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Just ASK

Mo Rose drowns her sorrows in pizza, pasta and pinot noir at the perfectly respectable Queen Square chain

Published on September 29th 2010.


Just ASK

OUT of the blue, Lynn rang: "We MUST have dinner." And before I could think of a way to say no, I said yes.

Not that I didn't want to but, having put a month between me and the sudden death of my love life, the last thing I wanted was a full inquest. And Lynn savours few things better than a tragic outcome.

We were to meet at ASK, now a pretty big deal in the rapidly expanding pasta and pizza market. It's parent company also owns Pizza Express and Zizzi, which opened last week in Liverpool ONE.

I like ASK because it does casual well, a bit like my ex's relationship with the female species.

The Queen Square branch is no exception, with comfortable seating arrangements, great service and, whenever I go, a real buzz. It's a looker, too - clean and bright with top-to-bottom windows.

Sunday evening, it was meant to be me and Lynn but, evidently, high-flying Mike had some high-flying business that wouldn't wait until Monday morning, so their impeccably groomed children, Portia and Elisabeth, 10 and eight, came too. That meant, with luck, we wouldn't be able to discuss why I am a magnet for bastards and could instead concentrate on Lynn's perfect Christian life, free of sin, alcohol and dust.

Here, the credit crunch was nowhere to be seen. Lots of families, lots of couples, chatting, laughing and generally acting as if life were a bowl of cherries. A bowl of marinated olives (£1.95) quickly arrived, good and meaty and flavoursome. We didn't ask for the sweet ciabatta with balsamic/olive oil dip (£2.45) but we were charged for it. I would have got it knocked off the bill but Lynn said let's not make a fuss, after all they're very nice in here.

The girls cleared their plates of gorgeous melting garlic bread and salad garnish from the great value, £5.95 for three courses, children's menu. "Goodness, they've even eaten the olives," Lynn said. The girls were beaming; they like me. I am the only adult they have ever heard using proper, good swear words.

Mushrooms al Forno (£5.25) had a good earthy flavour and were filled with a superior, well-seasoned stuffing of spinach, pancetta and grana padano cheese. Tender and succulent calamari was cooked just right, in a good, dry batter. Dishes of garlic mayo were fine but a leaf salad let the side down a little.

"Limp and uninteresting, like the effect I have on men," I quipped and immediately wished I hadn't.

“You've had such terrible luck, haven't you?" said Lynn, and I swear I could detect a smile.

"No, no," I said, with a look that warned this conversation could cause psychological damage to young minds.

Luckily, I had a good reason to change the subject. At the next table were four people, three of them grossly overweight, the other a stick insect, Three of the four were shovelling pizza, the other was nibbling at a healthy-looking pasta dish.

"Guess," I hissed at Lynn, "who's eating healthy?"

Lynn correctly assumed my question was the rhetorical kind. "Yes, but I eat pizza. It doesn't have that effect on me," she said serenely.

"Yes," I said. "But you can. I can't. They definitely can't."

"Am I that fat?" I wondered out the side of my mouth.

"Not that fat,” she said, looking me over. "Come to the gym with me and we'll soon have you back in shape."

Spaghetti gamberi (£8.95) was a pile of good size, decent quality prawns, cooked in caper butter - but not so much to make you feel queasy - tossed in pasta with white wine, a little pomodoro (tomato) sauce and fresh rocket, and finished off with capers and lemon zest. It was that thing I so often crave and so rarely get – no, not that - a good bowl of pasta, I mean. It wasn't Gordon Ramsay, but it was perfectly OK.

Lynn's pizza vegetariana (£7.65) was as good as anything I have had in Italy. A perfect, thin base for a perfect, thin physique, lavished with slices of aubergine and chunks of roasted onions, peppers and mushrooms. Smaller versions for the girls, too, and not any old rubbish just because they're kids. Simple – pepperoni, cheese and tomato – but still with attention to quality. Lynn ate a slice of hers, pronounced it delicious, fiddled with a second and handed me a third.

"The waiter's nice," she said. Pointedly.

"Do you fancy him," Portia asked me.

Lynn glared at Portia. I glared at Lynn. Elisabeth giggled.

"No," I said firmly and then, because by now I had drained three glasses of Sorval pinot noir (£6.95), not quite the ripe-berried stunner as billed but still, I elaborated. "I don't like men. I never really have liked men. I . . "

Lynn wasn't looking at me. She was sharing a look of pity with the waiter who had materialised before us.

"Cheesecake?" he offered.

My face burned. "I don't mean you!" I blurted. "I mean . . . oh, God, could you just get me another glass of wine.” I waved my empty glass.

Chilled honeycomb cheesecake (£4.25) on a cookie base and topped with honeycomb chocolate pieces, was rich, sticky, gooey. It might be a month since the cold light of singledom dawned, but I can still use a little comfort.

For Lynn, torta di mele (£4.95) was a sort of glorified fruit pie: shortcrust pastry filled with baked apples, almond cream and butter crumble topping and vanilla ice cream. Neither, I'm guessing, were made in these kitchens, but they did the job. The girls' ice creams had put smiles on their faces, but then they were probably laughing at me.

The wine was a glugger and I was warming to the waiter, so I ordered a large espresso to steady the ship and give him another reason to visit us. It was, I have to say, not good. Typical. I start to get feelings for a man and he leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

But we didn't come for the coffee and ASK has much to recommend it. The pizzas are among the best you will get in the city centre. There's also a good variety of salads, large and small. But the best thing for me about ASK is that I can go in any branch, order pasta, and be sure I'm going to enjoy it.

A good thing, too, because it may be some time before I can return to Queen Arcade. The cheesecake, catastrophically calorific, was a mistake but not as much as that fourth glass of wine. The only consolation is that my on-going, non-existent relationship misery is temporarily off the top of my preoccupations list. Lynn said not to worry, at least the girls had learned a useful lesson about the dangers of drink.

It was just a slip of the tongue, really. There we were chatting to the waiter about tips and I wondered what were the biggest he'd ever had, except it didn't come out the way I meant it to, and, oh . . .

Don't ask. But do do ASK. If you see what I mean.

Liverpool Confidential dines out unannounced and picks up its own tabs.

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notfussyOctober 17th 2008.

I'll give it a go, Mo, if you will

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