Bell’s Diner, Bristol

Occasionally you have a meal that restores your faith in humanity. That for all the UKIP by-elections and depressing global statistics gives you that warm fuzzing feeling inside. Someone who loves what they do has really thought about this, carefully prepared it, and presented it for my enjoyment. It’s the best kind of comfort food and it’s available at Bell’s Diner.

In the back streets of Bristol it’s an utter gem: a rambling assortment of quirky rooms and mismatched furniture. There’s a real charm which extends to the menu tucked inside an LP cover. The menu is as eclectic as the decor – british, european, mediterranean and thoroughly modern. Most are small plates, but a few come in larger sizes. The wine list is the same – quirky and dangerously tempting.

On prior advice we order the Jamon Butter and Salt Cod Croquettes while we salivate furiously over the menu. The butter is rich and porky, served with some lovely bread while the croquettes are the ultimate beer food – fried, fiercely salty and strangely addictive. In a complete failing of self-restraint we order half the menu and a little parade of dishes start spinning out of the lovely open kitchen towards our table.

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Babaganoush is rich and smokey, falafel are pert and crunchy and the simple chorizo/morcilla stacks are gorgeously oily. Spiced lentils with yoghurt are the perfect antidote to a freezing November evening and the perfectly seared scallops bring a little waft of sophistication.

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The main events are a stunning little quail, blushing pink on a heavenly autumnal salad followed by a barely cooked onglet – it’s rich minerality bursting through a deep, smokey char. There’s a Big Green Egg in the kitchen – the professional barbecue beloved of Great British Menu and Neil Rankin. Like the similar Josper grill, in the right hands it does wonderful things to meat.

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The dessert menu is short but very comforting – a treacle tart is just as it should be while the chocolate torte comes laden with figs and a boozey marsala hit. Some dangrously rich salted caramel truffles keep us company while we wait for the bill and resist the urge to do it all again.

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It’s gorgeous food – wide-ranging, comforting and confidently cooked. They don’t limit themselves to one cuisine, but manage to create a menu that doesn’t feel disjointed or scatter-gun. It’s exactly what I want on a cold, dark evening and it’s exactly what a local restaurant should be. I’m a little sad I live so far away from it.

Meatopia 2014

If there’s one thing that gives me hope about the future of British food – it’s the way we’ve embraced proper barbecue. Pulled pork is everywhere, there’s a slew of marvelous restaurants smoking their own meat and Neil Rankin received rave reviews on Great British Menu. Compared to the burnt sausages and cardboard burgers of yesteryear we’ve come a very long way. Nowhere is this renaissance more evident than Meatopia.

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Now in it’s second year – Meatopia is a carnivore’s dream. Some of the best barbecue chefs in the world, cooking incredible food, in gorgeous surroundings, well lubricated by craft beer and and all to the soundtrack of great music. It’s an excellent way to spend a Saturday – here are my highlights.

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Q Grill – Smoked Pigs Cheek with Foie Gras Butter in a Pretzel Bun

 

The slow, gentle heat of a smoker is the perfect place for tough, flavourful cuts like pigs cheeks. Add a decadent, buttery sauce and you’re onto a real winner. The bun was really clever, less greasy than a brioche version but with the same staying power.

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Home Team BBQ – Pulled pork on white bread

Straight from South Carolina, these guys know a thing or two about pig. Achingly tender pork, simply served with excellent coleslaw. The sauce – which is more of a seasoning, is very delicate and gives the pig flavour nowhere to hide. You need great raw ingredients to do this properly.

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Duck and Waffle – Hara Bhara Lamb Cutlets

A beautifully pink lamb chop with lovely Moroccan spicing, proving that barbecue really is international. I liked the fact that Dan was taking a little more effort on presentation with sum and the sauces were superb.

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Sailor Jerry – Rib ‘o’ beef with Rum BBQ Sauce

I adore beef ribs – the texture and flavour is sublime. A generous portion, doused in sticky, sweet, alcoholic sauce. My only criticism would be that they left the membrane on the back of the bone intact – this stops the smoke penetrating so well and can be a bit chewy.

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The Smokehouse – Goat Tacos

Neil Rankin is one my culinary heroes – he’s done more to revolutionise british barbecue than most. Whole goats, gently cooked overnight in an enormous temporary pit. Sticky, delicious and really unique. I’ll definitely be searching out some goat meat for my next barbecue.

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Lockhart – Spatch-cocked chickens with mustard BBQ Sauce

Moist chicken, sharp, tangy sauce and one of my favourite sides – burnt leeks. Vegetables shouldn’t be entirely forgotten!

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Grillstock – Beef rump hearts

I’ve been to their Bristol restaurant a couple of times and it’s always packed. Jon and Ben cook traditional barbecue and they do it really well – the beef was just pink and intensely flavoured.

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Barbecoa – Lamb Breast Ribs

If you’re looking for stunning views then Barbecoa’s sweeping vistas of St Pauls are hard to beat. The fact they have their own butchers shop and serve up superb barbecue is just the icing on the cake. Lamb ribs aren’t a common menu item, but they really should be. They work really well with the exotic eastern spices and a very classy harissa.

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The Granary – Smoked Brisket

This was the only slightly duff note for me – while the brisket had great flavour and a beautiful ‘bark’ it was really tough – the collagen hadn’t had a chance to dissolve and soften the meat.

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Aside from the headline restaurants there’s a slew of other meaty delights – maple syrup and bacon gelato was delicious and the sight of a whole ox rotating on a spit is strangely hypnotic. For me the real highlight was watching Italian master butcher Dario Cecchini. He took apart the rear quarter of a forty day aged White Park cow. It was amazing to watch his skill and hear his passion for top quality beef. The fact that cuts were cooked and served throughout his talk helped illustrate his point. My favourite was a delicious Italian take on beef tartare – slick with olive oil and garlic. Delicious!

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Pizza Pilgrims, Kingly Court

Like all right thinking Londoners, I view Oxford Circus with an air of suspicion and fear. On a bank holiday weekend you can barely move for poncho clad tourists posing for pictures and getting very lost. Finding myself stranded there one evening and in need of a quick dinner I smugly strolled past the gawping visitors and grabbed some of the best ‘fast’ food in Town.

A few minutes walk from Oxford Street, Pizza Pilgrims second location is in the lovely surroundings of Kingly Court, nestled between Carnaby Street and Regents Street. I’ve been a fan of their product since before they had bricks and mortar and the quality of their product hasn’t changed. This is pizza that would make even a hardened Neapolitan mafioso sob and think of the Amalfi coast. Light, chewy dough with a wonderful charry kiss from the red-hot oven. The toppings are simple and focussed – there’s no hot-dog stuffed crust or salad-in-the-middle options here.

The new location has given them scope to explore more of the italian street food repertoire – I had some stunning little arancini – deep fried risotto balls with gooey mozzarella in the middle. The pizza was their special – a bianca (no tomato sauce) with porchetta (thinly sliced cooked pork). Heavenly stuff, they really do make the best in London.

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For dessert, rather than try to make their own gelato they’ve made the eminently sensible decision to team up with the seminal Gelupo (sister to Bocca Di Lupo). Their sour cherry and ricotta flavour is just wonderful.

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I was in and out in under 30 minutes, had a fantastic meal and drinks for less than £20 and what should be a foodie landmark. Just don’t tell the Japanese.

Pizza Pilgrim Pizzeria & Frigittoria on Urbanspoon

 

 

 

Rockfish Grill, Bristol

When it comes to great food you need great ingredients. Restaurants wax lyrical about the provenance of their beef – rare breeds, lovingly raised and hugged to death before being aged in Himalayan salt caves by Benedictine monks. But how much attention do they pay to the fish? In contrast to the pre-historic beef it needs to be incredibly fresh and sustainably sourced. That means you need a fishmonger – when Hawksmoor opened their Air Street restaurant they turned to the best in the business – Mitch Tonks.

Mitch works with fisherman from Brixham and serves their produce at a range of restaurants, including Rockfish Grill in Bristol. In the delightfully upmarket Clifton area it’s a smart neighbourhood restaurant with a wonderfully fishy edge. The menu changes daily and their wine list is designed to match and very reasonably priced to boot. In the kitchen the eminently trendy charcoal Josper oven takes pride of place – searing the fish at incredible temperatures while keeping the middle wonderfully moist.

To start I had some lovely queenie scallops, simply grilled with a garlic and breadcrumb topping. Tender, juicy and very moreish.

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The main course was a huge piece of monkfish, fresh from the charcoal oven. Served with a simple salad it was beautifully seasoned and perfectly cooked. I can’t remember the last time I had fish this good. Excellent chips and some very nice samphire provided the perfect sides.

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Dessert was an easy choice – Cointreau doughnuts with a hot chocolate sauce. The doughnuts were freshly fried and full of raisins and pine-nuts, the hot chocolate sauce nicely balanced with a subtle alcoholic kick.

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All washed down with a carafe of Albarino it was a wonderful evening. With ingredients this simple there’s nowhere to hide, and with fish this good it’s a crime to mess it up. Rockfish served a pretty faultless meal and I can’t wait to go again.

Stone Brewing Co – Enjoy By

Sometimes food bloggers can be utterly infuriating – there’s a huge buzz about celeb hotspot Chiltern Firehouse at the moment, which means mere mortals won’t get a table this decade. Thousands of words have been written about an experience that you can’t go out any copy, and I’m about to do the same. Not about some A-list mecca, but about a beer.

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll be familiar with my penchant for homebrewing. I’ve recently started taking it more seriously and am loving the ability to customise my brews – I can indulge my passion for vast piles of hops. One of the standard bearers of the British craft brewing movement, Brewdog, share this philosophy and their own beers and bars are a temple to the humble hop. They’ve also made friends with lots of other brewers around the world which gives them access to some stunning beers.

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There was a lot of excitement on Twitter when they announced their latest guest beer – “Stone Enjoy By 08.16.14″. Stone Brewing Co are a really exciting brewery from San Diego and their output is pretty rare in the UK. The date in the name is no accident, this is a special beer brewed specifically to have a short shelf-life. It has over ten different hops used at various points in the process and the result is mindblowing. It’s got a wonderful mouthfeel – silky, light and very smooth. There’s a delicate sweet malt backbone, but the real stars are the hops. There’s a huge amount of tropical fruit – mango, pineapple and passionfruit, backed up by strong citrus and some subtler piney notes. Despite being 9.4%ABV it doesn’t taste anything like that strong. It’s so easy to drink and in the sweltering London heat, wonderfully refreshing. It’s damn near the perfect beer, and certainly the best I’ve ever tried.

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On the downside – it’s sold out pretty much instantly and may never be made again…

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Gymkhana

Restaurants are incredibly subjective – one persons gastronomic delight is anothers culinary car crash. Michelin is the gold standard, the World’s 50 Best is highly respected and the Good Food Guide is normally reliable. The latest to be updated is Restaurant magazine’s ‘Top 100 UK Restaurants’, I happily scanned through, agreeing with many of the choices until I got right to the top – Gymkhana?! An upmarket Indian which is the cheaper off-spring of Trishna? Aware that it would be inundated with desperate foodies (like myself) I quickly snagged a lunchtime reservation and went to see what the fuss is all about.

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A quick stroll from Green Park tube, it’s as central as central gets. The smart exterior gives way to a lovely, thoughtfully designed interior. It’s supposed to evoke the victorian sporting clubs of India and it does a remarkably good job. There’s taxidermy on the walls, framed shooting manuals and Punch prints – infinitely better than the usual Indian chintz. The menu is extensive and there are several set options available – in the interests of having as many of their greatest hits as possible we went with their six course taster, a snip at £55.

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While we waited for our starters some gorgeous poppadums arrived in three miniature varieties. The mango chutney was lovely and I particularly liked the thick chilli sauce. It set the scene for the whole meal – this is Indian, but done with a style, flair and precision that you’ve never seen before.

Potato Chat, Chickpeas, Tamarind, Sev

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The first proper course was very nice – a whole blend of textures, deftly spiced and served with a cooling yoghurt. Simple ingredients but cooked in three or four different ways – a very promising start.

Lasooni Wild Tiger Prawns, Red Pepper Chutney

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I normally avoid seafood at Indian restaurants on principle – it’s almost universally a disaster. Thankfully these are the exceptions that prove my rule, truly enormous prawns, perfecly cooked and with a heavenly sauce – silky smooth and with a delicate heat.

Gilafi Quail Seekh Kebab, Pickled Green Chilli Chutney
Kasoori Chicken Tikka, Sprouting Moong Kachumber

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Gymkhana have a whole section of their menu dedicated to game and this was our first taste. Banish all thoughts of the dry, non-descript  kebabs found in your local tandoori. This was rich, tender and very juicy. The flavour of the bird blending effortlessly with spice and nicely hot chutney.

The chicken was equally good, very moist and with a nice char. The kachumber relish added some clever crunch and sharpness.

Kid Goat Methi Keema, Salli, Pao

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Minced goat with buns – this deceptively simple take on a popular streetfood was heavenly – especially with the addition of creamy gelatinous brains. Feed your inner zombie!

Suckling Pig Vindaloo
Malabar Jheenga Curry
served with Dal Maharani, Wild Mustard Baby Potatoes – Bread Basket and Basmati Rice

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Finally we arrive at the main course! The vindaloo is nothing like the macho spice off you might expect, it harks back to the original dish with it’s strong Portuguese influence and sharp vinegary tang. The pork was wonderfully tender and sweet. The Jheenga curry is another southern delicacy, stuffed full of prawns and expertly spiced. The sides were equally good – a lovely dal, beautiful little potatoes and some really good naans and parathas.

Banana and Pecan Kheer
Saffron Pistachio Kulfi Falooda

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The only slightly bum note of the meal were the desserts – it’s not an Indian strongpoint and both left me slightly underwhelmed. The saffron ice cream and jelly was nice, but there was a little too much cardamom and the like to really make it work for me. The Kheer is a kind of cold rice-pudding, nice in a way, but more a breakfast item than a proper pudding. Some simple fruit sorbets would have been a much nicer way to finish! After a coffee two little chocolate starwberry crunches finished the meal – a nice touch.

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The desserts aside – it’s a real masterclass. It’s authentic, traditional Indian food expertly cooked with great ingredients. There’s so much passion, precision and enthusiasm in every plate that you can’t help smile. I’m not sure if it’s the best restaurant in the UK, but it’s a really wonderful experience and one that ends up being uniquely English. Magnificent – just head somewhere else for pudding!

Gymkhana on Urbanspoon

 

Honest Burgers, Tooting

Plenty of people (including myself) have been touting Tooting as South London’s next gem. What was once an unbroken chain of dodgy asian restaurants and betting shops is being revitalised as a foodie hotspot: Chicken Shop, Meza, Chez Vous, The Little Bar, Kennedy’s – there’s a lot to love. The latest (and very welcome) addition is Honest Burgers. I’ve visited their Brixton outfit before – how does Tooting compare?

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The interior is what you’d expect from a upmarket fast food mecca – exposed brickwork, bare wood and vintage stools. It’s got cow horns on the wall and a hipster bike. There’s a definite buzz to the place, friendly servers whisking food around the packed tables and a string of bemused locals peering through the windows.

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The menu is wonderfully simple, a handful of options with the right sides and an excellent craft beer selection. They win bonus points for serving the very local ‘Wolfie Smith’ from “By The Horns” – you can chuck a rock at the brewery.

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With food this simple there’s no room to hide – and it is very good. The bun has the resilience and firm crust of a brioche roll without the overpowering richness. The patty itself is quite finely ground, but cooked to a nice medium. It’s not as juicy as the likes of Patty and Bun or MEATMarket, but considerably tastier than the likes of Byron or ShakeShack. It’s rich and meaty without being overpowering. In terms of extras – I opted for the Tour de France special (with aged comte, alsace bacon, red onion relish, sauce gribiche and a side of bearnaise). Each ingredient was well thought out, carefully cooked and the whole made a mighty impressive burger.

Almost as important as the burger are the chips – here they’re nicely rustic rosemary fries. Well salted and with a good hint of herb, they don’t really need condiments. Crisp without being unpleasantly crunchy – they’re a great chip. Scrabbling around the parchment paper for the scraps at the end is half the fun.

And that’s it! There’s no desserts menu – it’s as simple and honest an experience as the name suggests. It’s one of the best burgers in London, the staff are wonderful and the decor is lovely – this one’s a keeper. Now all Tooting needs is a quality pizza joint – can we tempt Pizza Pilgrims south!?

Honest Burger on Urbanspoon