Harbour House, The Grove, Bristol BS1 4RB. (0117 925 1212). Snacks and starters £4-£9, mains £11-£22, desserts £4-£7.50, wines from £21
For years it was the Bristol restaurant I only ever passed on the way to somewhere else. I was always responding instead to the beguiling call of the city’s seemingly endless stream of new and diverting eating options; to the promise of handmade pastas, or ripe stews drawing on French country cooking traditions, as if summoning the ghost of Bristol’s most beloved culinary son, Keith Floyd. I liked the look of the place, hunkered down there on the edge of Bristol’s Floating Harbour, but nothing made me think I should bother to stop.
Scanning the online reviews for what was once the Severnshed, those footprints in the digital snow that all departed restaurants leave, I can see it had an interesting history. Firstly, there’s the building itself, a boatshed designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel when he was working on the Clifton Suspension Bridge in the early 19th century. It became a well-regarded restaurant in the late 1990s, boasting a chef with time at the River Café on his CV. In 2000 it housed an exhibition by some cult local artist called Banksy. The restaurant changed hands, and seemed to go downhill, culminating in the moment in 2018 when a customer complained that they had been charged £13 for being served a £1.15 Asda camembert. They knew it was an Asda camembert because it was still in its wrapper. The chef was sacked.
Eventually, just before the first lockdown, the previous company went into receivership. Now it has been reborn as Harbour House, with local chef Ross Gibbens overseeing the kitchen, and turning his gaze westwards towards Cornwall. A lot of his menu looks to be serviceable rather than diverting: a Caesar salad and a club sandwich, a burger, a risotto, steak and chips. But at its heart is a list of dishes celebrating “seafood from the southwest” and in particular the comely Cornish fishing village of St Mawes. That’s where the main action is.
Before we get into that action let me say this: Harbour House is just a delightful place to be. On a warm summer’s day, the broad vaulting dining room, with its greenery and naked rafters, sparkles with sunlight bouncing off the harbour’s waters outside. We are shown through the doors on to the deck, once again full of that giddy, relaxed chatter you get from people who know they have lucked out. They are pleased to be here, at the water’s edge with the view of the multicoloured houses over the way. The young team seem genuinely pleased to have them here, too. With all that in place the food’s job is very simple: don’t be rubbish. It isn’t rubbish.
To nibble on, we start with what they call their “posh” onion rings, because I’m a sucker for anything which flaunts itself as having go-faster stripes. I don’t know about posh but they are certainly grand and mighty. They are big, round, blousy affairs, battered to a shattering crunch, and come with a coarse tartare sauce worthy of the name. It’s quite the snack for a fiver. The rest of our choices come from that seafood menu. There is a grilled mackerel fillet, its quicksilver skin bubbled and blistered, on ribbons of pickled cucumber, with mint leaves and the tickle of a wasabi glaze. Three fat scallops from the day’s specials list arrive as a military column marching across the plate, on a mayo heavy with saffron alongside chunks of chorizo.
A seafood linguine for £17.50, which would make the clumsy £46 offering from Il Borro last week grossly ashamed of itself, is a big old mess of brown and white crab meat, prawns and mussels in a seafood bisque so rich it could buy itself one of those yachts with a jetski on the back. A hulking piece of cod lies on a spiced stew of tomatoey white beans with a few more nuggets of chorizo, with the lightly bitter joys of cavolo nero. We have chips, really good ones, because we are by the water. That’s my excuse. Is it all perfectly executed? Well no, not exactly. There’s a slightly eager hand on the salt in the mackerel dish; the cod could have stopped cooking 15 seconds earlier. But when you look at the pricing and the proposition, the laid-back loveliness of this deck in the heart of Bristol, these minor things count only as observations rather than details to get cross about.
The dessert list stops at all the stations of the sweet English cross. There’s a lemon tart and a sticky toffee pudding and an Eton mess. But there is also something called a profiterole tower, £10 for two. It is one of those goldfish bowl-sized glasses that hen nights drink out of before the good ideas turn bad, filled with perfectly made golf ball-sized profiteroles, Chantilly cream and a couple of strawberries. Over that is poured a small pan of warm chocolate sauce. If you need me to describe the childlike joy of this, then you have suffered a massive failure of imagination. While acknowledging I should have stopped here when it was the Severnshed back in the day, I can at last confess my delight at having stopped here now that it’s Harbour House.
I was in Bristol to interview my stunt double, the always joyous Rev Richard Coles, who recently picked up the professional knife and fork while I was down with the lurgy. He has just published his first novel, the hugely entertaining Murder Before Evensong, and after interrogating him before an audience of Bristol faithful we sloped off to Cotto Wine Bar & Kitchen. It’s the new place on St Stephen’s Street from the skilled team behind Pasta Ripiena and Bianchi’s, among others. It’s everything that I love about the city’s small restaurants: a clever interior that looks like it was knocked up using plywood, an Allen key and a few tins of eggshell; a short Italian-inflected menu full of good things at damn decent prices, and a come-hither vibe.
We have rounds of braised then crisped lamb belly with salsa verde and thumpingly bitter radicchio, and a steak tagliatta with a rocket and parmesan salad. We share a polenta cake topped with a thick layer of chocolate ganache and then stumble away up the hill to our hotel, powered by a funky wine, but don’t ask me its name because it was late and I wasn’t officially reviewing. The point is this: all was right with the world and all was absolutely right with Bristol. As ever.
Jeremy Clarkson says he has found a loophole in planning regulations which means he can now open a restaurant on his Diddly Squat Farm in Oxfordshire, despite having had an application turned down by the local council earlier this year. The ‘alfresco diner’ will be overseen by chef Pip Lacey of Hicce in King’s Cross and will attempt to use only ingredients from the estate, featured in his Amazon Prime show Clarkson’s Farm. There’s no menu, but according to the blurb on booking site OpenTable, ‘It’s small, mostly outdoors and very rustic. Ordering a beer and going to the lavatory isn’t as easy as in your local pub and we don’t cater to the faddy.’ The set menu costs £69 a head. For more, go here.
Newcastle city council has introduced new rules stating that all pubs, bars and restaurants in the city which serve alcohol, have to provide staff finishing after 11.30pm with a taxi home. The provision of taxis for late-night staff will be a requirement of an alcohol licence. Newcastle is the first council in England to make the ruling, but follows similar schemes by two Scottish councils.
The company behind Brighton’s Shelter Food Hall is opening a venue called Sessions in London’s Islington next month. It will feature just four outlets at any one time, run by a rotating roster of chefs. The opening lineup includes Jay Morjaria’s Korean inflected Tiger and Rabbit, and Zoe Adjonyoh’s Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (sessionsmarket.co.uk).
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
July 24, 2022 at 10:51AM Jay Rayner