City types or country folk? Our personal allegiances tend to be more about a state of mind or affair of the heart than our current postcode.
I loved living in a city throughout my 20s, but I’ve always considered myself a country girl, while friends who have urban grit running through their veins, are content to view the countryside as an occasional weekend novelty. The balance works. There is no doubting that Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and his River Cottage crew are definitely in the country camp. So, how will their earthy, fresh, field, farm and veg-patch vibe fare in the middle of Bristol’s city centre?
The Bristol Canteen is the latest River Cottage eaterie to open, following on the success of the Axminster Canteen, in Dorset, then the waterside smaller city version in Plymouth. But big, urban, buzzing, cosmopolitan Bristol is quite another matter.
The canteen is in a converted Grade-II listed 19th Century church building, in the desirable and busy Clifton part of Bristol. It’s styled in a fusion of steel and oak - a knowing nod to the city’s industrial heritage blending with nature’s own symbol of strength.
From the outset the welcome is warm and the atmosphere relaxed. The expanse of open kitchen creates a upbeat ambience. Open – that’s what we want now isn’t it? We want transparency, to know what is in our food, and where it has really come from. There is a board giving details of the local suppliers and the back of the menus set out the River Cottage ethos when it comes to provenance of their ingredients.
Almost all the meat is certified organic, fish and shell fish comes from West Country Day boats and other sustainable sources in the south west, while vegetables and fruit are grown within 50 miles of Bristol.
The menu is true River Cottage; wholesome, good, tasty seasonal food. On the wintery day I visited the choices included; Hearty Bean Broth with winter cabbage and chilli oil, and Smoked Venison Loin with capers, shallot and parsley salad. Main options included Chorizo, melted onion and blue cheese pizza and a Beetroot, dill and crème fraiche speltotto. For lunch, starters cost between £5 and £8.25, and I was pleased to see that the majority of the mains were under £10.
I chose Potted Portland Crab to start. It was so good that I could have eaten ten of them. Served with chunky toast and dressed leeks its indulgent buttery texture flecked with hot hints was unforgettably good. My lunch date begged to differ. He claimed his plate of whiting with a spice batter, served with a Moorish salad, was a strong contender for the star starter award. The crisp spiced batter contrasted well with the delicate white flesh in the centre. Spot on.
To follow I chose the Roast Pollack, cannellini and bacon stew and green sauce. This caper topped fillet was substantial in size and sat atop the generous bean stew. The Date went for the equally rustic option of ham hash, mustard sauce and a fried egg. Both dishes were fantastically good.
The ‘sweeter and cheesier’ section of the menu was too appealing to do that polite “oh no thank you” whilst holding the tummy act. The poached pear and frangipane tart with clotted cream was a dream.
This is proper honest cooking that delivers exactly what you hope it to be – not an overzealous imitation or fancy interpretation. Real food, made with real ingredients. Just how I like it.
Despite being the new kid on the block, The Bristol Canteen already has the atmosphere of a well-loved, local and repeat-visit kind of place. The menu changes daily, the prices are happily accessible and the menu designed to suit any kind of visit. You can drop in for a small lunch dish, or grab a ‘together’ board of meats or cheeses to share between 2 at £12.50, or as I managed - the full 3 courses.
It's family friendly and there was a great range of interesting looking diners and free-ranging children to keep the people-watching element of the trip fully satisfied.
The relaxed space, with a central welcoming bar and soft and slouchy sofa area for drinks and reading the papers means this is obviously going to become a locals’ favourite. I might even have to admit being ever so slightly jealous of those Bristol city types.
Bristol Canteen, St John’s Court, Whiteladies Road, Bristol BS9 2QY