Monday, 7 July 2014
Free State Kitchen, Liverpool
There I was, enjoying the early evening sun in the oasis of calm that is the Free State Kitchen garden, and it made me wonder why there are so few al fresco dining options in Liverpool. There a couple of tables outside Ego on Hope Street, and there's a terrace attached to the disastrous collection of what can only loosely be called restaurants in Liverpool One (Café Rouge, Wagamama, Zizzi's and so on and so forth until you just want to kill everyone in the world), but for a city that boasts so many green spaces, not to mention a multitude of handsome old buildings with gardens in that area between the cathedrals, outside seating is a rarity. And the weather isn't that much worse than London, surely?
Anyway, the scarcity of open-air eating in the city only makes you appreciate that much more anywhere where it is an option, and even if Free State Kitchen had just put some deck chairs in a carpark it would have been a pleasant novelty. But the striking space behind this unassuming Georgian building on Maryland Street is worth the trip on its own; bordered on one side by a vast, ten-story windowless brick wall covered by vines, and on another by the imposing edifice of the rest of the ex-convent (or so I believe) that houses the restaurant, the space in between is a quiet, gently ramshackle green space, decorated with wild flowers and grasses planted in old cooking oil drums, a large vegetable patch (which I'm hoping is used by the restaurant) and a lovely old tree providing shade for a few wooden picnic tables. Oh, and a life-sized statue of Jesus. As you do.
The menu is unfussy, and pleasantly priced. A vast bowl of sweetcorn chowder for £3.50 is the kind of value that you rarely see in that there London, and it stayed piping hot until the very last mouthful thanks to generous chunks of potato.
Buffalo wings were correctly jointed, had a nice crisp coating and a good dollop of sauce, which judging by the colour and the chilli levels had a commendably low ratio of Frank's to butter (though by no means unpleasantly so). The less said about a disastrously thin blue cheese sauce the better - someone needs to go back to school on that one - but at £4.75 for nine wings this was still worth your while.
Burgers are the main event here, and the pescatarian option is something called a "clam sam" - crunchy deep-fried morsels of assorted seafood with a light mayonnaise dressing, in a poppyseed bun. Most likely the seafood was previously frozen, but that only added to the homely, no-nonsense style of the place, and in fact the textures and flavours were pretty good. Excellent fries, too, all crunchy out and creamy-white within.
The "Double French Onion Burger" was very nearly excellent, and clearly the concept is sound - double beef, properly melted Swiss cheese, onions, Dijon mustard (a very under-used burger ingredient I find, it's lovely stuff) and a golden brioche bun which held together very well. But it suffered from a dramatic lack of seasoning - even the cheese seemed entirely flavourless - and the onions needed a much longer association with a heat source before they could be called "caramelised", these weren't anything more interesting than "cooked". Still, good quality beef and more of those fries saved the day.
I forgot to take a photo of the "Herby Chicken Burger" but it looked the part and all disappeared without a complaint, so it can't have been bad. And what's not to love about a drinks list that has an elderflower G&T (Hendricks gin) for £5, glasses of house wine for £3 and bottles of Goose Island for £3.80? Nothing, that's what.
And let's not forget, you're eating all this decent, well-priced food in that lovely garden, the secret sanctuary of L1, at least you are while the weather holds. And even when summer turns to winter or sun turns to rain, you'll still be able to enjoy the service, which is quite extraordinarily good - smart, efficient, friendly - especially for a city that so often struggles with this "final mile" of the restaurant process (I think I've asked for the service charge to be removed more often in Liverpool than anywhere else in the world).
So it's not perfect, but then where is? What it is is comfortable and comforting, and they do what they do well enough for quibbles not to seem to matter much all said and done. Writing these posts it's often too easy to focus on where something has gone wrong and lose sight of the bigger picture, and with that in mind, there's really only one important thing I need to tell you - that after we'd paid the bill and been wished a cheery "goodbye" from the staff, we left happy. And there's hardly any better compliment than that.