Review: CAU, Liverpool
If location location location counts as much for restaurants as it does for homes, then the Liverpool branch of CAU – the Argentinian-inspired steak-focused chain – should have TV’s Phil Spencer and Kirsty Allsopp fist-bumping and gyrating with delight.
The Castle Street/Water Street intersection in the city’s business district is a place of irresistible urban beauty, with 250 years’ worth of fine buildings forming what is surely one of Britain’s most attractive T-junctions. And where the two streets touch, that’s where this large restaurant sits, watched over by Minerva as she perches on top of the beautiful Georgian Town Hall. A colourful tiled mural above CAU’s grand entrance betrays the building’s historic role as the home of a marine insurance company, and the wide Castle Street pavement offers plenty of space for restaurant patrons to spill out into the sunshine on those few days a year when it visits.
First impressions certainly count, and on that score, CAU need have no worries. However, restaurants hopefully have to do more than just have a great location so, in an effort to find out what this Argentinian oasis has to offer, I recently paid a visit with my teenage son, Ezra, in tow.
“So by the end of this meal, do you reckon we’ll be singing like the cast of Evita,” I asked him, “or will we be as down and out as Scotland’s Argentina ’78 World Cup squad?”
“I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about,” said Ezra, “but please feel free to shut up.”
Did I mention that he’s a teenager? Things weren’t going as well as I’d hoped, so once inside CAU (which stands for Carne Argentina Unica, but which is simply pronounced ‘cow’), I took solace in a schooner of its exclusive house beer, a golden draught pilsner called La Gringa. Served at a temperature approaching absolute zero, it was one of those gullet-freezing, inoffensive lagers that doesn’t do a great deal more than help to wash your food down. It was light-bodied with a faint straw aroma and a mild malty aftertaste, but at just 4 per cent ABV (Alcohol by Volume), I realised it would take quite a few of them to drown my teenager-induced sorrows.
I must admit, I’d expected the interior to make more of the professed Argentinian theme, but in place of Maradona portraits or a tango soundtrack, CAU has a rather stark contemporary look. In fact, with its black wallpaper, white vinyl benches, angled ceiling mirrors, crinkle-cut plastic cladding and curious chrome-look lights, its style is less South American gaucho outpost, more A Clockwork Orange meets mid-80s Hitman and Her venue.
A glance at the menu, however, and everything gets a bit more Buenos Aries. If I remember my O-Level geography correctly, Argentina is all about beef and CAU offers a satisfying selection of steaks cooked any number of different ways. There are classics including medallions, rib-eye and rump, or speciality cuts such as tira de ancho (marinated in Mary Poppins’ favourite sauce, chimichurri), or the lomito, which is billed as ‘the finest cut in Argentina’.
As it was only lunchtime, I spurned some of the heftier, pricier delights and settled instead for tapa de cuadril from the classic steak selection, with Ezra choosing the cheese and bacon burger. We shared pork belly tempura from the small plates menu as a starter.
The pork belly arrived in the form of five generous meaty cubes, each coated in a chilli-flecked batter and served with a dollop of chutney-ish ‘CAUchup’. The batter was a touch too greasy but the meat inside was as soft and yieldy as it should be. The CAUchup could have had a bit more kick – it was tangy enough, but lacked the kind of fuller fruity flavour that might have better complemented the soft succulence of the pork. Still, the fleshy cubes settled nicely on empty tums, and Ezra and I finished them off in no time.
The menu described my tapa de cuadril as ‘a signature dish served the Brazilian way’. I’ve heard that ‘the Brazilian way’ is quite the fashion these days, but in the case of steak this would appear to mean thinly-sliced and flash-grilled rather than…no, let’s leave that thought there. The dish was served as five deliciously charred-looking leaves of beef together with one of those mini wire baskets of chips. We shared a side of onion rings too, and while they again suffered from batter of a greasy persuasion, the steak and chips were spot on.
Ezra enjoyed his burger, which was stacked up high in the modern style and skewered with a miniature oar from a pixie’s rowing boat. I begged for a bite for professional reasons, and he reluctantly offered it up for my consideration. To quote Samuel L. Jackson, it really was a tasty burger, with an eruption of molten cheese and a couple of perfectly crisped strips of bacon.
By the time we finished our mains we were both a bit stuffed, so we decided to share a dish of churros – the extruded sugar-sprinkled doughnuts that are popular right across Latin and South America. I harboured fears that the greasiness of the batter might have foretold a slimy churros experience, but in fact they were hot, fresh and delicious. A little anaemic looking perhaps, but accompanied by the rich butterscotch flavours of some glutinous dulce de leche – a sauce of heated, sweetened milk – they rounded things off very nicely.
I might have had another beer if the selection had been a little more inspiring. Quilmes lager is available, which is an authentic Argentinian beer brand, but that doesn’t make it delicious. There are a couple of Spanish options too, a bit stronger and tastier, but surely all those steaks are crying out for high-powered IPAs or hopped-up red ales – even ones as supermarket-friendly and non-niche as Goose Island IPA or Brewdog 5AM Saint.
There’s a large cocktail menu too, and judging by the brightly coloured concoctions that were being slurped at other tables, they’re proving popular. As it was, I settled for a simple cup of coffee, which was excellent. And it came with hot milk without me having to ask, so bonus points there.
Service was fast and friendly, and even Ezra’s teen demeanour seemed more cheerful by the end of the meal, for which I was thankful.
At which point Ezra gave me that look.
“Be quiet dad,” he said, “or things are going to get Messi.”
And for the first time that afternoon, he laughed.
What: CAU, Liverpool
Where: Castle Street, Liverpool
More info: www.caurestaurants.com
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