Tuesday, 3 July 2007
The Side Door, Liverpool
Last week, a trip up to see the family in Liverpool provided a perfect opportunity to try some of the new wave of eateries opening up in the trendy Georgian District of the town center. Hope Street (connecting the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals - symbolic in a city once riven with sectarian mistrust) has a number of fashionable new restaurants, amongst them The Munro (Liverpool's first gastropub), The London Carriage works and 60 Hope Street, each regarded as amongst the best in the North West. The Side Door, an attractive converted townhouse serving bistro-style British food, was more in our price range on this visit however, so in we went.
Inside, it's a busy but airy room, and the service, like so many places in this city, is very friendly if very slightly incompetent. Sorry if that sounds a bit unkind but it's generally not too much of a problem - the fine dining scene in Liverpool is pretty much still in its infancy, and I imagine the levels of service I'm used to in London will take a while to filter up here. In the meantime, if people are at least friendly and enthusiastic, well that will do for now.
The Side Door has a very strange custom of placing "serve-yourself" portions of ice and lemon on the table at the start of the meal. I can see what they're trying to do, but these tables weren't big and it very soon became very cluttered, certainly after the warm bread and oil & balsamic vinegar were added to the mix. The picture above gives you an idea of how busy it all was even before the food arrived!
My starter of salt beef and pickles wasn't brilliant to be honest - the home made horseradish was OK, as were the pickles, but the beef itself was dry and not particularly pleasant. However the tuna burgers from the set menu were "delicious" and fragrant with coriander, and the goat's cheese tart also got the thumbs up.
Again, my main was a bit of a disappointment - the calves' liver were a bit chewy and (a rare complaint from me) there was slightly too much of them. But the roasted shallots and the wine sauce were very tasty, and the celeriac mash was gorgeous. In fact, come to think of it, I don't think I've ever had a bad celeriac mash; maybe it's just one of those things that's very easy to get right. Other main courses were much better - lamb kebabs were very tasty and came with good home-made chips. A slightly confused dish geographically (kebab and chips - maybe they were aiming at the 3am post-club fine-dining crowd) but good fun.
One small gripe though was that the staff insisted of offering black pepper after all the courses - starters and main - had been served. Quite why they couldn't have just left the mill on the table and allowed us to help ourselves I don't know (we all had the standard compliment of two arms each), and we had to endure this irritating wait, food gradually cooling, whilst each dish was attended to by the waiter. There's no need to borrow the practices of budget high-street Italian restaurants to "posh-up" the service like this; and anyway, why get us to serve ourselves lemon and ice but keep the black pepper for themselves?
Desserts were the real star of this meal. A lemon tart was zingy and fresh, coconut panacotta creamy and moreish, and sticky toffee pudding was just as good as you'd expect. Everyone was most impressed by the sweet dishes, and it rounded off the meal with a welcome flourish.
There certainly seemed to be a healthy demand for unpretentious, reasonably-priced bistro food of this level, as the room was busy the whole time we were there. But I can't honestly say that Liverpool has yet really got to grips with the details that make a good local restaurant. By way of contrast, look at 32 Great Queen Street in Covent Garden - similarly-priced, equally informal but a more mature approach to ingredients and service that highlights that little extra mile that the North West has yet to travel before we reach parity. But there are no shortage of other dining options in Liverpool these days, much of them very good indeed, and it's only a matter of time before the scouse eateries are up there with the best of them.