This week the stars aligned in such a way that is experienced by only a few such as Bilbo Baggins, Luke Skywalker Ethan Hawke, Olly Murs, George VI, Oscar Pistorious and the Pope (sorry they are all a bit random but fate seems to have played a big part in all their real or imagined lives). Firstly I have been recovering from 2 weeks of man flu (think watered down version of Ebola), secondly two very tough weeks in my day job (no details but education ‘aint what it used to be’), thirdly it was Lady Furness’ birthday (her 30th plus a couple) and, finally, it was the weekend I had been looking forward to as we had a table at Paul ‘Porky’ Askew’s new solo venture, Art School in Liverpool.
So, after a day of watching and playing football through rain and shine, I was en route to the restaurant with Red (the wife), Vincenzo and Lady Furness (friends), being driven in style by Lady Furness’ pater, Sir Des (think Parker from Thunderbirds but with a ruddy-faced liking for the good life). Slightly delayed, I tweeted the restaurant in what I thought was the vain hope they would pick up the message. More than that I received a reply from the restaurant manager, James, to say no problem and the champagne would be on ice. This was a sign of the extremely efficient, personable and friendly service we were to receive throughout the visit.
Upon our slightly tardy arrival, we were greeted at the discreet but impressive entrance by James who, through attention to detail, knew which booking we were. We were quickly seated and provided with the first element of the Tasting Menu (£85 per person, though the main menu is considerably cheaper), the glass of Charles Heidsieck brut NV champagne, a delicious way to start any event. This was quickly followed by a selection of canapes; olives (not my bag but excellent by the standards of my fellow diners), salmon crackers (delicate), feta and sun-dried cherry tomatoes (fresh and packed with flavour) and, the best of the bunch, haggis with fresh blackberry (this was an excellent combination of spice and well cooked meat).
Next up was the Amuse Bouche which consisted of (apologies to Paul and the restaurant as these are my Luddite descriptions and, almost certainly, not how you would describe them!) beef tea with vegetable and barley (a real delight – think 5 star bovril!). Each course was delivered in exquisite style by a team of serving staff at the top of their game, replete with detailed description and explanation. The service was a real highlight and managed to combine that unusual alchemy of professional formality with warm friendliness. We ordered some cocktails which the sommelier deferred to the mixologist who offered candid advice on what we might enjoy most. In the end we settled for a cosmopolitan (Red loves her classics) a Black Forrest (Lady Furness described it as a fruity combination with a lovely lingering taste of lychee) whilst Vincenzo and I went off piste for one of our mixologist’s very own concoctions which I can best describe as a brandy based mojito – delicious. We were then delivered our bread: a great combination of serious 5 grain bread with a light brioche-like second bread. To accompany the food we surveyed the extensive wine list and opted for the 2010 Clos de la Cure St Emillion Grand Cro (£55), as fine a wine as you will get anywhere. It was a toss up between that and the £850 1986 Petrus.
Then the real food began. First up was grilled razor shell clam with Filey crab, fennel and nasturtium salad. this was a delicate combination of seafood, each playing its part to deliver an excellent shellfish salad dish (my personal favourite). Red is not a seafood lover but even she managed to enjoy the delights that Paul Askew was conjuring up here.
This was followed by the much deeper flavours of a seared scallop with caramalised celeriac puree, smoked pork loin and sauternes dressing. This was a heavyweight dish of deep smokey flavours which Lady Furness said reminded her of bonfire night (Lady Furness’ favourite). The scallop was, as you would expect, cooked perfectly and balanced beautifully with the smokey sauce and salty pork loin. An obvious match but done so well.
Next up we moved on to the game. First of all we had the stuffed Lancashire quail with butternut squash puree, tarragon and golden raisin jus. This was Red’s favourite, not surprisingly as the quail was moist and very flavoursome. It worked very well with the sweet poatato, sage and beetroot chips which danced on the tongue when combined with the sweet and sensuous butternut squash puree.
As the cocktails had now been consumed Vincenzo suggested a beer to accompany the final stages of the meal. Rather than peruse the menu we decided to test the knowledge of Stephanie our waitress. As expected her knowledge belied her youth and she was able to suggest the excellent Estrella Damm Inedit. One of the few beers in Europe to be specifically designed to serve with food, this was creamy and soft in texture with an elegant spice and delicate carbonation. Served appropriately in a large wine glass, this was the perfect accompaniment to the final stages of the meal
The second game offering was a leg and breast of partridge, served with cox apples, a cabbage parcel and Claremont Farm potatoes. By this stage we were starting to fill up but this was yet another top knotch dish. The potato was a sublime layered stack, the leg of partridge resembled the royalty of ‘crispy duck’. The breast was moist and segwayed perfectly with the crab apple jelly and cabbage parcels.
At this stage we were just on full so politely declined the invitation to extend the menu with a British and European cheese selection (£12.50 per person) and moved straight to the pre-dessert which was a fresh grapefruit sorbet: the Disney character of courses, all light, delight and wholesome. I felt that a bowl of this would even detox George Best, Vincenzo described it as a restorer in the fashion of something Jeeves would prepare for Bertie Wooster. DECLARATION: we then received a free dessert wine from James the restaurant manager. Delightful but, in true disclosure will not form part of the review. Finally we had the baked vanilla cheesecake with Italian meringue, mango and almonds. This was splendid, with the dust-like base combining with the mango to produce a delightfully cloying effect in the mouth: sheer indulgence!
As things drew to a close, Paul Askew appeared from behind the pass he had prowled all night, to converse with the clientele, giving each table enough of his time to feel special, without reaching the awkward stage. He was followed by James and Stephanie, who also sought each table’s views on what went well and, more importantly, what could be improved. In truth the former was a lengthy response, the latter, extremely brief and centred around pairing the dishes with wine – a move that James assured us was already on the cards.
Paul Askew, even in these early stages, has created an extremely high quality dining experience in a wonderful location. His emphasis upon quality and the importance of the diner’s experience has been made a reality through the hard work and dedication of his team. This has resulted in a restaurant of the highest quality.
I tweeted at the time that this was a more enjoyable experience than our visit to Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume. I realise many a food snob will scoff at this suggestion and I am not suggesting that Paul is a more talented chef than Rogan, though he is certainly in the same ball park. The real truth of the matter is that the dining experience is more enjoyable. At L’Enclume it felt like you were lucky to be there, sitting in the headmaster’s study and afraid to enjoy yourself. In contrast, at the Art School you feel special, like the whole event is centred around your enjoyment: from the first greeting to the last goodbye. The room, the serving staff and the chefs are there for you and your fellow guests, exactly as it should be. This was not lost on us during our visit and, I am sure, will not be lost by those at Michelin in the coming months.
- Service: 9.8/10 As good as I have experienced
- Atmosphere: 9/10 a spacious and relaxed dining room
- Food: 9/10 excellence and mastery from start to finish
- Value for money: 8/10 a whopping £500 for 4 but you get what you pay for
- Overall: 9/10 As goods anywhere in Liverpool
These are judged against the best of that type of restaurant. For example cafes against what you would expect from the best cafes, high end restaurants against the best high end restaurants etc.
Website: Art School