Sandwiched between the Met Quarter and the Gyratory is something of a curious dead space, like the outskirts of town before you get to the other. The Met Quarter seems like it should be bustling, busy, bright but the two streets either side of it are dead; the high walls of the former post office precluding noise, light, humanity.
Still, the area surrounding the Met Quarter should, theoretically, be a good hunting ground to pick up the waifs and strays with their clutch bags and new boots – there’s not a huge range of food on offer inside after all.
A stone’s throw sway is the weird bus terminal and a host of awful bars: the kind of places where people are only ever passing through. A little further on is Queen’s Square and whatever lurks there; La Tasca and the Tavern and Ask with their seven pound meals in that weird, very 1990s idea of little leisure villages.
In the midst of all of this is Whitechapel; a small area in Liverpool that’s like a little five ways for the city centre, where lots of areas intersect and end. This is where four Italians have opted to set up Bellini, a cocktail bar and restaurant aiming to do what Jamie’s Italian could not – prove to Liverpool that Italian food could be more than the pastas and pizzas that such restaurants have become known for.
The name is quite a statement of intent – there’s a wide range of cocktails and there’s an excellent choice of wines, tended to by a specialist sommelier among the Italian quartet who run Bellini. The food menu looks well judged; there’s not too much on and it promises beef carpaccio, a number of fish dishes that go beyond the usual suspects and offer bass and bream, and even veal if you’re prepared to eat it.
But beyond a few standout dishes everything looks reassuringly simple – that’s usually a good sign. First, however, is a bowl of the fattest olives we’ve ever seen. A comment on how tasty they are elicits a smile from the waiter, who returns with a second bowl. They do not appear on the bill.
We’ve gone for the carpaccio (£7.90), which is so thin it begs the question as to how the chef managed to slice it. It comes with a few thick shavings of parmesan, some rocket leaves and a splash of balsamic. And it is one of the nicest dishes we’ve eaten in Liverpool for a long time; the beef is superb, all about the melt-in-the-mouth flavour. It’s not substantial, but we’d defy anyone to find fault.
We also have a sloppy, flavoursome parmigianna (£6.90), all red, white and green layers and quite hearty. Waiter Bruno suggests we have a break until the mains, which is also a promising sign. Bellini looks worryingly quiet on this wintry Tuesday night, but it appears our main courses are still being cooked from scratch.
Bellini says it’s all about ingredients, a claim that the selection of fresh fish we’ve ordered at an eyebrow-raising £19.90 should confirm or disprove. It seems that the selection of fish changes from day-to-day, as Bruno isn’t sure which fish are on. In the event there are some mussels with breadcrumbs, a scallop, some enormous langoustines, a cube of monkfish wrapped in pancetta, a generous and meaty bit of calamari and a sublime bit of pan-fried sea bass.
We have a side dish of salty fried potatoes (£2.90) and our partner has a vegetarian pizza (£8.90), all thin slices of aubergine and courgette on an equally thin base. A panna cotta (£4.50) is very good but the tiramisu (£4.50) was a bit disappointing; Bruno said no, but we were sure it was made of whipped egg whites rather than cream cheese.
We’re not sure that Bellini’s cocktail-bar branding and ambiance – smart and clean but a bit sterile and anonymous – do it any favours; it seems a little pitched at the WAGgy end of the market, but it’s really much better than that.
The beef and the sea bass were as good as anything Liverpool’s city centre eateries have to offer – and the sum of the parts was very good indeed. Clever, eye-catching presentation and excellent ingredients. Still, our meal, with two cocktails and two glasses of wine, came to the best part of £100. Whether the economic times can support that sort of cash on a weekday remains to be seen, though to be fair there are pizza and pasta dishes at under a tenner.
Gazing out from Bellini we wondered again about the location though. Out of the window we could see a service entrance to St John’s, the back of the hideous Yates’ and a peculiarly massive taxi rank with precisely zero taxis. It’s in no-man’s land – and there’s a distinct lack of passing trade, and trade full stop, during our visit.
We hope that doesn’t count against it – we hope people give Bellini a try. Because on the evidence of Bellini’s olives, beef and fish it’s by far the superior Italian restaurant in Liverpool.