High street dining on trial
Details 70 branches nationwide. Starters from £3.90; mains from £7.25; desserts from £1.65. (wagamama.com) TN visited the Printworks branch, Manchester)
Provenance: 0/10 (see above)
La Tasca restaurants pay almost kitsch homage to Andalucian tapas bars; they’re all tilework and flamenco music. Manchester’s Deansgate branch, however, has been given a makeover, so but for paella pans on walls, this could be any sleek, city centre venue. It’s a pity the food hasn’t kept pace with such changes. Cooked tapas (cold-in-the-middle croquettes; greasy calamari; burned padrón peppers) were terrible. A platter of olives, meats and cheese was slightly better, but the chorizo and salchichon were poor. Two drinks, the platter, bread, five tapas and one dessert cost £41.35 – nearly 50 quid with tip.
Albóndigas a la jardinera, croquetas de pollo, calamares Andaluza.
La Tasca imports over £1m of Spanish ingredients annually. It also uses UK suppliers, ‘and some, such as fish, from slightly further afield’.
Starter or pudStarter. The freshly baked breads with Catalan-style pulped tomato and olive oil dips are the only thing Olive recommends.
There are sangrias, a handful of sherries and Spanish beers on the menu. Of the latter, Olive’s pick is Estrella Damm, 330ml/£3.20. For sherry, try Manzanilla La Gitana, Sanlucar de Barrameda, Jerez, Spain, 100ml/£4.15.
The last Thursday of the month is fiesta night at La Tasca, with wine tasting and chef demos.
64 branches nationwide. Starters from £1.95; tapas from £2.95; desserts from £2.95. (latasca.co.uk) TN visited the Deansgate branch, Manchester
Antonio is no longer a director of this chain of smart deli/cafés, but he is still involved in menu development – and it shows. With a good selection of healthy, simple dishes and a relaxed vibe, Carluccio’s is consistently popular with the yummy mummy crowd. The St John’s Wood branch is ankle-deep in kids during the day, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the evening reveals occasional frayed edges - sporadic crayon damage, gaffer-tape repairs to the banquettes and frazzled staff with thousandyard stares. Carluccio’s has no central production facility, either cooking on-site or using trusted local suppliers.
Antipasto massimo (large mixed antipasto for two with salami, foccacia, roast ham, homemade caponata and oven-roasted tomatoes), penne giardiniera (Pugliese penne with courgette, chilli and deep-fried spinach balls), and the ever popular gelati.
All Carluccio’s food is certified GM-free, chickens are free-range and many ingredients are sourced from specialist producers in Italy, using traditional artisanal methods. Great for authenticity, less great for your carbon footprint.
Starter or pud
Desserts such as panna cotta, pasticcio de cioccolato (chocolate bread and butter pudding) and torta di limone (lemon tart), are made daily on-site and beat the starters hands down.
The Sicilian La Segreta Rosa, a full-bodied Merlot/Syrah blend, £5.25 for a small glass.
You can pick up some excellent Italian wines in the deli at retail price, then drink them in the restaurant for £5 corkage. This means prices of around 40% less compared to other restaurants.
55 branches nationwide. Primi (starters) from £4.95; secondi (pasta and mains) from £7.50; desserts from £3.75. (carluccios.com) TH visited the St John’s Wood branch, London
The interior of a Café Rouge is Belle Epoque France seen through Disney’s eyes. The menu encompasses many bistro and brasserie classics, and like many chains, it’s over-lit, which means you can see the details of your meal, but perhaps a few too many of your date.
Confit de canard with French beans, creamy pommes Dauphinois and a bizarrely oriental sounding plum sauce is surprisingly good. Other bestsellers are the soupe à l’oignon and tarte Tatin.
Café Rouge says it works with smaller producers in the UK and France ‘whenever possible’. The majority of cheeses are imported from France and mussels from Scotland.