Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Manchester restaurants: Solita review

I’ve been sceptical about Solita, the restaurant in the Northern Quarter. First they were an upscale seafood restaurant, Sole, then re-branded last year as Solita with an Americanised casual menu big on the ribs and dirty burgers etc. that UK foodies were going apeshit for around that time, which could be interpreted as a cynical move. Also, I get suspicious if restaurants are too good at social media, because in my experience social media prowess and quality of food are inversely proportional. Solita is very good at social media. They seem to emit a constant stream of blogger tasting sessions, pictures of burgers in progress and lots of tweeting with the Manc fooderati. They're unusually hip to cultural trends. James Gandolfini's passing was honoured with a special Tony Soprano burger; a recent Breaking Bad-themed dinner sold out in record time. They get buzz. I just wasn’t sure how much of it was justified.

Also, it’s a little expensive. I’ve done a couple of drive-bys but the fact that most starters weigh in at £6 and it’s hard to find a main for under a tenner put me off, especially when they’re serving up this kind of food. I don’t care how good it is, I’d feel like an asshole paying £10.90 for a hot dog. So when they contacted me to see if I wanted to come down to sample their summer menu (at their expense, you dig) I wasn't sure. It was possible I’d been avoiding a real gem for silly reasons. I mean, everybody in Manchester seems to love the place so much, and you know all those food bloggers weren’t just high on all the food, drink and cameraderie, right?

So anyway, I went. 

The evening’s drink special, an herby and cool sloe gin fizz, was a very auspicious beginning to our dinner. My friend and I were sat upstairs in the fairly spartan dining room where we admired the gigantic red neon sign that says SOUL, the Modesty Blaise frames decorating the wall, the classic R&B soundtrack and the unusually friendly and self-assured service. Downstairs lurks a darker, cosier dining space.

A starter of beer boiled shrimp tasted good – the Old Bay butter brought back happy memories of Maryland crab feasts – but they were small, and when you have to shuck ‘em yourself you want more reward for the labour. The "Lucky 7"; a Tex-Mex seven-layer dip, was a surprise. It’s the kind of thing you find at PTA dinners and barbeques across the states; my mom made it all the time. Seeing it on a menu in Manchester is slightly surreal. Solita's version is standard, with beans, salsa, sour cream, guac and cheese etc. served with the tasty blue corn chips that are tough to find over here. In a similarly nostalgic vein, they're currently serving up a blooming onion, a deep-fried artery-blocking staple of county fairs. Fried dough (doused with butter, powdered sugar and cinnamon) can surely not be far behind. God help us all.

Tuna tartare was fresh raw tuna chunked in a bowl, served with tiny bowls of toppings (minced avocado, tomato and radish; sesame seeds) and toasted bread slices. The overall effect was a little bland, with the ingredients failing to get a very interesting conversation going; I would have liked a stronger wasabi flavour from the oil, which fell through the toast holes and made an almighty mess.  After this, the prawns and the fondue, our table looked like the aftermath of a fantastic food fight.

They decided what to send us, which was how we ended up eating burger fondue, a gimmicky thing I’d be unlikely to order anytime but definitely not during a heatwave. The cheese fondue was good. The burger was small, probably for dipping purposes, served in a soft sesame-topped bun avec mustard et ketchup a la Mickey D’s. The meat was dark reddish pink inside, which was fine by me, but the texture was oddly smooth, and there was practically no char on the outside. It was all right in the context of fondue but if that’s the kind of burger they do generally I’d have problems with it. The pudding was a sticky toffee apple pie with fantastic Cabrelli's vanilla ice cream. I loved everything about the pie – flaky crust and the right ratio of apple to caramel topping. I would come back for this alone.

Overall, we ate well. You get the impression that Solita is trying hard to do something different, and I like the sense of fun about the place. So, for that I’ll forgive them for being too good at social media and for naming themselves after a trendy Manhattan neighbourhood. Heck, I'll even consider forgiving them for serving a £10.90 hot dog. I probably won’t eat there all the time, but I'd go back for a special occasion dinner. And I plan to investigate their lunch menu, which is a lot more wallet-friendly (mains at £5.95.) and includes good sounding-stuff like a pulled pork cheese toastie, a meatball sub and a grilled chicken caesar salad.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Review: Macbeth, Manchester International Festival

When I emigrated here a decade ago, I had some vague notion I’d always be swanning off to the RSC. Needless to say, this has not come to pass. Which is how I found myself last night in a deconsecrated church in Ancoats, sweaty and nervous, about to have my first live experience of High Church British Shakespeare courtesy of Manchester International Festival. I don’t know why I was so nervous, because of course Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford's Macbeth was great. Of course it was.

They somehow managed to fit Scotland into that little place, complete with rain, mud and peaty smells. The staging was in-your-face, with armies charging about in the muck and much brutal rutting and grappling inches from the audience. It was cleverly done: resourceful use of the natural lighting provided by the building, and a set that addressed the problems of this unusual venue (spoilers!). And the cast was pretty good overall. The Sainted Sir Ken was as good as you'd expect. Alex Kingston was a tremendous lady Macbeth, with other standout performances from Ray Fearon as a quietly imposing MacDuff and Daniel Ings as the porter, who provides the few laughs what is not a exactly a chucklefest of a play.

To commit murder for personal gain is to destroy your own faith in humanity, and any hope for peace you might ever have, because you truly understand the horrific lengths people will go to. This production was especially effective in showing us the progress of this revelation within the minds of Macbeth – once a good man worthy of trust – and Lady Macbeth, who couldn’t harden her own heart enough. When their stifled consciences caught up with them, erupting into feverish visions and waking nightmares, madness was the inevitable result. Followed swiftly by death, which felt like a blessed relief for everyone concerned. 

It was a relief for all of us in the audience too, because the seating was maddeningly uncomfortable and it was hot enough to fry an egg on Macduff’s shield. Yes, I know uncomfy seating is the price we pay for getting to see theatre in unusual spaces. In this case, it was a price worth paying, but if I had stayed any longer in there I might have started having a few hallucinations of my own. As good as it was, the moment of emerging outside in the evening air was pretty much the highlight of the festival for me so far. I'm not alone. In his review, fellow blogger David Hartley picked this out as an issue for him too. A plea to theatre/festival overlords: we know you can't control the weather, but the comfort of the audience is worth thinking pretty hard about.

I always hate reading rave reviews of things that have been sold out for months, and tickets for this went in nanoseconds, though it’s always worth checking for returns on the day of performance. But look! National Theatre Live is screening it in cinemas all over the country. Hey, maybe they'll even have air conditioning.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Review: The Old Woman, Manchester International Festival

In the course of writing the preview of Manchester International Festival's production of The Old Woman for Creative Tourist, I was genuinely baffled about how they’d adapt Daniil Kharms’ text, an absurdist fable where much of the action happens inside the paranoid narrator’s head (which you can read online here). But playwright Darryl Pinckney cleverly appropriated bits from his other, similarly surreal writings, which gave the production some more source material to play with. Uber-director Robert Wilson used this to create a kaleidoscopic sequence of short sketches and tableaux, expertly performed by two world-class professionals. Watching it was a joyful experience – and an exhausting one. This kind of theatre-of-the-abstract demands a lot from its audience, and by the end of 90 minutes I was ready for a break. 

Dafoe and Baryshnikov were an inspired combination, utterly different actors but positive equals in their craft. Baryshnikov was a melancholy presence who moved about the stage with dazzling grace. Dafoe was a whirlwind – a demon gurning and glowering, then a daffy goof, then a maudlin Pierrot – with that blazing charisma that means you can’t take your eyes off him. The show moved us quickly across a variety of emotional landscapes, traversing jazzy slapstick, existential crises, tenderness, horror, and even straw hat vaudeville with the pair playing off each other like an absurdist Morecambe and Wise. But permeating the whole thing was that particularly Russian feeling – a blend of folk wisdom and gallows humour developed over centuries of hard labour, oppression, vodka and long winters. 

The topsy-turvy minimalist set was continually subjected to split second changes in lighting, timed to coincide with movements from the actors and sharp reports that sounded intermittently throughout the action, creating a jittery atmosphere like a giant clock ticking at irregular times. This production needed to be utterly precise to work, and with this crack team of course it was – but don’t try this at home, kids. The Old Woman is the theatre equivalent of jumping 13 Mack trucks on a motorcycle, and every bit as exhilarating to watch.

Image courtesy Manchester International Festival