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Restaurant review: Gusto

AA Grill looks for a pulse down at Albert Dock

Published on September 29th 2010.

Restaurant review: Gusto

ALBERT Dock has always been two places. By day, the multi-award winning visitor attraction hosting parties of pensioners from Pontefract, eyes peeled for a decent cup of tea and a toilet, and busloads of unruly schoolies, force-marched around the Tate, flicking the Vs among the Hockneys.

If the use of salt
was a reminder
of the maritime connections, the point was laboured, the salt laid on with a trowel

Then, as darkness arrives and the tourists nose-tail it down Edge Lane, their place is taken by an eerie, profit-stopping silence. This used to be down to the fact that the dock complex always seemed a remote land somewhere beyond a fast flowing river known as The Strand.

The reshaping of the city centre changed that. It's all in the mind, of course, but suddenly Albert Dock was no longer a desolate foot slog through Chavasse Park but a hop and a skip from the bustle of Liverpool One with its whirl, and now its wheel.

Together with the proximity of the waterside arena, it seemed the dock's fortunes after nightfall might be set for an upturn. Monday evening brought an opportunity for us to judge. A temporary addition to the complex are six-foot fibreglass penguins, the city's latest cultural gift to its inhabitants. If nothing else they were occasional friendly faces as penguins outnumbered people.

We poked our heads through the door of Blue, a bar and restaurant offering fillet of beef for £22.95. There did not seem to be any takers. The atmosphere resembled a mausoleum in all but one detail. No bodies. Nobody, in fact.

This has long been a common experience down here. Walk into any number of joints offering food and drink and you are met with an all-but-empty room, radiating gloom. These are not places for the tormented – not with 30 feet of water just the other side of a plate glass window.

Part of the challenge for restaurants and bars among the Grade I listed structure lies in the design and construction of civil engineer Jesse Hartley's masterpiece of metal and masonry. The former bonded warehouses they inhabit were built for the storage and preservation of cotton from America's Deep South, brandy from Bordeaux, not as somewhere to hold the office Christmas lunch.

Low ceilings, stone floors, an absence of windows – there is little room for the decomposing properties of air, heat and light. Perfect conditions for a mortuary but not necessarily the qualities you seek in a restaurant. In short, these are spaces more suited to the dead than the living.

Gusto, on a gusty night in late November, was performing a miracle. Raising the dead to life in a way seemingly none of its dock-based rivals are able. Two things strike you straight away: all those people (just a normal Monday night we were told) and all those lights. Limitless filaments illuminating the gloom. It still wasn't bright, mind, but at least the effect is hope rather than despair.

Tables and chairs are functional reflecting the utilitarian classicism of Hartley's handiwork. Other than the big black and white pictures of Italian actress Gina Lollabrigida shovelling pasta like it doesn't matter, there is not much to interfere with the original

exquisite workmanship – vaulted brick arches, cast iron pillars, corkscrew staircases.

The food, like the pictures, is Italian, hence the usual pastas, pizzas and salads, (from a simple spaghetti in a ragu sauce and basil for £6.95, to lobster and prawn linguini at £17.95) plus an array of meat (suckling pig, chargrilled lamb) and seafood (a 2lb lobster for £35) dishes.

If the use of salt was a reminder of the maritime connections, the point was laboured, the salt laid on with a trowel, starting with marinated, too-salty olives (£2.75), then garlic pizza bread with rosemary and sea salt (£3.50), the latter ingredient unevenly applied with the result that occasional clumps of the stuff caused us to shrink like slugs assailed with the Saxa.

Sweet fresh figs, Tuscan ham and mozzarella with lemon honey dressing (£6.50) was better; the flavours speaking up for the simple presentation.

Wild mushroom risotto with Italian smoked bacon (£9.50) should have been more supple and fluid, but was rich and hearty despite being another victim of a-salt.

Pan fried fillets of dorade (£12.95) were moist, well-cooked and unremarkable, and came with sun-dried tomato oil, minutely applied, and a fresh lemon risotto which was too similar of tone and texture to the fish to add any real interest.

The Italian cheese board (£6.95) was summed up by a gorgonzola which singularly lacked charisma, not helped by Illy coffee that tasted like instant. Bad instant. Wild berry mess (£5.50) was enough for two or three and would have benefited from more fruit and far less sugar.

The kids were treated like, well, kids, which kept everybody happy. Restaurants that expect hungry children to behave like patient adults ask for trouble. Pizzas (£5.95 inc dessert), featuring crusty bases, pleased them no end. partly the result of assembling their own toppings, which were generous, and being taken off to watch them bake.

This was all part of the service which added to the warmth of the experience and ticked the appropriate boxes – our knowledgeable waiter was attentive, not in-your-face; easy going without needing to be best buddies; and efficient, deftly sweeping the boys' mess while reciting the dessert menu.

If the food failed to match the standards of the service it also failed to spoil an evening which proved that at least one night-time Albert Dock haunt is cooking on the bright side.

Rating: 14/20
Breakdown: 5/10 food
5/5 service
4/5 ambience
Address: Gusto
Edward Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AF.
Tel. 0151 708 6969.

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, 16-18 very good to exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Pasta the test.

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DigNovember 26th 2009.

I went to Gusto recently on a very busy Saturday night. I agree 100% with Mr.Grills scoring. The service couldn't get any better. The atmosphere was what you would expect from a capacity dining crowd on a Saturday night. The big let down was the food. I've had better garlic bread, garlic mushrooms and lasagne at home. I've since won a pizza for 1p on their mailing list email. I've booked my mum and niece in tonight for a pre Arena bite. I wonder what the service will be like for them when the waiting staff realise they're only paying 1p to dine...

plastermanNovember 26th 2009.

Me and the lady went here earlier in the year. We used to frequent Est Est Est alot and liked the place and the food. Gusto seemed very similar at first. Usual fantastic service, seemingly better menu, and good selection of standard wines (from what I can remember!). It doesn't matter what the lady and I ordered, because, in all honesty, we both may aswell have ordered garlic bread. I had pork and apple mash, heavily laden with overpowering garlic, and the other half attacked an overly garlic chicken dish.Now don't get me wrong, I love garlic, probably abit more than the average person, but I don't like having my food ruined by too much of the stuff. And unfortunately, the food was pretty much ruined by the amount of garlic in it. Although the service was excellent, it didn't detract from the fact that I got more garlic than I bargained for that night.For a similar price, I'ld walk abit further in the other direction and go the Mal Maison.

AnonymousNovember 26th 2009.

Albert Dock is going to have to try a lot harder if it wants people in its restaurants on nights when there's no one to chuck bottles at at the Arena. Gusto sucks

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