Angie Sammons examines insatiable appetites on Lark Lane
Among the riff-raffish set who once occupied heyday Lark Lane, self conscious words like “eccentric” and “Bohemian” held no place.
We’re talking about a time when “The Lane” was all squats, CND and useful shops; when you could count on one hand the pubs, wine bars and restaurants. Of these, most did an adequate job and who needed more? Not when the surrounding Victorian villas and mansions, with their booming Saturday night music, provided a gatecrasher’s paradise. Places like Livingstone Drive and all the Alberts were Party Central, in the days before “house parties”.
No, the word eccentric, implying someone a bit mad, but not mad enough to warrant a doctor’s certificate, would be employed by someone who either had aspirations to be just that, or by a happily beige person.
And aside from Freddie Mercury, “Bohemian” was the preserve of Irene Handl-style aunties struggling to describe a young relative who liked a bit of weekend Mary Jane. If you were really cool (“cool” was cool), it was understood that uttering either word - ever - would blow, well, your cool.
Obviously the grinder here is nothing to do with cannabis paraphernalia or, for that matter, any activities you might stumble across on the dark web
Then, about a decade ago, came a generation of breathless young journos and bloggers who peppered every article about the area with both adjectives, accompanied by another favourite, “hidden gem”.
Lark Lane suddenly had a label and rents and house prices rocketed. Naturally, an explosion of food and booze outlets followed, powered by incomers with jangling pockets. The sort of incomer who once caused Margi Clarke to observe of one, long gone, restaurateur, "He's from Huyton”.
That was then and no one was surprised when several of these enterprises fell by the wayside, found out for being rubbish.
Yet doing something right, for the past eight years, is the pub/bistro Rhubarb. Its owners ventured across the road with Monkey Grinder last August, a restaurant whose name may have unwittingly sparked a double take among the North Face lids who roam these parts.
Even a blind man will identify this tribe by the pervasive stench of weed, which cloaks its members and hangs over the day like a smog. It sets 2018 Lark Lane no further apart from any other suburban high street in Britain. There is very little about it that’s either Bohemian or eccentric.
Obviously the grinder here is nothing to do with cannabis paraphernalia or, for that matter, any activities you might stumble across on the dark web. It’s a wordplay on the old monkey and organ proverb (although be prepared for a surprise if you tap in “organ grinder” on Urban Dictionary).
Tapas is the game here, or small plates if you prefer. And they’ll need to be small when all eight are plonked down onto the tiny square table at the same time. At least that’s what happened on an earlier visit last month. The approach was far more relaxed on this our return and, to boot, the food much better.
“Monkey Grinder is a Spanish Mediterranean inspired cafe tapas restaurant. We are independent,” declares the blurb.
The decor betrays few traces of Iberia. Rather, random Victorians peer down from antique picture frames, the lighting is warm and wintry and the closely packed tables give it a cosy feel.
The lunch/evening menu is divided into sections: meats, fish, vegetables, platters and a whole range of things on toast. Nothing too remarkable.
We begin with gordal olives (£3.50) lean and muscly before too many padron peppers - at least 30 - arrive in a green and wrinkly heap (£4.50). Twenty of them must have remained uneaten.
“Crisp fried potatoes” (£4.50) are a little on the flabby side, however a decent bravas and melted, sharp Manchego come to the rescue.
In contrast, the three mushroom arancini (£5.50) - basically risotto fritters in panko crumbs - are a delight: crunchy, squishy and comforting in turn, soaking up a simple grilled vegetable salsa. Unlike the padron peppers we could eat a lot of them.
A dish of baby chorizo (£5.50) are every bit the dog's bollocks - to look at anyway. Perhaps there are better ways to present chorizo and it doesn't help that they are rather chewy. The red wine and honey, in which they are cooked, do their best to soften that first bite but ... sorry Fido, it's not just your eyes that are watering.
Then to gladden the heart, a lovely hunk of sparkling cod fillet (£6.50) shows up, back arched on a fat slick of pea puree, flanked by a spray of sweet broccoli stems.
On its heels, three generous slices of perfectly rare and juicy fillet steak (£8.50), brood on a bed of perfect chive mash with scatterings of shatter-crisp kale, all finished in some sort of reduction.
The only desserts made in-house are the churros and good old creme brûlée (£4.95) the latter as good as you will eat anywhere. A kiss from the blowtorch renders the surface as brittle as thin ice, the underlying custard is thick, creamy and airy, revealing its maker’s light touch instead of a heavy hand with the sugar.
After two visits, I get the feeling of an inconsistency in Monkey Grinder’s kitchen, which it can easily iron out. “We have a few different chefs,” we are told. They might wish to settle on one (preferably whoever was in the second time) rather than risk spoiling their reputational broth with too many.
The art of parties may be over in Lark Lane, along with CND and squats. If the area is still hazy after all these years, the reasons are often super strength.
Of the two dozen restaurants who came, saw and survived, quite a few are enjoying a deserved brisk trade and, even on a school night, eating out is very much in.
Maybe everyone simply has the munchies.
All scored Confidential reviews are paid for by the company, never the venue or a PR outfit. Critics dine unannounced and their opinions are completely independent of any commercial relationships.
28 Lark Lane,
Liverpool L17 8US.
0151 728 9477. Website.
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind in the area: fine dining v the best fine dining, Sunday roasts against the best Sunday roasts, etc. On this basis, the scores represent...
1-5: The dog's dinner; 6-9: Netflix and chill; 10-11: In an emergency; 12-13: If you happen to be passing; 14-15: Worth a trip out; 16-17: Very good to exceptional; 18-20: As good as it gets.
Mushroom arancini 8/10, cod 8/10, steak 8/10, creme brûlée 8/10, patatas bravas 6/10; Olives 5/10, padron peppers 4/10, chorizo balls 4/10
Polite and friendly