I never tire of going to Gusto in Cookridge. It’s one of those places you are assured of a warm welcome and good service and, indeed, on this, our latest visit to this year’s Oliver Awards Best Suburban category winner, it proved thus.
The location of this restaurant is on Otley Old Road is a former police station of all things, which has been converted into a wondrous blaze of fairylights and soft mood lighting, playing off the amber glow of solid wood floors and sparkling in the polished glasses at the bar, on your right as you enter.
Service here has never been anything less than impeccable. From the moment you step through the doors, you’re greeting by staff wreathed in warming smiles, whose quiet confidence only serves to reassure. This is one of its strengths and the reason it beat off stiff competition in last year’s awards.
In fact, too much stock cannot be placed in this because it’s something restaurants the world over strive for and yet fail to achieve and it’s also why I’m going to bang on about it for a little bit longer.
The thing about the service at Gusto is, it’s understated and effortless. Or seems so. Of course, the reality will be that it’s taken a lot of hard work, practise and no doubt mistakes along the way but while such things are necessary, the customer sees only a slick, efficient and courteous performance.
The maitre’d, in particular, exhumed an almost omniscient authority and seemed to be everywhere at once. When we entered, he was poring over bookings, while directing two staff and at the same time welcoming guests. Later, we clocked him serving a family with two small children and engaging in a bit of friendly banter. The rest of the staff are cut from the same cloth.
On our visit, a balmy Tuesday evening about seven o’ clock, the welcome was as expected and we were shown to our table. Gusto is split into two levels, with tables throughout, although the main dining area is toward the back of the building, where a huge conservatory extends out, taking in the open kitchen and creating a magical space in which to dine. It’s decorated in strings of tiny lights, with drapes billowing low from the windowed ceiling and by way of a focal point, in the centre of the room, a tree, sprouting from the wooden floor and glistening in the soft light.
Enough about the service and decor. What about the food?
We started with olives (£3.25), houmous (£5.75) and bruschetta (£3.95). The latter was the best of the starters, fresh, aromatic and whispering of distant sun-drenched shores. However, the houmous, which came with a dollop of pesto, I found bland: a featureless desert of taste, save for the hillock of pesto. There was no depth, it yearned for garlic and seasoning.
We also ordered garlic mushrooms (£5.75), which was hot and creamy and felt like a masseuse had gently leaned you back in the chair and massaged your shoulders and stroked your throat with every swallow.
For my main I went for slow cooked pork belly (£14.50), which came with a healthy coating of apple sauce, which disappointingly, lacked any sharpness of flavour. It had dough balls (fried gnocchi) around the side and pork crackling, which was too soft and mushy and needed a bit more crunch for my liking. The red wine jus around the plate, meanwhile, was a touch too watery and did not seem to me to have been reduced enough. The belly, however, made up for all that.
To go with this, I ordered some hot pesto mash (£3.50, nice), the mash properly salted and working well with the pesto.
My partner ordered tagliatelle with prawns and garlic, in sweet chilli sauce, finished with lime and rocket (£12.95), which was very good, bold rounded flavours coming together nicely on the plate.
We also ordered sides of broccoli (£3.50) and a house salad (£3.95), the broccoli in particular being wonderfully sweet and crunchy, garbed in sweet chilli and almonds.
For dessert, I went for bambolini (£5.25), while my other half opted for the sticky toffee pudding (£6.75), which came served with vanilla ice cream and was everything you could wish for in a pudding, with a rich luxuriant, lingering burnt sweetness offset by the more delicate cloy of the ice-cream.
The bambolini (home made mini doughnuts with orange chantilly and chocolate sauce) were also good. Moorish. Great for dipping and sharing.
As a final flourish, I ordered an Irish coffee (£4.50) and my partner went for an espresso Martini (£8 and worth every penny). The coffee had just the right kick, with deep, warming vapours just yearning for a log fire and a comfy high-backed chair, while the espresso Martini was also a hit - this is the cocktail that wakes you up at the end of the night leaves you raring to go at it one more time and here, it was executed with perfection.
With a pint of diet Pepsi and a bottle of Chardonay Arinto Pinot Blanc (£22/£7.50 for a large glass), a lovely easy-drinking, delicate white with notes of apple and pear and a decent price to boot, the final bill came to £96.15. Take of the bottle of wine and dismiss some of the side dishes or starters and you can eat here quite well for around the £60 mark, although they do have an early bird menu (5pm-7pm daily), which includes spritz cocktail, bruschetta and a main for £19.50.
Previous visits to Gusto have seen some fantastic food and despite some of the dishes disappointing this time, it’s not an experience which will prevent us returning.
Address: Otley Old Road, LS16 6HN
Opening times: Mon-Sat 11am-midnight, Sun 11am-11pm
Tel: 0113 2367 2100