It’s a typical British summer’s day (i.e. pissing it down) when we visit Wilsons, a little restaurant in Bristol with a big reputation to live up to. There has been copious praise in local and national press alike for the excellent food served in this simple white dining room.
I’m not about to disagree with these reviews, but rather to suggest there is something more at play here. Yes, the decor is simple and the food does taste great, but the same could be said of many restaurants. So what is it that makes Wilsons feel so special? Wilsons, similarly to my other favourite restaurants, has another dimension to commend it: it feels very genuine.
The dining room is plain, but this is for genuine utilitarian reasons - other than a huge vase of blooms, the space is designed with practicality and (I suspect) affordability in mind, rather than to meet some on trend, ‘rustic’ look. The food is delicious, but it doesn’t boast of being so. Each ingredient speaks modestly of itself so the dishes come together as a chatter of complimentary flavours.
This sympathetic balance of flavours is evident from the first sip of our aperitif: vodka infused with tart rhubarb and rose (just a hint, no soapiness here), champagne, and gentle sweetness rising from a pool of honey. There are delicate amuse bouches, too. Radishes with whipped iberico; tomato consume that tastes of concentrated summertime; and, our favourite, squid ink crackers with smoked cod’s roe.
If this is just the curtain being lifted, surely the concert will be exquisite?
To start, we eat soft, yielding wood pigeon gyoza and crunchy little peas in a deeply satisfying broth, suffused with sweet, salty and meaty flavours. By contrast, there is a bright salad of yellow courgette, peach, goat’s curd and mint-infused oil. There’s little cooking in this dish, but much respect for the produce. Here’s a chef who understands that, to give diners the very best of an ingredient, you may need to leave it untouched. Sometimes, a cook can’t produce a better flavour than nature.
Loveliness continues to abound. A fillet of cod, still quivering, supports more assertive flavours of clams, monk’s beard and fennel, all awash in a striking black pool of squid ink, whose deep, rounded, indescribably umami flavour catches the ingredients together. Across the table, a plate of girolles, courgette, artichoke, borlotti and egg proves that most things taste better when bathed in butter and yolk. Its liberal truffle shavings are a little too boisterous - a lighter covering would have been ideal.
As I pass the kitchen on the way to the toilet, Jan Ostle (co-owner and Head Chef) shouts hello. After I gush about the pigeon gyoza, he tells me with pride about shooting the birds himself in a move towards self-sufficiency. Later, Jan delivers the dessert to our table, perching on the windowsill to chat more about their growing focus on sustainability - they’ve recently started to grow their own vegetables, too.
“My wife is so amazing,” he says of his partner and co-owner Mary, who isn’t there on the evening of our visit. “She works so hard on our plot of land and she’s also raising our child.”
If anything could endear us more to Jan than his humility, it would be the dessert he leaves us with: an intense chocolate delice. There are vivid layers of sharp, lip-puckering blackcurrant and bitter dark chocolate, with a little yogurt ice-cream to lighten the mood. It strides fearlessly across the palate and embeds itself in the memory.
This dessert proves that, whilst the flavours at Wilsons are carefully balanced, they certainly are not tentative. Quietly confident cooking creates confident tasting dishes. When the food is this good, it speaks so assuredly for itself that there’s no need to shout.