Chris Malpas enjoys an evening of jazz, whisky, and candied beetroot.
Puffin’ Rooms promises the Jazz Age, and it delivers in the sense that it feels like stepping into an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The venue is split into a bar and restaurant on one side and a cigar lounge on the other. Subtlety is of no interest, the moody decor is punctuated only by spot-lit displays of Dalmores and MacCallans. It comes as a relief that the menu lights up when we open it. Aside from another table of two sharing a bottle of wine, we’re the only visitors.
The flavours and textures just work – salty, sweet, crunchy, soft, enough said.
While Puffin’ Rooms boasts an extensive wine and whisky menu, neither are as carefully curated as their cocktail list. I start with a ‘Walks into a Bar’ (£12.00), their take on a whisky sour. Its selling point is the addition of Speyside Scotch and Japanese grain to the usual bourbon base. Cocktails loaded with multiple spirits sometimes fall victim to their own potency, but it’s a winning combination here. My guest goes for the ‘Garden of Good and Evil’ (£13.00), and lemongrass foam takes it from a bog-standard mint and elderflower cocktail to something truly memorable
The food menu’s arrangement, however, is confused. Divided into small plates, plates and desserts, you could be forgiven for mistaking these for posh iterations of starters, mains and puddings. Yet,the small plates section offers everything from nibbles like olives, to side dishes like fondant potatoes, and genuine appetisers like tiger prawns. The plates section is no clearer cut; chilled smoked salmon sits uncomfortably above fillet of beef. Thankfully, a server talks us through our options, and recommends three pickings from the plates section as appropriate for two people.
While we wait, a second round of cocktails arrives. My ‘Old-Tabashioned Late Hour’ (£14.50) is constructed at the table, with the premixed cocktail poured over smoke. Islay whisky and tobacco liqueur couldn’t be more on brand for a bar like this: it’s like sucking on a boozy cigar. Sticking with the Jazz Age theme, my guest’s ‘Flappers and Philosophers’ (£14.50) isn’t quite as layered as her first drink, but gin, plum and sparkling wine make for a pretty decadent spritz.
The evening’s jazz musician arrives with the food, an hour later than expected. Despite taking our time with our drinks, we’re not given any impression that we’ve overstayed our welcome. The musician takes requests and jumps immediately into a piano version of a pop song. The entertainment brings more people into the building, but we’re the only ones eating. Maybe food is more popular earlier in the evening?
We start with painted scallops (£18.50) presented on a Himalayan salt tile and accompanied by crispy Parma ham and seaweed. The server applies sauce with a brush at the table; there’s a consistent element of theatrics throughout, but it’s not overplayed. We can’t fault the dish. Simple in every way except for presentation, the flavours and textures just work – salty, sweet, crunchy, soft, enough said.
Up next is truffle butter chicken (£22.50), and truffle is the keyword here. Somehow, despite the fact I know I’ll still be tasting it the next day, it doesn’t bully the tender chicken into obsolescence. The pomme puree (that’s posh for mashed potato) brings little by itself but acts as a vessel for the bolder flavours on the plate. The menu advertises crispy parmesan polenta, which we assume are the yellow cubes set atop the mash, though they don’t taste of much either. While the centrepiece is faultless, we can’t help but feel more could have been done with the accompaniments.
The proportions are off with our final dish, honey glazed duck (£18.95). Onion ash is a delightful, bittersweet complement to the meat, but the huge nests of candied beetroot overpower the comparatively miniscule pieces of duck. It’s a nice idea, but sweetening an already sweet vegetable ruins the overall composition. Both of us need a drink of water after this one.
Given the nature of Puffin’ Rooms, we’re offered another drink in lieu of dessert. It’d be a shame to leave without sampling from their whisky menu, and the server is more than happy to recommend a dram. My Ardbeg Corryvreckan (£12.50) weighs in at a mighty 57.1%, but the surprise isn’t necessarily unwelcome. My guest goes sweet with her final order: a ‘Banana Dancer’ (£13.50) packed with rum, banana, and champagne. Two very different nightcaps, but equally perfect send-offs.
The musician banters back and forth with tables while we sip our final drinks and the atmosphere relaxes to the point of casualness. It’s incongruous with the stilted silver-service provided the rest of the time. Puffin’ Rooms seems to struggle slightly to coordinate its offerings. Dinner, drinks and jazz sound like a match made in heaven, but we’re the only ones to take them up on all three. Regardless, it manages not to collapse under the weight of all its moving parts, and that’s a feat worth returning for.
Puffin Rooms: 8 Old Hall St, Liverpool L3 9PA
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
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.
Scallops 10, Chicken 8, Duck 6. (A note to add that all of the drinks were a solid 10)
Attentive, if a little too formal.
Spot on, old sport.