Anyone who follows @SoLiNaNQ on Twitter will know that Franco Sotgiu, the man behind the success of Manchester’s most talked about restaurant* is a… “character”.
(*It has topped Urbanspoon’s ‘Talk of the Town’ listing pretty much since it opened.)
Franco is a Bolton-born ‘Irish Italian’ (Sardinian), beyond this I asked Twitter for some help describing the enigmatic SoLiTa kingpin.
|'Father's Day Burger"|
Chef Dave Mooney (@Cheshire_Food) came back with, “Uno a destra, siamo tutti sbagliati! Bel ragazzo davvero, nasconde bene.” Which roughly translates as “He is the one who is always right, whilst everyone else is wrong.” and as “A really nice guy… who hides it well!”
Never standing still, Franco is certainly a man with boundless energy (he should weigh about 6 stone… but he’s always at SoLiTa, so no chance!) His Twitter timeline would suggest he never sleeps for all of the ideas that are forever revolving around his head.
My ‘involvement’ in SoLiTa dates back before ‘she’ even found ‘her’ way to Manchester’s Northern Quarter (as well as representing the restaurant’s location ‘South of little Italy’ or Ancoats, Solita means ‘lonely girl’ in Spanish.)
Just over a year ago, I received an phone call from Franco, who after the closure of Sole had made a deal with owner Simon to join forces to create something new… as someone who eats out a fair bit, he wanted to ‘tap’ my brain for ideas (he dismisses the “poor” ideas and passes the better ones off as his own – see Dave Mooney’s description).
|"Deep Fried Chicken Livers" with neck bone gravy|
I sat down with Franco, Simon and a few other parties and together we thrashed out the first menu and with help from Thom Hetherington, who inspired the name… SoLiTa was born. (Manchester’s burger lovers may find it hard to believe that there was just one burger on the original menu.)
Since this time, I have often acted as an unofficial menu consultant / sounding board. Just as the management like to receive and regularly respond to constructive criticism and feedback from all customers, especially their loyal Twitter followers - I rarely need asking twice to taste and offer my opinion on new dishes.
|"Maryland Crab Cakes" with Big Manc Sauce|
The menu is ever evolving – many dishes have come and gone; you may recall the ‘Breaking Bad Burger’ ‘The Life Aquatic’ ‘Ju(i)cy Lucy’ ‘The French Double Dip’ the short lived ‘Mushroom Double Swiss’ and of course, my favourite, ‘The Hungry Hoss Burger’.
The best ones stay… and some don’t even get past the development stage ‘The Gagnam Style Burger’ ‘Dom’s Famous Thighs’ and the delights of the ‘Kentucky Fried Grouse’ (#Ishityounot) all spring to mind.
|Yep... "Kentucky Fried Grouse"|
Whilst I cannot claim the idea was mine, I was there on the day the legendary Big Manc was created and helped to tweak the sauce to perfection – it is my photo that created much of the initial excitement on Twitter.
|The legendary "Big Manc" along side its little big brother.|
On the new menu – ironically after my dismal performance in the ‘SoLiTa in the Street’ Hot Wing Challenge – the new ‘Cry For Help Wings' are a subtle dig at the much maligned ‘Suicide Wings' of a local “rival”.
|"Sam Adam's 'Beer Boiled' Shrimp"|
So what else is on the new menu? There are a new batch of small plates, the “Lucky 7” layered dip; “Crispy Fried Chicken Livers” with neck bone gravy; “Sam Adam’s Beer Boiled Shrimp” with ‘Old Bay’ dirty butter and “Maryland Crab Cakes” with Big Manc Sauce also making use of SoLiTa’s latest ‘not so secret ingredient’ aka ‘Old Bay Seasoning’.
|"Fennel, Heritage Tomato & Blood Orange Salad"|
The Lucky 7 was the surprise dish for me; with seven layered ingredients including guacamole, salsa, sour cream, cheese and olives, I thought there would be too much going on but I loved it. It looks good and is very eatable.
|"Lucky 7" with Blue Corn Tortillas"|
The chicken Crispy Fried Chicken Livers is a dish that is right up my alley. I know livers are not everyone favourite but I love them when cooked well – these were delightfully pink in the middle, with a thick crisp crumb and rich gloopy gravy. Delicious!
|"Crispy Fried Chicken Livers"|
The Sam Adam’s ‘Beer Boiled’ Shrimp with ‘Old Bay’ dirty butter were good but not earth shattering. Personally, I’d prefer fewer but plumper shrimp – the dirty butter with the old bay seasoning made for an interesting accompaniment to more common dressings.
|"Sam Adam's 'Beer Boiled' Shrimp with Old Bay Dirty Butter"|
The “Maryland Crab Cakes” also seasoned with Old Bay were another surprise addition – I probably wouldn’t have ordered these as I have been disappointed by too many crab cakes in the past. These were packed full of shredded crabmeat and I struck gold with a meaty piece if claw in one of them. The Big Manc sauce went well too.
|"Maryland Crab Cakes"|
I also tried the “Father’s Day Burger” (possibly kept on the menu and renamed after the event) – it may not be the most attractive burger that they SoLiTa have produced but it worked for me on taste. The smoked brisket is a much-improved recipe.
|"Father's Day Burger"|
With hopes of a summer, the new menu also features a ‘Salad Section’ featuring: ‘Chicken Waldorf’ ‘Barbequed Mackerel Nicoise’ and the amazing sounding ‘Black ‘n’ Blue’ with blue cheese and Inka Grilled steak. I had the ‘Heritage Tomato, Fennel and Blood Orange Salad’ which was amazing… the quality of the tomatoes were second to none - a real taste of summer!
|"Heritage Tomato Salad"|
Disclaimer: whilst I always insist on paying for my meals at SoLiTa, occasionally, like on this occasion, Franco will insist on footing the bill. The comments on the food are positive, not because I ate the free but because I like SoLiTa - it would be strange if I didn’t - I helped to create this monster!