Vicky Andrews gets happily bamboozled by this dazzling new Chinese restaurant
From Chung Ku on the banks of the Mersey, to Yuet Ben under the gaze of our Imperial Arch, there must be hundreds of Chinese restaurants in Liverpool.
Lu Ban isn’t your usual sticky ribs and prawn crackers affair. It’s fine dining, small plates, Tianjin style. From the outside, it’s unassuming and quite hard to find, but I suspect that might be deliberate. Hidden away in a little courtyard opposite the Baltic Market, it’s unlikely they’re looking to appeal to someone falling out of Punch Tarmey’s pub next door.
The banquet that arrived was a procession of excellence, fit for an Emperor. It was seriously good but bags of fun too
Swish, elegant and indulgent, Lu Ban is the ideal place to celebrate a special occasion, payday blowout or life-changing lottery win. A 35-page drinks list boasts wines and champagnes from around the world, selected by cork connoisseur Janet Wang. The cheapest bottle is a Swooper Fiano at £25. The most expensive I found was a 2010 Le Montrachet Domaine Guy Amiot at £1250. No, they haven’t missed out a decimal point. (Ed - but wine experts have subsequently suggested that's not bad value for that particular vintage.)
The interior is beautiful, with remnants of the original Cains brickwork blended into warehouse pillars, dark timber and beige walls, decorated with fragile Chinese ceramics and an ornate folding screen. The kind of place where you must be on your best behaviour at all times. I was dying to have a peak behind that screen. Who was behind it and what were they doing? And could I have a go?
“Would you like to have a drink in the bar first?” asked our host. I was confused if it was a question or an instruction because we were a bit late, but accepted anyway. Both the Ginsmiths of Liverpool (£9) and Tanqueray Flor de Sevilla (£8.50) with tonic were sublime and gave us the courage to ditch the set dinner menu at £45pp and go gung-ho with our own selection of six small plates and four sides between us.
The banquet that arrived was fit for an Emperor. It was seriously good but bags of fun too, presented with creative flair but unpretentious. Wok smoked chicken (£5) sounds simple enough but the tender poached breast meat served with sugar smoke, sweetcorn and chilli oil, was like wokking on sunshine. I was genuinely excited to see what would follow such a fortuitous opening encounter.
Beiting district scallop (£10) brought the sea to the table, two steamed scallops with a foam of lobster broth and yellow wine, delivered in a shell, on a bed of polished granite stones. Ancient recipe Gulao pork (£7.50) was a familiar combination of pork with sweet pineapple and peppers, contrasted with rice vinegar - that’s sweet and sour to me and you.
After devouring most of Master Zhang’s lip-smackingly crispy Beijing Duck (£10) I only found the cucumber and green onion garnish right at the very end, hidden away under the mini bamboo steamer that held the pancakes. In retrospect, they did tell me that, I just wasn’t paying attention. I’d literally been bamboozled.
Old Beijing lamb (£10) felt like it didn’t belong on a Chinese menu, but as somebody who’s never been to the Tianjin district, I’m prepared to put my preconceptions to one side. Cumin and chilli flavoured mutton skewers were enthusiastically dipped into a mint and charcoal yoghurt.
Equally eclectic were street vendors’ straw fries (£4.50) but when I’m served a bowl of salt-covered crispy shoestrings with Chinese spices and mayo, I couldn’t care less whether they belong on the menu or not. Side dishes were all winners. Fragrant sticky rice with jasmine flowers and crispy shallot (£4) was delivered in a cute little package of lotus leaf. Market stall greens (£6) tossed in oyster sauce, Chinese bacon and garlic, were crunchy and satisfying. My only disappointment of the whole meal was Master Yu’s five flavour cucumber (£4) which only really packed one flavour - sliced cucumber.
The grand finale came from Lui’s yard sanxian shao mai (£6), two steamed parcels with a filling of lobster, scallop and turbot, dressed with caviar. Lu Ban might be the only place in the world where you can eat sweet and sour pork alongside straw fries and dumplings with caviar. It’s all a bit Willy Wonka and ridiculously brilliant.
The cherry blossom tree dessert (£8.50) was a spellbinding synergy of chocolate, cherry and ruby delice, cherry ‘tea’ smoke and apple blossom leaves. Teachers’ breakfast (£7) proved to be churros coated in enough sugar to have you bouncing off the walls all night, with a Wonkatastic chestnut ice cream and whisky caramel on the side. It was magical but I had nothing more to give and had to apologise for not finishing the Chinese doughnuts.
Service was spot on. We had swanky menus, stylish crockery and elegant wine glasses. Even the chopsticks were charming. Our meal for two came in at £128, even after we tried to offset with a bottle of Robertson Sauvignon Blanc 2018 (£28) from the lower end of the spectrum. But was the experience as a whole worth the price tag? I think so.
In the words of an ancient Chinese proverb; “Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.”
Lu Ban, Cains Brewery Village, Stanhope St, Liverpool L8 5XJ
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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.
Smoked chicken 8, Beiting scallop 8, Gulao pork 7, crispy duck 8, Beijing lamb 7, shao mai 7, straw fries 8, sticky rice 8, market greens 8, five flavour cucumber 4, cherry blossom 9, teachers breakfast 8
The extra mile with a smile
Swish and elegant