Bristol is fast becoming a national hotspot for restaurants. An outpost of London's famous celeb haunt The Ivy has recently opened in Clifton, and a branch of another London favourite, Polpo, is soon to open its doors on Whiteladies Road, further increasing the dining options for hungry Bristolians. The population of the city may well be growing, with a huge influx of Londoners fleeing the crazy property prices of the capital, but even so, keeping restaurants full day-in day-out is a tough job. For many restaurants in quieter locations, there just isn't enough business to support two sittings every day, and many restaurants include a lunch service from Thursday to Sunday only. Repeat business, the lifeblood of any restaurant, is tricky to secure in a market of constant new openings. For neophile foodies, you can always count on novelty to trump familiarity.
We recently visited three very different restaurant concepts in and around Bristol. The first, a classic neighbourhood gaff called Wilsons, has recently opened on the gastro-strip of Chandos Road in Redland. The concept is simple - a concise menu of three starters, three mains and three desserts making it as easy as possible for its one man kitchen to manage the service. Jan Ostle, the chef patron, is full of enthusiasm for his new venture. He has the energy of a young child who has just unwrapped an amazing present on Christmas day. He bounces from kitchen to dining room to bar, flying around like a pinball in an arcade game. At one table he explains the provenance of his ingredients, at another he flogs his latest aperitif concoction, a basil infused vodka lemonade. He is living most chefs' dream, running his own business with his wife, cooking what he wants to cook, having face-to-face contact with his diners. Mostly though, he is just chuffed that people have come to eat his food and the lovely thing is that he shows it.
The food is pretty good. My ham hock terrine definitely could have done with a pickle or chutney to lift it but it was a well-made and sizeable slab of jellied meat. Red deer with beets and onion puree was one of the best dishes I've had this year, and a pannacotta with rhubarb and rose petals was simple but effective. Everything is beautifully plated and fairly priced.
The Historical Dining Rooms is an intriguing fine-dining concept housed above a a pub in the unassuming, residential suburb of Totterdown. Here, rather like Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, the menu features dishes taken from old recipes of yore, updated with modern cooking methods and presentation. The 5 course (well 3 course with appetiser and bread) menu features British dishes going right back to 1390. There's a Hottentot Pie from 1769, Skate Wing from 1861, and a Prunella and Tamarind Torte from 1730. It's as if Anthony Bourdain has gone on a food tour with Marty McFly.
Let's talk about the positives. The food is excellent. High-end cooking with experimental flavour combinations that actually work. At £36 a head it was fair value. However the night we visited, the kitchen was in chaos. It took three and a half hours for our meal to be served. Apparently they were a chef down, lost perhaps to a bad case of scurvy or plague. By dessert we were falling asleep at the table, pitying the group of 8 on the neighbouring table who hadn't received their main courses at 11pm and the three girls on the other table who had foolishly gone for the 9 course menu. Such a shame as the concept and food is great, although perhaps better suited to the centre of town rather than the colourful streets of Totterdown.
Finally to The Ethicurean, a restaurant set in a stunning walled garden in the rolling hills of the Chew Valley not far from Bristol Airport. The Guardian's restaurant critic Marina O'Laughlin rates it as her second favourite dining spot in the country and it's easy to see why. On a sunny day at the height of summer, there can be few better places for a Sunday lunch. The borders are in full bloom, that cliched 'riot of colour' assaulting the eyes at every turn. This is a place to take green-fingered parents on a visit to the West Country; how they would coo over the swaying verbenas and echinacea, the plumed rows of cavolo nero and the drooping blackcurrant bushes.
Thankfully the vibe of the place is very down to earth. If we were in the Cotswolds, the carpark would be full of Range Rovers and Porsches and the dining room would be wall-to-wall braying bankers and bearded media tossers entertaining plastic surgery casualties, their fakery jarring with the natural beauty of the renovated gardens outside.
Everything feels very wholesome at The Ethicurean, from the stripped back furnishings to the waiting staff who look like they have stepped out of a Jack Wills ad. The menu too makes use of produce straight from the garden which hits the plate in as many forms as possible, raw, cooked, pickled, fermented, cured...Each dish is written as a list of ingredients which is how I like a menu, a mixture of information and intrigue that leaves the diner eagerly anticipating the dish.
We boringly chose the same thing. Is that what long-married couples do? Gin-cured trout with fennel was a bit heavy on the fennel and light on trout, the delicate flavour of which was swamped by the acidity of the dressing on the fennel and the various pickles that prettified the plate. Our main course of Duck confit with carrot puree and pickled shiitake was a great dish but crying out for a deep sauce to make it truly fabulous. An Apple sticky toffee pudding was in Bristolian terms, gert lush.
In the repeat business stakes, would I go back to any of these restaurants again. Well the answer is yes, I would probably go back to all of them. Guarantee me a quicker service and I would happily try the 9 course menu at the Historical Dining Rooms. We will take parents and in-laws to The Ethicurean next summer. Whether Wilsons becomes our local favourite when we move to Redland at the end of the month remains to be seen. With so many great restaurants within a 10 minute walk, competition is fierce.
Wilsons, 24 Chandos Road, Bristol, BS6 6PF
The Historical Dining Rooms, Above Star and Dove Tavern, Windsor Terrace, Bristol, BS3 4RY
The Ethicurean, Barley Wood Walled Gardens, Wrington, BS40 5SA