It was an evening that crystallised the two tribes of Liverpool’s dining scene. We started off in The Hub. Brimming, bouncy and vibrant. And that was just the burgers. Deep into our second drink, our dining partner – jealously eyeing the Beef and ale pie – said ‘why don’t we just eat here?’. It was certainly an interesting option. We’ve had good and bad experiences at The Hub. But on Saturday night, it all looked very jolly indeed. And, despite the deafening soundtrack of beery conversation, the thought of staying put did, fleetingly, cross my mind.
But I’m a good, conscientious booker – and a table reservation at The Mal meant that that was where we would dine. Bouncy burgers or no.
The Mal’s recently been refurbed, and still looks like the impressive Gotham citadel it always did. It’s one of the waterfront’s most pleasing additions. As was its restaurant: a step up from the city’s usually flaccid hotel diner offerings.
The Plum bar? Well, we’ve always thought you can go too far with a colour scheme. We remember our mum’s Coloroll matching paisley bedspread, wallpaper and curtains in the 80s, and it’s not a place we’re keen on revisiting any time soon.
So, to the Mal’s restaurant…
Change No1: Gone are the wood and leather menu holders, with diamond flaps and fine quality paper displaying the mains, specials and starters. In its place an oversized pamphlet with jaunty fonts, dotted lines, finger pointy icons and Billy Smart’s Circus headers.
This is a fine, smart, cool hotel chain. And its menu shouts Chiquitos. That’s a disconnect we weren’t expecting.
We were starting to worry if our mum’s ‘book/cover’ judging system was to prove right after all (it always fails her when she sees attractive murderers on Crimewatch. So we’ve never put much store in it).
We should have done. For the Malmaison has lurched decidedly towards the gastro/grill than brasserie/fine dining: its menu a soothing mix of retro classics (Corned beef hash) and pubby favourites (The Mal Burger). Get it right (Gusto/The Hub) and you’ve a great, relaxed evening in store, and change from £50 for two. Falter, and you’re neither fish pie nor fowl. And your bill’s hovering at the £100 mark.
In the absence of a sommelier (or even of, say, a wine waiter) a lovely young lady offered us a raspberry mojito. Well, we were here and, we thought, we might as well run away with the circus.
They were great. But we’d like some wine, please?
“Oh great. I can recommend a rosé that’s brewed in Liverpool,” she offered.
Reluctant neophytes that we are, we declined. Instead (and still in lieu of a wine list) we agreed to try a Riesling called something like ‘When Mars Attacks’: you know, in the way that attention-seeking wines favoured those wonky, self-consciously crazy names a few years ago, like ‘White Supremacy’ and ‘Shit, Where Did We Leave The Kids?’
Last time we were here, we enjoyed a chat with a smart young man about the relative benefits of Otago Savignon over Marlborough Valley. Now we were dealing with staff whose Wine Atlas of the World was little more than a map of the Lambrusco factory in Skelmersdale, surrounded by ‘here be dragons’ motifs.
The wine was fine. But it was £38, so it should be.
Starters were underpowered (which is a shame, as our ordered bread didn’t arrive). A slab of ‘homemade’ black pudding was a bloodless affair, but our special salad of the day – Feta, rocket and sundried tomatoes was perky and peppery. If a little bit ‘let’s all meet up in the year 2000’.
Mains piled on the agony. The chicken pie (shortcrust pastry lid. Not a pie) was under seasoned and overcooked. Rubbery bullets of chicken faltering in a ho-hum sauce that made us pine for PieMinister.
“Does it come with chips?” we asked.
“No, you have to order them separately,” we were told.
We did. And it came with mash. If only we’d known the right questions to ask. The chips were regulation frozen caterers’ pack issue.
The Mal makes a big noise about its grill – ‘all our beef is grass fed, matured for 28 days, and supplied by Donald Russell, holders of a royal warrant…’. They’re also holders of a bloody big meat tenderizer, obviously. Or, at least, someone in the kitchen is. And has some anger management issues.
Rump should be thick, juicy, rumpy. Ours was flattened to three miserable millimetres. I thought a cork mat had been carelessly thrown onto my plate. Asking for a steak this thin to be ‘medium’ is an exercise in relativity theory. And we don’t know what grass it was on, but we’ve a feeling the other farmer’s grass is greener. A side of mashed root veg was even duller than it sounded.
We skipped desserts. We’ll not be back in a hurry. The bill? £111.
William Jessop Way,