Monday, 14 June 2010
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.