Restaurant review: The Nag’s Head

I’m not sure there’s any such thing as the perfect pub, but I’m lucky to live near three that each embody different aspects of the platonic ideal of a public house.

The Retreat is arguably Reading’s best “classic” pub, even if its refurb last year made the toilets disconcertingly classy. The story goes that when the landlord of the Alehouse visited and saw the work the Retreat had carried out in lockdown he turned to Brian, the landlord, and said “thanks a bunch – now I really do have the shittest pub toilets in Reading” (apparently the Alehouse has done some work on them since). The Retreat lacks outside space, and the small beer selection is a little too cask-led for my personal taste, but it remains a wonderful place with a welcome like no other.

Then there’s the Lyndhurst, which does Reading’s best pub food, without question. It hosts burger nights on Mondays and curry nights on Thursdays, and boasts a menu full of staples like chilli beef nachos and katsu chicken burgers. And then there’s the icing on the cake: dazzling specials that tend to go on the menu Fridays and Saturdays and match any restaurant food anywhere in Reading. One week it’s skate wing topped with capers and crunchy croutons soaked in a sauce Grenobloise, another it’s lamb rump with an enormous slab of shredded lamb shoulder, breadcrumbed and fried, on the side. 

To round off the holy trinity, the Weather Station boasts a superb selection of beers, the vast majority of which are on keg, has a nice little courtyard out back where you can drink them and has really gone from strength to strength in 2021. It always has at least one sticky, strong, indulgent imperial stout on the list and some of the DIPAs and pales on tap are truly terrific (a special mention to Wild Weather’s Orange Lazarus, which is as refreshing a summer drink as you could hope to find).

Having said all that, over the last twelve months I’ve spent a fair amount of pub time on the edge of West Reading, where the Castle Tap and the Nag’s Head have done an exemplary job of adjusting to Covid and providing great converted spaces for al fresco drinking. When I finally emerged from the cocoon of that first ever lockdown for an al fresco alcoholic drink, it was the Nag’s Head I made a beeline for. But the Nag’s Head always had two drawbacks. 

One is that you couldn’t book a table, whereas at the Castle Tap they’ll gladly reserve you one outside. The other was that they never really had much of a food offering. That needn’t be be a problem. The Castle Tap is more than happy for you to order from Deliveroo and eat it at your table – they’ll even give you the postcode for the beer garden out back to use as a delivery address – but the Nag’s has always taken a dim view of that.

On one hand, it meant that the Nag’s Head didn’t bother trying to adapt to the constantly changing landscape of substantial meals, this tier and that tier. Life was simpler, if less lucrative – although the Nag’s also reopened later than its peers last year, sensibly spending extra time sprucing up their beer garden, so perhaps they could absorb those losses. But it also meant that they were closed for longer than some of Reading’s other pubs with outside space when they could have put together a menu, or invited a street food trader over, and continued to trade.

Anyway, when they reopened in April this year they were sporting a brand new food menu and a new smoker for pork and brisket. The menu was compact – not big enough to necessarily make the Nag’s a food destination in its own right, but aiming to offer enough choice that you wouldn’t have to face the invidious choice between leaving the pub to grab a meal or staying, getting shitfaced on an empty stomach and accidentally falling into Harput Kebab on the way home (and I’m not judging, because I speak from experience). And that kind of menu works: Zoë and I were having an early evening beer in the sunshine during her week off, and neither of us could face going home and cooking, which is why you get this review this week.

Before I talk about the menu, a little about the setup. Last year the Nag’s turned its car park properly into a beer garden, with plenty of well-distanced tables, some out in the open and some under marquees, with astroturf underfoot. It future-proofed them well, with the tables superb in sunshine but still usable in the rain, although having to take down the sides of the marquees to qualify as “outdoors” meant the wind could be mighty fierce. All ordering is at the table, with links to the beer list on Untappd, and payment is taken at the table, too. Although many other pubs abandoned table service as soon as they could the Nag’s is currently sticking with it, which I personally really appreciate.

The menu confines itself to three categories only – toasted sandwiches, sausage rolls and meat from the smoker. The Nag’s always used to offer the latter – pulled pork and beef brisket rolls – but the toasties and sausage rolls, a new move, are supplied by The Croque Shop, a business from Brighton. It’s an interesting decision to use them rather than a local supplier, although the pork and beef are from Vicar’s Game, probably Berkshire’s best-known butcher (it’s not all meat: there are vegetarian and vegan options for both toasties and sausage rolls).

Sausage rolls cost four pounds, the pulled pork and brisket are six pounds fifty and the toasties range from six pounds to nine, the most expensive thing being a Reuben made, slightly randomly, with pork belly instead of beef. You order the food along with your beer, but they take the order separately and you pay separately for your food when it arrives. Service is really very good at the Nag’s at the moment – months of running table service has really honed their skills in this area, and everyone who looked after us was friendly, personable and good at coming over just as we needed to order some more drinks.

Let’s start with the pulled pork sandwich, because it was good. Really good, in fact. You get a generous helping of the stuff stuffed in a brioche bun and topped with their own recipe barbecue sauce, and it’s a wonderful thing. So much pulled pork, to me, is a little bit claggy and gloopy, mixed in with the barbecue sauce and too often on the mulchy side. The Nag’s pulled pork, by contrast, was drier and not completely shredded – you could easily pull it apart, and the texture was spot on, but some of it was still in big, delicious doorstops. The barbecue sauce added more heat than sweetness, and there was just enough of it to compliment without overpowering.

It was so enjoyable, in fact, that I’m beginning to think a trip to the Nag’s without a pulled pork roll might be no kind of trip to the Nag’s at all. I enthused about it so much that Zoë ordered one herself with the next round of drinks and I had to look on enviously while she polished it off (admittedly an experience I’d been happy to inflict on her earlier in the evening). She used some of the accompanying crinkle cut crisps – Seabrook, at a guess – as a vehicle to transport some of the excess pulled pork into her gob, a trick I wish I’d thought of. I’ll try the beef brisket next time I’m at the Nag’s – or at least I’m telling myself that now – but the pulled pork roll is six pounds fifty well spent, and for my money one of the best sandwiches in Reading.

“You know the food at the beer festival? You know the crappy carvery they always have there?” said Zoë.

“I’m afraid so.”

“This is what the pork sandwiches at the beer festival should actually taste like.”

I really couldn’t disagree.

While I’d been gloating over my good choice, Zoë had tucked into a chicken, cheese and chorizo toastie from that section of the menu. Much as I’d love to use the pun “croque of shit” somewhere in this review, this was anything but – well made on good, sturdy sourdough that toasted well and full of decent quality chicken, vintage cheddar and nuggets of chorizo rather than cheap supermarket slices. Zoë was a fan – “this is as good as a Shed toastie”, she said – and we’ll have to take her word for it, because it was so good that I didn’t get a bite. At six pounds fifty it would compete with a Shed toastie on price, although it’s slightly smaller. But I think the pulled pork was probably better value.

In the interests of covering as many bases as possible, I also had a sausage roll. The most intriguing-looking one on the menu was pork, apricot and Stilton, and it looked the part – heated up in an oven rather than microwaved with nicely flaky, rustling pastry and a dense core of sausagemeat. And it came close, but if there was any Stilton in it I couldn’t detect it. I’d have liked it, for contrast against the sweet apricot studded through the sausage roll, but it was still decent even without it. If I’d known it was going to be a blue cheese free zone I might have gone for the pork, cheese and Marmite option – but who’s to say whether it would have turned out to have Marmite in it?

There’s not much point in saying a lot about the beers we had during our meal because the Nag’s (and the breweries it buys from) mix things up so frequently that anything I drank might well not be on when you’re there next. There’s a touch of ADHD about it, because you find something you like and they’re always on to the next thing (Siren Craft, it seems to me, is especially prone to this). But it would be remiss not to mention Woodland Battle Dance Exhibition, the newish DIPA by Double-Barrelled which is my favourite beer from them yet; it’s still on at the Nag’s at the time of writing, but who knows how long that will last?

It’s also worth adding that the Nag’s always has a good complement of beer from local breweries, with Siren, Double-Barrelled and Elusive well represented all of the time along with beers from smaller local breweries like White Waltham’s Stardust. It does make me wonder, a little, why their toasties and sausage rolls come from Sussex – but the toasties and sausage rolls are good, so maybe that’s why.

It was always going to be difficult reviewing somewhere after last week’s review, the best meal I’ve eaten on duty this (or any) year. But the Nag’s is the perfect choice, because despite being as different an experience as I can think of, the Nag’s does share some DNA with really good restaurants. Picking your suppliers carefully, having a compact menu which you execute superbly and matching your food to the atmosphere you want to create aren’t skills exclusive to restaurants: pubs and cafés need to get that right as well.

And I think the Nag’s has thought that out perfectly. It’s not destination food, but it’s just the right food to accompany a trip to the pub, or to try and stave off the inevitable hangover you can see on the horizon during a trip to the pub (I’m at the age now where sometimes I can sense the hangover in the post after a couple of drinks – that’s your forties for you).

The pulled pork sandwich is the pick of the bunch for me, but any of them would grace a drinking session and they offer an excellent change of gear from ordering a packet of pork scratchings and some Bacon Fries and opening them out on the table, pub tapas-style. And writing this, it strikes me that this is just typical of the Nag’s. They took their time deciding what to do about food while others tinkered at the edges or got street food traders in. But trust them, once they did get round to it, to do it properly.

The Nag’s Head – 7.8
5 Russell Street, Reading, RG1 7XD
07765 880137

http://www.thenagsheadreading.co.uk

Restaurant review: Marmo, Bristol

What’s your favourite restaurant? Your absolute favourite, I mean. I ask because a couple of weeks ago I was sitting in my friends James and Liz’s back garden in Bristol, drinking white wine on a sunny afternoon and having exactly that conversation. The wedding we’d been to the day before – on a Wednesday, no less – was that miraculous thing, a wedding where you’re not hung over the morning after, and so the day stretched out in front of us, feeling partly like a Sunday, partly like something else.

James refused to take part: he didn’t believe in picking a single favourite. So we talked instead about possibly allowing everyone to choose three. But if anything, that made it more difficult, because then you had to pick at least one from your home town and then you were forced to choose just the two restaurants from everywhere else you have ever been. 

Liz said that you couldn’t pick somewhere you’d only been the once, but that didn’t help either. Zoë started waxing lyrical about Eetkaffee De Lieve, a little gem in the sidestreets of Ghent, and I daydreamed about sitting outside at Uvedoble in Malaga, demolishing a little brioche stuffed with suckling pig. But which restaurant in Bologna to pick? And how could you leave out Paris? It was just too much of a puzzler.

“I think my favourite restaurant right now is Marmo” said Liz – with a hint of trepidation, because we had a table booked there that evening. And I understood that nervousness better than most, because there’s little as nerve-wracking as telling people that somewhere is good, knowing they’ve gone there because of you and then sitting there waiting to find out whether they’ve lost all faith in your good opinion. I get that all the time.

We went to Marmo with Liz and James’ friends Ed and Ben, a very entertaining couple they’d been telling me about for some time. It was clear straight away, as we took our seats at a Belgian beer bar in the old city, that they liked the finer things in life, which always makes me feel like I’ve found my tribe but also brings out the imposter syndrome.

On our walk to the restaurant Ed and Ben asked me which restaurants I liked in Bristol, and I couldn’t help but feel that this was a test. I didn’t go to Bristol often enough to be on top of the latest developments, but then I mentioned my love of the sadly departed Wallfish, a little neighbourhood restaurant a stone’s throw from Clifton Suspension Bridge, and there was a tacit nod that indicated that I might have just about scraped a pass.

Marmo is a single, buzzy room – all handsome white wood panelling and framed prints on the walls that you daydream about nicking (I also would have loved one of the branded wineglasses, come to think of it). There’s a tiny kitchen at the back, clearly in view, where all the magic happens. Our table was in the heart of things, close to the bar, and I tried to remember what this place had looked like in its previous incarnation as Bar Buvette, a wine bar I’d loved that made you feel like you were somewhere in the eleventh arrondisement.

The menu made you want to order everything, and was compact enough that we nearly did. There were a few snacks and then a 3-4-2 formation of starters, mains and desserts respectively, with one fish dish and one vegetarian dish on offer for each course. The menu looked carb light, but the waiting staff explained that you could have an intermediate pasta course to fix that, as the Italians do, or just have some bread. Starters were around nine pounds, the most expensive main was eighteen pounds fifty. The wine list – of which Marmo seems particularly proud – had a superb selection of red, white and orange wines, with a few producers I’d heard of and many I fancied trying.

In short, it was a menu to get lost in, and we did that while drinking glasses of Muz vermouth, served properly with ice and a wedge of orange. I loved it, and said that the tangy, fruity note in it was strangely reminiscent of brown sauce. There was an awful moment while I waited for someone to tell me I was talking bollocks, and then to my huge relief there was agreement around the table (Zoë didn’t enjoy the rest of the vermouth from that point onwards: “I tried”, she told me later, “but all I could taste was the vinegars”).

Aperitivi deserve accompaniment, so we kicked off with Marmo’s textbook sourdough. It came with butter, which no doubt would have been fantastic, but we were all more keen to dip it in smoked cod roe, perfectly salty and pastel pink, with a pool of olive oil at its centre. Also pastel pink was the mortadella, draped over gnocco fritto, little fried parcels of joy. I’ve never liked mortadella, not even in Bologna, but I loved it here; Marmo, like the best restaurants, can make you enjoy ingredients you wouldn’t normally look at twice.

We’d been torn between a couple of white wines – one from Jura which would have had more funk, and a more conventional Riesling from Staffelter Hof, a producer I recognised because one of their wines crops up on Clay’s fancy new wine list. I tried to palm the casting vote off to Ed, who clearly knew his wine, and he eventually plumped for the Riesling (I’m sure the fact that it was called “Little Bastard” was an unintended bonus). 

But then the staff came over and said that they only had one bottle of Riesling left, so we went for one of each. Those of us who tried the Riesling were delighted by its cleanness, the slight effervescence on the tongue. Those who decided to drink the Jura were pleased to have picked something so unusual, with agricultural notes of scrumpy and sherry knocking about harmoniously in the same glass. We all changed ends at half time, tried the other white wine and in the end decided that they were both terrific.

By this time the starters had turned up, and I got my first sign that I was in for an evening of sustained brilliance. I had gone for smoked eel, beautifully muscular and only lightly smoked, on an oblong of crunchy fried polenta. So far so delicious, but teaming it up with bright cubes of beetroot and blackberries with a balsamic sweetness was a killer blow. I could have eaten this all the live long day, and it left me wanting more – or, to be more specific, another portion. That’s what great starters do.

Although it was the most popular starter, a couple of us tried something else. Liz spoke highly of her marinated peppers, buried under an avalanche of Ticklemore, and I could see that I would have been equally happy with that. Ed had chosen the beef tartare, topped with chives and a slow-cooked egg yolk, flavour soaking into the bread below. How could you have food envy when you’d enjoyed your own starter so much? 

I was sitting between Ed and Ben – the kind of civilised couple who don’t have to sit next to one another all evening – and, being a civilised couple, they passed plates back and forth across me, or behind me, or through me so that neither of them felt left out. But I was having such a good evening that I was more than happy to be the proverbial dumb waiter. 

They were in the holiday mood – Ed’s mother was visiting their cottage in the Chew Valley over the weekend and then they were off to Cornwall for a well-earned break eating and drinking their way around that part of the world. They would spend much of the following week in their own favourite restaurants. I recognised kindred spirits, the kind of people – like me – who plan a holiday entirely around lunches and dinners, who enjoy going to places they know and love, experiencing the comfort, familiarity and total relaxation that comes with a pilgrimage like that. At the tail end of my own holiday, I couldn’t help but feel envious.

Given that Marmo was at least nominally Italian, I felt like we should have at least one Italian wine with our meal, so I chose a Tuscan red called Infraded, a deep, velvety Syrah. Ordering wine had been delegated to me by this point, but I was almost merry enough to be happy with that. Again, I felt like I’d committed a faux pas when the waiter told us this one was best served chilled, but Ed reacted with delight and I decided that on balance, I’d got away with it. It was, as you can probably guess by this point, predictably wonderful, and I made a mental note to see if there was anywhere you could buy some when I got home and Bristol was just a distant, happy memory.

The main courses brought more fireworks. I’ve always heard Mangalitza pork spoken of in hushed tones as the Kobe beef of the pork world, but I’d never tried it before so I was keen to pick it off the menu. It came in glorious marbled slabs, just-pink and tender with the most beautiful melting fat: eating it I could understand why the Italians got so excited about lardo, and the idea of eating fat on its own. It was served simply with a handful of other elements, a wonderful caponata given a fresh edge with the judicious addition of fig, some good oil and a little slick of yoghurt. It was as good a single dish as I’ve eaten this year: I looked over at James, who had ordered the same thing, and saw him lost in a reverent silence.

That silence was eventually broken by Ed telling a story from the time when he used to manage a bookshop in Oxford.

“We had lots of celebrities in while I was there, but the best rider we ever had was from Roger Moore. And Roger Moore only asked for two things.”

“Really?” I tried to imagine exactly what vintage of Château Mouton Rothschild would feature in Sir Roger’s demands. “What were they?”

“A bottle of Jacob’s Creek and a Pret crayfish sandwich. That was all, every time. And by the end of a signing he was always absolutely fucked.”

This couldn’t help but make me warm to the great man. And of course, Ed had a picture on his phone of him with Jacob’s Bond, although it wasn’t clear how much wine had been taken by that point. Ed’s main course was a very attractive-looking pollock dish with mussels, and although he was taken with it, it it didn’t give me any buyer’s remorse about the Mangalitsa pork. Liz had chosen the vegetarian option, a very accomplished spinach and ricotta ravioli dish. Again, although it looked the part, missing out on it didn’t fill me with regret.

There were only two desserts on the menu and we all fancied the same one, the chocolate and hazelnut fritter, so five of us went for that while Ed nursed a grappa. It was an exemplary way to end the meal, a deep, smooth chocolate mousse, sharpened with cream and sandwiched between layers of the lightest of batters. Looking at the picture, it resembles nothing more than a witty dessert take on the ubiquitous burger: would that it was anywhere near as easy to get hold of, but it seems you have to travel to Bristol. We accompanied this with a sweet, fresh and generous glass of Coteaux de Layon (always a better bet than Sauternes, if you ever see it on a menu) – although Zoë had a negroni, because she’s developing a taste for them.

If I haven’t talked much about service it’s because they were so good. Completely unobtrusive but always there when you needed them, really friendly and enthusiastic and very good at what they did. We needed to pay at the same time as ordering our dessert so Ed and Ben could make their taxi on time, and all of that was no trouble and very efficiently sorted. 

Our meal for six, including a discretionary ten per cent service charge, came to just over four hundred and ninety pounds, or something like eighty-two pounds a head. That might sound like a lot, but we really went for it – aperitifs, snacks, a three course meal, plenty of wine and dessert wine. You could spend less and I have no doubt you’d still have a superb meal, and if you find yourself in Bristol at lunchtime they have a set menu which is even more impressive value. But either way I had no regrets – a couple of nights before I’d eaten at Paco Tapas, Bristol’s Michelin starred tapas restaurant, where I spent significantly more, eaten and drunk considerably less and not had quite as much fun. You pay for a meal, but you pay for memories too.

Even as I was eating at Marmo, I knew that the marker had been set down for the rest of this year and probably most of the next: as complete, satisfying and perfect three course meal as I could imagine. I would go to Bristol to eat here again, and I would plan trips to Bristol just so I could. It’s not my favourite restaurant – if only because you can’t give that accolade to somewhere you’ve only eaten at once – but it was my favourite meal for a long time. And if you ever wonder why I don’t give out higher ratings more often, this is why. I save the big guns for the great meals, and this is the kind of standard Reading restaurants need to aspire to, slowly but surely. I still hope we’ll get there. But in the meantime, we’ll just have to hop on a train.

Marmo – 9.4
31 Baldwin Street, Bristol, BS1 1RG
0117 3164987

https://www.marmo.restaurant

Restaurant review: Bravas, Bristol

Last week I had my first holiday in eighteen months. Zoë hired a car and we headed to Bristol for a week of eating, drinking and relaxing, with a wedding conveniently plonked in the middle of our break. The feeling of being somewhere else, one I’ve previously had to conjure up by reading a novel, watching Call My Agent or eating in a restaurant, was even better experienced, in long last, in real life: I wish you could bottle it. Perching outside Small Street Espresso with a latte, watching a bunch of people who don’t live in my hometown going about their daily business was a little pleasure to savour, as was sitting in Left Handed Giant’s wonderful brewpub drinking glorious beer after glorious beer. 

This wasn’t a staycation, it was a holiday – but what it really was was heavenly. So it was enormous fun to amble round St Nick’s before settling down to a cracking lunch of American barbecue. Schlepping up Park Street, passing Bristol’s outpost of C.U.P. made me feel oddly proud of Reading. Walking down Park Street later, having saved just enough room for a Swoon gelato, was even better. Everywhere we went you could find excellent food, great coffee and brilliant indie shops in abundance. We spent an idyllic afternoon wandering round Bedminster, Zoë’s old hood, buying artisan chocolates and scented candles and looking at all the amazing street art. How I’ve missed buying poncey shit like artisan chocolate and scented candles. 

“It wasn’t like this when I lived here” said Zoë, and the thought crossed my mind that Bristol was far from Shangri-La when I lived there in the Eighties, back in the mists of time. Oxford is a lot better now than it was when I lived there in the early Nineties, come to think of it. Perhaps if I really wanted Reading to become a fantastic place to eat, drink and shop I shouldn’t bother filling out Reading UK’s latest pointless Surveymonkey questionnaire. Maybe I should just move somewhere else: that would fix it.  

Culturally, Bristol felt different too. Mask-wearing was commonplace, with many shops mandating it rather than using carefully chosen words like “expected” or “encouraged”.  As someone with a partner who proudly works in retail, I get especially cross that the great British public seems to think nothing of exposing those people to risk. One independent shop I saw had a sign up in the window: WE LOVE YOUR FACES BUT PLEASE WEAR A MASK, it said. Quite right too. 

But it wasn’t just the shops. The buses going past had signs saying that you had to mask up, a far cry from the fudge of Reading Buses. If Bristol did have mask deniers or anti-lockdown protesters they were where they belonged, namely out of sight.

Finding somewhere to eat on a Monday in Bristol can be quite a challenge, but we had a table booked at Bravas, a tapas restaurant just off the Whiteladies Road, which has always been one of my favourite places to eat in the city. I partly wanted to go back because I wanted to support the places I’ve always loved, to try and do my bit to help them survive. And clearly many of Bravas’ customers felt likewise: there was a chalkboard leaned against the front of the restaurant paying an emotional tribute to all the punters who had kept them afloat in the past eighteen months. I found it surprisingly moving, and I don’t even live there.

The council – more progressive, predictably, than their counterparts in Reading – had pedestrianised the whole of Cotham Hill, which meant that enterprising restaurants like Bravas had put up al fresco seating. This isn’t unique to Bristol, of course: Soho has been pedestrianised too, and I remember seeing pictures of Arbequina, a restaurant on Oxford’s Cowley Road, the pavement outside packed with extra tables. Is it that Reading just didn’t have any restaurants that could have benefited from a similar approach, or was it the usual failure of imagination by the powers that be?

In normal times I would have loved to sit inside at Bravas – the interior is conspiratorial, buzzy and surprisingly like being back in Spain – but all the things that make that room wonderful in normal times made me reluctant to eat there right now. Fortunately, after a short wait they managed to fix us up with a table outside, in a makeshift decked area (it was very pleasant, although you did feel slightly seasick every time climbed aboard, or disembarked).

Bravas’ menu was relatively small and perfectly formed, with a section of nibbles, cheese and charcuterie and then vegetable, seafood and meat tapas dishes – and some specials up on a board (I’m still sad I never managed to find room for the goat stew they were serving the day I visited). The way to approach a menu like this, I’ve always thought, is to work out all the dishes you absolutely to ensure you eat, divide them into groups and order each group one at a time, only ordering more when you’ve finished what’s in front of you.

So we did exactly that, and I made inroads into a fantastic G&T – made with local Psychopomp gin, olive and rosemary, a Bristolian take on Gin Mare – while we waited for our first dishes to turn up. Zoë was on a Negroni, which Bravas sweetens slightly with a dash of Pedro ximènez, because Zoë is more hardcore than I could ever hope to be.

The first thing we had fell slightly flat. Bristol is packed with excellent bakeries, and I expected Bravas’ bread to be more exciting, less dense and pedestrian. But the alioli it came with was pleasant enough, even if the golden colour slightly oversold it. Better were the jamon croquettes – others I’ve had have leaned heavily on the béchamel but these were sturdier and all the better for it. They were two pounds fifty each, or six for twelve pounds. Immediately after eating one I wished we’d ordered half a dozen, but that’s me all over. Manchego with rosemary was excellent too, especially with lozenges of membrillo to perk them up sweetly.

Things really got into gear with the selection of cured meats. I know all this is more about sourcing than cooking, but buying the right stuff is every bit as much a skill all good restaurants need. And this very much was the right stuff. The best of the bunch was a beautiful lomo, marbled with fat, more like coppa than the very lean lomo I’m used to in Andalusia. But the cecina was the equal of any bresaola I’ve tasted, and the salchichón was coarse and gorgeous. Best of all, it came with plump, sharp caperberries and sweet, tangy guindilla chillies to wrap in charcuterie and pop in your mouth. Better still, because of Zoë’s aversion to pickles I got to eat them all.

We’d ordered a tortilla and a dish with chickpeas and tuna belly, but there was obviously some kind of mix up, because instead we were brought two portions of the tortilla. They must have known something we didn’t, because having to share a single portion would only have caused trouble. It was one of the best I’ve had, soft but not gooey, sweet with potatoes and onions: few dishes can transfigure the everyday so completely.

The other vegetable dishes were disappointing by comparison. The eponymous bravas looked the part, and are a dish I’ve loved in the past – rather than cubes of fried potato, Bravas slices a whole potato lengthways and it looks very striking when brought to the table. But the texture was missing in action, the slices a little bit flabby and limp, lacking in the crispness that makes this dish so addictive. The bravas sauce with them was spot on, but the lack of fighting over the final slices of spud told its own sad story.

Worse still was the special, Isle of Wight tomatoes with rocket, capers and anchovies. Now, some of that is my mistake because I guess, in the cold light of day, when you look at that list of ingredients it sounds an awful lot like a salad. And a salad it was – heavy on the rocket, light on the tomatoes, the capers completely AWOL. And it wasn’t so much dressed as mulchy, sitting in a bowl with a little pool of what tasted like vinegar at the bottom. Given that we were in a tapas restaurant, and the tomatoes got top billing, I foolishly thought they would be the star of the show, as they would have been in Spain. More fool me, I suppose.

Things needed to improve, and fortunately they did with our last three dishes. Presa iberico turned up looking like a still life, served blushing in the middle, artfully dressed with charred rosemary and scattered with hefty salt crystals. And it was very good indeed, but it felt a little too little for too much at eight pounds fifty (although, to be fair, the following night we’d have a similar dish at Michelin-starred Paco Tapas that set you back twenty pounds). 

Cod a la plancha was more successful, a terrific piece of fish which flaked easily with a single artichoke on top, served with a gazpacho verde which felt a lot like a salsa verde to me. But half the fun of a piece of fish like this is a nicely crispy skin: our piece was missing half its skin, and what there was wasn’t crispy. Even so it was an enjoyable dish, although I couldn’t help wondering whether I should have ordered that goat stew after all. Finally, possibly the nicest dish of the meal: chicken chicharrones turned out to be nothing of the kind but just a superb plate of rugged, crunchy fried chicken, with a chilli alioli on top. I wish they’d brought us two of these by mistake instead, but that’s life.

Service was really stretched thin, and a little frazzled all afternoon. I felt for them, because it looked like they’d been badly hit by track and trace pings, to the extent where the chefs had to bring quite a few of the dishes to our table, and others. It was a real shame, and clearly not their fault – when you did get someone’s attention they were unfailingly lovely, but it could be difficult to flag someone down. I suspect we’d have drunk more if we’d been able to do that, but as it was we only managed another glass of wine each. The wine list, incidentally, was great, and both the wines we tried by the glass – a beautifully fresh chardonnay and gewurztraminer blend for Zoë, a robust, aromatic Rioja for me – were knockout.

The waiting staff were also particularly good towards the end of our meal when an elderly gentleman, dapper in overcoat and hat, wandered in from the Lebanese restaurant next door, took a seat at the table next to us, opened his polystyrene takeaway container and starting having at his kebab with a plastic fork. One of them came over and explained ever so nicely to him that the seating was reserved for customers of Bravas, and after they had some trouble getting this point across, patiently and politely, the intruder shambled off to munch on his lunch elsewhere: they earned every bit of our tip for that interaction alone. Our meal – all that tapas, a couple of cocktails and a couple of glasses of wine – came to ninety-two pounds fifty, not including service.

It’s tricky when you go to a restaurant you love and, by their high standards, they have an off day. I’ve enjoyed all my other meals at Bravas, objectively speaking, far more than this one. And yet this isn’t a normal time to weigh up restaurants, and Bravas seemed to be struggling with the pingdemic we are in, like so many hospitality businesses at the moment. 

Initially I was inclined to be more critical of the restaurant, but looking back I can’t help but remember the hotel we stayed in on our first night in Bristol. They’d given us a room up in the eaves where the bed was too big for the room it was in, so you could only really get into bed on one side. The other side, right next to the wall, had no bedside table and no lamp. The tiny TV was on a tiny chest of drawers in the corner which looked like it had been ransacked from an office closure. The 2019 version of me would have called reception and asked to see another room. It’s a life hack I learned from my ex-wife, who did it all the time.

But then I thought: I am away from home, on holiday, for the first time in a year and a half. I have a beautiful king-sized bed to spend the night in and a fantastic partner to share it with. There’s a huge claw-footed bath next door – I adore baths, more than I can say – and the sort of wet room and rainfall shower you could easily spend a long time in. I am fit and well, I’m double-jabbed and all things considered life could be an awful lot worse. And I never watch the TV in hotel rooms anyway. Really, who does?

So 2021 me stopped mithering about my hotel room, and in the same spirit 2021 me had a lovely afternoon at Bravas. It could have been even better, but I’ve spent eighteen months a long way from my best, and they had the decency to take me as they found me. The least I could do, under the circumstances, was return the favour. I dare say I’ll pay them a visit again next time I go to Bristol, and that day can’t come soon enough. In the meantime, I’ll work on being more grateful. It might make me a worse restaurant reviewer, but hopefully a marginally better person.

Bravas – 7.5
7 Cotham Hill, Redland, Bristol, BS6 6LD
0117 3296887

https://bravas.co.uk