It is early evening on a bleak midwinter weeknight in Liverpool, and the place is packed with people eating, drinking, laughing and talking as if there was nothing to be miserable about. It's a miracle.
That makes brothers Gary and Colin Manning, once again, the likeliest lads in Liverpool to nail the Zeitgeist. Ten years ago, they opened 60 Hope Street, bringing contemporary dining to the elegant stretch of Georgian town houses that link the city's two cathedrals. Five years later, with the economy slowing, they opened The Quarter, a funky little café with a sunny all-day attitude, good pasta and serious cake options. Now that we have no economy at all, they have added to their portfolio a modern, pan-Asian noodle bar.
But just as I settle in with a cold Tiger beer, everyone walks out, shrugging into coats and wrapping scarves as they go. Was it something I said? No, it's Sarah Chang playing Brahms' Violin Concerto at the Philharmonic Hall down the street, with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting. Within minutes, the 1953 Charles and Ray Eames bobbly Hang it All coat racks are returned to the status of art installations. Now Liverpool's official reign as the 2008 European Capital of Culture is over, it's good to see it has regressed to being your normal, everyday city of culture.
So HoSt - as in HOpe STreet, because HoSt sounds better than PeReet – is obviously fine for pre's and post's, but is it a destination diner in its own right? We live in a post-Wagamama world, and the WaMa legacy (sorry, it's contagious), is palpable here in the bare, minimalist lines, communal tables and bench seating, the chicken katsu curry, various soup noodles, and the way dishes are served in the order that suits the kitchen rather than the diner. Other dishes, such as duck, watermelon, and cashew salad, and salt-and-pepper squid served in paper cones have a touch of Will Ricker's E&O about them.
OK, so it's not entirely original, but the Melbourne-born chef Ashley Richey does a confident, savvy Oz job with a satisfyingly fiery, tamarind-tingly red curry of duck, lychee and Thai eggplant (£9.50) and a snappy stir-fry of meltingly tender, big-flavoured belly pork, Chinese leaves, chilli and egg noodles (£8.80). I like the sound of smoked salmon with pomelo and smoked chilli (£4.75), but it doesn't work; the salmon being acridly smoky, and the pomelo's lovely juicy teardrops of flesh tasting more like dry pink grapefruit. Deep-fried duck gyoza dumplings (£3.50) are fine, but corn fritters with chilli caramel (£2.95) are blandly doughy.
Desserts are rarely a noodle-bar highlight. Nevertheless, ginger-nut cheese cake served in a glass tumbler with a jammy layer of passionfruit jelly (£4.25) is rich, creamy and classy; and a pretty mix of bought-in sorbets (orange and grapefruit; passionfruit and mango; coconut and lemongrass, £4.50) is deliciously sherbety.
The young, local staff seem genuinely helpful, and Oriental cocktails, interesting teas and a serviceable, price-conscious 20-strong wine list rounds out the options, with a Luigi Righetti Valpolicella (£18.50) one of the more spice-friendly offerings.
HoSt needs a bit more art, heart and character but there is still enough light, bright, tasty, recession-friendly food to draw a crowd, not just before and after, but during somebody else's performance. And while the recent opening of Wagamama in the snazzy Liverpool One shopping centre might be a blow, HoSt wins out on produce, variety, and sheer Liverpudlian charm.
It also confirms my belief that the best time to visit the European Capital of Culture is as soon as its year is over, when the scaffolding and tourists have gone and it's all rebuilt, repolished and re-energised. So roll on, 2010 – Vilnius, here I come.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
HoSt, 31 Hope Street, Liverpool, tel: 0151 708 5831. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £60 for two with wine
The crunch bunch: More noodle nuggets
45 Wade Lane, Leeds, tel: 0113 243 9184
Leeds' favourite noodle bar is a canteen-like affair, as popular for its Japanese curry, gyoza dumplings and rice dishes as it is for its ramen, udon and soba noodles
Cha Cha Moon
15-21 Ganton St, London W1, tel: 020 7297 9800
Alan Yau, who gave the world the Japanese-inspired Wagamama, uses his noodle once again, this time with a Hong Kong theme, and nothing over £5.50
16 Albert Square, Manchester, tel: 0161 819 1966
Despite the Japanese name, this popular six-strong chain serves up Vietnamese pho, Malaysian kway teow and Korean chap chai as well as Japanese ramenReuse content