Cool beets - Ebony Ashcroft is rooting for this plant-based tasting menu on Hope Street
I present to you my list of exciting things that happen to exist below street level. Number one; Bruce Wayne’s bat cave. Number two; Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. And number three; the Pen Factory on Liverpool’s historic Hope Street.
Paddy Byrne provides top-quality cuisine on the reg, so the standards are high
Strung together by mesmerising fairy lights, the pillared basement of The Pen Factory is warm and inviting. Deceivingly inanimate from the outside, it’s nestled amongst the quieter streets of the city centre, adjacent to the energetic buzz that stems from the Philharmonic Hall, Everyman Theatre and student-stocked Hardman Street.
The bubbly team greet you with genuine smiles and give you your pick of the venue to sit (10/10 for comfort). I like to mix up my positioning to get different perspectives of this landmark eatery. Sometimes I’ll keep close to the street to observe the juxtaposition of Scouse society and the underground haven I’m kicking back and sipping wine in.
Other times, I’ll take a seat at the bar to admire - who am I kidding - to sample their hefty draught collection and cocktail offerings. Today I choose to get as close to the action as possible - the kitchen.
We love to see our food getting assembled in real-time - or is that just me? Anyway, I’m hot and centre stage tonight, somewhere between a criminally cold summer evening and this European Bistro’s seven-course vegan tasting menu.
It’s not often while stumbling our cobbled streets you find a vegan menu like this, so I’m ready and raring to go. The enthusiastic host explains the dishes arrive as they are ready, leaving me to select a “charming, fragrant and jammy” Primitivo to complement the plant-based banquet.
At £30 per person for the food, it puts The Pen Factory into the selection of reputable local venues to offer tasting menus for such a reasonable price. Think Lerpwl’s Capricious menu for £35, or SixbyNico’s seasonal 6 courses for £32. Considering a main would set you back anywhere between £7 - £22 per dish, this is a fairly respectable price tag.
Alongside their cocktails and sublime wine list is the print for the evening with each dish in succession, including two vegan wines you can indulge in by the glass (£4.60) or bottle (£27).
If you’re feeling fruitier there’s a ginger mojito or choice of ciders in the mix too. This cohort of beverages pales in comparison to their standard non-vegan selection, but the pairings on offer are well suited.
Vegan non-drinkers are much more limited. Nevertheless, our drinks are fashioned with care and garnished with classic Liverpudlian banter. As I’m busy admiring the debonair yet humble aesthetic, shallot-kissed focaccia with marmite butter comes steaming towards me. The bread is bouncy, oily and perfectly baked.
I really am one of those “the camera eats first” people, but the beauty is so charming even I forget to care, devouring it faster than Salah scored his first goal in the 2019 Champions League Final (if you’re not a fan, that’s precisely 106 seconds).
Piggybacking (or rather, “herbivoring”) off of that success comes the crispy artichokes with saffron aioli. My oh my. Bronzed, delicately crisped edges and glistening flakes of sea salt. My only disappointment? The portion was to be shared. I probably would have jousted my dinner guest away to eat it all myself, had I realised sooner.
Third up is a Chinese turnip cake with soy. This is where everything starts to go a bit Southport (definition: somewhat palatable and unquestionably salty). The coriander is a saving grace but not enough to balance the edible equivalent of Salar de Uyuni.
The next dish is a palate cleanser - buffalo tomato with crispy capers and a sweet balsamic dressing. This plate is pungent, simple, fresh and satisfying.
Smooth hazelnut and miso cream, dots of wasabi and ginger lying on a bed of beetroot tartare and white radish, sandwiched between slices of crunchy bread - this dish sparks some heavy examination. The amalgamation of flavours make it thought-provoking, but I’m not sure how my mouth feels about it.
It’s safe to say we can nickname the penultimate dish Levi’s because it is a belter. The robust mushroom sauce reminds me of a hearty chicken chasseur and a homemade roast simultaneously. The celeriac and buttery girolles are melt-in-the-mouth delicious. This is vegan comfort food on crack.
The Pen Factory never disappoints when it comes to sweets, and chocolate cremeux with caramel popcorn is no exception. Dessert is a velvety vegan chocolate overload. It’s no surprise that the food comes out to make a statement.
Culinary entrepreneur Paddy Byrne provides top-quality cuisine on the reg at The Pen Factory, so the standards are high.
Typically, the menu focuses on elements that cater to all consumers, so finding a show-stopping vegan tasting menu in Liverpool seems to be a journey to no end, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.
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.
Focaccia 10, artichokes 10, turnip cake 4, tomato 8, beetroot tartare 6, celeriac 9, figs & chocolate 7
Habitually good-natured, accommodating, and sociable - an absolute dream team
A charming collage of fairy lights, brickwork, chalkboard menus, and covert outdoor seating - bistros don't really get better than this