Monday, 7 January 2008
The London Carriage Works, Liverpool
There's no getting around the fact that outside London the restaurant scene in this country can be at the very least hit and miss. You can eat badly anywhere of course, it's just that you really start noticing the ratio of good to bad places dropping off dramatically the moment you leave the capital, and finding anywhere half decent in the regions requires a fair amount of research, a sprinking of good fortune and often a not insignificant budget.
Liverpool is attempting to make things easier for the average food tourist by arranging all its good restaurants on one road - Hope Street - within minutes of each other, and with a farmer's market on the same stretch of tarmac on the third Sunday in every month. Worth checking out to anyone in this part of town are the Side Door (reviewed back in July), Ego, which is a small chain but is consistently decent and do lots of organic stuff, 60 Hope Street, a high-end bistro serving good local produce, and The London Carriage Works, which I visited on a bitterly cold evening last week.
The first thing we were told on arriving was that nearly all the fish & seafood dishes were unavailable - probably something to do with the time of year, and at least they weren't using frozen substitutes. Service was friendly enough - surprisingly not always a given in a city famed for the warmth of its people - and with the main restaurant closed off the few diners in the brasserie/bar area were treated with commendable attention.
My starter was Lakeland venison carpaccio. I chose this because I like venison and despite the fact all meat carpaccios I've ever had have been rather disappointing, I was hoping that a strong gamey flavour would bring something new to what is all too often a few cold slices of tasteless meat on an oversized plate. Unfortunately the meat on this dish could still have been anything - there was no strong venison flavour and my opinion of carpaccio is still resolutely unchanged (ie. a pretentious waste of good meat). However it was served with a very nice peppercorn and juniper vinaigrette which went down very well mopped up with the excellent warm bread rolls.
For main I had "Iron aged pork" - and despite being confidently informed by our waiter this meant "aged in iron barrels", I had my suspicions and indeed discovered that evening through the powers of Google that it is in fact a rare iron-age breed of pig from North Wales. This discovery was tinged with disappointment as I was ready to announce to the world a new Liverpool speciality of "pig in a barrel", which I think would lend itself quite nicely to an eccentric local food festival in the Gloucester cheese-rolling vein. Unfortunately the reality was far more mundane as the kitchen had seen fit to hugely overcook said pork, so much so that it was dry and chewy all the way through. A terrible mistake, as it is perfectly acceptable to leave good pork quite pink in the middle these days. I should say though that again despite the main ingredient being disappointing the jus and caramelised fruit and veg served with the pig were all brilliant. Such a shame.
And there would have ended a pretty underwhelming meal, had the London Carriage Works not had one wonderful last trick up its sleeve - a cheese menu! As I was salivating over the list of cheeses from all over the north west and the world it occurred to me - why don't more restaurants have a cheese menu? Plenty of top London places have cheese boards to die for (step forward Chez Bruce and Claridge's) but having to ask the waiter about each one in turn is exhausting. Why not have a proper list to consult? Apologies for the poor photo as I was attempting to hold the pages open with one hand and operate my cameraphone with the other, but take my word for it that the descriptions made very interesting reading and served as an excellent reminder that if there's one thing this part of the world does very well it's cheese. We chose Kidderton Ash and Smoked Gubbeen amongst others, but the real star and our latest greatest discovery is Mrs Kirkhams Lancashire cheese, waxy and soft with a lovely nutty taste and completely unlike any other Lancashire cheese I've ever tried. I'm told you can get it at Neal's Yard so I shall be going at the weekend.
So full marks for the cheese course but "must try harder" when it comes to making the most of the admittedly well-chosen local ingredients. And at what is a premium price by any standards (best part of £50 a head) there's no excuse for overcooking pork. All is not lost - Liverpool has a few more restaurants on my to-do list so there's plenty of time to restore the reputation of the city, and maybe I shouldn't be so hard on a place which is doing a good job promoting local ingredients in a place not exactly famed for its gastronomic heritage. But equally I would be doing London Carriage Works an injustice if I didn't rate it by the measure of good food anywhere. There shouldn't be any such thing as "good for Liverpool".