Tuesday, 12 July 2016
Finding a place to eat for my one free evening in Bristol during Grillstock weekend is a task that gets more difficult every year. Always spoiled for choice for a good dinner, recently the explosion of exciting and interesting restaurants has meant making an almost impossible choice between the frills and flourishes of Casamia or the Mediterranean-British rustic stylings of Bell's Diner; the hearty gastropubbery of the Pony and Trap, or the clean lines and lyrical ingredients of Birch. All these places, I've heard from those in absolutely the best positions to know (start with Dan or Fiona at the very least) are worth your pocket money and then some - and at various different price brackets. This isn't somewhere with a couple of ludicrous wallet-busting fayne dayning £150/head Michelin star-traps and nothing else much more than a Gregg's (naming no names, Other Cities). Bristol really knows how to eat.
So that we ended up in Wallfish was the result of careful deliberation and much soul-searching. Prior to a weekend of eating nothing but smoked pork, beef and chicken we thought seafood seemed the obvious way to go. There was also the obvious draw of eating in the site once occupied by Keith Floyd's Bistro, a man - and a restaurant - as much a core part of the culinary education of this country as almost anyone else you can think of. And finally, well, the menu looked nice. Which would have swung it fairly decisively in the absence of the first two factors anyway, to be honest.
So in we went, and after some decent house bread and butter - in fact, if I'm going to be honest, quite a while after - "snacks" arrived, first some "crispy cockles". Nicely dry-fried out and moist within, they had a delicate sweet flavour and were cleverly seasoned with cumin and fennel. They went down pretty well.
A selection of oysters also arrived and soon after disappeared but were slightly less enjoyable thanks to being worryingly room temperature. Interminable waits between courses would be a bit of a theme of the evening, which could possibly be blamed on the tiny kitchen being quite overworked of a Friday night but still isn't really much of an excuse; Wallfish is hardly a massive place, half of downstairs was empty, and room temperature oysters and various other things (coming up) seem to point to more general organisational issues than just your usual backlog.
Still, that said, when dishes were good they were very good. Spears of asparagus dressed with white crab meat, lots of lovely fresh tarragon and a perfectly poached egg was a seamless marriage of intelligent menu writing and solid delivery. And a good eye for presentation too.
A couple of plump langoustine tails on a bacon, orange and pea mixture was also a vaguely familiar combination of ingredients with just that slight twist - orange instead of lemon - of a kitchen trying to do something a bit different, which is generally welcome (within reason).
I didn't get to try the octopus, but I didn't hear any complaints. Charred to a crisp exterior and presented with shocking violet potato mash and a green sauce, it was finished with those remarkable things - oyster leaves. If you've never tried mertensia maritima, you may find it hard to believe a bit of green vegetation can actually taste like oyster, but honestly, it really does. Extraordinary stuff.
Getting a whole Devon crab for £15 strikes this Londoner as excellent value, and however much of a bargain the Bristolians think they're getting they can hardly have much of an issue with the execution, at least not with the perfectly cooked beast itself. House mayonnaise was a bit thick and over-emulsified but at least they'd made the effort to make their own.
Then for my own main course I had a mainly raw lobster. Two things may be running through your mind on hearing this news. Firstly, you may be thinking "it doesn't look that raw" to which I can only reply that no, the tail itself didn't at first, covered in samphire and butter dressing but believe me, once the first morsel of transluscent, mushy flesh peeled from the shell and entered my mouth I realised that I was indeed eating a fairly raw lobster. It was even more obvious in the claw (which you can probably even see for yourself - aren't cooked lobsters usually red?) where the meat, which usually slides out as a whole piece if the cooking process has gone well, clung stubbornly to the carapace and would only tear out in small, blobby, lukewarm chunks.
Secondly, you may be wondering why I didn't send it back. Ordinarily I probably would have done, but thanks to the aformentioned hefty delays between courses it was getting pretty late, and I didn't want to make everyone else wait another God-knows-how-long (if a raw one took 45 minutes, how long would a cooked one take?) while they fixed the problem. So I just picked the samphire and the butter sauce from around it and filled up on bread.
So a couple of OK dishes, a few very good ones, and one complete disaster. Not a ringing endorsement for a restaurant under normal circumstances but oddly, my overall impressions a while after leaving Wallfish were bordering on positive. Waiting staff were attentive and probably couldn't have done much about the speed the kitchens were working at even if they wanted to; the wine list was interesting; and £50 a head for quite a bit of seafood (edible or no) is perfectly acceptable, really. I probably won't be going back to Wallfish, at least not with the competition as strong as it is in a place like Bristol, but there's still a lot of potential there. Maybe they just need someone like Keith Floyd to kick them into shape.
There's no Bristol app - yet - but search for where's good for seafood in London right here