Alma de Cuba (2005)

Alma de Cuba (2005)

Unsurprisingly, there's been a scramble in local media circles to be the first to review the city's newest restaurant, Alma de Cuba. Flick through any of the numerous glossy Liverpool lifestyle mags that seem to have invaded the planet in recent months and you'll inevitably come across some mesmerised journalist gushing about what is being called one of Europe's most spectacular bar and restaurant venues. Alma's PR people must be made up. It's only been open a month and the place has already achieved notoriety only dreamed of thanks to its unique location -- a 200-year-old Polish Catholic church on Seel Street. Shock, horror, sacrilege, yep publicity! But the attention is not undeserved: it's an amazing building, quirkily but respectfully restored by architect Richard Eastwood, complete with the original, hypnotically-lit alter, stained glass windows and resplendent theological paintings. Many of the original features have been preserved but quite radically juxtaposed with elements of contemporary design including a dark, deliciously glossy bar, Havana-style booths, ferns and unique chandeliers made from what look suspiciously like antlers (let's assume they're fake). Colours: opulent reds, dark greens and browns. Textures: leathers, perspex and smooth wood. And the accessory of choice? Candles. Lots of half-melted dripping ones.

After a few minutes acclimatising to the remarkable surroundings, it's time to get down to the serious business of the food. If time's of the essence you can choose something from the bar/café menu which includes an amazing tapas section, a selection of Latin American dishes served in deep bowls, and a range of traditional all-day Cuban-style breakfasts. If you're after something more substantial, make for the restaurant. This is reached via a candlelit winding stone staircase which takes diners past the original thurible, which as all good Catholics will know is the little stone dish of water for dipping one's fingers into before genuflecting. Still worth heeding, particularly on your way out if you've attacked the lobster manually. The restaurant is actually on a mezzanine level, the perspex or glass partitions giving unobstructed, rather unnerving views down to onto the alter and sanctuary. The elevation is such that whilst contemplating the goings-on below, a sense of godlike hovering prevails. At first sight the menu is rather overwhelming in a Spanish kind of way but if you take a closer look it becomes apparent you don't need a language degree - there's a convenient explanation under each dish. It's also clear that everything on the menu is pretty unique. Cuban food is typically reminiscent of Spanish cuisine but with Caribbean and South American influences in abundance. Meat is always strongly featured. The use of vegetables is pretty patchy although the odd few that can hack Cuba's arid terrain do make an occasional appearance - yucca and plantain for example. Alma's cuisine is undeniably Cuban but there are hints of artistic licence which cause no major offence. Who cares if asparagus isn't naturally plentiful in Cuba when it comes deep fried in chilli beer batter and served with star anise ketchup in a manchego basket? Other appetisers include roast pumpkin and sweet orange soup, slow baked cumin baby back ribs, citrus duck lollipop, and crawfish chorizo cakes served with jalapeno lime crème fraiche. All fascinating stuff. If you really want to get stuck in then why not choose one of the three starter platters? If seafood's your bag then the mariscos at £12.95 is for you. It includes paella marinera, camerones and calamari tapas. Carne, as the name suggests, is the meat option and includes paella Andalucia, costillas Cubanas and that lollipop duck again. And if you can't decide between the two, there's a meat-seafood combination platter, as well as a vegetarian option.

Main courses continue in the same flamboyant vein and true to Cuban form this section of the menu will score highly with meat lovers. It doesn't come more carnivorous than roast suckling pig, or wild boar, or Chateaubriand carved at your table. Other hearty meat options include chargrilled Argentinean fillet steak with Mexican greens, jalapeno rib eye steak on a potato fig rosti and possibly the dish with the longest description on the whole menu: calf's liver in a chilli marinade on a quenelle of chorizo mash with a moat of pea broth topped with an onion and liquorice marmalade. They're leaving nothing to the imagination there. There's a pretty damn impressive choice of seafood too (lobster, salmon, swordfish) as well as goose, chicken, paellas and a couple of vegetarian options which it has to be said, seem to pale in comparison with the meatier ones. It's worth noting that for appetites of gargantuan proportions there is the Marry Tierra Fiesta at £21.95 per person which consists of a 14oz Argentine fillet steak, freshwater lobster and grilled langoustines with dark rum jus roti. They'd have to roll you out. The dessert menu is altogether more responsible: a mere four to choose from. But all four of them are pure symphonies of flavour and texture. The coconut parfait for example: chilled parfait of flaked coconut, chopped mint and orange with mango sauce. And the absolutely lush sounding con nueces de Brazil: crisp chocolate Brazil nut cookies served with a chilled coffee enhanced crème chantilly.

The wine list is easily one of the best the city has to offer with a range of bins that show spirit as well as sophistication. There are some superb South American numbers, and also a couple of noteworthy wines from down under: an 01/02 sauvignon blanc from New Zealand's Montana Brancott estate, and the Australian Devil's Lair Margaret River 01/02 cabernet.

This latest venture in a long string from the Lyceum Group of Pan American and Baby Cream fame seems to surpass everything that's come before it. The food is unique in the region but it's the venue that really sets it apart. It's a space that feels different, familiar, old and new all at once. There's a certain quality to the atmosphere, particularly in quieter moments that is hard to explain: it's definitely spiritual but also sexy in a subtle way. The more superstitious amongst us would say the aura of the place has something to do with the centuries of worship that have taken place here but it may be just down to superlative vision and design. Whatever it is, it's compelling.

Alma De Cuba
Seel Street
Liverpool
Tel: 0151 7027394

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