With all the high-profile media coverage of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall waving fish around and getting angry with politicians, you’d think he’d be too busy to do anything else. But as well as campaigning, starring on TV programmes, writing cookbooks and opening a cookery school, he’s also quietly getting on with the business of turning the River Cottage brand into a chain of canteens. Bristol is the latest to be given the Hugh treatment, following on from Axminster and Plymouth. I’m starting to suspect Hugh must have a few doppelgangers. How does he do everything?
The new addition to the family is at the top of Whiteladies Road, where it’s in good company. Nearby neighbours are Mitch Tonk's Rockfish and Sheepdrove Organic butchers. With a farmers market outside the doors every other Saturday, Hugh’s team of scouts must have jumped for joy when they found this spot. And with good reason, it’s a beautiful 19th century church. The entrance is lovely; opposite the doors is a dark wood reception desk with a soft welcoming glow and a wall of backlit wine bottles. The architects have been in, stripped it bare and given it wooden floors, high beams and double height ceilings while keeping the original stained glass windows of the church. There’s a large open kitchen and a wood-burning oven. Two floors of tables seat 140 covers and despite the size the acoustics are good and the atmosphere already buzzy and busy. It’s not hard to see from just one glance that this is going to be a busy restaurant from day one. It ticks so many of Bristol’s eco/foodie/Guardian reading/sustainable/local credentials, it has the perfect audience on its doorstep just waiting to lap it up.
The River Cottage philosophy is a familiar one; simple cooking with good seasonal, local and wild ingredients. The menu is chalked on boards above the busy open kitchen and another blackboard on the wall displays names of local butchers and farms they are sourcing produce from, and there is a statement about provenance on the back of the menu. All the meat is certified organic, fish is from West Country day boats and fruit and vegetables are within 50 miles of Bristol. Of course Hugh doesn't do everything; Head Chef is Mark Stavrakakis who has worked for Rockfish Grill and Seafood Restaurant up the road.
The menu is split into ‘sharing’, ‘smaller’ and bigger’ then sides and sweets with about six items in each. The sharing plates are boards of charcuterie, fish and vegetable mezze. We had a beetroot hummus with flatbread & dukkah to share; a purple pot of creamy purple hummus swirled with sweet beetroot, topped with a nutty crunch, and with fresh crisp bread warm out of the oven.
A starter of smoked venison loin with capers, shallot and parsley salad was perfect. Dark red curls of smoky venison, dotted with some deep fried capers and wisps of deep green salad looked beautiful on the plate and was light and earthy at the same time. Potted Portland Crab with dressed leeks was good and fresh, but it came in a wide dish, which meant there was a lot of butter, making it a very rich starter.
Boldy sitting atop the ‘Bigger’ section is a dish of ‘pulled pork, celeriac & confit garlic gratin, kale and red wine jus' which is clearly a crowd-pleaser judging by the plates of steaming pork we saw being carried aloft out of the kitchen all night long. The big pile of soft melting ribbons of pork, delicately flavoured with star anise was good, the gratin deep and creamy and the deep umami-rich sauce delicious, although again, very rich.
We hoped our wood-roasted mushroom, sage and goats curd pizza would come thin and crispy, but it was thick and doughy with a huge mountain of whole roasted mushrooms and rocket and cheese piled on top. The wood-fired oven is clearly a point of pride in the restaurant and a pizza chef was busy hand rolling pizzas all night. I don't know whether the pizzas are meant to be like this or whether it’s just early days for a new restaurant, but I really do hope they work on their pizza technique.
From the pudding list, a crème caramel and ginger snap was perfectly good and a chocolate mousse – rich, gooey and moreish, but then they went and put a dollop of cream on top. It was the third in a row of good, but really rather heavy dishes. But this was perhaps a fault in the ordering, on the menu was also merguez spiced squash, chickpeas & red onion, mint yoghurt & flatbread, battered spiced whiting with moorish salad, and beetroot, dill & creme fraiche speltotto, which all sound light and healthy. I'd probably steer towards the lighter dishes next time, and with a daily changing menu, there will always be plenty of choice and variation.
The local sourcing is particularly noticeable in the drinks list, which is a refreshing change as all too often local-sourcing gets forgotten when it comes to the drinks list. Local ales (Bristol Beer Factory) and ciders (Orchard Pig) sit alongside soft drinks from local company Lovely Drinks. A short cocktail list uses West Country spirits including Somerset Cider Brandy and Black Cow Vodka; a vodka made from cows milk in Dorset (yes really). It’s a canteen so there will be something for you whatever time of day you turn up. Breakfasts are likely to be good and there’s a bar area to the right of the entrance with some retro furniture that looks like a very nice spot for breakfast with the papers.
There’s also mention of regular after-school pizzas, which is a stroke of genius. The kids menu is good as you would expect from Hugh, herby bangers and chips, pasta ribbons with tomato sauce and cheese and grilled whiting or falafel, flatbread, hummus and salad followed by ice-cream. Small people will be very happy here, as will everyone else I suspect. This country frankly could do with more places that manage to feed healthy, tasty, good food to all ages and at all times of day. It sounds simple, but it isn’t, and so many places get it so very wrong. This place is trying to do all the right things and for that it should be applauded from the rooftops. It just needs to work on those pizzas. Maybe Hugh could send one of his body doubles to sort it out?
Reviewed by Joanna Busk.
River Cottage Canteen, St Johns Court, Whiteladies Road, Bristol, BS8 2QY . Tel: 0117 9732458