Pompey girl Cat has always had a place in her heart for Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This relentless innovator, with his over-compensating stovepipe hat and ginormous cigars, cut a formidable dash in that famous pin-up photo of him in front of the chains of the SS Great Western. Standing louchly, with his hands in his pockets and his clothes dusty with toil, he was a man Portsmouth could be righteously proud of.
So, when we had a few days in the West Country, Cat was stunned at how much the Bristolians had taken IKB to their collective bosom, practically declaring him one of their own. Turns out his connections with Pompey pretty much ended when he left the city aged two, so it’s quite right that if there is going to be a two-storey fibreglass bust of the man, it should be in the shadow of his Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Having explored Bristol in a few drizzly days last November, we knew that there was plenty left to see – and eat – so we booked ourselves a spring break. No, not that scorching nine weeks following the early May Bank Holiday, but some bitterly cold grey days back in April. No matter, there are plenty of indoor attractions in Bristol, so we snubbed our thumbs at the unwitnessed sun. With Cat’s octogenarian father in tow, we explored the harbourside on foot, roamed on buses and sight-saw on the ferries.
All this looking at stuff made us hungry of course and, as ever, we were spoilt for choice. While the rest of the world seems to have gone vegan crazy, we had our dinner in the unashamed temple of pork, Pigsty. Part of the Cargo cluster of restaurants by the looming cranes and dockside sheds, it was a small but accommodating venue. Soon we found ourselves choosing our burgers. Even back in Brunel’s day, shipwrights would have chowed down on a ham sandwich and so, nearly 200 years later, the desire for meat and bread hasn’t changed. Matt started with an outstanding fresh scotch egg, followed by the roast pork burger. Cat, who neither has the appetite nor molars for crackling, created her own fusion with a veggie burger base (tempura aubergine) enhanced by a dollop of pulled pork. A good combo, as it happened, although to be honest the sliver of fried of aubergine didn’t really contribute much. The stand-out pudding was the restaurant’s chocolate salami. A euphemism in the ruder parts of the internet, at Pigsty it was a sliced chocolate log; given a nutty tang with crushed almondy biscuits and hazelnuts.
After a jaunt on the open bus around the centre of the city – plenty of time to enjoy the architecture as we crawled interminably through the roadworks – we disembarked at harbourside. As it happened the street food market was in full swing. Cat, sticking with her core favourites had a spectacular Portobello pizza from Wood Chop Pizza. Soft and doughy with a hot pillowy crust, this pizza was perfection – and no skimping on the toppings either. Cat and her dad shared one between them, £7.
Matt, always on the hunt for the latest food fusion, headed straight for Alpine mac ‘n’ cheese. Served up by a cheery lady who had the significant advantage of working next to a warm hotplate, this was the ideal dish for a chilly day. With a huge dollop of freshly-mixed cheesy macaroni, it was topped with Somerset salami, pickles, croutons and all sorts of other stuff, giving it a real tang and texture that belied its stodgy origins. Perfect après-ski nosh.
Clutching beakers of hot chocolate we reboarded the bus and headed off to the glorious suburb of Clifton, where we learned about John Cleese’s school days at Clifton College and found time to scoff a macaron – yes, they very much are still a thing – before catching the last open-top bus back to the city.
A bit of a theme was developing as, once again, we found ourselves having burgers for dinner. This time at the achingly-hip Burger Theory; all brown paper menus, enamel plates and eagerly-specified food provenance. Cat went all Prairie Girl: Southern fried chicken breast with blue cheese dressing. It was pretty good, especially when smeared with Matt’s aioli mayo from the Down ‘n’ Dirty burger. This was definitely the stand-out burger of the trip, a real fresh meat patty with dirty burger sauce and cheese drooling all over the pink pickled onions. It might have been hipster-fodder but these tattoo’d youngsters know a thing or two when it comes to burgerage – this burger was the business.
We choose from the limited selection of puddings. Cat’s father played fast-and-loose with his sugar levels by choosing the intense Oreo and peanut butter chocolate torte. It was unbelievably rich, but he polished it off.
Day three saw us wrapped up and on deck of the Bristol ferry, bobbing around the harbour, taking in the wharfage, historic warehousing (now converted to luxury waterside apartments) and the phallic Brutalist shot-tower. The ferry is a great way to see the city including a tantalising glimpse of that suspension bridge.
Burgers again? Oh, go on! We disembarked the ferry by the Watershed – a creative hub a bit like our our beloved Quay Arts. There Matt had the vegan falafel burger; with some skin-on fries and a tangle of lollo rosso. Cat warmed up over a cheese and leek rarebit.
Cat’s dad had some unfinished business at the cathedral, so we divided forces. Having spent her pocket money on a ridiculous sequined cape, Matt took Cat for a pot of leaf tea at Society Cafe. Here was the best cake of the trip, the fantastically named ‘dark matter’, bursting with hipsters’ favourite raw ingredients – it was as much about what went in there as what didn’t. Food purists would’ve been delighted by the tiny cake’s free-from dairy, refined sugar and GM ingredients status. Succulent!
Our neighbour at Society Cafe worked out that we were on a foodie mission and recommended Tuk-Tuck, an Asian fusion cafe with Japanese and Korean dishes. In an rather improvised venue, we gave our order at the counter and found a table in the adjoining parlour. We were there for the Japanese gyoza dumplings, which we followed with chicken bibimbap, plus a tofu and mushroom bibimbap – just so we could say the name again! The food was delivered promptly; the dumplings were ace and we fought over the last one. The bibimbap needed quite a squirt of soy sauce to pep it up, but perhaps it was all about the texture, with crunchy veg, spongy tofu and a very runny egg. Plus the Korean beer, did we mention that niche brew?
Our mini break in Bristol was not all about food though. The highlight was mooching around the SS Great Britain; a museum not just about a particularly spectacular artifact, but the way it had been dressed was inspired. We were pretty much free to roam all over the ship – inside and out – and explore the decks, with sounds and smells in the little tableaux. Of course, there was a cafe, which served a reasonable pie. Clifton is a lovely place, with beautiful grand houses – and did we mention that breathtaking suspension bridge? And to Cat’s delight, there were plenty of charity shops including a Mary Portas Living & Giving shop full of gorgeous vintage and designer pieces.
So Bristol, it’s a thumbs up from us. Food everywhere, and most of it good, plus plenty of other stuff to keep you amused whilst you work up an appetite. Leave your car behind – direct trains leave from Portsmouth Harbour – and catch one of the frequent buses, hire a bike or just stroll around the harbourside trying out the ever-increasing number of places to eat.