Things in Didsbury continue to look up. After a few years of empty shop fronts, bland chains and dodgy boozers, we now have Hispi (for which I have developed a shameful, costly weakness), a couple of new tapas places, the lovely Casa Italia, SoLIta, a couple of great chippies, loads of independent coffee shops and a brilliant Nepalese place. And yet despite this array of shiny loveliness and temptation, I still find myself as often as not in good old Gusto Didsbury, a stalwart of the high street for many years now thanks to its reliably great pizzas, interesting cocktails and lovely leather booths, into which one may sink thankfully whilst lobbing excellent fries in the direction of one's mouth and slurping a decent red.
Of course, Gusto can do grown-up too, as proved by the new menu which we tried last week. As usual, most of the old favourites have survived the cut; in fact, most of the starters remain the same (no bad thing, in my opinion). Still, only wise to toy with a little focaccia - a plump, garlicky square studded with rosemary and salt and presented with olive oil and aged balsamic - whilst choosing, not least because my date for the evening is the Annoyingly Dairy Free Friend, who requests the allergy book (cue heart sinking) and spends several hours working out what he can have. I can (and would like to) have all of it, so I choose the oven roast pork ribs served with tomato barbeque sauce and coleslaw - not strictly a new dish, but one I've not had before, and which turns out to be a triumphantly meaty affair smothered in a sauce that strikes just the right balance between sweet and tangy, and perched on an excellent thin-cut coleslaw. Most of the dishes have some form of dairy in, but in the end the Annoyingly Dairy Free Friend is delighted with his half portion of tagliatelle with prawns and garlic - really good pasta with a decent amount of fat prawns in sweet chilli tomato sauce with fresh lime and rocket. This is the kind of dish that Gusto do well - good ingredients cooked simply and served up in generous quantities (as proved by the fact the the ADFF was outside having a fag when his dinner arrived and I hadn't even made a dent in it by the time he got back).
Mains are excellent. I have the new duck dish - a pan roasted breast with buttered winter vegetables, aged balsamic and honey - and it is just lovely. The duck is perfectly cooked - briskly seared on the outside and pink and juicy within (they will do it well done if you want, but look visibly relieved when I ask for it pink), and resting on a bed of interesting vegetables (although there is a hefty hit of chilli here that isn't advertised on the menu - not a problem for me, but others may wish to be wary). Despite this plate of meaty joy, I end up with total, utter dinner envy, as the ADFF has the whole salt baked sea bass and it is SPECTACULAR. The theatre of such a dish is always fun, involving as it does an intrepid member of staff setting up a table alongside yours and burrowing wildly into the salty casing in order to free the fish that lies within; this is expertly done by John, whose service is faultless all night. Indeed, after such drama the dish itself looks a little underwhelming, but its looks belie its stunning flavour - soft, gently flaking fish, infused with lemon and herbs from within and a good sturdy blast of saltiness from without. The ADFF practically sucks the bones clean; not a phrase I ever expected to use in polite company. The fish is not cheap at £18.95, particularly as it comes solo and requires the ordering of extra side dishes, but it is perfection, and to be honest I always order fries and some Italian fried courgettes whatever I'm having - a meal at Gusto is simply unthinkable without either or both of these splendid items.
Desserts are the only misfire. The ADFF can only have the lemon sorbet, which fortunately he loves, but my basil and mint panna cotta - one of the new dishes - needs a bit of a rethink in my opinion. The panna cotta itself is fine, if unremarkable, but any subtlety of flavour is completely drowned out by a sea of heavily spiced plum compote. The flavours are reminiscent of mulled wine, but not in a good way - the spices hit the back of your throat and dominate what should be the star of the dish; there is also far too much of it. This is the only flaw of the evening though - service is knowledgeable and friendly, there is live music at an unobtrusive volume, and a very good Chianti from a wine list full of tempting Italian numbers at fairly reasonable prices. Gusto continues to be a cut above most, and I'm crossing every digit I have that their traditional 50%-off-food will be on in January, when I plan to dine on whole salt baked sea bass every single night.
- Gusto Didsbury is at 756 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury M20 2DW. We were invited to review the new menu and were not asked to pay for our food or drink, but I'm a regular here to the point of embarrassing levels of recognition from the staff.