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A bit on the side

Angie Sammons steals off to The Side Door and finds it quietly standing proud among its formidable Hope Street neighbours

Written by . Published on January 14th 2010.

A bit on the side

It's not often you get a fight breaking out in the Confidential cubby hole. However some such excitement is only just passing.

It was colleague AA Grill who mentioned The Side Door first, after chats with his new friends at the Malmaison. The story goes that at the start of the year, a band of restaurant managers and chefs from across the hotel group embarked on a several-night recce of Liverpool restaurants to see what they were up against.

Whatever else they might have gleaned, by the time they fell out of the Georgian town house that is The Side Door, on Hope Street, many of them were rating it their personal best.

Grill, therefore, was looking forward to reporting on a feast. And what did I do? I stole it.

I am ashamed of this. I even hoped it would be as average as it was the last time I went, long ago when it was The Other Place Bistro. I could then report back that it was rubbish, that he hadn't missed a thing. In fact, I did keep this up for most of the next day, but, eventually, I cracked under, well, a Grilling, and gave him the truth. He put the phone down on me.

Our wild eyed cook has close links with the Mafia - the Mafia islands, that is, near Tanzania

The Side Door, at least, has grown up since The Other Place days, albeit under the same ownership of Sheila Benson and Sean Miller. Now it stands shoulder to shoulder with its formidable neighbours: the London Carriage Works, 60 Hope Street and Paddy Byrne's Everyman Bistro. All four restaurants share not only a postcode, but a keenness for fresh, local food. So typically, a man from Bebington's Claremont Farm comes knocking on kitchen doors along the street at regular intervals. The Mannings at 60, Paul Askew at the Carriage Works and the others will often buy up whatever is going in the way of produce. Good news for those who like to keep their chefs, and their carbon footprints, on their toes.

As a consequence, the menu at The Side Door changes every week. Fish is big (Miller once cooked at The Fish, in Bray, where Heston Blumenthal was a regular) and it often comes straight from the nets that morning. This is down to a “special relationship” with a trawler owner in Fleetwood, who is on red alert to provide Miller with anything special or unusual.

Result? I was treated to some rare but glorious fillets of wild black bream, from the blink-and-you'll-miss-it specials board on my visit. The skin was seared to within a millimetre of the succulent and flavoursome treasure of flesh beneath. And while the fish may have come straight off the boat, there was nothing naïve about its execution, served atop a delicately balanced confection of braised fennel and capers. Crushed new season potatoes partnered it admirably, as did a bottle of 2005 Jean Pabiot Pouilly Fume from the very reasonably priced but ample wine list

It came after a lovely starter of Moroccan minced lamb, hummous and flatbreads, all made on the premises, although The Side Door will happily turn to Mattas on Bold Street (“what would Liverpool do without it?” shrugs Miller) for back-up in the event of a bread crisis.

My unwitting friend enjoyed "Samalian" prawns in a coconut sauce, the fresh fragrance of which wafted not from Fleetwood, but truly from a paradise beach that I am yet to visit. Much of the menu is as typically tropical: Our wild eyed cook has close links with the Mafia - the Mafia islands, that is, near Tanzania - and, somewhat astonishingly, visits once a year to teach locals how to cook and run kitchens there. It's a long story for another time.

My friend's main dish of pork steak, again from the specials, was, he said “on consideration, not quite as tender as a night in with Helena Christensen, but certainly, once the lime was applied, was overridden by the fantastic aromas, both cutting and enticing all at once”.

He went on: “So while the main was not the leggy supermodel I'd anticipated, it was good.

“The mash that accompanied it was truly fab, he said, and the side order of chips in garlic mayo,” concluded the greedy git, “were the very best in Liverpool.”

Helena, girl, you've missed out there.

The service, from student waitresses was easy going yet attentive. They hang onto their staff too: Kevin Humphreys, the front of house manager, started off washing dishes there six years ago, while sous chef Alex Navarro has similarly stayed the distance.

Dessert for my friend - coconut and mango slice with vanilla ice-cream - was an excellent combination of moistness and texture. He reported no real indication of mango, which, he added, never impeded the pleasure which was enhanced by a quite excellent 2003 Chateau Le Fage Monbazzilac pudding wine.

As my spoon shattered the spidery lace of caramelised sugar, coating the thick, rich, but rather chilly custard of a crème brulee, I reflected that I would not be able to dine out on this experience, publicly, until the dust had settled back in the Confidential HQ.

Actually I would not be able to dine on anything for two more days following this substantial, yet stolen pleasure, of which there are still no regrets.

Grill will be sizzling.

Angie Sammons

Liverpool Confidential pays for all its own reviews and never announces itself when eating at a restaurant.

Rating: 16.5/20
Breakdown: 8.5/10 Food
4/5 Service
4/5 Ambience

The Side Door
29A Hope Street
Li 9BQ

0151 709 3924

The bill: £94 for two (three courses including wines, cognac and coffees. Fixed priced menu also available Monday to Thursday).

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Andrea VaughanMay 10th 2007.

I think the Side Door is a wonderful place to dine. The food, the service and atmosphere is always excellent and I am pleased to say I am a customer who returns and returns. I dont have a bad word to say about the place. I would recommend it to anyone.

phil murrayMay 10th 2007.

It's good that you should mention the side door. It is very relaxed in there at lunchtime, lots of lecturer types though, and the food is excellent. It doesn't seem to have to try very hard to keep full so that is always a good sign. We keep going back.

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