Tag Archive for: Lunch

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.

Last October at home prepping up my Northcote Autumn Gourmet Box I wore the apron that was the legacy of a 2014 Cookery School experience there (I buggered up the Beef Wellington, as I recall). I’ve a soft spot for the place, love the Obsessions festival every January that has brought a global smorgasbord of chefs to this corner of the Ribble Valley and go back further with them than1996 when they won the Michelin star they’ve held ever since.

It’s 38 years since Nigel Haworth and Craig Bancroft were given the chance to turn this Victorian pile into a fine dining mecca with rooms. In the Nineties when Ribble Valley Restaurants were suddenly ‘rock n’ roll’ you were either Haworth or Heathcote (Paul), like being Beatles or Rolling Stones. Well, almost.

Lisa Goodwin-Allen worked her way up to exec chef through the Northcote ranks

Now part of the Stafford Collection luxury portfolio (not a bad thing) Northcote is definitely on the top of its game despite all the constrictions of a pandemic. All helped by the high profile of exec chef Lisa Goodwin-Allen who took on the Great British Menu mantle of her mentor Nigel.

He is doing his own thing these days and, as I write, is about to bring back from the dead The Three Fishes, the groundbreaking regional produce-inspired gastropub he created a few miles up the road at Mitton. Sold on with the rest of the Ribble Valleys Inn Group, it shut in 2019.

Remaining under the new regime, sidekick Craig (ebullient front of house/wine guru) is,  welcoming us this sunlit Thursday lunchtime to sample Lisa’s £95 five-course Spring Gourmet Menu. For lunch you must book it specially. In the evening, as Northcote cuts its cloth to accommodate the current challenges, it’s available either of two sittings, as we await the reintroduction of a la carte.

The revamped terrace gives Northcote fresh options – and it’s a perfect spot for a wedding shot

Encouraging is the buzz a wedding party on the spanking new outdoor terrace. Along with a full house of folk, most of whose own nuptial are decades back, we are consigned to the dining room, which shares the same rural vistas. Hard to credit the busy A59 is only 200 metres away.

The matching wine flight is £53.80. I’m often wary of ceding choice but this is pretty solid, notably two whites – the Abstraction #1 Muscadet Sur Lie from Guerin (with Orkney Scallop) and Redoma Branco from Nierpoort in Portugal’s Douro Valley (Wild Turbot) – and a perfumed Bruno Sourdais Chinon red from the Loire.

Poussin the boat out! Lisa treats the bird to a garlic and allium makeover

The latter was the perfect match for my favourite dish, a Norfolk Poussin. Also known as coquelets, poussins are the baby chickens much cherished by the French. They rarely weigh in above 500g and are perfect for quick grilling. 

My first encounter came courtesy of enterprising online butcher Farmeson and in my home kitchen I followed a recipe from Wild Honey’s Anthony Demetre. This involved spatchcocking – removing the backbone from tail to neck so the bird can be opened out flat – and an overload of garlic and herbs. 

Lisa treats it differently. Garlic featured again, one white blob and a swirl of on-trend black garlic, its long caramelisation imparting a subtle liquorice tone. Hen of the woods mushroom and a baby allium poached in ponzu ramped up the succulence. 

The trim breast and a cute little croquette of leg meat may have lacked the splayed splendour of my effort but they were  delicious testimony to canny UK sourcing. Norfolk poussins are corn-fed and reared ethically for their short lives in Fakenham as an alterntib from importing from France. 

Lisa’s previous course of Wild Turbot feels very spoonable, foamy GBM. It’s another little marvel incorporating clam, cucumber, sea lettuce and dill in a saline-inclusive broth.

Like the whole menu, it sings of the season. I love the sorrel granita that adds a lemony counterpoint to Yorkshire Asparagus (green, from Sand Hutton I’m presuming) and basil gel but also the combo of Isle of White heritage tomato textures that lifts a perfectly seared Orkney scallop.

Amalfi lemon inspired dessert completed a satisfying meal, but could we resist the petits fours?

Admirable restraint, matched to accomplished technique, culminates in a masterly pud celebrating the Amalfi lemon and Limoncello. It’s a work of art that almost convinces me tangy powders and meringue splinters are for me. Still a pretty Michelin-friendly plateful. Which bring us back to the admirable Michelin substitute delivered to us in October 2020 as an alternative to the forbidden delights of restaurant dining.

It was easily the best menu kit we encountered during lockdown. But this recent Northcote visit was proof that nothing can replace the real thing. Especially where washing up by someone else is concerned.

Northcote, Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn BB6 8BE. 01254 240555. For information on a variety of gourmet breaks visit the website but be warned, plan ahead. They’re full up well into the autumn.

There’s a fascinating interview with Lisa Goodwin-Allen in trade magazine Supper, where she discusses the challenges that have sprung from the pandemic and lockdowns. She also sing the praises of the Norfolk Poussin! Read it here.