Wednesday, 28 January 2015
The Art School, Liverpool
I'll let you into a little secret. Up until a few years ago, I operated a system on this blog I called 'Liverpool scoring'. Unwilling, due to residual Scouse pride, of being quite as brutal about places in my home town as those in the capital, I'd generally bump up the mark out of ten in Liverpool restaurant posts by a point or two - not enough to completely alter the thrust of the review, but just enough to take out a bit of the bite. I stopped doing this in 2012ish when I realised firstly that to be kinder on anywhere than it deserves is as patronising as it is unhelpful, and secondly that not many people cared about the scores anyway. Still don't, in fact.
But even though I no longer make quantatitive concessions for the North-South divide, whenever I eat out in Liverpool I really really want it to be good. Well, I do anywhere - with occasional notable exceptions I don't ever go anywhere expecting a bad time - but in Liverpool I'm far more likely to overlook snags in service or the food because I want to encourage anywhere that isn't a godawful chain in the L1 complex or an all-you-can-eat buffet on Berry St to up their game; I'm convinced Liverpool can do just as well as anywhere else, it just needs a better PR campaign. And it needs a few more 60 Hope Streets, a few more Clove Hitches, a few more decent, unpretentious dinner spots where you can have a bottle of craft beer, a couple of courses of fresh seasonal food and leave with a bill of less than £25 a head.
What it doesn't need is the Art School. And here are just a few of the reasons why.
Browsing the menu online before our evening booking, as he often does, my dad noticed that the more reasonable-sounding £29 3-course prix fixe menu is only available until 6:15 in the evening, and from then on it's the eyebrow-raising £69 Menu Excellence or the where-have-my-eyebrows-gone £89 full tasting. Our initial booking at 6:30 would have meant a bill for three, in a brand new and entirely untested restaurant (at the time at least; reviews have since appeared) of at least £250 with a glass or two of wine. Ouch. And so in somewhat of a panic we called up and moved our table forward.
Now, their restaurant, their rules of course, and they moved the table with no fuss, but why force every punter who sits down post 6:15 of a weekday evening (an odd time, for a start) to pay more than, well, pretty much every restaurant I can think of outside the very high end in Mayfair or the West End? This is not mere ambition, this is arrogance - prices like this should be earned, not part of your launch offering. The Fat Duck didn't open with a £250 tasting menu; it worked its way up from £25 a head, earning loyalty and respect and accolades by understanding its customers and bringing them along for the ride. If a brand new restaurant had opened in Bray in 1995 charging £250 for snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream they would have been quite rightly laughed out of town.
Anyway, to the food at Art School. An amuse of mushroom soup with goats cheese cracker thing was pleasant, but then it's difficult not to enjoy mushroom soup. It was a bit thick and not particularly refined, but the mushroom flavour was good and powerful and the texture of the crunchy cheese underneath was interesting. It reminded me of a very nice homemade mushroom soup I had in a cafe in Bradford once years ago. What it didn't remind me of was anything expensive.
House bread was good - we liked the herby focaccia which had a good chewy consistency, and the little brown rolls were piping hot.
Twice-baked souffle of wild mushrooms and Barkham Blue cheese was nothing if not a perfectly enjoyable little puck of warm fluffy cheese and mushroom. A solid bit of cooking that performed its job well.
Better was a lovely pink breast of pigeon which had a fantastic flavour - from Northop apparently so livin' must be good for wood pigeons in North Wales. It was presented on an unremarkable watery "risotto" of beetroot and shallots but really this was all about the bird, perfectly cooked pink and full of rich gamey juices.
My own game terrine - an off-menu special - sadly had much less to recommend it. Unseasoned, bland and fridge-cold, it wasn't particularly pleasant to eat, and the weird satellites of spherical veg weren't enough of a distraction.
Mains, then, and again the best was the game - pheasant, again from Northop, with Cavollo[sic] Nero and trompette mushrooms. The breast was, against all expectations I'll admit, moist and seasoned well; apparently it had been briefly brined before cooking. But the confit leg was pretty disgusting, dry and sinewy, and difficult to eat.
Salt baked celeriac with Jerusalem artichokes was a pretty arrangement of seasonal veg, and had all sorts of different textures in play as well as a good spear of char-grilled chicory for smoke and that distinctive bitter flavour. There wasn't a great deal of celeriac involved, but what there was was nice.
My own cod main was not nice. The fish itself did have the beginnings of a nice crisp skin but was spoiled by overcooked fish underneath, tasting sad and soily. It was surrounded by clams in a clumsy thick creamy sauce that drowned the delicate flavour of the seafood entirely, and also by bullet-like barely-cooked Brussels Sprouts, a mistake you'd wince at anywhere never mind somewhere with such ambitious pricing.
Desserts were perhaps the best course of all, which I know isn't saying much but was still welcome. Dainty, light lemon cheesecakes, macarons, a little slice of apple turnover, and a weeny lemon meringue pie - all my favourite desserts in miniature, I very much enjoyed all of these. But it was too little, too late. Art School is not a dessert restaurant, and these bits and pieces were not as cheap as they would have been from even quite a fancy patisserie.
Look, ambition is all well and good. In fact, in most instances it's to be applauded. But Art School's ambitions aren't anyone else's, and I'm pretty sure aren't Liverpool's. They don't seem interested in being a part of a dynamic and expanding local restaurant scene, they seem happy to exist entirely separated from it, a weird international-fine-dining-themed spaceship plonked down from outer space, sponsored by Michelin. The vast numbers of well meaning if nervous staff, the stupid affectation of the doorman in a bowler hat, all these fripperies that Michelin love and drive most normal human beings up the wall.
Ah yes, the M word. And this is really the crux of the problem - Art School have said in the press that they want to win Liverpool's first Michelin star. Not that they want to serve fantastic food with sparkling service. Not even that they want to be Liverpool's first genuinely international standard restaurant that might, somewhere along the way, if they're lucky, win a Michelin star. No, the reason this restaurant exists is to win a Michelin star. And a really depressing possibility is that even if it remains mainly empty night after night (ours was the only table taken for most of the evening), and is ignored or dismissed by most of the city, as long as they at some point win a star then job done. Someone's ticked the box on their CV and can go off and become a consultant to some hotel chain somewhere.
OK, perhaps that's too cynical, even for me. There is a germ of a good restaurant in Art School, hiding amongst the star-frotting pretentions and flappy service - they've found some good suppliers and if they can consistently do justice to them it may occasionally be worth the £29 early evening set menu. But I can't ignore the fact that 15 minutes after we sat down to eat our faintly disappointing mid-priced dinner, Art School is off-limits to anyone not spending £70 a head or more without service or wine. Which is way, way too much for somewhere that appears to struggle with some quite basic concepts, never mind the details. They even managed to spell their own name wrong on the bill. So, spend your money elsewhere. You - and Liverpool - deserve better.
Tickets for my journey to Liverpool this time were very kindly provided by Virgin Trains. The Euston-Lime Street route takes 2h15m on a good day, and tickets are available from £24 if you book far enough in advance. BOOK HERE