This week's review is accompanied by a whistling theme tune, the cry of seagulls and the mournful horn of the Mersey ferry. You dining? You asking? I'm in Liverpool, for the first time in 20 years, and taking a tour of the city with one of its sons, Alexei Sayle. We've driven past the Liver Building, marvelled at the high-Edwardian pomp of the Philharmonic pub, and gazed wistfully at the spot where the Cavern Club would have been if the council hadn't knocked it down.
Just around the corner from the Cavern, right in the city centre, is our destination, Print, a new boutique hotel and restaurant. Five million pounds has been spent on converting an old printworks into six storeys of state-of-the-art stylishness, featuring bars, a nightclub and loft-ish bedrooms. Nancy Dell'Olio attended the launch party just a few weeks ago. And tonight ... it's completely empty. Not just no punters. No sign of any staff either. By comparison, the Cavern Club seemed positively buzzing.
When a startled-looking employee stumbles across us in the ground-floor bar, he directs us upstairs to the restaurant. It's a large loft-like space with buffed-up, post-industrial features and by-the-yard eclectic trappings: black velvet banquettes, Perspex bucket chairs and marbled endpapers blown up as wallpaper. But any atmosphere is bleached out by full-beam lighting that suggests a video shoot might be in progress. This space was apparently used by the local band OMD as a recording studio in the early 1980s, but there's little chance of manoeuvring – or doing anything else here – in the dark.
The pre-publicity suggested this would be a fine-dining restaurant, but the feel is modern brasserie, and the menu just a notch above gastropub. "If it's locally produced, organic or fresh on the day, it must be good!" Print's website announces. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily going to appear on Print's menu, which can't seem to decide if it's summer or autumn, and offers very little that is fresh on the day. The only special is a prawn cocktail, and the only identifiably local produce on this timid list, other than Morecambe bay shrimps, is the Cumbrian rib eye steak offered in five different sizes, from 8oz to 16oz. Otherwise the accent is Mediterranean rather than Scouse: ravioli with Parma ham, plum tomato and mozzarella salad, melon compote with roasted figs, Cointreau and citrus syrup (this last a starter, by the way, not a dessert).
Even good old fish and chips gets a poncy makeover, appearing as "fillets of marinated plaice in lemon and thyme, deep fried in Cains bitter with mushy peas and chunky chips". "You can get that in the Malmaison," observed an underwhelmed Alexei, who has been filming in Liverpool for a few months, and is still in search of a really outstanding restaurant experience, though he's had plenty of decent mid-range meals.
Still, with hope in our hearts, we ordered. And let's just say that Alexei is still waiting for that really outstanding restaurant experience. Some of what arrived, with unsettling promptness, from Print's open kitchen was just about palatable. Seared tuna loin, for example, was well cooked, ie. barely cooked at all, within its sesame-seed coated crust. And Alexei liked his chunky, loose-textured terrine of confited duck.
Main courses, though, were awful. I'm still trying to forget the rank taste and paste-like texture of the crab cakes, each the size of a man's fist, which came with a scattering of pungent little Morecambe Bay prawns, like a fisherman's thumbnails. But the memory lives on, as insistent and inescapable as The Liver Birds theme tune. Alexei's braised lamb and creamed potatoes put him in mind of school dinners, the unappealing meat swimming in a barley and rosemary broth that had a weird artificial aftertaste, as though it had been revved up with a stock cube.
Things took a turn for the worse with the puddings, one of which was – I kid you not – a whole banana, wrapped in pastry and deep-fried, then served in a butterscotch sauce. Maybe it was an attempt to create a kitsch retro special to rival the deep-fried jam sandwich with Carnation ice cream served at 60 Hope Street, Liverpool's reigning style hotel and fine-dining restaurant. Or maybe Print's chef really, really likes banana, pastry and butterscotch – we were offered a daily special of banoffee pie, just to ring the changes.
So quickly did our food arrive (though not quite quickly enough to keep pace with the pouring of our wine), we were ready to pay the bill at 9.30pm, having arrived at 8pm. We had a look around the hotel before we left, and were impressed not just by the stylish design, but by the huge amount of money and attention to detail that's obviously been lavished on every aspect of the project.
Every aspect, that is, except the food. Coming from London, where hotels increasingly use their restaurants to boost their profile and attract a different kind of clientele, I found it perplexing that our meal at Print fell so far short of the mark. Almost as perplexing as why anyone would think that an adult human might want to eat a whole deep-fried banana.
In 71 days' time, Liverpool will become Europe's Capital of Culture, and as the city's hip new venue, Print should be at the heart of that. I'm sure that once word spreads, it's going to be a fabulous place to meet, drink, dance and network. Just try to avoid eating there.
Print, 56–58 Stanley Street, Liverpool (0870 033 4450). www.theprinthotel.co.uk. Around £45 a head
The best of Liverpool
60 Hope Street
One of Liverpool's finest eateries is set in the cultural quarter of the city. The interior is upmarket-contemporary, and local produce takes precedence; main courses include a roast loin of saddleback pork with crispy pork belly, pease pudding, potato rosti and calvados cream (£17.50).
60 Hope Street (0151-707 6060)
Impeccable British cuisine with fine ingredients from local suppliers such as naturally reared chicken from Goosnargh and matured English lamb and beef from pedigree stock. Try the grilled halibut with celeriac purée, baby spinach, vermouth and tarragon cream (£19.75).
Beetham Plaza, 25 The Strand (0151-236 3536)
'Yuet Ben' means honoured guest, so be prepared for a warm welcome at Liverpool's longest-established Chinese restaurant. The restaurant isn't particularly glitzy but the cooking is impressive, with unusual and authentic dishes alongside the best crispy duck on Merseyside.
1 Upper Duke Street (0151-709 5772)
The London Carriage Works
This former coach builders' HQ was built in the style of a grand Venetian palazzo – and it's a great backdrop for Paul Askew's award-winning European cooking. Try loin of Duroc pork with ratte potatoes and caramelised apple, baby beets and leeks (£20).
40 Hope Street (0151-705 2222)