Tuesday 29 June 2010

Viajante, Bethnal Green

Way back when, in the very early days of this blog, I visited Nuno Mendes' first restaurant Bacchus in Hoxton. It was a lovely little restaurant, serving attractive and unusual dishes for not very much money, and I remember wondering why it wasn't more popular; even at the time I visited, rumours were abound that it was losing money and would soon have to close. Later that evening, I found out why. From the window of my friend's flat a couple of doors down, we watched two people beat each other (and, occasionally, surrounding vehicles) with iron bars, until the police arrived and chased them off. It seems that the lure of reasonably priced gourmet food - "Fine dining in trainers" was their unofficial tagline - wasn't enough to tempt discerning punters up Hoxton Street to enjoy a vicious street fight to follow their coffee and petits fours, and so very soon, Bacchus was no more.

Mendes disappeared for a little while, then resurfaced on Kingsland Road running a popup restaurant called The Loft. On occasional evenings, groups of 15 or so would be treated to a £100 mystery tasting menu of his experimental (he trained at El Bulli, naturally) cooking, and by all accounts the project on these regular nights was a great success. Unfortunately, my own experience of The Loft came at the hand of a group of enthusiastic but incompetent Central St Martin's students, who organised an event called Evocative Foods. I'm sure Nuno was doing his best with the presumably rather incoherent brief, but we paid £30 a head to queue up for few plates of cold vegetables and a weak cocktail, and after spending most of the evening thirsty, hungry and completely baffled, we eventually left for a few pints in a local pub then some soft-shelled crabs at Cay Tre. Andrew Webb, another unlucky victim of the Evocative Foods evening, wrote up the experience brilliantly here - it's well worth a read.

So I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to try Viajante. I'm no fan of the overthought El Bulli school of shock-effect food, early reports from brave individuals were tilted towards the positive but still mixed, and perhaps Cambridge Heath Road is no Hoxton Street, but it's still hardly an area of town you'd otherwise make a special effort to visit. But in the end, peer pressure and a very reasonable 3-course Saturday lunchtime menu (£25 for 3 courses) forced my hand, and off I went.

First of a handful of amuses was a "crostini" of Romesco sauce, Gordal olives and I think the odd blob of goat's curd. Impressing mainly thanks to the intricate and attractive presentation, the ingredients nevertheless blended well and got the meal off to a good enough start.

Next was a whole roasted broad bean pod, which had been split and stuffed with cream and various micro herbs. It wasn't particularly memorable - the beans themselves hadn't been cooked very well (presumably as a result of baking inside the pod) and none of the flavours really stood out. Looked the part, though. Perhaps that was the point.

Yet another amuse which, as far as I know, didn't form part of the advertised three courses was this strange sandwich thing, tasting of some sort of oily fish, perhaps sardines or mackerel. This was actually pretty tasty, seasoned well and with good texture contrasts, but they insisted on serving it without cutlery, so it was difficult and messy to try and get this delicate sandwich paste from the serving plate into your mouth.

"Bread and butter" was far more enjoyable. Three thin sticks of freshly baked bread were dipped into a wonderful rich "butter" made from bacon, chicken skins, salt and sugar. It was incredibly addictive and an unusual mix of flavours which actually made sense as a whole. I could have eaten about six of these - sadly Viajante, and my arteries, conspired otherwise.

Five "courses" in, we were finally presented with the first of the three lunch menu items. This was a crab, beetroot, apple and goat's curd salad, which despite the fancy jellified and shaved beetroot was actually a very familiar - in fact almost clichéd, combination of ingredients. The crab was nice and fresh and the goat's curd was lovely, but there really wasn't anything here to set the heart racing.

The next course, however, was much better. A meaty and perfectly seasoned slice of lemon sole topped with shaved asparagus sat beside a weird confit egg yolk, the consistency of which was like nothing I've ever eaten - sort of fudgy and thick. It was topped with a tapioca sauce, presumably cooked in some kind of vegetable stock, and another couple of slices of asparagus, this time grilled. This was a great plate of food, and shows that when Mendes' experiments (although actually I didn't see him in the kitchen on Saturday) work, they really, really work.

Pre-dessert was an alarmingly sharp lemon and thai sweet basil sorbet, which didn't so much clean our palates as blast them clean away. The citrus explosion and the fragrant basil was a happy combination though, and again was something I'd not tried before.

I don't really know what to say about the dessert proper. On one level, it was a mixture of unadventurous but nice enough chocolate desserts which had been rather pointlessly topped with a couple of blocks of crushed ice. But just look at the ridiculous presentation - all the ingredients had been squeezed onto the very edge of a massive plate, and I do mean the very edge - some of the sauce very nearly dripped off onto the table. It was a presentation so pretentious it cried out for some sort of response, so in active protest I drew a big chocolate penis from the sauce with my spoon. I don't care if you think that was childish - I felt better for doing it.

Petits fours consisted of a gorgeous citrus marshmallow, delicate and ethereally light, and a mushroom chocolate truffle. Yes you did read that right - mushroom and chocolate. It actually wasn't anywhere near as disgusting as it sounds, particularly not if you, like me, are fans of some of Paul A Young's more offbeat offerings (blue cheese truffle, marmite truffle, etc.), and it closed up the meal quite appropriately - another brave experiment just treading the fine line between challenging and revolting.

Perhaps, despite my misgivings, London needs restaurants like Viajante. Certainly, I can count on one hand the number of times I've been served eight courses for £25 and even though some of them were irritatingly pretentious and put presentation ahead of flavour you do at least feel like you're getting your money's worth, especially considering the backbreaking effort that's gone into them. In fact, come to think of it, I can only think of one restaurant that has served food of this level of invention for such a reasonable cost, and that was Bacchus, so I suppose it all makes sense. If they can avoid the tendency toward nonsense and make the numbers work at this price point, Viajante should, and deserves to, do well.


Viajante on Urbanspoon

Monday 28 June 2010

Le Relais de Venise, Marylebone

To say my hopes were not high for my meal at Le Relais de Venise would be an understatement. Every single person I knew who had been there before, to a man, warned me against it. Every blog post I read traumatised with lurid tales of appalling service, poor food and a depressing rush to franchise. The consensus appeared to be overwhelming - only bad things will happen at Le Relais de Venise, and I would be well advised to stay away.

But here I was in the Marylebone branch, being ushered past rows of empty seats to a corner of the restaurant so cramped that it necessitated the removal of the entire table every time anyone needed to go to the loo. The seating arrangements, the paper tablecloths and, of course, the menu itself were (I was told) stubbornly "authentic" facsimiles of the original Parisian restaurant, which is apparently so popular people queue around the block. I'm not quite sure I subscribe to the belief that if a restaurant works somewhere once it will work many times anywhere else - certainly some concepts travel well but for every Nando's there's a Palm Steakhouse, and you ignore local preferences and ingredients at your peril - but in fairness to Le Relais, it did feel genuinely Parisian inside if you ignored the accents of the customers and the friendliness of the waitresses.

You start at Le Relais with a green salad with walnuts. You have to - there's no choice; it comes as part of the set menu, so you'd better like walnuts in your salad as your only alternative is not to eat it at all. It's another "feature" of the Paris original which is either charmingly unpretentious or authentic at the expense of practicality, depending on your point of view. Personally, I thought it was pretty good, well seasoned and generously dressed and with nicely bruised lettuce. I know there are plenty of people that prefer pristine crispy lettuce in their salad, and this is perfectly fine as well, but bashing the leaves about a bit just generates a bit more flavour and allows the dressing to do its work more easily. I wish more places would do it.

The main event is the sliced sirloin (sorry, entrecôte) steak in "famous" sauce (the French must have a very low threshold on things they regard as famous) with fries. The fries, first of all, were excellent - crispy and piping hot and golden brown, second only to those that came with my burger at Bar Boulud as the best I've had in London. I have no idea what the beef was like as it was smothered in the famous sauce; I'm guessing it wasn't particularly top-quality but then I wasn't expecting Hawksmoor steak from a £20 set menu. But at the risk of blowing what tiny scraps of foodie credibility I ever possessed and being ridiculed by fellow beef lovers, do you know what? I actually liked it. Although the protein did little more than provide texture to the sauce, it did this pretty well, and the sauce itself had an interesting, herby, meaty flavour that lifted the dish if not into anything extraordinary then at least something worth coming back to. After the (pretty tiny) initial portion had been devoured, our waitress showed up again with seconds - a confidence trick perhaps to make you believe you were eating more than you were, but I can only tell you it worked. I felt like I'd had enough food, and even refused an offered third portion of fries.

Desserts continued in a similar vein, nothing exceptional but tasty enough. Two little lemon tarts had a thin pastry and smooth citrusy curd, and a friend's crème brûlée was vanilla-y and rich and topped with a delicate sugar crust. As good as you could expect really for £4.50 a pop, especially the brûlée which so few of even the top places ever get right.

I shouldn't really have to apologise for enjoying a meal, but such is the strength of feeling about Relais that I had to double check everything that happened last Friday evening just in case I was missing something. It's not a world-class restaurant by any means, and it's not quite the budget choice that it pretends to be either - the total bill, once a nice bottle of £25 Corbière and those desserts had been added on, came to over £40 each - but you'd have to be made of stone not to enjoy sliced tender steak and crispy fries soaked in a herb butter sauce, and far from the Parisien-style sullen service I had every right to expect (mainly thanks to Oliver Thring's brilliant review), our waitress was efficient and charming. So I'm terribly sorry everyone, but I enjoyed my meal at Le Relais de Venise l'Entrecôte, and I'd quite happily go back. So there.


I was invited to review Le Relais de Venise, but as the staff didn't know I was coming and I only "came out" after we'd finished our meal, I think this experience is representative so I've scored it anyway.

Le Relais de Venise on Urbanspoon

Monday 21 June 2010

The Ledbury, Notting Hill

Some people - the irritating gits - are born over-achievers. Normally the CV and career path of chefs is of little interest to anyone other than the most obsessive restaurant geek (that would be me, then), but how the Ledbury came about is a glowing tribute to the talents of one of our most exciting young cooks. Brett Graham arrived in this country (according to my sources) in 2000. Two years later, he had won Young Chef of the Year. Three years after that, he opened the Ledbury, which this year won two Michelin stars. Not only that, but Graham's other project, a little pub in Fulham you may have heard of called the Harwood Arms, itself won a Michelin star. He's still only 30 years old. The utter bastard.

Graham famously learned his trade at Mayfair's The Square, under a chef with a proven track record of churning out Michelin-starred protegés, Philip Howard. In my ignorance, I was expecting the Ledbury to be a kind of Square Lite, showcasing some of the familiar Howard dishes but with less of the polish and sophistication than the mothership, which has after all been going since the early 90s. What I wasn't expecting was dish after dish of love, sparkle and invention, with a style and personality all of its own, and a front of house as charming and professional as any in the city.

Unusually for this blog, I had been to the Ledbury before but hadn't blogged about it, leaving that task in Hollow Legs' very capable hands. Lizzie's own love affair with the Ledbury began at Taste of London 2009, and with the famous ash-baked celeriac followed by a heavenly summer fruits bellini - Taste may be overcrowded, overpriced and very bad at PR, but for introducing us to this remarkable restaurant a handful of greedy bloggers will be forever grateful. But enough reminiscing; onto The Ledbury 2010.

An amuse of some kind of taramasalata (sorry but if it's not on the menu and I have to rely on my particularly useless powers of recall, then this is the best you're going to get) on a crispy strip of filo (I think) pastry was a pleasant enough start. I've never really had an amuse anything more than pleasant, but then perhaps that's the point - to get your tastebuds going without overshadowing any of the other dishes.

First course from the tasting menu proper (what the hell, you only live once) was a scallop cerviche with horseradish "snow". If you're thinking that sounds a bit too fancy-pants and twee to deliver on flavour, then you couldn't be more wrong; sweet fresh scallops were topped with acidic, spicy frozen horseradish and dressed with an intensely-flavoured dill pesto. It was one of those plates of food that delivered in spades in every department; delightful texture contrasts, intelligently balanced flavours, good use of the deep freeze. Simply brilliant.

Next a clever squid 'risotto' - not a risotto at all in fact, but pieces of squid flesh chopped up to the size of grains of rice in some kind of cream/stock sauce, garnished with a cauliflower foam (I'll forgive them this frippery) and sherry reduction. Bringing to mind the Sportsman's deconstructed crab risotto back in October, it was nevertheless a unique dish, showcasing a both a mastery of texture and flavour and experimentation without sacrificing straightforward pleasure of eating.

The flame-grilled mackerel was up there with the scallop cerviche as the standout dish of our meal on Saturday. How they had managed to get a fragile, smoky char-grilled skin on this tiny cube of fresh mackerel whilst keeping the flesh at the base ever so slightly pink is astonishing. Served with it was a cute little tube (made from some kind of translucent noodle or pasta) of cured mackerel and shiso. Yet another brilliant course.

These three crispy on the outside, moist within cubes of monkfish were served with a shockingly green sauce made from padron peppers. Accompanying the fish was a cylinder of dense (I think) potato fondant, or if it wasn't fondant it was a very very tasty and densely textured boiled potato. There wasn't a single element of any dish which wasn't carefully considered and in perfect harmony with the other ingredients, and each mouthful was a little voyage of discovery.

Doing to tiny cubes of chicken what they had very successfully done to tiny cubes of chargrilled mackerel, these were delicately flavoured, tender and with a good crispy skin. They were served with white asparagus and a creamy morel sauce, which had an astonishing rich flavour and was very attractively presented. The worst you could say about this plate of food is that chicken and mushrooms is hardly an earth-shattering match, but it's a testament to the invention and playfulness on display that this more straightforward assembly of ingredients still made an impression. A sprig of thyme hidden under a delicately seasoned milk skin showed a sense of humour and rounded off the complimentary flavours perfectly.

Last of the savoury courses was a piece of 24-hour slow cooked lamb, lovely and crispy outside and - it almost goes without saying - tender and pink within. Whilst the lamb was as good as you could hope for, it was served with a truly exceptional slice of miso aubergine, almost meaty in its richness. I hadn't previously considered myself an aubergine fan, but this one element of this one dish was perhaps the most revelatory moment in the whole meal. Turns out I did like aubergines after all, I just needed Brett Graham to cook them for me. Who knew?

So to desserts. It seems the relatively low key of the savoury amuse doesn't apply to the pre-dessert course, as this strawberry concoction was delicious. There were a number of different elements to it, but because they're not detailed on the menu I don't have a flipping clue what most of them were. There were chunks of fresh strawberries, some strawberry jelly and a teeny blob of strawberry ice cream, I think. Yeah, that'll do.

Caramelised banana galette with peanut ice cream was, if not anywhere near approaching a duff note, just slightly less exciting than the others. It tasted as good as caramel and bananas and peanut ice cream ever would, but there wasn't really anything extraordinary in terms of invention or technique. This is the problem with getting spoiled so much earlier in the meal - as soon as anything merely good comes along it can't help being a disappointment.

It wasn't just the food on the table that made this lunch one of the more memorable in recent years. Service from everyone, from the friendly sommellier who didn't flinch in the slightest when asked to recommend "something cheap", to the charming maitre d' who recognised us from our one visit nearly six months ago, was everything you could ask for. A world apart from the in-your-face over-familiarity of Bistrot Bruno Loubet a few days ago, these guys were smart, professional, discreet and efficient, a virtual masterclass in perfect service. A casual enquiry as to whether Graham was in the kitchen that day led to an invitation to meet the man himself at work, and so downstairs we trooped, to offer our embarassingly effusive feedback on the meal and even try a couple of mouthfuls of a la carte desserts (a clever violet-flavoured sorbet, and a superb honey soufflé with thyme ice cream). Graham is, depressingly inevitably, charming and eloquent, talking us through the techniques he used to produce the clever flame-grilling effect on the mackerel (cooked above the flames on a kind of thin frame which allows the oil to drip off and make a nice crispy skin) and promising to bring back that summer berry and hibiscus bellini if we gave him "enough notice" on our next visit.

Far from setting up a Square Mark II and gunning for Michelin stars using the tried and tested recipes of his old boss, Brett Graham's food at the Ledbury is unique - as characterful and intelligently experimental, and most importantly delicious, as any other restaurant in London, even the Square which (whisper it) almost seems slightly po-faced and dated in comparison. Some of the most exciting food I've had the pleasure to eat, by a chef at the top of his game, running his own two Michelin starred kitchen, and a throughly nice (and, Lizzie would like me to add, rather dishy) chap into the bargain. And did I mention he's only 30? The utter, utter bastard.


Photos are Lizzie's. She did the work so that I didn't have to.

The Ledbury on Urbanspoon

Thursday 17 June 2010

Banh Mi Bay, Bloomsbury

I had my very first bánh mì (a kind of Vietnamese/French street food snack) from a little stall on Broadway Market over a year ago, and really rather enjoyed it. First of all, I was surprised by the texture of the bread - I'm told genuine bánh mì use baguettes made of rice flour, which provide a much softer texture than the usual crusty French sticks. Secondly, the filling was also interesting, with all the familiar flavours of good Vietnamese food (coriander, spicy grilled pork paté, pickled carrots and I think perhaps a dash of fish sauce) in a handy lunchbox-sized portion. The textures were addictive, the flavours recognisably Vietnamese and the price pleasingly low - I was impressed, and given the relative ease of setting up a stall and availability of the key ingredients I expected to see banh mi stall popping up on every street corner. For whatever reason, that never seemed to happen - banh mi in London are still a rarity.

And so the opening of Banh Mi Bay on the corner of Gray's Inn Road and Theobald's Road, just a short trot from my office on High Holborn, was a very exciting prospect. If they were as good as the example I'd tried all that time ago in Hackney, and were a similar price, I could easily see myself becoming their best customer, gorging myself silly on soft rice flour baguettes and becoming forever the incumbent "mayor" on Foursquare. Sadly, the reality of the new place was far more mundane.

From the first bite, you could tell these were not "authentic" (a meaningless word really but it will have to do) rice flour baguettes, just normal crusty French sticks, meaning my jaw was aching so much before I was even 2/3 through I had to give up. That wasn't the only problem though. Instead of a freshly grilled slice of spiced pork, the protein for this particular banh mi was taken from a pile of pre-sliced processed meat that looked suspiciously like what goes into a Subway. Not very attractive. Sweet pickled carrots were fine, and I did get the odd hit of red chilli, but it was desperately missing some stronger flavours - perhaps some dressing or fish sauce, I can't tell you, but something to lift it out of the ordinary. I am acutely aware that given I've only ever had one of these things previously in my life I can hardly claim to be an authority on the matter, but out of the two, one was delicious and one wasn't.

At £2.80 for quite a large sandwich it was at least cheap, but to be good value it also needed to be worth £2.80, and I really don't think it was. But a side order of summer rolls came with a nice hoi sin sauce and seemed remarkably fresh considering they just lifted it off a shelf when I asked for it, so perhaps there are other items hidden on the quite lengthy menu that are worth exploring. I quite like the idea of the 'shredded caramel pork' banh mi, and of course for eat-in diners only they do a Pho, another good test of a Vietnamese kitchen. So perhaps I will be back, and perhaps I will eventually decide Banh Mi Bay is brilliant. But in the interests of fairness, I have to rate on my first visit, and based on yesterday's lunch, there are better ways to spend your money in Bloomsbury. Chilli Cool is just around the corner, for a start.


Banh Mi Bay on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Bistrot Bruno Loubet, Clerkenwell

You'll often hear it said that service in London restaurants isn't up to the standard of the USA, particularly New York. It seems natural to compare these two cities - both hugely important, with vibrant food cultures and each with a smattering of internationally influential restaurants and chefs - and it's fun contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of each; London for its South Asian cuisine and gastropubs, New York for its delis and sushi. But service is a tricky one. I'm all for good service of course; it can make the difference between a good meal and a terrible one, and I suppose the standard of service in New York is objectively higher - as you'd expect for the massive amount extra you pay for it. But it's perhaps because of this premium in New York that I often get the impression staff are trying a little bit too hard for their tips. I don't just mean in the completely over-the-top TGI Friday's "I'm your best friend for the next two hours" style, which is of course hugely embarrassing for all concerned - I also dislike the false joviality and over-attentiveness of staff in many more salubrious restaurants, being badgered to report back on the meal before I've barely taken a mouthful, or - as happened in one New York hotel restaurant a couple of years back - being told to "cheer up, it may never happen" as I tried to order.

And it was, sadly, that forced joviality and over-attentiveness from the staff at Bistrot Bruno Loubet that was really the only downside to a meal which was otherwise very good. It started as soon as we arrived, when the maître d', dressed like a stage hypnotist in a shiny black jacket and slicked David Copperfield haircut, cracked bizarre and unfunny jokes and attempted to engage us in "banter" instead of showing us to our table. Once eventually seated, we were subjected to the dreaded "how is everything" a few mouthfuls in, and various other pointless and irritating interjections occurred throughout the evening. If it sounds like I'm being oversensitive, then perhaps I am, but if it's enough to distract me from my food then something's wrong somewhere. Only the sommelier was a picture of professionalism, and matched my courses with some fine French reds by the glass without simultaneously trying his hand at stand-up comedy.

The food, then. My starter of snails and meatballs showed exactly why this place had been getting such rave reviews since it opened a few months back. A delicately constructed and earthily rich mushroom mousse sat surrounded by a handful of dense, porky meatballs and robustly flavoured snails. It was all dressed with some kind of pesto, which added acidity and lovely herby notes. The shapes and textures in this dish were deliciously addictive, and made a very satisfying start to the meal.

It's not often you see pigeon breast as a main course, perhaps because a single pigeon wouldn't make a very generous portion. I'm guessing two or three birds went into this dish, dressed with thinly-sliced cauliflower florets and toasted almonds. The jus was intensely flavoured and the pigeon itself gamey and moist and well seasoned. It was another good example of the use of contrasting textures to produce a satisfying whole, and in fact brought to mind the equally gorgeous rabbit and panchetta salad from Zucca a couple of weeks back.

Savoury courses were so generous and rich that we skipped desserts and instead ordered a minimalist cheese course of Cachel Blue and an Epoisses. Both were unfortunately fridge-fresh but still managed to punch above their temperature and were happily devoured. I do have an issue though with the toasted sourdough bread that came with the cheeses - I just don't think bread should be served with any cheese course; either serve plain crackers or nothing at all. If your cheese is good enough, you shouldn't need such distractions.

It's solely as a testament to Bruno Loubet's talents in the kitchen that we left his eponymous Bistrot very happy, but I couldn't help thinking that if the staff managed to turn the mateyness and quirkiness down a few notches we would have enjoyed ourselves far more. The arrival in London of New York levels of service is a thing to be applauded - as is this kind of restaurant (just look at Bar Boulud) - but perhaps it's the style of service that won't travel so well. So, a memo to the waiting staff of London: I'm not your best mate, I don't want to be "entertained" and if there's a problem with my dinner I'll be sure to tell you, there should be no need to ask. In the meantime, show me quietly and quickly to my table, bring me tap water by default and then stick to the shadows until needed. I promise you'll still get your tip.


This review was supported by restaurantvouchers.co.uk. Restaurant vouchers bring together all those handy printable discounts including Pizza Express vouchers, Toby Carvery Vouchers, Zizzi Vouchers, and many more.

Bistrot Bruno Loubet on Urbanspoon

Monday 14 June 2010

Lunya, Liverpool

Following the triumph of a meal at Merchants the last time I was in Liverpool, it's perhaps no surprise that my lunch at Lunya, a new Catalan restaurant in the L1 complex, failed to live up to expectations. But the very existence of Lunya in Liverpool says more about changing attitudes to food in the city - and of the increasing confidence of Liverpool restaurateurs - than was reflected in the performance of the kitchen on the day. A restaurant like this, serving bold Spanish dishes using local North West ingredients, should be applauded for its ambition at least, and anywhere attempting to sell top-end hand-carved Iberico ham at £15 a plate to cynical Liverpudlians needs all the encouragement it can get. If that sounds like an apology more than a criticism, then maybe it is - there's much to admire in Lunya, and admire it I did, I just didn't think all that much of the food.

The echoey, canteen-y room won't be to everyone's tastes. It is, however, based on various trips to Spain, reasonably authentic, complete with flat screen TV showing the Greece-South Korea match and - I presume this is also a nod to authenticity - slow but friendly service. Our waitress had the most charmingly bizarre Scouse-Spanish accent, mirroring items on the menu such as 'Cains beer-battered Cornish calamari with aioli' and 'Spanish omelette with Scouse', and even brought to our table a condiment selection of olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt and pepper which grace every restaurant on the Costa Brava. So far, so good.

First, the successes. A small bowl of gulas, apparently Alaskan Pollack formed into elver-like shapes and with a punchy garlic, oil and chilli dressing, were excellent. So too was a short stack of Morcilla de Burgos, containing just enough of the black pudding to hold the rice together but not too much to be cloying. These two dishes alone demonstrate that someone in the kitchen at Lunya can cook, as they were both correctly seasoned and nicely balanced in terms of texture and flavour.

Sadly, the same can't be said of the three oxtail croquetas which had a good dry crust but were completely unseasoned inside and just tasted of wet plaster of Paris. Adding salt at the table helped, but not much, and with such an obvious error you wonder whether anyone tasted the mixture before it left the kitchen. The calamari had good intentions, and the accompanying aioli was at least home made, if (again) under seasoned, but the batter was soggy with far too much oil and they were rather unpleasant to eat. Finally, a plate of the famous Joselito Iberico ham tasted just as wonderful as this most wonderful of products always does, but was rather messily carved, with pieces of uneven size and thickness and the occasional dry bit. You can call me a food snob since my Brindisa carving class if you like, but I can't help noticing these things now. The pickled figs on top were brilliant though.

Despite the mistakes though, I liked Lunya. I've been wrestling with my conscience wondering whether it was just that I so desperately wanted it to be good that I enjoyed it despite the food, or whether there was enough right about the food to enjoy, and I think on balance it's the latter. With a little bit of luck, a little bit of intelligent (and safe) ordering and a side order of expectation management, I'm sure you could construct yourself a very nice meal at Lunya. If nothing else, at one end of the room is a very exciting deli selling all of the cheese and charcuterie products on the menu, so there's potential for a pleasant picnic by the docks if you don't fancy risking any of their hot food.

There was one other thing that swung my opinion in favour of Lunya though. Here was a friendly, independent restaurant with the right attitude and a disarming optimism regarding the culinary liberalism of Liverpudlian diners. It wasn't perfect, but its heart was in the right place and it had a nice buzz to it. On the way back to the flat after my meal, I passed this:

Yet another lazy knock-off MPW venture that he'll never cook in, never even set foot in, and never care about. I can see why a once-great chef may want to kick back and make shed loads of money cynically fleecing customers on the back of his rapidly fading reputation, I just wish he wouldn't. And I certainly wish he wouldn't do it here. Liverpool deserves so much better.


Lunya on Urbanspoon