Tuesday, 6 January 2009
The Monro, Liverpool
It should be a source of great pride to Liverpudlians that the restaurant scene in this city is rapidly growing into one of the most exciting and varied to be found anywhere outside London. While the London Carriage Works, 60 Hope Street and (to a lesser extent) the Panoramic continue to impress at the top end of the scale, it is the emergence of bistros such as Candice Fonseca's Delifonseca and the excellent Keralan Maharaja (the Kastoori of the North West) that demonstrate a city genuinely maturing as a culinary destination. And to anyone who thinks these developments are simply the inevitable and passive by-product of a countrywide post-Jamie change in attitudes to eating, I present as evidence Manchester, which despite being arguably a wealthier and more developed city can hardly boast more than a tiny handful of decent eateries. It comes to something where a branch of Simply Heathcotes is the best place in town to eat, and yet you really can't do much better in Manchester, even in Chinatown, although to be fair there's supposed to be quite a nice restaurant in the Urbis building which I'm sure I'll get around to trying out one day.
And there's another huge advantage that restaurants in Liverpool have over their rivals from around the country - a glorious legacy of buildings to house them in. It's hard to say whether 60 Hope Street would be as popular if it wasn't set in a handsome 18th century townhouse, or where the Panoramic would be without its spot on the 34th floor of the West Tower, but opening a new restaurant in an immaculately restored coaching inn in the Georgian Quarter means you can impress even before guests step through the front door. Of course, the mark of a great restaurant is one that continues to impress once the food starts arriving, and the Monro managed to impress on almost every level.
I'm sure you're tired of me apologising for my crappy iPhone pictures by now, but I will just say in my defence that although we remembered to bring up a proper cameraphone from London we didn't remember to bring a power cable, so it sat in the flat uselessly for two weeks and I had to make do with Blur-o-vision© instead. Still, you'll get the idea.
After choosing a lovely bottle of house wine from the largely organic list (so unusual in this part of the country to be a talking point in itself), we settled down to eat. It is a mark of how rapidly restaurants in Liverpool have improved in recent years that I was imagining my "Wood pigeon breast set on a bed of wild mushrooms" as a cold and disappointing chunk of overcooked bird, and was therefore delighted to be presented with a warm, perfectly freshly cooked fillet sat atop an earthy and satisfying wild mushroom and pesto salad. You can probably even tell through the murk of my iPhone camera lens that this was an attractive dish, and I can assure you it tasted as good as it looked.
Normally steak and chips would be way down on my list of priorities for anywhere other than Hawksmoor, and to be honest the only reason I went for it on this occasion was because there was no supplement and it just came as part of the set menu. Again, tempering my expectation with memories of the Ghosts of Liverpool Dining Past, I was nothing short of stunned to receive not only gorgeous, fluffy, golden home made chips and a bucketload of creamy peppercorn sauce but a perfectly medium-rare steak of clearly very respectable provenance. Shot through with just enough succulent fat and seasoned correctly, it was precisely how steak and chips should be. I could have eaten about five.
And then finally, nestled cutely in the bottom of a bowl in a lake of frothy custard, came bread and butter pudding, lovely and rich and with a very good balance of flavours and textures. Bread and butter pudding can be delicious when done well, but so often are either sickly and sweet with too much sugar or cloying and stodgy with not enough liquid. This was a fine example, and disappeared quickly.
The arrival of the bill demonstrated another compelling reason to dine out in this city - those three generous courses, cooked with care and delivered with grace and efficiency, came to around £20 a head. A pittance, and yet if we'd arrived just an hour earlier we could have had the same for a ludicrous £12.95. How they can be making a profit while including that lovely steak (which on its own would have cost about £20 in a London gastropub) is a mystery, and yet is by no means unique amongst restaurants in Liverpool - the generosity of the city goes well beyond £1 a pint nights in the Globe pub. The Monro appears to have suddenly turned itself into a "proper" (ie. London-style) gastropub after by all accounts being rather mediocre for a number of years, without allowing their prices to climb and without any creeping stuffiness in service or presentation. It seems a recent refurbishment was more than cosmetic, and perhaps also the appearance of the other fine-dining spots has meant the old guard has to up their game. Whatever the reasons, the Monro is not just "good for Liverpool", and not even just "good for outside London". It's good. It's very good.