Newest Review: ... if pizza isn't your sort of thing (that'll be me then!). There are lots of more interesting meat and fish dishes such as Branzino Basilic... more
An (Almost) Free Lunch
Member Name: zoe_page_1
Advantages: Not too bad
Disadvantages: Not that good.
My mother's birthday falls on a weekday. It is decided that I (and my Tesco vouchers) will take her out for lunch and a place of her choosing...as long as it's on the Deals menu. There is a new Strada in Spinningfields, near her office. Neither of us have been, so it's the obvious choice. We arrive around 1pm to find an open door, but a deserted restaurant. We walk cautiously past empty tables and round a corner. Ah, there is another door. It too is unmanned, but the small, very small, sprinkling of diners is a little reassuring. A waitress appears. Blonde and thin, the food here is either not very good or she never gets the chance to enjoy it. Given the occupancy rate is less than 5%, it may be the former.
She seats us in a table that has both a chair and, opposite it, a long bank of seating shared with other tables. As we're in the corner, it feels a bit like being in an American diner style booth. I love booths. All the tables here are already set with water glasses and cutlery except for one. The one directly next to us has clearly been used and not reset. Cleared but not cleaned, crumbs remain. This would be acceptable were the place busy, but it's not. Besides us there are just two more couples, and a group of maybe 8 people, though they're still at the menu reading stage too. I decide to count waiting staff and get to...zero. The thin blonde thing has now disappeared. Not a single employee is about. It feels like the Twilight Zone.
We pick up the menus and start to read. You have to read them, not glance at them. They're pretty complicated. You can see a full menu (minus prices) here: www.strada.co.uk/assets/pdf/strada_main_menu.pdf Not a thing on it is plain or simple, but if you read the descriptions carefully you will find a lot of 'normal' Italian restaurant fare, just jazzed up with descriptions that mean very little. They have, annoyingly, not highlighted which items are suitable for vegetarians. In Mexico, this is expected. In Manchester, not so much. Our conversation goes a little something like this:
"Good lord, you'd have no idea what anything was if they didn't give you descriptions"
"Yes, even reading the Italian names is no help. Their idea of a 'Spinach Salad' is not my idea of one"
"It's a bit pretentious"
"For the north, yes. But cheap, for pretentious"
"-ish. It is a chain."
"So a cheapish, pretentious chain then".
We may have solved the mystery of the waitress with the enviably slender thighs. She's foreign. Maybe she can't read through all the nonsense on the menu cards in front of us. We begin to play a game of 'Guess the origin of the waitress". I say not Poland or Western Europe. Maybe Russia? But I read the Sunday Times last weekend. I thought all the Russians were in Dubai now. Unless that's just the prostitutes. It is a harder and less entertaining game than 'Man or Woman?', our favoured past-time of Mexico.
The slender-thighed waitress of indeterminable origins finally returns and we place our food order. A friend of hers, apparently allocated to the bar, has returned to post too and took our drinks orders while we were playing. We are brought our orders, plus a free bottle of filtered water. Clever how they don't bring this out until after you order a drink you will be paying for. But, like Coke, water just tastes better from a glass bottle. We down both. The glasses are lovely, with smooth, curved shapes and a heaviness that an unthinking flick of a wrist will not upset. Were I still in my student days, I would be pocketing one on my way out. My whole uni kitchen was equipped with lovely items thanks to the concourse Starbucks at Piccadilly Station.
Back to the present, and 4 glasses on a small table for 2 do start to take up some room though. Said drinks arrived immediately, but then we are a mere 1 metre from the bar. The food takes a little longer - a whole 10 minutes in fact. Yes, the place is empty, but surely they should therefore want us to sit there a bit longer, and let passers-by think the place is buzzing. A small girl with a big voice, I can add more buzz than you might think. But no, the food is here and it's time to tuck in, lest it get cold. Alas, it already is. Luke warm pasta and bread all round. It begs the question: if you need more than 10 minutes to cook something fresh so it's piping hot when served, why would you not take the extra time needed? Are they working to some bizarre timed, Ready, Steady, Cook style rules in there?
The food is so-so, complicated by the size of the table versus the size of the serving. There is a basket of garlic bread, but nowhere really to put it, especially not with all those drinks glasses, plus their accompanying 3 glass bottles. They need one of those elevating metal racks like they have in Est Est Est, to whisk it out of your way and leave the table free for more essential items, like your plate and cutlery, but they don't stretch to such things here. The pasta looks like it has no sauce on it, and some of the ingredients are a little sparse. Had you not taken the time to read the mammoth essay of a menu, you might not know it was supposed to have artichoke in it. Maybe they hope / assume you won't. It's a nice serving size though - not too much to gobble down, quickly, before it cools entirely. We wouldn't want more for lunch, but dinner might have been a different story.
Feeling like we're living in a foxtrot now (slow, slow, quick, quick, slow) we have to wait a long time for our plates to be cleared after our slow start, slow ordering, and quick arrival of both food and drink. We request the puddings menu, but it is uninspired, so we leave it and go elsewhere. The Arndale has a new Gelato place just calling our name.
The bill comes to about £17, but my main was a starter, and my mother's main was vegetarian and therefore not the most expensive thing on the menu. For two normal eaters you're probably looking at £10 per head, less if you go for a more restricted choice off the lunchtime menu (NB: Tesco vouchers can only be used on food, and not on special menus such as this). They helpfully include a 10% service charge which we pay, but precisely, with no additional tip. It's going to be a slow day for slender-thighed blonde waitress, but we never did discover where she kept disappearing to in between dancing around, serving the 4 occupied tables.
Would we return to Strada? Probably not in a hurry, even for a virtually free lunch. The menu is difficult to navigate for vegetarians, since you can't just scan the headings. They sneak meat into a lot of things you might not always expect, and though they do have veggie options these are limited to just a couple of pastas (you'd also have to ask for them without parmesan, since this is never vegetarian), a couple of risottos and some of the pizzas. As they stand on the menu, none of the salads would do, though they might be willing to substitute ingredients at less busy times. Which is pretty much any day at the Spinningfields branch. We didn't look at them, but fish and meat items are also available on the menu, at a slightly higher price.
The restaurant is attractive and well designed, but really needed some more people in to give it a nice atmosphere, especially given its gigantic size. This is not a direct criticism of Strada - most places in Spinningfields are still quite empty - but considering the location in the new business district of town, I think it will always struggle given its poncy menu (not much to attract those middle aged northern business men who would much prefer a pie and a pint than something with an unpronounceable name).
I'm not sure what the place in the market is for Strada. It is not cheap or cheerful enough to be the next Pizza Express or Bella Italia (both also on Tesco Deals at the moment), nor did it seem that family friendly, but it also is not individual enough to be a rival for the independent Italians, of which Manchester has some great ones, at comparable prices. I don't think it will last that long up here, and I don't think it will be that great a loss for Manchester when it leaves.
Summary: A very ordinary restaurant with aspirations above its station