Tuesday, 26 March 2013
Perhaps it was the contrast between the Arctic weather sweeping around Beetham Plaza that Saturday night and the cozy glow of the dining room, or the cheery welcome from the front desk, but I have rarely had my expectations of a meal turned around so dramatically by just walking through a restaurant's front door. It's not that I wasn't expecting much of Etsu; it had been recommended and I wouldn't have been there at all had I not been mildly optimistic, but this was, after all, a Japanese restaurant in Liverpool. And while competition for Spanish and Chinese (not to mention British) joints has created the likes of Lunya, Yuet Ben and 60 Hope Street (all worth visiting), if your closest rival is a Yo! Sushi then you really don't have to try too hard to be the best.
But Etsu are trying, and trying bloody hard, and, more importantly, passing with flying colours. The service was the first indication this was an operation with heart and soul - front of house in Liverpool are known for their friendliness and enthusiasm, less so (it has to be said) for their knowledge of whatever it is they're serving. Here though, every item of every dish was explained in detail on request, and the traditional Scouse charm was matched with an efficiency I've not seen anywhere else in the city.
Which would have all meant nothing, of course, had the food not been up to scratch. But even the most humble of dishes we ordered, such as these house pickles, showed an attention to detail that punched far above the very reasonable amount they were charging for it. It was all good, but some cabbage was my favourite, perfectly balanced between sweet and sour with just a hint of kimchi-like fermentation.
Sashimi, whilst having the most potential for disaster, acquitted itself perfectly well. It's probably not their fault I had a slightly better selection at Roka a couple of days previously, but it's also worth pointing out that the selection at Roka was a very similar volume of food and cost £28. This cost £9.50.
Some scallop nigiri though were lovely, as were a couple of pieces of gunkan masago, involving capelin roe. I'm afraid there's no picture of those as they disappeared almost as soon as they were placed on the table, they were that good.
With the trend in London towards extreme specialisation, especially with Japanese restaurants (Koya for udon, Tonkotsu for ramen, Shiori for Kaiseki etc) it was a surprise at first - not to mention a slight worry - to see sashimi, katsu curry, udon and tempura all on the same menu. But the breadcrumbed chicken in curry sauce was at least as good as that you can get from Wasabi, and I happen to think the Wasabi katsu curry is pretty good. At least, it was before they saw fit to change the recipe and serve it in a weird TV dinner tray and douse the fried chicken with tamarind. Can I have my little hot cardboard pot of rice and fried chicken with curry sauce on the side back please?
Sorry, I digress. Yasai tempura udon was very well done, the noodles thick and meaty, the broth rich and comforting, and the bits of fried veg light enough to enjoy without a hint of grease-induced queasiness. In fact this was probably the most impressive dish of all, showcasing a number of different techniques on one plate and getting all of it as close to correct as makes no odds. Sashimi may "just" be fresh fish on a plate, but good bubbly tempura requires quite a bit of skill.
The fact we decided to squeeze in a final course of matcha doriyaki despite being quite full shows how much we didn't want the evening to end. It was worth every bit of the £5.45, moist and not too sweet, and like everything else was served with a smile.
And it's the service, I think, that I will remember most about Etsu. That seems harsh on the food, but I don't mean it to - everything we ordered ranged from good to excellent and was priced so low I wondered at first whether our bill was a mistake - but in a town where the most you can usually expect from your waiter or waitress is that they bring you what you order and don't accidentally break any of your limbs in the process, to interact with such enthusiastic, happy people over the course of a couple of hours was an absolute joy. And it's also the reason why, at this moment in time, Etsu may just be the best restaurant in Liverpool.