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MasterChef and restaurant critic Grace Dent recalls a riotous family get together in Manchester

I travel all the time with work and I am very often reviewing places with people who can be good company, but who I don’t love or want to be with as much as my own family. I’m from the North West, and it’s difficult for me to get up from London to see my family at a time when we all might be free, so when the stars align and we manage to get out together – and tempt my teenage niece out of the house to be with us – it is special.

A couple of years ago, it all fell into place. We went to Hispi in Didsbury, which is owned by the chef Gary Usher. It was me, my brother David, his wife Pam and my niece, Lola. To start with, David managed to get someone to look after his dogs, which meant we could stay out the whole night. He has a labrador called Betty and Tess, a collie, so it’s not like they’re chihuahuas that can just sit under your armpit for the night – these are big, lumbering dogs that need a proper walk. We spent the day set loose shopping in Manchester.

Everybody loaded up and the teenager went to the big Boots to get make-up. Then we all got our finery on. In my experience, Northerners make a real distinction for a night out. In the South, it can be a slide into a restaurant after work; in the North, we would always go home and have a bath, get ready, put make-up on. There is a much more formal aspect to going out where my family’s concerned. I love Gary Usher. He does fancy fine dining but it is not purposefully tricksy.

Everything sounds delicious, and it is. It is not a stand-on-ceremony restaurant with acres of tablecloths and dozens of wineglasses – it’s special, but you feel like you can let your hair down. It was one of the first times my niece had been out to a proper, quite posh restaurant. And it was lovely sitting, talking, eating, spending time together – we had white wine, red wine, Champagne, cocktails. Everybody was off the leash for the night.

We shared a few different things: the braised featherblade of beef with beetroot ketchup and truffle and Parmesan chips; really good lamb rump with a little caramelised onion tart... Sunday lunch almost, but knocked up to another level. When we were growing up, custard tart was always the thing that adults had.

They can be quite bland, but what Gary Usher’s lot do is special. That night, my brother (who doesn’t like to share food – it’s been a running joke among us for 40 years) ordered the custard tart. Pam and I had a chocolate dessert and a banana bread thing stacked with macadamias and toffee. But when that tart arrived – the casing crisp and delicious, the curd amazing – Pam and I couldn’t resist helping ourselves to some, then finishing off the whole lot. David is still sore about it to this day. We stayed for hours and hours.

Over the last few years our mum and dad have both been ill, and David and I have been looking after them, so it was so good to have time with him without worrying about anybody for a few hours. That’s the power of food, and that’s what is sad about restaurants closing during the pandemic – right now is when we really need a rubbish pizza and red wine after a really hard week.

That night was a proper family dinner. I am always so dressed up on telly that when I am with my family I just wear jeans and boots. But that night, I was in a black pencil skirt, a blouse, a pair of high heels and big earrings. I was proper me, with big eyelashes to signify: ‘We are going out.’

Grace Dent is a columnist, broadcaster and author. Her book Hungry: A Memoir of Wanting More, is out now (Mudlark, £16.99)

 

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Kerry Fowler

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