Thursday, 27 August 2015
In Crosby Village, just north of Liverpool, after a particularly quiet Saturday, restaurant Albina tweeted morosely that they had served just four people that evening and if things didn't improve, they'd have to permanently shut down. It's a story presumably repeated up and down the country - places open and close without much fanfare and with often depressing speed - but the heartwarming way industry people on Twitter rallied round to try and get Albina's booking sheet a bit busier demonstrates just how much sympathy there is for the problems faced by new restaurants, not least of which in this particular case is PR - I'd never heard of the place, despite keeping what I consider to be a less than healthy eye on such things. So given I was passing that way anyway and thanks to a cryptic but positive interjection by Marina O'Loughlin of the Guardian (she has since reviewed it here), we headed off.
Well, Marina wasn't joking. "Eccentric" is generally used to describe a restaurant that has a few stuffed animals on the walls or uses popping candy in the desserts. Albina is so many different kinds of bizarre it's hard to know where to start. On the website they describe themselves as a "journey through British food", which in practice means that all the items on the vast menu have a supposed date of invention; Cumberland sausage roll from 1647 for example, or fish & chips from 1860. But almost as soon as this conceit is introduced it falls apart, because some of the attached dates make absolutely no sense - cornflakes (a quick Wikipedia search tells me) were invented in 1895, so presumably it's only the Scotch Egg part of the Cornflake-crusted Scotch Egg that dates to the advertised 1737. And how on earth is bangers and mash dated to 1915? Have we not had sausages and potato for a few hundred years at least? And did we really only learn how to smoke trout in 1841?
Anyway so there's that. But even without the history lessons, this is still a menu that begs many questions. Potted Southport shrimps and Hereford ribeye steaks are all well and good, but if Chicken Kiev is supposed to be an ironic nod to 70s dinner party food then I'd argue you were sailing dangerously close to parody; the last time someone tried to ironically recreate the food of their childhood the patron was Gregg "lavverly" Wallace and the resulting joy sponge of a restaurant was Gregg's Table. And, again, I'll let Marina remind you how that ended.
What I'm getting at is the whole place is set up to be an epic car crash of a disaster of a place, think The Regret Rien from Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet but with IKEA furniture. Big menus are rarely a good sign, and here there are two of them, split into subsections that make no sense ("Colonial", "Nostalgia", "Signature"), as well as a separate specials board. The historical menu concept doesn't work and they don't stick to it anyway, and the first dish we tried, "Pork dustings, gentleman's relish" was some tooth-shatteringly tough strips of bland pork rind presented with four neat rows of powder vaguely resembling something you might find in a city nightclub toilets.
And yet, inexplicably, from here on the food was really good. Beetroot spelt with Waterloo cheese and horseradish crumble sounds ambitious to a fault, and yet the textures worked well, think baked Brie on toasted oats.
"Chip shop scallops" were two discs of potato, battered and served with cubes of black pudding and a dollop of lemon mayonnaise. The batter was the best thing about this - based on that I bet Albina's fish & chips (1860) is very good - and I liked the addition of pea shoots as a knowing reference to mushy peas. Yes the lemon salt was a bit of a pointless cheffy thing, and no, it's not the prettiest dish in the word but it was still a lot of fun.
Whitebait had just the right amount of batter as well, and the homemade tartare sauce was fresh and had plenty of interesting bits and pieces in it. Perhaps its difficult to really mess up whitebait (I've never had a bad example; maybe I've been lucky) but even so, this was well worth a fiver (or whatever we paid for it, the pricing on the snacks menu is as confusing as everything else).
Veal Wellington was a perfect pink slab of dainty young cow wrapped in glossy puff pastry and presented with attractive colourful veg. In any restaurant this would have been an impressive bit of work, but considering the menu it had been ordered from it was jarringly unexpected. It was also about this time that the Chicken Song started playing on the restaurant's music system, something that would usually have me racing for the door but here just seemed completely appropriate.
"Cardoons" (more than one cardoon? Don't ask me) was a top bit of pastry work, an artichoke tart sat on a bed of buttered greens (kale, spinach, a few other bits and pieces) and studded with house-dried broad beans which once you got past the bullet-like texture were full of flavour. It was lovely. Bizarrely, hysterically lovely.
Complaining about the unskinned broad beans with the chicken faggot seems like a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things but it did only slightly spoil what could have been a perfect dish. Crunchy bacon bits and a smooth pea puree surrounded a large, juicy lump of chicken meat and offal, all coated with a thick layer of glossy chicken jus. I think Bohemian Rhapsody was playing by now, the lavish dynamics of the operatic section eerily reflecting our states of mind.
Desserts consisted first of this, a deconstructed Pimms No.1 Cup with dried and fresh strawberry with strawberry sorbet, cucumber slices and squares of Pimms jelly, summery and colourful and executed very well apart from the jelly itself being a bit too solid...
...and this, an utterly perfect treacle tart, warm and gooey and topped with cold sour cream.
The bill for three people and 4 drinks came to £91.15, incredibly reasonable for the amount and quality of food and yet clearly before the flurry of interest on Twitter and the review in the national press, word was just not getting out, even to restaurant spods like me. Albina definitely won't be the only ambitious (and/or barking mad) local restaurant struggling to make ends meet despite serving decent food, and though admittedly mistakes were being made in some - ok, many - areas (the menu needs to be 1/3 of the size and split into starters mains and dessert) there are few criticisms you could level at the dishes served, which were fresh, interesting and keenly priced.
So maybe it all comes down to PR. Albina is a perfect example of somewhere just needing to be noticed; hopefully from now on will be plain sailing and I wish them all the best, but I wonder if, in the first few months of opening, with the use of a PR agency's services (or, at least, a better one) they needn't have sailed so close to closure in the first place. Yes, as a restaurant blogger who's had more than his fair share of PR-organised freebies over the years perhaps this would be my advice, but if good PR is the difference between success and failure, it seems silly to skimp on it.
Anyway, the word is out now, so all you need to worry about is enjoying it. I've moaned a lot about the stupid menus and the music but if they want to be like that what harm does it really do? The madness is all part of the charm. Towards the end of the meal, staff began to light candles secured somewhat unadvisedly with paper tissues. As they burned down, the tissue inevitably caught fire, and from time to time a shriek would ring out across the dining room as another terrifying column of flame rose up next to a couple trying to have a nice quiet dinner. And yet this was one of the least weird features of a night at Albina, a restaurant, in Crosby Village of all places, like no other.
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