Sunday, March 11, 2012

Liverpool: Rebecca Ferguson at the Philharmonic Hall

I've seen a lot in my time here. But I hadn't seen anything like Liverpool. Home snug 'n' sound, an hour off the train now, it's that it's just three hours north of here that keeps bringing me up. You'd swear this island would have to be twice the size it is (or more) to hold as many distinct pockets. And in Liverpool, that distinction is so pronounced; it's almost a performance. From the gentleman in tweeds at the Dispensary on Friday night, young doll at his elbow 30 years his junior and still many-summers wise, twirling his full-on handlebar moustache while exclaiming to a table of friends he hasn't met yet, "Lads, shall we retire to the pavement and smoke a few fags?" -- his emphasis, I swear on all that's holy -- to the lass at the train station this afternoon, by all accounts dressed for the public eye -- well, note I'm letting the softball of 'leggings are not trousers' sail right by -- save for a full head of curlers like only your nan has sported in the last half century, in Liverpool, the show does go on.

And I loved it.

Liverpool Cathedral
The analogy doesn't end there, either: the town itself is like different sets on a movie lot. A Chinatown -- Europe's oldest, incidentally -- like I've only seen in San Francisco is just down the hill from this monster of an Anglican cathedral, itself a short walk from the rival for Temple Bar that is the intersection of Hanover and Wood. And the illusion is complete when you find yourself on one of the many unpopulated streets -- and I'm talkin' entirely, be it high noon or midnight, you can find these places easily. It's downright creepy, and, surrounded by the tall brick faces, very back lot. (But rarely in a scary way, I hasten to add; we were worried about the city's rough reputation, shall we say, but found it as warm and friendly as you'd like, for the most part. And even that one time, walking home in the wee hours of Sunday, I'm sure it was just that our imaginations were workin' overtime.)

We'd been talking about going to Liverpool for a long time; at least since this time last year, when Liverpudlians we met at the York Brewery put it on par with that wonderful city as a good-times destination. The excuse that finally got us there was a Rebecca Ferguson concert. And what a show it was. As the runner-up on the X Factor in 2010, I guess I'm probably one of the few folks that hadn't heard her amazing voice. It filled the Philharmonic Hall to bursting, and, coupled with intros to the songs she wrote, conveyed rare emotion and infectious humility. As it happened, her family was right behind us (with one empty row between) and as Rebecca made many references to the importance of the love and support they'd given her over the years, you could hear them trying to stifle their reactions. Add to that a top quality opener in Jay James Picton -- honestly, he was one of the best opening acts I've seen; powerful and confident from the outset -- and you've got one heck of a night.


The best meal of the trip had to be the burgers at the Shipping Forecast. We both had the goat's cheese and caramelized onion burger, and, oh man, you wanna talk about finger-lickin' good -- don't even think the Brits would've been able to resist throwin' down that fork and knife in the face of these beauties. And then what Tea awarded Best Chips in Britain, as a side? Heaven. Plus, they had a wicked selection of condiments -- including three types of Tabasco (in the UK, mind!) -- which is easy, but trips up many of the otherwise pros. Second place goes to North Garden: one of the many inviting options in Chinatown that we picked at random. Fantastic duck, wonton soup, spicy shrimp with garlic... Just a meal of starters, really, which is how Tea rolls, or would, if the rest of the world would just get on board and offer proper meals. Barburrito gets bronze: as good as any Mexican you can get in Canada, in my opinion. Which just seems wrong, as they get it together in less than five minutes. But so flavourful, from their guacamole to their various salsas, etc.


At The Philharmonic Dining Rooms
I've already talked about the Shipping Forecast; fantastic place. Don't let the hipster digs turn you off: the staff are really friendly, they've got a good beer selection -- including a lot of American craft brew (e.g., Sierra Nevada Pale Ale -- on tap and more apricot-y than any time I've had it in the bottle -- Flying Dog's Snake Bit IPA, Goose Island's Honkers Ale) and English cask ales like Top of the Hops Golden Ale -- and, well, you've heard about the grub. But if it's a few pints you're looking for, the Dispensary is my top recommendation. It's easy to see why it's been the Liverpool and Districts CAMRA Pub of the Year for the past two. Clearly a local favourite, it's a place for beer lovers. I suspected this when I saw Stringers Mutiny nestled in the middle of five hand pumps (with two at the other end of the bar, for those who're counting). At 9.3%, it's way more than I've seen any landlord willing to put on -- remember, they have to sell this stuff in a matter of weeks, to a crowd who, by 'n' large, look for 'session' beers around the 4% mark, tops -- and a treat: so smooth, with the perfect amount of currants in the finish. Tea and I agreed, though: the highlight of the evening was the George Wright Brewery's Mild. And that was with two other stars on in Marble's Bitter -- one of my Top 3 favourite brewers, and only available up north (from what I can tell), unfortunately -- and Outstanding's Standing Out.

At Thomas Rigby's

Other stops included:
  • Thomas Rigby's: great spot with a lot of character. Ilkley's Fireside Porter had a nice bite to it. Tea had Newmans Creative Cat, a tasty pale, from a Welsh brewer, apparently (with no 'net presence I can find).
  • The Globe: clearly, another local favourite, and an oasis in the shopping district. They were jokin' and carryin' on with the landlady when I was in there; really infectious. I'd probably put this in second place, come to think of it. The Coach House Brewing Co.'s Squires Gold Spring Ale was excellent: refreshing and understated.
  • The Munro: gotta love it when a restaurant that bills itself as fine dining has four real ales on, and a warm, relaxing area to enjoy them.
  • The Philharmonic Dining Rooms: last, but not least, we popped in after the show on a recommendation. Opulent and cosy, if you can believe it, with a truly amazing selection of ales. I think the tasty red I had had Smithy in the name, which leads me to White Horse Brewery's Wayland Smithy. Tea's True Grit Pale Ale, by Millstone Brewery, was also excellent.

Just a great weekend. We took the train up, and never once considered a cab. The Albert Docks, where we stayed (at the excellent Staybridge Suites), were a leisurely half-hour walk from there, and everything we did was in between the two. One of the better walking cities we've visited, in fact.

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