Tony Naylor is a Manchester-based journalist who regularly writes for olive as well as Restaurant magazine and The Guardian.
Lianne Hunter is a PR and marketing consultant who lives in Manchester. Her favourite meal out was at London’s Dishoom.
El Gato Negro might be new to Manchester, but it began life 11 years ago when chef Simon Shaw opened his own Spanish restaurant in the Pennine village of Ripponden. Accolades followed (including ‘best tapas in the north’, as named by Harden’s) and in autumn 2014 Simon announced plans to move the concept to Manchester.
Now El Gato Negro sits over three floors in a historic King Street building. You can eat at the bar or in the restaurant, and the main menu is split into sections including para picar (snacks, like anchovy fillets on crostini); charcuterie; and meat, fish or vegetables charred on a Josper grill – onglet steak, or octopus and baby leeks with romesco sauce, for example. Everything is simple, confidently executed and bold in flavour, and there’s an abundance of sherries, cocktails and wines to choose from.
Our pro says…
Thanks to its personable, chatty staff, El Gato Negro felt instantly warm and familiar. They enthused about key dishes without it seeming like a pushy, hard sell and calibrated their approach accordingly. Our server happily accepted that we knew the drill about tapas and the menu, while answering our questions capably. Any hiccups were minor. *I was recognised, but as we were leaving.
This is a chef who very much knows his cebollas. Simon Shaw is obsessed with modern Spanish cooking and Iberian produce. He used to fly to Catalonia and bring suitcases full of ingredients back. That’s not necessary at the new Manchester El Gato, but, as the first dish out of Simon’s kitchen illustrated (plump, non-greasy, vibrantly tannic padrón peppers), his attention to detail persists.
Complex jamón serrano served with a grain mustard celeriac remoulade is a timeless El Gato classic. Another old-stager, onglet with patatas a lo pobre, was better than ever. Seared in a hardwood Josper grill, that skirt steak, while sweet and ruby-pink within, took on a serious char. As a counterpoint to its beefy flavours (it also comes bathed in gravy), the steak came with a velvety, slow-cooked tangle of potato, onion and, for crucial sharpness, slivers of preserved red pimento.
Catalan tomato bread was simplicity itself, pulped, well-seasoned tomatoes on airy toasted bread, but it was unusually vivid. Similarly, a blitzed sauce of oil, garlic and chilli and a scattering of toasted breadcrumbs remarkabably transformed a humble salad of chickpeas, squash and roasted cauliflower into a dazzling plateful. A model of restraint and precision.
There are tiny caveats. For instance, the pinchos morunos pork skewers were a little overcooked. But the intense, colourful slick of mojo verde that accompanied them was awesome. It was like a salsa verde spiked with hot paprika and blitzed pimento, and we greedily swiped up the dregs with our fingers.
Our punter says…
Overall, the service was impeccable. Staff were helpful and informative, striking the perfect balance between being available and not intrusive. They all had extensive knowledge of the menu and were confident, friendly and willing to go out of their way for us. Complimentary bottles of still and sparkling water were replenished throughout the meal without our needing to ask. We opted for gin rather than wine – our waiter happily talked us through the types they had.
I was tempted by nearly everything on the menu and it was difficult to settle on just two or three plates each. We started with marbled jamón serrano with mustard-infused celeriac remoulade, a mouth-watering dish. Next, succulent chilli, garlic and paprika tiger prawns were brought to life with squirts of fresh lemon and sat perfectly alongside Navarrico chickpeas with butternut squash, fresh chilli, garlic and caramelised cauliflower florets.
Jamón Iberico croquetas were crispy on the outside but smooth, creamy and slightly salty on the inside.
Patatas bravas were equally irresistible – generous chunks of potato buried beneath a tangy, spicy tomato fritarda sauce and punchy alïoli. The bikini (thin slices of crustless toast cooked in lashings of truffle butter) was another highlight.
The Josper grill is the main selling point here, so we ordered onglet steak with patatas a lo pobre. The meat really delivered on flavour and seemed beefier than most cuts – plus the Josper added a smoky depth of flavour that complemented the dish well. Pinchos morunos with mojo verde (succulent hunks of flame-grilled marinated pork) was prettily presented on a bed of zingy mojo verde sauce.
El Gato Negro’s signature creme Catalan was a triumph for dessert – the crunch on top gave way to a moreish thick cream dessert infused with orange and vanilla. Finally, pretty little poison, an effervescent cocktail, comprising rose vodka, Campari, blueberries, vanilla and cava was deliciously, dangerously easy to drink!
The bottom line
El Gato has had teething problems. New restaurants do. After a busy weekend, several dishes were unavailable. However, it looked great (dramatic art on raw walls, glamorous booths, great views over King Street) and the food was stellar. This is the most important Manchester restaurant of 2016.Total for two: £121.99, including service
Vibe 8/10; Food 8/10; Service 8/10; Total 24/30
Set across three floors, El Gato Negro is warm, casual and inviting. Portions were generous, the quality of produce was excellent, and all our food was flawlessly executed. I can’t fault the place. Total for two: £148, including service
Vibe 10/10; Food 10/10; Service 10/10; Total 30/30