I don’t know how many restaurant reviewers you read – apart from yours truly, naturally – but the shocking truth is that I don’t really bother with any of them. I’ve no interest, for instance, in reading Giles Coren wanking on in his Corenesque way about another country pub near his house in the Cotswolds, peppering it with his usual contrarian casual racism. If I want to be bored shitless by an edgelord, I’ll just fire up Twitter.
That’s rich coming from me, I know. The irony isn’t lost on me, and if everybody thought the way I do I’d probably have the grand total of about three readers. But there you go: with some of the big names I have a peek to see where they’ve reviewed, and I might scan through to see if they liked it – if it’s somewhere I might one day go – but beyond that I don’t really pay much attention.
So for instance I know that Grace Dent from the Guardian had a meal in Maidenhead not too long ago that she really enjoyed. As a result I’ve added the venue to my to do list, but I won’t be poring over her deathless prose line by line before I go. Similarly the subject of this week’s review, Caper and Cure, received rave reviews in the Sunday Times and the Financial Times recently. I didn’t read them (because paywall, Rupert Murdoch etc.), but when I happened to be in Bristol for the weekend I made a beeline there to see what the fuss was about.
And yes, that means another Bristol review, which in turn means that some of you will look away now – or, more likely, didn’t click on the link in the first place. But I make no apologies, because for many years now Bristol has had, for my money, the most interesting food scene in the U.K. Cities and towns like Brighton (back in the day) and Margate always strike me as trying to be London-on-Sea, but what I love about Bristol is that it ploughs its own furrow, with no interest in being anything other than itself.
Places that want to develop a food culture, like Reading, could learn a lot from that: if we got even a fraction of the kind of restaurants in our town centre that Bristol seems to say hello to every month, we’d be a much richer place for it. Besides, it’s just over an hour away by train.
So Zoë and I turned up on a Saturday lunchtime to check it out. Caper and Cure is in Stokes Croft, a short stroll from Cabot Circus, the city’s main mall, at the point where Bristol starts to get properly lively and interesting. Beyond Caper and Cure, Stokes Croft becomes the Cheltenham Road and then the Gloucester Road, a fascinating indie-land of bars and restaurants, shops selling every kind of beer or wine and charcuterie (and a special prize surely has to go to the splendidly named Bristanbul, a Turkish bakery).
On the walk to the restaurant I saw the parts of this area that have defeated gentrification: the patch of land called Turbo Island still sports a couple of shabby sofas whose best days were decades ago, and the people sitting on them were already a few cans of lager to the good by early afternoon. The last time I was here I had a fantastic brunch at nearby Jamaica Street Stores: it closed last month after five years, partly because of growing issues with Turbo Island.
But Caper and Cure, a handsome blue and gold fronted restaurant on the corner, still felt relatively genteel; Stokes Croft institution Café Kino is next door, and the gorgeous Elemental Collective sells coffee and pastries the other side of the road. The building Caper and Cure is in used to be a chemist, back in the Twenties, and the room retains exceptional bones – generously proportioned floor to ceiling windows letting in tons of light, and a compact, almost-triangular dining room with about twenty covers.
A fetching button-backed banquette ran along one side – we were seated at the slightly less attractive tables on the other side of the room, but it didn’t feel like there were any truly duff seating choices. There was a small counter at the back, the open kitchen beyond, and along one wall was a map of Europe showing the provenance of some of the ingredients used in the kitchen: a nice touch. Why was Bristol so good at making excellent dining rooms and kitchens out of such modest spaces, and why had none of that genius ever made it down the M4 to us?
For that matter, why were Bristol restaurants so good at putting a menu together which was simultaneously compact but where you wanted to order everything? Four starters, five mains, three desserts, a cheeseboard and a couple of specials. Starters around a tenner, mains fifteen to twenty quid, desserts maxing out at eight pounds. Absurdly streamlined, really, compared to the overkill of so many restaurants, and yet I could have ordered any combination of dishes (I should mention, too, that this being Stokes Croft vegetarians and vegans also had decent, imaginative choices). There’s a real talent to assembling a menu like this, to hitting all the bases and keeping it lean and appealing, and I for one wish more restaurants had it.
But before we made those agonising yet enjoyable decisions, we tried a couple of things from the snacks section of the menu. Cauliflower cheese croquetas were a real piece of wizardry, with spot on crunch and the smoothest, glossiest core, tangy with cheese and the sweetness of cauli. Each of them sat under a little Johnsonian toupée of Parmesan, each was stupendous. A ridiculous five pounds for these, and it took all my strength not to order more.
But even better was the sourdough with jamon butter. The words “jamon butter” rather sell short what you got, a quenelle of salty, savoury spreadable jamon with a texture somewhere between whipped butter and rillette. It was one of the most moreish things I’ve eaten in years, and if they’d sold it over the counter I’d have walked out of the restaurant at the end of my meal with a tub of the stuff the size of my head, knowing full well that it wouldn’t survive the rest of the weekend.
The bread that came with it was decent enough, but its one role was to provide a vehicle for eating the jamon butter that was more civilised than just devouring the stuff with your bare hands. If I’m being ultra-critical, one of the slices of bread was as much air as bread and if I’d been in the kitchen I wouldn’t have served it. But it upped the jamon butter to bread ratio, so it wasn’t all bad.
A high standard had been set, and the starters just vaulted over that as if it was nothing. I’d chosen the sweetbreads, because I love them and they don’t turn up on menus in this country anywhere near often enough. Caper and Cure’s might well be the best I’ve ever had: pert and tender, in a dish where they played the starring role but with excellent support. That meant fresh, nutty peas, translucent slices of radish and some braised baby gem, but more importantly it meant a chicken butter sauce bringing the whole thing together triumphantly. It supplied another intense umami hit, fortified with little nuggets of pancetta just in case you weren’t having enough fun already.
As we discovered over this and our other dishes, Caper and Cure specialises in those high-gloss, super-reduced sauces that speak of patience and expertise. Having finished my starter I was frustrated to see far too much sauce still in the high-sided bowl, but without prompting one of the wait staff asked if I needed some more bread. I didn’t think twice, and Caper and Cure’s bread with the remnants of my chicken butter sauce was, on its own, tastier than ninety per cent of the starters I’ve eaten in nine years of writing this blog.
Zoë was equally happy with her decision to order the burrata. It’s an ever-present on menus now, but I doubt many restaurants pair it with tomatoes quite as good as these (from the Isle Of Wight, of course). And more importantly I doubt many restaurants plonk the whole thing on their own exemplary tapenade, with the perfume of deep purple olives. I had a forkful of this, and although I couldn’t have not ordered the sweetbreads it also had much to admire.
By this point I knew beyond doubt that we were in very good hands, and the only remaining question was just how special the rest of the meal might be. Our main courses answered that question emphatically. Hake, one of the two market fish on the blackboard, was cooked just right and perched on top of an absolutely glorious layer of pickled fennel, just sweet enough and just sharp enough: I’ve never had pickled fennel before, and now I’m just counting the days until the next time.
A tangle of samphire heaped on top added a little saltiness and if the skin wasn’t as crispy as I’d have chosen, that was probably because the whole thing was swimming in a superbly glacé lobster sauce. It wasn’t all perfect, mind you; I’d personally have liked the orzo, the base of the dish, a little closer to al dente and the lobster sauce was more muted than it could have been. But those would have been minor niggles at the best of times: on such a successful plate of food, coming in at a ludicrous twenty-one pounds, they were just the only things I could find that fell short of flawless. It was still one of the most marvellous dishes I’ve eaten all year.
Zoë had absolutely no reservations about her rump of beef, and the couple of forkfuls I had were easily enough evidence to understand why. It was a beautiful piece of meat, cooked medium-pink but with a nice crust, but again it was all about how that ingredient played nicely with the delightful company it was keeping. In this case that meant another sticky, glossy sauce – peppercorn this time – little puddles of onion purée and banana shallots, also with a little char. And to add a little ballast, a perfect slab of Pommes Anna, as enticing and multi-layered as a great novel. This might have been one of the most marvellous dishes I didn’t eat all year, but at least it went to a truly deserving home
We had some Parmesan and truffle fries with our mains – completely unnecessary but also impossible to resist – and they were themselves a fascinating experience. It’s a dish that crops up on menus a lot lately, from Buon Appetito to the Last Crumb and beyond, but in most places it’s a way to tart up bought-in French fries and flog them for a fiver. Here they were the real deal, and when we’d finished our mains and used the fries to clean up the last of our respective sauces we picked at the rest with slightly oily fingers and glad hearts.
Dessert was the point at which things stopped being spectacular and settled for merely being rather good: technically there are only really two desserts on the menu along with a couple of cheeses and chocolate sorbet with coffee liqueur which felt like a distant cousin of the affogato. I rather liked my panna cotta, which had a pleasing wobble, tons of crumbled pistachio on top and a moat of strawberries and sweet syrup. But the advertised wild honey was the quietest of whispers, and without it the whole thing felt a little run of the mill.
I thought Zoë chose better than me, but she wasn’t wild about her choice either. A rum brûlée was served denuded of a ramekin – how often does that happen? – with plenty of pineapple and coconut sorbet. I liked it, although again the rum was a little muted, and I thought it all worked well together. Zoë was less convinced, and I think on another day would have had the chocolate sorbet. But we were both being restrained, with a boozy evening ahead and (in my case) a gin sodden one behind me, so we steered clear of booze.
That means I can’t tell you anything about the wine list, which is a matter of some regret for me as it had plenty to appeal – and three special wines available by the glass, including a Georgian orange wine by Tbilvino which sounded well worth trying. But instead I’m afraid we were well behaved – I had a very good alcohol free pale ale by local Bristol Beer Factory and Zoë had soft drinks. Next time I go, which I anticipate will be the next time I visit Bristol, I’ll try it properly.
I haven’t really talked about service, but it was very much of a piece with everything else: smooth, efficient, friendly and good at making everything look easy. Offering me some bread with my starter was a great example, but really the whole thing seemed effortless. Caper and Cure wasn’t as busy as I expected but it had a real mixture of tables and types of diners, with more people coming in for lunch as we were leaving, and the whole thing had a nice flow and rhythm to it. I imagine it would be a truly enchanting place to have a boozy evening meal with friends, and next time I go there that’s exactly what I plan to do.
Our bill came to a hundred and twelve pounds, including a twelve and a half per cent service charge, and when the owner came to take our payment I pointed out that they’d slightly undercharged us. Before we left he asked where we came from, and if he was fazed that people had come all the way from Reading he concealed it well; I looked him up afterwards, and it turns out he’s also a professional actor (“you can just tell” said Zoë as we ambled up the Cheltenham Road in search of caffeination).
This is the second critically acclaimed Bristol restaurant I’ve visited this year, and the contrast with Sonny Stores couldn’t have been more marked. Restaurant critics like to talk about Bristol growing these restaurants – small, unpretentious places with short, magnificent menus and interesting wine lists – as if in a laboratory. And it’s true that the place is a Petri dish for culinary creativity, more than anywhere I know.
But I think it doesn’t do Caper and Cure justice to make it sound like just the latest place to fall off some gastronomic assembly line. There’s something uniquely special about it, and re-reading this review I’m not sure I’ve truly captured it in what I’ve written. It’s worth going to these places, even if they’re an hour and a quarter away by train, to remember what we have to aim for in Reading and that for all the Kungfu Kitchens, the Bakery Houses, the Lyndhursts and the Clay’s we still have some distance to travel.
If a restaurant like Caper & Cure opened in Reading it would be packed to the rafters every night and lauded as far as the eye can see. And yet in all the time I’ve been writing this blog, the best part of a decade, nowhere even slightly like Caper and Cure has opened here. At some point, we might all have to stop and think about why that is. Reading has the money, it has the prosperity and it has a discerning demographic. Why don’t we have the restaurants?
Caper and Cure – 9.2
The Old Chemist, 108a Stokes Croft, Bristol, BS1 3RU