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Restaurant review: La Bussola

Angie Sammons revisits an old haunt for Halloween. Any magic left?

Written by . Published on November 1st 2010.

Restaurant review: La Bussola

WHEN a thing or a person occupies a seat in that part of the memory laced with warm, sweet cobwebs, it is perceived to be only the fool who revisits it; to seek to delight in its candy floss flavours again.

We didn't expect Bond stuntwoman Eunice to be in her restaurant when we turned up this week, vaulting over tables or throwing knives. She is mostly the hands-off kind, and hopefully, when she reads this, she will stay that way

We all know this: how there is much to be said for leaving the past in its place. Not looking back; avoiding the perishing thoughts of a bitter, cold encounter.

And what goes for old ghosts goes for old haunts.

I don't think I ever reviewed La Bussola in the days when it reigned as the ONLY place in L18 to get lost in any night of the week. Then again I might have.

We were in there often enough, alongside every other part-time libertine in south Liverpool, which was some testimony to our love of the place when I lived among the copper beeches of Penny Lane.

Oddbins, over the road, loved La Bussola too. The little family-run restaurant on the corner with Green Lane, just down the road from the Archbishop's gaff, was one of the first bring-your-own-booze establishments in the city.

This lent it a novelty party atmosphere, and the happy clink-clink of two bottles of ten-quid barolo, in a flimsy carrier bag, was matched only by the satisfied babble of customers clattering heavy cutlery on huge plates of hearty, good food.

Enter the steamy, packed, Italian-French, whose meaning is “compass”, and who knew where you would end up? In the burns clinic, in the case of one friend of mine, Hugh, who one night downed a flaming sambucca – while it was still ablaze. How were we to know? We didn't do this stuff.

Another time, a journalist colleague from the Daily Post accidentally picked up the keys to the restaurant at the closing-up hour one Sunday, leaving the owner's frantic daughter stranded and searching, with the place still open and all staff gone home. She was powerless to stop his table from drinking all that liquor they had brought. Then at 2am, having finished the ales, he produced the Yales. From his pocket. He was barred after that.

Some time later, to cut a long story short, the owner, Paolo, died in deeply tragic circumstances. La Bussola was sold on, and regular patrons quietly moved on.

Down it fell into the doldrums while Allerton Road exploded with a million dull rivals. Then, five years ago, TV Gladiator Eunice Huthart bought it.

We didn't expect the Bond stuntwoman to be in her restaurant when we turned up this week, vaulting over tables or throwing knives. She is mostly the hands-off kind, and hopefully, when she reads this, she will stay that way.

Discreet is not the name of the game in La Bussola. The upstairs section, where you might once have wished to play hide and dine, is no longer open to the public. On the ground floor you must go, where big windows, no longer so steamy, let the passing residents of all the Dales, and possibly the Bish himself, see exactly who is tasting whose rump or fillet.

But this is a two-way thing: go onto La Bussola's website and Andy Williams immediately greets you. He is Watching the Girls Go By. Quickly switch him off and go to a new window and there he is, “Watching...” again. He is stalking you.

The menu is also the same old song as 15 years ago. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and there is plenty of room for a good lasagne anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

But the chef is in his twenties, which means new touches, in other words big handfuls of rocket.

Haddock Fishcakes (£5.50), are a little too sturdy on the outside, but break through the dark, thick breadcrumbs and the fish, leek and potato mix is as sweet and smoky as Billie Holliday's voice. The boy knows how to whip up a perfectly good and creamy lemon mayonnaise too. One could eat a lot more of this dish.

Portions are generally big in here, but squid & Chorizo Cassoulet (£5.95) is on the expensive side for just three, inch-long, half-tubes – coyly hiding under that mountain of rocket. They are cooked on the side of caution, leaving them a tad unpleasant in the inner curve, which has not had the same robust contact with the heat. Chorizo, here, is actually tiny flecks of bacon, and while there is plenty of home-made, rustic Mediterranean tomato sauce, the side of caution also appears to have been erred on when applying the advertised garlic and chilli.

Still thinking about the clerical connections to the vicinity and paying no attention to correct spelling, I order cannon of lamb (£14.95) from an acceptably short menu of mains that includes a steak, a duck, two vegetarian risottos a fish and two chickens (but not five loaves).

The meat is thick moist hewn slices of tender, pink lusciousness. The champ that it comes with (mash flecked with spring onions) is first class. Given the amount and smooth, beaten texture, that big hand that doused out the rocket has been at work again, this time making a powerful fist of things. The thyme reduction, the colour of warm oak, plays away harmoniously in the background and green beans just are.

Three small fillets of sea bass (£14.95) are “pan-fried”, as opposed to being fried in a pan, which is all-too common parlance in restaurants. These fish need to be good swimmers as they have been left marooned in a huge tsunami of creamy mushroom and white wine sauce which could have done with a skimming. Move one once in any direction and they will be engulfed. Oh, too late.

Testing those “hand cut chips” (£2.95) another menu term that makes me despair slightly, especially when it comes to the crunch, or lack of it, has become a bit of a guilty quest. These are bloody lovely. Huge, irregular parboiled jobs that deserve a shop all of their own, an establishment that would make their maker a rich man if he could hack them in vast quantity.

Desserts (£3.50), mostly made in-house, we were assured, consisted of a soft and drooly Italian chocolate trifle (NOT tiramisu); there was plenty of it and down it went agreeably. Then a rather bland cheesecake whose picture, despite being taken just two days ago, does little to inspire any descriptive thought of how it might have tasted. You decide.

Of all the places along this once-twee district now turned into anyoldhighstreet, with its chain pubs, chain betting shops, opportunist wine bars, Tesco's and Bargain Booze, you will still be on safer ground than most of the competition this end if you choose to spend your eighty-odd quid in La Bussola (the price with an alright bottle of New Zealand Sauv Blanc at £19.95 and a couple of glasses of red £4.95 each).

No longer are there half a dozen waiters dancing attention, just the calm, knowing service of one, when we were there. Nor was he in any rush to throw us out, when it got late, and we hadn't even nicked his keys.

It's not what it was, this restaurant, however La Bussola 2010 still whispers the merest, merest hint of spirits past. So if you are passing, don't be a stranger.

“Why don't you ever go down Allerton Road and give one or two of those places a proper pasting?”, someone unfamiliar with the way it works, asked me recently.

Because that would be like dancing on a grave, said I. And nobody likes watching the ghouls go by.

Rating: 14/20
Breakdown: 6.5/10 food
4.5/5 service
3/5 ambience
Address: La Bussola Restaurant
171 Allerton Road
Liverpool L18 6HG
0151 724 6411

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. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

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AnonymousOctober 29th 2010.

Good stuff. Haven't been along Allerton Road since the number of estate agents outstripped ordinary shops. La Bussolla I had forgotten about, a shame as it was the jewel of the south end in the 90's. A different kettle of fish to the Alouette but that was when people who lived in Allerton knew what a good knofe and fork was

Andy MeliaOctober 30th 2010.

So how about a review of Keith's Wine Bar? presume it is still going strong after more than 30 years?

NorthenderOctober 30th 2010.

Enjoyed the review - and the anecdotoes

Mush RoomsoupNovember 1st 2010.

Now trading as Red Star Casa the good old Casablanca Club was also a haunt of the editress.

Can we expext a review in the near future?

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