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.