Monday, 14 June 2010

Lunya, Liverpool

Following the triumph of a meal at Merchants the last time I was in Liverpool, it's perhaps no surprise that my lunch at Lunya, a new Catalan restaurant in the L1 complex, failed to live up to expectations. But the very existence of Lunya in Liverpool says more about changing attitudes to food in the city - and of the increasing confidence of Liverpool restaurateurs - than was reflected in the performance of the kitchen on the day. A restaurant like this, serving bold Spanish dishes using local North West ingredients, should be applauded for its ambition at least, and anywhere attempting to sell top-end hand-carved Iberico ham at £15 a plate to cynical Liverpudlians needs all the encouragement it can get. If that sounds like an apology more than a criticism, then maybe it is - there's much to admire in Lunya, and admire it I did, I just didn't think all that much of the food.

The echoey, canteen-y room won't be to everyone's tastes. It is, however, based on various trips to Spain, reasonably authentic, complete with flat screen TV showing the Greece-South Korea match and - I presume this is also a nod to authenticity - slow but friendly service. Our waitress had the most charmingly bizarre Scouse-Spanish accent, mirroring items on the menu such as 'Cains beer-battered Cornish calamari with aioli' and 'Spanish omelette with Scouse', and even brought to our table a condiment selection of olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt and pepper which grace every restaurant on the Costa Brava. So far, so good.

First, the successes. A small bowl of gulas, apparently Alaskan Pollack formed into elver-like shapes and with a punchy garlic, oil and chilli dressing, were excellent. So too was a short stack of Morcilla de Burgos, containing just enough of the black pudding to hold the rice together but not too much to be cloying. These two dishes alone demonstrate that someone in the kitchen at Lunya can cook, as they were both correctly seasoned and nicely balanced in terms of texture and flavour.

Sadly, the same can't be said of the three oxtail croquetas which had a good dry crust but were completely unseasoned inside and just tasted of wet plaster of Paris. Adding salt at the table helped, but not much, and with such an obvious error you wonder whether anyone tasted the mixture before it left the kitchen. The calamari had good intentions, and the accompanying aioli was at least home made, if (again) under seasoned, but the batter was soggy with far too much oil and they were rather unpleasant to eat. Finally, a plate of the famous Joselito Iberico ham tasted just as wonderful as this most wonderful of products always does, but was rather messily carved, with pieces of uneven size and thickness and the occasional dry bit. You can call me a food snob since my Brindisa carving class if you like, but I can't help noticing these things now. The pickled figs on top were brilliant though.

Despite the mistakes though, I liked Lunya. I've been wrestling with my conscience wondering whether it was just that I so desperately wanted it to be good that I enjoyed it despite the food, or whether there was enough right about the food to enjoy, and I think on balance it's the latter. With a little bit of luck, a little bit of intelligent (and safe) ordering and a side order of expectation management, I'm sure you could construct yourself a very nice meal at Lunya. If nothing else, at one end of the room is a very exciting deli selling all of the cheese and charcuterie products on the menu, so there's potential for a pleasant picnic by the docks if you don't fancy risking any of their hot food.

There was one other thing that swung my opinion in favour of Lunya though. Here was a friendly, independent restaurant with the right attitude and a disarming optimism regarding the culinary liberalism of Liverpudlian diners. It wasn't perfect, but its heart was in the right place and it had a nice buzz to it. On the way back to the flat after my meal, I passed this:

Yet another lazy knock-off MPW venture that he'll never cook in, never even set foot in, and never care about. I can see why a once-great chef may want to kick back and make shed loads of money cynically fleecing customers on the back of his rapidly fading reputation, I just wish he wouldn't. And I certainly wish he wouldn't do it here. Liverpool deserves so much better.


Lunya on Urbanspoon


Sharmila said...

I'm glad that you put in all the legwork, trying out new restos in Liverpool, so I don't have to ;-)

Anyway, thanks for blogging this. I might have a peek in when I'm up there in a few weeks.

On a general Northern rumination, it does strike me that Liverpool is pushing forward, and in many ways has much more of a buzz about it than, say, Manchester. I know both cities very well, and I find it intensely frustrating that Manchester lacks the number of great restaurants (excluding ethnic places) that it should have for its size and cultural heritage.

I'm not saying that Liverpool is turning into a gourmet paradise, but interesting things are at least happening.

Helen said...

I'll probably never go there, but I thank them for introducing me to the idea of pickled figs.

Northern Snippet said...

Re:Marco isn't that what every celebrity chef does? To his credit he kept a low profile and resisted this much longer than most.I like him at least he's still individual and provokes controversy.People are only fleeced if they want to be...

Chris Pople said...

Sharmila: You're right, it's not there yet but it's getting interesting. And it's way better than Manchester.

Helen: I'm sure if anyone can do it, you can. They were sweet and lovely (and baby ones too).

NS: He is a character, certainly. But perhaps I'd feel a little more well disposed to him if any of his restaurants that bear his name are actually any good. He's a very very good chef, but a very bad restaurateur.

Peter Kinsella said...

As someone who is definitely part of the heavy seasoning brigade, the croquetas drive me around the bend. The oxtail ones are hard enough (really hard to get enough flavour out of them to work in a croqueta), but no chance of the salt and pepper isn't right, nor if the maker's tongue isn't used. The joys of running a restaurant! Having tasted the last of this batch, you are right, someone didn't taste them, and heads hung in shame here.

Our allioli, we like as it is, as something pretty salty is usually going in it. It is made with the most beautiful Arbequina EV Olive oil.

On to the calamari. Usually the dish we hear (from people all over the world), the nicest we have ever had. The formula is quite simple, a batter recipe which is wonderful, Cains Raisin Beer which makes it light, sweet and crispy, and fantastic calamari, caught fresh and bought off one boat in Padstow everyday from our fishmongers, Wards. But ruined by a faulty fryer, not going beyond 170C. It drives us around the bend. Four times since we have been open, these Mareno fryers have broken. Still waiting today for the no-show engineer. Our advice is for anyone considering fitting out a commercial kitchen is never, ever to have a Mareno fryer. Usually, when they are working, the batter is light as a feather, dry and crispy.

Anyway, rant over, glad you liked some of it. At the moment, our quartet of anchovies is truly stunning. I think I met your mum and day today, I hope they enjoyed their goodies.

Finally, the Joselito, in my colleague's defense, we were at the very end of the leg, carving deep into the hip socket. that said, it's still not on. One of the hazards of being so new, needing a skill that takes years to develop, is that in the early days our staff have not had enough time for their carving skills to develop (despite practising on many cheap serranos before we opened). Each leg gets better, and t the start of the leg when the most easy meat is accessible, it is great, just deteriorates a little towards the end (except when I am doing it ;-). Hope to see you back here sometime and thanks for coming, Peter.

Hollow Legs said...

Should a dish have been sent out when it had to be cooked in a faulty fryer? Hmm.

I used to go to Liverpool fairly often (it is very doubtful I will return again - ah, Concert Square, how you scarred me so) but for such a vibrant city there did seem to be a lack of decent restaurants. From Peter's comment above it sounds like this place, with a few tweaks, could fill that criteria.