Monday, 22 February 2010
Many restaurants in Liverpool suffer from what I like to call 'Tall Building Syndrome'. Not many of them are very tall though, so perhaps this requires further explanation. It was Andy Hayler, I believe, who noted the tendency for the quality of food to decline in direct proportion to altitude - so taking the most extreme example of airline meals, served at 35,000ft and usually inedible, down to revolving restaurants and the like who rely on stunning views to distract from the horrors on the table, right down to basement gastronomic palaces such as Le Gavroche and The Greenhouse who seem to be trying extra hard with their cuisine to make up for the lack of natural light. The point is, there's a tendency for restaurants with huge natural advantages in either views or décor or location to not try very hard when it comes to the food on the table, and in Liverpool, blessed with a stunning collection of some of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the temptation is that much stronger to lavish attention on the surroundings and not on the kitchen. This phenomenon is particularly apparent in the Albert Dock, a Grade I listed, sensitively restored waterfront complex containing an immodest collection of the very worst restaurants in the city.
Housed in the achingly beautiful old North and South Wales Bank (b. 1868), under cathedral-high ornately carved ceilings supported by Greco-Roman columns, there was every chance Merchants would suffer from Tall Building Syndrome and then some. My hopes weren't raised by a look at the menu, which has that provincial tendency to try and be all things to all people - fish & chips, beef & udon noodles and pasta penne jostled uncomfortably on the same page. Given my low expectations, therefore, it's possible I ordered 'safe', my desire for a passable meal overriding any critic's desire to give the kitchen a thorough workout. But I almost certainly needn't have worried - the food at Merchants was not only delicious, perfectly cooked and served promptly, it also came with a charming dose of Scouse humour and personality.
Take my starter of Eggs Benedict, for example. None of your boring wafer-thin watery ham here, instead two gorgeous crispy slices of streaky bacon, two superbly timed poached eggs and a silky coating of excellent Hollandaise. And as if that wasn't enough, Merchants surrounded this pretty pile with a ring of their own homemade brown sauce, containing happy chunks of pickles.
A main course of lamb cutlets was equally accomplished. Not a huge amount of meat, perhaps, but perfectly medium-rare lamb dressed in a rich, caper-laden jus and with both a "potato fondant" (kind of a creamy mini potato pie) and a coarse carrot and turnip mash. It also came with a miniature haggis, which I suppose could be accused of being a bit pointless but I don't care because it tasted great. Haggis is always great.
I don't blame anyone who instinctively recoils at the sound of an 'Everton mint crème brûlée'. Classic dishes are very rarely improved by tampering - certainly even more rarely by the addition of synthetic mint for the purposes of a football-related culinary joke. But whether it was the wine or the company or the dazzling surroundings, I really rather enjoyed this dish. Of course it wasn't the greatest crème brûlée in the world, the top was a little unevenly caramelised and raspberries are hardly seasonal in mid-February, but you at least have to admire them for having a go.
After the meal we decamped to the bar area for a final test - to see whether they could also do a good cocktail. My Old Fashioned was lovingly (and lengthily) prepared the correct way, the bourbon (Old Woodford in this case) added bit by bit and crushed into the fresh orange rind. And that old Match Bar staple the Bramble was also dished out with aplomb, drizzled with Crème de Mûre. The barman really knew his stuff - to the extent that when he overheard me drunkenly attributing the Bramble cocktail to Dale deGroff, chimed in "it was Dick Bradsell actually". And he was quite right, of course. So well done to him, and well done to Merchants for breaking the curse of the Tall Building Syndrome - that the food lived up to the surroundings is as much as you need to know.