If you were anywhere near any kind of media channel a couple of weeks ago, you can hardly fail to have heard talk about Tim Bacon and his Living Ventures chain. All of this was sparked by Restaurant Wars, a BBC2 series about Manchester's pursuit of a Michelin star featuring Aiden Byrne's Manchester House, the big shiny behemoth that is effectively the flagship of the Bacon Empire. Whether this particular restaurant is your cup of tea or not, plenty of viewers seemed to think it was all a bit over the top - not least because Northerners were presented as some kind of sub-species who wouldn't know fine dining if it picked up a plate of cabbage and ribs and whacked them over the head with it.
The thing with Living Ventures though is that if you don't like one restaurant in the chain, there's a pretty good chance you'll like one of the others. The one that I eat at all the time is Gusto, partly because there's one in Didsbury, and partly because it's unpretentious and friendly and good value for money - plus, they do the best pizzas around. In fact, the pizzas are so good I rarely get round to trying anything else, so when we were invited in last week to sample the new menu it seemed a good chance to have a go at something else. Whilst most of the old favourites have survived the cut, the menu has had a pretty substantial overhaul: many of the starters are new, and have a lovely summery feel about them - the crushed pea, mint and chilli bruschetta that we dabble with as a pre-starter is a good example of the mood of the new menu.
For our starters proper, my dining companion has the sardine fillet wrapped in Prosciutto ham with spiced tomato compote and rocket and lemon while I have a half portion of saffron risotto with white crab salad. Mine is perfection, although even I would struggle to get through a main course size portion - the risotto is rich and creamy whilst retaining that essential bite, and the crab in the salad surprisingly generous in quantity (and because crab and salad are both healthy items, I feel perfectly justified in having additional Parmesan grated over the top of a risotto that is clearly already 50% dairy). Meanwhile, the sardine has a beautiful flavour and is well-complemented by the compote - the only issue is the amount of bones in the fish. Sardines are bony little fellows, and if you wrap them in Prosciutto then you essentially have to de-assemble the dish in order to get them out - which seems a shame when it all looks so pretty on arrival.
For mains, I have the roast lamb rump cooked pink and served on a courgette, aubergine and tomato galette with a salsa verde dressing. It's hard to find fault with this really - two generous slabs of lamb, charred and caramelised on the outside and pink and tender on the inside, served on a bed of soft, sweet vegetables sticky with lamb juice. I order some of Gusto's always-excellent fries on the side, and congratulate myself on making the perfect choice. Humiliatingly though, my friend has gone for something even better - the seared tuna steak, marinated in balsamic and soy and served with a fennel and orange salad and green gazpacho is a rare combination of quality and quantity, with the fatty richness of the tuna superlatively paired with the fresh, zingy salad. In fact, we both agree that the salad is the highlight of the whole meal, and it's not often you hear me say something like that. The green gazpacho is similarly refreshing, although we feel the flavour of the soy marinade needs to be a little stronger to make itself known against the punchiness of the salad. This is not a cheap option at £18.95 (particularly if you are greedy and add a side order of fries) but is worth every penny.
My dessert is the only thing we order that isn't one of the new dishes: I just can't see past my usual plate of Bombolini – home made mini doughnuts, dredged in sugar and served with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I love these, and as usual they are amazing; yet, unbelievably, across the table I have been trumped again. The new Gusto Bellini is surely the dessert of the summer: peach and Prosecco jelly with a Prosecco foam, served with a biscotti on the side and absolutely perfect in its light simplicity. It tops off what has been an excellent meal - I've yet to have a substandard one at Gusto, but I think there has been a certain upping-of-game here, not in a showy, Manchester House sort of way, but in a quiet, value-for-money, we're-confident-in-our-chefs sort of way. The service is also excellent throughout, particularly from waitress Fiona, who patiently talks us through the new dishes when we can't decide what we want.
And even better - a ten minute walk and I'm home. If you're one of the people knocking all things Bacon, I suggest you try eating at a few different places in the Empire before you make your mind up - and Gusto Didsbury would be an excellent place to start.
- Gusto Didsbury is at 756 Wilmslow Rd, Didsbury M20 2DW; tel. 0161 445 8209. We were invited to try the new menu, so whilst we paid for our drinks we were not asked to pay for our food.