Bocca Di Lupo

Italian food is so much more than pizza and pasta. Eating Pizza outside Naples or Rome is like grabbing a pasty in Newcastle – it’s just not authentic. Italy is full of wonderful local dishes that speak of the people that invented them but these regional subtleties are lost on arrival in the UK. Every high street in the country has a chain Italian pumping out nondescript pasta and pizza. Bocca di Lupo aims to set the record straight, offering an incredible range of delicacies, all carefully linked to particular areas – it’s an edible Italian lesson.

The restaurant itself is comfortably central – a few minutes from Piccadilly Circus. The interior is focussed around a wonderful open kitchen with a vast marble bar where you can sit and watch the team work. It strikes a lovely balance between casual and formal, you could rock up in a suit or a t-shirt and feel perfectly at home.

The menu is split into a range of categories: raw, fish, stews and so on. The food is served tapas style and I like that for many dishes they offer both a small and large portion. With a bottle of lovely barbera in hand we set off for a happy jaunt around Italy’s finest food. To start we had a wonderfully spicy ‘Rosamarina’ – fermented fish with chilli. It was hot, savoury and very very good.

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The next dish was an “artichoke alla giudia”, an Italian-Jewish staple. It’s an artichoke, lightly crisped in a fryer and thoroughly delicious.

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Fried salt cod with courgette chips was surprisingly restrained on the salt front – with really good texture in the fish. I’d have liked a little more colour in the batter, but it was still nicely crisp.

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Rabbit orzotto had a fantastic gamey, rich stock - perfect with the delicate meat. The orzo had a really nice texture, just enough body without being overly stodgy.

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For me, the star of the meal were the skewers – lamb sweet bread with artichokes on chilli bruschetta. Perfectly grilled, wonderfully balanced and totally unique. Heaven on a stick.

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I’d heard a lot of people rave about their roast suckling pig – it lived up to expectations. Fantastically crispy crackling, gooey soft pork and a lovely simple sauce. I was less sold on the chestnuts – they just didn’t fit from a flavour or texture perspective for me. A welcome side of asparagus, gently cooked and doused in lemon juice helped round out the meal.

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Some lovely roast potatoes – finished in a frying pan, which is definitely a trick I’m stealing – and a Coratella finished the mains. It’s a rich lamb stew made from most of the insides of the animal. I loved it, but those less fond of offal might struggle with the minerality.

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Dessert was a triumph, a trio of perfect profiteroles, filled with silky smooth gelato – the sour cherry and ricotta was especially good. To finish the meaty meal we also had a “sanguinaccio” from Calabria, a sweet chocolate pate, set with pigs blood. It’s really good, the blood just adds a gentle savoury note. If you told someone it was Nutella they probably wouldn’t notice the difference. Pine nuts and mixed peel are a great touch.

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It was a fantastic meal – I loved the chance to explore the full breadth of Italian cooking. Great ingredients, carefully prepared and the open bar adds a healthy dose of theatre. The staff were chirpy and happy to guide us (and put up with our frequent requests for yet more food). While it can get expensive very quickly, it’s absolutely worth it. Forget Prezzo, Zizzi’s and Bella Italia (shudder), this is the real deal. Bring an appetite!
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The Ledbury

Some visits to restaurants are spur of the moment – a sudden urge for Pizza Pilgrims or Chicken Shop results in a regular detour for me. Others are more carefully planned – carefully researched and booked months in advance. With that comes risk as expectations are sky high and restaurants need to do something really special to meet them. I’ve been desperate to go to The Ledbury for years, alongside it’s two Michelin stars, it’s many ‘Restaurant of the Year Awards’ and it’s lofty place as the 13th best restaurant in the world – it’s most people’s pick as the best in London. Many moons ago that title rested with Marcus Wareing at the Berkley and my visit there was very special, does the Ledbury live up to the hype?

Situated in a quiet corner of Notting Hill – the Ledbury is relatively unprepossessing, a single restaurant on an otherwise residential street. The décor is smart but relaxed – lots of natural light floods the room and there’s no dress code. Opened in 2005 it’s covered itself in glory ever since. Brett Graham, the Australian head chef is my kind of cook – precise, passionate and with a healthy appreciation for quality British produce, preferably the kind you get to shoot.

As it was a special occasion we had their tasting menu, they also offer a four course a la carte menu and a very reasonably priced set lunch.

Amuse-bouche – Apple and Mullet, Cheese and Bay Tart, Brawn Cubes

A wonderful selection of little bites started the meal, all beautifully presented. Apple and raw fish is a good combo, but the star was the little deep fried brawn cubes –  crispy, warm and deeply piggy. The bread was also excellent: sourdough, bacon brioche and a crystallised malt – freshly made in house.

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Salad of Violet and Chinese Artichokes with Hazelnuts, Cured Duck, Grapes and Grated Foie Gras

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This was very much a textural tour de force – crunchy artichokes and hazelnuts, soft melting duck and frozen buttery foie gras. Magical stuff.

Flame Grilled Mackerel with Pickled Cucumber, Celtic Mustard and Shiso

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One of their signature dishes, and with good reason. The mackerel is absolutely perfect, delicately charred on one side, blushing pink on the other. The pickled cucumber was dainty and delicate while the gentle hint of shiso, an asian mint, just underlined the oily fish. It’s easy to overdo a dish like this whereas the fresh, sweet flavour just sang.

Hampshire Buffalo Milk Curd with Aged Comte, Truffle Toast and a Broth of Grilled Onions

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Curds are the beginnings of cheese and the combination of soft, melting dairy with hot sweet onion is always going to be a winner. Enoki mushrooms and the truffle toast add a nice savoury element.

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Roast Hand Dived Scallops with Brassicas and Seaweed

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A monstrous scallop, perfectly cooked and slashed with shreds of seaweed. I particularly liked the cauliflower and romanesco – its a clever match with the delicate fishy flavour.

New Season’s Morels Cooked in Earl Grey Tea with Bacon and Wild Herbs

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Perhaps the only slightly duff note in the menu – still perfectly executed, but I didn’t quite get the rich, smooth mashed potato with the wonderful, but very lonely, morel. I’d have happily eaten an entire bowl of the mushrooms, keep the spuds away from it!

Aged Fillet of Belted Galloway Beef with Salt Baked Turnips, Tropea Onions and Bone Marrow

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Another piece of precision cooking, meltingly tender beef with a delicate savoury sauce. The turnips really benefitted from their salt bake, firming up nicely.

Cheese Board – Carcassone Goats Cheese, French Beer Washed, Swiss Soft, Dorset Cows Cheese, Colton Basset Stilton

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They had a good cheese selection, though nothing on the monumental board at Le Gavroche – they were happy for us to share a plate and the five cheese we had covered the bases nicely.

Pre Dessert – Guava Custard with Blood Orange Granita

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Light and refreshing, without the acidic kick you get from some pre-desserts. The blood orange granita was admirably smooth without any harsh, crunchy bits.

Banana and Chocolate Malt Tartlet

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The tart was beautifully put together – delicate pastry, chunky banana and rich smooth chocolate dusted with little bits of honeycomb crunch.

Brown Sugar Tart with Stem Ginger Ice Cream

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As a birthday treat we got an extra course – a fabulous sugary tart with a subtle ginger ice cream.

Petit Fours

The perfect end to a four hour lunch: a strong coffee and some lovely sweets. Light crunchy biscuits, soft fruity jelly and one of the lightest truffles I’ve ever had, nestled on a bed of cocoa nibs. Heavenly.

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Throughout the meal the staff were fantastic, far friendlier than in many starry establishments and happy to chat about the food and offer advice. Despite it’s international reputation it’s managed to maintain that spark of a neighbourhood restaurant.

If I had to sum up the food at the Ledbury in one word, it would be ‘precise’. There are no massive flavour fanfares, no wacky combinations or fads. This isn’t a culinary rock concert, rather a gentle symphony, flawlessly played. The menu really flows through the individual dishes. Flavours are delicate and elegant, beautifully presented and well thought out. It’s modern haute cuisine at it’s very best.

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Drakes, Ripley

Like many major international cities – London is resplendent with Michelin stars. Outside the capitol the inspectors are less kind – Bray in Berkshire is a bit of an anomaly (hosting seven), but otherwise they’re very thin on the ground. I like to think of the anonymous judges trudging off in search of brilliance, suffering roadworks, public transport and service station breakfasts. When they finally arrive at some far flung brasserie or gastro-pub it must have to do something really special to overcome the fatigue, grumpiness and pasty induced indigestion. In Ripley, a tiny town among the wooded hills of Surrey – Drakes have done just that.

 

They start with an excellent pedigree – Steve Drake founded the place in 2004 after starting his career in London at the Ritz and ending up in the Surrey countryside via Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis, Tom Aikens and 2001 Roux Scholarship. A year after opening it received it’s star, alongside three AA rosettes, and has held them ever since.

 

The restaurant itself is a lovely property on Ripley’s main road, dark red Surrey brick and an antique clock over the porch. Inside it’s far more modern – white walls, pale beams and a scattering of small tables. They offer a couple of tasting menus and a la carte, we went for their Flavour Journey, a six course meander through some of their best dishes. Their wine list is extensive but unusually for somewhere with a star, has some very reasonably priced bottles – a fruity little Beaujolais kept us company for the night. The staff are equally refreshing for high-end dining – polished, friendly and endlessly helpful without being overbearing.

 

A few little bites arrived to start the meal, crispy rice crackers with avocado, blue cheese biscuits and a lovely savoury meringue with chicken liver parfait. Each was a beautifully executed burst of flavour.

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With the bread came an appetiser – a watercress soup with poached quails egg and smoked tomatoes. Light and airy with a healthy hit of peppery smoke.

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Charred Mackerel, Ceviche, Dashi, Beetroot Snow
The first proper course finally appeared – tender smokey mackerel, tart ceviche wrapped in a little dashi gel cigar with beetroot snow. The savoury dashi underpinning the sweet fish and the beetroot bringing temperature and texture contrasts.

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Pork Cheeks Cooked in Vermouth, Cockles and Pineapple

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Pork cheeks were at their unctuous best and the pineapple was a lovely retro throwback. The cockles get a little lost amid the big flavours, but the saltiness was welcome.

South Coast Turbot, Broccoli Kombu, Mussels and Sesame

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The second fish dish was some very good turbot – just barely cooked through and served with a single deep fried mussel. Discerning diners should have the option at this point to halt the tasting menu and scarf a bucket of them with a variety of sauces.

Scottish Venison Loin, Lapsang Souchong, Parsley, Orange Puree

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At this point our dainty cutlery was removed and replaced with a steak knife that has more in common with a machete than a piece of flatware. Nervous about the intended use of such an implement, the dish that came out was far more sophisticated. The venison was everything you could wish it to be – rich, gamey and unbelievably tender. The orange and lapsang souchong add some delicate notes to the background, but don’t get in the way of the meat. It’s the perfect main course – incredible ingredients, cleverly combined. The steak knives aren’t for cutting through the meat, but protecting it from your dining companions.

Grapefruit Curd, Peanut Praline, Passion fruit and Condensed Milk Sorbet

It’s become de rigueur to serve a pre-dessert – something cold and acidic to cleanse the palate after the rich mains. Drakes have turned it into a proper pudding, Grapefruit pannacotta and passion fruit sorbet are individually fab and together brilliant with peanut brittle adding a bit of crunch and sparkle.

Pistachio Cake, Lime, Banana and Black Olive Ice Cream

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The final piece in the jigsaw was a very nice little pistachio cake and some black olive ice-cream – I loved the savoury hit with the sweet cake, though it divided my companions. Several people just found the idea of olive ice cream weird. I’m more than happy to let them continue in that opinion, provided I get to scoff their portion too.

Drakes is a fantastic restaurant, they’re cooking smart, clever and downright delicious food. This is fusion cooking done right – drawing on other cuisines to enhance and highlight rather than blindly sticking ingredients where they have no right to be. It may be a little out of the way, but it’s definitely worth the journey.

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Three Sisters Bake

Like many people, I was absolutely hooked on the recent BBC series “The Restaurant Man”. Polpo founder Russell Normal helped aspiring restaurateurs follow their dreams of opening their first establishment with all the attendant risks, trials and tribulations. A huge percentage of restaurants and cafes close within the first two years – survival requires long hours, careful planning and relentless enthusiasm. Three sisters who have done just that – and with some considerable success – are Gillian, Nichola and Linsey Reith.

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Situated in Quarriers Village near Glasgow, their cafe provides a welcome response to the traditional view of Scottish food. Amid the greasy spoons and chain restaurants this offers something very different – healthy, homely and delicious. Their eponymous first cookbook echos that philosophy – there isn’t a deep fried mars bar in sight. It’s split into several sections covering all you’d expect from a cafe – brunch to dinner and salads to sharing platters. The recipes themselves are reassuringly simple and well within the reach of any home cook – they use sensible ingredients, basic techniques and bridge a huge range of culinary styles. There’s pulled pork, hummus, jammy pieces and french onion soup – something for everyone.

Taking the book for a spin I cooked an entire meal with a nicely Mediterranean theme to match the stunning weather outside. It was only a couple of hours of effort and I managed to get everything I needed at my local supermarket.

Flatbreads and Hummus

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Despite many forays into making bread, I’ve never actually tried a flatbread. The sister’s recipe uses a blend of wholemeal and white flour and a healthy dose of baking powder to give it a little lightness. You make a dough which is then rolled flat and cooked on a griddle giving you lovely char marks. Served warm with their lemony, rustic hummus it’s great.

Yoghurt, Mint and Rosemary Marinated Lamb Skewers with Watermelon, Feta and Mint Salad

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Yoghurt in marinades isn’t just a Greek affection, it has a scientific basis too – helping tenderise the meat. This one is laden with lemon, rosemary, garlic and healthy hit of a mint. After a night in the fridge the result is excellent – soft, juicy lamb with a delicate herby backbone. The salad is rather nice as well – I was a little nervous about the watermelon, but it works really well with the olives and cheese resulting in a light, refreshing, summery dish – it would be perfect for a barbecue. I ended up breaking out some more flatbreads to soak up the citrusy charred orange dressing.

Dark Chocolate and Raspberry Tarts

While I initially balked at blind baking individual tarts in a muffin tin, it’s absolutely worth the effort. The pastry is gorgeously short and crunchy while the gooey chocolate ganache filling is the stuff of dreams. I’m not normally a fan of combining fruit and chocolate, but this genuinely works. Served with a splodge of thick double cream and a scattering of strawberries it’s a perfect dinner party dessert you can prepare the day before.

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It’s a fantastic book – beautifully shot and scattered with commentary from the girls whose passion for food shines through. It’s a little like stumbling across someone’s family cookbook. It’s eclectic, interesting and most importantly - very tasty. Reading through it you can’t help but be tempted and start jotting down recipes to try. It would make a great present and i’ll definitely be handing out copies to people in the near future!

“Three Sisters Bake” by Gillian, Nichola and Linsey Reith is published by Hardie Grant Books and available now, RRP £20.

The Ox, Bristol

I love food – this may not come as a surprise if you’ve been reading this blog for a while. Whether it’s sat on a cold rainy beach with fish and chips; collapsed on the sofa with that wonderful triumvirate of beer, movie and pizza; or the hushed tones and decadent linens of Michelin starred dining. It’s all great – but one of my real delights is a smart restaurant, some good company, a bottle of very nice red wine and a slab of incredible beef carefully cooked. When the great Marina O’Loughlin raved about just such a place in Bristol I had to go.

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Some eateries have big neon signs announcing their presence, The Ox is far more subtle – a simple menu board by an unmarked staircase underneath the Commercial Rooms on Corn Street. The décor is very London steakhouse, think big comfy chairs, dark wood and antique lighting. It’s warm, inviting and reassuringly colonial – you have to resist the urge to oppress the natives while gazing at their stuffed fox.

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The menu is simple and equally comforting– a handful of tasty looking starters, a selection of things on toast and the main event – carefully sourced steak. The wine list is as it should be – picked to maximise your enjoyment of the steak. We had a fantastic Malbec – big bold fruit and hints of leather.

Starter – Foie Gras, Bacon and Pigs Trotters

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Those three words might well be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen on a menu together. A big slice of nicely toasted bread (top Sourdough from Hart’s Bakery – one of Bristol’s hidden gems); a slab of foie gras the size of my shoe and a heap of delicious, unctuous porky goodness. It’s incredibly good – rich, savoury and very satisfying.

Main – 10.5oz Rib-eye

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Most of The Ox’s beef comes direct from their butcher, Nigel Buxton in Winterbourne and the quality is fantastic.  A nice thick rib-eye, well aged and cooked rare – crispy, smokey crust giving way to molten fat and juicy meat.  Good beef is very special, and this is really good. To top if off they’re using a Josper grill, an eyewateringly expensive oven that eats charcoal and spews out ferocious heat – it’s a wonderful way to cook steak. The chips are nice enough – I’d have preferred a slightly smaller cut, but the béarnaise sauce was great for dipping them in. We had a side of fried sprouts which had been seriously caramelised – I loved the smokey sweet crunch, but l can see that it might not be to everyone’s taste!

Dessert – Rum and Raisin PX Affogato

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At this point I was struggling, there was no way I could manage a full dessert so I went for this interesting little number. Affogato is a popular Italian dessert – a hot espresso poured over a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. This is a clever take on the idea – a small glass of Pedro Ximinez sherry poured over a scoop of rum and raisin ice cream. It’s a dessert and a digestif all in one and wonderfully boozy.

The Ox is my favourite kind of restaurant – it does one thing (steak) and does it very, very well. The staff are friendly and welcoming – happy to provide advice and recommendations. The decor is just right – swanky but not oppressive. It is a little pricey, but you’d pay far more in London and for food of this quality it’s definitely worth it. I left very full and very, very happy – this is a great find.

Riverstation, Bristol

While recent years have seen an explosion in the breadth and depth of eating options available to the average diner, there’s definitely also been a degree of convergence. “Modern European” has emerged as a very specific style where restaurants use the same ingredients and similar presentation to re-invent English, French, Italian and Spanish classics. When it works it’s absolutely brilliant – see Cherry Duck for details – but it’s very difficult to pull off.

On the surface Riverstation in Bristol is very similar to Cherry Duck, it sits on the Welsh Back, overlooking the harbour. It has a sleek modern design, with lovely windows and an open kitchen. The menu is very similar too – carefully sourced ingredients offering new takes on traditional dishes. On arrival the staff were friendly and inviting and we were shown to a great table by the window. The bread was made in house and very tasty – the rosemary and sea-salt focaccia was fab.

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maple-smoked english duck breast with chicory, blood orange jelly + walnuts
The salad was nicely put together, but the duck lacked the rich, sweet smokey flavour I was after. The same goes for the blood orange jelly – it was just a little sweet rather than a full-on sharp, citrus tang.

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eight-hour pulled lamb shoulder, pomme purée, heritage carrots, salsa verde
The lamb was gorgeous – soft, unctuous and rich. Given the popularity of pulled pork, I’m glad to see lamb getting the same treatment. The potatoes were wonderfully smooth without being too rich and the carrots brought some nice crunch. The salsa verde slightly missed the spot – while the saltiness works well with the lamb, it needed a lot more acidity to cut through the richness.

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hot chocolate fondant pudding with vanilla ice-cream
A well-cooked fondant is a magical thing, part of the fun is breaking into it and watching the centre ooze out. This was a bit of a cheat – it looked like they’d placed a puck of frozen ganache in the centre of the pudding batter and then baked it. While it looks the same – and it’s much easier for the kitchen – it doesn’t give you the beautiful ‘gradient’: moist cake transitioning into liquid delight.

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While the whole meal was well cooked and the ingredients are top notch, a few niggles stopped it being spectacular. A little more seasoning and acidity would transform the dishes, and taking the risk of cooking the fondant in the traditional way would seal the deal. Riverstation is still a really good restaurant, but if you’re looking to see what the modern European fad is all about, there are better options in Bristol.

 

 

Cherry Duck, Bristol

Avid readers will have noticed that my blog has been a little quiet recently – I’m currently spending a lot of time in Bristol eating my way around the burgeoning restaurant scene – it has all the upmarket burgers, swanky pizzas and reliable Thais that have graced London for years. I haven’t really felt compelled to write about any of them, that is until I popped out for a quick dinner last night.

Cherry Duck is a tiny harbourside bistro, perched on the welsh back it peers over the river. The outside isn’t particularly special, but inside it’s smart and sleek – dark ceilings disappear into the night sky, acres of glass and an open kitchen. The menu is modern European, but with some lovely twists. I was brought some fantastic bread while I waited – a potato loaf and a white bloomer.

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Smoked Partridge breast, crispy hen’s egg, piccalilli, celeriac remoulade, honey dressed mizuna

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This is a beautifully balanced starter – sweet, smokey and with lovely texture. I’d have liked a little more partridge, but that’s just because it was so very good.

40 day aged fillet of beef, oxtail croquette, calves liver, jerusalem artichokes, chantenay carrots, horseradish jelly, watercress, beef jus

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This is a wonderful celebration of beef. You’ve got the soft, tender fillet; the sharp tangy liver and the achingly gooey oxtail. The horseradish jelly is sublime – little bursts of heat and smoothness. I had a side of roasted parsnips and beetroots which were also delicious.

Chocolate Fondant, salted caramel, stout ice cream, sesame brittle

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Gooey on the inside, crisp on the outside and full of chocolately goodness. The stout ice-cream was a clever touch with some rich malty notes. The sesame brittle added crunch without shattering teeth and the salted caramel brought it all together. The perfect pudding – rich, indulgent and not too cloyingly sweet.

The whole experience was great. The staff were fantastic – friendly and attentive. The food represents fantastic value and the wine list is suitably enticing. This is cooking with a real appreciation for the ingredients and a real style in their preparation and presentation. It would be the star of most streets in London and in Bristol it’s an absolute gem. Go, eat and be happy.