Tuesday, 15 February 2011
Salt House Tapas, Liverpool
It must be very, very hard work opening a restaurant like Salt House in Liverpool. I have no doubt it's very hard work opening any kind of restaurant anywhere, and quite frankly having heard some stories from traumatised restaurateurs I can't believe anyone would voluntarily choose to make their living this way, but new places outside London must have their own particular extra set of challenges. Were it in London, Salt House would do very well, serving largely authentic (whatever that means these days), technically impressive Spanish tapas using fresh ingredients and matched with decent Spanish wines, and its existence (and continued success) would be something the owners should be proud of. To perform the same feat in Liverpool, a city which only recently got its first Wagamamas and where the population are, without wanting to sound patronising, not quite as cosmopolitan as diners from the capital, is an achievement to be cherished.
I hesitate to make any wild generalisations about Liverpool diners, and God knows they have a better choice of places to eat than most other areas of the North West (good luck trying to find somewhere even half decent in Manchester), but there was something in the way our Spanish waiter nervously described the menu to us - "tapas dishes are only quite small so I suggest you order three per person" - and his response when we selected a £14 tray of Iberico ham - "it's just sliced ham, it doesn't come with any sides" - that suggested the reaction of the public to this menu, priced very much at the "reasonable" end of what you might expect to pay in London but fairly ambitious for Liverpool, has not always been understanding. Which is a shame, because as far as the food is concerned, Salt House really shouldn't have anything to be nervous about at all.
Some good artisan sourdough (from a local bakery I believe) began proceedings, and was shortly followed by a small dish of plump, perfectly cooked prawns in garlic oil and some impressively tender (if slightly greasy) calamari with decent aioli. With tapas restaurants more than almost any other you can tell how a meal is going to go after a couple of mouthfuls of the first dishes, and these got events off to a very promising start. And from here on, up to a point, things just kept getting better.
Morcilla with apples and sage was just brilliant - the pudding soft and piggy and topped with a couple of dainty, crunchy onion rings for texture; it disappeared in seconds. With this came four piping hot Iberico ham croquettas, whose breadcrumbed surface contained a rich, salty béchamel mixture as good as I've ever had in Spain. They were absolutely massive for £5.50, too.
Instead of trying to cook a perfectly moist pork belly and get a good crackling in the same piece of meat, I will forgive the Salt House for cheating slightly by cooking the main flesh sous-vide (presumably) and placing a crunchy bit of crackling prepared separately on top. And I forgive them because the results were so spectacular - an unbelievably tender pork belly, as light as a soufflé, in a delicate quince and chorizo glaze that made the whole thing a joy to consume. Perfect.
I don't like people messing about with my cheese courses, and I would have been quite happy if the advertised Picos de Europa, Manchego and Monte Enebro came simply sliced on a tray, perhaps with some quince membrillo if you insist. Unfortunately the fussy presentation detracted from what are usually three top quality cheeses, particularly the Monte Enebro which if I didn't know better had morphed into a completely different goat's cheese altogether... I'll give them the benefit of the doubt as we didn't complain and I didn't see the pre-messed-about-with article, but it certainly didn't look or taste like any Monte Enebro I've ever tried. Oh well.
Fortunately desserts put events back on track. A turron caramel mousse contained generous large chunks of turron in a light and tasty mousse, and an Oloroso trifle was pleasingly alcoholic with a good soft jelly. I should also mention the glass of Pedro Ximinez we had with these, which I enjoyed so much I came back into town the next day to try and find a bottle for myself; whether the one I in fact ended up with (from Lunya's deli, just up the road) was the same I'm not sure, but here's hoping.
So apart from that weird cheese course, I enjoyed everything about the Salt House. The service coped with our requests for a particular table (we hadn't booked) and me changing my mind about whether to order a glass of wine or a bottle (no prizes which option won) with good grace and the flow of all the dishes felt relaxed and comfortable all evening. It's a nice, tastefully-decorated split-level room which never got too noisy despite the presence of a couple of large tables of merry tourists, and even the toilets, two flights down and seemingly carved out of bare rock in the very bowels of the earth, were clean and spacious. I have a feeling we have the trailblazing Lunya to thank for this unapologetically Spanish meal, who presumably found suppliers and tested the Liverpudlian waters with premium acorn-fed hams and dry sherries a few months before the Salt House did their own thing. But in the end, the real winners are us - where Lunya felt unsure and unpolished, the Salt House was assured and technically polished. The Iberico ham I'd had in Lunya last year, although tasting as good as ever, was sliced badly and pointlessly dressed with pickled figs as if in apology for having to charge you so much for "just sliced ham". Here, it was wafer thin, glistening with fat and presented in neat slivers on a plain wooden board. And if there's one thing in the world guaranteed to make me feel good about a restaurant, it's a glass of Spanish sherry and a board of neat slivers of Iberico ham. I will be back.