How do you make a brilliant restaurant even better?
Well, you do lunch for £25. You serve up five courses of remarkably poised, seductively accomplished cooking in laid-back style, and you do it with warmth. For £25, in case you missed it.
Here on Chandos Road it has long been easy to eat well. Very well indeed: moments from where the much-missed Wilks stood, I watch Little Hollows making their renowned pasta in the window, trays of sunshine-yellow agnolotti ready for lunch service. And let’s not forget Wilson’s bread shop and its famed bacon rolls a couple of doors away.
I wrote about my last visit here, back when they still offered a short but gleaming a la carte: now it’s a choice of tasting menu or a set lunch. It’s the latter I go for, despite understandable last minute doubts: because for many, this is the best set lunch in a 50 mile radius.
This little, light-dappled (it’s a glorious May day in Bristol) twenty-two-seater is a dopamine hit of beautiful cooking and quietly lovely service. It’s full, and it’s easy to see why I’m not the only one to have travelled to be here today.
A daintily-built pastry case belies its fragility with bold flavours and textures. Lightly pickled shreds of carrot are topped with lightly whipped East Sussex goats cheese, and leeks grown on their farm have been cooked down into marmalade stickiness, with a touch of acidity, a hint of sweetness. It’s a neat trick, a bracing mouthful, a Deontay Wilder right unleashed by a featherweight.
Bread is warm, thick-cut and densely-crusted, as accomplished as you’d expect from a kitchen with its own bakery yards away. A little pat of canary-yellow butter made here, comes from a herd of Jerseys near Frome: here’s a finger of sweet fruit bread piped with a chicken liver parfait you’d swear was duck for its heft and richness. Both are the sort of thing you’d rush to eat again. And again. Then: something extraordinary.
It looks unassuming enough, this little swirl of whipped cod roe pooled with herb oil. One slather on that bread and I feel my eyes widen in surprise. Owner Jan, running front of house today while keeping an eye on that busy little kitchen, comes over. ‘Is everything ok?’
Well, no. Because nothing this simple- this unadorned- has any right to taste this good. Especially a supporting player, just one of the little plates with the bread. And yet… it pulls you up short. It’s just a couple of tablespoons of tangy, briny magic, but ‘OK’ doesn’t come anywhere near it. It’s a revelation. All subsequent examples will be judged next yo this. Most are, I’m afraid, doomed to disappoint.
Duck is impeccable. The telltale bits- the patient rendering of the fat, the crispness of the skin, the seasoning- put to shame the same cut I had at a Welsh Michelin star a few years ago. It’s all rosy blush and tender flesh, the flavour intensified by a couple of weeks’ worth of dry ageing courtesy of Wiltshire’s Woolley Park Far. Russell Candy’s family business has been in the bird business for over 50 years and, Jan believes, supplies the best birds in the UK. On this showing, it’s hard to disagree.
Some bitter leaves, a silky beetroot puree just the right side of earthy, a carafe of Prieto Picudo- Castilla y León, naturally- and I’m a happy happy boy. The cooking of that breast is poised and polite, yet here comes a little sausage with the coarser baseline funk of offal to bring it all back to earth. The sauce, so glossy you could shave in your reflection, is a voluptuous thing, rich and aromatic. It’s a plate which has the confidence to be simple in spirit, but it’s a hymn to craft and faultless execution.
There’s a chervil and dill sorbet with the most delicate of scorched Italian meringues, an arresting combination which would transition well throughout the seasons, no doubt. In a couple of spoonfuls it dazzles and thrills with its inventiveness, with its clarity. Gorgeous.
A play on rhubarb and custard surprises with a delayed tickle of heat after the lightest of textures, thanks to being infused with long pepper, all crowning a pain d’épices, the spiced gingerbread soaked in sweet wine.
Throughout, service is the sort you get when the staff feel genuine pride in what they do, in representing such an inventive kitchen. Some restaurants just get under your skin and stay there: Wilsons has nagged at me in every good way since my first visit four years ago. Although Wilson’s holds a green Michelin star for sustainability, further awards would be no surprise. But that’s a side note: sometimes you come across a place where the owner has his own clear ideas of what he’d like his food to be about, and to make that his priority- rather than vying with his neighbours for attention or straining after stars. And it’s worth cherishing them.
For Cardiff-based readers, this is eminently worth the short trip for this lunch alone, though the tasting menu at £60 should also be a priority. There are so many moments of quiet pleasure here, and nowhere in the Welsh capital can feed you this well for this money. In 2023, I don’t know how they offer such wonderful cooking at this price. But I’m very, very glad they do. I urge you- find out for yourself.
Wilson’s, 24 Chandos Road, Bristol BS6 6PF
Lunch: Wednesday – Saturday 12pm until 2:20 pm
Dinner: Tuesday evening from 7pm with last tables at 8:30 pm,
Wednesday – Saturday 6pm with last tables at 9:30 pm
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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.