The buzz in the hospitality industry is that the big national restaurant chains are struggling and closing dozens of branches.
The Daily Mail speculated recently that the British public may have fallen out with dining out. Within the last week or so, the BBC’s One Show carried a doom-laden report on the same subject.
How come then that restaurant groups conceived and operated in and around Manchester are thriving and investing while their rivals are in retreat?
Let’s cut to the quick and name names: the mega-successful San Carlo group and, of course, Living Ventures’ ever-evolving brands.
When Living Ventures recently reopened their Gusto restaurant in the centre of Didsbury after a sparkly makeover, it was the first time I’d been there for around 20 years. Then it was a branch of Est Est Est, the brainchild of Derek and the late Edwina Lilley, which had carried all before it until they sold it to corporate ownership who drove it off a cliff. Bought by Living Ventures and rebranded Gusto, it thrives again.
We went back midweek early evening and the place was already busy. It’s a long, narrow split level space with a lively cocktail bar near the door giving access to the street front heated terrace. Towards the open theatre kitchen at the rear, with its prominent wood-fired pizza oven, the dining area opens out with semi-circular leather seated booths on either side, plenty of exposed brick and ceilings dripping with pendant lighting.
Yes, Gusto is kind of Italian – just like ailing Prezzo, Jamie’s Italian, Strada and Carluccio’s. But the difference is Living Ventures. And its a huge one, not least because of the quality of the service, honed by a rigorous staff training regime which has seen the company listed among the best places in the UK to work.
I’d planned to open with a starter portion of crab, chilli and garlic spaghetti (all the pasta dishes are available in half sizes) and perhaps move on to a sea bass main. But all that went out of the window when the waitress announced that the menu’s one-time flagship dish, lobster and king prawn spaghetti, was back for the night as a special. No contest.
So I began with hand-rolled meatballs (£6.75) in a rich, rustic and deeply flavoured tomato sauce, glazed with Italian cheese and served with slices of chargrilled artisan bread for indulgent dunking.
Meanwhile, Mrs K was at it too, dunking her bread into the much silkier garlic, tomato and cream sauce that enveloped her plump and meaty tiger prawns (£8.25). Good Italian food is a simple pleasure, but prime ingredients are an absolute requirement.
The lobster and king prawn spaghetti (£22), now sadly missing from Gusto’s regular menu, was pure extravagance. Generous chunks of lobster tail and hefty prawns populating a tangle of just-so, not-too creamy pasta laced with sweet, fleshy, fresh tomato and lifted by hints of lemon and ending with a warm chilli afterglow. Sumptuous and subtle at the same time.
Mrs K had pan roasted duck breast (£16.50), carved in thick slices and rose pink as requested, served with braised fennel and orange, the anise and citrus flavours working their magic with the duck. Sides of truffled fries with Grana Padano (£4.50) and crispy fried zucchini (£3.60) completed the feast.
We rounded off by sharing an attractively presented, expertly crafted salted chocolate brownie served on a squiggle of toffee caramel sauce and a globe of tip top soft pistachio ice cream (£6.50). From a well-chosen list of wines from vineyards around the world we stuck to Italian: fresh citrussy Verdicchio (£24), just made for that luxurious pasta dish.
Gusto is arguably the most casual and family friendly of Living Ventures’ various brands and with special two- and three-course set menus at lunchtimes (Monday-Saturday) and in the evening (Monday – Thursday), probably the most accessible.
756 Wilmslow Rd, Manchester M20 2DW