Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Alchemist, New York Street

Let's start with a confession. I don't really like The Alchemist.

I don't imagine I'm alone in this view. In fact, the thought of giving my patronage to any of Living Venture's establishments rarely crosses my mind. If that sounds harsh, I don't mean it to be. We all have different tastes; The Alchemist simply doesn't press my particular buttons. This is no reflection on the staff (most of whom do an excellent job), rather on LV's aesthetic and attitude.

So when we were invited to review the menu, I'll freely admit I wasn't expecting to be impressed.

It was a Sunday, the day after our American supperclub, and one too many bourbons the night before had left both Anna and me with mild hangovers. Hangovers are like an amplifier to bullshit; things you might ordinarily overlook become irritating.

We are sat near the entrance, directly behind the host, which makes us feel a little uncomfortable, as though any tiny criticisms of the food or service might be overheard and relayed. Living Ventures is Watching You. That turns to be an irrelevant concern, as we realise no one actually seems to know we've been invited for a review. Our position is also annoying because it is a hub and a thoroughfare for other staff members.

To kick things off, Bloody Marys and some edamame beans. A mostly meat-based diet over the previous week has left us with a craving for something green. And, also, you can't really fuck up edamames. They come sprinkled with sea salt, a bowl of soy sauce and sesame oil for dipping. Check: salt craving satisfied.

The waiter had asked how spicy we wanted our Bloody Marys, which is encouraging, but upon tasting we find out that Tabasco is pretty much the only flavouring. I would venture to say it is the blandest cocktail I've ever had. Bloody Mary's are a personal drink, I get that. Some people like a little more Worcestershire sauce, some a good punch of lemon juice. But to send them out almost unseasoned is asking for trouble.

It's easily corrected: the manager spots us adding pepper from the shaker, in a bid to elicit more flavour, and asks us if we would like more seasoning. Anna says yes; I'm now happy with mine.

Starters are a small portion of the chicken caesar salad, which is perfectly adequate though missing a good anchovy kick, and chicken and spring onion pot stickers, which are rather nice, as good as I've had in all but the better Japanese places in Manchester.

Not that I need more red meat in my life, but I opt for a the 255g Ribeye next, as doing a decent steak is something LV have a reputation for, what with their Blackhouse restaurants. I choose to have it medium, as any less and I find the generous fat doesn't soften and render enough. The steak comes cooked to perfection, and I am thoroughly pleased. The chips are a little on the dry side, and serving a whole roasted tomato is just tempting the Gods of Food-related Accidents. A blunt knife, enough pressure, and a jet of molten-hot tomato juice and you've got a potential lawsuit on your hands. Halve them and you're safe.

No, it's not an apple on the side of the plate.

Anna goes for a smoked salmon bagel, which she regrets, mostly because she's staring at my steak. There wasn't enough cream cheese for her liking (but this, she concedes, is not really a criticism, as the bagel is brimming with smoked salmon) and the inclusion of lettuce in the bagel is a bit perplexing. Other than that, it's not bad.

We are too full for desserts. Post-prandial cocktails, however, are a different matter. I choose the chocolate orange Sazerac and Anna the white Cosmo. She had wanted the smokey old fashioned but finds the Alchemist's incarnation too sweet. The waiter tells us it's pre-mixed that way. Too bad. The white Cosmo is pretty in an Outer Space sort of way, but the ice globe bomps her nose. It didn't stop her from drinking it all, however.

My Sazerac is good, although (ex-bartender alert!) I don't think the recipe is open to interpretation where the Absinthe is concerned. Just a dash of the green stuff is obligatory. I like the cookie flavour of this iteration, which reminds me of a gingerbread Old-fashioned I once had.

There is no faulting the place's hospitality. Bearing in mind our servers hadn't even realised we were doing a review, ergo no schmoozing, they were all friendly and eager to help. The Alchemist's USP is not its fancy, show-stopping cocktails, nor its unpretentious service, but rather a desire to please everyone. It is the apotheosis of the phrase: Jack of all trades, Master of  none. And that, I suppose, is the best compliment I can give.

Disclaimer: we were invited to review, and even though it took the team a little while to cotton on we were there for a freebie, a freebie it was. It should be fairly evident from comments made above that this - in no way - affected our honesty.

The Alchemist on Urbanspoon

Friday, 1 March 2013

Berry & Rye, Liverpool

1920s America: terrible racism, organized crime, and a brief post-war recession aside, I sometimes like to think I’d have enjoyed living in the USA during the Prohibition era. Imagine a time when the humdrum activity of going to a bar was charged with the excitement of illegality; a time when the mere act of raising a pint to your lips was tantamount to ‘sticking it to the man’; a time when bars were secretive, underground and un-signposted.

Nostalgia can of course be a terrible thing. Let’s make one thing clear - the booze would have been dire, knocked up by your neighbour in the same bathtub in which he washed his dog or, worse still, the poisonous “canned heat” made from roughly filtering Sterno, a type of jellied alcohol-based fuel. I very much doubt a good Manhattan would have been easy to come by.

So we come to Berry and Rye, a bar which casts its eye back to the speakeasies of the Roaring Twenties for its aesthetic; but has living, breathing 21st century bartenders with a plentiful supply of excellent spirits and formidable cocktail knowledge. No need to worry about the rising membership of the Ku Klux Clan or why all the good writers are emigrating to Europe, just sit back and enjoy the atmosphere

If this weren't such a great bar, I’d be loath to recommend it, lest its obscurity be compromised in the least of ways. But it is that good: a breath of fresh air, the kind of bar I own in my dreams, the kind of bar you can normally visit only after buying a ticket to Berlin or Barcelona.

So, it’s a Thursday night in Liverpool, Anna and I, braced against the biting wind, wander down Berry Street past the legion of Chinese takeaways and fried-chicken shops looking for a number. We approach an unassuming black doorway behind which we can faintly hear some sign of life. Is this it? I open the door, breast-stroke through the heavy black curtain, and feel like I've stepped back in time. Well, except for the fashion.

Anna goes to the bar to ask for menu only to find out there isn't one: surely, a good omen. So we take a seat in an intimate booth, the waiter brings over some water, perches beside us and asks us what we’d like to drink. Anna is in the mood for whiskey and I for gin, so after some querying and several suggestions we settle one a Volstead Act and a Martinez.

The former, named after the piece of legislation that established prohibition, is a blend of bourbon, sweet vermouth, white cacao, and bitters. The latter is a classic cocktail of gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino and, usually, orange bitters; if you like a Negroni then the omission of the bitter Campari for the nutty, floral, cherry notes of maraschino. Both were smooth and expertly mixed.

With drinks ordered, we could soak up the sights and sounds: the place is moodily lit by exposed-filament bulbs, rail-road lanterns and candles which give the place an old-timey feel, as do the antique photographs and the tunes playing over the speakers. Then the piano keys begin to tinkle a jazz standard and we both sense that our dinner plans have just been cancelled. Not that we particularly want to stave off hunger, but the prospect of going outside, back to reality, has immediately become abhorrent.

So we order another round with the able assistance of our waiter. I fancy a dirty Martini and am nudged in the direction of Chase gin, a British gin made exclusively from apples which are fermented into cider then distilled into vodka. The usual flavourings of juniper and coriander are apparent with some more unique characteristics of hops and bramley apples. It’s a full-bodied crisp gin which stands up well to the salty olive brine. Anna chooses a Sazerac, a drink guaranteed to intoxicate the most hardened booze-hound. Rinse and coat a glass with Absinthe, then stir bitters, cognac and bourbon over ice, then strain into aforementioned glass. Needless to say, we took our time over these.

Forgive me if I slip into 1920s parlance for a brief moment. On accounts of being ‘spifflicated’ as we were, we were all ‘goofy’ and there was no chance we’d be ‘getting our wiggle on’ soon so we decided to order some more of that ‘giggle water’. To cap off the night, Anna ordered another Volstead Act and I went for what I think the waiter called a Holland, being that it was made from Dutch gin or Jenever. I didn't have the wherewithal to ask which Jenever and am struggling to recall the ingredients; however, it tasted in my mind like a gin old-fashioned, with the Jenever imparting a malty, creamy mouth-feel. I’m sure I will find out more on my next visit.

This place is low-profile on the Liverpool bar scene so I can only imagine how well-known it is in Manchester. Now the secret's out.

Berry & Rye
48 Berry Street
L1 4JQ