Some dishes are destined to become stars in their own right. They become intrinsically associated with a particular restaurant or the chef. A signature.
The custard tart with its perfect wobble at Gary Usher’s Didsbury restaurant Hispi is one of those dishes. Tell people you’re going, and the response will almost always be “make sure you have the custard tart”. This is a dessert that has its own fan base.
So it’s fair to say that people are thrilled that Gary’s first Manchester city centre restaurant Kala is opening on King Street at the end of the month.
And Mancunians showed they were willing to put their money where their mouths are earlier this month when, following a crowdfunding initiative, Kala became the fastest restaurant project to reach £100k in Kickstarter’s history.
It’s not the first time Gary and his Elite Bistros team have smashed crowdfunding targets. The chef/entrepreneur launched another Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign back in 2016 to open Hispi, his third restaurant, receiving nearly £60,000 in pledges – almost 20% more than the original target.
High profile people in the food and restaurant industry backed the campaign including Neil Rankin, Angela Hartnett, Ashley Palmer-Watts and Jesse Dunford Wood, and Hispi went on to win lots of fans – diners, critics and other chefs – for its refined bistro cooking, knowledgeable service and laid-back vibe.
Is the neighbourhood restaurant still able to impress almost three years later? And does it whet the appetite for Kala?
The Didsbury venue has a relaxed, homely feel, with cabinets crafted from old window frames and tiles from a salvage yard.
The confident, concise menu is so stuffed full of things we want to eat that we become indecisive. Snacks of satisfyingly chewy rye bread and Lincolnshire Poacher butter, and beer battered salt pickles with spicy mayo, help us to focus.
But judging by the quality of our starters, there’s not a bad choice to be made here.
A crispy pig’s head croquette (£8.50), resembling a deep brown fish finger in shape and size but filled with soft, rich porkiness, comes with caramelised pear, pickled walnut mayo and crispy capers to cut through the fat.
Cured salmon (£8) is dressed with chunks of sweet, grapefruit-like pomelo fruit, spring onion, citrus juice and ginger. It has just the right amount of warmth and zinginess to awaken the palate but not to overpower the fish.
On to mains, and a delicate, subtly sweet fillet of baked hake (£20) is topped with pangrattato, the crunchy toasted breadcrumbs flecked with herbs and zesty lemon. It comes with smooth smoked potato mousse, chard, pickled cockles and an irresistibly nutty brown butter.
A roast duck and beetroot dish (£22) is a vision in burgundy. The roast duck breast is cooked until deep pink within, tender and juicy with a luxurious hint of gaminess.
It’s surrounded by deep purples – earthy salt baked beetroot, sharp pickled beetroot and sweet grape as well as the crunch of hazelnut. There’s also a crisp little deep-fried croquette made with the rich confit leg meat. It’s delightful. Just take my money.
Although the Kala menu will not be the same, there are hints of similar styles – from pig’s head sausage rolls and chargrilled duck hearts on the bar snacks menu to the braised featherblade with truffle and parmesan chips on the a la carte.
But one dish definitely won’t be on the Kala menu, as it’s exclusive to Hispi. We did ask. Some may say “pleaded”, but let’s try to keep a little dignity here.
The custard tart is simply perfection, all crisp, short pastry and creamy filling flecked with nutmeg. And what a wobble. It’s verging on the obscene. It makes you blush.
But by god it’s the most exquisite custard tart you’ve ever tasted. It manages to induce strong waves of nostalgia whilst also tasting brand new. It’s both comforting and thrilling. It’s the custard tart every other custard tart wants to be.
And whilst you’ll have to go to Didsbury for this one, a sneak preview of the Kala menu suggests it will have its own stars. We’ve got our eye on the apple tarte fine and the creme caramel.
With such well crafted dishes and its convivial surroundings, it’s no wonder Hispi has so many fans. And Kala looks to follow suit.