ZUNI on Market Street, San Francisco remains one of my favourite eating places on earth, though I’ve only been there twice in 20 years. The decor may be mock adobe, as befits a former cactus store, and the name comes from the indigenous Pueblo peoples of New Mexico and Arizona, but the menu is determinedly Europhile West Coast, where rocket is ‘arugula’ and coriander ‘cilantro’.
Do down to business. This legendary bistro’s speciality is a whole roast chicken for two from the wood-burning oven. Classic simplicity. Honed by decades of practice. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So much better than all that buttermilk-fried finger-licking fowl.
The experience all comes rushing back on a sun-drenched evening when Heaton Moor might be a golden gateway to a summer of love and I am tucking into a chunk of Goosnargh corn-fed chicken that has been roasted with love and attention, too, its only companion a crunchy red cabbage slaw.
I’m in Roost, latest project of hyperactive restaurateur Steve Pilling (across Heaton Moor Road his dazzling revamp of sad Sixties pub, The Moor Top, is perhaps a week away from completion).
The Roost space once was Damson, lauded neighbourhood fine dining restaurant. It looked the cosseting part (see above), now it is utterly transformed into a stripped down, contemporary, transatlantic craft beer, pizza and chicken joint with statement poultry portraits on the walls and a wood-burning oven where the wine cabinets used to be.
So far so themed, but it has put bums on seats again. On a warm Thursday evening it is heaving and happy, justifying the radical overhaul. For Damson was in distress. The writing was on the wall when the shiny Media City sibling shut in the autumn and a refurb was announced for Heaton Moor after Christmas.
Meanwhile their La Cantina, attached to Damson, was doing a roaring trade reintroducing tapas to the neighbourhood four years after the closure of the excellent La Casona in Shaw Road.
We sat outside and sampled a selection as we waited or our table to be ready in Roost. I’d cheekily asked Steve if he and his co-owner, fine dining chef Simon Stanley, had any Spanish blood and he pointed out that with a culinary aptitude and the right research any cuisine could be mastered. A food truck called Gertrude parked alongside is poised to deliver authentic paella, as if to confirm all this.
The Iberian proof on the small plate? The best Pan Catalan (tomato, sherry vinegar and Serrano ham, £3.50) I’ve had in the city, while ham and Manchego croquetas (£3.50) that were appropriately gooey passed my perennial tapa test.
On the downside two meat dishes were let down by those ubiquitous cubes of fried, slightly hard potato I associate with Spain (but at least these weren’t greasy), accompanying cumin lamb (way underspiced) and a tasty pimento-spiked rabbit casserole special (main picture).
A glass of almondy Macabeo white from a well chosen Boutinot-dominated list felt so right I wished I’d ordered a bottle. It is noticeable that wines, gins and beers come first in a menu for ‘La Cantina Bar: Tapas’.
In food terms Roost upped the casual game and not just the chicken. At £18 a whole bird it’s a bargain; for us a a half (with our choice of glaze, chipotle) was ample since we also picked a pizza, the one for £7, featuring baked ham, black olives, roast artichokes and smoked chestnut mushroom. Quite outstanding crust and topping.
But you’re not Italian, Steve? The man in the trademark waistcoat bristles. “We spent 12 months getting the dough right and the yeast comes from Ischia, the island off Naples.”
As we said, aptitude and research will get you a long way. Lucky Heaton Moor. Even better news. Damson is only shelved and may reappear somewhwere, sometime in a new reincarnation. Pleased as pie about that.
Roost 115 and La Cantina, 113 Heaton Moor Road, Stockport SK4 4HY. Tel: 0161 432 4666.