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Restaurant review: The Ma Bo

Neil McQuillian steps through the Chinese arch to one of the city's most unusual dining experiences

Published on November 19th 2009.


Restaurant review: The Ma Bo

WITH Chinatown so tied in with our conception of Liverpool’s identity, it seemed appropriate to look a little at its history before taking that symbolic step through the arch to the Ma Bo.

Spring rolls were light, had been plucked from the oil at the right moment, with a pale, creamy, bland pork filling that responded with virginal passion to the manly and robust dipping sauce

It seems that Chinese mariners set up camp in the Cleveland Square area, near the docklands, in the late 19th century. With 49 laundries established by 1906, the sweet smell of spotless linens must have been everywhere – I once lived in Cognac and the whole town, and my breath, had a constant tang of brandy. But soon the neighbourhood was full of other nose candy (the legal kind), namely those wafting from the kitchens of rudimentary restaurants. Add a bit of cut grass to the mix and I’d have been like a man after an opium session, certainly not fit for a 16-hour day scrubbing among suds and mangles.

With the bombing of Liverpool, Chinatown was shifted up to the area around Nelson, Berry and Duke streets and it is here that the arch was installed: a gateway, but to what? While it makes Nelson Street the epicentre of what we call Chinatown, it also overwhelms it. Writhing with two hundred dragons, it seems almost to drain this little stretch of colour, the neon signs struggling to make any impact into the street’s dark corners.

Compared to the Chinatowns we see footage of in the US, ours certainly seems to lack a certain buzz, but this difference can be explained in part by the fact that the Chinese mariners were not permitted to bring wives from China to live with them whereas, thanks to the extensive destruction of records in the San Francisco earthquake, Chinese immigrants to the US could claim to be citizens without the authorities able to prove otherwise.

They brought their wives and created a community that did not have any pressing reason to look beyond itself – the Liverpool mariners often married local women – and so a microcosm of what they had left behind organically developed.

On a personal note, I will forever have a soft spot for the arch, having once found an immaculately boxed, wrapped and bagged Chinese banquet for one at its base, felicitously left by a drunken reveller shrieking her way into a cab.

In keeping with the mysteriousness of these parts – the sketchily-recorded history, the neon among quiet and shadows, the gloomy doorways affording glimpses of men smoking within, bent over mahjong in sharply lit rooms – the Ma Bo is rumoured to have a licence to kill. That is, to slaughter its own meat.

This may well be untrue, but is exactly the spuriousness you need and want from such a rumour. I’d rather surreptitiously peer into the kitchen to check this out than see some dull certificate. I once drunkenly wandered upstairs in London’s famous 24-hour Beigel Bake on Brick Lane and found a room with a fibrous mountain of dull scarlet salt beef. This did not put me off in the slightest. Now it was salt beef with a story.

So who, or what, is Ma? A shadowy, brutal matriarch, the licence to slaughter a means of acquiring the dastardly equipment for a Sweeney Todd-style enterprise? Actually, no. Ma does not mean the kind of what’s-for-tea? Ma, but the atmospheric experience carries into the restaurant nonetheless.

From the menu onwards it is an idiosyncratic treat. Its front cover has the appearance of thick, flaking gold leaf, a kind of precious old tome to be opened reverently, and green staining that brings copper to mind rather than gold. The baby blue and white walls, random selection of chocolate box paintings and figurative images, one painted by a local artist, all contribute to the odd “funny face” charm. Perhaps less so the men’s toilets which require a trip to the backyard, past the kitchen (have a peep). And all this completely anti-design, that is the best bit – none of this is contrived, clearly.

Ma Bo has a charm that is perhaps quintessentially Liverpool, akin to the peculiar film-set prop of a wall that stands shoulder to shoulder with Alma de Cuba, that symbol of gentrification.

Before moving on to the food, and to labour the Proustian reminiscences triggered by a scruffy old menu, I’ll slip in that it reminds me of a place in Istanbul, sky blue walls, incredible kaymak (a Constantinople clotted cream) and honey and an Enid Blyton old lady who keeps talking to you in Turkish as if she knows what you are saying by interpreting the cut of your cream-crammed gob, so many has she seen over the years. Of all the places to go in Istanbul, this is the best for breakfast.

So, we were advised to embark on a banquet binge (£10/£12/£15 per head) but went a la carte. There is ho fun in soup (you bet there is), a quackin’ selection of chicken and duck dishes (£6.50-£8.50), pork and beef (£6.50-£7.00) and seafood (£7.50-£8.50). There is also a whole page given over to the fruits of the paddy field, variously adorned.

You know the flavourings that accompany them, like you know which chocolate bars will be in the shop. Still, of course, there is that agonising, tummy-tingling deliberation to be endured as the waiter circles.

So, to the starters. Crispy duck, like lasagne and cheese on toast, is almost impossible to mess up, and so it proved here. Spring rolls were light, had been plucked from the oil at the right moment, with a pale, creamy, bland pork filling that responded with virginal passion to the manly and robust dipping sauce.

On to the mains and I had the strange experience of actually having to salt a Chinese meal. This has never happened before, slake it maybe, never salt, for fear that its volatile chemical load might respond with a glutinous, globular pustule as from a bog.

The celery in my squid dish was probably the most toothsome I have ever eaten. I would be one skinny mother if this is how it always tasted. A celeriac.

The fried prawn with seasonal veg (£8) presented us with prawns that looked like they’d curled up and gone to sleep on their bed of soporific slop. Veg was all done to the tooth as those Italians like to say, the cabbage good and crinkly.

Crispy noodles had a character of their own, not simply tapeworming into the homogenous mass. These dishes had constituent parts, not necessarily more than the sum of them, but it was refreshing to be able to taste different things, not just one overarching assault on the senses.

The owner was very keen for us to try the won ton char sui noodle soup (£6.50) – indeed he overruled our request for pork liver with ginger and spring onion – and it was certainly a satisfying package, won ton dumplings satisfyingly limp as when you ignore the aforementioned Italian attitude to pasta boiling and use tinned spaghetti as your guide. They teased the chop sticks like Benny Hill bunnies, falling apart in draping ribbons. The char sui was average but the broth was proper stuff, like Vietnamese pho, dappled with tiny stars of fat, and cut through with sharp spring onion. He was right to recommend it.

There was no dessert, not even battered pineapple rings or banana with the syrup that you know is sweet but does not taste so, following mains loaded with sugar. I suspect they may have been more successful here, these dishes seemingly less loaded with additives.

Ma Bo is not cheap for what is a slightly better version of a takeaway but the lack of a corkage charge counterbalances that. Moreover, they close at nine thirty. But then this does not feel like a late night place, perhaps because the blue and white has something of the seaside café about it, and it is that otherness that makes this one of the city’s most unusual dining experiences.


Rating:14/20
Breakdown:5/10 food
4.5/5 service
4.5/5 atmosphere
Ma Bo16 Nelson St
Liverpool,
L1 5DN
0151 709 4551

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing, 14-15 worth a trip, 16-18 very good to exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Arch of triumph.

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7 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousNovember 19th 2009.

I frequently get served with messed up lasagne and crispy duck!

DaveNovember 19th 2009.

We usually eat in a couple of restaurants down the other end of Nelson St, but one day they were all closed in the afternoon apart from Ma Bo's. Ordered a takeway and was very dissapointed. The food was quite bland. Got a nice shop of the interior though :¬)www.flickr.com/…/…

jjNovember 19th 2009.

used to go here alot but had a bad experience a few years back was offered reheated pork a no no ! and spotted a cockroach on the wall eek it might be better now but havent been back .

AnonymousNovember 19th 2009.

Ma Bo has always been terribly trendy. Agree about the Arch being too much although it won't be for mucg longer, it's in a terrible state.

MurphNovember 19th 2009.

The last time we went I walked out the back to the toilets and they had left the light on in the underground store room and you could see all the raw meat just lying round on slabs - Never Again!!! I have always reckoned this place is like the 'emperor's new clothes' - it's not cool to not like it!

Liverpool wagNovember 19th 2009.

Neil, you've done a bloody brilliant job on these pictures and the writing is excellent too. Keep it up.

Da PoNovember 19th 2009.

The cockroach is much better now thanks jj. He ended his mini tantrum. When he calmed down he climbed down off the wall and went back to the kitchen. He apologises for giving you a fright. He knows he isn't allowed out in the dining area. He got angry and staged a demonstration when we told him off for eating straight out of the tub of pork. He knows if he asks we'll put some on a saucer for him. Anyway, like I said, all better now!

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