Review: The Cauldron, Bristol

In the Cauldron

In the Cauldron

The Cauldron boasts of being the first entirely “solid fuelled kitchen in the last 100 years” – basically, they cook everything using wood or coal to “remove their reliance on the big 6 energy providers”.

Don’t say it’s laudable. It’s not. If every restaurant in the UK switched to this approach we’d have lopped down the whole of the New Forest inside five years and there’d be new clouds of smog over every substantial city centre. That’s not really the point. The point is that it’s different, interesting, and provokes exactly these kind of discussions – generally, over lunch or dinner. It’s just as easy to pour scorn on hippies that choose to live in a forest commune, grow their own food and abandon the trappings of modernity. The world’s population is already way too large for pre-industrial ways of life to sustain everyone. But that those people exist, and choose to tell their stories in books and TV slots, is a very good thing because it provokes the right kind of conversations. The last thing we should do is sleepwalk our way into destroying the natural environment pole-to-pole and ourselves into the bargain.

The Cauldron’s website looks way hip, so the hand-painted sign above a bow-windowed shopfront with a couple of pub tables outside in a down-at-heel parade of neighbourhood shops is a bit surprising. But the welcome is warm and they accommodate our unannounced arrival by perching us at one end of a long table booked for five. To our pleasure (but no doubt to The Cauldron’s chagrin), the five never show up.

Sunday roast

Sunday roast

We are here for Sunday roast, and the plate that eventually settles before us is a smorgasbord of roasted things. I’ve chosen the mixed roast, so my plate includes roasted: beef, lamb, pork, potatoes, carrot, beetroot, banana shallot, sweet potato, yorkshire pud, cauliflower, greens and peas. The last three aren’t roasted but you get my drift! Love it. And I can report that all were roasted to perfection except for the carrot which was simply too huge to have cooked through and the pork which was drysabone. Outstanding was the beef: nicely pink sirloin, and it had been wood-smoked beforehand. If you like roast beef, you’ll love smoked roast beef! Also the beetroot, charred on the outside which gave it a coal-y sticky sweetness. Smashing cauliflower cheese – whatever cheese they chose, they chose wisely. The gravy was deep and good, but I should have asked for an extra boat as we just didn’t have quite enough.

And, genuine or psychosomatic, I really thought I could taste the tang of wood-smoke right through the whole lot.

And that’s your lot, we didn’t stop for pud. Decent glass of Rioja – all their wines are vegan, by the by. The roast was £15 and this is an excellent deal. The Cauldron brings a dose of originality and some solid cooking to an already eclectic Bristol dining scene. I’m looking forward to going back on a not-Sunday and tucking into their regular menu.

Review: Bell’s Diner, Bristol

Bells

Bells

Bell’s Diner is a Bristol institution, it’s been there since 1976. And although it’s an entirely different team and a totally different menu these days, Bell’s is still 100% a neighbourhood bistro serving straight-forward dishes with continental inspiration. Maybe just leaning a bit more on Spain than France these days, most of the plates being tapas size and the inspiration coming from all around the Med.

It’s cosy and eclectic within. The place wears its age proudly, the edges of the original woodwork softened by innumerable coats of paint. Drink menus come bound between the covers of classic 70’s albums. That sorta thing. You can’t not feel relaxed here. So we just ordered a mixture of half-a-dozen plates and waited to see what came.

Ox cheek croquettes

Ox cheek croquettes

Padron peppers were good, obviously. And then we were served two nice big ox cheek croquettes, which really set the bar. Wow. Meltingly soft shreds of insanely beefy cheek in a sticky gravy hidden in a perfect ball of crunchy breadcrumb. I’ll take ten! Oh. Except then a neat skewer of four duck hearts appears, and these little chaps have been grilled to perfection; smoke-kissed taste on the outside, lovely rose pink softness within. I’ll take ten of those too!

Next up was a generous plate of lightly dressed tomatoes with locally made ricotta and pangritata, beautiful combo although if I’m picky the toms were still a bit cold. Oh! Mustn’t forget their bread – a lovely twangy sourdough with the most amazing crisp and blackened crust on ‘im. There’s a lot of star-studded restaurants couldn’t turn out bread this good.

Duck hearts!

Duck hearts!

The one slightly bum dish was a beetroot salad with cashel blue beignets. These little nuggets were jolly good. But the salt-baked beetroot had taken on just a leeeetle too much salt in the process. Any grumbles were cast aside by our final dish, a roasted piece of salt cod with a stew of borlotti beans and sweet pepper. The cod was perfect, the beans were fat, and the peppers had been cooked down into a stewy sauce that was nothing short of jammy in its sweet stickiness. The pairing of the salt cod and jammy stew: abject bliss.

Didn’t have room for pud, which sounded a shame based on the noises from nearby tables. Best of all, the bill came down to about £17 each without drinks (and a couple of jolly good glasses of wine for very little). Bell’s Diner is the absolute epitome of local bistro: great price, great food, relaxed surroundings, and a menu that rotates enough that you could visit monthly and never get bored.

Salt cod

Salt cod

Review: The Hare, Milton-under-Wychwood

Devilled kidneys

Devilled kidneys

Just a quick one. Almost every Cotswold village now has a pub that has thrown itself over to evening meals and Sunday lunches for the country set, with varying degrees of success. You have to say this for the lot of ’em: they all aspire to cook fresh food, with plenty of local sourcing and surrounded with enough country paraphenalia that you can still imagine the squire striding in with muddy boots on and charging the ruddy-faced innkeeper to pull him a pint and rustle up a roast beef sarnie.

The Hare is one such, and a recent addition, popping up in the village of Milton-under-Wychwood in the last year or two. I like the decor, full of nice touches. There are hares everywhere. We came in for a Saturday lunch and left pretty happy. The food doesn’t quite hit the highs of the White Hart at Fyfield or the Kingham Plough, but you’d still be hard-pressed to grumble.

Ham hock pie

Ham hock pie

My starter is devilled kidneys on toast, which I never can resist. They’ve got some stuff right: the kidneys are nicely prepped and cooked, the sauce is reduced enough to be sticky and has soaked into some twangy sourdough toast. But it is basically a mustard sauce, and while tasty enough it really ain’t devilled without some tomato-y chilli-ish notes. Across the table we’ve got a twice-baked blue cheese souffle that is pronounced “a bit hefty” and not quite cheesy enough. My brother scores some very good slow-cooked fall-off-the-bone ribs.

Main course, a braised ham hock pie with a creamy parsley and white wine sauce. The puff pastry is excellent, and so is the yielding pink ham inside. Spot-on seasoning. Oooo… and that pastry really laps up the sauce too. Pretty much brilliant, dish of the day. Across the table, cod dishes are declared good.

I finish up with a glazed orange tart, which is really a slice of excellent creme brulee in pastry. It’s a good pub pud. You’re looking around £32 each for 3 courses, and as I say I don’t think you’d be disappointed. Perhaps like me you’d think that while you haven’t actually found an amazing temple of gastronomy, you’ve at least found a useful place to know if you’re needing a meal in the middle of the Cotswolds.

Tart

Tart

Review: Xu, London

Xu bar

Xu bar

It’s interesting when the major critics disagree over a new restaurant. When they all agree a place is splendid, it’s safe to say that it’s probably splendid. When they all agree a place is dire, it’s probably better to dine elsewhere. But when a couple of them sing high praises and the others damn with faint praise, who do you trust? It’s easy to shrug this off as “just different tastes”, but I’m not so sure. My hunch is that the whole experience of the evening – even for a professional reviewer – is going to have a much bigger influence than their personal preference for sous vide over deep fried. Did they turn up with high expectations or none? Were they having a great day or was it a crappy one? Was the service effortless or were there irritations?

An interesting question (that I am too lazy to research): where the major critics disagree over a restaurant, is the eventual public consensus usually on the side of the ones who loved it or the ones who loathed it? Is there a pattern?

Dramatic cuttlefish toast

Dramatic cuttlefish toast

Xu, a Taiwanese restaurant with evocative 1930’s post-colonial styling, seems to have divided opinions; it’s either a great and unique addition to the London dining scene, or a good idea not executed very well. Luckily I am here to split the difference!

The interior is great, full of atmosphere without straying into pastiche. There are nice touches like a dedicated tea bar downstairs to match the more obvious cocktail bar upstairs, and some mah-jong rooms hidden in the back for private dining. We had a mixture of service, some very friendly and helpful, others a little hesitant; perhaps just a reminder that Xu has only been open for a couple of months, and has a fairly complex menu. Anyway, it’s a million miles from the “what you want? Just tell me number” service you get at more basic Chinese places.

The menu also fits on one page. We kicked off with a mixture of starters. A neat bowl of diced smoked eel and fresh cherry tomato, dressed with a spicy oil and topped with crunchy dried daikon was very delicious, perhaps the best tomatoes I’ve enjoyed all summer. Dramatically black cuttlefish toast with smoked cod roe was a tasty riff on good ol’ prawn toast. My favourite starter was a dish of fried sweetbread with pickled greens in a curried gravy; I didn’t manage to pick out the individual spices, it was simply an excellent sauce to bring together and balance the soft pieces of sweetbread and the slightly mustard-y pickles. Chilled slices of beef tendon terrine was probably my second-favourite, very delicate and very savoury.

Tomato and eel

Tomato and eel

There were some spiffy main courses to follow. My seabass lurked under a daunting looking relish of bright red and bright green chillies, but although packing some heat it wasn’t as eye-watering as it appeared. The fish beneath was neatly cooked, the fish bone sauce giving the whole dish some depth of flavour. Another main of beef slices in black pepper sauce with a fried egg was most epic for the stunning heart-warming splendour of the honey black pepper sauce, though the thin slices of rare beef couldn’t be faulted. And a fried egg. Those Taiwanese, eh! Vanessa’s piece of Char Sui Iberico Pork was a good piece of barbecued meat, but being described as “in char sui” it was a bit disappointing to find it dry. Loved the sturdy sticks of black barbecued cucumber scattered with sesame seed that it was served on. We tried two or three different rices to accompany, the lard rice was good, the congee was a bit disappointing; less rice porridge and more rice soup.

Xu is well worth your time and money, it’s a great slice of an unusual cuisine, generally very well executed with some stand-out flavours. You can put together quite a feast for around £34 each, and we found some interesting and high quality wines on the menu. It certainly goes on my list of “useful places to know when I’m down London way.”

Beef tendon terrine

Beef tendon terrine

Review: Bulrush, Bristol

Bulrush

Bulrush

Oh wow, I love Bulrush. You’ll love it to, I suspect. This is top-notch fine dining at a knockdown price, and if I lived in Bristol I’d be here every month. Like a lot of the best things in Bristol, it’s tucked away down a side street in a one of the little residential districts surrounding the city, in an odd-shaped building at the end of a row of shops that they’ve managed to magically squish a bunch of tables into. Artfully, too, with a nicely relaxed boho style that made me feel instantly chilled out and well-disposed to my lunch. The service was friendly and helpful.

Turnip & peas

Turnip & peas

We began with a tempura’d beignet of tofu, a blog of very miso-laden mayonaise on top. Such a hit of umami, perfect way to get the juices flowing. More nifty starters followed, including a brightly brassic broccoli mousse. There was a snug little pottery bowl containing a dollop of Montgomery cheddar custard with heritage carrot. The custard had a great texture, thick and sturdy like a… like a… y’know, I’m not sure it had any obvious likeness! But it was tangy and delicious.

I was particularly smitten by a palate-cleansing starter of wobbly white dill junket, served with tiny fresh green peas and a turnip granita. Yeah! Turnip sorbet! The snarky turnip flavour was pronounced and paired beautifully with the peas and dill.

Crab & peach

Crab & peach

Two seafood dishes followed, and it’s worth noting here (in case my photos, as ever, don’t quite do justice) that all the plating at Bulrush is absolutely picture-perfect and makes you smile before you ever stick your fork in. They’ve won before you’ve even tasted the food! Anyway, the blowtorched sliver of otherwise raw sole, served with fresh almond mousse, pickled grapes and a bright gazpacho was bliss; light Spanish summer flavours, the whole combo ending up like the best possible salmorejo. And then the picked crab with pickled peach and Japanese mooli was even better, given plenty of oomph by a foam of the brown crab meat, and of course the silly grin factor of combining crab + peach + radish.

The lamb main was basically a classic, with charred baby gem and generous dollops of a deeply funky anchovy sauce.

Lamb

Lamb

Leaving us with pud. The first pud was a beauty, a big boob of pine mousse hiding a lovely sharp/sweet lemon sorbet and then a crunchy almond frangipane in the base. The pine flavour (which I love) took front and centre. The second pud was the only “meh” dish for me from the whole menu. Rosemary meringue was very jolly, apricot stone ice cream was a pretty modest but pleasant flavour. But the BBQ apricots that were meant to star were really just too austere, almost as chewy as dried fruit from their cooking and only having the bitter side of the apricot flavour spectrum to offer. Oddly enough, if this dish included a few cubes of nicely BBQ’d lamb it might have been a thumping good main! Maybe.

Anyway, who cares? This was an absolutely spiffing meal, and at £48 each for this tasting lunch it’s frankly brilliant value. The Bulrush deserves to do extremely well and I’m going to find more excuses to visit Bristol now so that I can go again. You should too.

Seared sole

Seared sole

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