At the GPO in Liverpool, a man on stilts clomps and sways approximately a metre from my table, banging a huge drum in time to a chaotic, brass ensemble version of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) by Eurythmics. Are these, I wonder, optimum conditions to appreciate delicate stone bass sashimi by some of the north-west’s top restaurateurs?
It’s Friday night in the repurposed general post office building, which is now a large, bustling food hall featuring many vendors, different cuisines and communal eating. Each of these halls across Britain has its own rules and quirks, and the GPO is one of the better, sleeker operations, because it allows table-booking and ordering by app, and also employs lots of affable, prompt staff to whisk plates of Jailbird’s Nashville-style fried chicken and Ferrero Rocher sundaes to your booth.
There’s also Carousel Cheese, which serves baron bigod, sparkenhoe blue and yorkshire fettle (yes, that’s a feta-like cheese from North Yorkshire) Yo! Sushi-style. The bar is lively with what are called in news-speak “numerous revellers”, as well as that six-piece, brass-parping, stilt-walking gang who thunder their way through Nena’s 99 Red Balloons as my sumac and za’atar halloumi fries turn up from MorMor, one of the GPO’s Levantine-influenced traders. Liverpool is never dull – I knew that already – but this is the first time I’ve been offered an edible helium balloon while waiting for a plate of Sicilian red shrimp sashimi.
That said, Nama taking root in the GPO is surprising to me, but then we do live in interesting times. This kiosk, which specialises in raw salmon, wagyu, yellowfin tuna and other small plate offerings, is the baby of Luke French and Stacey Sherwood-French, who own Sheffield’s Jöro, an elegant, modern Michelin Bib Gourmand holder made entirely of shipping containers. Jöro serves Highland wagyu knuckle with wasabi mustard and squab with fermented blackcurrant; after dinner, you can stay the night in one of their four boutique hotel rooms at House of Jöro, to rest your distended belly, enjoy its botanical toiletries and hand-tufted pillow tops and peruse the carefully strewn copies of The Noma Guide to Fermentation and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck cookbook. I can’t think of many better mini-breaks in this country for the ardent food fan.
After Jöro’s success, a casual dining Scandi-Japanese spin-off called Konjö appeared in Sheffield’s own food hall, the Cutlery Works. And now both it and Nama are here in Liverpool, with the latter looking from a distance more like a Morrisons fish counter than an izakaya-inspired restaurant. Still, something about the mood of ornate, Japanese-inspired, small plates was possibly lost by the time my yellowfin tartare cured in koji-soy oil with koshihikari rice, salmon roe, egg yolk, chives and furikake arrived 45 minutes after I’d ordered it on the app, and during you-know-who’s spirited rendition of Corona’s Rhythm of the Night. Ah yes, the rhythm of the night.
I need to ask a very honest question here: are food halls ever a truly satisfying dining experience? I’ve no doubt they seem so on paper and in the marketing meetings, they’re fantastic for filling old, unloved but historically important spaces and they’re good news for downward-spiralling city centres. Yet in reality they’re noisy, unrelaxing and the food is often patchy, with the occasional gem hidden among the colossal choice of menus.
While waiting for Nama’s Cornish stone bass, which came abundantly titivated with truffle, lemongrass, yuzu, ponzu, English wasabi and nori, we picked at Konjö’s Korean-style cauliflower, which was squishily soft and claggy, and came with an almost inedible, one-note chilli jam. How could this basket of mush possibly have any connection to Jöro in Sheffield? Konjö’s Korean chicken was simply more of the same abrasive taste. By far the loveliest thing I ate that evening were those Sicilian prawns: light, sweet and ever so slightly fiery, with a lime, ginger, ponzu and jalapeño dressing.
But, to tell the truth, several of the dishes we grazed on at the GPO, across the many vendors, were not quite wonderful, the overplay of raw red onion and lack of heat or herb at MorMor being especially noteworthy. What the GPO lacks in deliciousness, however, it makes up for at 9pm on a Friday in atmospheric oomph and hi-octane 1990s house covers, plus the majestic sight of full-glam Liverpool ladies in the bar area setting off on a night on the tiles, which, as a north-western woman myself, will always make my heart soar.
As a meeting spot, drinking hole or place to eat chicken on waffles, the GPO is a definite success, but as a centre of culinary excellence, I’d be more likely to return to Duke Street Market, where you can get a more comfortable, sit-down experience. It wasn’t by any means a good evening for a food fan, but it’s safe to say that Friday-night Liverpool is still absolutely thriving.
Nama The GPO, Metquarter, 35 Whitechapel, Liverpool L1. Open all week, 8.30am-11pm (midnight Fri & Sat). About £25 a head plus drinks and service.