Something for the weekend? The joy of Bristol’s bistros.
In an effort to spread my dining net further afield than my two usual stamping grounds, central London and South Oxfordshire, I decided to go west, specifically to Bristol and even more specifically, the Clifton part of Bristol.
I think that Bristol may now be the second food city of the UK and it is quite astonishing that I have not managed to make my way there before now. With perfect timing, I managed to just miss the Bristol Food Connections Festival. So many interesting events and exhibitors, I will make sure that it’s on my hit list for next year.
But maybe it was a blessing, because I’m not sure I would have been able to get into so many great restaurants had I been there when Bristol was overrun with food people.
I was hardly there five minutes when I had already found my way to the wonderful café that is Katie and Kim; a fairly ramshackle yet charming affair in the Montpelier district, it does a short sharp menu from which I ordered a brilliant fennel tart together with a very hot (in both senses) ginger tea. Some perfectly cooked greens in a buttery sauce and a home-made mayonnaise with fresh fennel on the side made this a ridiculously good value meal at £7.
I might not have eaten quite as much of the enormous portion of fennel tart had I known what was to come at Birch. You’d walk past Birch if you didn’t know anything about it. On a street corner, it inhabits a former off-licence in the middle of a nondescript residential street, if Ikea fitted out restaurants, this is what it would look like. Birch is the sort of restaurant that I would visit on a weekly basis were it my local. It’s run by a couple who trained in London and who care.
Home-made sourdough with home-made butter kicked off the proceedings properly and I knew straight away that they knew what they were doing. A gull’s egg with celery salt was a deep speckled green encasing a bright orange yolk and the fresh celery salt was a revelation for those of us who have only had that brown powdery stuff which passes for celery salt in most households. Who knew?
One single perfect oyster with a rhubarb compote gave a perfect umami hit and was a welcome bit of a bit of freshness before the salt cod fritters and ransom mayonnaise. Four large croquettes appeared with a bright green dipping mayonnaise. Perfectly cooked, these were rich yet light creamy and a bit gooey. At this point I tried to stop myself finishing off the bread. Futile.
It was technically possible that I was not going to order the shepherd’s pie, described as for two to share, but it was never going to happen. This was the sort of shepherd’s pie you wish had featured in your childhood, the sort of shepherd’s pie that you dream about when you think of comfort food, the sort of shepherd’s pie you carry on eating until you give yourself indigestion. Or maybe that is just me. There was sufficient pie for four. We ate it all. I ate most of it. It was superb. Rich, unctuous mince and fluffy buttery mash. There was a plate of greens and cooked radishes. We tried, we failed.
Because I was going to keep on eating that shepherd’s pie until it was finished and indeed I did, I could not fully enjoy the joy that was the rhubarb, custard and toasted oats, a sort of deconstructed rhubarb crumble, the custard similar to the filling in a custard tart in texture, everything absolutely spot on. I took a spoonful from C. I got a look.
It is worth mentioning that the most expensive bottle of white wine on the menu was £33. The bill, for three courses and wine was just over £70 before service. Ridiculous.
I did not recover fully from that meal until late afternoon the next day, when I managed to force myself to go to Wallfish Bistro, another perfect little neighbourhood restaurant where I hoovered down a crunchy, tangy cuttlefish croquette before the main event, a whole cracked Portland crab with lemon and mayonnaise. It wasn’t dressed, like other crabs you may have had, but appeared, its eyes staring at me and I had to yank its head off, which was rather distressing, but I got over it fairly quickly.
Simple and perfect, the crabmeat was extraordinarily good and the mayonnaise home-made. I faffed around with various implements to extract the very last bits of crabmeat from the seemingly never-ending legs whilst C busied himself with a firm piece of roast black bream, pan-fried with rosemary butter and burnt lemon. Again, another perfect neighbourhood restaurant, of the sort that I would kill for in London.
Later, not wanting to eat more, I did manage to find myself in Bar Buvette, a fairly funky wine bar, where I managed some very lovely regional French wine and excellent charcuterie, before ending up at Swoon Gelato for some Baci and hazelnut ice cream, because I really needed. Swoon indeed.
Because I like to make things easy for you, can I also recommend that you stay at Number 38? You’ll find the rooms at the top particularly gorgeous though Room 3 is also lovely and much cheaper. I have already booked my next visit. Go. You won’t be disappointed.