For once, I turned up for lunch in Bristol moderately ahead of the curve. COR, a cosy small plates restaurant in Bedminster, has only been open since October and, so far, has mostly been Bristol famous rather than nationally famous. Not completely, though: Tom Parker Bowles raved about it in the Mail On Sunday on a recent visit. And last month, when Square Meal listed its top 100 restaurants for 2023 COR made the list: not too shabby for a restaurant that’s been trading for about four months. Even so, stepping through the front door with my old friend Al for lunch during a weekend trip to my favourite city, I felt slightly closer to the zeitgeist than usual.
They’ve got a lovely site. It’s a corner plot, double aspect with big windows letting in plenty of light and despite being on the compact side all the space is used superbly. There are relatively few tables, but there are also excellent, comfy-looking stools up at the window letting you look out on the painfully cool passers-by, on their way to a café, the terrific looking natural wine bar or a smashing chocolate shop. The seats at the bar look like fun too, and some of them give you a view out back to the open-ish kitchen. The restaurant is passionate about always saving some room for walk-ins at the window or at the bar: like so much else about it, it’s admirable.
COR’s menu read extraordinarily well. I know small plates aren’t for everybody, but these were grouped and flowed effortlessly, from nibbles to charcuterie, on to seafood, to a selection of vegetarian and meat dishes and then a handful of larger, more conventional plates. Just the three, in fact. The nibbles and charcuterie were close to a fiver, the small plates generally hovered just under ten pounds and the bigger ones were around fifteen quid.
Now some people will look at that and think “ugh”, probably put off by bad experiences with the small plates concept in the past. I get that – I’ve had many of those too – but to me this just read like a dream, an edible Choose Your Own Adventure with no bad endings. Our waitress, who was positively brilliant throughout, told us roughly how many dishes people ordered per head, although I must say that she probably meant customers built like her, or Al, rather than built like me. We may have disregarded her sterling advice. She also told us they were down to their last portion of mojama, air-dried tuna, on the specials board, and nodded approvingly when we asked to bag it.
That turned out to be an outstanding decision, although in fairness so was practically everything we ordered. So was booking the place for lunch in the first place, come to think of it. I’m used to eating mojama up at the bar in Granada, thick slabs of coarse, salty tuna sprinked with almonds and drizzled with olive oil, as simple as they come. This, by contrast, was gossamer-light, with a judicious single almond, beautifully toasted, per slice and little segments of sweet, sharp orange to improve things still further. My mind may have been playing tricks on me, but I think the whole lot rested on a smudge of houmous. Every mouthful was delightful, and it never lost that sense of surprise: small plates, in fairness, find that easier.
As we rhapsodised Al sipped his white vermouth, I my Asturian cider – yes, we’re those kinds of wankers – and all my cares dissolved; Bedminster wasn’t Granada, not by a long chalk, but it had already earned twin city status, and we’d just gotten started.
Finocchiona, fennel salami, was more about buying well. But COR definitely bought well, and if their menu had listed where they’d got the stuff from I’d have ended up buying well too. It had a wonderful whack of aniseed and I liked it very much – it also wasn’t too ridiculously priced at a fiver. As you will discover, I had trouble finding fault with nearly anything that COR did so I might as well take my opportunity here: only two cornichons? Really? Have a word with yourselves.
That minor disappointment out of the way, the last of our first wave of dishes was also on the specials board and if I eat anything as small but perfectly formed again this year I’ll have done very well for myself. The last time I was in Bristol I was wowed by a canelé rich with honey, whisky and smoke. This time, I was even more dumbfounded by COR’s savoury canelé which came drizzled with a grassy olive oil, tarragon and thinly sliced mushroom. Cutting vertically through it prompted the reveal, that the whole thing had been filled with a creamy, savoury mushroom duxelles which made me beam. This was emphatically not for sharing: Al and I scoffed one each, and I had half a mind to order another after dessert.
Another thing I really loved about COR was that they took our orders and artfully sequenced them almost like a gastronomic mixtape. None of this “your dishes will come out when they’re ready” bollocks that treats you to feast or famine, instead we got things in a carefully structured order that showed every dish off to its best advantage. Take this for example, Jerusalem artichokes fried until golden and sticky-edged and served on an earthy pool of artichoke velouté. It was simply magnificent, and if I couldn’t really detect much truffle in the truffled pecorino I was having far too much fun to give a shit. I have to really fancy Jerusalem artichoke to order it in a restaurant because of its legendary side effects. Here I did it anyway, and the side effects never materialised. That’s what I call winning at life.
Equally delicious was the next dish, slow-cooked pork shoulder crammed into radicchio and topped with ribbons of pickled fennel (and some slightly pointless dill). The pork was splendid, with the texture ignorant people are prone to describe as unctuous. This vegetation-as-taco concept seems to be a Bristolian one: I had something very similar, albeit far smaller, at Wilson’s late last year. But this was the size you actually wanted it to be – and well portioned for sharing. Did I wish I was eating them both to myself? I like to think I’m a decent friend, but yes. Yes I did.
By this point, Al and I were suffused with a warm glow, catching up for the first time in months, enjoying glasses of surprisingly fruity and accessible Cataratto (“do you know, that’s the only wine I like?” said our waitress, charm personified without necessarily realising it). And we got to talking about superlatives: Al has the misfortune to spend some of his time surrounded by people from Gen Z who only ever use one superlative – “stunning” – and use it all the time. About everything. Everything, he told me, is their “new favourite dish”, whether it’s a special occasion or some spaghetti hoops out of a tin. Even hearing about this perpetual state of wide-eyed wonder, I’m afraid, made me want to kick something very hard.
But we were both rather running out of adjectives by the time our next dish arrived. Tropea onions, cooked to soft, caramelised wonder, drizzled with a hazelnut beurre noisette and crispy sage leaves was another knockout, even without the three dollops of goats cheese (Ragstone, apparently) providing a little agriculture to offset the sweetness. I gave Al the spare onion: I told you I was a good friend, although he did let me have the extra Jerusalem artichoke, and I thought that one of the nicest things about sharing dishes is that you can both have virtually the same superlative experience. If there’s a better thing to do with an old friend than go to an excellent restaurant, I’m not sure I know what it is: I know some people like watching the football, or playing squash, or bloody golf, but for me this is as good as it gets.
“Would you describe it as stunning?” I asked. Al grinned.
“Definitely. New favourite dish.”
My new favourite dish – and in fact it stayed that way for the rest of the meal – was the next one. A really generous portion of cuttlefish, cooked sous vide and then finished on the grill I believe, was ludicrously tender and came already sliced into ribbons. I could imagine serving this with ‘nduja, or with salsa verde, but matching it with both, along with some capers, in a dazzling, dizzying tricolore was a stroke of genius. This dish would be at the apex of nearly any meal, and if I could find anywhere closer to home that served something like this I’d be there all the time, even if it was only half as good.
Our main courses involved the only misstep, and by “misstep” I mean “eight out of ten dish”. Al had decided to try the manicotti, a pasta dish, and he was encouraged in this by our waitress when he told her he was torn.
“It’s one of my favourite dishes, it’s like something your grandmother would make.”
“Your grandmother must be a better cook than mine was” I said, fighting back memories of wan fish, floured and fried, served on the kind of brown smoked glass plate every household had in the seventies. Still, she did at least cook proper chips in a chip pan, something nobody does now.
I think the dish was better than anything Al’s grandmothers could have conjured up either, but it wasn’t as much a tour de force as everything else had been. Manicotti are big sleeves of pasta, thicker and bigger than canelloni but the same kind of thing. Whereas this was a single giant tube, folded rather than rolled, and the overall look of it was somewhere between canelloni and some kind of pasta calzone, if I haven’t mixed my metaphors to death by saying that. It was stuffed with ricotta, topped with braised tomato, parmesan and rocket and it managed to look hearty, well-done and somehow unspecial.
“It’s okay” said Al. “It just doesn’t match everything that’s gone before. The braised tomatoes are fantastic, though. I just should have ordered the same thing as you.”
I mean, he should have. Because while I watched him eat a big sheet of pasta with some cheese in it pretending to be a Mobius strip, I was diving into a marvellous piece of onglet, as yielding as you like, with lashings of intense jus and – the icing on the cake – a dauphinoise of interlayered potato and celeriac, all topped with quite a lot of gruyere. It was just the most incredible thing, and when I saw on the menu that it clocked in at under sixteen pounds I thought there must have been a typo.
But there wasn’t. That whole plate of food for sixteen pounds was outrageously generous, charitable even. And speaking of charitable, even this dish had been served in a way that encouraged sharing, with the steak cut into substantial slices. I let Al have as many as he wanted to dull the food envy, because I’m not a monster: I suspect he would have had more, but it would have made the envy worse, not better. He consoled himself with some exceptional hand cut chips, dipped in a tarragon mayonnaise so herb-heavy it was the colour of guacamole. I had some too. Of course I did, it was world-beating.
We’d come all this way, so not having dessert would have been madness. The dessert menu is nicely compact – although they also have a selection of eight different cheeses – and Al had clearly learned from his mistake because, like me, he opted for the chocolate mousse. I think it’s an underrated dessert at the best of times, but this was at the very best of times – a hulking scoop of the stuff, dense yet airy, studded with plates of almond dentelle like the spines of a stegosaurus. That enough would have made it exquisite, but sprinkling it with flakes of sea salt and drizzling it with olive oil was the final touch.
“That chocolate mousse was so good” I told our waitress as she took our bowls away and we sipped our dessert wines (like I said, those kind of wankers), fighting the almost primal urge to order a savoury canelé for the road.
“Thank you so much! I actually made that yesterday, I spend some shifts in the kitchen as a pastry chef. I can’t actually eat it myself, it’s a bit too rich for me.”
I can’t imagine the level of self-restraint involved in being able to make something like that and not eat it, but then that’s why some people are slim and I’m not. Al, on the other hand, eats like a horse and is still as skinny as he was when I first met him about thirty years ago; this is why some people are jammy bastards and I’m not. But anyway, despite being thin, talented and impossibly young our waitress was a class act. All the people who served us throughout lunch were, actually: friendly, passionate about the food, with opinions on all of their favourite dishes, they were a real credit to the restaurant. How does anywhere get this good after just four months? It was quite miraculous.
Our waitress asked where we were from, and I mentioned Reading, and she proudly told us she’d been there. Once. Then of course the truth came out, that she’d passed through it recently on a train to London to watch a gig. It was the first time she’d ever been to London on her own, she said, at the tender age of twenty. And suddenly Al and I felt very old indeed, and seized with a sneaking suspicion that we should hightail it out of Bedminster and find an old man pub to hunker down in to carry on our gossiping session. The natural wine bar would just have to wait for another time. Our meal for two, with a very richly deserved service charge included, came to just under a hundred and ninety pounds. There was literally nothing to begrudge, except any of their punters who only paid ten per cent service.
As I was writing this review, I messaged Al, mainly to reminisce about what a phenomenal meal it was. What a stunning array of dishes I sent him, hoping to get a cheap laugh.
“One of my objections to the S word is the cognitive dissonance” he replied. “Stunning implies losing your senses, but with food that good your senses are very much alive. Sorry, you can tell I’ve thought about this too much.”
He’s right, though. What I loved about COR the most was having my senses awakened and reawakened time and again over the course of such a glorious lunch – old favourites, new combinations but always real integrity and imagination. Nothing was boring or humdrum, which I can say because I didn’t have that pasta dish, and in terms of the sheer number of hits I think it ranks as one of the best meals I can remember, at home or abroad.
I’m sure you know the drill by now with this kind of review. Bristol, Bristol, Bristol, hyperbole hyperbole hyperbole. But I like to think I’ve been here enough to sift the hypebeasts from the real contenders. The last time I was in Bedminster I ate at Sonny Stores, which was raved about by literally everybody but left me cold. And the last time I was in Bristol I went to Wilsons, which I raved about to literally anybody who’d listen.
And positioning COR relative to those two is pretty easy – it is miles better than Sonny Stores, a neighbourhood restaurant with a touch of the Peter Principle about it. But actually, although the number at the bottom is marginally lower than the one I gave to Wilsons, if you’re only having one meal in Bristol I would go here instead. Wilsons is a take it or leave it menu, a set seven courses, and when it’s on form it’s incredible. But I have friends who went there off the back of my review and although they loved the flavours, they found it a carb free zone and, I’m sorry to say, they left hungry. That will never happen to you at COR, and you will have an awful lot of fun deciding exactly how you want to become full. That’s what restaurants should all be about.
And how does COR compare to Reading restaurants? There’s nowhere in Reading even remotely like it. That is, and continues to be, the problem. You might get bored of hearing me say so, but it’s important to have goals. Reading’s should be to attract at least a couple of restaurants in approximately the same ballpark as this. I really hope it happens. It’s starting to get a tiny bit embarrassing.
COR – 9.5
81 North Street, Bedminster, BS3 1ES