Restaurant Review: El Gato Negro Tapas, Manchester

The Black Cat Is The Top Dog

El Gato Negro – aka The Black Cat – an Edgar Allan Poe tale and a charming tapas restaurant on Manchester’s upmarket King Street. Tapas, at least in England, I find is generally predictable and served inauthentically; happily, El Gato Negro provided a welcome contrast with plates intriguingly designed and prepared in quick succession.

The oddly endearing Guinilla Peppers tasted curiously of Pickled Onion Monster Munch, which was no bad thing. Its cousin Mr Padron – unheard of three years ago, now everywhere – was fresh, flavourful and rightly, generously seasoned. I suggest the 2017 Award For Most Awesome Sounding Dish is given to ‘Gin Cured Salmon w/ Truffle Honey on Toast’. Although expensive, this little bundle of joy was well-balanced, somehow harmonious and certainly unique. The ‘Bikini’ was disappointingly not a swimsuit model but a rather pedestrian, small, ham and cheese toasty. The Chargrilled Sweet Potato provided a depth of flavour it had no right to have, with an ingeniously composed mango and chilli dressing.

The surprise star of the show was an ostentatiously elongated carrot. El Gato Negro’s equally elongated description of: ‘Chargrilled heritage carrots, aubergine purée, miso, walnut pesto and Manchego’, was an umami-filled revelation. I had something of a carrot based spiritual awakening (opened root chakra?) at Dinner By Heston, and El Gato Negro’s offering was a delicious close second to their two Michelin starred operation.

The savoury shenanigans were far from outdone by the beautifully presented sharing dessert. This ensemble of Spanish and European fancies was technically well crafted, and equally lovely on the palate. The perfect Barbie-pink macaroon was fought over and the ice-cream was as good as you’ll find anywhere.

El Gato Negro service was organised, expressive but not overbearing, and genuinely friendly by irksomely handsome, tattooed Spaniards. My only minor gripe from the well-oiled kitchen was most of the pescetarian dishes arriving at the end, rather than interspersed through the procession.

These culinary dopamine hits came at a cost; but, El Gato Negro Tapas’ urban cool environment and numerous memorable flavours made it certainly worth it.

El Gato Negro Tapas Review Summary

Atmosphere 8/10    Cost 6/10    Quality 10/10    Service 10/10

Restaurant Review: El Gato Negro Tapas, Manchester, Black Cat Spanish Catalonia Basque Country Food

Padrón peppers with Halen Môn sea salt & Spicy-sweet guindilla peppers

Restaurant Review: El Gato Negro Tapas, Manchester, Black Cat Spanish Catalonia Basque Country Food

Catalan bread with olive oil, garlic and fresh tomato

Restaurant Review: El Gato Negro Tapas, Manchester, Black Cat Spanish Catalonia Basque Country Food

Bikini (toasted sandwich with jamón ibérico and manchego)

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Salt cod croquetas, piquillo pepper purée and aioli

Restaurant Review: El Gato Negro Tapas, Manchester, Black Cat Spanish Catalonia Basque Country Food

Gin cured salmon w/ truffle honey on toast

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Chargrilled heritage carrots, aubergine purée, miso and walnut pesto, Manchego

Restaurant Review: El Gato Negro Tapas, Manchester, Black Cat Spanish Catalonia Basque Country Food

Chargrilled sweet potato with mango, chilli and yoghurt dressing (GF)

Restaurant Review: El Gato Negro Tapas, Manchester, Black Cat Spanish Catalonia Basque Country Food

A special selection of their favourite desserts

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Restaurant Review: The Kazbar, Oxford

Rocking The Kazbar

The Kazbar spread a sleazy smile across my face, like warm tetilla smeared across a crusty bocadillo. The shining sun lit up the riad-esque interior, flooding back hazy memories of Marrakesh. The orange washed walls, shimmering tiles and shabby chic furniture, created a unique, bohemian setting. This, combined with a zippy live band and hardworking, happy staff, produced a vibrant atmosphere that I was in no rush to escape from.

The annoyingly handsome beatnik main server provided genuine rapport throughout; his straightforward but conscientious approach was amicable without being overbearing. All The Kazbar’s Señoritas cheerfully glided around, although when one spilt an over-poured margarita over the table, her lack of resolution or even acknowledgement was irksome.

Cocktails are obligatory. I salute The Kazbar for having the rare decency to produce proper Margaritas (the drink, not the pizza). As requested, the venomous Bloody Mary didn’t take any prisoners. Sherry should also not be forgotten, magically pairing with everything in the tapas world. The Dry Amontillado was good value and perfectly sippable without food. The Manzanilla was the driest drink in the world; worth a try, but an acquired taste.

Some Kazbar dishes were better than others. The wonderfully light Smoked Mackerel Pate was the unexpected delicious highlight. The Prawns & Chorizo billed as the main event, were rather anaemic in a watery tomato sauce. The Moroccan Lamb, Beef & Harissa Sausage was the kind of tapas dish everyone wanted; ballsy (metaphorically, I hope), with a satisfyingly rich meaty flavour. The Gambas were adequate, but not inspiring. The Pig’s Cheek dutifully fell apart, with a beautiful depth of flavour. The Spiced Minced Lamb & Hummus was tasty, authentic but lukewarm. Some mysterious Latino Mozzarella substance from the specials board was divine. The well formed Membrillo Cheesecake graciously introduced two of my favourite things – Licor 43 and quince jelly. Finally, the Marrakesh Express commendably combined coffee and dessert with a delicious cinnamon finish.

The Kazbar’s squeaky clean plates spoke for themselves, my wallet didn’t feel violated, and I’m yet to review another a restaurant in Oxford with a warmer atmosphere – bravo!

The Kazbar Review Summary

Atmosphere 10/10    Cost 7/10    Quality 7/10    Service 9/10

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Restaurant Review: Iberica, Manchester

Iberica Manchester – Tip Top Tapas

I loved Iberica Spinningfields. It pleasingly served dishes separately but rapidly, and in big enough portions to actually share. Iberica Manchester was social eating at its best, something that surprisingly few other Tapas restaurants deliver on.

Iberica Spinningfields didn’t just offer the same chorizo, gambas, calamari, patatas bravas lead menu found everywhere. I love these dishes, but Iberica Spinningfields made a refreshing change. I went weak at the knees laying eyes on their artisan cheese menu; being exclusively Spanish it provided the opportunity to discover new products and flavours.

The Red Berry Gazpacho was the finest cold soup I’d ever eaten. It was alive with vibrancy and just wonderfully summery. I’d never had a more flavoursome dish for £4. The humble Bread & Oil was as good as anywhere. The grilled Padron Peppers were pleasingly salty and made a classy beer accompaniment. The curious Spring Onion Tempura were bronzed crunchy phallic mouthfuls, served with decidedly delicious dips. The Classic Tortilla didn’t let its nation down, providing a perfectly respectable account of itself.

The meaty Sea Trout was lightly cooked and uniquely served with peanuts and Ajo Blanco sauce. The dish was certainly enjoyable, but quite expensive at £8. The Chorizo Lollipops were golden balls of fun, served with an intriguing pear aioli. In the wake of these quirky touches, came the poshest Ham, Egg & Chips in Manchester. The Sliced Cooked Beef was Spain’s answer to Bresaola and every bit as flavourful.

The Churros were piping hot, pleasingly crispy and sugary pieces of happiness. The small but perfectly formed cheese board paired marvellously with the amber-hued viscous sherry. I don’t know anything about sherry, other than that I need to drink more of it.

With the drinks menu heavily marked up and the additional 12.5% service charge, Iberica Spinningfields is at the pricier end of Manchester’s bustling restaurant scene. Given the exciting menu, quality ingredients, sophisticated atmosphere and charming staff, it is still certainly worth exploring.

Iberica Review Summary

Atmosphere 10/10    Cost 6/10    Quality 10/10    Service 9/10

Ibérica Spinningfields Restaurant Review

A decent drop…

Ibérica Spinningfields

Bread & Oil

Ibérica Spinningfields

Outstanding Red Berry Gazpacho

Ibérica Spinningfields Restaurant Review Manchester

Padron Peppers

Ibérica Spinningfields Restaurant Review Manchester

Spring Onion Tempura

Ibérica Spinningfields Restaurant Review Manchester

Sea Trout, Ajoblanca & Pitu Sauce

Ibérica Spinningfields Restaurant Review Manchester

Fried Chorizo Lollipops w/ Pear Alioli

Ibérica Spinningfields Restaurant Review Manchester

Iberico Ham, Egg & Chips

Ibérica Spinningfields Restaurant Review Manchester

Sliced Cooked Beef

Ibérica Spinningfields Restaurant Review Manchester

Churros

Ibérica Spinningfields Restaurant Review Manchester

Cheese

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Restaurant Review: The Cuban, Camden

The Cuban – Close But No Cigar

Camden was typically frenetic: hordes of the weird and wonderful spilt in from all angles. The Cuban was found nestled in Camden’s eclectic epicentre, buzzing with shoppers resting from buying vintage tracksuits, vinyl and Novocaine.

The Cuban Camden’s boisterous atmosphere seemingly overwhelmed the staff who were less than composed. After politely advising I had booked, menus were shoved in my general direction. I loitered like a lemon, looking for anything resembling a table without success; a second server limply gestured to the lift, leading to a dead second floor.

The Cuban Camden’s menu advised: “our chefs spent time learning traditional Cuban cooking techniques”. The fact tapas should be ordered often and served quickly wasn’t learnt:  the food came together and after a long delay.

Regarding The Cuban Camden’s food, the anemic Calamari was the blandest pieces of squid known in existence. I doubt the complete absence of seasoning was part of the “authentic Cuban experience”. Better Olives & Feta can be sourced in Morrisons down the road -hardly the “best Cuban ingredients in London”. The Plantain was okay, but a giant banana served in three pieces didn’t excite. The Chorizo was enjoyed, but this should be the star of any tapas restaurant and was average at best. The Albondigas were well cooked and seasoned but lukewarm. The fried Sweet Potato & Plantain were tasty but just crisps with ideas above their station. Finally, the Chicken Tenders were fine, but which “neighbouring Caribbean Islands” serve schnitzels?

Under normal circumstances, The Cuban Camden is a rip-off tourist trap; however, it is regularly on Groupon providing much better value.

The Cuban Review Summary

Atmosphere 5/10    Cost 4/10    Service 4/10   Quality 3/10

The Cuban Tapas Restaurant Camden Locks

Below Average Tapas

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Restaurant Review: The Coach, Marlow

The Coach – Not Buying A Return (Meal) Ticket

Only visit The Coach Marlow if you: can drop any preconceptions, foolishly appreciate tapas, are minted and not hungry. I am none of the above, thus left discontented. I love Mr Kerridge with his amicable West Country patois and proper pub-grub philosophy; disappointingly, The Coach Marlow ignores it.

Tapas is pointless – a Mediterranean euphemism for expensive inefficiency. Only madmen want dishes to arrive schizophrenically.  The standard excuse is: “To try bits of everything!”. Which is nonsense because portions are so small, only cold crumbs remain once shared. Order your preferences then trade bits later damn it. In any other context, new cutlery is provided and smaller courses sensibly arrive first – nobody thinks anything of it. Tapas means culinary human rights are waived in favour of a needless continental concept.

Rant over (almost). Sitting at The Coach Marlow bar provides stimulating views of the industrious open kitchen; an ideal first date rendezvous, providing distractions from potential awkward silences. Unfortunately, everyone else is cramped together.

Everything on The Coach Marlow’s menu sounded delicious. The format was oddly split between ‘Meat’ and ‘No Meat’, yet meat’s in both sections:  a practical joke, quirkiness or a genuine mistake, I know not. Furthermore, the descriptions didn’t hint at the wildly varying portions, making things unnecessarily fiddly.

Everything looked more than appetising; dishes were creatively arranged and housed in beautiful, earthy crockery. The Coach Marlow produced initially interesting dishes, which later left one puzzled and unsatisfied. The Whisky & Rye Pudding was cold rather than warm – evidently an error of judgement for any winter pudding. The Venison Chilli had the kick of a paraplegic and served grittily under-cooked. A pricey piece of Lamb carried a shameful amount of flaccid fat. The Pigs Head was a delicate croquette rather than something intimidating. This was all lamentable, as the depth of flavour across all dishes was impressive.

The Triple Cooked Chips & Béarnaise were memorable – undisputed world champion pieces of potato. However, as chips were the highlight, The Coach Marlow left me dissatisfied.

The Coach Review Summary

Atmosphere 8/10    Cost 2/10    Quality 6/10    Service 6/10

The Coach Marlow Restaurant Review

The gigantic pigs head

The Coach Marlow Restaurant Review

Probably the best chips in the world

The Coach Marlow Restaurant Review

Cold whisky pudding

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Restaurant Review: Pond, Preston

Pond – Licensed To Grill

Pond is a mid-sized independent tapas Preston restaurant, with a homely and distinctive feel. Some may think its bold, warm colours are intimate; others would say enclosing – either way, Pond had character.

Pond’s menu was extensive and all sounded delicious. Diners were spoilt for choice,  yet the menu held itself together enough not to disorientate. Pond provided unusual choices, which kept a potentially tired format interesting. Most of the food was very good and was all presented attractively; however, it got carried away with itself in places as the ‘Chicken – Raspberry Pepper’ sounded exciting but had no balance of flavour. I may as well have had a bowl of raspberries. The benchmark for any tapas restaurant is their chorizo; Pond’s sticky chorizo was very generously portioned and didn’t hold back on the chilli. Having tried most of the menu (in a large group), the standout dish was the ‘Luv a duk’, with an incredible depth of flavour. This brought a smile to all who were wise enough to try it. The chilli chocolate ice cream was an interesting way to finish a meal; not for everyone, but certainly a talking point. A leper could count on one hand the number of restaurants that offer memorable dishes in Preston City Centre – this was one of them.

Given the high-quality ingredients and healthy portion sizes, Pond offered average value for tapas in Preston, although being charged for tap water (despite ordering various bottles of wine) seemed below the belt.

Pond’s staff were welcoming but slightly confused by the order. Nor was there the capacity to discuss the food in any regard – the hallmark of good service. I requested Sangria, which although not on the menu, was presumed unchallenging for a tapas restaurant. I can only assume this was the servers first weak attempt at such an exotic concoction.

Pond’s food was sluggish to appear, not a massive issue, but the concept of tapas is to order little and often, not hungrily wait for everything to arrive together. Frustrating as one is forced to wolf down the food while it’s still hot, rather than enjoy the flavours to their full potential.

Overall Pond is a characterful restaurant with some proper cooking going on. It provided an intimate atmosphere and great flavours. Something that Preston city centre is in short supply of.

Pond Review Summary

Atmosphere 8/10    Cost 6/10    Quality 8/10    Service 5/10

Duk Preston Restaurant Review

Porky Goodness

Duk Preston Restaurant Review

Cheesy Goodness

*Since this review was first published, Pond is unfortunately no longer with us – hence the lack of link*

Restaurant Review: Evuna NQ, Manchester

Evuna NQ – Serving Slices of Spanish Sunshine

Evuna NQ’s a corner of non-descript scruffy buildings, not doing justice to the hidden charms inside. The NQ hipster enclave of Manchester has far more than its fair share of exciting places to eat and drink; despite stiff competition, this charming tapas restaurant is worth seeking out.

Evuna NQ’s lunch-time menu of three tapas for £9.90 with slightly reduced wine prices offered decent value. In short, all six tapas dishes were wolfed down. The menu was limited and ultimately predictable; but, as everything served was tasty, nobody cared. Unless against your religion, it is a sin to not eat the spicy chorizo in red wine. Even if it is, take one for the team and get it down you – I was on my hands and knees praying in gratitude. Even the house red provided an excellent match, making me glad I was alive. The calamari was perfectly reasonable but lacked colour, while his best buddy aioli did him proud. The meatballs were meanly portioned but nicely spiced, and served in a purposeful tomato sauce. Some further meat on a stick managed to be both juicy and well caramelised. Everything was generally as it should be; Evuna NQ left me feeling alright with the world.

Evuna NQ created a relaxed yet very tasteful atmosphere, provided by the solid wooden furniture, exposed brickwork, and soft lighting. While the staff were all warm, welcoming and happy to help. The danger of Evuna NQ lunch visits is the wine is too tempting to leave. I’m less inclined to go for dinner – this was food to nibble at – not feast on. Still, Evuna NQ was a touch of sunshine, in a permanently drizzly spot.

Evuna NQ Review Summary

Atmosphere 8/10    Cost 7/10    Quality 7/10    Service 8/10

Evuna NQ Manchester Restaurant Review

The usual suspects…

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Restaurant Review: Duk, Preston

Dinner Was A Lame Duk

I initially made a booking for the charming Pond (Duk’s sister restaurant), but without explanation, the reservation was overlooked, and I was redirected to Duk. Having previously been impressed by Pond, I didn’t cause a fuss as I expected a similar quality dining experience.

Duk is one square basement room accessed by a dark staircase – a claustrophobic mustard cube. It should have been easy for the staff to see diners, and manage the small number of tables. Despite being the largest table booked, nobody was on hand to greet or advise our party where to sit, creating an unwelcoming impression. There was just one menu between two tables, but weirdly coffee menus for all. I waited fifteen minutes for acknowledgement, before getting up and communicating the entire drinks order directly at the bar. There was also a lack of information, as the drinks menu provided no indication of what wines were available by the glass, the size of the glass and their respective prices. Two of the diners ordered white wine: one arrived warm, the other incorrectly poured.

Rather than individual plates or in bowls, Duk’s tapas came in a strange system of three bowls shaped into one ceramic form. This arrangement was completely impractical as whatever I ordered, was attached to someone else’s choice twelve feet away. We ate the entire meal from one small saucer, which forced residual flavours to mix that had no business together. Nobody asked if we wanted further drinks or food, frustrating as one item never materialised. The whole concept of tapas is people order little and often – something completely impossible at Duk. After everyone had finished, we wanted more, but after fifteen minutes of obviously nobody chewing, we gave up. When I got up to ask for a dessert menu, I was told there was only two deserts: “Churros and a collection of confectionery”. I enquired into what constituted a collection of confectionery and was reliably informed it was a “mixture”. How helpful.

At least the menu was diverse and exciting, and everything certainly sounded appetising. High-quality ingredients were used throughout but often lacked execution, as the kitchen’s output was a mixed bag. The Chorizo was rich and delicious, but the Pigs Cheek was incredibly tough. Some excellent cheese made a welcome appearance.  The wine was decent but not cheap.

This poor evening was largely in part due to a shortage of staff, on another day a better experience is likely to be had, but it ‘s hard to justify a return to Duk.

Duk Review Summary

Atmosphere 4/10    Cost 5/10    Quality 6/10    Service 1/10

*Since this review was first published, Duk is unfortunately no longer with us –   hence the lack of link*