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.

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