Restaurant review: Root, Bristol

I was not intending to review Root, I promise. I just visited as a normal punter, on a sunny day, with family. Yet I was so impressed, that I wanted to encourage others to visit. Go both to eat Root’s delicious food and to share in their ethos: to give vegetables the star billing and serve meat on the side in recognition of the health and environmental benefits. 

It’s quite a transformation from its previous incarnation as Chicken Shed. Root shows that one or two vegetables can be the whole, bold centrepiece, rather than just the side to a slab of protein. There are three meat additions, but they are presented at the bottom of the menu as, typically, a side salad would be. On this occassion, we are not tempted by meat and share five-six veggie small plates between two.

We are immediately won over by the first dish, gnocchi. Four pillowy, parmesan-streaked little dumplings spring a little in the mouth before softly falling apart. They are robed in fresh green - a pool of herby oil beneath, and a tangled curl of raw courgette strips above. I could have eaten a huge plateful of these alone and left very happy, but there is more to come.

Courgette gnocchi, Root
IOW tomatoes, ewe's curd, breadcrumbs

If anything could out-summer the courgettes, it would be the next dish of Isle of Wight tomatoes. They speak of sunshine. There are firm slices of large, deep-red tomatoes; small yellow cherries that burst in the mouth; and crimson tomatoes, skin peeled, that slide more sleekly on the tongue. They are the star players, with the delicate, tangy ewe’s curd and salty breadcrumbs in dripping there only to intensify the vegetable’s sweetness. 

Another favourite is cauliflower steak, which has been blistered to bring out its sweet, nutty flavour - a flavour heightened further by the smattering of caramelised cashews. A rich pool of cashew cream and, by contrast, fresh cauliflower shavings, bring this together into a complete dish. 

Cauliflower steak, cashews
Cauliflower steak, cashews (2)

There are also thick, rectangular corn chips that are crispy on the outside and satisfyingly stodgy in the centre, paired with romesco. I like my romesco a little thicker, crunchier, punchier, but it was perky enough. Across the table a cider rarebit and onion croquettes both ooze cheese. 

And, finally, a striking barley risotto proves the adage that one eats with the eyes. An orb of golden yolk is surrounded by a galaxy of brown-flecked green risotto. It is less of a smooth, sticky whole than its rice cousin, more of a thin sauce binding together chewy barley. Yet it is no less rich and it grows richer still when the confit yolk is pierced to streak through the grains. We are grateful for the fresh parsley flavour and the crisp puffed rice to cut through the richness.

Barley risotto
Barley risotto (2)

It’s all pretty delicious. If I was being picky, I’d point out that the service was slow - we waited a long time to order and to pay the bill - but the waitress was very friendly. She tells us the restaurant is no busier than Chicken Shed, but the style of service is different. Whilst previously she worried about manning queues out the door, she’s enjoying spending more time with customers as part of the new table service. 

We didn’t stay for puddings this time, but I’ll definitely be returning for the eton mess with cherry and the treacle sponge topped with fudge and crème fraîche ice cream. This food is flavoured with the summer season and I can’t wait to visit again throughout the year to taste what they do with autumn, winter and spring.

Root, Bristol

Restaurant review: Wilsons, Bristol

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.

Wilsons - amuse bouches

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?

Wilsons starter - peach, courgette, goat's curd, mint
Wilsons starter 2 - wood pigeon gyoza

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.

Wilson's main course 1 - cod, clams, fennel squid ink
Wilsons main course 2 - vegetables, egg, truffles

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.

Wilsons main course 1 - cod, claims, fennel, squid ink (2)
Wilsons starter 2 - wood pigeon gyoza (2)

Cargo 2 Launch: Cargo Cantina

Above the sleek, wooden bar in Cargo Cantina, next to the mighty jars of chilli, sits a stack of coloured plastic plates. They are the universal signifiers of functionality, of food eaten outside, with your hands - I’ve encountered them everywhere from family camping trips in Cornwall to the roadside restaurants in Vietnam. So they seem appropriate for a taqueria inspired by the street food stalls and tequila bars of Mexico. 

Cargo Cantina 2

When we visit, Cargo 1 and 2 (converted shipping containers) hum with the chatter of groups who gather on tables outside each restaurant, optimistically awaiting short spells of sunshine. Cantina’s tables are among the busiest. Its popularity is unsurprising, for whilst this restaurant is one of the newest openings here, its owners are well established in Bristol. Kieran and Imogen Waite run popular tapas bar Bravas and San Francisco-inspired cafe Bakers & Co, whose brunches have caught the attention of national press. 

Cargo Cantina 1
Cargo Cantina 3

Like Bravas and Bakers, Cantina is a place of noise and energy. It’s a place where groups order rounds of margaritas and cervezas, cheerful staff bustle back and forth from kitchen to terrace and passers-by peer enviously at taco-laden tables. Its informality evidently appeals to all types of diners. On our left, a family give their young daughter her first taste of spicy food; on our right, a group of twenty-somethings celebrate a special occasion. 

The atmosphere is all very well, but what’s the food like? 

The food is as colourful as the plastic plates. The headline acts are the charcoal-coloured blue corn tortillas, with five lively toppings - we order them all. My favourites appeal for opposite reasons: one vibrant and fresh, one solid and earthy. On the first, morsels of monkfish, octopus and prawn dance beneath a bright dressing of peppers, tomato and onion. The other is piled with oyster mushrooms, potato, pumpkin seeds and sweet onion, which come alive with a dash of gutsy green tomatillo salsa.

Cargo Cantina 4

The side dishes, too, make a strong case that opposites attract. There are bright, zingy offerings and deeper, richer flavours. Fresh corn is prevented from singing too sweetly by a backing choir of sharp lime and hot, green chilli; shredded cabbage shouts with mint, chilli and lime. Then there are creamy black beans that teeter on the verge of collapse, with a subtle smokiness that works well with a squeeze of (yet more) lime.  

As you may be starting to surmise, the winning formula here is to magnify high-quality, organic produce through the lens of a few key ingredients: chilli, lime and herbs. These are the flavours of Mexican street-side dining, but refined to suit a more relaxed, restaurant experience. Cargo Cantina is lively, but it’s also somewhere you can linger over a meal; so sip on another (excellent) margarita, order a stack of tacos and settle in. 

To find out about the other new openings at Cargo 2, head to some of my favourite fellow Bristol food blogs:

Cargo Cantina 5

Restaurant review: Bristol's best (takeaway) pizza?

Pizza taste test - Bertha's & Pi Shop

Bristol is becoming a hub of independently owned pizzerias, with a focus on sourdough. Often, they are run by the chef-owner, who has perfected the science of the sourdough pizza before training their team of bakers. When you're fortunate to live almost equidistant from two of the best pizzerias in Bristol - nay, in Britain - the difficulty lies in choosing which to visit. Bertha's or Pi Shop?

Yet, we recently realised, the beauty is that we don't have to choose. When both restaurants offer takeaway, why not order a pizza from each and see which we prefer?

What began as a piece of fun on a showery Sunday afternoon, soon looked more like a military operation. Detailed discussions ensued regarding how make sure both pizzas were ready at the same time, collected as soon as possible after each another and transported home as quickly as possible. In the interest of fairness, we decided they had to have the same topping: two margheritas for two people at two o'clock. 

Just as our lunch was never intended to be an intricately planned operation, it was also never intended to become the subject of a blog post. However, there was such interest on social media, that I thought it was fitting to write a few light-hearted words on our lunch. First, I must offer a disclaimer: what follows is my personal preference, rather than any expertise on authentic pizza making. 

Dough

Both Bertha's and Pi Shop offer a Neapolitan-style pizza, with a thin base and a puffed, pillowy edge. Both are blistered from the searing heat of a wood-fired oven, with blackened bubbles that sigh hot air at each bite. Both are made from sourdough, with that characteristic tang in taste and slight elasticity in texture. 

The most noticeable difference is that there is far more dough on the Pi Shop pizza, with its huge cornicione that collapses into a soft, chewy centre. Bertha's cornicione is softer and smaller, which makes it more in proportion to the centre and means you can finish the whole pizza with room left for pudding. 

Bertha’s pizza may be softer in texture, but it is far smokier in flavour. Perhaps it is cooked more quickly or at a higher heat, because the leopard-spotted dough has a more charred, bitter flavour that - for me - is a little too assertive and can overshadow more mild toppings. Whilst Pi Shop's dough retains complexity of flavour from the sourdough starter and long prove, its more subtle taste supports, rather than competes with, the toppings. 

Verdict: Bertha's for the size and texture, Pi Shop for the flavour. 

Takeway pizza - Bertha's & Pi Shop (2)

Toppings

Enough analysis of the dough, let's move on to what happens when the blackened lip gives way to the milk white of mozzarella and the blush of tomato. 

It is immediately evident, both to myself and several other Twitter commentators, that Bertha's pizza has more mozzarella. On both pizzas, the mozzarella possesses that lovely, mild milkiness and smooth, dense texture with a slight ooze at the edges. We take many bites of one pizza, then the other, but conclude that the mozzarella on each is of the finest quality. I can't claim to possess extensive knowledge on the 'correct' cheese-to-tomato ratio, but having more mozzarella (especially when it is this good) is my preference. 

If Bertha's celebrates the cheese, then Pi Shop definitely champions the tomato sauce, which is indeed excellent - rich, a little sweet and the slight superior of the two. This focus on the sauce makes for a soggier pizza, which some friends do favour, whilst I look for a more solid base. The drizzle of olive oil on the Bertha's pizza adds the moistness and richness that comes from the Pi Shop sauce, without leaving the pizza too wet. 

Verdict: Bertha's for the mozzarella, Pi Shop for its tomato sauce. 

The result?

My renewed realisation that both pizzas are sensational, with fantastic elements that make it too close to definitively decipher a favourite. I prefer the texture of one dough and the flavour of another; the mozzarella on one pizza, but the tomato sauce on the other. For me, Bertha's just pips it because of the proportion of the crust to centre and the less soggy middle, but - that said - I could quite happily eat that springy, subtly sour Pi Shop dough by itself. Delicious. 

Ultimately, the only strong conclusion I can draw is that I am extremely fortunate to live close by to not one, but two, such pizzerias. And, just a little further away, await more superlative pizza places, from Flour & Ash to Bosco. Perhaps a pizza tour is in order? 

Takeway pizza - Bertha's & Pi Shop (3)

Restaurant review: Box-E

It’s a sign of the times that I can not only find a restaurant’s menu on social media, but also request a particular dessert via an Instagram comment. Yet, in the case of Box-E, my prior knowledge does nothing to detract from the magic of the meal. The harbourside setting alone is enchanting: perched high up in a set of shipping containers, where light pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows. It will be fabulous on a summer evening, but it is still very special on a grey, February afternoon. 

Elliot Lidstone, Box-E

This is the passion project of Tess and Elliott Lidstone, a chef with superlative credentials, who spent their life savings on a stove named Sandra and launched headfirst into their own venture. It’s difficult to convey how tiny their restaurant is, with just 14 seats squeezed around the open kitchen and 4 stools at the counter. We are practically at the stove with Elliott, mesmerised by his rhythmic movements back and forth to the pass.

Tess is away on the day of our visit, but we’re greeted very warmly by our server, who offers boundless enthusiasm about the wine list and the food. He brings us freshly baked bread - a white tin loaf, still warm, which makes a refreshing change to the now ubiquitous sourdough. Its fluffy crumb and gentle flavour works well not to fight with, but rather provide a foundation for, the salty, umami seaweed butter.

After being encouraged to take several more slices of bread, we watch Elliott plate our food. Our meal begins with purple-sprouting broccoli dusted in truffles tasting of musk and wood, then brightened by peppery radishes and the sharp, apple flavour from Japanese shungiku leaves. It reminds me that, even in the depths of winter, vegetables can be sprightly and vibrant.

Then there is pollock, whose golden skin can barely hold quivering flakes of plump, pearly fish. It rests on a cradle of celeriac puree and fat borlotti beans cooked until just collapsing, but still with substance from flecks of crunchy celery and spring onion. Parsley oil adds grassy freshness; butter-bathed chard leaves bring richness. It’s a lesson in how to elevate simple ingredients - an inexpensive fish, beans, root vegetables - into a special, unctuous dish.

For my partner, a perfect pink fillet of lamb, its fattiness foiled by the slight bitterness and bite of quinoa and the blazing heat of harissa. A dab of soothing cauliflower puree, mirrored by shavings of raw cauliflower, is all that is needed to make this a well-rounded plate of food. The flavours in this dish, and throughout the meal, are earthy and subtle, with a touch of sharpness, sweetness or spice added here and there.  

Pollock, Box-E
Lamb, Box-E

As the waiter presents the dessert menu, he offers a wise smile that suggests he already knows what we will order. Indeed, in the short time it has been open, Box-E has become synonymous with one particular pudding: its superlative pannacotta. “Even when Elliott cooks the finest cut of beef or a beautiful piece of fish, people are looking ahead to dessert,” the waiter tells us. “If we don’t have any pannacotta on that day, they ask us if we’ve got any in the back!”

And it is every bit as good as its reputation would suggest. Its smooth, untroubled surface trembles slightly as the plate is set down, the accompanying blood orange like a blush on its milk white cheek. The clean, delicate taste of dairy and real vanilla is woken up by the acidic citrus fruit and the crunch of pomegranate. I’m not sure if they’ll ever be able to take this pudding off the menu.

It’s an ambrosial end to a deftly executed meal. I challenge anybody not to be wowed by the accomplished cooking and amiable, relaxed service. Elliott and Tess claim to have thrown caution to the wind with their venture, but I have a hunch that they’re well on their way to being swept up in a tornado of nationally-acclaimed success.

Pannacotta, Box-E
Pannacotta, Box-E (2)

 

 

Restaurant Review: Birch

Birch Bristol

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.

Pheasant pie at Birch

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.

Restaurant review: The Ethicurean

Ethicurean (2)
Ethicurean (6)

In July, l enjoyed my usual cup of afternoon tea in an unusually bucolic setting. Seated at a simple wooden bench set in a walled vegetable garden bursting with summer’s produce, we gazed across the valley to the rolling Mendips hills. From the greenhouse behind us, superlative slices of cake were served. This is no ordinary greenhouse, but rather a former orangery now known as The Ethicurean - a restaurant whose reputation has crept along the grapevine to every food lover in Bristol, before spreading further afield courtesy of glowing national press.

With the cake every bit as beautiful as the setting, we vowed to return for a full meal.

Ethicurean
Ethicurean (7)
Ethicurean (3)

That promise is kept on a bright November day when the low, autumn sunshine transforms the greenhouse into a sauna. The garden has advanced from tomatoes to squashes, from berries to apples. Inside, walls are adorned with dried herbs, tables dressed with fragrant fresh herbs and windowsills stacked with pumpkins and pickling jars. The seasonal decor is reflected in a menu based on locally sourced produce, elevated by clever cooking.

Ethicurean (4)

The meal begins with a stumble, but soon progresses to the sublime. The stumble comes with a leek and smoked potato soup, which is so suffused with smokiness that more subtle flavours - fermented leek, leek powder, nasturtium oil - are obscured. For somebody who takes half of the enjoyment of soup from the accompanying bread and butter, there was also a noticeable need for a hunk of homemade loaf to soak up those remnants that escape the spoon. 

Quibbles about bread (or lack thereof) are immediately forgiven when the main course arrives. A perfect fillet of hake, quivering beneath a crisp skin and flanked by clams, is heightened by a tapenade of salty, piquant capers and sweet, creamy hazelnuts. The fish is brought firmly from sea to land by the earthiness from mushroom 'soil', chestnut puree and butter-bathed cabbage. Across the table, dishes of pork belly and duck appear equally well-balanced but, evidently, are so good that I am not offered a mouthful. 

Then we are on to dessert. And, oh, what a dessert! Chunks of apple sink into a deep golden sponge, whose large, meltingly soft crumb is burnished dark brown by treacle and sugar. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel too gluttonous. That is, until it is gilded with a swirl of toffee sauce, a scoop of ice-cream and three veritable boulders of honeycomb. Now it is no longer a cake, but a gloriously squidgy, truly rib-sticking pudding, guaranteed to provide enough padding to warm you during a post-prandial stroll through the garden.

Ethicurean (5)

Restaurant review: Tradewind Espresso

Tradewind

With its stained glass windows and chic Scandinavian-style furniture, Tradewind Espresso offers a respite from busy Whiteladies Road. Tradewind was opened by a local micro-roaster, Roasted Rituals, after their mobile van gained a devoted following. So it comes as little surprise that you can find one of Bristol’s finest cups of coffee at Tradewind. There is a seasonal house blend and a selection of custom blends and single origins, each, they say, with their own ‘distinct character and story’. 

Tradewind also offers an exceptional all-day brunch. As much of the food as possible is made from scratch, from the nut milks to the preserves to the cured fish. Popular dishes include a BLT with homemade chilli jam and the chorizo, egg and avocado on toast, dancing with the sweet heat of charred corn salsa and citrusy coriander pesto. Even the humble porridge (here, comfortingly thick and stodgy) is elevated by seasonal fruit compote, natural yogurt and the hum of a crunchy hazelnut dukkah. 

If you’ve worked up an appetite walking up the hill or across the downs, you’ll be delighted to discover that the beloved La Marzocco coffee machine sits beside an impressive cake counter. Regulars here include brownies and blondies, granola bars and almond friands studded with fresh fruit. There is also a rotating list of seasonal visitors. A recent favourite featured a ring of peaches set into a deliciously squidgy, syrupy sponge of ground almonds and flecked with lavender. 

Tradewind offers a winnning trifecta: beautiful interiors, a fine cup of coffee and delicious food. With a house move on the horizon, I know that I will sorely miss being able to call this lovely little cafe my local.

Tradewind (2)

Restaurant review: Pi Shop and Bertha's

I hope the metaphorical bucket of my bucket list is bottomless, for it seems restaurants in Bristol are opening up faster than I can earn the money to eat at them. I have been reluctant to visit the new pizza quarter in Wapping Wharf, feeling that the Bristol pizza market is saturated, but I was overcome by a flurry of effusive social media posts. And I am so glad I was. Here, by the banks of the murky river Avon, I ate two pizzas as good as those found in the sparkling blue bay of Naples.

 

Pi Shop

Pi Shop

The first of the two excellent pizzas is at Pi Shop, the more informal restaurant from Casamia’s chef-founder Peter Sanchez-Iglesias. The combination of Italian parentage and a Michelin star has created high expectations, and Pi Shop does not disappoint.

It is a menu of two halves. In part, it is a riff on Italian-American classics, such as Hawaiian and Meat Feast, elevated by top-quality ingredients. In part, it is a purveyor of speciality pizza: beetroot and ewes curd, Australian truffle and parmesan, or lamb, courgette and blue cheese. A broccoli pizza emitted waves of flavour, from the bittersweet char of purple sprouting and the sharpness of Pugliese onions, through to the tang of goats cheese soothed by more mild mozarella.

But its the dough - dimpled with air pockets and freckled with blisters from the wood-fired oven - that makes Pi Shop’s pizza truly superb. The puffy crust yields to a comfortingly thick, doughy centre. The middle stands up to the toppings without becoming watery. There is the faint tang of sourdough, but it is not sour; there is a hint of smokiness, but none of the bitter charring that can come from pizza ovens.

I could rhapsodise on about the dough for several pages. Yet, for fear of becoming a bore, it suffices to say that I would have been satisfied eating a plain corniccione alone. The pizza was so good that we considered ordering another instead of dessert, and then regretted our decision not to for the entire evening. My advice: if you’re visiting Pi Shop, leave the self-restraint at home.

Pi Shop (2)

 

Bertha's

Whilst Pi Shop evolved from a Michelin-star restaurant, Bertha’s began life as a more lowly yellow Land Rover. After receiving critical acclaim, the yellow of Bertha’s Land Rover has been re-figured as the yellow tiles of their bricks and mortar site in Wapping Wharf.  Head in through the (yellow) doors and take a seat in the upstairs gallery, from where you can gaze down on the chefs as they work.

Bertha's

Bertha, now in her third incarnation, is the hand-built Neapolitan pizza oven at the heart of the restaurant. Stoked to a searing heat of 500C, she cooks pizza in 60 seconds, which results in a dough that is softer, a little less airy than that at Pi Shop or Flour & Ash. The flavour, too, is milder, letting the toppings shine.

There are cured meats, seasonal vegetables and delicate cheeses - mozzarella and burrata - often brought together by a final flourish. Perhaps they will be embellished by herb oil, ‘hot house’ honey or brown butter, perhaps by a smattering of chilli or pine nuts.  For dessert, there is gelato. We order a scoop of chocolate and peanut butter, separately, and then swap spoonfuls when we realise they are best eaten together. They would have been better still, no doubt, with a scoop of the day's blackcurrant alongside.

Bertha’s, like Pi Shop, has grown quickly to join Flour & Ash at a height that is head and shoulders above the more pedestrian pizza restaurants in Bristol. Together, these titans prove me wrong: there is a place for more pizza in Bristol.

Bertha's (2)

Restaurant review: Pasta Loco

Just when I was finding my feet in the Bristol restaurant scene, a flurry of new openings has swept me happily off balance. One new opening is Pasta Loco, set up by cousins Ben Harvey and Dominic Borrell, who perform a kitchen and front-of-house double act. The restaurant is partly a tribute to their Italian grandfather, but is overwhelmingly a celebration of the joy that a bowl of fresh pasta can bring. In fact, the whole operation feels like a celebration - flutes of fizz are passed around to apologise for a glitch in the booking system, family and friends drop in to say hello, photos are snapped, friendly staff stop a-while to chat.

Pasta Loco (2)
Pasta Loco
Pasta Loco (3)

From the wooden benches to the lampshades made of paper bags, Pasta Loco is a lesson in simplicity, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the menu. The main courses comprise of just five different varieties of pasta, each freshly made that day. The sauces prove that a few basic ingredients, when cooked with care and respect, produce the most delicious, evocative flavours. There is the comfort of cream and pepper coating fat strands of bucattini and the freshness from peppery rocket pesto. And, cradled by the waves of frilly campanelle, there is a tomato and olive sauce that evokes the fragrance of abundant, sun-ripened Mediterranean gardens.

More complex sauces often involve seafood or meat. A smoked haddock chowder is flecked with pearls of orzo, while an extravagant take on carbonara features pork belly and a lardo-wrapped egg. Our favourite is a goat ragu cooked down until the tender meat falls apart amidst broad ribbons of pappardelle that glisten with deep, rich meat juices. The sweetness from accompanying cavolo nero completes the intensity of the dish. Moments before we finish, something wonderful happens: we are brought hunks of focaccia 'for the sauce'. Needless to say, our plates are wiped clean.

Pasta Loco (5)
Pasta Loco (4)
Pasta (7)
Pasta Loco (8)

The pasta is undoubtedly the star of the show, but it is bookended by delicious, delicate starters and desserts. Slices of peach and streams of courgette are adorned with hazelnuts and edible flowers; a sweet-soft aubergine caponata is ringed by mellow robiola and more robust, earthy artichoke; salt cod mousse with croutons is given a punch by capers, balsamic vinegar and bell peppers.

To finish, we share the ‘squashed’ chocolate cake - a dense, dark torte decadently paired with salted caramel ice-cream, which is transformed from a clomp to a caper on the palate by a slick of vibrant, aromatic cardamom sauce. And then, just as we think the meal is drawing to a close, a batch of Dominic’s Negroni is made up and brought to our table. Evidently the night is still young at Pasta Loco, where the celebration - of good food and of good company - is just beginning.

Pasta Loco (9)

Restaurant review: Bar Buvette

Bar Buvette

One of the great joys of food and drink is its ability to transport us to different countries. This joy is apparent at Bar Buvette, which brings a feel of France to central Bristol. Set up by Peter Taylor and Mark Osoki as a seasonal pop-up while their idyllic Auberge in France closed for the winter, Bar Buvette now has a permanent site on Baldwin street. Here, in a light-flooded former insurance building, Buvette evokes a continental charm through its wood-panelling, red-topped tables and vintage French posters.

The focus is on organic, biodynamic wines from small French producers, with staff happy to talk and taste you through the latest menu. Unlike the wine we are accustomed to, which has extra sulphites and chemicals added to ensure a uniform flavour, the natural, organic fermentation process allows the taste of the grape to differ from year to year, even from field to field. The result is unusual, but delicious and intriguing: redolent with the smell of soil, full with the flavour of fruit and often with a slight, cider-like fizz.

These well-rounded wines need little accompaniment, apart from perhaps a simple cheese board or charcuterie platter - both of which find excellent form in the kitchen at Bar Buvette, where the emphasis is on quality over quantity. There are also excellent toasties, which have gained quite a following for their magnificent, molten centre oozing with cheese and leeks.

The chalk-board menu promises a number of other quintessentially French plat du jour, from a side dish of celeriac remoulade to a hearty coq au vin. On a recent visit, we enjoyed a gem lettuce salad soused in rich, mustard-spiked vinaigarette, studded with lardons and crowned with the golden yolk pouring from a soft-boiled egg.

An evening at Bar Buvette ends with seasonal fruit… and a side of pudding. Perhaps there will be apricots baked into a frangipane tart, cherries perched beside a pot au chocolat or a gooseberry compote to spread on delicate madeleines. Such desserts are the final thread in the tapestry that cloaks a busy Bristol street with the image of southern France.

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Restaurant review: Bulrush

Bulrush

Bulrush lies on a row of rather uninspiring shops, with an unassuming exterior that belies the excellence of its cooking. It is part of a small wave of neighbourhood restaurants set up by chefs, like Bulrush’s George Livesey, who trained in London before moving to Bristol to express their culinary creativity. Similarly to Adelina Yard and Birch, Bulrush is characterised by its simple decor, friendly but unfussy front of house and, crucially, its focus on local, home-grown or foraged produce.

We start with a complimentary onion soup, which is proof of the miraculous power of careful cooking to transform such a harsh, pungent raw ingredient into something mellow and sweet. Its sweetness is distilled by a pool of elderberry juice, before being focussed on the palate by bitter burnt onion 'dust'. 

This deft balance of tastes continues into the main courses. A perfectly pan-fried piece of hake and its attendant white asparagus are both delicately flavoured, yet robust enough to stand up to the sweet earthiness from celeriac puree and girolles and to the aromatic ox-eye daisy garnish. Seafood is celebrated throughout the menu: there is scallop ceviche with black sesame, mooli and beet; octopus in a tomato consomme; and turbot with courgette, blackberries and beetroot. 

More bold and experimental than the hake is a ‘risotto’ of sweetcorn and sunflower seeds, whose creaminess is tempered by starchy, nutty purple potatoes. The reappearance of the elderberry juice here is an unnecessary addition in an already sweet dish, but it is prevented from becoming cloying by a wreath of astringent shisho leaves, grown in the restaurant garden.

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For dessert, we cannot resist the charms of a chocolate delice. Comforting slabs of rich, velvet chocolate are cut though by the freshness from poached apricots and camomile ice-cream. The accompanying olive shards divide the crowd: I find their saltiness a distraction from the sheer, unadulterated joy of sweet chocolate and fruit, but others appreciate them as a counterpoint to the sugar. Love or hate them, these shards show that the kitchen here is unafraid to experiment. 

At Bulrush, familiar ingredients - onions, roots, seasonal vegetables, fish, seeds, chocolate - are elevated by Livesey's evident pleasure in playing with flavours. Every dish has touches of originality, whether an unorthodox cooking technique or an unusual, foraged ingredient. Yet the simultaneous adherence to sympathetic cooking ensures these ingredients are not lost amidst experimentation, and retain their simple, integral beauty. 

I hate to jump on the Bulrush bandwagon, but the place is blooming brilliant.

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Restaurant review: Pinkman's Bakery

Pinkman's

If you’re in Bristol and asking the question of where to eat, the answer is Pinkman’s Bakery. Unlike many other bakeries in the city, Pinkman’s not only crafts incredible loaves, but also ambitiously serves an extensive food and drinks menu from 7am through to 11pm.Yet this ambition to do it all comes at no compromise to quality, and you will not be disappointed whatever time of day you visit. 

Breakfast is, unsurprisingly for a bakery, rather bread-heavy. Superlative toast can be topped with your choice of wood-fired mushrooms, beans, eggs and more. A bacon sandwich comes with sweet roasted tomatoes and a course, crumbly cornbread is softened by crème fraîche, avocado and smoked salmon. For those who do not live in fear of their dentist’s bills, there is brioche dipped in custard and served with maple bacon or blueberry compote.

At lunch, the kitchen produces a feast of quiches, fritattas and sandwiches. Our favourite is the baguette whose addictively chewy crust makes the perfect pocket for a creamy filling of mozzarella, avocado, tomato and pesto. We also enjoy a dense, nutty rye roll, which provides a study base to balance the saltiness of smoked salmon, the slight acidity of cream cheese and the spike of peppery dill. 

The non-bread options are also excellent. Perhaps you will opt for the aubergine parmigiana or one of the hearty salads. Amongst many tempting options, there is sweet potato, green beans and tuna;  earthy beetroot and lentils with tart, zippy chunks of goats cheese; or sweet peas, asparagus and new potatoes given a little heat by fronds of fiery watercress. 

Pizzas arrive from noon through until the evening, when they are joined by cocktails and mood lighting. Their deep acidic tang and elastic base give the very best sourdough pizzerias, from Flour & Ash to Franco Manca, a run for their money. On the topic of finances, it is worth noting Pinkman’s pizzas offer great value. Prices start from £6 for a margarita and stretching to a princely £8.50, in a city where it's difficult to find a pizza for less than a tenner.

My pizza sings with tender, caramelised confit garlic and bright, lemony wedges of artichoke, quietened by cooling clouds of ricotta. The meat eaters in our party are very happy with a pizza studded with meatballs, which pool their rich, claret-coloured juices on to the mozzarella base. 

If I’m being picky, I’d point out that the stools are not particularly comfortable and the acoustics leave you straining to hear your neighbours, but I can find little fault with the food. It’s probably enough to say that I’ve been three times in as many weeks. I’m still yet to try the sweets though, so I will undoubtedly be back for a fourth visit in the very near future.

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Restaurant review: Flour & Ash

Many long, effusive articles could - and, indeed, have - been written about Flour & Ash, particularly in the wake of its recent opening in Westbury. Yet, a short, simple review is perhaps the best way to do justice to this restaurant’s straightforward approach: pizza, ice-cream and a few starters cooked in the same pizza oven until they are charred and infused with a sweet, smokiness. All served by with a smile, by staff who take the time to stop, chat and share their passion for the food here.

The pizza is served in the traditional Neapolitan style: a thin base, still a little soft in the centre, rising to a deep, elastic outer crust. And, oh, what a crust. The long prove and naturally occurring yeasts give the dough a complex flavour, with the sourdough’s characteristic tang complimented by the bitter, burnished edges that come from the blistering heat of the wood-fired oven.

I would eat the dough alone but, needless to say, the toppings are also fantastic: local cheeses, roasted vegetables, salty charcuterie and slow-cooked cuts of meat such as lamb shoulder or ox cheek. The standout pizza of the day comes with thick slices of aubergine, marinated in mellow spices and roasted until soft and luscious, then studded with mountainous peaks of creamy, mild ewe’s curd.

For desert, there is only ice cream. We try a light, clean coconut, a deep, bitter-sweet chocolate and a caramel-y banoffee. A vivid blackcurrant sorbet is so startlingly fresh that it impresses itself on our memories. The ice cream finishes the meal with the same high precedent that are set by the pizza. Flour and Ash does a few things, and it does them seriously well.

Flour & Ash

Restaurant review: Bell's Diner

Bell's Diner

This year Bell’s Diner turns 40 and, during its 40 years, this veteran of Bristol’s fine dining scene has existed in many incarnations. Since Connie Coombs took over in 2013, it has been lauded in local and national press for its relaxed atmosphere and a small plates menu driven by seasonal produce. I cannot speak of Bell’s history or past prestige, but I can tell you that its current guise is characterised by sheer loveliness.

The restaurant is a simple setting, which is lit up (if you’re lucky) by the sunshine streaming in through large windows that wrap around the building. Bare floors and wooden furniture are prevented from becoming sparse by homely touches – cushions strewn on benches, old record players tucked in corners, shelves stacked with wine bottles, OXO tins and coffee roasters. Although the front parlour is the most atmospheric, open hatches and doorways allow the infectious buzz of a contented clientele to drift throughout all three dining areas.

Wine soon arrives. The house red is by no means the poor man’s choice. It is a gentle Grecian number structured by subtle berry notes and soft tannins, which glows a pale ruby-red in the last evening rays. It proves to be the perfect accompaniment to the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern influenced menu.

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We begin with the 'lighter' dishes, though even these have touches of decadence. Bread comes with jamon butter, croquetas ooze with manchego and our salt cod fritters arrive with an irresistible, velvety garlic aioli.

Larger dishes seem, by contrast, a little less rich. A charcoal-grilled aubergine and pepper salad is suffused with a deep smokiness, which is balanced by the smattering of sweet pomegranate seeds. Falafels have crisp blackened shells that conceal a surprisingly green-hued centre, coloured by fava beans. Lighter and moister than chickpeas, fava beans also bring a nutty flavour that marries well with a slightly bitter tahini sauce.

Then there is a fillet of hake that has been cooked just-so until it flakes apart onto shreds of salty, smoked ham hock and pearls of broad beans. Best of all is a trio of vegetable fritters beneath a sweet tomato sauce, whose crisp golden crusts break through to a squidge of molten feta and courgette. The final touch is peppery dill, which works to focus the softer flavours of vegetables and cheese.

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For pudding, perhaps there will be a flourless chocolate cake, rhubarb frangipane tart or passion fruit meringue. Seeking something small to seal the meal, we opted for the salted caramel truffles. Except these truffles are certainly not small, but almost a dessert in themselves: their thick, dark chocolate cases shatter in the mouth to a smooth, buttery milk chocolate before yielding to a liquid caramel centre. They were a sweet ending to the sweetest evening at Bell's Diner.

Restaurant review: Bakers & Co

Bakers & Co

Bakers & Co has recently been the name on everybody’s lips because of their new supper menu, which follows a similar small-plates style to owners Kieran and Imogen Waite’s tapas restaurant, Bravas. Yet over the past two years Bakers & Co has forged its reputation not on supper, but on stellar brunches. It was this far-reaching reputation that led me to visit Bakers’ yellow awning on my very first day flat hunting in Bristol and has seen me make the trip up Gloucester Road on several mornings since.

The open kitchen is at the centre of the cafe, a layout which reflects that cooking and baking everything in-house is at the centre of Baker & Co’s ethos. Diners can perch at the counter overlooking the chefs or squeeze onto tables that flank the kitchen and stretch back into a long, light corridor behind. Bright yellow coffee cups, hanging baskets and sunny artwork add touches of colour.

The eponymous Baker's Breafast, a tower of dry cure bacon, fennel sausages, morcilla, thyme roasted mushrooms, pinto beans and fried duck egg, is always popular.  Yet the huevos rancheros commands an equally strong following, at least if the frequency of admiring Instagram shots is to be believed. To this traditional tomato and chilli stew, the Bakers also add pinto beans - cooked until just collapsing and turning creamy - and a hot salsa whose fire and freshness works well to cut through the richness of the fried eggs. A soft, warm corn tortilla is on hand to mop up any leftover yolk-streaked sauce.

Sweet breakfasts are equally tempting. The simply named of the ‘Morning Toast’ belies the trruly decadent nature of this dish. Torrijos - bread soaked in eggs, milk, honey and spices before being fried - are coated in orange and cinnamon sugar, then topped with grilled banana or bacon, crème fraiche, almonds and maple syrup. On a recent visit, the daily special presented an equally indulgent treat. The skillets once used for baked eggs had been transformed into homes for giant ‘Dutch baby’ pancakes, somewhat akin to a sweet Yorkshire pudding, filled with yogurt, fruit and granola.

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I have yet to succumb to the charms of the cake counter but, for those who believe in the concept of breakfast dessert, a buckwheat friand with raspberry and chocolate crème would make a perfect end to the morning meal. Or perhaps one could take away slices of spiced apple bundt, of banana loaf and of pistachio, lemon and poppy seed cake to sweeten the parting from this breakfast haven.

Restaurant review: Adelina Yard

Adelina Yard

My last supper would look something like lunch at Adeline Yard: a beautifully cooked piece of fish, fresh pasta, plenty of seasonal vegetables and a creamy desert crowned with sweet-sharp fruit. It would also be eaten on a balmy evening in the Mediterranean, with waves lapping the shoreline close by a table filled with family and friends, but there is only so much one can ask of a Bristol-based restaurant.

We start with strongly salty, golden spheres of arancini giving way to a delicately flavoured courgette and basil centre, and then we are on to that piece of fish. In this instance, it is a fillet of smoked trout, whose earthy flavour is complemented by the woodiness of the smoking  process. It plays the starring role amidst the attendant sour cream foam, sweet pickled cucumber and salty strands of samphire, all brought together by the brightness from a dash of lovage emulsion. Dominant flavours are treated deftly with just enough technique to elevate each ingredient, but not so much that it feels assertively ‘cheffy’.

Next we’re on to a dish with Italian origins, refreshed with local, seasonal British ingredients. A generous mound of fresh tagliatelle has been whipped with Caerphilly cheese, mint and chives until each silken ribbon is lightly clad in a tangy sauce, which manages to feel luxuriously creamy without being heavy. The pasta is lightened further by piles of mild spring peas and broad beans, and a crowning tangle of greens. This food has classical foundations, but it is delivered with a lightness of touch that avoids the weight of butter and cream that can accompany classic French cooking.

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For dessert, there is a pannacotta cut through by the crunch of caramelised panic breadcrumbs and the bitterness of burnt blood orange. It is served in a wide, shallow bowl to ensure each mouthful is accompanied by a enough topping to balance the rich cream below. The final flourish is a speckled layer of vanilla seeds coating the base of the bowl, which is revealed gradually as each spoonful is scraped away and, sadly, the lunch draws to a close.

The bill is sweetened by an accompanying almond cakes, but it hardly needs sweetening at all. It is just £15 for three courses - three generous courses at that - with bread, amuse bouche and petit fours. It is one of the best, and best value, meals that I have enjoyed in a very long time.

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Restaurant review: Hart's Bakery

Tucked in a railway arch under the carpark of Temple Meads Station, Hart’s Bakery greets visitors to Bristol - or bids farewell to those leaving - with a decent cup of coffee and exceptional baked goods. When I arrived in the city permanently on a dark January day, just a suitcase in hand, the bakery’s little glowing archway offered warmth, respite and a promise that Bristol’s food scene was a force to be reckoned with. In the intervening few months, Hart’s has become a regular in the routine of my life in this new city.

I often make the pilgrimage from work to the bakery for their daily lunch deal, whose details are tweeted each day at 11am. Perhaps a roast garlic and potato soup or red pepper and borlotti bean chilli - served with hunks of incredibly crisp-crusted sourdough. Better still was a rye bun filled with soft smoked salmon and chive-infused cream cheese, paired brilliantly with the earthy, mineral sweetness of a beetroot and fennel salad. It temporarily stained my lips and hands a deep pink, and left a more permanent mark on my memory as one of the finest sandwiches I have eaten.

Come Saturday, my boyfriend and I often order a loaf of Hart’s famous sourdough from the organic food shop near my house. You can find their bread in cafes and shops across the city or, of course, pick up a loaf directly from the bakery. Just make sure you arrive early for this bread disappears quickly, with the wholemeal and sesame sourdough proving particular popular among Bristolians!

And, if we’re travelling by train, we are always tempted to pass by Hart's for a snack to savour on the train. Pastries with layers upon layers of flakey crisp pastry, custard tarts, cheese toasties and pasties. Decadent Saturday bread infused with dark caramel or ‘wünderbuns’: croissant dough filled with chocolate and hazelnut and topped with swirls of caramel sauce. For me, though, there is nothing finer than tangy sourdough toast hidden beneath swirls of raspberry and vanilla jam. Sometimes a simple pleasure, such as toast and jam, brings the greatest joy.

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Restaurant review: Souk Kitchen

On the hottest day of the year to date, we were looking for a lunch whose flavours were as warm as the sunshine outside. Souk Kitchen, south of the Avon, was exactly right. The food at this small, brightly tiled cafe draws on the traditions of North Africa, the East Mediterranean and the Middle East, but leaves room for local, seasonal British ingredients.

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We choose a very late breakfast of poached eggs on courgette, sweetcorn and feta fritters, whose sweet, mild vegetables are balanced by the saltiness of the cheese. The dish develops an additional intensity when piled on a fork with plenty of the accompanying sweet-spiced chilli jam and peppery dill.

On surrounding tables, the mezze option proved popular. There are Syrian lentils and crispy onions calmed by a slick of yogurt; cauliflower caramelised until it surrenders a nuttiness that is perfect paired with tahini sauce; and an array of dips to be scooped up with za’atar flatbread.

Larger dishes are also available at lunch and through into the evening service. A pan-fried fillet of fish, cooked just-so until it is flaking gently into a bed of tabbouleh, looked so good that I considered asking its owner if I could try a bite. Roasted chicken leg on a squash, chickpea and red pepper salad induced a similar level of food envy.

I must confess a slight disappointment with the lengthy wait for our food. Yet with the sunshine streaming through the window on one side of us and colourful tiles on the other, the delay didn’t seem such a hardship. I certainly won’t be waiting very long to return and sample the many other tempting items on the menu.

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Restaurant review: Katie and Kim's Kitchen

Katie & Kim's

Katie and Kim’s Kitchen is not a fancy cafe. There are no kitsch decorations or pretensions to hipster chic. It consists of a small dining area in front of a simple open kitchen, with stable doors connecting to the next door greengrocer. There is just one enormous, beautiful wooden table on which customers gather, throw down their hats and scarves, and spread out their morning papers. It feels, rather charmingly, like sitting around a family dining table.

The short blackboard menu revolves around a set of key ingredients: eggs, bacon, seasonal greens, bread. Perhaps there will be bacon on sourdough with tarragon aoili, date chutney, greens and eggs. Or tomato butter beans, also on sourdough, also with poached eggs and greens. Delivered on chipped china, the food here speaks of home-style cooking that is generous, hearty and eager to please.

To drink, tea and coffee arrives in sturdy little bowls that are perfect to wrap your hands around in cold weather. We order hot ginger with a little lemon and sugar as the ideal tonic for our streaming colds and sore throats. For the sweet tooth, there are custard tarts and chocolate-orange truffles the size of golf balls.

Yet, the foremost reason to visit Katie and Kim’s is for their legendary cheese scones. I could talk at length about the sturdiness from the wholemeal flour or the slight, acidic tang from yogurt. But really what makes these scones great is a heft of cheese and a hand that isn’t shy with the rosemary. They would be perfect on their own. They are even better topped with eggs, a speckle of sea salt and more of those greens soused in butter. Simple ingredients, expertly cooked. 

Over the coming months, I hope to return often enough to become a part of the family around Katie and Kim’s dining table.

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