Hawker food makes a happy landing in North John Street. By Gerry Corner
IN the Age of Austerity, small plates make sense all round.
Same with “street food”, which – via Mowgli, Wahaca, Bakchich and others – has become a commonplace offering around the city.
Smaller portions mean smaller prices, which means more people willing to risk a little of their hard-earned.
And so too with hawker food, the street staple of south east Asia and speciality of the house at Tiger Rock.
The treasured, value-for-money cuisine of Thailand, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos and Singapore – where a couple of stalls hold Michelin stars – has largely been moved off the street and into so-called hawker centres, chiefly for reasons of sanitation.
In northern England, street food happens indoors chiefly to avoid the rain, which pours scorn upon attempts to embrace the open air.
Slow cooked, the sauce is deeply layered and rich with exotic, eastern spice like star anise and cardamom
This new instalment of Tiger Rock (the original is on Smithdown Road) operates from premises on North John Street, one of those streets that’s somehow less a destination, more a connecting pipe between Liverpool One, the business district, and the obligatory Beatles stops on Mathew Street.
The city centre branch appears to have the same dimensionally transcendental qualities as the TARDIS. Put another way, it’s bigger than it looks: on the face of it, a neat, Asian-styled cafe, with room for about a dozen (I can see the window seats being popular), it opens out into a long, tastefully-attired dining space at the back.
While the Smithdown location looks as bright and blue as a summer’s day, the North John Street's soft lighting, sleek, green bar and bamboo shutters seem adorned for dusk.
The bar knocks out its speciality bellinis, the contents of a gin menu and, so they say, “some delightful wines and beers”. Oh, and a nice line in teas.
Food divides mainly into two sections: small plates - with everything from chicken satay skewers to scallops with asparagus - and small bowls, featuring noodles, soups, rice. Most dishes are priced at £5.50 or £5.95, with an even better value set lunch menu offering two small plates or bowls for £9, three for £13.50, noon-5pm every day.
From the lunch menu, a seabass fillet comes perfectly grilled, crisp skinned and shiningly fresh, covered in a chilli sauce with the tang of tamarind and loaded with caramelised red onion that goes surprisingly well with the fish.
Discs of “eggplant”, along with lotus roots and asparagus, are deep fried in a tempura batter that’s light, crisp and toothsome. It’s a good dish that would be a delight were it not for the surfeit of oil on all of the batter.
Malaysian beef curry completes three choices from the lunch list. Slow cooked, the sauce is deeply layered and rich with exotic, eastern spice like star anise and cardamom.
The sauce is not ungenerous but a little more would not go amiss, not least because the meat, though tender, has a dried-out aspect. Rice, soft, sticky and just the job, completes the all-round comfort food feel of a warming, aromatic dish.
On the main menu, there’s a version of the beef curry offered with baked potato rather than rice, which I imagine going down very well with office workers refuelling after a hard morning treading the nearby hamster wheels of commerce.
Pomegranate, pomelo and watercress salad with tamarind dressing (£4.95) is a refreshing assortment of texture and flavour but the watercress lets the side down; the main feature, it is limp and losing its colour.
Vietnamese summer rolls (£5.50) are essentially a salad wrap; the few anonymous prawns do little, but crisp, finely shredded veg, tightly parcelled up in fresh rice paper, goes down well, especially with the chilli dip, which, as recommended, we pour in to start a fire.
Bak choi (£4.95), steamed and gleaming, was garlicky and satisfying.
A shout out for our young server. We fail to note her name, but she is charming and friendly and keeps on top of our mess with discreet thoroughness. She speaks well of her employers and we can only wish them well.
This second restaurant has not long opened its doors and, in the upheaval that inevitably brings, it would be understandable if they had taken their eye off the kitchen but, whatever a restaurant’s attractions, it will live and die by the stuff on the plates.
That said, the few issues with the food are mostly technical, are easily sorted and, crucially, did not stop us leaving with a good impression.
We round off with “special cake” which, on this occasion, is a sort of red velvet sponge, the colour provided by, of all things, watermelon. Freshly baked in the locale, it’s soft, lush and rather lovely with a scoop of coconut ice cream, and we wash it down with gunpowder tea (£2.50), a proper potful of green leaves infused with a “secret spice”.
Once bedded in I can see Tiger Rock becoming the regular haunt of many a local drudge in need of a midday carbohydrate hit.
Its menu, of modest dishes at modest prices, very nicely solves the problem faced by many a consumer of south east Asian cuisine in this country – how to find room for a main course after gorging on starters.
Give it a try. At these prices, what have you got to lose?
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.
26 North John Street,
Tel 0151 236 7655. 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
Seabass 7.5/10; tempura veg 6.5/10; beef curry 7/10; watercress salad 5/10; summer rolls 6.5/10; bak choi 8/10; cake 8/10.
Quiet this lunchtime but expect it to buzz as word spreads.
Friendly, unfussy, efficient.