Simon Shaw was already an established chef, when he took a trip to Catalonia and Basque country some years ago, and fell in love with the region’s tapas cuisine. I remember a family restaurant in the Basque region, run by two sisters. They spoke no English. We spoke the names and mouthed the taste of dishes, lovingly prepared. It was a memorable, remarkable, funny, surreal experience.
WORDS: Jean Hill
Simon’s trip changed his life. He opened a modest restaurant serving tapas dishes, that won accolades, and a Michelin Bib Gourmand. He opened El Gato Negro in Manchester: that was awarded an AA rosette, and Michelin Bib Gourmand awards. The wines and spirits are renowned; fine wines carefully matched to the Spanish cuisine.
Simon then, happily, launched in Liverpool in late summer 2019. The restaurant is in a beautiful part of the city, with views stretching across the Flags to the Town Hall. The building has been lovingly restored. We stepped onto pristine polished wood flooring, admired the spectacular lighting and enjoyed the vibrant, original art work. The seating and décor are in subdued shades of moss and jade, with a splash of rose. The seating is classically elegant. Decorative flowers now hang from artfully constructed boughs overhead, which works beautifully, and somehow, I did have a sense of the Basque Country.
The menu combines modern and traditional Spanish flavours and techniques. We found seasonally-influenced dishes on the new spring menu, based on quality Spanish and locally-sourced food. We met Ria and George, who looked after us beautifully.
We chose a selection of small plates. First came the Catalan bread: delicate and delicious. Then we were served ‘cauliflower shabu shabu’: (the name is derived from a Japanese hotpot dish of vegetables served with dipping sauces). ‘Shabu shabu’ mimics the sound when the ingredients are stirred in the cooking pot. The satay dressing and fried chick peas suffused the cauliflower with creaminess, and gently enhanced the taste. Chargrilled sweet potato was decorated with mango, chilli and yoghurt dressing, that looked at tasted sweet and sharp. Picos blue cheese with caramelised walnuts had the wow factor, and turned out to be a star dish. This spicy, rich and creamy blue cheese (much acclaimed) is usually hand-made in the mountains of Picos de Europa in northern Spain. The salt cod croquettes were a wonderful combination of tastes, soft and smooth encased in moreish crunchiness. The grilled turmeric chicken was tasty and tender. There is a lunch-time deal (times, terms and conditions apply); 3 for £15, which has to be worth checking out. Though more expensive, the evening menu represents great value. The best of ingredients have been imported or locally sourced to maintain quality. The service was really good; the atmosphere was elegant and relaxed, and you would struggle to find better food elsewhere.
The weather was dreadful (gales and a downpour usually accompany us on reviews): I could moonlight as a weather forecaster. All that did not seem to matter nearly so much after we had eaten, and sipped a mellow Malbec wine. A taste of sunshine on a bitingly chill, rainy day. As we left, our editor insisted that the weather had improved dramatically. So for fine dining and an improved outlook, try El Gato Negro.
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