When I told friends that my husband and I were heading for dinner at Alma de Cuba, more than one of them said, in effect, “why?” Now this might say a lot about the fact that my friends and I are pushing middle age, have small children and are, perhaps therefore, not the target market for an opulent bar/club/restaurant experience. But for my money it also says something about a mild identity crisis at what was once Liverpool’s unrivalled go-to venue for high-end drinking and dining. The city’s quality restaurant scene has improved enormously since Alma opened in the spectacular surroundings of the 18th Century St Peter’s Church and, on a purely culinary level, it is struggling to keep pace.
We were there to sample the new Spring menu, launched in early May and full of delicious-sounding, sun-friendly dishes with a Cuban twist. Full of anticipation, I ordered fish tacos (£6.50) followed by mojito lamb rump (£18.95) – the scallops having run out despite this being a quiet night – while my husband opted for surf and turf in reverse order with lamb carpaccio (£7.25) then cod loin chowder (£17.50). The details sounded fantastic; Caribbean slaw with the tacos; charred corn and chipotle in the chowder; mojito-inspired crust and ‘sautéed patatas’ with the rump. They just weren’t quite there in the delivery.
My tacos were essentially a posh fish finger sandwich – a very tasty fish finger sandwich – but lacking the distinctiveness and flair promised by the menu and, surprisingly, some seasoning. The carpaccio was fine, if too thickly cut, and the rump was generously-portioned but a quite conventional lamb roast. Sautéed patatas and mojito crust, it transpires, translates essentially to roast spuds and mint. The most attention-grabbing flavour we had all night was in the spiced orange polenta cake (£6); a huge portion of genuinely fruity and moist dessert that would have benefitted from more of the delicious macerated oranges and mascarpone. A chilli chocolate brownie (£6) was pleasant enough but, like the dishes that preceded it, lacked the Cuban sparkle (in this case the undetectable chilli heat) with which it had enticed. The brownie, like the olives we had to start, suffered from being fridge-cold.
What we were left with, overall, was some very friendly service and a meal best described as ‘nice’ – which is an oddly underwhelming, bland word to use about a venue as striking as Alma de Cuba. Nice feels out of place. Food served there, surrounded by scores of candles, stained glass windows and huge antler chandeliers, needs to keep pace not only with new rival restaurants but with its setting. And with its price tag it doesn’t quite succeed on any of these counts. Maybe that’s because Alma was never really about the food? It is about the building and the atmosphere. Those things are still “wow”. The food was only nice.