Dawn Collinson, Liverpool Echo sings the praises of a new Spanish venue.
AS I polished off my fourth sugary churros in as many minutes, our lunchtime location in Church House began to seem worryingly appropriate.
“Oh God,” I thought, “what will become of me? I’m eating doughnuts at 2pm with no excuse and no intention of stopping.”
I might stress this isn’t like me at all. I usually have an Olympian sense of self-deprivation when it comes to indulgent desserts. I’ve lost count of how many single spoonfuls of sticky toffee pudding I’ve eaten in my time, when really I want every last crumb.
But there was something about these little Spanish doughnut sticks at Salt House Tapas which led me astray. Or maybe – given the setting – I could blame divine intervention, since divine they were.
I’ve eaten them before, while wandering between bars in Madrid, because essentially that’s what they are: gorgeous, shameless street food.
Salt House’s version is far posher than that, the churros here come with their own little dish of molten chocolate for dipping, but the principle and irresistibility remain the same.
In fact, there’s a reassuring credibility to the restaurant’s choice of dishes; something which clearly impresses those with local know-how. On our visit, the neighbouring table was occupied by a Spanish couple whose rapid-fire ordering suggested it wasn’t their first time.
Salt House has only been open a few weeks, but there’s already an encouraging buzz about the place.
Its location helps – on a wide Hanover Street corner, where once the Church of England Diocese of Liverpool was housed.
And then there’s the reputation which went before it. Owner Patrick Smith has worked at five-star restaurants in Bermuda, Grenada, Russia and Switzerland so knows what it takes to keep even the most exacting of customers satisfied.
With Salt House he decided tapas “with an authentic twist” was the way to go. That, and a keen focus on hospitality, an ethos he shares with his two partners in the business.
The result is a two-level restaurant which looks modern but not clinically formulaic. Design elements are meticulous but subtle, as demonstrated by the chairs: sourced from an old schoolroom in Massachusetts, via a retro interiors shop in Notting Hill.
The menu is split into nibbly intros, breads, charcuteria, tapas – fish, veggie and meat – and salads.
Main tapas dishes are priced between £3.50, for fried potatoes with brava sauce, and £8.95 for seared scallops with peas and crispy Serrano ham. They’re perhaps a bit pricier than your average chain tapas bar, but they’re bigger too so we were advised that four or five would be ample between the two of us.
As neither of us are big meat-eaters, we skipped past the charcuteria, choosing Gordial olives in virgin oil and sea salt (£2.65); a tomato, cucumber and pepper salad (£4); potato tortilla (£3.90); seabass with samphire, mushrooms and shallots (£5.90) and finally, roasted butternut squash, goats’ curd, rocket and spiced almond crumbs (£4.75).
When we said it all together, it sounded like a lot. But thankfully our lovely waitress offered to bring it in instalments, as and when it was ready to leave the open kitchen.
First to arrive, then, were the olives, salad and tortilla. The olives were absolute whoppers, green and robust, in a light oil and speckled with crunchy sea salt. Half a dozen disappeared with ease.
The salad too was a fine example of Mediterranean food at its simple, beautiful best: sweet cherry tomatoes combined with their rich sunblush siblings, roasted peppers, cucumber and rocket in a house dressing. It was as flavourful as it was colourful and we should have ordered two.
The wedge of tortilla was sturdy and tasty, although maybe a bit less traditionally tortilla-ish (ie eggy) than I’d expected. Not a bad choice, but a surprise one.
Our last two dishes appeared as we were just finishing off the first batch – perfect timing.
Since goats’ cheese is the one cheese I have ever met which I don’t get on with, I was hindered in sharing, but stole a couple of butternut squash wedges anyway, which were very good. Again they were nicely seasoned, with crunchy outer edges and pulpy soft insides.
Despite the lack of goats’ cheese on my plate, I dutifully parted with half of my seabass dish, only to rue the generosity.
It was a good size, but divided fairly it left me with nowhere near as much as I would have liked. The fish was excellent, crisp skin, and on a bed of samphire (which is similar to baby asparagus), mushrooms and shallots: delicate flavours designed to allow the fish its starring role.
In truth, there was little room left for the doughnuts, but that had no bearing whatsoever on my decision to order them. And so that’s how it happened, and how somehow they vanished, one by one, minute by minute, in all their doughy sugary glory.
So now I am the (slightly) penitent sinner. May God, forgive me. And forgive me again when I order them next time.