By and large, I am not a big fan of change. On the whole, I enjoy things being the same: I like, for example, that the same friend cooks the same meal on the same weekend in December every year, even serving the same cocktails with EXACTLY the same results (she makes a mean Amaretto Sour) - if it were to be any different, well, it would just be wrong. Similarly, I will argue until my dying day that certain types of tea drunk at different times of day really do taste better in one particular cup as opposed to another - and if my first cup of the day was served in the mug I like in the evening, well, all HELL would break loose. Probably.
So when a restaurant to which I am already most partial announces a new menu, I can't pretend this isn't potentially an area of some concern to me: what if they get rid of all my favourite things? What if life is NEVER THE SAME AGAIN? All these feelings and more ran through my fevered frame when Gusto - the estimable Italian chain to whose Didsbury branch I am a regular and gluttonous visitor - launched its new menu this week. WHAT IF THERE WAS NO CALAMARI?
Well, obviously it was all fine; better than fine in fact. The new menu has kept all the old favourites whilst introducing some new, improved dishes alongside as a kind of bonus; thus, for example, the starters remain largely unchanged, but their ranks are now swelled - thrillingly - by the introduction of half-size portions of all the pasta dishes (although this does now facilitate the very worrying possibility that I will get into the habit of eating pasta, followed by pasta, leading my thighs to expand to the size of China whilst an army of whippet-thin Didsburyites just have a half-portion as their main meal.)
However, I am getting ahead of myself. The evening began with cocktails: it was a dry, sunny evening for once, so a metaphorical casting-off of galoshes was performed, to be replaced with a chi-chi scarf purchased in Sorrento draped fetchingly around a thirsty neck that was just ready and waiting to celebrate the stopping of rain with the guzzling of drink. Drinking in Didsbury can be a pricy business on any day of the week, so we were impressed to find that The Sanctuary (next door to the new Tesco, about which I will say NOTHING) has launched a new cocktail menu which is available as two-for-the-price-of-one all day, every day - nice menu, too, featuring some interesting and well-made selections. Here you see the Dib Dab (a lemony, gin-based delight that Mr Liz considered manly enough to be acceptable) and the Spiced Raspberry Mohito, made with Chambord and more than a healthy dash of rum. As both of these cost just £5.25 and we'd bagged a lovely squashy, comfy sofa, there is a very real possibility that had we not been booked in at Gusto, we might just have accidentally stayed here all night.
Luckily, we did make it out of that sofa, as Gusto was on fine form. This place is always busy - it's a sign of quality, I think, that Gusto and Felicini are both consistently well-supported despite being pretty much opposite each other - and last night was no exception, full to bursting with lovely, cheerful, noisy people chattering away over a bottle or two of Primitivo. We browsed the new menu over olives, and then went for the following:
Starters: we decided to share here - obviously we had to have a portion of calamari as it's actually ILLEGAL to visit Gusto and not do so, but we also tried one of the new dishes: gnocchi with slow roast pork, cherry tomatoes, pesto and rocket at £5.50 for a half portion. The calamari was as good as ever: melt-in-the-mouth-tender squid encased in light, crisp batter - and it's a relief to note that, as ever, I ended up with slightly burnt fingers from trying to eat one the second they arrived on the table - plus ca change, eh? Our bold experimentalism on the gnocchi was rewarded with dainty little dumplings drenched luxuriantly in a pesto so fresh it made the whole dish taste like the healthiest meal on the planet, studded with teasingly elusive shreds of tender pork and the odd perky tomato. My only criticism here is that I prefer my gnocchi a little larger; this is purely because I am a long way from being small and dainty myself though, so perhaps they should consider following TopShop's lead and introducing a "Tall" range of gnocchi alongside the existing "Petite" model *helpful marketing/cheffy face*
Mains: now, Mr Liz always has Diavolo pizza at Gusto. Always. Indeed, so often does he order it as a takeout on the Monday nights I work late that he was instantly recognised by a member of staff openly astonished to see him actually eating something else. For, reader, he DID have something else - albeit still a pizza. The "Al Salsiccia" is one of the new ones (the "Marinara" is the other), and is topped with home smoked Italian sausage, shredded pork and mozzarella - it's definitely a boy's pizza, this one, loaded with so much meaty goodness that some of it slithered off onto the plate, where it was quickly snaffled by an evil/enterprising* wife.
*delete as applicable according to viewpoint.
My own choice was one of the new dishes in the meat section: marinated rump of lamb with spinach and aubergine cannelloni. The lamb was very good - caramelised and sticky on the outside, perfectly pink as requested on the inside - but the real revelation here was the cannelloni: one long tube filled with a mixture of cubed aubergine, mushrooms and pine-nuts and then covered with a tomato and marscarpone sauce. The sauce was rich without being cloying, and the vegetables had reached that admirable stage of cooking where each retains some bite and independence whilst simultaneously melding softly together. It's a pity this doesn't appear in its own right as part of the pasta selection - I would order it time and and time again, even without the lamb. We also had a side order of fried courgettes: shards of soft vegetable made entirely unhealthy by the application of batter and salt and - therefore - utterly, utterly delicious.
Finally, to pudding. I have written before in praise of the Bombolini, and would normally have never looked beyond their enticingly doughy appeal had I not earlier spotted another table ordering a dessert that looked - quite frankly - unmissable. This was the Gusto Sundae: ice cream, whipped cream, fruits and chocolate sauce, topped with a flake and a homemade biscotti emerging, phoenix-like, from the snowy masses below. This is not a cheap option at £6.95 but is easily big enough for two to share - and you have to admire a restaurant that provides both a flake (for the traditionalists) and a classy biscotti (for the, ahem, native Italians like myself). I'm afraid the picture shown here is a little over-exposed, but as it looks like this gorgeous dessert is being admired and snapped by the paparazzi, I think it is actually entirely fitting.
One last word for our fabulous waitress Fliss who - along with the rest of the staff - had bravely eaten her way through the new menu on Wednesday in order to be professionally knowledgeable about its contents. This dedicated and selfless training had clearly paid off, for she was most helpful in recommending and describing the new dishes to us.
So was it a perfect evening? No. It would have been, but I can confirm that a chi-chi Italian scarf draped fetchingly round one's neck during dinner becomes markedly less desirable if found to contain food items upon arriving home - all I can think is that Mr Liz must have PLANTED that piece of chocolate ice-cream there as a cruel joke...this would NEVER have happened to Audrey Hepburn.
-The Sanctuary is at 653 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury M20 6QZ, and Gusto is but a short stroll down the road at number 756.