Restaurant review: Wilsons, Bristol

I’m sorry to start proceedings with what looks suspiciously like a humblebrag, but last month I was on holiday in Belfast and as a treat, we booked a table at Ox, one of the city’s Michelin starred restaurants. But it was a hugely disappointing evening, which will please those of you who don’t like humblebrags. Everything was not quite right; nothing was actively terrible, but the whole thing felt far from optimal. We left underwhelmed, slightly peckish and feeling as if our wallets had been mugged in a dark alley, and wandered away from the scene of the crime in search of a pint.

I’ve never understood people who collect Michelin starred restaurants – too humblebraggy even for me – or restaurant bloggers who loftily describe meals they’ve had as “easily one star food”, as if somebody died and promoted them to inspector. Get over yourselves: it’s just one set of opinions, from an organisation so shrouded in secrecy and obscurity that they make the Freemasons look like the Good Law Project. For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought the Bib Gourmand is a better indicator that you’ll have a good and interesting meal.

The subject of this week’s review is Wilsons, a little restaurant in Bristol which doesn’t have a Michelin star, but which served me one of the very best meals I’ve had in the last five years. Not only did it get everything right that Ox got wrong, but it made me think about what excellence in restaurants really means – and how little of it has anything to do with being fancy.

Take the room, for example. At Ox, we walked past the lovely, twinkly, atmospheric downstairs room – which had free tables in it – only to be walked up the stairs to an unlovely mezzanine floor, all hard surfaces and dead air, the overflow car park of hospitality. It was boiling hot, the aircon stayed resolutely switched off and even blowing out the candles didn’t seem to alert the staff to what a stuffy, unpleasant place it was in which to have a meal. Wilsons has just the one dining room. It’s plain, simple, dignified and stylish with nothing on the walls except chalkboards and a lovely stained glass sign hanging in the full-length window. Good restaurants, ideally, have no shit tables. Wilsons has no shit tables.

This extended through to the menus. Ox doesn’t have a menu, so you are surprised on the night. Instead, they hand you a rather pretentious-looking sheet of paper which lists all the elements and ingredients that will feature in your meal, without telling you how or where. The menu is on their website, so even as gimmicks go, it’s pointless. Wilsons also offers a single menu but it’s written on the chalkboard each day for everybody to see. You can have the whole lot for sixty pounds – twenty pounds less than Ox – or a stripped-down version at lunch for twenty five quid (I read a review where someone said “that’s less than you’d spend on a pair of socks”: I’m as fond of conspicuous consumption as the next person, but what a knobber).

A mystery menu wouldn’t be a problem if the service brought the meal to life. Again, Ox was disappointing: everything was mechanical and muted, and much of it was hard to hear in that unforgiving and joyless space. Detail was scant, and there was more warmth in the room than in the welcome. And again, Wilson’s was outstanding. All the staff abandoned zonal marking for the hospitality equivalent of total football, which meant that our dishes were brought by a huge variety of friendly faces.

All of them could talk with huge knowledge and enormous enthusiasm about every single detail of every single dish: a better reviewer than me would have taken notes. On another night in Belfast we went to Edo, an incredible tapas restaurant and our waiter, almost immediately after we took our seats, said “well obviously I know the menu inside out so I can answer any questions you have”: that’s how you do it.

The food at Ox was also muted and bland, but that’s quite enough talking about restaurants other than Wilsons. Let’s talk about their food instead, because everything was stunning, more or less. We went for the full monty, and it started with a beautiful, clever piece of work – a gorgeous feather-light gougère packed with cheddar and leek and topped with a little beret of pickled onion purée. The whole thing imploded in the mouth leaving nothing but joy, an accomplished disappearing act.

Bread was made by the restaurant and came to the table still warm with a puck of butter which the restaurant cultures itself. This was accompanied with a vivid little dish of cod roe, pastel pink with a little iris of bright herb oil. There was powdered something-or-other on top, and if I’d made notes I’d be able to tell you what it was. All of this was lovely, incidentally, although the bread was sliced a tad too thick which made it difficult to use all the butter and cod roe. Zoë ran her finger along the bowl, and I pretended to be shocked.

At the same time, we had one final snack which the wait staff playfully described as a taco – a chicory leaf with chicken liver parfait, preturnaturally smooth, topped with powdered beetroot and the pop of toasted pearl barley. So much effort gone into making something so small, gone in an instant but remembered for days: truly magical stuff.

The next dish was one of the best things I ate that day, which makes it one of the best things I’ve eaten full stop. A savoury custard made with squash was sweet, glossy and perfectly spiced. Again, texture and pop was beautifully added with seeds, toasted in some of the same spice mix. But then the other elements added layer on layer of complexity and cleverness – tiny shimeji mushrooms, pickled in sherry vinegar, and a mushroom consommé poured over at the table, submerging the custard under something phenomenally savoury. Again, if I’d made better notes I could tell you what the leaves were: sorry about that.

By this point we were a couple of glasses into a fantastic bottle of natural Gruner Veltliner (the same one, actually, that I’d had at Goat On The Roof: it’s far more attractively priced at Wilsons) and I was already beginning to realise that this food was like very little I’ve eaten in other restaurants. I couldn’t recall anywhere I’ve eaten where the flavours were so pinpoint, where things had been so refined and perfected to make everything taste of its truest, best self. And as it turned out, I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Next to come was possibly the most disappointing course. Jigged squid – I have no idea what jigging is, and this time it’s not because I didn’t take notes – came in a rich and salty broth with rainbow chard. The squid, cut into ribbons to resemble udon, was among the freshest I’ve had and this dish made me love rainbow chard, something beyond the talents of most kitchens. The broth bringing it together had absolutely everything, and again it was that precise, super-concentrated hit that makes you sit up and pay attention, eat more slowly, take it all in. But this was the first time a portion felt stingy and doubt crept in: four ribbons of squid, and it’s not a good sign that I counted them.

Was it enough to dumbfound your tastebuds if you left a restaurant hungry? And yet my tastebuds were so dumbfounded – not least by a little tuile made from squid ink, as black as night and dotted with herb emulsion (I probably should have mentioned that much of the produce Wilsons use comes from their garden). It was a perfect mouthful, in a meal full of perfect mouthfuls and in a world where the word perfect is much devalued, not least by me. “It’s like the best crisp ever” said Zoë, who usually sums these things up better than I do.

More was to come, and the fish course proper was a proper marvel. A little cylinder of pollock, a notoriously recalcitrant fish, was cooked bang on and topped with another symphony of herbs, alongside a silky parsnip puree, the whole thing bound together with a superb vin jaune sauce which delivered more salt and less funk than I was expecting. I’ve talked about the half-life of dishes before and this had a long one – each forkful carefully calibrated to prolong the enjoyment. But again, the lack of carbs troubled me. What was the point of these beautiful sauces, dips and oils when there wasn’t always the substance to transport them into your gob?

I should have trusted in the process, because the next course made everything right. Crown of pheasant, cooked and then, I think, finished on the barbecue, glazed with some kind of emulsion and dotted with the smallest, punchiest capers I’ve ever eaten was a thing of rapture, as was the pheasant sauce and the wedge of just-cooked cabbage (there was also something called Tokyo turnip, but I thought that was a Steven Seagal film so what do I know?)

But where are the carbs? you might ask. But this is where Wilsons completely won me over by bringing a bowl of the best mash I’ve ever eaten. It was, the waiter told us, fifty per cent potato and fifty per cent butter. He also told us this is the only way to have mash, and I fear he might be right. It’s profoundly ruined me for other mash: I’ve already used the words ‘silky’ and ‘glossy’ in this review, so to save me reaching for the thesaurus let’s just settle for ‘exceptional’ here.

And there was still time for one more extra, one more whistle and bell to show that the kitchen left no stone unturned. We were also brought two pieces of what the waiter called “Kentucky Fried Pheasant”, little nubbins of pheasant thigh coated in the restaurant’s secret blend, deep fried and then drizzled with a ranch dressing including some of the same spices. You might wonder who goes to all that trouble, and I wouldn’t blame you. Wilsons do, that’s who. I may never get to try Eton Fried Swan (once we have a republic I really think this is a franchise that could take off) but until then this will tide me over nicely.

Having had some of the best, most interesting courses of my restaurant-going life, presumably things would dip for dessert, right? They so often do, after all. Well, think again: Wilsons’ dessert was also a desert (or even dessert) island dish. On paper it just sounded weird – celeriac, fermented honey and truffle. And it might not have been to everyone’s taste, but it absolutely knocked my socks off. The celeriac was an ice cream, more a semifreddo really, with a pool of fermented honey lurking in its hollow. All around it were toasted grains adding crunch and sweetness, and then on top were little truffle shavings.

I don’t know who thinks to put all those flavours together, and it’s a highwire act where any of them could have backfired. But none of them did, and this is the dish, more than any other, that I’ve thought about since that meal. I’ve had parsnip ice cream before but never celeriac, and it worked better than I thought it would. But what I loved was the harmony. Truffle isn’t a team player, nor is anything fermented. But the kitchen deftly drew all of that together into something delicious, remarkable and perhaps slightly mad. And yet not a note was out of place.

Now in Michelin-land, if they haven’t given you a minuscule pre-dessert they tend to send you on your way with some petits fours. They’re not big but they are clever, and they’re another way of making you feel like you’ve had something for free even though all of that luxe is very much priced in. So I adored Wilsons for instead bringing over a hulking great canélé de Bordeaux for each of us.

Now, I’ve had these many times because Reading is lucky enough to have Davy of Wolseley Street Bakery fame, and this is one of his specialities which he supplies to various places, most notably Geo Café. I like a canélé. But this was a completely different beast, and I wasn’t in Kansas – or Caversham – any more. This had been elevated with whisky and tonka, and the sweetness and richness was like little I’ve experienced. This level of sensory opulence is something I associate more with fragrance than with food, and I can’t put it more strongly than this: if somebody sold an eau de parfum that smelled how that canélé tasted, I’d buy a bottle. They were so good I can even forgive Wilsons for putting the napkin underneath them, although I still think that’s baffling.

My meal – two aperitifs, a bottle of wine and all those terrific experiences and memories – came to two hundred pounds including service, and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. If Wilsons did vouchers I’d just ask for some for Christmas, and as it is I’m struggling to imagine going to Bristol without eating there again. More to the point, I’m wondering how quickly I can justify going back. As it was, we left knowing it would take a while to process just how good our meal was, and fell into a beautiful nearby pub called the Good Measure which, as luck would have it, was doing a tap takeover by our very own Siren Craft. It was Friday afternoon, I was full and happy and I’d had a miraculous lunch. Life rarely gets much better.

I’m sorry-not-sorry for putting you through this catwalk show of beautiful dishes and purple prose. Sorry because it’s a lot to rattle through, and also arguably sorry if I’ve made you hungry (although, also, not sorry: this is what restaurant reviews should do). Sorry that I’ve rhapsodised about a restaurant that’s a train and bus trip from Reading. But also not sorry, because this is one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in years of trying, and that deserves to be mentioned. I’m sorry because Reading doesn’t have somewhere to match Wilsons and, in fact, I don’t think it ever has. But I’m also not sorry because when people ask me what Reading needs I might stop talking about tapas restaurants, ice cream cafés and good wine bars and just say: it needs somewhere like Wilsons.

Wilsons – 9.6
24 Chandos Road, Redland, Bristol, BS6 6PF
0117 9734157

https://www.wilsonsbristol.co.uk

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Restaurant review: Caper and Cure, Bristol

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
0117 9232858

https://www.caperandcure.co.uk

Restaurant review: Cotto, Bristol

I know, I know, another Bristol review. I’m sorry. This is meant to be Edible Reading, you might say. Why doesn’t he stay in his lane? Or perhaps you’re one of the If you like Bristol so much why don’t you live there brigade. I do understand, and I know a fair few people take a week off reading the blog when they see the name of the new post and realise it has a place name in the title, the name of Somewhere Outside Reading. I get it.

But the problem is that, when you write about food – or even if you don’t – you want to try the very best stuff. And when eating out is a passion you plan your holidays around it, your weekends around it. I’m away in a couple of weeks and the process is always the same: book the flights, book the hotel and then book the restaurants. And then you have to go through the usual dance: how many meals out is too many? Is two in a day overkill? Maybe your holidays aren’t like that, in which case I simultaneously envy you and think that, on some level at least, you’re missing out. You probably go to more galleries and museums than I do on a city break, to be fair.

And the thing about the very best stuff is that you – by which I mean I – actively want to write about it. Take the violet aubergine caponata I had as part of my lunch at Cotto, a restaurant in Bristol’s old city, a stone’s throw from the food market. I’ve had caponata before, but nothing that matched this. Everything was in high definition – the aubergine sweet, sharp and comforting all at once, the basil perfumed, the olive oil grassy and the pine nuts a joyous surprise in every forkful. Each flavour was somehow separated out and distinct, the gastronomic equivalent of listening to a well produced record on very expensive headphones. You might not give a monkey’s, but how could I not review that?

I’m probably getting ahead of myself by starting there, but given that I’m not usually a Bristol reviewer and you’re most likely not a Bristol reader I can probably skip the preamble with all the namedropping. The bit that talks about Cotto being the latest in a group of Bristol restaurants, the Bianchis Group, and mentions all the others (spoiler alert: I’ve not yet been to any of them). And I could tell you the name of the chef – I know some reviewers really start dribbling at that point – but it didn’t mean anything to me and it probably wouldn’t to you either.

I mean, why should you care? I’d heard good things, so I thought I’d check it out for lunch while I was spending a few days in Bristol and I’m writing it up even though it probably won’t interest many of you. I’m selfless like that.

It was a lovely dining room. From the photos I’ve seen it looks lively in the evenings, with a certain convivial glow. But stopping there on a Friday lunchtime, the room less than half-full, it had a wonderful serenity – all muted terra cotta walls, framed cartoons and Robin Day polyprop chairs (they’ve come up in the world since my generation perched on them in double maths back in the Eighties, that’s for certain). 

It bills itself as a wine bar and kitchen, and you could sit up at the bar looking out on St Stephen’s Street with a glass and a small plate, I suppose, although given how good the menu looked that would feel a bit like having half a wank. It was all tempting, to the extent where the difficult part wasn’t choosing what to eat but what to forego; on another day I’d have wound up telling you all about the coppa and pickles, the vitello tonnato, the fermented courgette with hot honey. 

But in this parallel universe I tried that caponata, and I could hardly complain. It cost six pounds fifty, fifty pence of which went to one of the restaurant’s chosen charities. There were three dishes marked as including that contribution and one of the others was the bread and butter – four slices of decent, robust sourdough which maybe felt slightly steep at just over four pounds. It was however vital for sauce moppage (it’s a word now: I say so) so what can you do?

The bread also came in handy for our third starter, from the specials board. I read somewhere that Cotto cures its own charcuterie and makes its own sausages, and on this showing that involves some real talent. Salsiccia came in earthy, hefty pieces and although I didn’t get masses of the advertised soave and chilli, the gremolata that crowned each diabolically delicious diagonal slice made the whole thing positively sparkle. Again, eight pounds felt slightly steep for a solitary sausage – but that might be the curmudgeon in me so by all means just tune this sentence out.

Our starters finished, we sipped our drinks happy in the knowledge that we were in safe hands. Good starters will do that, building up a bank of credit most restaurants know better than to squander. And our drinks were gorgeous, too: Zoë continued her current negroni phase with a negroni sbagliato, a “broken” negroni made with Prosecco rather than gin, and I had a soft and uncomplicated Italian red about which I remember precious little. But the wine list was excellent – nearly all European, covering a good range of price points with a wide selection available by the glass.

Mains came a little quicker than I’d have chosen – about ten minutes after our empty starter plates were taken away – but were a welcome sight all the same. Gnocchi with rabbit is a combination of two of my favourite things, and what turned up in front of me more than lived up to the promise of those words on the menu. The gnocchi managed to steer clear of stodge and were the perfect vehicle for a sauce of tangled strands of rabbit and firm, almost nutty broad beans, the whole thing lifted with a spike of aniseed, from tarragon I expect. A halo of Parmesan was the icing on the cake, and eating it I got that high-definition thing again, that sense of a kitchen conducting things with aplomb so every flavour had its moment in the spotlight.

Zoë’s chicken involtini was even more a thing of wonder. I have a real soft spot for this kind of dish, but I’ve rarely had a version as good as Cotto’s – chicken wrapped in ham, everything cooked just right, in thick rounds with baby gem, the edges blackened and charred, the whole thing liberally dressed with a vibrant, racing green salsa verde. A spot of balsamic and instant sunshine from more of that olive oil completed a beautiful picture. It was unfussy but superb: as usual, Zoë had picked better than me.

Our waiter – who was absolutely brilliant throughout, incidentally, despite seemingly looking after the whole room on his own – had suggested that the chicken dish needed some carbs. And I’m thoroughly glad that he did, because the Jersey royals we’d ordered for backup were an utter delight. Burnished and bronzed, tossed in oil, garlic and oregano they would have been a knockout on their own, but when paired with a generous puddle of aioli I could have gladly eaten these all the live long day. Have a look at the picture below: if it doesn’t make you peckish you’re beyond my help.

By this point in the meal I was polishing all of my superlatives, so to speak, but my ardour was slightly dampened by the desserts. I would say that they felt like an afterthought, but they were both on the specials board so you couldn’t even say that. We had some Montbrú cheese, which our waiter told us was a goat’s cheese with a texture closer to a Comté or a Gruyère. And that’s true, and a very nice cheese it was too, but three small slices for seven quid felt stingy. This could have done with some carbs: crackers or bread, some or indeed any vehicle for getting the stuff into your gob. That was especially the case because the whole shebang was drizzled with honey which made picking it up a tricky business. And who wants to eat cheese with a knife and fork? You just end up looking like a lemon.

The chocolate truffles were a different kettle of fish. They were excellent – deep and rich and perhaps ever so slightly larger than your average truffle. They were also five pounds fifty. For two. And again, I know this probably sounds a bit like a moan but even so: I know food is getting more expensive, and I didn’t begrudge the price of most of the things we ordered at Cotto. But every now and again the pricing of a dish felt out of whack, and the desserts were where that was more noticeable. Our bill, for three courses and two drinks apiece, came to just over a hundred pounds, which included an optional ten per cent service charge, and all told we were in and out in just over an hour.

Does that matter, in the scheme of things? Well, yes and no – I’ve thought about it a lot since the meal, weighing up the pros and cons. And this is something a lot of restaurant reviewers don’t do – they’ll gush about the dishes but not think about what it was like as a meal, or talk about how much it cost (often because, in their own weasel words, “I didn’t see a bill”). And that’s where Cotto falls down ever so slightly, because despite some truly gorgeous touches and some plates which were up there with anything I’ve eaten this year the whole thing was a little too sharply priced and too briskly paced, especially for lunchtime.

Would I go again? It’s a good question, and one that was thrown into perspective when I realised, walking down St Stephen’s Street, that Cotto was literally two doors down from Marmo, the Bristol restaurant I visited last year that received my highest ever rating. If you picked Cotto up and dropped it in Reading, it would do very well, and I expect from time to time you’d find me there. But as an infrequent visitor to Bristol, it would be difficult to choose it over Marmo: in fact I had dinner at Marmo the night of this visit, and Cotto didn’t quite match it.

That’s how fortunate Bristol is: on one street you can find neighbouring restaurants, either of which would grace a town like Reading with its presence. And it’s not just St Stephen’s Street, you could experience the same phenomenon at Wapping Wharf, on Cotham Hill, in no doubt countless other parts of the city. How do the residents of Bristol not get blasé or complacent, the jammy blighters? But then there’s always someone better off than you, as my friend who lives near Swindon never tires of telling me (usually over Gurt Wings at Blue Collar Corner). Never mind: normal service will be resumed next week with a review back in the ‘Ding, of a place that went a long way towards restoring my faith. Something to look forward to, I hope.

Cotto – 7.9
29-31 St Stephen’s St, Bristol, BS1 1JX
0117 3292560

https://www.cottowinebarandkitchen.co.uk

Restaurant review: Sonny Stores, Bristol

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
0117 9660821

https://www.sonnystores.com

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