Tag Archive for: Kala

One bane of a food writer’s life is reviewing a restaurant only to discover post haste that the menu’s about to change. Big time. Fortunately when I wrote up a September visit to Kala in Manchester my focus was on the glories of their featherblade steak, a signature dish across all the Elite Bistros group. 

This perennial stalwart remains on the new Autumn Menu, along with the obligatory truffle and parmesan chips, but there’s a whole raft of new dishes. I was alerted to their arrival by a chance meeting at a wine tasting of an old sommelier friend, who works out of Hispi, Kala’s sister restaurant in Didsbury. He was raving about a dish just created by Elite exec chef Richard Sharples  – a spiced field mushroom doughnut with sesame creamed spinach and caramelised celeriac gravy.

Solid reason to swiftly revisit Kala. It felt like fate when an invitation to sample the new menu suddenly dropped in my inbox. The doughnut turned out to be terrific, but the surprise package – and what a package – was the whole stuffed guinea fowl to share. OK, we were gannets to order both this and the surprisingly substantial doughnut as mains, ‘Mais nous ne regrettons rien’ as they say in Montparnasse or Montpellier.

Indeed there was something quintessential French bistro about this bird (let’s call it Le Pintade), while the fennel and apricot stuffing summoned up all our Christmases coming early. Better early than never with the current prophecies of festive dearth this year.

Our bird, encrusted with fennel and caraway seed, the moist stuffing lubricating the legs, came boned and ready to slice, a pool of pickled pear puree a neat enhancement for its  succulent interior. I couldn’t resist ordering the chips, but the bowl of the most delicate sauerkraut would have sufficed as a side.

We’d preceded the guinea fowl with that doughnut, its stretchy carapace harbouring  a teeming interior of braised fungi. Did it count as vegan? Jury’s out on the earthy creamed spinach, but the celeriac gravy was an inspired plant-based conceit.

Since the return to comparative dining room normality Elite Bistros boss Gary Usher has given his six venues leeway to branch out from the standard group menu, particularly with changing fish of the day picks. At Kala that Wednesday it was a choice of grilled whole plaice or pan-fried stone bass. 

My starter came from the fish specials because I’m a sucker for octopus and I was curious about how Kala’s daring combo would work, pitting the flamed cephalod against equally charred smoked corn and pickled currants. Maybe a red currant hot sauce gilded the piquant lily too much, but it’s typical of a hugely to be trusted menu that is still not afraid to push bistro boundaries.

An unqualified success was my partner’s starter, even if her initial qualm was: doughnut and dumpling in the same lunch? Fear unfounded. The dumpling was a light, gnudi-like pillow of great delicacy, as beautiful to look at as it was to eat, topped with grated Killeen cheese, all nutty and floral, a cauliflower puree base dotted with blobs of lemon and chive oils plus pickled shallot.

We finished off with Chocolate ‘Oblivion’ and poached pear with Sauternes jelly, the former with mint choc chip ice cream, the latter with walnut praline ice. Comforting autumnal bistro staples both. Wines by the glass had been appropriate for each dish and special mention for the Delicioso ‘En Rama’ Manzanilla that got us off to the perfect start, partnering Gordal olives and Don Bocarte anchovies. Isn’t autumn really rather wonderful?

Kala, 55 King Street, Manchester, M2 4LQ. 0161 839 3030. Reservations 0800 160 1811. The three course menu costs £40 for three courses, £35 for two. There’s a £16 supplement for that guinea fowl. There’s a limited choice bistro set meal available lunch and early evening.

I love the shaded downstairs bar at Kala in Manchester. It’s a place of assignation. You just slip in off King Street and slide onto a tall stool. Open a copy of The Times at the obituaries section to signal you are here to the swarthy man in the Crombie three seats away. There is information to be shared in covert fashion. The fate of nations may hang in the balance over a glass of Sicilian Catarratto. Even that name is suggestive of subterfuge.

OK, it’s called fantasising. As I await the October publication of a posthumous John le Carré novel I have daydreamed back into the treacherous world of George Smiley and his Russian nemesis, Karla. Just lose the R. The swarthy contact is an old PR pal I’m meeting for lunch and urgent post-lockdown gossip. He may know where the bodies are buried but he’s not telling. 

There’s a table awaiting us upstairs at this Manchester link in Gary Usher’s Elite Bistros chain. You can’t avoid mentioning the patron; it’s like failing to affix ‘Putin’s’ to ‘Russia’. Inimitably he’s been back on social media recently, defending one corner of his empire against some bolshie customer while in June he re-emphasised his crowdfunding genius by raising over £150,000 in 24 hours to create a catering arm for his company.

As you can gather I’m a fan of Usher and his bistros and I’m glad they’ve held it all together during the pandemic. I’ve dined at four out of the six and never had a remotely unsatisfying experience.

This last time is no different. The set menus are pricier than of yore – three courses for £40, two for £35 – but worth it. There’ s a canny continuity about the Elite food offering in the hands of exec chef Richard Sharples. The unsurpassable wobbly custard tart is nowhere to be seen, alas, but the stalwart featherblade of beef glows out of the menu sheet and has to be my main. The swarthy one take a punt on the plaice.

First, though, the starters. Mine is an uncompromising looking dish of squid rings two ways, au naturel (encasing charred aubergine, lemon and confit garlic) and blackened on a red pepper sauce. Perfectly Med. My ‘sinister companion’ finds equal joy in the creamiest puddle of burrata hosting cubes of pickled kohlrabi with a blackened spring onion and fennel seed dressing.

The surprisingly fleshy plaice is grilled whole, then dressed with salted lemon butter. Watercress and straw potatoes are ideal simple accompaniments and there’s also ‘leek ash’, which is superfluous.

Which brings us finally to the signature bistro dish that is as magnificent as ever – the featherblade, here partnered with ruby beetroot ketchup and parmesan truffle chips. Oh and a summery bottle of Jean-Marc Burgaud Beaujolais.

So what is the secret of the Kala featherblade?

We went undercover to find out. Actually we Googled it. First you need the right cut from a grass-fed beast – a long flat muscle tucked in behind the shoulder blade, also known as flat iron. A line of connective tissue runs through the featherblade’s centre; cooked down this creates a gelatinous texture that generates great gravy and consistent texture. The blade is best slow-cooked whole.

The Elite Bistro chefs braise it for up to eight hours in chicken stock and red wine, along with a mirepoix of onion, carrot, celery, leek, garlic, thyme, and rosemary. To create a sauce they stick the mirepoix in a huge pan with a load of chicken bones and simmer overnight. Next day the liquid is strained, then reduced with red wine until it’s a rich, glossy sauce. 

It’s not finished there. Usher revealed the final secret touch in an interview: “We take the blade and put it in a pan of this sauce. Then literally someone stands there spooning the sauce over the meat, again and again, for 20 minutes. What happens is, as the sauce reduces, it’s getting thicker and stickier. Every time you put it on, it’s creating a layer. That’s where the sticky, naughty dirtiness of it comes from.”

Truly evil, just like Karla.

Kala, 55 King Street, Manchester, M2 4LQ. 0161 839 3030. Reservations 0800 160 1811.