Thursday, 2 December 2021

Sonny Stores, Bristol

Trips away from home have taken on a certain extra wide-eyed, frantic edge since the beginning of the pandemic, a nerve-shattering combination of not knowing how long these freedoms will last and a disbelief we've even been allowed out at all. In Bristol for my birthday weekend I felt a particular obligation to fill each day with as many bars, and restaurants, and activities as possible and so within 5 minutes after we'd arrived at Temple Meads we'd checked in at the Hilton Garden Inn (£50/night, clean, lovely staff, very highly recommended) and flagged an Uber to take us to Southville and lunch.

Sonny Stores feels, at first, like an unlikely location for a dynamic young modern Italian restaurant, tucked away at the end of a quiet terraced street and with only residential buildings visible in every direction. In fact, its isolation is somewhat of an illusion - bustling North Street with its shops, restaurants and breweries is barely a few steps away, and besides, Bristol isn't exactly the biggest city in the world. One of the joys of spending a weekend here is that you can essentially walk everywhere, and there are some fantastic pedestrianised routes through places like the Christmas Steps and Clifton which really show off the place to stunning effect.

The Sonny Stores cocktail list is short and - with one bizarre exception - traditional. The list is on a small chalkboard and read (from memory) something like "Negroni / Aperol Spritz / Bellini / Spaggly Waggly". Of course, we had to ask, and it turns out a "Spaggly Waggly" is a "supercharged Negroni" which of course made us want to order it even more. And very nice it was too, with a dash of (presumably) prosecco sitting very comfortably beside the usual vermouth, Campari and gin.

Very soon after arrived a little bonus unordered nibble of fried polenta, all soft and light and lovely. As an introduction to the way they do things at Sonny Stores it was very impressive - good ingredients treated well, straightforward without being simple (as anyone who's ever had horrid crumbly mealy polenta before will attest). *SEE EDIT

Sweetbreads came draped in lardo, because... well, because everything about the idea of sweetbreads draped in lardo is brilliant. Some chicory - sorry, tardivo - shoots added a bit of vegetal bitterness, and a delicate buttery dressing tied it all together. Like polenta, sweetbreads aren't always the most cooperative things when it comes to getting a good texture, but these were absolutely perfect, crisp and golden brown on the outside and soft inside.

A pizzetta arrived next, obscenely inflated around a central reservoir of Reblochon-a-like Rollright cheese and studded with shallots (I think), guanciale and rosemary. There was a lot going on here, but it all worked thanks to a genuinely great pizza base and - again - absolutely top-notch ingredients.

Paying someone to open a can of anchovies for you is a situation that I know some struggle with, but then the same people are often quite happy to order wine in a restaurant and I can't really see a difference. There's only a problem if it's bad wine - or bad anchovies - but these were of course excellent, firm and meaty in good oil.

Cuttlefish, served in their own (I assume) ink with braised fennel and gremolata brought not only a riot of herby, salty flavour but also the joy of seeing your friends tongues turn black as the afternoon wore on. We should all be eating more cuttlefish, too - it's one of the best types of seafood in terms of sustainability and it tastes great. Well, it tastes great when it's cooked by Sonny Stores, at least.

And so to pasta, and given the pedigree of the kitchen (ex- River Café chef Pegs Quinn) you'd expect their work on this front to be world-class too. And cavolo nero pappardelle certainly were, gently al-dente, soaked in butter and richly flavoured with a generous topping of pecorino. At £15 for not a huge amount you could sense the influence of the River Café in another way, but this was still a lovely thing and definitely worth the outlay.

Unfortunately, pork agnoli were not quite so enjoyable thanks to some catastrophic overseasoning. The pasta was still excellent, and 'nutmeg butter' lived up to the billing and then some, but the pork filling was so salty it just made the whole business a bit painful, a shame given how everything preceeding it had been spot-on. A mis-step then, but not enough to derail the entire meal.

In fact we were so confident the agnoli was no more than a blip that we ordered both desserts (along with, ahem, a round of Fernet Branca). Tiramisu was ethereally light and delicately coffee-fied, and so easy to eat you could practically inhale it.

And a chocolate cake was straightforwardly excellent, gooey but still holding an attractive shape, and cooled with crème fraîche.

Though it's fair to say I raised an eyebrow at the prices of the pasta dishes, the fact our huge, hugely boozy and hugely enjoyable lunch came to just over £50/head in my opinion puts it firmly in bargain territory. I pretty sure you'd pay more at my favourite London pasta joint Bancone (though not much more) and if this was the River Café itself... well, let's not even imagine. These last couple of years have been traumatic enough.

In a weekend full of good food, good booze and various other not entirely unrelated incidents (well done the staff at Bristol Royal Infirmary A&E who managed to patch up a broken foot in just over an hour on a Monday morning) this lunch at Sonny Stores stands as a shining example of the best of Bristol's restaurant scene and I couldn't have imagined a better birthday lunch. While not absolutely perfect, it overwhelmingly impressed in so many areas (service was also fantastic) and for such a reasonable amount of money that it goes right to the top of my list of favourite restaurants in the city. And next time I'm in town, whenever that may be (and who knows anything any more), I will be returning.


EDIT: These were in fact not polenta but chickpea pancakes, which explains why they were better than the usual polenta...

No comments: