Gerry Corner finds food prepared with a good dollop of skill and a dash of love
MY heart begs me to be vegan. There is no good argument for meat: environmentally, financially, ethically, cardiovascularly.
I gave up animal products for Lent once. Nowadays, I regularly give up meat for lentils, for days at a time, and am perfectly happy to do so until, one morning, I wake up and smell the bacon.
Only nostalgia makes the carnivore in me continue to lust after flesh; ever recalling that one perfect steak of my youth, prepared by the octogenarian proprietor of a remote French country bistro, while conveniently forgetting (like the tortured wannabe ex-smoker who fixates on those rare, special, nicotine-filled moments rather than the heart-thumping, chest-wheezing misery that is ninety-eight percent of the addict’s experience) that in three decades of consuming steak for critical purposes, all but a few have at best been average, at worst inedible lumps resembling not so much a gastronomic high point as the underside of a fell-walker’s boot.
Customers want more from a meal than the mere absence of animal
My latest flesh-eating nightmare occurred just the other week, in a pub, prime territory for food-based atrocities. Away from home, I’d left it late and my options had narrowed to a menu including Lake District lounge bar classics such as battered fish and chips, burger and chips, and pie of the week with seasonal vegetables.
I didn’t want any of it, but after a day spent locked in battle with nature on the top of Blencathra, I ordered the burger in the hope that it be less badly abused en route to my plate than the other options.
Aside from being overcooked, the meat tasted like it had come from a beast subjected to a life of cold industrialised brutality, whose end was a merciful release for the beast and bad news for its consumer. Admittedly, I came out of it better than the cow, but the experience left me regretful, fourteen quid down and another inferior meat product closer to colon cancer.
Eating vegetarian in will generally generate greater satisfaction than eating it out, where you are at the mercy of others. For all the rise of the meat-free restaurant, there are too many which don’t understand that their customers want more from a meal than the mere absence of animal.
Others are too concerned with delivering their concept, via companies with names like Food Innovation Solutions (really). Chickpea’s owners don’t appear to have a concept, other than serving the sort of food they like to eat at home.
Indeed it all feels like eating at the home of friends, who live in a rather nice bedsit – there’s the tiny kitchen area, the spangle of stars, the comfy sofa, their nan’s old standard lamp, but no bed – and who have great taste in music, the sort you regret having never heard before; a little Manchester post punk for starters, Belgian jazz funk with your coffees.
The kind of friends who rustle you something up when you’re all out of inspiration and baked beans, show you their new baby (Elizavita, age two weeks) and talk just as much as you want to talk.
Chickpea is on Bold Street, home to multitudinous dining options, but you might never know it was there; the only clue to its existence a small sandwich board on the street pointing the way to its location, the basement of a vintage clothes shop, where it rubs shoulders with a vinyl record store, their musical outpourings occasionally colliding.
The preparation space is so limited, that from necessity much of the food is made from scratch at their actual home, then frozen in meal-sized portions, a method that probably only enhances the like of stews and curries, which are staples here.
Not everything works perfectly. A vegan lasagne (£6.25) is a damn good effort but has to stray too far from the dairy-rich original to truly satisfy. The meze sharer (£11.95) involves freshly prepared hummus, beetroot and walnut tahini, and falafels – all good – but olives are from a jar, and inferior, and I’m not convinced the two bowls of curry and stew – mini versions of main courses from the menu – belong here.
On the other hand, bean casserole (£5.95) might sound Spartan, but it’s actually rich and satisfying, served with couscous, whose beetroot-dyed grains come all shades from pink to dark crimson, and a neat salad made with rice-paper thin strips of courgette and carrot.
Jerk squash (£5.95) is good stuff; well-balanced, gently spiced, beautifully cooked, and served with a mound of perfect rice and peas. Give me this over substandard burger and chips any day; half the price and twice as nice.
It may not be haute cuisine, but it’s been put together with a fair dollop of skill and a dash of love, served with groovy music and good cheer in a haven from a harsh world, and sometimes that’s all you want.
N.B. No animals were hurt in the making of this meal.
Chickpea, Soho’s basement, 80 Bold St, Liverpool L1 4HR. Tel. 07722 433475.
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.
Lasagne 6, meze 4, bean casserole 7, jerk squash 7
Friendly and considerate