AT first glance, Tinkers appears to have been designed by a nightclub bouncer: banquettes featuring lines of blue, disco-style lights, one long wall drenched in Heavy Blood Loss Red.
Unlike the food – masterfully prepared, thoughtfully presented, a joy to eat – which appears to be the work of Michel “Two Michelin Stars” Roux Jnr. Which is funny, because actually it's all down to former club doorman Jay Tinker.
If you give lunch a go, you'll surely want
to come back and see what Jay does
when he really lets loose
It was on Masterchef that the ex-enforcer at infamous Aintree nightclub, The Paradox, showed he was just that: an apparent contradiction between a tattooed, broad-necked, bull of a man – he isn't a little Tinker – and a cook with an artist's sensibilities and a touch with seafood that Roux, a guest judge on the show, deemed “perfect”.
Perhaps without that sensitivity, a journey which began making meals alongside his father and, three decades on, reached his first restaurant on Southport's grand Lord Street boulevard, would never have progressed beyond his childhood home in Manchester.
Jay was 12 when his father died but the boy who missed his dad carried on cooking because “when I was in the kitchen … it felt like I was still with him”.
The colours quieten down as you move from the bar into the restaurant; soft cream walls, pale woods, a scattering of innocuous artworks. In short, nothing to startle the horses, and that seemed to go for the food too: leek and potato soup, chicken breast, pork belly, all staples of a budget-end, early doors menu (£8.95 for two courses, £10.95 for three). But then we tasted it.
The soup, neither an anonymous puree nor a careless jumble, was assembled with a painter's eye for scale and proportion; finely slivered leeks, potatoes forming orderly cubes, a rich full-bodied stock, if a vegetable stock can be said to contain a body, with a smear of red pepper jam and balsamic, served on the side, to add a little excitement if you so wish.
A smoked mackerel fillet was sublime. Fish is easier to overcook than meat – the muscle fibres being much shorter than they are in, say, beef – but this was bang on; charred, yielding, softly-flavoured, with a fennel and orange salad and a lovely beetroot and horseradish, um, mousse? “He hasn't got a name for it,” said the waiter. “He just did it”.
King prawns in lemon and lime with mango salsa was a lovely, sunny dish prepared with proper consideration for flavour, balance and texture.
Roast chicken breast, bone-in, was moist, tasty, and came atop a delicate sauce of cream, leeks and herbs. The potatoes needed another minute, and that particular bone may have caused contention in a different restaurant, but when the cooking is as digitally correct as this an occasional miss is easily forgiven.
Battered cod and chips, drier than Paul Merton, came with petit pois in cream laced with black pepper; pork belly, crackling and warming like an open fire, featured red wine gravy, deep and rich, and carrots darkened and sweetened in stock.
A side dish of excellent buttered greens contained tender, mild kale, more leeks and French beans.
An apple turnover appeared to have been made in a doughnut casing: Jay likes his doughnuts, even if the Masterchef judges didn't like his, and we liked this.
Pear and ginger crumble provided the surprise surprise, if you see what I mean. You normally know what to expect from a crumble; this was served cold, in a thin, also cold, caramel custard. The components of the topping, rather than merging into a gently gooey mass on contact with the fruit, were evidently kept separate here, not only from the pear, but from each other, and only assembled at the end. I didn't like it, Mrs Grill did, but I think you'll find I'm right.
Other than the grumble with the crumble, my only complaint concerned the name of the restaurant. Plain old Tinkers would have done nicely, it has a ring to it, and I don't mean Tinkerbell, but they had to go and, well, tinker. Thus, Tinkers Exclusive Restaurant, etched prominently into the plate glass.
Exclusive is an abominable word, used to shut people out, a weapon with which our status-obsessed society pisses on the poor and rewards the rich with a VIP pass, a word trotted out so often by the PR industry as to have been rendered virtually meaningless.
Scratch it out, consign it to the engraver, just get rid because “exclusive” is not only bad, and wrong, and deeply, deeply irritating, it's also, as it happens, quite inappropriate because lunchtime at Tinkers is the antithesis of exclusive, it's an egalitarian ideal, the only place I know on Merseyside where paupers can eat like princes for less than the price of a crap takeaway pizza.
Naturally, night-time is priced up but even then, for food of this standard, decidedly competitive. And if you give lunch a go, you'll surely want to come back and see what Jay does when he really lets loose.
Some say that corner of Lord Street is a cursed location, doomed to fail because all the action's down the other end. There is no doubting the importance to a restaurant of being where it can be seen, but good food, and the repuatation it brings, can go a long way to extending the lease.
Another branch of Tinker's has opened in Aughton, selling the same trademark “comfort food with elegance”. I don't know if I'm sold on the slogan but that's exactly what it is.
He has set his sights on Michelin stardom and while he'll need to flex his creative muscle more often, he is already closer to that lustrous prize than most of the region's pretenders. His dad would be proud.
ALL SCORED CONFIDENTIAL REVIEWS ARE IMPARTIAL. Critics dine unannounced and picks up their own bills - never the restaurant, never a PR company.
Tinker's Exclusive Restaurant
1-5 Lord Street, Southport PR8 1RP
Fixed price lunch served noon-3pm Weds-Sat
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, lunchtime menus against other lunchtime menus. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 get a doggy bag - for the dog; 6-9 go to the chippy; 10-11 if it's an emergency; 12-13 if you happen to be passing; 14-15 worth a trip; 16-18 very good to exceptional; 19-20 As good as it gets.