Friday, 10 January 2020

Madre, Liverpool

For much of its existence as a tourist attraction, the Albert Dock in Liverpool, stately and beautiful and a fantastic place to wander around though it undoubtedly always was, was where restaurants went to die. With a massive tourist footfall ensuring that nobody really had to worry about repeat trade, and sky-high rents preventing all but most ruthless and cynical operators from setting up shop, it was home to a collection of the worst restaurants in the city, each one of them unambitious, overpriced and crap. I remember a (nominally) French creperie that reheated pre-made crepes to order, a steakhouse-turned-late night club that would serve its £35 Argentinian fillets with tiny pots of plasticky Bearnaise that cost you £2.50 extra, and - the cream of the shit crop - What's Cooking, a bizarre place selling truly diabolically bad burgers, fajitas and burritos (the vegetable version of which is £12.50) and served by a bunch of people giving the impression they'd rather be anywhere else in the world. Even more diabolically, What's Cooking is still there.

Just around the corner from What's Cooking used to be an Indian restaurant called Spice Lounge. Now admittedly, I never went, but I think I'm on fairly steady ground in assuming that it was unambitious, overpriced and crap. It has been replaced by a taqueria called Madre, and you're going to have to give me a moment to compose myself here, because I can't quite believe what I'm about to type. Here goes. Madre is a restaurant in the Albert Dock in Liverpool, and it's good. It's very good. Madre is a restaurant in the Albert Dock in Liverpool, and it's very good.

Of course, given the pedigree of the owners, I probably should have given them the benefit of the doubt but after so many decades of terrible meals it seemed somehow impossible - literally impossible - that somewhere ambitious, intelligent and keenly priced would one day live up to the standards of this building's extraordinary architecture. Madre is a kind of collaboration between one half of Breddos Tacos, Nud Dudhia*[see edit] - still the only person to make a fish taco good enough to match the ones served in TJ - and the very well-regarded Liverpudlian bistro Belzan, and from the second you walk through the door it's clear that, unlike so many of their neighbours, they want to do things properly. For example across three different nights, a margarita, made by three different bar staff, was never anything less than great - cold, crisp, dusted with tajin, elegantly presented. The best cocktail I've ever been served in Liverpool, and though that's not a particularly high bar, well, there it is.

Tortilla chips, lightly salted (not unseasoned, nor - bleugh - artificially-flavoured Doritos), came with a giant mound of fresh guacamole, a refreshingly stripped-back version involving little other than Mexican avocado, lime and coriander but which at £4 was bigger, bolder and far better than most I've been served elsewhere. You can tell almost everything you need to know about a Mexican restaurant from its guacamole. And Madre's guacamole is basically perfect.

From this flying start, incredibly things only got even better. The modestly-titled "Patatas" were crushed into charming irregular shapes then fried to crunchy on the outside, creamy inside. Served with cooling garlic sour cream and seasoned with what I think was a kind of arbol chilli paste, they were absolutely knockout.

This is a burrata and squash tostada, which I didn't try as I have next to no interest in squash at the best of times, but was declared "very nice" so I'll leave it at that. I'm sure it was lovely if you like squash.

I'd ordered roasted bone marrow mainly for the sheer novelty of being able to order bone marrow in a restaurant in the Albert Dock (the Albert Dock!) but it somehow conspired to be one of the highlights of the meal. Expertly cooked and dressed simply with chives, it was buttery, beefy and brilliant on its own, but I had what I consider to be the unique and brilliant idea of scooping the marrow out with a tortilla chip, thus creating the world's most decadent Mexican canapé. If you go to Madre I thoroughly recommend you do the same.

Tacos, though, are the star of the show at Madre and their versions are as exhaustively researched and lovingly created as any I've come across outside of Baja California. The quality of the pork is impressive, with just enough fat to be tender and not enough to feel too rich, deeply spiced and with a lovely lick of woodsmoke from the grill. They are topped with a little baton of pineapple, in true Al Pastor style, and a mound of fresh coriander and white onion to provide crunch and colour. But most importantly of all the tortillas were absolutely spot-on, soft yet firm, holding their shape to the last bite, and leaving your fingers for hours afterwards with that glorious soily aroma of masa flour. If you closed your eyes you could almost be in a little cantina in the arches of Mercado Hidalgo, while somewhere amidst the noise of the market a Mariachi band is on their third rendition of "Guantanamera".

Oh, Madre do fish tacos too, and yes, they're also fantastic. Generous chunks of fresh fish (cod) with a greaseless batter and gently chillified Jalapeno mayo, they too would have not been out of place served under a Mexican sun, with all the flavour and texture of the very best examples.

By this point my own astonishment at eating as well as this in the Albert Dock (the Albert Dock!) had turned into a kind of gentle hysteria - I was determined to eat as much as I could in case the whole thing turned out to be some elaborate prank or Christmas tequila-spiked fever dream. So these are chicken pibil, glorious slow-cooked chicken with orange and chilli, and like the other tacos were deeply authentic, generously portioned and sparkling with personality and flavour.

And finally, because a restaurant this good needs to have no corner of the menu unturned, we ordered a portion of "Churro French Toast", an idea every bit as filthy and wonderful as it sounds, a kind of butter-soaked waffle topped with salted caramel soft-serve ice cream. It was just on the edge of being too salty, too fatty, to much - but even after the amount of tacos we'd knocked back the bowl still got licked clean.

So. What to make of it all? Our dinner at Madre was so good, so unbelievably good, that the moment it was over I started to panic. What if it can't find an audience? What if, after so many decades of "restaurant in the Albert Dock" being a kind of local shorthand for crap, they can't convince enough Scousers to give it a try, and can't convince enough tourists it isn't just another Tex-Mex laminated menu ripoff joint? What if they lose their nerve and take the roast bone marrow and Half Pig's Head Chicharron (£35, to share) off the menu and end up being just another well-meaning but otherwise unambitious Mexican restaurant? What then?

So I'm doing two things. Firstly I'm writing this, to try (in my increasingly un-influential way) and get the word out to the country as a whole and Liverpool in particular that you have a genuine, honest-to-goodness world class gem on your doorstep, and to forget every dismal and overpriced dinner you've ever had in this part of the greatest city on earth and head immediately to Madre. You won't regret it. And secondly, I'm going to make sure that every one of my future trips up to Liverpool involve at least a bowl of guac and chips in this charming, brick-walled and stone-flagged space, doing my own selfless bit to support the business. Whatever happens though, Madre exists right now, in Liverpool, in the Albert Dock (the Albert Dock!) and that in itself is cause for heavy and continued celebration. Mine's a margarita.


Sorry about the terrible photos, my camera had run out of batteries so I had to use my iPhone.

EDIT: Madre is in fact a collaboration with BOTH halves of Breddos Tacos, with Chris Whitney also involved. Not sure why I thought otherwise - apologies and many thanks to Chris as well for this incredible place.


Nick said...

I ate at Maray in Albert Dock last weekend and it was brilliant! To the extent that I wished it would replace my local equivalent, The Good Egg. We then went to Pilgrim for dinner :-)

D. Thomas said...

right, have booked in here for my birthday next month. the boys will be coming around if it is like the other gaffs on the Docks.

D. Thomas said...

Thought it was a bit disappointing, actually!