Tuesday 31 August 2010

The Harbourside - Bristol

I’ve been living in Bristol for a couple of months now, and now I’m starting to settle in and take stock of my surroundings, I’ve noticed that it’s a city of extremes – more so than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. On the one side perched upon a hill above the rest of the city you have the impossibly attractive and leafy Clifton; bursting at the seams with beautiful Georgian and Victorian mansions, affluent and just a bit posh.

On the other side of the city centre, you will find what could generously be described as bohemian, Stokes Croft. Inhabiting a position that is almost the exact opposite of Clifton in every respect. But strangely it possesses something of a fair-trade, yet threadbare, tanked up to the gills on Special Brew, cheeky charm of it’s own, that is so ephemeral it’s almost impossible to pin down.

Lying somewhere in between these two extremes is the city centre and harbourside area of Bristol. Home to some decent restaurants, it is extremely pleasant during the day, or on a midweek evening. Its Jekyll and Hyde nature is starkly evident upon the weekend, however, where it plays host to some God awful, two for one; sambuca and Red Bull, puke drenched heaving pits of inequity attracting hideously and often ridiculously attired leathered mobs of hens and stags like moths to a flame.

Into this middle ground, the owners of rough around the edges, trendy eco Bristol street-chic Canteen in the aforementioned Stokes Croft have planted their latest flag, laying claim to a prime and rather attractive corner plot on the harbourside.

‘E’ and myself visited The Harbourside Bistro recently on a whim; it was late and we happened to be passing and hungry.
I’d been hearing mixed reviews about it, to be honest I say ‘mixed’ but more like polar opposite views, ranging from horrendous to some of the best food eaten in Bristol. Added to this a rather unusually lukewarm review from Mark Taylor in the Bristol Evening post, and I was intrigued.

It was a surprisingly mild night, and we grabbed a table outside so we could dine next to the water, and under the stars….ahhh tres romantique….but *cough *…..*splutter* also tres smoky. Our fellow diners, taking the opportunity for some al fresco fag action were lighting up and puffing away all around us. Naturally, being an ex thirty a day man, I am completely unsympathetic to their utter selfishness and damn all their eyes for polluting my inherent purity.

Despite the aroma a la Benson and Hedges, it was quite romantic dining outside on a balmy summer evening, hearing the gentle lap of the water against the boat hulls in the harbour and the tables dimly illuminated by the flicker of candlelight.

Glancing at the menu, we decided to forego the three mains listed and instead decided to order the whole of the intriguingly named ‘Bristol Tapas’ section instead. I have to say; there is something extremely satisfying in responding to a waiter’s question of

“What will you have?” with a definite
“Everything, yes… all of that – yes, the whole menu section, bring it all”.

Although perhaps not quite as extravagant as it appears, the most expensive item being four Giga Oysters for £5, everything else being priced at around the £3 mark.

I’d read somewhere that the kitchen were baking their own organic bread and also, unusually, making their own butter. Which is entirely admirable as far as I’m concerned. We had to order some. The bread was excellent. The homemade butter less so. The garlic and herb flavoured examples were nice, the plain butter tasted like margarine to me. Still impressive.

At this point a profusion of ‘Bristol Tapas’ arrived, all at once.

First up the Giga oysters, which the menu told me were sourced from the River Exe, which Google tells me mostly lies in Devon. These came with lemon and a bowl of shallot vinegar.
The oysters were nice, briny and fresh but lacked something in the preparation. The oysters hadn’t been shucked properly, a couple contained broken shell and all were still slightly attached. Still, although a bit sloppy, it wasn’t the end of the world and the oysters were a nice start.

Next the smoked mackerel pate on Shipton Mill toast. My first thought was what a beautifully presented plate of food. My second thought upon having a taste was “Wow, fishy” which is no bad thing, and shouldn’t be taken as a criticism in any way. I find strongly fishy food a bit too much for me, and despite having a good go at it, I had to let ‘E’, who has no such qualms, finish the plate.

The roast beetroot and goats cheese pate with pickled beetroot and golden beet chutney was much more agreeable to my delicate Essex palate and I happily dug into it. Not bad at all.

The minted mixed beans, sweet baby onions and yoghurt dressing had a distinctly Moro’esque feel to it, and was a bloody nice, well-put together, simple and fresh bowl of food. I’d like to see more dishes like this on the menu.

The last of our tapas dishes was something of a 1970’s throwback styled, organic marinated chicken with baby gem and cheddar, which despite looking like something Fanny Craddock would have churned out was actually delicious.

Lastly, a shared dessert – Lemon syrup tart with raspberry cranachon was quite possibly the best thing I ate all night, beautifully made with a really moist lemon syrup filling surrounded by superb pastry. It was really good.

Talking about it afterwards, both ‘E’ and myself agreed that we’d really enjoyed our al fresco meal at The Harbourside. Eating outside by the water on a summer evening is certainly appealing, although this being the UK, it wont be quite so charming come the rain lashed autumn months.

I really like the enterprise displayed, churning their own butter and the careful local sourcing is to be applauded. But things aren’t quite as slick as they obviously want them to be. The sloppily prepared oysters and the tasteless (albeit home churned) plain butter, showing a slight lack of attention to detail. Saying that, it’s early days, the ‘Bristol tapas’ are interesting, ridiculously cheap and in most cases beautifully presented, some of the dishes were outstanding (Lemon tart, I’m looking at you). I now feel like I really need to go back and try some of the mains.

All in all, I liked The Harbourside, it certainly has a certain charm. It’s exciting to speculate, bearing in mind the obvious ambition in the kitchen, how the menu and the food will evolve and improve as they bed-in. Definitely one to watch.

The Harbourside

Unit 1
1 Cannons Road

Telephone: 0117 929 1100

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Blackberries – Or how to maim yourself making jam

A somewhat melodramatic title you may be thinking?

Not if you were a fly on the wall last Sunday in the Bristol kitchen I share with 'E'. You would have observed us ducking and dodging spitting globules of bubbling, scalding hot sugary jam erupting volcanically from swirling purple depths of death. Meanwhile, if this didn't present quite enough danger, we heroically manhandled a ridiculousy oversized, steaming hot cauldron of water, attempting to sterilise the Kilner jars. Frankly I'm amazed neither of us suffered life threatening burns.

Our thoughts on jam making, after surviving this trial?
“Holy shit, how do little old ladies manage it?”

Thinking about it whilst nursing frazzled nerves and singed fingers, the whole process from start to finish was fraught with danger. It being the season, we foraged our blackberries from a winding, inner city footpath often frequented by some of the less savoury characters of Bristol society – yes you unwashed, baggy hole ridden jumpered, dreadlocked eco-warriors, I'm looking in your direction. The utter bastards had been there already and picked over the brambles, leaving us with no option but to take ever increasing risks to procure the really juicy berries. This involved variously; amateur acrobatics, rock climbing railway arches, stretching through impossibly tiny gaps in railings and pulled muscles all round. Add to this numerous scratches from brambles, stings from nettles and screams (from me) as I avoided countless whopping spiders and you might say a fun afternoon was had by all.

Yes, the risks and associated dangers are huge – but dear readers, so are the rewards. The satisfaction you get from making a huge pot of tasty jam, made almost entirely from gratis ingredients is enough to make a grown man blubber with pride. That's not to mention the blackberry and ginger puddings and 'E's' incredibly good blackberry crumble cake.

Altogether, after three hours of foraging we amassed just over a kilo of berries (our foraging careers will not make us millionaires). We set aside the majority for our jam making exercise, a handful for the steamed puddings and the rest for the cake.

First the jam. I've already mentioned the sheer health and safety nightmare involved in its making, so I won't go into too much detail except to say that we used the Ballymaloe recipe using apples to boost the pectin levels (blackberries are notoriously low in pectin and therefore difficult to make set successfully – check out my mungus jam making brain).

The jam we produced was pretty damn good for a first attempt, and just over half a kilo and one apple made enough so that we'll be eating it for months (if we managed to sterilise the jar correctly and it doesn't go mouldy).

The baked blackberry and stem ginger puddings are a Skye Gyngell recipe from the rather excellent 'A year in my kitchen' and only require three or four blackberries per person, so therefore perfect for the less successful and committed foragers out there.

The recipe is quick to make and absolutely cracking,

Baked blackberry and stem ginger pudding

Serves 4

You'll need:-

100g unsalted butter, softened. Plus extra to grease
100g caster sugar
2 eggs
100g self raising flour
finely grated zest of two lemons
4 knobs of preserved stem ginger in syrup, drained and finely chopped
Pinch of salt
4 Tbsp golden syrup
12 blackberries

Preheat the oven to 180C.
Butter four individual pudding basins and set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift in the flour, and fold in gently. Add the lemon zest, stem ginger and a restrained pinch of salt. Fold in until evenly mixed.

Put 1 Tbsp of golden syrup and 3 blackberries into each pudding mould and spoon the sponge mixture on top. Cover each mould loosely with a piece of buttered foil and stand the moulds on a backing tray.
Bake for 30 mins until well risen and cooked through.
Run a knife around each pudding and turn out onto a warmed plate.

The following evening and not sick of foraged berries yet, with the remaining haul, I helped 'E' bake a frigging superb crumble cake, using her own recipe.

'E's' blackberry crumble cake

Serves 6

You'll need:-

140g self raising flour
½ Tsp ground ginger
50g caster sugar
1 egg
4 Tbsp milk
85g salted butter, melted.
250-300g blackberries

For the topping:-

25g plain flour
¼ Tsp ground ginger
25g caster sugar
25g cold butter, diced

Preheat the oven to 180C
Butter a 7” cake tin and line the base with greaseproof paper.
Sift flour, ginger and sugar together.
Into a well in the centre, pour the egg, milk and melted butter. Mix well and pour into the tin.
Smooth surface and scatter the blackberries over evenly.

Make the topping by rubbing all of the ingredients together with your fingertips to make a crumble mixture.
Scatter the topping over the blackberries and bake for 35-45 mins until the cake is firm and the surface is golden.

It tastes great warm, straight from the oven but keeps well, covered, for at least a couple of days.

So, there's still loads of blackberries out there on the bushes, just waiting for you to rip your hands to bits on the thorns or give yourself a hernia reaching for that really elusive plump specimen, so get out there and try not to hospitalise yourselves too much.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Second Floor Restaurant – Harvey Nichols – Bristol

Can you imagine my delight upon moving to Bristol and learning that London fashion Mecca, Harvey Nichols, has a department store in the city? Y’see, those that know me, will have had me instantly pegged as a fashion clothes horse, my sleek angular frame and high cheekbones are nothing if not swaddled in Prada. (J’adore Prada as we say in Essex Dahlings). Or perhaps accentuated by the latest John Galliano creation (Not many people realise I spent some time as his muse whilst slumming it in Paris in the 80’s).
Yes indeed blog fans, I’m an utter Gok…. but I suspect you all guessed that already.

Anyway, what made this fashion discovery even more fabulous was learning that Harvey Nichols Bristol also has a rather swanky restaurant and bar. The London store has its eponymous Fifth Floor restaurant. Bristol has a more diminutive second floor, but don’t let that put you off… it’s cracking.

The cry of pirates and ludicrously coiffured 1980’s new romantic bands, (where am I going with this?). Ah, yes, it was my first thought as I walked into the second floor restaurant (accessed out of store hours by a private side lift. Swanky). The whole place is bedecked in gold; curtains, drapes, and leather booths… I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it could have been hideous, interior design à la Bond villain’s volcano lair, but no. Surprisingly, it’s incredibly swish and tasteful, luxurious and, dare I say it, as the lights dim and the sun sets over the city outside, incredibly romantic. Oh tres oui.

‘E’ and myself had managed to cram in a couple of rather good (and rather potent) cocktails at the bar on the same floor and took to our rather funkily designed leather seats a little unsteadily. We were here to sample the bargainous sounding summer dining offer, 3 courses and a Bellini for £15.

Great bread and butter were produced, as was a rather nice amuse of pea and herb risotto. A great start.

My starter of beetroot soup with lemon and horseradish cream looked like the presentation had failed a bit on the way to the table, but it was delicious nonetheless.

‘E’s Inverawe smoked salmon, new potato salad and herb emulsion on the other hand looked superb, and tasted just right, leading to a tipsy conversation about how good smoked salmon is always worth paying extra for, as the gulf between the good stuff and cheaper options is so vast.

My main of slow cooked pork belly, confit potatoes, peppers and salsa verde was, as you can see from the picture a work of art. Perfectly cooked, moist and tender, crispy in all the right places…. I could have eaten it all night. Perfection.

‘E’ being the problematic pescetarian that she is had swapped with a main from the à la carte menu, a broad bean and chickpea falafel with aubergine salad, mint yoghurt, soft cheese and pine nut parcel, broad bean and mint dressing. I was led to believe it was good. Not amazing like my plate of porcine goodness, but quite satisfactory.

The side dishes we ordered on the other hand, particularly the tempura courgettes, were phenomenal.

Both feeling in need of a chocolate fix, and subsequently choosing the same dessert from the menu, we tucked into our chocolate and banana brownies, Valrhona chocolate pots and marshmallows in a workmanlike manner. ‘E’ felt that the brownies were a little dry perhaps, but then she did have to forego the marshmallow due to a pescetarian aversion to gelatine. I felt that it tempered the dryness of the brownie somewhat. Sucks to be a pescetarian eh?
On the other hand, we both agreed that the Valrhona chocolate pots were bloody delicious, full of rich velvety smooth chocolate.

Ordering coffee, we were brought some petits fours consisting of chocolate truffles, peanut butter cookies and mini meringues, which was a nice way to end the meal.

So, in conclusion, I rate the second floor restaurant at Harvey Nichols highly. The dining room is gorgeous, the service was spot on, the food, for the most part was excellent and at £15…. what a frigging bargain! Three cracking courses, including an amuse, petits four…. and a Bellini!! What are you waiting for? You could spend as much as that ordering a pizza. So, get your arses down there pronto. This deal is available Tuesday to Friday evenings and runs until the end of September.

Second Floor Restaurant – Harvey Nichols

Philadelphia Street
Quakers Friars
Cabot Circus

Telephone: 0117 916 8898


Tuesday 10 August 2010

Cinq Sentits - Barcelona

Those of you who have had; dare I say it myself, the considerable pleasure of meeting me in person, will no doubt have had me marked instantly as a man of exquisite taste, a worldly man…. an experienced international traveller. And yes, in some ways, you would be correct. I have whiled away many, many hours drinking Camparis in the company of likeminded international jetsetters in the foothills of the Matterhorn and my drunken braying laugh, penetrating the humid African night, has terrified away all manner of wild animals whilst on yet another safari.

But, and it’s a bit of a problem – I can’t order a white coffee in Spanish. I’ve tried, oh I’ve tried…. my Essex trained voice box just can’t get it right…. on my recent trip to Barcelona, I was a constant source of amusement in bars as I constantly pushed acceptable linguistic boundaries. Horrendous. More often than not I got what I wanted through sheer brass necked perseverance, but I almost starved to death the last two days I was there, as I couldn’t make myself understood.

Luckily for me, I didn’t need to embarrass myself with my awful Spanish at lunch in the Michelin starred Cinc Sentits – the staff spoke excellent English, and I was handed a menu also written in my mother tongue. Phew.

Eating here was a bit of an indulgent treat for me. I haven’t eaten alone that many times in restaurants, let alone in upmarket Michelin starred ones, but surprisingly I found the whole experience quite relaxing. I could concentrate on the food and take in the atmosphere without any distractions – although, it would have been nice to have someone to compare notes with, and the periods between courses were a bit awkward at the beginning… not so much when I was slightly pissed later, alcohol often being the remedy for feeling ill at ease socially.

The Cinc Sentits (Five senses) menu is a contemporary take on traditional Catalan cuisine, and interestingly there is not an a la carte option, instead there are 3 different, increasingly expensive tasting menus on offer.

I opted for the most expensive ‘Sensacions’ menu, which consists of 8 courses of 'this season’s best dishes', and their 'signature courses'. Exciting!

I opted to drink wine by the glass, and left it to the sommelier to make pairings with the dishes I was eating.
I was brought some nibbles to snack on; excellent Marcona almonds, stuffed olives and some cheese straw like things, I didn’t catch what they were, but they were very nice.

Next, I was brought an amuse; a shot glass filled with sea salt, maple syrup, cream and a cava sabayon. It was explained to me that I should down it in one to get the full effect. Being just the man for downing a shot glass in one, I wasted no time and promptly spluttered and coughed my guts up, my eyes filling with tears as it ‘went down the wrong hole’ – not good, somehow I don’t think I got the desired effect there… a bit of an amuse fail. No matter. Onwards and upwards.

The sommelier poured me a glass of Vallegarcia Viognier 2008, which was just what I needed after the amuse disaster, and I sipped it as I waited for the next course to arrive.

This was the Cinc Sentits take on the ubiquitous Catalan classic 'Pa Amb Tomaquet', consisting of fresh tomato sorbet, garlic air and peasant bread. It was bloody gorgeous; the tomato was in the form of an ice cream, the crunch of the bread against the ice cold, refreshing tomato was beautiful. I really enjoyed this.

Some excellent bread was brought to the table, along with two different bottles of locally sourced olive oil, one light and grassy, the other much thicker and syrupy, but also very grassy in flavour. Both were really good, and I munched happily, dipping the bread in the oil as I awaited the next course.

A bowl was placed in front of me containing some strategically placed ingredients; Marcona almonds, fresh cherries, cherry pit 'ice' and some sliced anchovy. The waiter then proceeded to pour a white liquid over it. This was the Cinc Sentits version of the Spanish classic Ajoblanco – chilled almond soup. It was rich, smooth and delicious, my only complaint being that I didn’t get enough of it; I had to tilt the bowl to get a spoonful right from the off.

At this point, I asked for another glass of wine and the sommelier recommended a sweet wine, which he thought would work well with the next course. The wine was amber coloured Caligo DG and the food was ‘caramelised foie gras' “coca” which the menu informed me contained a crisp pastry crust, chive 'arrope”'and glazed leeks.
Like everything else I’d eaten so far, it looked superb and tasted incredible. The sommelier was spot on with his choice. The sweet wine complimented the foie gras beautifully. Which, I should add was creamy, subtle and as rich as you’d expect. A truly outstanding course.

The next course of wild Mediterranean red mullet, with basil risotto, apricot and micro herbs was more workmanlike. It tasted great, but compared with some of the previous courses it didn’t shine, although apricot, basil and red mullet is an interesting flavour combination and it worked pretty well.

For my next course the sommelier poured me a glass of Celler de Cervoles, Costers del Segre, Cérvoles 2008. Another cracking glass of wine.

This was paired with Iberian suckling pig, cooked for 14 hours, with apple 'textures' and ratafia (which I’ve since found out is a liqueur made from peach or cherry kernels, bitter almonds or other fruits). The suckling pig was beautifully crisp, but soft, falling apart at the touch of my fork. The accompanying sauce and apple textures complimented it well. I thought it another fantastic dish, probably one of my favourites so far.

A cheese course came next, an artisanal farmhouse cheese with 'contrast' in the shape of sweet crisp bread, (which I’m afraid I snapped before realising I hadn’t taken a picture yet, hence the appearance). This was pleasant enough, but didn’t blow me away – the cheese was good, quite mild and creamy. Maybe I’m just not much of a cheese person.

With the cheese signalling the end of the savoury courses, the first dessert arrived, a palate cleanser. Citrus 'snow', consisting of lemon ice cream, effervescent lime sugar and yuzu foam. This was superb; the citrus flavours were extremely pronounced, yet with just the right balance of sweet and sour. The effervescent lime sugar reminded me of ‘space candy’ crackling and popping on my tongue. A really nice, light and fun course.

Dessert proper arrived in the shape of 'Grand Cru' chocolate 67%, with olive oil ice cream, shattered bread and macadamias. I thought this was ok, the olive oil ice cream was nicely flavoured, and the chocolate mousse was great, but the shattered bread and macadamias were a bit dry and I thought it took something away from the dish, making it a bit too cloying.

Excellent coffee came next, with a bizarre selection of test tubes containing different varieties of sugar, I wasn’t entirely sure about this and it seemed a little gimmicky to me.

Finally to round off the meal, some petit four; a ‘false egg’ made from white chocolate and passion fruit. Upon eating, the yolk burst in my mouth, flooding my palate with passion fruit which mingled with the white chocolate. It was bloody gorgeous. The other two, chocolate with herbs, and cream with violet jelly, were somewhat less spectacular in comparison, albeit very nice.

I settled my rather hefty lunch bill (around 135 Euros from memory, £112) and wandered a little unsteadily out into the blazing sunshine and humidity of Barcelona in July.

I liked Cinc Sentits a lot. The food is extremely interesting, beautiful to look at, carefully constructed and the play on traditional Catalan cuisine – contemporising it, is fascinating. I loved pretty much all of the courses, only a couple being merely ok instead of amazing. Yes, expensive but for this standard of food, and considering the bill included three glasses of matched wine, and a bottle of the beautiful artisan olive oil (I asked if I could buy one, and they agreed), complete bargain. If you’re visiting Barcelona, it should definitely be on your list of places to eat.

Cinc Sentits

Aribau 58
08011 Barcelona

Telephone: +34 93 323 9490