Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Röski, Liverpool

Though it may be a city of cultural trailblazers in many ways - music, sport, fashion (sort of) - it's fair to say that when it comes to eating out, Liverpool has always been in the shadow not only of the capital but even other regional cities such as Manchester or Birmingham. Perhaps the lack of flagship food markets is to blame - the famous Bury market has been supplying Manchester with black pudding and much else besides for hundreds of years, and Birminham's Bull Ring indoor market has been doing the same for lucky Brummies. Liverpool has some excellent producers, such as the award-winning Edge Butchers and of course the peerless Baltic Bakehouse, and you can occasionally catch the odd farmers market in Woolton Village if you're lucky, but is it the lack of a single, centralised market, to champion local produce and act as a catalyst for a vibrant food culture, that has held Liverpool back?

Well, whatever the reason, Liverpool has been left with quite a bit of catching up to do, and it was really only with the opening of Lunya, which capitalised on the city's ever-growing links with Spain (thank you Ryanair) and more recently Gary Usher's Wreckfish, that the shoots of a genuine, grown-up dining culture have emerged. Obviously we can't really call it a foodie's paradise until we have a few more healthy mid-range bistros and wood-fired pizza specialists (or even a decent Chinese - the world's oldest Chinatown and not a single decent Chinese restaurant? Something's not adding up there) but look, it's a start, and we've all got to start somewhere.

So it was Liverpool's fledgling interest in good food that Masterchef: The Professionals winner Anton Piotrowski and friends hoped to tap into to fund their kickstarter project back in 2017. If it worked for Gary Usher (and it did, five times now and counting) for his mid-range bistros, surely there would be enough Scousers with the desire and the money to see a real high-end, seasonal, British, tasting menu restaurant set up shop in town? Well, sadly (at the time) despite plenty of eager backers (not least yours truly) they didn't quite reach their target, but it seems enough of a potential market was proved to attract backing from elsewhere, and now, in one of those gorgeous Georgian buildings that Liverpool does so well (and Rodney Street does in particular) is Röski. And it's great. And you should go immediately.

OK, I suppose you'll be wanting to know the reasons why it's great, won't you? Well how about this, a homemade crumpet, its dark, crunchy base rising to fluffy white, topped with curried Southport potted shrimp and a sprig of woodruff. I'm always going to enjoy a shrimp crumpet, but soaking it in beef fat instead of the usual butter was a touch of perverted genius, and a cracking way to kick off a tasting menu.

The next course was apparently a deconstructed "Scouse" (lamb stew) involving a treacly morsel of slow-cooked lamb, caramelised carrots, and a generous topping of summer black truffle. Alongside one of those glossy reduced sauces the best restaurants do so well, it was an absolute joy to eat, certainly more notable than any "authentic" Scouse dish you may have tried, which is generally a thin mystery meat stew (here's Paul O'Grady's version with Oxo cubes and Worcester sauce). "Authentic" Scouse probably doesn't deserve to stand as shorthand for an entire city. This dish certainly does.

Next, another off-menu extra, a "tribute", we were told, to the late-night noodle shop. Now, all sorts of alarm bells usually start ringing when fine dining restaurants ironically re-imagine low-budget Asian dishes, but by virtue of the fact this tasted absolutely nothing like ramen, or anything even vaguely Asian, it was hugely enjoyable - a kind of thick, rich lamb noodle soup studded with summer herbs and a poached quails egg.

That a dish called simply "radishes" would turn out to be the highlight of a 14-course tasting menu is partly testament to the quality of the main product, cutely grabbed from the chef's dad's allotment, but also because said radishes, plump and pretty though they were, were coated in a ludicrously rich and glossy sauce made from lamb fat. And I love radish, but I also love lamb fat. Anyway these were fantastic, and topped with a few springs of mint flower turned it into a kind of mini Sunday roast.

Next was a kind of truffled custard thing and though in the past I have fallen in love with various combinations of truffle and custard (I'm thinking particularly of Simon Rogan's crisp roast salad at Fera) there was something not quite right about this one. Perhaps it was a little too lukewarm, or maybe not enough flavour in the custard, but it left me a little cold. However my friend loved it, so maybe this was just me.

Curried crab was superb - bags of flavour in the crab mixture, and with three delicate slivers of puffed wheat and "poppadum" providing a nice texture contrast. One of the criticisms of Röski that have filtered into my conscience over the last few months (I try and avoid reading reviews of places I haven't been to yet, not so much to keep my judgement clear but so I don't accidentally start re-using phrases and people accuse me of plagiarism; I don't have much of an imagination) is that the dishes are fussy and over-complicated. Well, there wasn't a bit of that going on in this meal - most dishes consisted of one main ingredient and two or three accompaniments to provide colour or texture, and all of it clear, concise and precise.

"Chip shop" was - inevitably - a miniaturised fish supper, with a teeny portion of battered haddock, a single bronzed, slow-cooked slice of potato, a dollop of pea purée and - the clever bit - a dusting of vinegar powder. It was ultimately more technically impressive than massively rewarding but hey, if Röski want to show off their skills then who am I to stop them? Also - again - my friend said this was one of his favourite courses so there's subjectivity playing a part too.

The next course boasted a lovely bit of guinea fowl, tender and powerfully flavoured, topped with neat scales of miniature courgette and a little dollop of what I think was more pea purée. Oh, and another beautiful glossy sauce which would have been worth the price of admission alone.

"Meat & Tatties" was a cute little pie of what I think was sticky beef shin, topped with potato foam (at least I assume that's how the 'tatties' were involved) and an intriguing slice of smoked eel. Like everything that had come before it was pretty as a picture, and although there was perhaps a bit more going on here than in the other courses, still boasted a clean, satisfyingly straighforward set of (great) surf & turf flavours that flattered the palate.

More colourful and precise cooking followed with this slab of bright pink Welsh wagyu beef, sat in yet another wonderful sauce and with a little bit of braised mushroom and some kind of summer berry chutney (I think). The beef was obviously the main event, with a gentle crust from some very accurate timing and bags of beefy flavour, but again the accompaniments were masterful, with one of those bright green oils (parsley?) with which Simon Rogan made his name.

The transition from savoury to sweet courses began with this beetroot cake, warm from the oven, topped with shaved cheddar. These half-and-half dishes often run the risk of being a bit disconcerting, but this was genuinely impressive, and the generous mound of decent cheese made me feel a little less guilty about not paying the £10 cheeseboard supplement (which I'm sure would have been lovely).

"Builders tea ice cream" came topped with candy floss, because why not, and had a nice smooth texture. I realise that when you pony up this amount of money (£75 plus service) for dinner you'd expect quite a high standard of product in return, but it was still a delight to note the mastery of all these different techniques and textures, put to such impressive use. It's not easy, half the stuff Röski are doing here, but like so many great restaurants they make it all seem so effortless.

There was one final flourish - strawberries, strawberry ice cream and honeycomb, presented while a bowl of dry ice mixed with summer herbs turned the table into a fragrant bubbling cloud - but, once every last drop of strawberry liqueur and crumb of warm madeleine had disappeared, we were done.

A few years ago, the idea of anywhere in the center of Liverpool being ranked amongst the best restaurants in the country seemed absurd. And yes, it's frustrating that it's taken so long because, judging not only by the response to the only-just-missed Kickstarter but the fact that every single table was taken at Röski on the night I visited, the people of Liverpool love a good Modern British tasting menu as much as anywhere else in the country. But in stark contrast to the bizarre Art School just around the corner, which could have been parachuted into any major city to chase the accolade of "X's first Michelin star", Röski really feels like it belongs here. Not just because you look out over the gorgeous terraces of Rodney street, but because the menu feels - is - local, and service is both charmingly Scouse and also supremely efficient, something that has barely ever happened before in the history of the city.

So yes, all of the above twaddle serves to reinforce that one simple point I made earlier; Röski is great and you should go immediately. If you like anything about eating out in this country - seasonal, sensitively constructed tasting menus of local produce, sparkling service, interesting wines - then this place will charm your socks off. Already within nudging distance of perfection, by the time I return - and I fully intend to do exactly that, as soon as possible - it will probably be even better, this modest spot on Rodney Street showing the world exactly how it's done. Food as the latest great Merseyside cultural export. Why the hell not?


We paid for the food but whether due to a belated Kickstarter thank-you or general blogger privilege, the wines were unexpectedly comped. Which was nice of them.

1 comment:

The Plate Licked Clean said...

Great read, this. Anyone who loves Liverpool is fine by me and it’s good to know the likes of Lunya, Maray and Wreckfish are beng joined in a genuine genesis of good eating there.