Where to stay
Artist Residence The latest sign of the St Pauls district gentrification is due to open in a once run-down Georgian square just off the M32, near the city centre and Stokes Croft. The former boot factory will be a 23-bedroom hotel and ‘neighbourhood hangout’, colourfully and quirkily decorated, with coffee shop, bar, kitchen, event space and garden. Doubles from £95. 28 Portland Square, St Pauls, BS2 8SA, 020 3019 8623, artistresidence.co.uk
Avon Gorge Hotel An elegant Edwardian building revamped by Hotels du Vin in 2018, located on the edge of the gorge, with an all-weather terrace and restaurant with superb view of Clifton Suspension Bridge. Doubles from £117. Sion Hill, BS8 4LD, 0330 016 0390, hotelduvin.com
Beech House This Victorian villa complex, well situated near the restaurants and shops of Whiteladies Road, has been converted into a collection of studios and small house units equipped with kitchen facilities set around a pleasant garden area. Smart sophisticated decor mixes new wood floors, soft neutral colours and well-selected modern and antique furniture. Studio for two, from £103. 6 St Pauls Rd, BS8 1LT, 0117 325 8104, ucservicedapartments.com/beech-house
Bristol Harbour Hotel & Spa A newly converted 42-room property blinging up a magnificent former bank built in the 1850s and modelled on St Mark’s Library, Venice. A good location at the top of the old central business thoroughfare of Corn Street, now mainly devoted to nightlife, opposite the historic St Nicholas Market and the ornate iron posts known as ‘The Nails’ (probably the origin of the expression ‘cash on the nail’). Doubles from £122. 55 Corn St, BS1 1HT, 0117 203 4445, harbourhotels.co.uk
Number 38 Clifton A 12-bedroom boutique hotel in a large Victorian house overlooking the 160ha tree-dotted grassland of The Downs. Individually designed rooms, with pubs, restaurants, shops and Saturday’s upmarket Whiteladies Road market all five minutes’ walk away. Doubles from £140. 38 Upper Belgrave Rd, BS8 2XN, 0117 946 6905, number38clifton.com
Where to eat
Prices are for a three-course meal for two people, with a bottle of wine, unless otherwise stated
Bianchi’s The latest incarnation of a Bristolian institution, a former corner shop in faded but funky Montpelier. In the Seventies it was Bell’s Diner, now reborn as a neighbourhood ristorante named in homage to the northern Italian grandparents of the Harvey and Borel families who run it, along with the very successful neo-pasta joints Pasta Loco and Pasta Ripiena. The attractively old-fashioned interconnecting spaces work perfectly in their new role, and the kitchen has also risen splendidly to the occasion, offering a short list of high-quality antipasti – grilled prawns or fennel salami – primi – bucatini cacio e pepe or pappardelle with chunky and succulent beef shin ragu – and mains such as veal rump with braised chicory and fried polenta. From £45. 1–3 York Road, BS6 5QB, 0117 329 4100, bianchisrestaurant.co.uk
The Ethicurean One of Bristol’s highest profile food creatives, occupying a charming old complex of greenhouses and outhouses set in a large and beautiful walled kitchen garden on the gentle slope of the Mendip Hills. Food is original, almost obsessively local and seasonal, with emphasis on updated traditional English combinations and much use of fermenting, smoking and foraging. Extensive production of own drinks, from elderflower wines and fermented juices to vermouth. The set meals might include salt marsh lamb with tidal greens, goat bacon with peas, steamed rabbit pudding or Caerphilly and cider Welsh rarebit. Dinner currently a multi-course experience including broth aperitif, visit to premises and communal after-dinner drinks around open fire pit. Set lunch, from £60. Barley Wood Walled Garden, Wrington, BS40 5SA, 01934 245888, theethicurean.com
Fish This glass-walled converted barge has a delightful location in the city centre overlooking the riverfront and shaded by giant plane trees, with a new informal stripped down interior with bench seating. Fresh fish delivered daily and cooked expertly, including, when in season, remarkably good value Cornish lobster and Dorset crab, pollock or skate fried in impeccable batter or cooked French-style in brown butter, plus well-chosen wines, beers and ciders. From £19, excluding drinks. Welsh Back, BS1 4SB, 0117 332 3971, fishbristol.co.uk
Kensington Arms This 19th-century corner pub in a residential district upgraded sympathetically five years ago by prolific chef/entrepreneur Josh Eggleton is Bristol’s best example of a gastropub. Long bar and small table seating to the right, restaurant area with banquettes to the left – both informal, efficient and pleasant, serving well-rendered dishes ranging from starters of crispy lamb belly with broad bean and chilli pesto, through burgers and beer-battered fried fish, to monkfish curry or duck breast with baby beets, pressed potato and confit duck bonbon. From £35, excluding drinks. 35–37 Stanley Road, Redland, BS6 6NP, 0117 944 6444, thekensingtonarms.co.uk
Littlefrench A long narrow room in the residential suburb of Westbury Park, beside The Downs, turned into a cosy, buzzing modern bistro worthy of any French city. Excellent versions of French standards are often supervised to table by the cheery chef-patron Freddy Bird and his wife Nessa. Favourite dishes include a whole roast guineafowl for two, served with superb chips and aioli. Very good wines. From £55. 2 North View, BS6 7QB, 0117 970 6276, littlefrench.co.uk
The Lido Triumphant transformation by Arne Ringner, owner of Fish (see left), of a derelict 1850 swimming pool in Clifton into smart and successful spa complex, including a glass-fronted restaurant overlooking the central pool. Food comprises an expertly rendered assortment of the Spanish/North African/eastern Mediterranean dishes made popular by London’s Moro, with the likes of scallops, quail, venison, and flatbreads cooked in the wood-fired oven. From £50. Oakfield Place, BS8 2BJ, 0117 332 3970, lidobristol.com
Pony Bistro New venture by the ubiquitous Josh Eggleton, turning a Bedminster courtyard into a covered outlet for his sophisticated local food. Mackerel comes with a hash brown and smoked garlic mayonnaise, with tongue-in-cheek inventions such as oyster cassoulet and Bristol Beer Factory tiramisu. From £54. 291 North Street, BS3 1JP, theponynorthstreet.co.uk
Root A multiple container-space with a hint of American diner in the new Wapping Wharf restaurant sector contains Bristol’s claim to vegetarian fame. Simple but quality dishes such as swede ‘steak’ with butter beans and peppercorn sauce or potato gnocchi with garlic butter, capers and greens are augmented by the very occasional fish – crispy oysters, grilled sardines with langoustine sauce – or garnish of pancetta. From £30. Unit 9, Cargo 1,Wapping Wharf, BS1 6WP, 0117 930 0260, rootbristol.co.uk
Wilsons A small and austere white interior in a restaurant hotspot in Redland offers some of Bristol’s most popular if equally austere author cuisine, courtesy of chef Jan Ostle. Recent highlights of the daily changing set menus of small dishes have included exquisite little chestnut mushroom and aged Gouda cheese tartlets, squash confit in crab- infused oil served with a sea urchin, and very rare mallard, almost all shot or grown by Ostle. Five-course menu, from £50 excluding wine. 24 Chandos Road, BS6 6PF, 0117 973 4157, wilsonsbristol.co.uk
Food and Travel Review
Renowned over the years for commodities as varied as tobacco, sherry, aircraft, pop music and graffiti, Bristol’s latest claim to fame is food. For a decade now, restaurants such as The Ethicurean, Wilsons and Littlefrench have received rave reviews by everyone from the Financial Times to swarms of online fans equipped with the latest phones and adjectives, ‘banging’ being a favourite. The fact that a whole host of food writers, actual and aspiring, live in the city has helped.
The apogee came last December with BBC Two’s Remarkable Places to Eat Christmas special, which was devoted not to Lyon or Bologna, but Bristol. Star chef Michel Roux Jr and celeb maitre d’ Fred Sirieix wandered the streets swapping badinage and chorusing ‘Wow! That’s amazing!’ at anything edible in their line of vision.
‘When I started out you could count the serious restaurants here on one hand,’ says Stephen Markwick, Bristol’s most eminent senior restaurateur and former proprietor of the town’s one-time gastronomic flagships Bistro 21 and Culinaria. ‘Now Bristol’s become a magnet for creative young chefs who can’t afford London property prices.’ We’re sitting in the small shop premises in which, 40 years ago, Stephen created Bistro 21, treating a generation of lucky Bristolians to a masterly rendition of the Anglo-European, Elizabeth David-influenced repertoire that was then fashionable: wonderful game terrines and venison casseroles, salmon, crab and sole from Cornwall, eels from Somerset, and rarities such as fried sand eels from the River Exe.
In 2018 the restaurant, now named Bulrush, gained its first Michelin star under the ownership of its current chef. George Livesey is a textbook example of the new wave: having worked for Michel Roux’s family at Le Gavroche in Mayfair, he now turns out recherché little dishes combining classical technique and fine local ingredients with obligatory novelty. We taste a tartare of cured and smoked venison with juniper mayonnaise, pickled shimeji mushrooms and seaweed powder, and a pink peppercorn macaron with duck liver parfait, plum jam and dried plum skin powder. Not much in common with the previous generation’s cooking, then? No, agrees George: ‘Although the parfait is straight out of Le Gavroche.’ Stephen, meanwhile, perusing the new decor, comes across a hidden patch of old Bistro 21 Artex wallpaper, the gastronomic equivalent of a lost mosaic discovered under vinyl flooring.
Bristol is a goldmine for the culinary archaeologist, full of monuments still functioning but under new regimes
Bistros of early TV chef Keith Floyd, historic inns belonging to the Fifties and Sixties empire of the Italian-born Berni brothers. At the same time, the Georgian terraces of Clifton and the grand old banking halls around Corn Street are being augmented by upwardly mobile areas such as Bedminster, the busy Gloucester Road – famous for its unbroken ranks of proper old-fashioned shops – and the old badlands of Stokes Croft, Southville, Easton, St Werburgh’s, all evidence of a decade of constant restaurant expansion, interrupted but far from obliterated, by the pandemic.
The most talked about new chefs work in a modern British eclectic style far removed from the old Floyd/Markwick mode, still resolutely innovative but with the old French influence replaced by newer trends – Scandinavian, foraging, fermentation – with the regional British content represented by the ingredients. The great wealth of historic South West food – documented by writers such as Jane Grigson, Theodora Fitzgibbon and Andrea Leeman – dishes like sautéed elvers, jugged hare, leek pie, pork or rabbit with cream and celery, is largely absent, but for many of Bristol’s new chefs the modern mantra ‘local’ is still a prime ambition.
Josh Eggleton, probably Bristol’s busiest restaurateur, with half a dozen addresses in his stable, is a leading example.
His first venture, the Michelin-starred Chew Valley gastro pub The Pony & Trap, now closed for conversion into a sort of mini elBulli workshop space, set the tone for Josh’s hearty but ambitious St John-influenced fare. Josh worked furiously through the crisis, setting up a big-tented lockdown brasserie complex, Breaking Bread, on The Downs – with dishes like the old West Country staple of faggot refashioned from game and adorned with burnt leeks and consommé – and preparing his brand new Pony Bistro in Bedminster. This was immediately booked solid, serving similar regional creations with a twist like trout confit in goose fat and Walnut Whip Alaska. Josh fitted in co-running a food and drink festival and leading food tours of Bristol, visiting outstanding suppliers such as Rare Butchers in Bedminster and The Bristol Cheesemonger at Wapping Wharf.
Jan Ostle, of Wilsons, star of the new foodie mini-Mecca of Chandos Road, works in a similar style, though more minimalist, and shares Josh’s fierce pride in his supply chain. Over lunch of sea urchins just delivered from Cornwall, mallard shot by Jan, and vegetables grown in his rented smallholding, he comments: ‘The best produce has an inimitable character from its place of origin – it’s the same as terroir for a wine.’
Afterwards, we drive out to meet some examples on the 18th-century aristocratic country estate of Belmont, lavishly restored to produce the grass and wildflower-fed cattle and sheep prized by Bristol chefs. In the woodland, a little posse of squat black Berkshire pigs pauses from rootling for nuts and appears, trotting jovially among the firs when called, blissfully unaware that Jan’s dealings with the superb Belmont pork tend to involve one-month, dry-aged loin steaks served with lobster XO sauce.
Fifteen minutes away, on the other side of the airport, another grand country estate hosts The Ethicurean restaurant. Converted post lockdown, like several others of the new wave, to a set-price tasting menu ‘experience’ format, it occupies the walled kitchen garden and outbuildings of Barley Wood, once owned by the Wills tobacco family. Co-owner Matthew Pennington has us taste examples of the huge range of fermented vegetables he uses, and the results of his team’s incessant search for local alternatives to imported fruit and vegetables – brine-fermented squash for passion fruit, crab apple verjus for lemon. He details the stories behind the return of products like salt marsh lamb from the banks of the Severn, goat bacon, once known in the West Country as rock venison, and Dorset-farmed Arctic char, the ethical gourmet’s salmon, killed by the ikejime Japanese humane fish slaughter method and delivered to the restaurant only when pre-ordered.
Ikejime may be in its infancy in Bristol, but fish in general is in buoyant shape. The fine 19th-century fish market closed down, frustratingly, just before the millennial food renaissance that rescued its neighbour, the historic St Nicholas Market (St Nicks boasts a nicely diverse lunchtime café scene). But fresh, south-coast fish is available daily in new outlets like the sales counter of Mitch Tonks’ former Fishworks, nowadays known as Spiny Lobster. This includes the occasional hyper-local find, like a batch of conger eels, once commonly used in soups and pies, caught by resident fishmonger Barny Peterkin. There’s a heartening trend for serious chefs to get into traditional fish and chip shops, pioneered by Stuart Seth’s late lamented Louisiana fusion chippy Soul Fish, and followed by Josh Eggleton’s two branches of Salt & Malt.
Beside Bristol Bridge, near the old fish market, a big converted barge with panoramic windows is the latest contender. After four decades’ successful operation as the rather smart Glassboat, its chic little cocktail bar has just been replaced by a gleaming steel Dutch chip frying range, and its menu, overseen by chef Jake Platt, offers expertly cooked fresh Brixham and Newlyn seafood, from lobster, crab and mussels (done in cider) to a textbook ray beurre noir and a version of the celebrated fish soup of Stephen Markwick, for whom Platt once worked.
Needless to say, everything vegetable is big in Bristol. Six years ago, former solicitor and reformed omnivore Sue Miller spearheaded the vegan home catering revolution, delivering Tuscan ribollita soup and Thai massaman curries made from the produce of her barrister husband’s allotment, under the banner Miller Green. No longer delivering, at millergreen.co.uk they are still sharing their knowledge and recipes to encourage vegan eating online.
The new waterfront restaurant quarter of Wapping Wharf, meanwhile, has seen the birth of Bristol’s own star veg chef.
Beside converted warehouses, vintage cargo ships and cranes and blocks of new flats, rows of stacked shipping containers house eating places including Root, another member of the Josh Eggleton portfolio. ‘The original idea was to reverse normal practice, with vegetables being the central element of dishes, and meat as accompaniments,’ explains head chef Rob Howell, showing me a copy of his new book Root. Today, a sparse confetti of pancetta in my Caesar salad is the only trace of meat on the menu. ‘I’ve phased out everything but the veg due to customer demand,’ he says.
Across an ornate metal footbridge over the Avon, among the redbrick terraces of Bedminster, the pro-veg movement proceeds apace. The epicentre of Bedminster’s gentrification is the massive russet cube of the old Wills Tobacco Factory, transformed 20 years ago into a theatre and restaurant complex by architect and catering entrepreneur George Ferguson, Bristol’s first elected mayor. Sitting in Tobacco Factory’s stripped down industrial café – very New York or Berlin for its time – George outlines the 100 per cent vegetarian-and-local policy, ‘grown seven miles away on our farm.’
For those without farms or allotments, select greengrocers are sprouting. Bristol boy Hugo Sapsed, an escapee from the London menswear business, has just opened the second branch of Hugo’s, deploying experience acquired during a year’s apprenticeship with legendary Reg the Veg, Clifton’s veteran fine greengrocer. ‘There are so many great growers within ten miles,’ says Hugo, ‘they compete to produce the best mixed salads, up to 20 different leaves. And the great range of old apples is coming back.’
The Bristol food scene is not, of course, all single-orchard heritage apples and rare-breed faggots. An extraterrestrial food blogger on its first trip to earth might conclude the city’s specialities were pizzas, hamburgers and something indefinable called tapas.
But Bristol has always boasted fine practitioners of the great European cuisines
There’s a new generation adding their own touches – steak tartare as starter rather than main, carbonara redefined to include cream and mushrooms – which Michel Roux Jr takes as evidence of the city’s vibrant non-conformist spirit.
Of the classic Euro-sources, only France, chief inspiration of the Markwick/Floyd generation, has declined in influence, with one notable exception: Littlefrench, the excellent bistro belonging to Freddy Bird. In compensation, the stock of splendid repurposed historic interiors, chiefly old banks, has just been augmented by an unusual new European representative. An exquisite Grade-l-listed historic friary found in the shopping centre has transmuted into Klosterhaus, a glamorous mega-canteen that outblings even the most showy of they city’s brasserie-style dining rooms and specialises in German and Mittel-European cuisine.
But Italy and Spain exert bigger influences than ever. The last of the old Fifties Berni family restaurants, Guiseppe’s, ploughs on doggedly in the wake of more authentically Italian newcomers like The Spaghetti Incident or Molto Buono, or fashionable modern Anglo-centric, like the elegant, high-ceilinged Marmo.
The old bow-tied waiters from Jerez who officiated in sherry dynasty Harveys’ restaurant in the Sixties, have been replaced by enthusiastic young tapas-serving local equivalents in places like Bravas, or Paco, or Bar 44, whose proprietors, the brothers Tom and Owen Morgan, are renewing Bristol’s historic sherry connections via energetic travel around the bodegas of Andalucía.
Bristol’s culinary input comes from far beyond Europe, as you’d expect from a great historic port. Jamaica, for example, is an important component of the cultural mix. According to Matthew Pennington, The Ethicurean’s early goat research involved sampling every curry at the annual St Pauls Carnival, and delicacies like goat curry, jerk chicken and ackee and saltfish are available at popular eating places such as Jenny Reid’s stall in St Nicks Market and Glen Crooks’ Glen’s Kitchen in St Pauls, the latter run by a one-time performer at legendary St Pauls reggae club The Bamboo Club.
Then there’s China: the Cantonese food legacy of Bristol’s old guard, families such as the Wongs, Hos and Lis who arrived in the Seventies from the villages around Hong Kong and Guangzhou, continues, represented notably by the Mayflower, late-night, after-work favourite of the city’s chefs. It’s been supplemented by a new wave, catering to the city’s recent influx of 5,000 Chinese students with pan-Asian dishes attuned to their tastes. Navigating suavely through this scene is MasterChef finalist Larkin Cen; the son of a Hong Kong family who ran a takeaway in Cardiff, he gave up work as a solicitor to start the flourishing Woky Ko mini chain of quality pan-Asian diners, developing dishes like his fusion of Japanese ramen with Sichuan pork ragout.
More hermetic, so far, has been the food of Bristol’s big Somali population, often supplied by female cooks both amateur and professional, such as Halima Aisha, a former cookery teacher from Mogadishu, who now runs the kitchen in Waamo café in Easton. Here, men play pool in the back room while Halima’s hillib iyo bariis, goat or mutton in a spicy okra sauce, is consumed in the Fifties diner decor. But Somali food is crossing over to the pop-up circuit, via young cooks such as Fozia Ahmed and Iman Salati. Iman’s tweaked bariis iyo hillib (rice and meat), in the form of arancini-like globes, can puzzle Somali customers. ‘I sometimes get asked where the rice is,’ smiles Iman. A restaurant is in her sights, and Somali fusion could easily be the next big thing. When bariis iyo hillib croquettes with designer cider pairing is all over Aldi, remember where you heard it first.
The Bristol Cider Revival
The orchards of the West Country
once harboured hundreds of local apple varieties, and scrumpy, or rough
cider, made in all the surrounding farms, was Bristol’s favourite vice.
In recent decades, industrialisation has seenthe big cider makers turn
to cheap imported apple juices, with cider’s image following its quality
A handful of picturesquely dilapidated old boozers
lingers on, with aged denizens sipping pints of Thatchers with slices
of lemon in the gloom. But a new breed of cider drinkers and makers is
now enthusiastically in place. The revived orchards around The
Ethicurean estaurant are now producing Barley Wood cider via a massive
antique apple press and The Ethicurean hosts upmarket Wassail parties
in January. Across the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Abbots Leigh, a
lovely sloping orchard planted by Redvers Coate, the Forties Somerset
cider magnate, has been rescued from abandonment by Wilding Cider. It’s
the work of Sam Leach and Beccy Massey, who gave up their highly praised
Bristol restaurant Birch, with its pioneering fine-cider list, to bring
similar meticulously researched skills to the creation of
limited-edition bottlings bearing micro-local names of origin such as
Nempnett Thrubwell and Ditcheat Hill.
The new cider revival is by no means confined to soigné joints like the neo-Italian wine bar Marmo and Michelin-starred Osip restaurant in nearby Bruton. Witness The Cider Box, a sort of cross between Somerset harvest barn and the car spray workshop it formerly was, under a railway arch in what proprietor Dan Heath calls ‘the Lower East Side of Bristol’.
On weekend afternoons, a youngish crowd overflows outside to sit on concrete traffic blocks eating vintage Barber’s Cheddar and drinking Burrow Hill Kingston Black or Worleys Stoke Red. For expert guidance on everything to do with the new cider scene, tasting kits and much else, the Bristol Cider Shop is an invaluable online resource.
Words by Philip Sweeney. Photography by Gary Latham.
This feature was taken from the October 2021 issue of Food and Travel. To subscribe today, click here.
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