Tuesday 28 May 2013

Bell's Diner & Bar Rooms - Bristol

Bell’s Diner is something of a Bristol restaurant institution. Located on a corner site in the Montpelier area of the city, it first opened its doors under Shirley Anne Bell in 1976 as a French bistro style restaurant, which was popular with a largely student crowd. Later, after a period as a vegetarian restaurant and then, once again a French bistro, in 1997 it was bought by chef Chris Wicks whose menus had more of a fine dining style and combined classic cooking with cutting edge culinary techniques. So it remained, until the beginning of this year, when it was announced that Bell’s was once again up for sale.

Step forward chef Sam Sohn-Rethel, ex Moro, Lido and Flinty Red whose absolutely belting cooking at Manna had made it by far my favourite Bristol restaurant. I was sad to hear he was leaving, but excited when I found out he was taking over Bells, which is closer to where I live and much more importantly, downhill, although thinking about it, that’s going to be a real embuggerance when rolling back home afterwards, stuffed silly and drunk.

When the restaurant re-opened under Sam, I was abroad, doing my best to eat the Spanish out of all of their grub and drinking much of their sherry but I headed over to Bell’s as soon as I arrived back, for a solo lunch last week and then went there again, the very next night for dinner with Elly. I think you can probably ascertain from the double visit that I thought it was a bit good.

So, let’s get it out of the way early. This is undoubtedly my new favourite Bristol restaurant.

Let’s talk about lunch.

From the outside things looked more or less the same. However, stepping through the front door into what was once the reception area, there now sits a small bar, which is a good use of the space. I always liked the front dining room at Bell’s; it’s a lovely space and taking a seat at my table it’s apparent this hasn’t really changed.

Sam’s cooking style here remains exactly what made me such a fan at Manna. Spanish-North African and Mediterranean flavours with a bit of classic British thrown in for good measure all put together with top quality ingredients. He’s continued with the small plate dining format, but there are some larger, pricier dishes here too. A Big Green Egg BBQ in the kitchen means charcoal grilled ingredients feature throughout the menu. As with Sam’s previous restaurant gig, a British artisan cheese section on the menu gets a massive thumbs-up from me.

Bearing all this in mind, I settled in for what I expected to be a cracking lunch and proceeded to order a few dishes from the small plate menu. First up, some bread, baked on site by their pastry chef. It had a nice springy texture and a beautiful chewy, marmitey crust. Cracking stuff especially when lavishly smeared with rather luxurious Abernethy butter, which is apparently handmade in Northern Ireland.
I picked at a beautiful looking bowl of house pickles as my food started appearing from the kitchen.
First up, Salt cod fritters with a mayonnaise dip, simple, well made and absolutely delicious.
Next, a lighter dish of broad beans, cumin yoghurt, Israeli couscous and coriander. The texture of the couscous was phenomenal, large individual beads, unlike the fine grains I’m normally used to. Again, lovely stuff.
A small plate of Charcoal-Grilled Chicken Oyster Pincho, marinaded in Chipotle with Harissa Yoghurt impressed me no end. As you’re no doubt aware, chicken oysters, the tender tastiest pieces of meat, located underneath the bird are highly prized by greedy bastards in the know. Here in front of me, as if in some delirious meat laden dream was a load of them, threaded on a skewer spiced and chargrilled. Unbelievably good.
But not as good as a plate of Kid’s Liver, Charcoal Grilled Onions and Naga Chilli Pickle. I’ve never eaten goat’s liver before and true to my instinctive need to stuff all unknown items into my gob, this is what I went for and I’m chuffed that I did. It had a rich but mild liver taste, combined with the grilled onions and the almost toffee sweet heat of the chilli pickle. Absolutely banging. Loved every bite.
Finally, a lurid orange scoop of Alphonso Mango ice cream had a fantastic velvety texture and a superb flavour. As someone who has dabbled in the art of making ice cream on more than a few occasions I can tell you now, this was quality stuff.

Would you believe, except the ice-cream at £2.50 a go, all of these dishes were on the lunch menu for £4 each? Or if that’s not a bargain of the instantly chew their arm off variety enough for you, how about 3 dishes for £10?

So, a really cracking lunch and incredible value for money, so much so that I headed back again, for dinner with Elly the next night…

We started off with more of the excellent house pickles, bread and stonking Abernethy butter and as it was a Friday (and we really need no encouragement whatsoever), we decided to crack into the plonk. Turns out the wine list is good and as much as a bargain as the food, with a general policy of adding about a £10 mark-up on the cost price.
Deciding to get a starter each and ‘one for the pot’ I only had eyes for one thing, spied on the specials board as I walked in. ‘Elizabeth David’s Lamb St Menehould with Tartare Sauce’. Get in my frigging belly. An absolute classic of breadcrumbed and fried breast of lamb. Any chef, who’s putting Lizzy David’s grub on the menu, can do no wrong in my eyes. It was amazing and at £3.50 they’re practically giving it away.
Meanwhile, across the way, Elly was wide eyed, surveying three huge seared scallops surmounting a plate of chopped summer salad. She’s scoffed a fair few scallops in her time and in her opinion, these were the best, the fattest and juiciest she’s had. Fair play. The sweetness of the scallops when eaten with the sharpness of the chopped salad was delicious.
Our shared starter was a plate of Goat’s Curd with Tomatoes, Basil and Chilli. Fresh tasting and light, as with everything else, a cracking plate of grub. Later on in the year, if we actually have a summer, this dish can only improve as tomatoes get some warmth and sweeten.
Elly’s main effort was directed at a plate of Handmade Westcombe Ricotta Ravioli, Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, Asparagus and Broad Beans which she demolished in no time, reckoning it good but not quite as spectacular as some of the other dishes we’d tried.
However, something else from the specials board, Short Rib of Beef cooked in Rioja with Chorizo. Slow cooked meat, with a bone sticking out of it? Yep, this one’s for me. Soft, rich, falling apart as sank my fork into it. Boody amazing.

By this point we were both pretty stuffed and as I had been so impressed with the ice-cream at lunch the previous day, we had another go. This time, chocolate for Elly, which had the same beautiful texture and just the right level of bitter sweetness. I had Rum & Raisin (with neat rum poured over the top) so just the right level of borderline alcoholic to suit moi.

So, as I said right at the beginning of the review; By virtue of Sam’s cooking, Bell’s has instantly jumped to the top of my favourite restaurants in Bristol list, even after only being open for a couple of weeks, it’s really that good and it’s only going to get better, as they settle in.

Sam is a seriously talented chef and it’s patently obvious from his menus and his grub that he absolutely loves cooking and eating.

I really can’t praise it enough. Lovely food. Cracking restaurant. Get over there and enjoy it.

Bell’s Diner & Bar Rooms
1-3 York Road

Telephone 0117 9240357


Fiona Beckett said...

Totally with you on this one BUT bad news that you've spread the word so effectively. Shall never bloody be able to get in now.

Anonymous said...

Looks amazing - I could use some of the fried lamb breast right now for early elevenses. Table booked for pay day.

FoodNerd x

Unknown said...

I am so excited to head back to Bristol for a visit & enjoy the new tastes of Bell's. Was a favourite when I lived there!

Dan said...

Fiona - Hahaha I never thought of that!

Foodnerd4life - Let me know what you think.

Katie Hatch - Bell's is definitely in good hands.

Graphic Foodie said...

Love little places like this. Prices are incredible for what you get.

Unknown said...

Oh I'm really pleased to hear such a glowing report, Bells was my favourite Bristol restaurant and I was extremely nervous to see the renovation work going on a few weeks ago, will have to check it out soon.

Dan said...

Graphic Foodie - Hey Fran, it's seriously amazing value considering the cooking is absolutely belting.

Rhiannon Lewis - Different style of cooking and less formal dining, but have no fear, Bell's is in very good hands. You'll love it.

Jack Framer said...

Love these small places and this looks wonderful, crazy cheap too. Thanks for sharing

Dan said...

Jack Framer - I've been there a couple of times since writing this review and it really is living up to expectations. Definitely my current favourite in Bristol.