Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Pilgrim, Liverpool

At the risk of reducing a long-lasting inter-city rivalry down to a few trite observations, Liverpool, around 30 years ago, used to lag behind Manchester on three factors, each in its own way equally important to the self-respect of any Northern city. Firstly, shopping. I have very vivid memories of the gulf in quality between the rather depressed high streets of Liverpool, Church St and Bold St, and the flashy King St in Manchester and Kendall's department store with its car parks full of BMWs and Mercedes. Then there was the football - after a long period of dominance in the 70s and 80s which saw Liverpool and (occasionally) Everton trading places in the top spot, by the time Manchester's Class of '92 got into their stride it was all about them, and Liverpool (or Everton) never got a look in again. And then there was the food. Now, admittedly food in Manchester in the 90s was still Quite Bad but they at least had Simply Heathcote's and a Brasserie Blanc back when they were actually half decent, while nobody would eat out in Liverpool at all if they could help it.

These days, Liverpool has the L1 shopping district, which has been enough of a reason for Mancunians to make the journey west to do their own shopping, and Liverpool FC have made a very promising start to the football season. But my own particular focus has been what's happened to the food. You'll know about Roski, and Wreckfish, and Maray and every other answer Liverpool has to Manchester's increasingly brilliant dining scene. It's important not to overstate the case here - Manchester still has the edge - but the historic rivalries that have inspired so much healthy competition over the years have created a culture of risk-taking and innovation in both cities, with Liverpool very nearly now catching up.

The latest example of this is Pilgrim, an exciting new operation occupying the first floor of the Duke Street Food Market. This beautifully renovated (if somewhat noisy) food hall used to be partly grotty old warehouse and partly a 24h discount off license catering largely to clubbers at kicking-out time. The format of the downstairs food hall will be well known to anyone who's been to any of the Market Halls or Kerb streetfood venues, but of course what Liverpool can offer over any such venues in London is a chunk of spectacular 19th century industrial architecture to enjoy it all in, the vast skylit atrium and grid of suspended lighting lending the place a genuinely theatrical atmosphere. And, by happy coincidence, great lighting for photos, which is rather handy if you write a blog.

Also helpful if you write a blog is that there's plenty to talk about regarding Pilgrim's menu. Nominally the "theme" is of the food of North-West Spain, on the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostella, except it seemed at first that strict authenticity has made way for a kind of Galician-influenced Modern British style, with the odd Spanish ingredient (Morcilla, Pluma Iberica) served alongside more local seasonal vegetables (Jersey Royals). It all works though, thanks to the exquisite taste of the menu, which doesn't list a single thing you wouldn't want to eat, and - more importantly - because damn, Pilgrim can cook.

House bread is a kind of sourdough I think - bravely made on site (brave because Baltic Bakehouse is just round the corner and Liverpool knows good bread) but it acquitted itself well enough. Better was the smoked butter, which was so addictive we could have polished off about three times the amount that came on the plate.

Artichokes had a pleasingly stripped-back style, were all smoky and crunchy from the grill, and the saffron aioli had a lovely balanced flavour even if we could have done with a bit more of it. I don't think Pilgrim are deliberately stingy on their butter or sauce portions, but when things are this nice you just want a lot more of them.

Potato "terrina" with cured yolk next - egg and chips. And it was brilliant. The potato had been thinly-sliced, confit'd and fried to golden brown, and the egg, such a dark shade of orange it was almost scarlet red, had a wonderfully-judged texture just the right side of fudgy (as in, only very slightly fudgy). Add in some green beans, crunchy and vibrant, and you have a vegetarian Galician-British dish that hits every single pleasure point.

Less veggie-friendly but no less impressive was morcilla, black pudding filled out with rice that had a wonderful soft texture and deep, earthy flavour. With it came buttery girolle mushrooms, tender pieces of braised leeks and a handful of toasted almonds, a medley of textures, colours and seasonal flavours that stood up so well that the vegetarians on the table left me to the morcilla and enjoyed a very lovely veggie dish without it.

Everything Pilgrim serve is in some way noteworthy, and as you'll have noticed by now, most of it is brilliant, but this dish of "Fire-pit seasonal vegetables" probably deserves a blog post all to itself. I've had roast vegetable dishes before, some very good indeed, but none have had the sheer depth and richness of flavour of the examples on this plate. After polishing them off in a bit of a daze, we asked where these incredible specimen - fennel, potato, some roasted red peppers, nothing particularly unusual - had come from and were surprised to hear they'd been imported from Galicia. Which whatever you think about the food miles involved, makes a very good case indeed for the produce of NW Spain. I mean these were seriously impressive veg.

Also from Galicia was a few slices of Chuleta steak, "fillet" it said on the menu but the texture was more like bavette (and of course none the worse for that, I love bavette). Being the only red meat eater on the table that day there was only so much of the main courses I could manage by myself - I would love to have tried the Iberico pork, maybe another day - but by this point, Pilgrim had done more than enough to convince us that this was one of the most exciting restaurants to ever open in the city.

So, on a high and sure we were in safe hands, we went for a brace of desserts. "St. James Tart" (Tarta de Santiago) was a cute little spongecake served with alcohol-soaked cherries and ginger cake (I think) crumbs...

...and the daily special dessert, roast peach, all caramelised from the grill, served with an excellent house ice cream.

The bill, with a bottle of wine and a glass of sticky to go with the desserts, came to £32.90 a head. A huge amount of very good food, served by extremely capable people (you hardly had to look up at all to get what you needed - staff appeared to be everywhere at all times), for another almost obscenely small amount of money. I mean, even if you factor in Advance Return tickets from Euston and a night in an AirBnB, that still sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

And Pilgrim is worth making a journey for and then some. Absolutely everything that's exciting and life-affirming about paying other people to cook your dinner all wrapped up in a bright, breezy, friendly package, it deserves to be in the Liverpool must-do Premier League alongside the Albert Dock and the tour of the Beatles' homes. After so many years of not quite making a coherent case for itself, all of a sudden Liverpool's food and drink options (side note: please try Bunch, Liverpool's first all-natural wine bar, on Berry St for an aperitif) are something the city can be genuinely proud of. We've never had it so good.


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