Local, sustainable and seasonal - it's a sermon worth preaching, says Emma Dance
An evangelist of the Slow Food movement, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been preaching the merits of sustainability and nose-to-tale eating for decades.
And the Bristol outpost of his River Cottage Canteen, housed in a stunningly converted former church hall, is something of a shrine to this philosophy.
There are high vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows and an open kitchen with an altar-esque pass laden with fresh produce, as if being offered to some deity.
A small team of chefs – disciples of Saint Hugh’s teachings – slave away at the charcoal grill and wood fired oven, sending out dishes to hungry diners in the hope of converting them to the same school of thought.
But while Hugh might be leading the crusade, the Bristol chapter is very much in the hands of two local brothers, head chef Charlie James and second-in-command Phil. But there’s no doubt that they’re all singing from the same hymn sheet, albeit a new one.
The restaurant relaunched on July 14 with a new menu, designed by the Bristol pair. As before, as much of the produce as possible is locally sourced but now main dishes come simply garnished and guests create their own bespoke meal by mixing and matching accompanying vegetable and side dishes. It’s the same words, just sung to a different tune.
Service begins however in a traditional fashion. My duo of Lyme Bay diver scallops (complete with roe of course – there’s no wastage at River Cottage!) came cradled in their shells, anointed with a drizzle of lemon oil and scattered with crispy lardons of smoked bacon and sea herbs. It’s fresh and light, and the salty bacon is a perfect bedfellow for the sweet scallops. There was no shortage of crab in husband’s Portland crab cocktail with Grow Bristol shoots (£9.50) and the pile of vibrant greenery made a welcome alternative to boring Iceberg lettuce.
Pulled pork is the foodie craze that seems to be going nowhere fast, but oh how I wish it was always as good as the sizzling skillet full of Donnie Brasco pulled pork shoulder (£11.75) that arrived in front of me at River Cottage Canteen. The meat was soft and succulent, the barbecue sauce a holy trinity of sweet, spice and smoke and the crackling just the right side of tooth-breakingly crunchy.
Husband could not stop singing the praises of his chargrilled spiced lamb with rose honey, Brown Cow yoghurt, whole lemon dressing and coriander (£14), and when I tasted it I could see why. The perfectly seasoned meat just melted in the mouth – it was the most tender lamb I had ever eaten. So awe-struck were we that we begged an audience with the grill-god who had created the dish so that we could learn how he had created such a miraculous dish.
We shared four side dishes (£12 for four) – Isle of Wight tomatoes with Laverstoke mozzarella and basil; beetroot with caramelised onion, whole orange dressing and dill; charred cauliflower with harissa, yoghurt and dukkah and potato wedges with smokey paprika, sea salt and coriander mayonnaise – all fresh, vibrant and perfectly seasoned. It may not have been a combination a chef would have approved of, but it was fun to create a meal tailored to your taste and mood on the evening.
Desserts are sinfully delicious. A gooseberry and elderflower fumble (£6.50) brought together sweet and sharp in a tastebud-tingling union; a light almond and polenta cake (£6.50) was lifted to celestial heights by the accompanying orange sorbet; Cheddar strawberries with a lemon balm posset (£6) were a marriage made in heaven and a salted chocolate mousse (£6) was devilishly decadent.
River Cottage Canteen is a testament to the virtues of sourcing the best possible ingredients, and after eating at there I’ll be spreading the word.
RIVER COTTAGE CANTEEN
ST JOHN'S COURT
0117 973 2458