I found myself in Bristol, every restaurant blogger’s second favourite place, for a couple of days last week and, as with any other city break, in the run up to my trip I devoted myself to the serious business of deciding where to eat. As with city breaks in all my favourite places, it involved balancing difficult considerations: how many proper, sit-down meals and how many more casual, lighter lunches on the move did I want? How many old favourites and how many new prospects? Which areas did I want to amble through and explore, before or after?
Sonny Stores, although new to me, was an obvious candidate, having received a lot of attention in the couple of years since it opened. It’s been reviewed by a fair few of the national restaurant critics and a handful of bloggers – the good, the bad and the ugly – and so, along with the fantastic Marmo, is one of the Bristol restaurants most often given the status of destination restaurant. That’s even more impressive, when you consider the destination: unlike Marmo, on the edge of the old city, Sonny Stores is in up and coming Southville, the other side of the river.
Zoë used to rent round there, back when she worked in Bristol, and a wander through the area involved her saying “it was never this good when I lived here” at regular intervals as we passed another boutique shop, another amazing piece of street art, another good-looking café or natural wine bar. And it was crowded – thronged with people, probably the busiest place I’d visited in the last two and a bit years. Where had all these people come from? (I later discovered it was for Upfest, which explained the carnival feel).
Anyway, Sonny Stores is on a residential sidestreet, away from all that. It’s an attractively neutral, almost Scandi restaurant on the corner – double aspect, with big windows and plenty of natural light. The thing that really struck me about it, which is a very Reading thing to think, is that the building reminded me of Caversham’s sadly-departed Siblings Home: if only we could find an ex-River Café chef to swoop in and open a restaurant there. But, for now at least, people like that settle in Bristol and open their restaurants there, so if you want to try them you have to hop on a train.
Inside it was an equally pleasing dining room. It showed that you don’t have to go to town on the decor to create a really appealing space, although I did like the Blue Note-style framed prints on the wall advertising past and upcoming collaborations with other chefs. A few tables were already occupied when we turned up, but not long into our lunch the place was almost completely full: a glowing writeup in the Observer will do that for you. By then it had that atmosphere every restaurant aims for, a little private members’ club of people profoundly satisfied with their life choices.
The menu is on a blackboard on the wall, so I suspect it changes very frequently. It had a great range – a few snacks, half a dozen starters and a mixture of pizzas, pasta dishes and assorted mains. Narrowing it down proved difficult, and at times I wondered whether I’d be shirking my responsibilities if I steered clear of the fried sand eels or the “Cornish earlies” (new potatoes, apparently: I had to Google that). But first we had a drink – a negroni for Zoë, an Aperol spritz for me, both of which were on the agreeably medicinal side of strong. The drinks menu was a little haphazard: there was a printed wine list, and a blackboard behind the counter listed the cocktails. There were three taps for beer, but the menu omitted to mention what was on them.
“This table wobbles” said Zoë as we took our introductory sips.
“Is that going to be a problem?”
“No, we’ll just make the best of it. I don’t think they can do anything about it, and they’re going to be too full to move us anyway. Besides, this is a good spot up by the counter.”
The first signs that I was going to have to write this kind of review came with the starters. Zoë’s was a joy – a beautifully photogenic pizzette with pungent taleggio and crispy pancetta. I was allowed one mouthful, which was enough to explain why she wasn’t letting me have any more. I thought it was perhaps sharply priced at a tenner, but Zoë thought it was faultless. I saw the full-sized pizzas being carried to other tables later in the afternoon and they also looked terrific, but it’s a nice idea to be able to have one and still have room for your main.
My starter, chicken livers on bruschetta, was more problematic. I know looks aren’t everything, but this dish really wasn’t a looker. It wasn’t even a jolie laide: I usually adore chicken livers, but these were a sludgy mulch and after a few forkfuls it felt like heavy going. What the dish needed was something to cut through, but instead it had a few strips of lardo draped on top, just to add to the general clagginess. On paper, I’d had a very similar dish at the Lyndhurst earlier in the year but they’d served the livers perfect and pristine, with a pesto to add contrast. You got a far better, cheaper dish at the Lyndhurst than at the nationally acclaimed Sonny Stores, where this cost twelve pounds. It was the first underwhelming thing I’d eaten during three days in Bristol, which tells you a lot about the city.
The wine list at Sonny Stores, by the way, was really good – it was especially welcome to see so many wines available in 125ml glasses, as that’s always my favourite way to try several. I had a zippy French rosé with my starter, which provided some badly-needed sharpness, and Zoë’s white was also great: she’d asked for the Argentinian riesling, but they’d run out so they suggested an alternative whose name escapes me. But flagging people down was difficult – the previous day I’d had lunch at a restaurant in the centre of Bristol where there was one waiter doing the work of five people. By contrast, Sonny Stores had five wait staff and they were lovely when you got their attention, but that was a challenge. The chap behind the bar, who made the cocktails, was equally lovely, but if you asked him for help he just directed you to the wait staff. It all felt disjointed, and a little odd.
Oh, and to carry on whinging, that wobbly table was really wobbly. Wobbly enough that I feared for our drinks. Wobbly enough that ideally, while one of you was sawing away at a pizzette the other of you would stop eating your starter and hold it steady. “I can’t believe nobody has pointed this out before”, said Zoë, and I could kind of see where she was coming from. To be fair to the wait staff, one of them clearly noticed and came over to try and fix it between courses – he did his best, but to paraphrase the great Roy Walker, it was good but still not right.
We ordered more wine to go with our mains. Mine sat up on the bar, and I watched it for the best part of five minutes waiting for them to pour the second. By this point I was wondering: is it just me? Was I just out of sorts because of the hot crowded bus ride over the river, or was I a little hung over from the night before? Everyone was having such a marvellous time: what right did I have to feel any different?
My main course did much to soothe my mood. This was the dish which gave me a glimpse of what others had seen in the place. Two huge, gorgeous lamb chops, cooked bang on, sat on a jumble of roasted peppers and coco beans. Again, this wasn’t the most photogenic plate of food I’d ever had but when it tasted this good, when there were so many combinations, so many forkfuls to curate it didn’t matter a jot. It came with dragoncello, which I’ve never heard of but is apparently a sort of salsa verde made with tarragon. I adore tarragon, and I know it goes perfectly with lamb – Geo Café does a wonderful lamb and tarragon dish, on its Georgian nights – but I must be some kind of heathen because this tasted very much like a conventional salsa verde to me.
I saw less of my main than I’d have liked, though, because Zoë’s was so underwhelming that I had to keep giving her some of my lamb to prevent a diplomatic incident. It was a problem of expectation management, and we’d done our best to avoid it: the menu said “tagliarini, fried zucchini carbonara”. So before Zoë ordered it, we tried to decipher what that meant.
“So the tagliarini carbonara, how does that come?”
“Well, it’s a carbonara, but with some fried zucchini on top.”
I know there’s a debate about carbonara. I know people dispute whether you should add cream, or whether it should be egg yolks alone. But what I thought was beyond dispute was that it always contains dead animal. You know, pancetta or guanciale: a pig has to die for it to be carbonara. And the impression the wait staff had given was that this was a carbonara with added courgette, but when the dish turned up it was clear this wasn’t the case. At least when vegan restaurants call something “cheeze” or “chickn” they’re giving you a hint in mile high letters that it’s not the real deal, but here there was no such thing: maybe they should have called it a carb-no-nara or something.
“It doesn’t even have that many courgettes in it” said Zoë, who started her main course disillusioned and went downhill from there. First she conducted some kind of search with a fork, desperately looking for the slightest hint of caramelised corpse. Then with a sigh she settled down to making the best of it. I tried some, and immediately resigned myself to having to donate rather a lot of my own, infinitely superior dish.
“It’s just monotonous” said Zoë, for once not talking about me. “Every mouthful is the same. It’s so disappointing.”
We had desserts, to try and rescue the situation, and again the hit rate was fifty per cent. This time, Zoë was the winner, with a cracking slab of tiramisu – although slab makes it sound like a heavy, weighty thing and this was far more ethereal than that. I had a spoonful for quality control but didn’t push it, well aware of how fortunate I’d been with my main course.
My dessert, on the other hand, kept up the middling work. A chocolate salted almond cake sounds like a beautiful prospect, and this was made with Pump Street chocolate which I adore. But what turned up felt like an unremarkable brownie passing as a cake – the shape was different, but the overall effect was the same. In fact it lacked that textural contrast that makes a great brownie so joyous, the juxtaposition of brittle and fudgy. This was, and I don’t enjoy saying it, another little slice of meh. I loved the crème fraîche that came with it, but when crème fraîche is doing that much heavy lifting it doesn’t say much about the dessert.
Our bill came to one hundred and ten pounds, not including tip. On the bill, Zoë’s main was just billed as Veggie Pasta (“the final insult”, she muttered darkly when I told her). We settled up and headed for the bustling chaos of Bedminster, to do a spot of shopping and pass by the peerless Zara’s Chocolates to buy some bits and pieces for later on. I took a look back at Sonny Stores as we left and thought again about Siblings Home. That site was crying out to be a beautiful neighbourhood restaurant, if only somebody would take a chance on it. And one thing some of my favourite restaurants, like Marmo, or even Oxford’s Arbequina, prove is that you don’t need a gigantic kitchen to offer a really interesting menu.
I know lots of people don’t read my Bristol reviews – they’re a tad niche, and not all of you want to go to Bristol to eat. So thank you, if you’ve made it this far. I also know that any of you reading this, if you do take a trip out west, are unlikely to go to Sonny Stores on the basis of this. So let’s draw things to a conclusion so you can get on with the rest of your day. There is a terrific meal to be had there, if you were to order the pizzette, the lamb and the tiramisu: that’s the Doctor Jekyll. But the equal and opposite Mr Hyde is those chicken livers, that non-carbonara and the chocolate cake. That batting average isn’t enough to elevate it from the other wonderful places to eat in Bristol, let alone options closer to home.
“It just wasn’t quite there” was Zoë’s verdict. “The service was a little off, and that wobbly table did my swede in.” And I think, sadly, that she’s right. It’s a decent – if slightly pricey – neighbourhood restaurant but not, in my book, a destination in itself. That’s hype for you; I liked it in parts but I’m afraid that, like some of the reviews I’ve read of Sonny Stores, it’s not quite as good as it thinks it is.
Sonny Stores – 7.4
47 Raleigh Road, Southville, Bristol, BS3 1QS