Pilgrim in Liverpool made me smile many months before I’d booked a table. My job, if you’re willing to call it one, is not merely to consume food, but also to spend hours hearing about the concepts behind each restaurant. This is where I earn my money: deciphering the arduous Vogon poetics on websites about seasonal produce, the chef’s old nonna, or complete curveballs such as: “You thought you liked cheese... but have you ever tried it delivered on a sushi conveyor belt?” That’s a real thing, by the way, called Pick & Cheese, in Covent Garden.
Anyhow, the men behind Pilgrim take concept to a higher, more godly level, basing their restaurant around the pilgrimage routes towards Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St James were found in the ninth century. Or, more specifically, the Camino del Norte route, which is 825km of rugged coastline between Irun, outside San Sebastian, turning inland at Ribadeo in the Galician hills to Santiago.
Duke Street Market is definitely fun. Noisy fun ....
OK, it’s a Spanish restaurant. And some of the stuff is on small plates, so you could even say it’s tapas, but I like Pilgrim’s swagger. Having grown up around Scousers, never knowingly out of six-foot range of a prayer card, a devotional portrait, or just a plan to go somewhere to worship someone, I find this saint-chasing shtick rather comforting. Especially if it involves Cantabrian boquerones, peralzola cheese, allioli, sofrito, live fire hearths and a lot of cold, white, organic xarel·lo.
Pilgrim lives on the upper deck of Duke Street Market, which is what we’re loosely calling right now in restaurant-land “a food hall”, although that’s a catch-all term that doesn’t really work, because the hospitality at each different venue works in a slightly different way. For me, 2019 has been a year of loitering confusedly in food halls, gob ajar, trying to decipher where one eats, sits, orders and pays. Duke Street Market is the first set-up with the stark gumption to put an effusive staff member at the front door chivvying the customers for Asian bowl-food kitchen Ginger or vegan counter Indigo Greens over to the communal benches, while directing Pilgrims like me to the more formal restaurant up a flight of stairs, where a mezzanine overlooks the fun.
Because Duke Street Market is definitely fun. Noisy fun. This is a 19th-century warehouse with exposed brick walls and a thunderous sound system. I tried three different tables before accepting that this was going to feel like eating gordal olives during a 1995 Dave Morales set at Cream, but at least this time I would be wearing actual clothes, not merely a Morgan De Toi pelmet and body butter.
The trick is to order a large red vermouth on ice as a pre-starter and go with the rumpus.
We began with good, fresh house bread with smoked butter and a plate of silver-skinned, delicious boquerones, marinated in sweet vinegar. A plate of fresh, green, defiantly al dente runner beans arrived on a puddle of the deepest, oiliest, most garlicky sofrito strewn with small, piquant, smoked cherry tomatoes. Green beans on red sauce shouldn’t taste that good. Sure, I’d have cooked the beans longer. Same, too for chargrilled leeks. I can only guess that the chef came from a family like mine, where Christmas sprouts were put on to simmer some time in late November, and has spent a culinary journey rebelling. We demolished the leeks nevertheless as they arrived, slathered in light-blue-veined cow’s cheese, scattered with delicately candied walnut.
I can’t pretend the food at Pilgrim was perfect; a piece of monkfish tail in a vivid orange pimiento glaze was overcooked and slightly bizarre-tasting. But then a txuleton sirloin, served – no ifs or buts – rare, was a huge success on our table, arriving with a pond-green Castilian salsa heaving with thickly sliced melting onions.
Pilgrim is a restaurant I want to return to again and again out of sheer curiosity. Their holy, walking-tour concept doesn’t stifle them, but gives them a clear base for a foray into exquisite produce. The St James tart that Pilgrim served at the end – despite being, dare I say it, “deconstructed” – was one of the greatest things I’ve tasted this year. A slice of sticky, caramelised-edged sponge with a stew of burnt apple and fennel was served with soothing, sweet, milky ice-cream. Not the prettiest of puddings. Not the showiest. A cacophony of beige.
Probably not worth walking 825km in sandals for; but if I can travel up the M6 on a Megabus, then I’ll make a pilgrimage again this year.
• Pilgrim 46 Duke Street, Liverpool, 07388 120098. Open Weds-Sat 12pm-3.30pm and 5.30pm-10.30pm, Sun 12pm-8pm. About £30-£40 a head, plus drinks and service.