What exactly is a 'neo-bistro'? Deanna Thomas finds out...
IF YOU look up Belzan on Google Maps it’ll show you a scaffold-fronted computer repair shop and the vacant ‘Liver Laundrette’ - which would make a great name for an alcohol rehab clinic.
Belzan now occupies one of them. It is the product of a £20,000 Kickstarter campaign by the owners of Duke Street cocktail emporium Filter and Fox. 187 backers pledged money to help them open this ‘neo-bistro’ on Smithdown Road, a student-heavy catchment area with evolving pockets of hipster promise.
Their schtick is ‘simple and season food, natural wines and killer cocktails’ and, like any good neighbourhood hangout having to be most things to most people, it’s open for breakfast, brunch and lunch with a change of menu for dinner service.
The venue is pretty compact with the long thin space having tables down one side, a bar running down the other and the kitchen at the back. Obviously it’s been fitted out within a strict budget, but they’ve rushed the interior in a way that they’d never dream of rushing the food or drink (take a mate with you to the single toilet as the lock is a bit tricky). Acoustics are harsh, so an atmosphere that is supposed to be buzzy can end up grating.
Belzan is cool, friendly and community minded. They care deeply about provenance and seasonality, but where there is confidence, there is also overconfidence. Many dishes are packed with uncompromising fists of flavour so punchy they can leave your ears ringing.
Heading up the kitchen is ex-Maray chef Sam Grainger, who has helped create a menu of ‘mindful, honest dishes’ in the current mode of small grazing plates served in the order they come out of the kitchen.
'I thought describing themselves as a ‘neo bistro’ was pretentious, but they are actually spot on'
The dinner menu reads well with every dish containing more than one far reaching alpha flavour influence; harissa, beef dashi, black pudding, PX sherry, Parmesan, truffle etc. They’ve picked out all the big hitters from the umami chapter of the flavour encyclopaedia and then thrown the book away.
We ordered every other dish to try and get an all round view, thinking we might have gone in a bit heavy, but our server asked ‘is that it?’ and suggested we ‘keep the menu in case you want to order some more later.’
A pre-dinner snack of crispy fish skins with harissa (£5) worked well as an original start. They were crisp, chewy and not oily, but the salsa fresca was so citrusy sharp in comparison it could have woken the dead and taken the enamel off their teeth as well.
Barbecued savoy cabbage (£5) was exactly that. An uncompromising half of solid brassica draped in chilli, ginger and soy. We liked it, but suspected it didn’t have as much mass appeal as the other vegan dish on offer, as we witnessed a dozen whole broccoli heads with garlic and lemon sail past us.
Butter beans with beef dashi and parsley crema (£6) was tagged on to the back of our order as an afterthought, but it turned out to be one of our favourites. There was something reassuring about the non-uniformity of the velvety beans and the reduced broth added such a comforting edge I was toying between eating them and bathing in them. The crema managed to add the balance many of the other dishes only aspired to.
Soft, charred barbecued Cornish squid was a success, sliced into rings and well partnered up with a paste of good green olives (£13.) Iberico pork “secreto” (£13) was off the menu, but substituted out for chateaubriand with the same garnishes of date, mustard fruit and caramelised cauliflower. Because they’d thrown so many deep, dark and rich flavours at it, it just seemed a bit one-dimensional.
Calves liver with PX sherry, pancetta, Parmesan and truffle (£10) was the edible equivalent of being shouted at through a megaphone. Each ingredient, although delicious in itself, fought dramatically with the others for top billing.
Wines are lovingly described on the menu, but it’s a tough call to make a perfect match for so many demanding flavours. A glass of Portuguese Quinta de lixa vinho verde went well with the fish skins, squid and cabbage but was too acidic and weak with the other dishes. It’s probably best to leave the car at home and go with a series of glasses rather than a bottle.
Puddings were a triumph, but that’s mainly because this is where dominant flavours work best. Tonka bean rice pudding (£6) with vermouth-spiced pear was gutsy and comforting enough to laugh in the face of the current Siberian blast.
Sgroppino (£6) was a cocktail glass full of intensely flavoured bergamot sorbet (think Earl Grey) over which was poured some sparkling moscato d’Asti, a light finish with added timeless glamour.
I thought describing themselves as a ‘neo bistro’ was pretentious, but they are actually spot on. Belzan is an all day neighbourhood hangout that changes mood along with the day. But the food is quite full on, so let’s hope the liver laundrette hasn’t moved too far away.
Belzan, 371 Smithdown Rd, Liverpool L15 3JJ Tel: 0151 733 8595
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Fish skins 7, cabbage 7, squid 8, chateaubriand 7, butter beans 8, liver 6, rice pudding 8, sgroppino 8
Slightly rough around the edges