Ellis and Liam Barrie are heading back to their home city of Liverpool for their newest venture, and while the homecoming hasn't been without its hitches, the brothers are taking it in their stride and learning lessons for the future. Emma Lake reports
The Barrie brothers' homecoming to Liverpool has been challenging. While the creative sparks fired – the brothers bounce off one another constantly, bickering their way from one innovation to the next – progress has stumbled repeatedly, and on occasion fallen headfirst onto a hard surface.
"We always said opening another restaurant expands your horizons and you learn new things. Well, we couldn't have learned more. We've faced absolutely everything possible – it's all been thrown at us," explains a surprisingly cheery Liam. Brother, business partner and chef Ellis chuckles and adds: "Every job on this, every job. Tables, chairs, the patent: everything. Nothing has just come in, it's been bonkers. We have got plates coming in later and one of them will be broken. There's no doubt about it."
At the outset Lerpwl, taken from the Welsh name for the city, was a fairytale project. The brothers, having decided to expand, settled on their home city, which felt like their "natural habitat", and was close enough to Anglesey, home of their debut restaurant the Marram Grass and the Fat Pig Farm, for the enterprises to be easily aligned.
Just as they decided the time was right, they were approached with "at least four offers" of space in the city inside of a week, eventually deciding to make their home on the banks of the Mersey in the historic Albert Docks.
"These buildings are older than the Liver building," explains Ellis. "There's so much heritage and at one time they were going to pull them down. They are beautiful and to come back to Liverpool and to somewhere so meaningful, it's just right."
"It's just stunning to be able to open the restaurant doors onto the water," adds Liam. "You just don't get that opportunity very often."
The clincher was that it also presented an opportunity to continue independently. Liam explains: "We have never worked for anyone, we have never had partners and our idea of business development and strategy is getting into a room and arguing until one of us gives up."
It's an approach that had served them well for a decade in Anglesey, where they have slowly evolved the food offering at their parents' caravan park from greasy spoon to acclaimed restaurant, learning from every misplaced step on a journey that saw them both presented with Acorn Awards by The Caterer.
"To come back to Liverpool and to somewhere so meaningful, it's just right"
The Liverpool site was secured back in 2018, subject to permissions. Long-winded planning processes and other hiccups stalled progress somewhat, but when The Caterer visited in January 2020, the restaurant was well on its way to throwing open the doors. Then Covid-19 began to raise its ugly head and, well, you know the rest.
Renovations stopped, materials – including a marble bar that runs around the open kitchen – couldn't be delivered and, eventually, the entire docks area was closed off. The brothers concentrated their efforts on Anglesey during lockdown, where the Fat Pig Farm, run in conjunction with brother Conor, expanded its offering in both a physical and online shop. Conor is also working with Andreas Symeou to develop the drinks offering at Lerpwl.
The Marram Grass, meanwhile, has undergone a transformation. The converted shed proved unworkable post-pandemic, so it has emerged from lockdown as alfresco pop-up Moch a Môr, offering a menu of hotdogs, oysters and mussels to the hordes who have headed to the Welsh coast for a last-minute staycation or, as Liam puts it, for the "endless sunshine and 30ºC temperatures".
A new beginning
The Caterer returned to Lerpwl last month, albeit via Zoom, to see how the finishing touches were taking shape and catch up with the brothers.
Ellis says: "I feel like everything happens for a reason. This project has been slow but it's probably right. I think if we managed to open two years ago, we wouldn't have everything we've got now. You constantly mature as a chef – you become more confident, you don't put too much on the plate or try to confuse the food. Over the two and a half years we've been working on this, I've become a lot more content."
At the end of August, chefs were busy testing dishes in the main dining space's open kitchen. This leads to a cocktail bar on the ground floor, named Margot's after Liam's daughter, while a metal spiral staircase leads to a 30-cover private dining room upstairs, named Albert's, named after Ellis's son.
The industrial nature of the docks is apparent in the architecture, but softened through sympathetic design. Those who have contributed to evolving the design of the Marram Grass over the last decade have been drafted in, including chair designer Tom Vousden; but the brothers stress this is a completely different aesthetic for a completely different operation.
"There's got to be an honesty to it," Liam explains. "It's not the Marram Grass – it's not a shed, for one thing. The restaurant will evolve over time. It's not going to be the Marram Grass two."
The evolution of the restaurant is something we return to repeatedly during the course of the interview, with attempts to pin the brothers down on menu details or a description of a ‘concept' that will fit neatly into a magazine feature clearly at odds with their approach.
"Our idea of business development and strategy is getting into a room and arguing until one of us gives up"
Ellis explains that his brother in particular is a living manifesto for restaurants without constraints. He half-jokes: "Liam hates titles and constrictions, he hates it. He wants to rewrite the book all the time – down with menus! We're not allowed to use terms like small plates or à la carte."
Liam interjects to clarify: "We're not going to say ‘this is what it's going to be'. We've got to let it evolve and settle in. What you do at the start will change as you find your feet – that's what we have been doing for 10 years at the Marram Grass." What I do glean is that Lerpwl will share many suppliers with the Marram Grass, with a changing offering that is produce-led, showcasing the best of what is available each day, including seafood from Cornish day boats, mussels and oysters from the Menai Strait of Anglesey and, of course, home-reared pork and vegetables from the Fat Pig Farm. A more formal offering will be balanced with a quicker-service menu focused on an oyster bar and also featuring charcuterie from the farm.
Or, as Ellis says: "There will be food," with Liam adding: "In the right context, at the right time." The former continues: "Come in, you're going to get fed well. Just come and enjoy it."
There are also plans for a bar offering and a showpiece cocktail list – something they didn't have the space to develop at the Marram Grass – but for the immediate future, the bar area and private dining room will be used flexibly to allow covers to be maintained while social distancing is in place.
Lerpwl also has a late licence extending until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays and Ellis has secured space for DJ decks in anticipation of a potential late-night offering – which, he suggests, could see guests leaving in the wee hours with a posh kebab for the journey home.
In the meantime, the pair are clearly just pleased to be able to finally get the doors open, with Ellis adding: "The dockers were the most productive workforce in the world. Over the last days getting the food out for the trials and grafting away, I've felt like a docker. The hustle and bustle, all the produce coming in, that's what the docks are for."
Locals and location
It's clear that the locals are excited to welcome them too. When The Caterer visited in January, people were popping their heads around the door to grab a sneak peek, with some having visited the Marram Grass, helped crowdfund previous enterprises or watched Ellis' growing TV profile, which has seen him win a place at the Great British Menu banquet before taking on a starring role in the BBC's reincarnation of Ready Steady Cook earlier this year.
The brothers say Liverpool is emerging from Covid-19, helped by the city council's alfresco dining grant scheme, which was credited with creating 3,000 extra covers. And when the doors of Lerpwl are flung open, the restaurant will benefit from increased outdoor seating, thanks to the Albert Docks, which put through a licence for its tenants to help boost the destination.
Ellis adds: "The Albert Docks has been great – it's aware that it's a tourist destination and it wants everyone to be doing well, so it has been working with each tenant."
And it's not just locals emerging. The brothers say they have regularly seen familiar faces from Anglesey in the city, using the well-trodden link between it and north Wales, which will also be used by the team [see panel].
Liam adds: "People are excited. Down at the docks, you're on the waterfront, there's loads of fresh air and loads of space, so I think people are more inclined to walk down here."
In January Ellis said Liverpool felt like "the right place at the right time", with tourism flooding into the city on the back of the "great nightlife, great food, sound people, the football team and the heritage sites".
For now, the Mersey is free of the cruise ships that deliver thousands of tourists to the Liver buildings, but the city's hospitality workforce hopes it won't be long before they return and help write its next chapter over some delicious food served "in the right context, at the right time".
Group chef Richard Fox
Lerpwl head chef Kevin Lynn, formerly head chef and owner of Machine House in Rossett, Wrexham
Lerpwl restaurant manager Marius Muresan, formerly of Röski and the Art School, both in Liverpool
Opening date 12 September
● Lobster, barbecue tail, Jerusalem artichoke, ravioli, nasturtium and lobster sauce
● 40-day-aged Red Poll beef, cep purée, foraged mushrooms, spuds and truffle terrine
●Whole roast fish, toasted almond, Menai mussels, pork butter sauce, home-grown spuds, salad of fresh vegetables and sprouting salads and herbs
●Whole roast dry-aged Anglesey duck, honey, fermented Hispi, charred Hispi, yeast purée, confit duck leg, jacket spuds and shallot
●Liverpool tart, ‘lemon and wet sugar' and sheep's milk ice-cream; soufflé, brambles and sweet cicely
A symbiotic relationship
As Liam and Ellis Barrie planned their expansion from their Anglesey base, they were keen for their next move to complement the existing business. The Marram Grass thrives during the summer season, when tourists in beach shorts take tables next to suited locals celebrating family occasions, but is quieter in the winter.
The brothers hope that Lerpwl will help to promote the Marram Grass during the quiet season, and vice versa, with Liam adding that "it plays into that overall picture of solidifying what we're doing."
Ellis adds: "At the Marram Grass we make our money from April to October, then it becomes about that supporting role of keeping the team on. That's where Lerpwl can take the pressure off, but also the Marram Grass can support Lerpwl in terms of prepping and bringing in produce."
The brothers also hope the dual operation, which, following further diversification in lockdown, includes casual dining operation Moch a Môr, the Fat Pig Farm shop with butchery, a cookery school cum development kitchen and accommodation, will offer opportunities for team members to cross-train.
Liam says: "A couple of guys from Anglesey are coming full-time to Lerpwl, and a couple are interested in doing winter here and summer there. Likewise, a few here are looking to go there next summer and experience the farm during a summer season.
"For me, that works. With a team across two sites, where we can move people around, train them and introduce them to new spaces and challenges, it gives plenty of opportunity for them to keep moving and learning, following their passions or addressing improvements they want to make."
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