Some shoes are harder to fill than others. You might not want to be the man to replace Christian Bale as Batman, but you might fancy your chances of improving on Steve McLaren’s record as England manager. In any walk of life it’s a gamble, but sometimes the cards fall kindly.
In the case of James Wilkins, he and his partner Christine Vayssade- who takes the front of house role- have taken over the site of the much-loved Culinaria, the last of Stephen Markwick’s Bristol restaurants. This was a place Jay Rayner urged his readers to visit: “Please go and try the Markwicks’ lovely restaurant while you can. It deserves, at its end, to be celebrated.” A local institution, it was held dearly among its loyal customers.
Signs that Wilkins just might be getting it right, came in the award of their first Michelin Star. Within a year of opening, no less, bringing to three the total of starred restaurants in the area; a not inconsiderable statistic in itself.
An airy, welcoming space in muted tones of grey (think suede banquettes and knotted oak floorboards) -and with parking right outside the front door!-was full for Sunday lunch service. Despite its awards, families were here with high chairs and a relaxed, unfussy ambience was obvious.
A shot of watermelon, lime and tomato started us off, with the recommendation we use it to ‘chase’ our amuse-bouches of parmesan cream and smoked salmon, and goats’ cheese with fig.
My starter of lobster bisque had me expecting something creamy, glossy and above all rich: what actually arrived was light, airy, frothy with a whiff of ozone and the vitality of the sea. It somehow seemed to speak of life, if that’s not too fanciful. And if it is, I make no apology: it was in a peculiar way a life-affirming bowl of food. Tiny vegetables- a sliced carrot here, a broad bean there- accompanied meaty pieces of lobster tail. Wonderful.
My wife’s salad of green beans, girolles and slow-poached duck egg was topped with a crisp, fragile mushroom tuille and flecked with grated truffle. Each element, perfectly cooked in its own right, worked together with its companions to produce a memorable starter.
By this point it was becoming clear this was precise but unshowy cooking with obvious attention to detail throughout- the tableware made by local potters who also count Casamia among their clients, local artists’ work adorning the walls, the selection of breads from a local baker in Southville and the butter a lovely buttercup yellow.
A main course- a ‘medley of young summer vegetables’ was as colourfully vibrant as you’d expect; gnocchi stained a deep violet and each element bringing a texture, a taste which was hugely impressive to the most hardened carnivore- that is, me. A sweet carrot sauce, brilliantly orange, was lightly dressed with a hazelnut oil to dramatic effect.
My main -saddle and haunch of locally reared roe deer- was as finely cooked a piece of meat as I can recall. The Laguiole knife provided was an unnecesary touch as the deer was quite ridiculously tender inside the merest suggestion of a crust. Vegetables and fruit – red onion, girolles, blueberries- provided sweetness and the slightest suggestion of tartness in harmony. A side of cauliflower dressed with thyme, lemon and olive oil had me wondering why this humble vegetable isn’t served in this manner more often. But that I suppose is the beauty of simplicity.
I rarely eat dessert but the promise of ‘textures of dark chocolate’ was too seductive to ignore. It was a reminder of everything that is good about chocolate, teamed with a hazelnut parfait that I swear I’m still hankering after; crisp triangles of dark chocolate sandwiching gooey biscuit and the frozen centre, with dense dark sauces circling.
This is exciting cooking. Nothing is there for show alone; everything has its contribution to make. It’s the opposite of pointless bombast: this food whispers rather than shouts but it certainly whispers beguilingly. Service throughout was similarly unfussy yet commendably efficient, warm and informative.
We left the restaurant planning our return. James Wilkins’ antecedents (think Ramsay, Galvin, Bras) are impressive and impeccable but this is a kitchen which obviously knows what it wants to do. And does it, superbly, with minimum fuss and flannel and with a keen eye for letting ingredients speak for themselves. As gambles go, this one is paying off in spades.
Wed to Sat: lunch 12-2pm, dinner 6.30-10pm
Sun: lunch 12-3pm, dinner 6.30-9pm
Tel 0117 9737 999
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.