On the corner of a residential road just south of North Street, you will find a small former off-licence that emanates a cosy glow and a gentle chatter. A cold December evening sees the windows filled with festive fairy-lights strung between oversized squashes; garlands of berries and mistletoe hang from hooded lampshades and above the bright, geometric-partnered bar. This is Birch, the nationally lauded kitchen from Sam Leach and Becky Massey, and my new neighbourhood restaurant.
Those who know of Birch’s market garden and orchard in South Bristol will not be surprised to hear that the daily menu was filled with the finest seasonal produce. We begin with a sprout salad, whose vibrancy dispels thoughts of conventional boiling or pan-frying with chestnuts and bacon. Here, sprouts are shredded and dressed in a tart vinaigrette that plays with the slight, floral acidity of Old Ford cheese, before being completed by the creaminess and crunch from hazelnuts. This is not so much cooking, but a study in the balance of flavours.
Next, there is a nut roast that is not pioneering, but delivers big, reliable flavours. In particular, the earthy sweetness of the nuts is heightened by the accompanying celeriac puree and heritage carrots. We share a pheasant, mushroom and cider pie whose crisp shortcrust lid dissolves into buttery flakes on the tongue. I could try to make some intelligent comments about the cooking of the meat or the richness of the sauce, but all a reader really need know is that it was exceptionally tasty. I would return to Birch for that splendid pastry alone.
There are mince pies for dessert, but I have eaten one too many of those recently, and sadly no stodgy, cake-y winter puddings of the type I fancy. I settle for the medlar meringue, and discover that this isn’t settling at all. The chewy, deeply caramel meringue sinks into a golden mousse flavoured sweetly by the aromatic medlar fruit. It is a satisfying end to the meal, but fresh enough to prevent me from feeling like I've overindulged.
The meal is positively joyful from beginning to end. It's clear from our meal that Sam Leach isn't swayed by needlessly complex techniques or fashionable ingredients, but is focussed on preserving the integrity of regional produce. If you're after clever, sympathetic cooking that delivers delicious flavours, Birch is your place. You'll find me at a nearby table ordering anything that involves pastry.