We’re big fans of taking short breaks in England; after all, if we expect people to come to the Isle of Wight it’s only fair that we spend our holiday money on the mainland every once in a while. Being relative ruralites, we’ll generally opt for a city break: London, Cambridge, Birmingham. With a bit of internet research under our belts and some top tips from our accommodation host, we spent a few days in Bristol, exploring the city’s growing food scene.
At Harbourside some considerable moulah has been invested in converting a decommissioned rehabilitation hospital into desirable accommodation with curated businesses at ground level. Three adjacent restaurants, Casamia, Paco Tapas and Pi Shop, are the work of Bristol’s celebrated Sanchez Brothers. Underneath the arches was Pi Shop, luring us in with its doodly neon sign. Vast windows overlooked the yacht basin; on a sunny day the terrace must come into its own. As it was November and raining we took our seats indoors; admiring the white stone walls, wood-and-scaffold lo-fi furniture and an impressive pizza oven containing enough smooth copper to give a metal thief a major hard-on.
Pizza though. Blimey, that oven could cough it out quickly. Orders barely given, we were soon in the presence of two vast pizzas. Generously-topped and delicious aubergine, ewe’s milk and basil for Cat, £13. Matt’s pizza with its spicy nduja sausage was ying to the smooth creamy yang of the burrata, which was clumped about the base by a chef with a pleasingly heavy hand – as you’d hope for £16. How did they get the thin base cooked perfectly without burning, but the thick edge perfectly soft and fluffy right through? A mystery we’d be happy to explore again.
On our first foray we bypassed the undercover section of the market as we were distracted by the stalls street-side. Yes, actual street food in the street prevented us from visiting the indoor street food market. First World problems. There was a decent and varied selection: Brazilian, Greek, Thai, Indian, Italian and fried chicken; plus a stall serving ‘free from’ food which presumably now qualifies as a cuisine all of its own. We were offered a sample of something called ‘chimney cake‘ as we wandered, but something more substantial was on our minds.
At Tia Julia, Matt had prato feito: Brazilian-style strips of beef cooked freshly under his eager gaze, anointed with plenty of cheese, and served up with a hearty salad, rice and pinto beans, £5.50. We’ve never been to Brazil, but if we do, we’ll look out for some more of this stuff.
Cat’s broke her arancino duck at Ciccio’s L’Arancino with a rice ball stuffed with mushroom, double cream, garlic and cheese. It was like a Scotch egg created by someone who believes that cheap ground pork is the devil’s work, and that creamy meat-free innards are far more delicious. The crispy shell crumbled to reveal piping hot ‘shrooms, which Cat scoffed down with a tub of roasted veg and a serving of spicy tomato sauce, £5.
On our second visit to the city centre we were too late for lunch at the cathedral (well, we didn’t get up till after midday), so it was back to the street food market. The pavement vendors had gone but there are permanent stalls at St Nicholas protected from the elements by a spectacular glass roof which spans two sides of the street creating a covered boulevard. We lunched at the Moorish Cafe. The menu only had a handful of dishes but nonetheless there was enough choice; meat, cheese, spicy, salads. Matt had a classic chicken dish, lentils, rice, chick peas and veg, alongside some big chunks of chicken thigh that were properly stewed in the tasty sauce. A good comfortable and warming lunch on a chilly day.
Cat, continuing her meat-free holiday, had cheese on toast Moroccan-style: halloumi with pitta. It was beautifully presented, with the loaded bread radiating out from a crisp salad and a variety of sweet chutneys in between, plus a generous dollop of hummus. Very tasty and a bargaintastic £5.50.
A special mention goes to the cafe at the Arnolfini Gallery where we enjoyed a reviving cuppa, recharged our phones and took stock after having our minds blown at the technically brilliant, bleak yet witty Grayson Perry exhibition.
Our virtual pals on Reddit recommended the burger joint Asado. It’s a pretty new venture; only open a few months by the time we rocked up. Like the other venues, its menu was pretty sparse, but this seems to be the modern way. Matt had the ‘El Rico’, £10, which contained all the adjectives: oak-grilled, dry-aged, organic beef patty, with Valley of Camelot Stilton, naturally oak-smoked free-range streaky bacon, pickles, and more edible gubbins than there’s room to list out. The towering burger was perfect Instagram-fodder, and better still, it tasted good. The meat was satisfyingly pink, with some real taste and texture to it; and the strongly-flavoured bacon gave the whole thing a smoky feel that worked well. Alongside, the rosemary salt chips came with skin on, tasting richly of potato: an outstanding lesson in why ‘fries’ are simply wrong.
Cat chose ‘Señor Veggie’, £7.50: buttermilk fried roasted red pepper and mozzarella patty with pesto, mayo, lettuce and tomato in a seeded challah bun. The ‘burger’ itself was a bit bland; mozzarella is more about texture than taste, but the lively seasonal ‘slaw – chock full of cabbage, with some apple and tangy house dressing – plus the tasty rosemary salt chips added some welcome seasoning to the meal. Alas dessert, like the delicious-sounding purple cauliflower cheese balls, wasn’t available so we strolled to Swoon next to the cathedral for some delicious ice cream pudding.
Our Reddit chums also recommended that we eat at Cargo, a bunch of containers in the shadow of some impressive restored cranes down by the erstwhile docks. The metal boxes are fitted out as restaurants, takeaways and start-up businesses including bicycle sales, yoga and an artisan meatery. The choice of diners was quite extensive for such a compact zone: vegetarian, pork-based, Indian, Greek, fish and chips and our choice of modern fusion at Harbour and Browns.
Matt had soft-shelled crab to start, £8. This little crustacean is this year’s salt ‘n’ pepper squid, popping up on Asian-inspired menus all over the place. It was a great starter, served with some fresh crackers and a lively Thai mayo. Cat loved her purple-sprouting broccoli, £8. The long stems lounged on a puddle of pumpkin butter and were studded with pumpkin seeds and generously sprinkled with crumbled blue cheese. The whole dish had a garlicky taste punctuated by notes of crisp sage. For Matt, a huge confit duck leg was almost too bulky and dry to be ameliorated by the delicious sticky plum sauce that came with it. This was taken from the all-day brunch menu, and showed its breakfast influence with a perfect duck egg on top, and salted waffle underneath – a satisfying main.
As is the new trend, the menu was pretty succinct; only two desserts: doughnuts and a chocolate peanut butter pot. The plan was to share the peanut dish but it was too peanutty for Matt, so Cat scoffed it down. The texture varied the further down the pot she scooped. A firm chocolate lid contained the fondant, which was at first the texture of ground nuts then smooth and moussey towards the bottom. Matt ate the accompanying shortbread, which although unexpectedly brittle, was washed down with Cornish Orchards Gold cider.
If you’ve never been to Clifton we urge you to go. This suburb of Bristol is all about fine houses, a spectacular crescent and, of course, that magnificent suspension bridge over the breathtaking Avon gorge. Having built up an appetite climbing down then up the vertical steps to the Giants’ Cave, we popped into the village for lunch. Bosco Pizzeria had a lunch special and, with a keen eye for a bargain, we took our seats at the marble table in the window. Like Pi Shop, the pizza oven was open to the restaurant and Matt watched as his Emilia-Romagna emerged from the wood-fuelled flames, £11. This substantial pizza was laden with delicious spicy Italian sausage, and mozzarella fior di latte.
Cat stuck to the lunchtime offer with her pizzetta queen green; a fair-sized pizza topped with wilted basil and spinach leaves, pine nuts, pesto, plus mozzarella and sheep’s milk ricotta. With a generous drizzle of garlic oil and an accompanying side salad of peppery rocket and shaved parmesan, it was delicious – plus great value at eight quid.
We barely scratched the surface of Bristol’s food offering during our three day break. There are a lot of places to eat in Bristol. Cargo alone could use up all your eating vouchers; with the unexplored but sorely tempting Tare, Box E, Cargo Cantina, Pigsty and many more. Since our return to the Isle of Wight, we’ve been inundated with suggestions from other Bristol eating-out fans, and there’s no doubt that we could have dined even more adventurously in dozens of other venues. And probably we will; a return visit is on the cards for sure.