Restaurants: Starters for 10

Caroline Stacey Where to eat well in Liverpool? The answer: the eclectic Ziba, in the erudite company of quiz champions. Photographs by Ken Grant
Here are your starters. And you can't eat them. This mini-quiz has been devised especially for you by one of the question setters for University Challenge. 1) What is the name given to an Eastern European pancake made of buckwheat? 2) Which chicken dish is named in honour of one of Napoleon's victories? 3) Which Russian city gives its name to chicken stuffed with butter and garlic? 4) What do you call ring-shaped rolls made from dough that is boiled before being baked? 5) What dish is named after an Italian composer? Answers at the bottom of the page.

Believe me, there is a connection here with a smart new restaurant in Liverpool. My friend Rachel is slightly embarrassed about her appearance on Ask the Family (to spare her any more shame I've even changed her name). When I knew I was going to Liverpool I asked her parents who live there out for the evening, and they let slip what Rachel had kept quiet. They were the national champions of Ask the Family. Her mother's general knowledge is so amazing she went on to form a business supplying questions for television shows, pubs and any other sort of quiz events. She came up with these five questions relating to food.

Accompanied by what must be the most knowledgeable couple in Liverpool, I was well set up to give the once-over to Ziba, named after an old tea clipper which sailed between Liverpool and China (that's from the blurb not from Rachel's mum). With girders painted battleship grey, a metallic staircase up to a first-floor gallery for a good view of the jazz evenings, and bare tables with linen napkins, this year-old restaurant in a converted car showroom is, however, modern metropolitan down to the last rivet. There's some bamboo, too, as a reference to next-door Chinatown, and although hardly cosy, Ziba was comfortable enough and so smoothly run I became oblivious to a cold wet night that made Liverpool seem even more inhospitable than the opening credits of Brookside.

A nicely concise menu has a bit of Brit, with Mediterranean and Oriental jostling for attention. Here, though, unlike so many others, the chef isn't too closely following the composition of other fashionable menus, but coming up with his own mix, and even going back to the classics. Oeuf Careme consists of a poached egg with smoked salmon, an artichoke heart and hollandaise sauce. And the Choron sauce, bearnaise with tomato puree served with John Dory, was invented by Choron, chef at the famous Voisin restaurant throughout the 1870 siege, when he invented ways of cooking elephant. Remember that, it could prove useful at the next pub quiz.

Suckling pig in a terrine is the rarest beast on offer here. Otherwise good ingredients are cleanly and knowledgeably combined with a sure sense of what goes with what. The terrine, chunks of pork in a jelly, and water chestnuts for contrasting crunch, had the right degree of Chinoiserie to its spicing. Cock-a-leekie, the chicken and leek soup, controversially - but nonetheless appealingly- had potatoes in it. Only the most expensive starter, at pounds 8.95, lacked taste. But that's often the way when too much money has been spent. It also applied to the two girls in strappy evening dresses and very high sandals with a man who could have been their father. Other customers were less conspicuous. But back to the starter of potted scallop and lobster in a perfumed jelly. "Bland, could be anything" was the summary of the evening's only disappointment.

Main courses, from pounds 8.50 for cassoulet with duck confit, come without ballast, although portions are not meagre. And vegetables are available at only pounds 1 a throw.

A generous curl of monkfish tail dusted with paprika got high marks from Rachel's mum, who, switching fluently between languages, approvingly added that the accompanying sushi rice cake was "kosher". Pigeon with peas and button onions is a classic combination, and here the peas were pureed to bring out the flavour and put in a pastry case. I'm not saying the pigeon was tough or the knife blunt, but it was harder to cut than to chew, perhaps because I have what my dentist says is a ferocious bite. A simply and well-cooked beef fillet with carrots and potatoes was pleasingly brightly coloured.

Puddings aren't particularly fancy, but chocolate mousse in a brandy- snap basket, lemon tart with lime syrup and a coconut creme brulee with chocolate sorbet each struck the right note.

Ziba also did its best to dispel the myth that Liverpudlians don't respect ownership of property - Scouse joke no 27: "What do you call a scouser in a four-bedroom house? A burglar." They made a mistake in our favour on the bill. With service and the second bottle of wine added on it came to exactly pounds 40 each. Not a steal, but a fair price.

"Bars and hotels, bars and hotels" is how a cab driver giving me an unsolicited guided tour on the way there had summed up developments in the city. Eating lags behind drinking and sleeping here, but Ziba answers the question "Where's a good place to eat in Liverpool?" The other answers are: 1) blinis, 2) Marengo, 3) Kiev, 4) bagels, 5) tournedos Rossini

Ziba 15-19 Berry Street, Liverpool (0151 708 8870). Mon-Sat lunch and dinner, Sun lunch. Average pounds 15-pounds 25 without drinks. Set lunch and dinner, pounds 10.50 two courses, pounds 13.50 three courses. Wheelchair access. All major credit cards except Diners Club.

Liverpool digest on page 44

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