Bearing in mind that some parts of the country have had snow this morning, it's perhaps a little difficult to believe that Spring has sprung in Britain. Still, sprung it has, and I know this for two reasons. Firstly, I am now awakened by actual daylight at 6am every morning, and secondly, the new Spring menu has launched at Gusto.
Gusto Didsbury is one of my favourite haunts. It's part of a chain but doesn't feel like it; it has a great atmosphere and lovely cosy leather booths where no-one can see if you get arrabiata down your top; the staff are lovely; it's possible to dine well there for not much money; there's a very decent, mostly Italian wine list; and it's ten minutes' walk from my house (a walk that I am always glad of afterwards, although technically more of a roll than a walk on the return journey). I also like that they change their menu every Spring and Autumn - it means regular visitors like me get to try new stuff, and also reflects their interest in seasonal eating (although to commit to this fully would require more frequent changes than twice-yearly, of course).
The new menu has some interesting-sounding new dishes; so many, in fact, that we are forced to eat olives and some rosemary focaccia bread whilst we are choosing. I want it all, although truth be told the options are more limited for my dairy-free, pescatarian plus-one (although his moment in the sun will come later, with the dessert menu). In the end I go for the asparagus spears with dolcelatte mayonnaise and roasted red peppers - a simple dish, well-executed. The dolcelatte mayonnaise is a thing of great joy and the asparagus spears are fresh and fat (although for £6.25 I think three of them is on the low side). My friend has the cold smoked salmon with spiced avocado, red pepper purée and capers and although it looks absolutely stunning, in practice it is a bit of a misfire - the star of the dish should be the salmon (which is, indeed, lovely) but it finds itself a bit overwhelmed by the other elements. The spiced avocado turns out to be a purée which would work well on its own as a dip or on toast, but here makes the dish a little wet, and the capers add too much salt to a dish that is already well-seasoned. It wouldn't take much tweaking to make this a great dish - more texture to the avocado and one or two less complicating elements perhaps.
For main, I have the roast lamb rump with truffled cheese piccolo ravioli and tomato sauce. I enjoy this very much - two generous slabs of perfectly pink and tender lamb surrounded by a whole army of exquisitely tiny ravioli that are probably my favourite component of the whole meal. I have misordered on the sides, as I have gone for my usuals of fries, Italian fried courgettes and, on the waitress' recommendation, the new polenta chips (these are to share by the way - not even I'm that greedy). Each of these, individually, is perfection, but the lamb dish would have benefited from a green vegetable and the salty sides end up making the overall dish a little over-seasoned. The picky friend is more of a problem though - there are some wonderful-sounding fish dishes on the menu but they contain reams of butter, so he ends up going for the pan fried salmon fillet with tomato and avocado salsa and spiced crumb, fully aware that he is essentially ordering salmon and avocado followed by salmon and avocado. Still, he is a little surprised when the "avocado salsa" turns out not to be a fresh, perky chopped salad but instead is more of the purée from his starter dish. This is a shame, as again we are close to the perfect dish here: it's a lovely piece of beautifully-cooked salmon and the crumb adds both flavour and texture, but as before, the purée is too wet and too salty - the advertised salsa would have worked far better.
Still, as someone with a dairy intolerance, he has become used to not even glancing at the dessert menu, much as he would like to. The manager has, however, already told him of the almond milk panna cotta with honeycomb, flaked almonds and lemon curd - he has been looking forward to it all evening and it doesn't disappoint; in fact, it exceeds expectations. I don't actually get to try any of it as it disappears down the hatch too quickly, but the idea makes sense to me - the natural sweetness that makes almond milk undesirable (in my opinion) in tea is surely perfect for this kind of dessert. To keep him company I have one of my all-time favourite things, the bombolini - homemade mini doughnuts with orange chantilly and chocolate sauce. Gusto is one of the few places I ever have a dessert, and they are as good (and calorifically unjustified) as ever.
A trip to Gusto Didsbury is always a pleasure, and this was no exception, despite a couple of issues with the meal. Avocado and salt are two of my very favourite things and I never thought I'd find myself writing negatively about them; still, we'll order more wisely next time we go. Gusto are clearly mindful of catering for people with allergies, and the arrival of the almond milk panna cotta suggests that more dairy-free dishes might appear on the menu alongside the excellent range of gluten-free options they currently offer. Or, next time I could just go with someone less picky...
- Gusto Didsbury is at 756 Wilmslow Rd, Didsbury M20 2DW. They have also recently started offering brunch at the weekends and it is very good, as witnessed by the photos below from a recent visit.