But Damon Fairclough does find hits among the misses in the Brewery Village

THE distinctive red brick Cains Brewery building, overlooking Parliament Street, has long had the look of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory about it, and back when it was steaming, gurgling and belching its gusts of beery delight across the city, there were few finer reminders that the industrial age could be beautiful as well as brutal. 

However, after the brewery finally fell silent in 2013 – and during the years of on-off uncertainty that preceded the closure – the building’s physical splendour had come to be seen through a misty melancholic gauze.

Whether you consider the selection to be pleasingly varied or oddly incoherent probably depends on your temperament

Not that these are glum times for the brewing of beer. There are now more breweries in Britain than at any time since the 1930s, and even the Higson’s name has recently been reborn. Its new beers are now being brewed just five minutes’ walk from Cains’ palatial HQ. However, for all the fizz and sparkle of today’s craft beer scene, an independent brewery that can fill a site the size of Cains remains a rarity.

But four years after it stopped brewing beer, the Cains site is far from quiet. Over the past six months or so, the Cains Brewery community – the mix of makers, shakers, eaters and drinkers who now occupy the building and its associated warehouse spaces – has really taken off. With the boundary of the Baltic Triangle having officially expanded over the dual carriageway to take in Cains and its environs, the site now bustles with activity throughout the week.

Since July, the hugely successful Baltic streetfood market has helped turn it into a weekend destination, and Baltic Creative’s Northern Lights development of workshops and studios has added some essential entrepreneurial ballast. It is in this complex, located in a low-slung industrial shed just behind the Willy Wonka landmark, that a café bar called Tusk has set up home.

Tusk, named after its owners embarked on a "life-changing" trip to the Elephant Hills sanctuary in Thailand, occupies a channel of cavernous space between plasterboarded labyrinths of self-contained studios, its roaring log burner doing its level best to cosy up the not-exactly-toasty air. Furnishings are both Spartan and sparse, but tuck yourself within reach of the burner’s optimistic glow and it’s just about possible to dodge the chilliest of the mischievous draughts.

Tusk is well placed to serve the Baltic-based businesses that surround it, with plenty of space for ad hoc meetings, coffee breaks and business lunches, as well as the occasional I-wish-I-could-kill-my-client drowning of sorrows. The well-stocked bar offers plenty of choice for those wishing to lubricate the entrepreneurial wheels (or those wanting to stop them turning for a while), with beers from Smithdown Road’s Handyman brewery and local nut-jobs Mad Hatter – once of this parish but now based near Stanley Dock – leading the charge.

There’s a brunch menu featuring the likes of brioche buns and bagels, with a heartier selection of meals also available until later in the day. There are coffees, cakes and cocktails too.

It’s this eager-to-please quality that comes through in the main menu, in their words "vegan-led", with dishes such as aubergine miso rubbing up against battered haddock goujons and cauliflower marinated in buffalo sauce. Whether you consider the selection to be pleasingly varied or oddly incoherent probably depends on your temperament, but I was ready to give Tusk the benefit of all doubts until I’d actually consumed some of the wares.

Roasted cauliflower

Ostrich steak frites

Chicken delights

Ostrich steak and chips (£10.95) consisted of four dinky slices, all rather too dry to be delicious. The distinctive gamey flavour was intact, but as a low-fat meat, the lack of a discernible marinade or other lubricating element was a shame. The chips, however, were excellent, though they weren’t the “frites” that were advertised. They were good Brit-style, skin-on hunks, crisp at the edges and with just enough bite. A tangle of salad leaves draped in balsamic glaze added some perfunctory colour to the dish’s (or, more accurately, the chopping board’s) tawny tones.

A bottle of Mad Hatter’s mouth-puckering Orange & Basil sour IPA (£4.60) was a satisfyingly savoury way to wash it all down, though its acidic edges would have been put to better use cutting through the fatty output of a naturally juicier meat.

The oddly titled “chicken delights” (£9.95) were served as a mound of slightly gooey, nuggety morsels enveloped in a crisp and crunchy seasoned coating. The portion seemed a little undersized for the price, but they were tasty and moreish, a decent accompaniment to a bottle of the Handyman brewery’s refreshing pale ale (£4.60). Again, the chips were good, though with just ten in the bowl, there was no danger of having to slacken my belt.

Roasted cauliflower (£7.95) was chosen from the list of mains, but as a singed cauliflower clump, accompanied by nothing other than seeds plundered from pumpkins and pomegranates, it all seemed a little like Blackadder’s turnip surprise. (“In other words Baldrick, the turnip surprise would be… a turnip”.) However, with the addition of a dollop of crème fraiche filched from a side-serving of (pretty good) halloumi fries, it was possible to enjoy what was a rather puritan dish.

Bread and butter pudding

As for desserts, the menu presented a choice of pastries, cake, fruit crumble or bread and butter pudding (£4.95), but on this occasion, only the latter was available. Fortunately it was superb, by far the best bit of the meal, consisting of a large slab of moist pud generously swirled with cinnamon and fruit, with a generous dollop of snow-white ice-cream on the side.

Although the food was OK and the bar choice was good there’s an air of indecision hanging over Tusk. Rather than feeling like the realisation of a culinary vision, it’s more of a collision of vaguely of-the-moment ideas – school chairs and science lab stools, blackboard paint and Edison bulbs – along with a grab-bag menu that seems a little too hit and miss.

Having said that, for anyone deciding on a whim to have a bite to eat while they drink, it’s a tasty enough way to fill a gap.

In fact, in the context of this big ex-brewery warehouse with its criss-crossing partitions, filling a gap is exactly what Tusk succeeds in doing. Though with a little more focus on the things it does best, it could start to become a venue worth a special journey rather than being just a handy space in between.

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. 

Tusk Food & Drink Sanctuary 
5 Mann Street
Liverpool L8 5AF.
Tel: 0151 909 8678.

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.

  • Food 6.5/10

    Ostrich steak frites 6/10; roasted cauliflower 4.5/10; chicken delights 7/10; halloumi fries 7/10; bread and butter pudding 8.5/10

  • Ambience 3/5

    Baltic in more ways than one

  • Service 3.5/5

    Friendly and fun