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Tapas to light up your life: El Gato Negro at Guestrant

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Hoary old blues crooners and popular folklore alike state it’s bad luck when a black cat crosses your path. I don’t know if this adage holds firm in Spanish, but after a night of superb tapas from El Gato Negro’s Simon Shaw, I’m prepared to guess not. Lady luck and her helpers in the kitchen ensured that the inaugural Guestrant of 2012 was a resounding success.

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Despite January being seen as a quiet month, there’ve already been a slew of great food events to choose from in Manchester, including Gastroclub at Room, JoinUs4Supper at North Star Deli, and then Guestrant announced they’d be bringing El Gato Negro to the Electrik Bar in Chorlton. Having enjoyed Guestrant on several occasions in 2011, it was an opportune time to re-engage with this great watering hole in south Manchester for some quality school-night dining.

Despite it being the same night as my debut TV appearance, it didn’t take long to decide that curiosity to view my gawping visage on the goggle-box would be comprehensively trumped by the chance for some superb Spanish fare from one of the best tapas joints outside of London.* El Gato Negro is one of Calderdale’s, and indeed West Yorkshire’s culinary gems. Chef/proprietor Simon Shaw has made his mark on the county and further afield, and over the years has steadily built a reputation on a sympathetic balance of innovation, tradition and flair, with a few appearances on national TV to raise the profile of the restaurant further.

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Having enjoyed a truly memorable lunch at El Gato Negro in Rippoden back in 2007 – the first time I’d experienced many of the classic quality components of Catalan tapas – I’d long been planning to return. Since that visit I’ve savoured tapas with Miss South in Barcelona, and become ever-more fascinated with regional Spanish cuisine, something which I’m not familiar enough with. Last time (to my chagrin) I drove, and I was determined to be able to take advantage of the excellent wine list on my return. Rather than a series of public transport connections across the south Pennines, the option of a short walk in Chorlton was too inviting to pass, so we picked up tickets for what turned out on the night to be a sold-out event.

We arrived to find Electrik comfortably full of diners-to-be, mixing with a post-work crowd of south Manchester folk. Picking a table close to the kitchen and introducing ourselves to the couple sat there, we chatted and waited expectantly as rich aromas rolled out from the back of the building. As the tables filled, we got an introduction to some of the wines for the evening, provided by the experts at Manchester’s Hanging Ditch. Normally I go for a range of the great craft beers Electrik stocks, but the combination of good Spanish wine to complement the food swung us for the evening. We elected to enjoy a glass of the soft Sabina Viura white, as we had an inkling we’d be enjoying a fish dish or two.

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One thing about Guestrant is that it’s a complete gamble as to where you sit, and when you get served, as the waiting pattern seems to be different every time, especially on a busy night. Not that it’s an issue for me… the vibe is generally very good-natured, even if the pace is a bit haphazard at times – but this contributes to a sense of egalitarianism and mounting excitement as you see what’s being brought out of the (rather dinky) kitchen by friendly waiting staff.

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After Simon came out to make a short introduction, the first courses started to flow out of the kitchen. Three rotund potato and manchego croquettes, crowned with aioli and a tomato reduction – looking somewhat ‘booblike’ as my companion pointed out – appeared, pretty as a picture. Lightly fried, fluffy inside, and finished with a garnish of parsley oil, more of the tomato, and a stickily sweet vinegar reduction, they disappeared quickly and contentedly from our table.

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Next came a dainty and superlative portion of sardines on toast: fresh fish fillet atop light toast, crowned with a complex-flavoured tapenade. A million miles from the pleasures of a quick tinned dinner at home, the balance of textures and tastes delighted… and once again, plates were cleared in no time.

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After choosing a red to accompany the next couple of courses, a wonderful Navajos Tinto Sin Joven, we watched servers bearing piggy goodness out to fellow diners. The next course revelled in the simplicity and quality of the central ingredient… four stacks of some the most wonderful chorizo I’ve ever had sat on a plate, accompanied by the same sauces from the previous courses. Never one to turn down some Iberian pork products, I devoured these stickily-seductive sausage slices; their spiced warmth combining wonderfully with the fruity red wine they’d been cooked in. Heavenly. I believe the chorizo is sourced from Brindisa, and is on Mister North’s shopping wish list for future experiments at home…

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Pork was at the fore of the next course too: a trio of morcilla, slow-braised pig cheek and unctuous pork belly, cuddled up alongside a bright green apple puree, delicate pea shoots, and a light gravy. Once again, the charcuterie was superb… the morcilla was smoother, and with less obvious rice content than the Spanish black pudding I’m used to. The salty fatty deliciousness of the belly was tempered with the dark richness of the cheek, cut though with the sauces and freshness of the pea. Yet another perfect combo of pig and pulse to add to the North/South archives!

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By this time I was feeling rather sated, but as soon the dessert was placed in front of me I resolved to find a space to give it a good home. The crisp caramel topping astride the dish of Creme Catalan invited a full-on assault with a spoon, and it cracked open perfectly to reveal the lightest creamy contents inside. Madre Dios… such a harmony of almost nutty crisp caramel, vanilla mellowness, and lighter-than-cloud, smoother-than-butter custard ended the meal on a perfect high.

Sitting with a slightly dazed grin at the end of the night, letting the carousel of dishes replay again and again through my mind, it was great to get the opportunity to chat to Simon Shaw. Entirely relaxed, utterly affable, and extraordinarily passionate about Spanish cuisine, he was happy to tell us more about the meal and restaurant. For anyone lucky enough to have attended this Guestrant, I’m sure they’ll agree it was a great night: looking around, diners were tangibly pleased by the quality of the meal and drinks on offer.

Electrik haven’t ventured into the White Rose country before for their Guestrant events, and El Gato Negro’s tapas was a masterly choice to add a dash of Mediterranean colour to the grey of a Manchester winter. I hope the experience entices a few more Manchester food-lovers to head across Rishworth Moor to Ripponden, and enjoy Shaw’s Spanish flavours behind the honeyed Yorkshire stone walls of his restaurant. I know I’ll be going back, eager with expectation… but taking the train & bus this time so I can make the most of the cellar!

*Admitted I’m not as seasoned as Miss South on Spanish cuisine available in the capital, but I’d say this is the best Spanish food I’ve had in the UK apart from Jose in Bermondsey, whose jamon stole my heart.

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