The strut may have gone but there's still a lot to love here, says Gerry Corner
TIME was when a man asking his colleagues if they’d be up for some tapas after work would have him marked down as the office perv.
Not so now. Mention of the Ramblas will as likely conjure images in your workmates’ minds of cool beers on warm Barcelona nights as it will a slog through a wet field near Bacup with Eric and Doreen from accounts.
Tapas are ten a penny in Liverpool these days, or two for £12 (lunchtime, 'certain dishes only') in the case of Neon Jamon. It was two for £8 on the first occasion I ran into this offbeat Spanish outfit, on Smithdown Place, south of the city.
I rather fell for the place then: food that flooded the senses, staff with knowhow and a liberal dash of attitude, and a warm, soft-lit space made for amour.
It is three years on, almost to the day, when we meet again, this time at their second city centre branch, and I wonder if the spark will still be there.
The Berry Street outfit has the same smart-casual-who-forgot-to-lay-the-lino look, but somehow lacks both the intimacy of Smithdown Place and the feeling that you are somewhere different and special.
Service is altogether polite and friendly but the strut and passion of the south enders here seems to have softened into something more routine, but that’s relationships for you.
The sauces are the foundation of all that’s good at Neon Jamon, each vibrant, fresh-tasting and distinctive
I wouldn’t expect them to abseil down the Sagrada Familia for me but I had rather hoped they would knock the bread off the bill after I pointed out that it (“crusty” sourdough with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, £3.50) was rather dry and stale-tasting. Instead we were offered more.
The menu bears numerous similarities to the one presented to us in 2015, and I don’t see much attempt to keep things fresh and exciting. Crucially, however, the food served up in town matches our 2015 experience, i.e. very good with a couple of reservations, so let’s get them over with before we get on to the good stuff.
A dish of cured meat is dressed up with nothing more than a pile of picos de aceite, a sort of loaf-shaped breadstick that is dull and flavourless and inappropriate and, frankly, irritating, especially when another pile of them comes with the cheese – I defy you to eat your cheese off one of these babies.
As for the cheese itself, Azul D.O. picos (£6), is northern Spanish blue that is a little harsh and put us in mind of your average supermarket offering. Even a good home-made fig chutney can’t do much for it.
On the other hand, that cured meat (£7), taken from the hind leg of a mature cow, salted and smoked and dried, is velvety and full of flavour, while a heap of padron peppers (£6), those little Galician fellas, are pan fried to a lovely charry finish and loaded up with salt, lending a sweetly savoury aspect. We wolf the lot whole.
Up come croquetas (£7) serrano ham and sauteed leek, finely chopped, bound up in bechamel sauce and fried gently in breadcrumbs. They’re good... but seven quid’s worth?
Likewise, Iberian pig’s cheeks, braised in port and honey, are tender and yielding and come with a tiny mound of silk-like parsnip mash, parsnip crisps and a spoonful of the meat juices. It’s neat and skilfully presented, but it is the cheapest of cuts, so at £9, this diminutive dish seemed, in more than one sense, a bit of a cheek.
Chicken pintxos (£7) comprise paprika-marinated, chargrilled thigh meat threaded on to skewers, this time with a lightly spiced red pepper sauce. The sauces are the foundation of all that’s good at Neon Jamon, each vibrant, fresh-tasting and distinctive.
On the side, patatas bravas (£6) dinky little chunks of fried potato, dry and crisp and flavoursome, in spicy tomato aioli.
Finally comes dorada (£8.50), which three years ago was the best thing on the list and still is. Assuming they are using the same method as they were in the spring of 2015, the fish, a whole gilt head bream, is simply floured, seared, then scorched in the oven, so that the skin has a soft, greaseless crunch and the snow-white flesh is meaty and succulent.
It comes to the table upright, as if still animate, riding a red sea of mojo and caper sauce, with the fire of chilli perfectly judged to set the fish aflame without burning the house down.
We wash it all down with a dry drinkable rioja and bottles of smooth and creamy Alhambra Especial beer.
Neon Jamon might not quite fulfil the promise of El Dorado, that mythical Spanish land of all-fulfilled desires, but that dorada will get you some of the way there.
Neon Jamon, Berry St, Liverpool L1 9DF. Tel: 0151 709 4286
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.
Bread 4/10, cheese 4/10, cured meat 6/10, peppers 8/10, croquetas 6/10, pig's cheek 7/10, chicken pintxos 8/10, patatas bravas 8.5/10, dorada 10/10
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