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Exchange at The Hilton - restaurant review

Liverpool's got a cracking new chef - and for once it's a woman, says Angie Sammons

Written by . Published on June 24th 2011.


Exchange at The Hilton - restaurant review

I FIRST came across Paula O’Neill – or rather her name - on the day the big snow tumbled down, last December.

Confidential was having its Christmas bash. Around 40 of us were being treated, and I do mean treated, to a slap up feast in the Hilton.

Instead of serving food likely to depress
the life out of your average
Joe in a strange city for a midweek
conference, the kitchen now has
something else in mind: fantastic,
simple, Mother Earth, comfort food

Sadly, not the one in Liverpool, which remained firmly the bridesmaid in this affair. No, the one in Deansgate, Manchester, dressed for the occasion in a white gossamer of snowflakes. It rests at the base of a teetering, whistling tower that you can see from Merseyside and the Moon. But that is on a clear day, and this, on every level, was not that.



The chef there, David Gale, is an acknowledged master of his game with accolades galore to his name. It being the season of bloating and goodwill, he had his team bring our team a whole series of platters, groaning with top notch creations, just made up as they were going along to fly out of the kitchen. Dozens of them.

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This lasted a good couple of hours and would later make for great insulation once back at Lime Street, when the deep, crisp and uneven Scotland Road trek, minus 10 and minus stiletto heels (you can take the girl out of Liverpool...) got under way.

Paula O’Neill, he told me, was going places: to Liverpool, to be precise. She had just been put in charge of the Hilton here and knew her stuff, proper. She had won awards. Was his protégé. She was one to watch.

 We last reviewed the Hilton Exchange restaurant in the bleak midwinter before: 2009, when the proof of its good looking menu was regrettably neither in the pudding, the main course or the starter.

We had little reason to be back. “She will make her mark,” said Chef Gale. “Just wait until she has settled in, a couple of months.”

I left it longer than that. The Exchange at The Hilton is a workmanlike, anonymous looking restaurant space. It is as forgettable and functional as a chain hotel dining area can be. But then I remembered Chef Gale and his Christmas prophecy.



A look at the menu tells you it’s all change at the Exchange. For a start O’Neill is taking risks by laying on proper British dishes.  A paradoxical statement, on the face of it: surely British is safe ground?

And yes, you can’t go far wrong with “beer battered cod” or an 8oz fillet steak with a beef tomato, but O’Neill is trying harder than that. Instead of serving food likely to depress the life out of your average Joe in a strange city for a midweek conference - or, at best, leave him, or her, reaching for the room’s “premium” TV channels as the extra bad end to a bad day - the kitchen now has something else in mind: fantastic, simple, mother earth comfort food.

Braised oxtail in a haricot stew with parsley dumplings (£11.95) emblazoned the flag for these islands’ humble cuisine. Dark, rich and consoling, I defy anyone to come from this bowl of rustic loveliness feeling anything less than swaddled.

TempuraTempuraThe inspiration isn’t all from these shores. We began with tempura king prawns (£6.50) almost as good as the ones you get six floors up in a neon-lit Roppongi building, in the places that do tempura and nothing else because, in Japan, perfection at one thing is the key to all things. The mango and coriander salsa, fresh and tangy, led it astray from the traditional; the soy dip brought it home again.

A virginal white goats cheese mousse (£5.25) could not be sullied by the beets spilling out their deep red juices. To the crunch of pea shoots, the dish sang simply and effortlessly and we started to relax in the feeling that this kitchen conductor had an easy ear for such music.

PorkPorkFillet of pork with wilted Savoy cabbage, mash and a sage and onion bon bon (£12.95) is another dignified dish with little pretension. Here, the meat was yielding and full flavoured, the accompaniments delivered cushions of comfort all enhanced by a soft and fruity apple sauce that made every bite one to linger over.  Disappointment could only be around the corner, and so it came to pass that the crowning glory, in this case the promised crackling, was off. As in not on, our waitress informed us. You could say that again.

Puddings showed flair and enthusiasm. A raspberry and limoncello trifle (£4.50) was as pretty and silly and rich as the heiress to the Hilton group is portrayed, while the dark chocolate truffle with cream and orange syrup (£5.25) won the round for packing all the cocoa clout that its handsome appearance suggested.

The staff in here, Fazakerley lads and lasses, have always been highly trained and motivated - they see international Hilton possibilities - and there is little you can do or ask of them to catch them out.

Remarkably, this entire happy outing, with a £25 bottle of decent French red and a hefty livener each to start, came to a very reasonable £89. Oh, and don’t worry if you are pining for a good old ribeye, meat boy. The grill still does them, a 10oz at £16.95. The going rate on Brunswick Street is more than £25.

Chocolate truffleChocolate trufflePerhaps in the face of new competition, like the sunny dining room of Marco Pierre White at The Indigo, management are making the restaurant look better. Perhaps those prices will alter. Already there is some table linen to soften the edge of that dark Formica, and there are plans afoot to give the Exchange its own entrance.

O’Neill may not have the reputation, yet, of her mentor Gale, or her name in big Marco letters above that notional door. But if and when she does it will be the Liverpool Hilton’s Big Day. Hey hey Paula will have landed it the bouquet.

Rating:

16.5/20

Breakdown:

Food 9/10
Service 4.5/5
Ambience 3/5

Address:

Exchange at the Hilton
3 Thomas Steers Way
Liverpool L1 8LW 
Tel: 0151 708 4200

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect.

Liverpool Confidential critics dine unannounced and we pick up their bills - not the restaurant, not a PR company.

 

Follow Angie Sammons here on Twitter @twangeee

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Paul ToppingDecember 1st 2011.

Once we had booked our table, we were really looking forward to an evening at the Hilton in Liverpool. May I say, from start to finish, the whole evening was an absolute delight, from the welcoming, to the meal, drinks, friendly service and entertainment. The staff were very friendly and were certainly on the ball, with suggestions of starters and main meal accompanied with an aromatic wine. The suggested Butternut Squash soup was divine with the main meal of 'Scouse' that fastidiously melted within the taste buds! The evening throughout had a relaxed, yet musical atmosphere that complimented the evening! I strongly recommend an evening to dine at the Hilton in Liverpool. Score 20/20

AnonymousDecember 1st 2011.

The food is fantastic in the Hilton, as stated by Miss Angie and Mr Paul. Might be the best in the 'Pool

Nikki CraskeDecember 14th 2011.

Sadly, on the strength of this review we went to the restaurant and had a poor meal -- steak in particular was not good. Maybe we caught it at a bad moment (early on a Sat evening) but shan't be returning to find out.

Colin JamesFebruary 24th 2012.

Superb dinner here last week. Steak was scrummy and the service was exemplary

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