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Friday, 12 December 2014

Gusto Manchester: Bigger, Shinier, Sexier (Them), Fatter (Me)

I've written before of my fondness for Gusto Didsbury, a charming venue right on my doorstep that manages to offer a friendly local feel despite being part of the large Living Ventures stable. The staff always remember you (although this might just be a sign I eat there too often), the menu is always interesting, the food is always good and the atmosphere is always buzzy. Best of all, Gusto Didsbury didn't even mind that this Monday lunchtime I was unfaithful, and spent the afternoon flirting and schmoozing with the frankly very beautiful new Gusto Manchester on Lloyd Street; after all, they probably fancy her too.

Gusto Manchester has actually been around for a while, but was a much smaller place by the name of Olive Restaurant and Bar - it's now fully rebranded and an ambitious refurbishment has seen it almost quadruple in size (although to be fair, I estimate that I too have probably done likewise since my last visit). The new venue is simply stunning, with a classy Art Deco feel that is both opulent and welcoming, with plush leather booths, sexy lighting and beautifully laid tables - we particularly admire the lovely wine glasses. The light above our table does cast some interesting shadows in the photos though, so I include a picture of it here in the spirit of naming and shaming, and pointing the finger of blame at anyone but the photographer (me).

The a la carte menu is the same as in other Gustos, and therefore embarrassingly familiar to me. For starters, I have the Fritto Misto of sardine, prawn and squid, served with pan fried garlic polenta, green gazpacho and lemon puree - all the fish is beautifully cooked in a light, crisp batter, but the sardine fillet is the standout element. I'm not sure the polenta adds a great deal, but I'm not a huge fan of this item anyway, finding that it takes the addition a good half pound of butter and Parmesan to render it desirable - this version is, in all honesty, pretty tasty. My friend orders a half portion of Tagliatelle with Prawns, Garlic and Sweet Chilli Tomato Sauce, one of my all-time favourite Gusto dishes and therefore clearly an erroneous choice as I snarf as much of it as I can get my hands on - it's just the right balance of hot and sweet chillies, the prawn-to-pasta ratio is generous and the added rocket gives the dish a nice freshness.

On to the mains, and our heads are turned by the super sexy specials list, which offers a range of tempters unique to this particular Gusto. Really and truly I want the Lobster Thermidor, but feel this is likely to be an inappropriately rich dish for someone who has to do some Christmas shopping after lunch. Instead, I go for the Rosemary Cured Monkfish with lobster sauce and crispy speck ham at £21.75 whilst my friend has the Six Bone Rack of Lamb with Salsa Verde at a slightly heftier £27.75. Both of these require additional side dishes, so between us we order fries, baked rosemary and garlic roast potatoes, French beans with shallots and Italian fried courgettes. These are all excellent, particularly the roast potatoes, but at £3.25 they do undeniably add a considerable expense to main courses that each come in at over £20 on their own. The mains themselves are beautiful to look at - well-portioned plates of good, simple ingredients without too much frippery. The monkfish is firm and meaty and goes well with the rich lobster sauce, and the lamb is perfectly pink and tender. Both dishes are, however, over-salted - the fish is salty even without the presence of the ham, and the salt crust on the lamb has been quite exuberantly applied and would perhaps have benefitted from a lighter touch. This is a shame, as it's the only flaw in what are otherwise impressive dishes.

Obviously I am full, and equally obviously I have dessert anyway. I am talked into the Nutella and Mascarpone Calzone by our very helpful waitress and I will be forever grateful for her persistence in this matter - it is a thing of quite astonishing deliciousness and well worth the fifteen minute wait. My friend orders the lemon Sorbet on the basis that this is a light, modest choice - and it would be, were it not the largest portion of sorbet that either of us has ever seen. Add to this gluttony a bottle of decent Barbera and I have never felt less like looking round the Christmas markets in my life - we could frankly have stayed in this oasis of calm and good taste for the entire day. Will I be leaving my first love, Gusto Didsbury, for her glamorous new relative? No. But I'm sure I can be permitted the occasional fling.

- Gusto Manchester is at 4 Lloyd Street (just off Deansgate), Manchester M2 5AB. We were invited as guests of the restaurant and paid for our wine and for service but not for our food.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Flanagan Collective's A Christmas Carol: Theatre, but with SPROUTS

I've never made any secret of the fact that I'm a big fan of Christmas. Obviously, I very much enjoy the additional opportunities for eating and drinking afforded by a celebration that now seems to fill an entire month, but my love of Christmas goes beyond mere greed and also encompasses my fondness for tradition. I love the whole ritual of it all - getting the decorations down from the loft, wrapping presents with a small snifter of sherry, watching It's a Wonderful Life with a glass of port and, best of all, re-reading Dickens' A Christmas Carol every year (and let's face it, Christmas hasn't really started until you've seen the Muppets film version as well).

Joyous news then that this December brings with it the chance to combine these two great pleasures into one irresistible Christmas package. A pop-up theatre - The New Playhouse - has appeared (as if by Christmas magic) in the Great Northern complex on Deansgate, and is hosting performances of The Flanagan Collective's version of A Christmas Carol throughout the month. This is no ordinary theatrical experience though: our first clue comes as we are purchasing Prosecco from the bar area (so far so standard) and notice a door in the corner with a sign proclaiming this to be the residence of one "Scrooge and Marley". Before long, we are allowed to go through it, and find ourselves in Scrooge's very parlour - we take our seats in various locations around the room and the play, such as it is, begins.

I say "such as it is" because this is unlike any play I have ever seen. Yes, there is some fine acting, but the story of Scrooge is so well known that there really is no need to spell it all out for us - instead, we are immersed in an evening of songs, parlour games, dancing and - hurrah! - eating. A very fine meal of cold meats, bread, veg (LOADS of sprouts - Jacob Marley fetches me seconds) and a couple of splendid homemade pies is served up partway through, along with mulled wine and some Christmas pudding and mince pies for afters - no mean feat when there are over forty hungry people in need of refreshment. We pull crackers (I win a pirate eyepatch); we sing Christmas songs as Marley accompanies us on his guitar; we play parlour games, including a few rounds of "Who Am I" during which my friend, who has made the mistake of wearing an eye-catching festive jumper, predictably finds himself sitting in Scrooge's armchair asking us questions such as whether he's male or female (jury still out on this one).

Everyone loves it, and is more than willing to embrace the Yuletide spirit despite it only being the 2nd December. As well as all the silliness there is also some very imaginative and atmospheric drama, including a truly inspired moment when Scrooge breaks free from the theatre and runs round the Great Northern amphitheatre as we watch him from the window. The whole thing is performed by just two very talented men (although we obviously help a great deal, and there are several nice people who bring us dinner) - John Holt-Roberts as Jacob Marley and Al Barclay as Ebeneezer Scrooge (pictured above courtesy of James Drury). Both are thoroughly charismatic and engaging, and one of them can even do handstands, something that I don't recall from the book - clearly time I read it again...

- The Flanagan Collective's Christmas Carol runs until 19th December (I can only imagine how much better it gets the closer we get to Christmas) and costs £35 a head (including that mighty dinner) or £30 each for groups of 10 people or more - tickets are quite scarce now but can be purchased here. And if you're still in doubt whether you should book, take a look at these photos and think about whether you've ever seen people having this much fun at the theatre before.