Leamington Spa is somewhere that’s right on my doorstep yet another place that I just don’t go to enough. Mainly because it’s a bit of a pain to get back to Rugby without driving and for a vino and bubbles lover like me that’s often a bit of a stumbling block (ha, no pun intended).
Leamington has actually been part of my life for quite some time. I went to school there from the age of nine to 13, as did Mr M (no, there was no school romance, though I’m sure he pushed me over in the playground once), and at various points since then it’s been somewhere I’ve hung out. A bit like a longstanding friend, it kind of comes in and out of my life and never disappears.
You might remember in September I was asked to host a live Q&A at the Leamington Spa Food Festival‘s ‘fringe festival’ at Regent Court. That kind of heralded my latest rediscovery of Leamington as I remembered all the lovely things about it – including its eateries.
Considering it’s only down the road from me, it boasts a far superior range of restaurants, many of them independents. But on top of that it seems to have attracted quite a few big-name chains, from Turtle Bay to Wagamama, many of which have found their home at Regent Court.
One of those is Gusto, an Italian chain that apparently aims to make “the everyday exquisite” and is gradually expanding its way across the country. Leamington’s branch only opened earlier this year, and another has just opened in Birmingham, with both seeming to be a bit of a hit.
Just round the corner from Gusto’s shiny frontage in Regent Court is a local family-run Italian independent, La Coppola, which is a firm favourite of mine and many others, so I was interested to see how a chain would live up to such stiff competition.
I visited with my mum and friend for lunch on a rainy miserable Saturday and I have to say, walking through Gusto’s doors wasn’t just about walking into a physically warm room, but the service oozed a warmth that I think every restaurant should offer. The decor is modern but has a classic air that manages to make you feel like you’re venturing somewhere quite upmarket, yet without the price tag. Some of the dishes are more expensive than others, yes, but they also do some great lunch deals with a set menu offering two courses at £11.95 and three for £13.95.
Snuggled into one of their half-moon booths, we (I say ‘we’, I think it was probably just me) couldn’t resist ordering one of their garlic pizza breads to nibble on as we chose from the rather large menu. There’s a range of sharing boards as well as starters, then two pages of pastas, risotto, pizzas, and main courses from steak to seafood. The pizza bread, as I’m sure you can imagine, was light and crispy and came with its own traditional pizza cutter that my friend Kerry took charge of.
For starter I chose something I’ve never tried before nor seen on a menu – gnudi. If you haven’t either, they’re basically dumplings made with ricotta cheese instead of potato, and semolina. Kind of like gnocchi but lighter. Apparently gnudi means naked so these are like ricotta ravioli but without the pasta part.
Mine came with sage butter and fresh tomato. Simple but a really great starter. The dumplings were slightly crisp on the outside with the sage adding a fragrant warmth and the butter a silky richness. But at the same time the fresh tomato added a delicate acidity to cut through that richness and help you on your way to finishing the portion.
Mum chose a classic, deep-fried calamari with lemon mayonnaise. I would say ‘you can’t go wrong’ with such a tried and tested favourite but actually you often can. Not so here, the squid was soft and tender while the tempura-style batter was light and crispy. Not an easy marriage to make but well done here.
Kerry had opted for tiger prawns in a garlic, tomato and cream sauce served with some slices of grilled ciabatta. It was a pretty plate of tomatoey warmth with prawns already peeled and prepared in a slightly piquant creamy sauce that had been well seasoned. The bread’s a good accompaniment because this is just the kind of dish you want to mop your sauce up with.
For main course mum couldn’t resist pasta. She went for tagliatelle with prawns and garlic in sweet chilli tomato sauce. Again, a fairly tried and tested dish but we were impressed at how well executed it was. Not just a plate of pasta in a bogstandard tomato sauce, it was a well-seasoned and flavoured dish that allowed the prawns to sing out against a reliable backing of al dente pasta and sweet, slightly-fiery sauce.
Kerry, fresh from a trip to the gym that morning, was on the hunt for substance so went for a 10oz rib-eye steak with truffle butter and sauteed wild mushrooms. She’d actually chosen a different steak but on discussion with our waiter, who was both knowledgeable and friendly, realised a better choice might be the rib-eye.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – having staff who know their stuff, know the menu and know how to engage with your customers is worth its weight in gold. It makes people feel comfortable, looked after and wins them over, sometimes as much as your food will. So for me, this was a big tick for Gusto.
I had had my head turned by the many dishes on the seafood section of the menu, but eventually went for roast monkfish tail with curried mussel sauce and smoked garlic oil. Not only a fave of mine, it sounded like an interestingly-assembled dish and a slight break from the norm.
I didn’t regret my choice. A huge chunk of well-cooked monkfish, again seasoned well and sitting in a pool of sweet, creamy curry sauce that didn’t just contain fat juice mussels but chunks of crunchy carrot and aniseedy fennel. It looked good with a sunshine hue but tasted even better and though I was pretty full (why does it always seem like such a great idea to have a ‘pre-starter’ of pizza in these places!) I polished it off.
For some reason Kerry and I had also ordered a few side dishes – just in case our mains wouldn’t be enough – and although we didn’t come anywhere close to finishing them I have to mention them as they were well done as well. Sometimes side dishes can be the forgotten relative in the corner, served up as a bit of a sad afterthought, but that definitely wasn’t the case with these.
The french beans were crispy and complimented by the slightly sweet shallots while the steamed spinach was so simple yet done just right – no watery mess of gunk swimming in water but instead delicately wilted leaves with a generous scattering of sea salt.
Since we had eyes bigger than our greedy little tummies, Kerry and I left the task of trying out dessert to mum who opted for a classic chocolate mousse served up with shortbread. It got the thumbs up from her as being everything a good choc mousse should be (and I can confirm she’s right because I clearly had to try a bit). Rich in taste, light in texture, and a great bit of crumbly, buttery loveliness in the form of the shortbread. All perfect when washed down with a decent coffee.
I walked out of Gusto rather impressed by my first experience to this clearly-successful chain. If every branch is like the Leamington one I can see why. I don’t believe in knocking chains for the sake of it but I think the reason some have merited a less-than-positive reputation is because of the lack of personality that can exude, through their menus, their staff and their restaurants themselves.
Not so here. If you didn’t know Gusto was part of a chain, I’m not quite sure you’d be able to tell from the Leamington branch. The interior is done well, the staff are great and certainly seem to care about treating customers well and the menu offers far more than your general pasta and pizza. It’s imaginative in make-up and for us was well executed. I’d eat here again either for lunch or dinner. And for people who might want to go somewhere that’s a bit of a cut above your average chain but doesn’t break the bank then it’s a good option.
I was invited for a complimentary lunch at Gusto in Leamington for the purposes of this blog. I didn’t promise a positive review.
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