Monday, 17 July 2017

Bell's Diner, Bristol

Whenever I have a great meal at a restaurant with basic décor - somewhere fun but functional like the Apollo Banana Leaf, perhaps, or the communal tables and strip-lighting of Silk Road - I think how utterly unimportant things like interior design are, and what a waste of time and money. Just give me a plate of home style cabbage and lamb skewers and who cares how comfy the chairs are or the state the toilets are in. It's all about the food, surely?

And then, whenever I have a great meal at a restaurant with lovely décor, I think how utterly essential the correct ambience is to the overall success of a meal, and how interior design is as crucial as skilled and knowledgable front of house in the resulting level of hospitality.

So the first thing to say about Bell's Diner in Bristol is that it's probably one of the most charming and attractive dining rooms in the city, and given that Bristol is about as charming as attractive as cities can be, that's really saying something. Cozy and ramshackle with that 18th-century pirate vibe that Bristol does so well, the tables are nicely spaced and intelligently located, so that I don't think there's a single one that you wouldn't want to sit at. There's just the right amount of interesting bric-a-brac hung on the walls and filling window spaces, and some lovely touches of vegetation to soften the hard lines. It's not plush - there's no starched tablecloths or hanging chandeliers - but in its own quirky way is just as comfortable a place to settle in and have your dinner as any gilded temple of gastronomy.

Would I be going on about the décor if the food wasn't also up to scratch? Probably not, but it does mean than when the food did start to arrive we were more than in the mood to make the most of it. House pickles had a good crunch and a good balance of sweet & sour, and Iberico salami were soft and salty with a healthy marbling of all-important fat.

This little pot of genius is something called "jamon butter" - soft, gently nutty ham (Iberico again I presume though don't hold me to that) mixed with butter. Spread on the house sourdough it's a fantastic way to kick off a meal, to the extent I'm surprised I've never come across anything like it before. It didn't last long.

Morcilla (black pudding) with chorizo Iberico was another classic Spanish nod; clearly someone in the kitchens at Bell's has an affinity for the Iberian peninsula. Soft, loosely-textured pudding with a nice crust, topped with tangy, oily chorizo, it's hardly a revolutionary combination of ingredients and is one you may have enjoyed before if you've ever eaten at a Spanish restaurant, but that's hardly reason to dismiss it.

Chargrilled prawns with tzatziki were perhaps a touch on the overdone side, but not so much as to render them unenjoyable. At the best of times grilled prawns can be tricky things to get right - undercook and they're gloopy and transluscent, overdo it and they go soily and wooden. Chargrilling adds an extra level of difficulty as if they cook too quickly all you'll end up with is the bitter taste of burned tendril. So all things considered, this was a fairly impressive plate of seafood.

Quail is far more forgiving with the application of direct heat - the chargrilling here had left a lovely dark crust and a slightly pink interior, with a scattering of fresh herbs to lift it. Polenta I can take or leave in most instances, but at least wasn't too much of a distraction here, and the grapes roasted on the vine were a nice touch.

Finally, lamb breast, rolled and (again) carefully chargrilled, dressed in a nice summery, oily dressing of artichokes and broad beans. I love lamb prepared in this way; the contrast between the crunch of the outside and the soft folds inside is quite something when done properly (which it only occasionally is). We ate this with a fruity Turkish red, Pasaeli 6N, recommended by the waitress. In a place like this, you're happy to let the front of house do whatever they think is right.

Bell's Diner is, in most respects, the absolute ideal of what a local restaurant should be. Serving reasonably-priced, competently cooked food in gorgeous surroundings, it somehow feels distinctly Bristol despite the menu being a pan-Mediterranean style that probably could do well anywhere in the country. Maybe it's the décor I mentioned earlier; it feels right, here and now in this pretty corner spot in Montpellier, because it's an integral part of the environment it sits in rather than some alien concept trespassing from somewhere else. It's a Bristol restaurant, and in a city with an already mature and fast-developing dining culture, remains popular even as flashy names from that there London (MeatLiquor just down the road, and Spuntino in the new Whapping Wharf development) scramble for local custom. Of course, any Bristolians knew all this anyway; I hope they won't begrudge me too much for shining another spotlight on it. It really is a very special place.


Bell's Diner and Bar Rooms Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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