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