‘ELITE Bistros’ is catchy but a contradiction in terms since the French model for such a casual eaterie always veered towards a scuffed, mix and match ambience, treasured by regulars with similar credentials. Elite is not the aim.
That was very much the initial impression of Sticky Walnut, first of Gary Usher’s crowd-funded ‘Elite’ sextet. It sat in a mundane street in Hoole, a suburb of chic Chester not given to original half-timbering, and offered, let’s say, a subdued sophistication.
Latest project Kala, in contrast, presents a glossy face to Manchester city centre, outwardly and in the downstairs bar gilding the brutalist lily that is this former bank site designed by Sir Hugh Casson in the Sixties.
The upstairs mezzanine 50-cover dining room is determinedly plain, apart from the swirling mandala-like plaque commemorating all the Kickstarter supporters who helped raise a record £100,000 in 11 hours. Lunchtime is unfussy if slow, considering this space is less than a third full and the gloriously tempting 15 cover bar below (where you can eat off special and a la carte) remains empty throughout our lunch above.
It is a beautifully thought-through lunch, compensating for the lack of buzz. We suspect in London it would be rammed.
There is a canny continuity in the food, reminiscent of Sticky and Hispi in Didsbury, exemplified by arguably the best set lunch deals in town. Two courses for £20, three for £23, though you’ll inevitably have to factor in a further £4 for a truffle and parmesan fries side. Nowhere does them better.
There’s a choice of only three dishes for each course, which may steer you towards the a la carte, but resist. Both starters we chose felt like flaming June on a plate, belying the fitful weather.
A salad of summer courgettes (main image) matched yellow discs of the veg with a smoky assemblage of smoky cod’s roe and smoked apple and a crunch of walnuts, while my creamy cauliflower soup was lifted pickled shallot and lemon oil.
Epitome of Usher’s (and exec chef Richard Sharples’) take on Modern British Bistro. As were our mains – proper confit duck leg and a torched bream fillet. The duck benefited from the contrast of a sweet potato puree and the light bitterness of baby chicory slices. The Bream scheme was initially perplexing. A challenging blob of mango and macadamia BBQ sauce and a tangle of red cabbage? Torching requires such relishes?
No such experiments among the puds. Stem ginger ice cream and dark chocolate sauce was simply delightful but outshone by my attractively gritty parkin, chantilly cream, butterscotch sauce. Plaudits too for an earlier – and equally comforting – side of a Lincolnshire Poacher leek mornay.
In a ToM preview of Kala we predicted it might be a city centre game changer and it is. Not as a fine dining special occasion destination, just an accessible casual formula that works.
Offering sharply executed, quietly imaginative English food with a drinks list to match. Since it was lunch we shared a bottle of playful South African ‘session’ red Seriously Cool (11.5 per cent, fruity and needs to be served seriously cooled, £33).
The whole experience oddly echoed – and this is a compliment – two dear, departed bistros of yore. Places I could never get enough of. Henry Harris’s more-Parisien-than-Paris Racine in Knightsbridge. How I long to still to push aside the heavy curtain behind the front door to be offered, as a solo diner, a copy of Le Figaro and a Kir while I awaited my lapin au moutarde. Alas, it closed four years ago because the local customer demographic had shifted to often absent oligarch.
Perhaps differently shifting dining out habits (dirty burgers with tequila slammers ) accounted for our own Northern Quarter pioneer, Peter and Anne O’Grady’s Market Restaurant with Elizabeth David-inspired chef Su Su Edgecombe. Today the site thankfully is occupied by 63 Degrees. Rigidly French, it feels more restaurant than bistro. Such fine lines. Kala is pure (Brit) bistro.