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Isinglass, Urmston, Manchester

06 April 2006

With its muted brown livery and being squeezed unassumingly between a dry cleaners and a curry house, it is easy to walk past Isinglass two or three times before you spot it.

Add to that the fact that the co-owners, head chef Lisa Walker (recently named Chef of the Year at Manchester's Food and Drink Awards) and restaurant manager Julie Bagnoli, opened their restaurant in one of Manchester's lesser-known suburbs, and it's no wonder the restaurant has had its customers reaching for their A-Zs.

Bagnoli takes a pragmatic view when it comes to the restaurant's location. "You could write a 50-page report stating the case for every different location in Manchester, but at the end of the day we could afford the rent in Urmston."

Walker, who trained in California before returning to Manchester to work at Sarasota and Palmiro, says that after working in large kitchens she decided that enough was enough. "I had to get away from the city centre," she says. "People laughed when we chose Urmston, but I said that if we cook the right food, the customers will come."

The gamble has paid off, and now Walker, Bagnoli and two full-time chefs serve their innovative English menu to 300 covers a week, with Saturdays booked solid three weeks in advance.

The pioneering spirit that led them to Urmston can also be seen in their spring menu, which prizes local and seasonal foods. Walker is enthused by the opportunities spring presents for the kitchen. "The hedgerows are just starting to come to life, so you've got nettles starting to grow and hedgerow fruits coming out. Foraged food is great, because you know where it comes from - and it's free."

Consequently, the menu reads like a pleasant walk in the countryside. Starters of burdock fritters (£4.85) and roasted nettles and goats' curd (£5.25) sit alongside mains of rabbit burgers (£10.95) and lamb shanks (£12.60).

According to Walker, foraging for burdock, elderflowers and nettles is a great way to appreciate the seasonality of food. "Spring is so short that it's important to get the most of the ingredients while they're out," she says. "In a couple of months nettles will have grown too big and lost all of their flavour."

The perfect nettle has leaves about 6cm across and is best sourced from the middle of fields, as the roadside plants tend to have a carbon dioxide aftertaste. Walker suggests using the stalks as well as the leaves, as they provide the characteristic peppery flavour for soups and purées.

After committing to using local ingredients where possible, however, they had a lot of work to find items like salsify, tansy and purple sprouting broccoli. "Most restaurants might have five suppliers; we've got 25," says Walker. "Of course, we could get cardoons from France, but we want to use English produce, so we've had to persuade local farmers to grow them for us - but it takes three years, so we have to wait."

Other local produce on the menu includes Blue Pig sausages served with creamy mash (£8.95). The meat comes from a crossbreed of Gloucestershire Old Spot and British Saddleback pigs.

Although Isinglass doesn't do offers and is in the process of pulling out of the Hi-Life regional restaurant promotion scheme, there is optimism that the new menu alone will be enough to attract customers. Bagnoli is particularly looking forward to seeing how the rabbit burgers - served on an English muffin - will fare. "There's a real generational divide when it comes to serving rabbit: people over 50 usually love it; any younger than that and it's not so well received."

Although the short-term goals are to maintain quality and enjoy cooking the new menu, Walker says that ultimately the restaurant is ready to take the next step up in terms of profile. And if they can keep up the quality while investigating ever-more interesting ingredients, Urmston should become a destination on every food lover's map.

What's on the menu?
  • Seasonal soup, £3.95

  • Rare-breed ham terrine, £4.75

  • Home-cured salmon, £5.65

  • Range of grills served with mushrooms, tomato, home-made chips or boiled Pink Fir Apple potatoes (corn-fed chicken £9.95, fillet steak £15.95)

  • Vegetarian or vegan sausages with parsley mash and tomato gravy, £8.95

  • Belly pork with scalloped potatoes and black peas, £12.95

  • Curd cheese tart, £4.45

  • Apple and toffee pie, £4.45

  • Sticky chocolate brownie, £4.45

Isinglass, 46 Flixton Road, Urmston, Manchester M41 5AB
Tel: 0161-749 8400
www.isinglassrestaurant.co.uk

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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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