening to deliver his menu.  It was perhaps a little unfortunate that he had designed the menu much earlier in the year, and so it was certainly substantial.  But there's no denying it was a very creditable performance on the night: congratulations to him and the management of the Sparrowhawk for giving him this opportunity.

The Lancashire Foot is Lancashire's version of the Cornish pasty, once a staple meal for the county's miners.  Here it was filled with Leagram's Lancashire and onions into a small starter-sized (phew) pasty.  The other tarter, which I had, also featured Leagram's cheese, here in a very tasty, but nicely balanced rarebit topping on a piece of haddock that was just a bit too thin, and got lost between the rarebit topping and the tomatoes.  The menu doesn't say, and I forgot to ask, but I hope they were Lancashire tomatoes: Blackpool, Ormskirk, Southport etc. were all centres of marketing gardening in the 20th century, and still produce tomatoes commercially, as does Burney's of Clitheroe (just the other side of Pendle Hill). I thought that if the tomatoes and rocket had been passed through a light dressing, that would have improved the dish a lot, as it was a little dry overall.
Smoked haddock rarebit with tomato salad

Rag pudding is a steamed suet pudding, not unlike spotted dick, often traditionally cooked in a shirt sleeve, and served in either sweet, or (as here) savoury forms.  Unfortunately, it was a steamy hot evening and nobody on my table had the rag pudding.  On reflection, my gastronomic curiosity should have won the day, rather than the "safe" lamb option, as I suspect it probably wouldn't have been as heavy and hearty a dish as it sounded on first reading the menu.

Rump of lamb with rosemary hash brown, minted pea purée and balsamic jus
This was some very good lamb, nicely cooked, though I thought that it could have been a little better trimmed.  The minted pea purée was a delight, and beautifully cut the richness of the lamb and the gravy (which was, thankfully, not overly balsamic).  For me, the disappointment was the "hash brown" which didn't really seem to be what I think of as a hash brown, and was if anything closer to a heavy version of the classic pommes dauphine. I didn't pick up much of the rosemary that was supposed to be in the potato either.  A bit of work on the potato, and this would be a super dish.

Before dessert, platters of various Leagram cheeses were brought round for tasting.

The irrepressible Bob Kitching
Leagram Organic Dairy is based in the pretty Ribble Valley village of Chipping, one of the newest producers of Lancashire cheese.  Leagram are well known both locally and further afield, not just for their cheese, but also for Bob Kitching's cheesemaking demonstrations and his cheese waistcoats and ties.

Bob runs the dairy along with his daughter Faye, and it was Faye who joined us at the Sparrowhawk to talk about the dairy and its products.

Faye Kitching (apologies for the photo which
makes it look like she's conducting the restaurant in singing the Cheese Chorus)
Leagram currently make some 28 varieties of cheese. They produce a wide range of what I call cheese with bits in, a style of cheese which I abhor, but also make the usual range of creamy, crumbly and tasty traditional Lancashire cheeses.  I had always thought these were essentially the same cheese at different stages of development, but apparently that's wrong, and the cultures used are slightly different for the three styles.  My favourite of the traditional Lancashires (though sold in a less than traditional cone shape) is the 2 year-old tasty, sold under the name "Bob's Knobs" (or in the slightly prudish Booths supermarkets as "Volcano").  There is an excellent blue cheese, made in quite a creamy, Italianate style.  But, besides the traditional Lancashires, my favourite of all the Leagram's cheeses are the really fresh one-day old curd cheeses (the Ramshackle sheep's milk version was here for tasting), which are pretty unique.  As well as on their own, with fruit and/or honey, or grilled on a crumpet, or even bruléed as a dessert, they make a superb British replacement for the queso fresco used in many Mexican dishes.  Well worth seeking out.

Both the desserts were unqualified successes.  The apple pie was reported to be have just the right hint of spices, and certainly looked the business.  The ice-cream, made with Leagram's Lancashire Cheese, had everyone in raptures.
Spiced apple pie with Lancashire cheese ice cream
My rhubarb crème brûlée really couldn't be faulted.  Great custard on lightly spiced (ginger?) rhubarb, with the thinnest, most delicate glassy brûlée topping.  The two ginger biscuits served on the side were jolly good too.  The Sparrowhawk needs to put this on its main menu as soon as possible.
Rhubarb & Custard Crème Brûlée with homemade gingerbread biscuits

Remarkably for such a small place, there are two pub-restaurants in Fence, both with good names for food: The Fence Gate Inn and The Sparrowhawk.  Obviously, this wasn't a "normal" meal at The Sparrowhawk, but the atmosphere, service and food all seemed to me a notch above their competition, and I hope to return soon.

Sparrowhawk on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Cail Bruich, Glasgow

Cail Bruich is in Glasgow's West End, near Glasgow University on the Great Western Road. It's not one of the most prepossessing stretches of that road, and I'm afraid my photograph of it in the morning and in the rain, does not make it look any more attractive.  At night, however, the blinds are up and there's a subdued warm glow from the dim lighting inside.  The entrance has a nice feel with a plush curtain around the door, keeping the draughts out.  Inside, there's a vaguely French brasserie cum bistro feel: a bit old-fashioned, but nice and comfortable.

I apologise for the poor quality of the following photographs, not least to the chef, as they really don't show off his food at all well.  But it was really quite dark in the restaurant, and I don't want to use flash.

With my aperitif they served some very good little gougères and some black and green olives. The green olives were ok, but the black ones were fabulous.

Cullen Skink
 A demi-tasse of cullen skink was served as an amuse bouche. This was one of the best cullen skinks I've had: packed full of smokey fish flavour (and bigger chunks of fish than you'd expect in a demi-tasse), finely diced potato and avoiding feeling at all over-salty.

Smoked pigeon with pickled vegetables and sultana & caper dressing
I started with smoked Perthshire pigeon, which came with Noma-esque pickled vegetables, goat’s curd, and a sultana & caper dressing.  I was initially a little dubious about smoked pigeon, and expected to be at best ambivalent about it.  But I thought it worked really well, with the smoking accentuating the gamey liverishness of the pigeon breast. If I were being hyper-critical, I'd say that the pickled vegetables could have been sliced a little thinner.
A truly awful picture of the lettuce, lamb and peas. Sorry. But it shows the plating at least.
My main course was an assiette of lamb with lettuce and peas. The loin was perfectly cooked, and a sweetbread similarly so. A couple of tortellini were filled with, I think, probably slow-cooked shoulder. The grilled lettuce, and the peas and pea purée naturally went very well, though personally, I'd have liked the peas to have been a little more cooked.

Tapwater is provided automatically, and kept re-filled. I just had a glass of an interesting Languedoc red, L'Infidèle that was fine with the pigeon, but worked best with the lamb.

Blueberry chibouste with mascarpone, cucumber and basil
Desserts were interesting, and all appealing, but it was the combination of blueberries, cucumber and basil that most caught my eye. This worked well, though I thought it could have been improved by taming the rawness and power of the herb somewhat, perhaps by candying it, or turning it into a syrup. A very fresh-flavoured, light dessert.

This was a very enjoyable meal. Some interesting combinations, backed up by extremely able cooking and technique in the kitchen.  Front of house worked very well too, striking just the right balance of efficiency and friendly interaction with the customers.

Cail Bruich West on Urbanspoon

The Assheton Arms, Downham, Lancashire

Downham is an improbably pretty village below the brooding presence of Pendle Hill near Clitheroe.  Many improbably pretty villages are described as unspoiled: Downham really is, as virtually all outward signs of modern life (TV aerials, satellite dishes, double yellow lines, overhead cables etc) are banned by the Assheton family, lords of the manor since 1558.

The Assheton Arms had a good name for food, and a bit of a leaning towards seafood, for many years, though it had started to go downhill and was looking a bit uncared for until it was put on the market.  There was talk that Marco Pierre White was buying it, but towards the end of 2011 it was Jocelyn Neve's Seafood Pub Company that took on the lease, opening briefly for Christmas before embarking on a major (and much overdue) refurbishment.

The Assheton Arms, Downham
 The exterior is, of course, unchanged, and I was surprised how much of the interior layout remained recognisable from its previous reincarnation. There is still the tiny bar opposite the door as you go in, but the dining area around the central chimney breast has yielded to a presumably extended kitchen.  More seating has been added (?) over two floors of the adjacent building (clearly distinct on the right in the photograph above), including a private dining room.  This building has been linked to the Assheton Arms for as long as I can remember, but I do not recall it ever being used; the door through to it being marked merely as the ladies' toilets.

The decor shows the same hand as their sister pub-restaurant, the Oyster & Otter in Feniscowles, though it feels much less sterile here.  I also thought service too, from the welcome and throughout, was markedly better here than at the Oyster & Otter.

On the way to our table I noticed some blackboards with a handful of specials, and lots of room for more, presumably at busier times.  The waiter then reeled off the specials at the table: we had to ask him to repeat them twice, and still don't think we could have said what they were all.  Laser printers are so cheap these days, and cheap to run, that I don't know why more restaurants don't print specials menus on a daily basis. If you've more than three or four specials, it would make life so much easier, and I suspect you'd sell more of them.

We had a mixed platter of seafood items to start with, which conveniently included many of the starters on the main menu.
Seafood Platter

King prawn sesame soldiers were ok, but the prawn flavour was a little overpowered: I'm not sure if there is a particular benefit to using king prawns over regular cold water prawns on prawn toasts. The salt and pepper squid  was certainly salt and pepper, though again, I thought there was too much emphasis on the crispy coating, leaving the squid as merely a carrier.  I have had more tender squid, but there was nothing to complain about on that count.  The rice wine and radish dipping sauce that came with the squid was terrific with well-nigh perfect balance.  The lemon mayo that came with the shell-on king prawns was also very good, and the prawns themselves were good quality.  Some herby fish fingers were also very good, but were a third deep-fried element on the platter, which seemed maybe one too many to me.  There were a couple of pieces of good smoked salmon on the board too.  But for me, the highlights (besides the dipping sauce for the squid) was some really good devilled crab and some gorgeous cockles in a very light, possibly gently spiced vinegar.  I would have really appreciated more of the cockles.

From the specials menu, we had a second starter of mackerel, which I think the waiter had said came with an oriental dressing.

What was supposed to be oriental seemed to me to be more of a Moroccan-spiced tomato fondue, and was absolutely delicious. I thought it would be great on potatoes, like patatas bravas, though it worked very well with the mackerel, which itself was clearly good and fresh and also nicely cooked.  You'll see in the picture above that the mackerel came on some salad: this contained some pomegranate and some raw carrot that was just a bit too chunky.  There were also a couple of small black things that didn't look like pebbles, but had all the digestibility of pebbles. I asked the waiter to point them out to the kitchen and ask what they were: the response was that the kitchen hadn't a clue what they were.  Glad that was sorted then.

Lobster and chips

Grilled lobster with garlic butter and chips was good but avoided being great, as the lobster itself could have been a little more tender.  The chips were much better than at the Oyster and Otter.

Veal cutlets
Also from the specials menu came two superb veal cutlets.  Beautiful rose veal, neatly trimmed, perfectly cooked, with a hint of flavour from - presumably - the robata grill.  A nice, light meat jus set the chops off well, though I thought the accompanying heap of mashed potatoes with vegetables blended into it was a bit clumsy, and there was just a bit too much of it.  The mash didn't really work with the veal for me.

The desserts didn't offer much of interest (and I'd had a few of them at the Oyster & Otter, without being impressed), so we skipped them.

Double espresso was good and huge, both of which are rare, and generally in inverse proportion (that is, the larger they are, the worse they usually are). 

The wine list is good for a village pub, and avoids the usual clichés.  We drank a pleasant, uncomplicated Portuguese Alvarinho.

I enjoyed this meal, and am pleased to see the Assheton Arms back in action and very busy again, though I'm not sure it really merits the unqualified, almost adoring praise it seems to get in many quarters.

Assheton Arms on Urbanspoon