The best of times, the worst of times. Here our team of restaurant critics dish out the gongs to places visited in 2017
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR
Among numerous new openings in and around Liverpool, Oktopus in April featured simple, high quality ingredients wonderfully executed and paired with locally brewed beers.
Petit Parle gave the office drudges in the business district a reason to smile. Small place, small plates, big on atmosphere and featuring confident French cooking.
But the big news, and our winner by a country mile, came on the other side of town, with the arrival of Gary Usher’s latest crowd-funded restaurant on the corner of Slater Street, which turned out to be every bit as good as the city’s restaurant-goers were hoping for.
Gerry Corner’s review of Wreckfish summed it up thus: “There’s no glitz, no pretence, no big I am, just a warm welcome and bistro food prepared to a standard that’s pretty much guaranteed to make this everyone’s favourite city centre restaurant”.
BEST THING ON A SMALL PLATE
Some of the best things we ate in 2017 came in bite-size packages. Surprise packages sometimes, like at Clockworks whose black pudding bon bons – crisp croquettes with soft dark centres – are likened by Confidential Editor Angie Sammons to “the contents of a luxury box of chocolates”.
At Oktopus, Pedro Cotzier was mad for crumb-encased popcorn mussels with red chilli and garlic – “so moreish, so mouthwatering”.
Out in the sticks, chef Mark Birchall was catching the Michelin judge’s eye at Moor Hall with such creations as black pudding and pickled apple and smoked curd with potato, fermented garlic and flowers.
The winner did not even require to be cooked. Petit Parle’s native Menai Strait oysters –“luscious, full-flavoured, fresh as the morning tide” – served in the shell with lemon wedges, salt, shallot vinegar and a bottle of Tabasco to hand, brought deep joy.
Winner: Menai Strait oysters, Petit Parle.
BEST THING ON A BIGGER PLATE
As the small plate revolution continues unabated, a proper plateful of scran was increasingly hard to come by in 2017.
Meanwhile expertly executed steaks at bargain prices `– flat iron and ribeye – came courtesy of Cowshed.
And The Barn, the new casual dining option at Moor Hall, gave us two perfect roasted chunks of monkfish in a richly creamy sauce, with earthy blobs of pureed artichoke and the gentle spice of padron peppers.
Joint winners, both given perfect scores, were two main courses from Wreckfish, enjoyed on a night Mr Usher was at the helm. Pan-roasted skate wing , “the fish’s wonderfully meaty strands coming away from the bone like the luxuriant hair of some flaxen goddess of the sea” came in a golden pond of sweet and nutty browned butter.
And braised beef featherblade, a humble cut of meat here transformed into, “a dark and brooding, caramelised, gelatinous heap of love”. If that wasn’t enough, they come with what our reviewer calls “the best chips in town, that’s all”.
Joint Winner: Featherblade beef and roasted skate wing, Wreckfish.
QUEEN OF PUDDINGS
Strong contenders included sumptuous rhubarb, blood orange and meringue, “soft and crisp and sharp and sweet and all in total harmony”, served up at The Barn.
Other crackers included Cucina di Vincenzo’s creamy pannacotta, the finest our reviewer had encountered in a lifetime of tasting pannacottas, and Wreckfish’s baked treacle with prunes soaked in Armagnac, which, our review concludes, “finally rescues the reputation of prunes from the clutches of constipated pensioners”.
The winner, though, is Moor Hall, for its honey beer, Bramley apple, aged caramel and marigold, “a triumph of balance; hot, cold, soft, crunchy, achingly sweet and subtly bitter”.
Winner: Honey beer, Bramley apple, aged caramel and marigold, Moor Hall.
THE SUPERSTAR OF SUBURBIA AWARD
Cucina di Vincenzo on Woolton Road is simply everything you want from a neighbourhood restaurant: a warm Scottish/Italian welcome, a bright and airy ambience, and good (Italian, not Scottish) food at a price to match.
Eponymous chef/patron Vincent borrowed the recipe for his melting ragu sauce,10 hours in the making, from his mother; while the cooking gene has been inherited by his daughter, who despite tender years is proving a pastry chef of uncommon skill and judgement.
Look out for the magnificently imposing ornate cast iron crosses, holding the figures of Jesus and Mary, rescued from a French burial ground.
Winner: Cucina di Vincenzo.
2017 FOOD HERO
Who would once have imagined such a basic staple as our daily bread would be the cause of a class divide, with the best stuff in reach only of those with generous disposable incomes.
In Kensington, one man decided to take this injustice into his own lightly-floured hands. Owen McShane is offering proper bread, a world away from the factory produced pap which dominates the supermarket shelves, to the people of Kensington at considerably more affordable prices.
High quality sourdough retails in Liverpool city centre for around £3.50. Locals shopping at the Kensington Bread Company’s Holt Road store will pay £1.50, for any one of five varieties of loaf, on production of the “Kenny Card” – proof of residence and entitlement to the low end of the pricing scale.
Honest, unadulterated bread that Owen can only afford to sell at rock bottom prices by pouring in the profits from his existing wholesale business and by charging more to non-residents of L6 and L7.
Ongoing community projects like bread-making classes for residents and schools, and work experience for youngsters are also planned by the man who believes everyone is entitled to a slice of the good life.
Winner: Owen McShane, Kensington Bread Co.
WORST THING ON A PLATE
YOU can’t blame us for the demise of Hudson House whose problems evidently ran deeper than one – not great, admittedly – review.
The self-styled “high end seafood restaurant and bar” briefly occupied the place in Beetham Plaza previously occupied by the short lived Home Canteen and the long lived Simply Heathcote's.
Unfortunately, there was nothing high end to note in at least a couple of the seafood-related dishes.
Roasted shards of salmon crackling came without the scales being removed, a pretty basic requirement in the world of high end seafood preparation. As Gerry Corner noted, “a mouthful of fish scales does not make for a pleasing hors d’hoeuvre”.
Worse, indeed much worse, were oysters in shallot vinaigrette, which “looked like they had gone 12 rounds with Tony Bellew and tasted more of Sarsons than the sea”.
More worryingly, small fragments of shell had been left in among the oysters. Less shucked, more f***ed.
Hudson House sank without trace barely a few months after opening its doors, amid complaints by staff of being underpaid. Few mourn its loss.
"Winner": Hudson House.
BEST PLACE TO VANISH
Bold Street and environs offer plentiful opportunities for the low of battery to recharge. You’ll find a convivial crowd and good breakfast-cum-lunchtime offerings in East Avenue Bakehouse, Maray, the ever lovely Leaf and more.
More uptown, there’s more of the same at The Quarter where, if the sun is shining on the cobbles of Falkner Street, there is nowhere better for a spot of al fresco pizza and Pimms, and all the fags you can smoke, if that still happens to be your thing.
The winner is to be found round the corner in Hope Street, where the same double act of (owner) Paddy Byrne and (chef) Tom Gill have taken the food they became famous for at the old Everyman Bistro to new heights at The Pen Factory. Among snacks, small plates and tapas is everything from hake to steak and those old Paddy/Dave Scott salads. With a top wine card, sunlight streaming in and a real fire, why on earth brave it back out into the brutal, real world? This is the place to hide in plain sight.
Winner: The Pen Factory.
Within a hop, skip and a jump of Liverpool city centre we can now boast not one but two Michelin restaurants. You have all heard of, but perhaps not been, to Oxton’s diminutive Fraiche, where tables are as hot as a ballistic missile out of North Korea.
Now Marc Wilkinson has been joined in the starry echelons by another chef making his Michelin mark: Mark Birchall at Moor Hall, in Aughton, a short whizz up the A59, or Merseyrail's Northern Line if you're going to make the most of things.
Where it has eluded others, it took ex L’Enclume head chef Birchall just five months, from opening in April, to win the Michelin inspectors coveted stamp of approval.
Critic Gordo was in there even quicker than them, describing Birchall’s food execution on an eight dish tasting menu (£95 although you can eat there for as little as £35) as a work of genius, the service outstanding. The whole experience at the Jacobean pile left he and travelling companion Deanna Thomas in “a heap on the floor”. We trust in a positive way.
With the late December arrival of Anton Piotrowski’s Roski into the hallowed remains of Puschka, early observers - and himself - believe that come next November, Liverpudlians will have to stray no further than Rodney Street for more Michelin starred scran.
We’ll see you next year about that one. In the meantime, food lovers seeking the truly memorable and remarkable around here have reason to celebrate the arrival of Moor Hall to their manor. There’s even the prospect of a table reservation in the next 10 months if you're sharp about it.
Winner: Moor Hall Restaurant With Rooms, Aughton.