On Friday evening, I enjoyed the best meal of my year so far. And it was in a restaurant I'd not even heard of 48 hours previously!
Having finally decided on a destination for our celebratory weekend away on Thursday morning, I booked us a posh room at the Bristol Hotel Du Vin and then set about making restaurant reservations. I had a feeling it would be too late to secure a table at michelin-starred Casamia but emailed just incase. When I received their confirmation that they were full, I cheekily asked where they would recommend as a second choice? Online reviews backed up their kind advice and I quickly booked a table for ourselves and a Bristol-based friend.
Bell's Diner has, so I learned, been going strong since it opened back in 1976. Current chef and owner, Chris Wicks, took over almost a decade ago and has been serving his innovative cuisine ever since. Located in Bristol's colourful Montpelier district; bohemian and funky, but with a bit of a rough reputation - we chose to take a taxi there. (Having chatted to the driver about the recent local council initiative to ask locals about which graffiti to keep and which to clean up, we looked at interesting pieces en route, including an unfamiliar Banksy he pointed out).
From the outside, the restaurant - housed in a former grocery shop - seems tiny, but as we were warmly welcomed and shown to our table, we realised it's a bit of a warren, with two further dining areas. Simply and elegantly decorated with a warm, cosy style, it's an inviting interior.
We were looked after by a team of 3 waiting staff during the evening but the lead waitress was Shelly. She was friendly, efficient, proactive about offering advice about the menu, enthusiastic about the food and an absolute asset to the restaurant. In truth, our perfect evening was almost as much down to the service as to the excellent food.
Drinks ordered and delivered, we enjoyed olives and home-made breadsticks followed by a selection of delicious breads. Foccacia, walnut and raisin and two others, we chose two each, sampling all four between us. Very more-ish indeed.
Not long after, we were served a complimentary amuse bouche of egg emulsion with black truffle. Velvety smooth, creamy rich and pleasantly warm it was served simply in an egg shell with a tiny toast soldier alongside. Its mild savoury flavour was a perfect introduction to the rest of the meal.
One of the things that I most liked about the menu was the strong appeal of several dishes - often I'm drawn to just one dish, or worse still, find that there's only one which even vaguely interests me - but on this menu I found several dishes in each section that I longed to try. How handy then that I was dining with two fellow food sharers and was able to taste a fair selection of dishes!
Matt opted for the two hour poached duck egg, salmon tartar. Somehow, after it's two hours of poaching, the egg yolk was beautifully runny and the white still translucent and gelatinous. The salmon complimented it very well.
Pete went for the tomato essence, tomato salad, thyme flowers, olive oil. Aptly named, this dish really did deliver the fundamental character of tomato in every single mouthful. The clear "soup" was the biggest revelation - so strange to have such a vibrant red fruit distilled into a concentrated liquid version of itself. I'd even seen tomato essence recipes before (I think Raymond Blanc does something similar), but hadn't imagined they would pack such a punch! The tomato salad within was also delicious.
I chose the cornish crab, mango, avocado ice-cream, shellfish bisque. Sat on a bed of chopped fresh mango was a generous mound of crab, bound, I think, with creamy mayonnaise. Delicious and fresh. On top was the avocado ice-cream, the sweetness countered by salty cheese crisps. The only off-key note of the dish was the bisque - it tasted to me as though the pan had caught and the burnt flavours had accidentally been stirred in and this bitter flavour fought with that of the shellfish.
Matt and I both ordered the gressingham duck, pear jelly, balsamic, pumpkin, pomme anna, baby leeks. With the exception of the balsamic, which was such a tiny dribble on the plate that I assume it was only for decorative purposes, all the elements worked together fantastically (and somewhat surprisingly) well. The duck was truly superb; cooked to perfection with a gentle crispness to the skin and yet medium rare flesh that was incredibly tender and meaty, it tasted so good I couldn't help commenting on it repeatedly until it was all gone! The roasted pumpkin, served both in cubes and a purée, was a perfect, sweet yet earthy foil to the lightly salted meat. The pomme anna was suitably plain. The tiny leeks had just the right balance of softness and crunch. And the pear jelly cubes just added an extra flavour dimension to a few of the mouthfuls. Duck is something I order fairly often. This dish of simple ingredients, simply presented was something special. Matt seemed to agree!
Pete went for the anjou pigeon, confit leg pastilla, cherries, yoghurt, summer beans, cacao nibs. The dish included both confit pieces of pigeon as well as pigeon pastilla - crispy filo parcels based on the delicious Moroccan original. Perfectly cooked, full of flavour and much more tender than we expected the pigeon and cherries were the two main flavours of the dish. The yoghurt and cacao nibs were garnish. Not a fan of the white beans, Pete left them, but I liked them very much and thought they provided an appealingly light and summery carbohydrate choice.
Our desserts arrived and both Pete and I were convinced we'd won the (good-natured) "I chose best" contest which so often arises when dining at lovely restaurants!
Matt knew his toasted brioche, mirabelle de Nancy, bay ice-cream couldn't compete but still enjoyed the sweet bread, sharp fruit and herby ice-cream.
The four miniature desserts that made up Pete's lemon fantasy were tart, soufflé, sorbet and jelly. The lemon jelly was intensely sharp and topped with a similarly tart foam; much too acidic for me, they were very much to Pete's taste. The sorbet, similarly acerbic, was served in a light pastry case. The slice of tart had more sweetness to in it's thick, creamy lemon curd filling and was more universally appreciated. The soufflé too offered a nice balance of sweet and sharp and was everything a good soufflé should be - nicely risen and light without losing moistness or becoming hollow inside.
My banana soufflé, toffee sauce, vanilla ice-cream just blew me away. Shelly broke the surface and poured in the toffee sauce. And then I dived in. Like the miniature lemon soufflé, this one had risen nicely and was light, moist and yet had body. The taste, for a banana-lover, was indescribably delicious. The ice-cream was nice and gave a respite, if one wanted it, from the sticky sweet combination of banana and toffee. Despite being so full I could hardly move, I could have eaten this again immediately I finished it!
With coffee and tea came a pretty slate of petits fours - mini macarons, madeleines and biscuits. All lovely!
And finally, our meal was over and it was time to leave.
Without wine, our bill came to about £40 a head (which includes a few soft drinks). All all three of us felt this was great value for the meal we'd enjoyed so much. I genuinely contemplated cancelling our Saturday night reservation elsewhere to see if we could get in again, but was persuaded against it!
Note: the wine list is extensive and expensive. To my recollection there are only 2 or 3 wines below £25 and the majority were £30 and up, up and away.
5 months ago