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I should, in a spirit of full disclosure, tell you that I have history with Bristol. I was born there, it’s the place of some of my earliest food memories and I’ve been very happy to see it developing as a food destination. Long before the recent renaissance, the first shoots of an independent restaurant scene sprouted in the West Country: places such as George Perry Smith’s Hole in the Wall in Bath, Joyce Molyneux’s Carved Angel in Dartmouth, Keith Floyd’s various boîtes… It’s bohemian, perhaps a little hedonistic – the area in many ways reflects northern California, with Bristol as its San Francisco.
Bell’s Diner was first owned by Shirley-Anne Bell and her partner John Payne, who used to brew beer in a tea urn under the stairs and sell it in jugs. Then chef Chris Wicks had the place for 16 successful years, and in May it was taken over by a new team. (Fullest disclosure: I was introduced to Bell’s by a writer who has done some work with the restaurant, and who also interviewed me recently.)
It’s in Montpelier – “Montpeculiar” according to the cabbies – one of those zones where the dog-on-a-string brigade rub shoulders with the gentrifiers. It’s the kind of restaurant you instinctively want in your neighbourhood: small, honest and endearingly bonkers. The place is decorated with bric-a-brac; a Dansette plays LPs, a key indicator of Hip. For someone of my age, it’s charming to hear Everything But The Girl and Tom Waits, crackling a little. Then you realise that your waiter wasn’t born then and is listening through filters of irony.
The food is served tapas style against a quirky but excellent wine list. We kicked off with crisp salt cod fritters and a glass of the confusingly named “I Think” Manzanilla. The aioli wasn’t exactly underpowered but was perhaps bashful. Next came lamb Sainte-Ménehould with tartare sauce. If there is something to dislike in deep-fried, mustardy lamb breast, I’ve yet to find it. Burnt peppers with cabernet sauvignon vinegar, capers and anchovies couldn’t have looked lovelier. The peppers were sweet and fragrant but a sparse sprinkling with the anchovies and the classy brined capers meant there wasn’t quite enough punch. Oregano leaves don’t always work well uncooked but here they were just right.
I come from a long line of courgette-deniers but Bell’s courgette-and-feta fritters converted me instantly: they were collapsing-soft and seasoned strongly with mint. Onglet with girolles, onion purée and horseradish looked good on the menu. On the plate, the combination of ultra-rare tender meat with softened mushrooms and a creamy purée meant little structural integrity: it was a great combination of flavours, though.
Roast scallops came with fennel purée and hazelnut and caper butter. The outside of each scallop was set to crispness and tanned to an Essex mahogany, the inside as close to raw as was judicious. The fennel was livened right up with citrus and lent texture by toasted hazelnuts.
A charcoal-grilled chicken oyster pincho was decidedly the best thing we ate all night. Only Veblen himself could explain the economics of cuts like these. There’s half a tonne of beef in your average cow and just two cheeks. Why are they not the most expensive bits? Similarly, a chicken has only a couple of tiny, oily oysters, yet there were seven of these little beauties on each of the pair of skewers, marinated to a smoky depth, perked with a punchy harissa and anointed with a soothing bath of yoghurt. I tried not to count my chickens.
Lemon meringue pie for dessert seemed pleasingly domestic after ranging so catholically around the Mediterranean. “That,” said my date, “is about as good as lemon meringue pie gets” – which I must believe, partly because she loves LMP more than life itself and partly because she wouldn’t let me have any.
Our waiter recommended a Mallorcan red absurdly named “4 Kilos 12 Volts” which, he was good enough to warn us, was “a little funky at the beginning”. I expected something “funky” like a sweat sock; what I got was more like James Brown singing “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine”: utterly funky at the outset and getting better with every bar.
Bristol is securing its place as the UK’s culinary second city. Places such as Flinty Red, Hart’s Bakery, The Green Man at Kingsdown, the Hausbar, established joints like The Rockfish and Riverstation and new arrivals like Wallfish Bistro make for a confident food landscape different from anywhere else I know. Bell’s Diner, rooted in a local scene but ablaze with fresh spirit, is yet another reason to look to the west with a combination of longing and anticipation.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer
Nicholas Lander returns next week
1-3 York Road, Montpelier,Bristol BS6 5QB
0117 924 0357