The Opinion Engine 2.0:

Egg Cafe, Vegetarian Cafe - Liverpool, UK

Topic suggested by Rosie Fernandez.

Food My first visit to the Egg Café was over ten years ago for a works Christmas night out. The whole idea seemed terribly exotic. Not because it was as it is now, a vegetarian restaurant but because as now, it didn’t have a drinks license and so diners could take their own alcohol and the cafe charging a pound for corkage. Paying someone to open a bottle seemed strange until someone pointed out to me that they’d also ultimately have to deal with disposing of the bottles. There was a Secret Santa that night I now remember; I gave someone a wine carrier and I was given a Blackwells mouse mat.

Even after ten years, the restaurant/café hasn’t changed that much. It’s in a loft in Newington Buildings just off Renshaw Street at the top of a winding staircase, containing an exhibition area and as you can see from the photo I've embedded from flickr because I neglected to take a camera myself, more tables than it might seem capable of accommodating from looking up from street level. It’s perhaps slightly less bo-ho than I remember, less about sofas, but it still retains an atmosphere inclusive enough for regulars searching the mythic third place, large parties and the sharing of secrets amongst secretive people.

I chose it after meeting another friend there recently for the beginning of a night out.  After climbing the many stairs I pushed through the heavy doors into the candle-lit space unable to quite comprehend the difference to everything else outside.  The beautifully painted rafters, the wooden floors and the paintings all combined to make me wonder if I'd entered some new dimension.  "Why don't I come here?"  I kept saying to my friend, "Why don't I come here?"  So when another friend was in town for a few days, this was the perfect place for us to go.

Ordering is from a bewildering selection of food on a chalkboard behind a counter filled with prospective dishes, which is sometimes much more preferable to the monolithic mystery of most menus where the diner is locked in a bond of trust with the waiter and the chef as to what the plate will contain once a selection’s been made. It’s one of the reasons I was a regular at the late Everyman Bistro which also had the virtue of being able to watch the food being heated in the microwaves at the back.

Cash conscious, my visiting dining companion and I decided on the set menu which is all three courses and a beverage for £9.75. Orders for the starters and mains are made up front and as far we could tell because that's what seemed to work for us, diners attend the counter between courses when they’re ready which allows for a leisurely pace and there’s no sense as in some restaurants of being hurried through the meal by over attentive waiters. We’re identified by a number on a slip of paper.

This is the point in professional restaurant reviews when you’d receive a length dissection of the courses.  This being my first restaurant review (I'm winging it, can't you tell?) and lacking a rarefied palate and liking what I like, all I can say is that I couldn’t find fault. This was a meal between old friends catching up, so it wasn’t really about the food to begin with, but there weren’t any moments when the quality of anything going into the mouth interrupted the flow of conversation which in most cases, in most night’s out in fact, is all diners really want.

The starter, some kind of spicy lentil soup, was smooth and tasty and not indigestibly strong in that way that indicates the chef doesn’t appreciate that there may be more courses to come. After a slight wobble, I chose the garlic bread, a large slice of tin loaf which is helpfully illustrated in the front page of the Egg’s website. It looks greasy but it was the perfect accompaniment and there’s something to be said for the effort in breaking up the bread and dripping it in the soup, so that even in a deceptively simple dish you become an active presence.

That was especially true of the mains, or at least the bolognaise I ordered which was served half with rice and half with a kitchen sink like salad that even included pesto pasta. This was based, I think, on some kind of meat substitute rather than just beans (although there were plenty of those) and came in a portion which almost dwarfed the table which meant I was half conversing with my dinner companion and half making sure that I wasn’t the messy eater I tend to be. Much cleverer than me, he’d selected a broccoli quiche which he seemed to relish.

We returned to the counter to select a desert, he a carrot cake, me a chocolate fudge which were trayed up with a large pot of tea for two. Both were again excellent, mine as indulgent and rich as chocolate fudge cake should be and somehow despite everything else my stomach was able to fit it all in, as though it was replicating the TARDIS-like properties of the café. For just under a tenner the whole meal represents excellent value.

Since the closure of the Everyman Bistro, I’ve been looking for an alternate which has the same relaxed atmosphere, easy ordering system and flavoursome food and I think I may have found it in the Egg. There’s the same sense of feeling right at home whilst simultaneously being in a space unlike most anywhere else in Liverpool which considering my oscillating comfort zone is no mean feat. As we left, my friend, who is a vegetarian said, “Good choice” and despite loving meat, I had to agree with him.

The Egg Cafe, 16 - 18 Newington, Liverpool L1 4ED (0151 707 2755). Meal for two, including tea and service, £19.50.

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