It is a common misconception that Britain’s restaurant renaissance began with Marco, Gordon and the first generation of telegenic chefs; the story is actually much older and a surprising amount of it takes place in the West Country. It was George Perry-Smith, at The Hole in the Wall in Bath, who made the first great sidestep in the postwar restaurant scene, inspired Joyce Molyneux at The Carved Angel in Dartmouth and started a movement of less formal cooking based on locality and respect for season and tradition.
Today, restaurants such as Gallimaufry, Culinaria and Flinty Red in Bristol, or The Ethicurean near Bath, keep this tradition alive. Which is why expectations were high for Casamia in Westbury-on-Trym, winner of “Ramsay’s Best Restaurant” in 2010 and owner of a Michelin star since 2009.
Casamia has a glass-sided “development kitchen”, an online “card-details-in-advance” booking policy, changes its menu four times a year to “embrace the amazing changes in the earth and celebrate what they bring” and, though you do get to choose which of the tasting menus you’d like – five, eight or 11 courses – there is no à la carte option.
“Snacks”, the first course of our eight, comprised a blood orange liquid with a thyme foam, a broad bean tartlet, Jersey Royals with fish roe and some raw vegetables with a yoghurt dip. An instructional narrative, delivered with the food by a sous-chef, explained that the vegetables should be inserted into the dip so we could appreciate the flavours and textures.
Asparagus hollandaise arrived for the second course on – as did all the food – custom-made crockery. The scraping noise the cutlery made on them will be my abiding memory of the night.
We were told, again, to appreciate the flavours and textures – handy, as otherwise I might not have noticed that the spears were undercooked and the sauce over-acidic.
Parsley and spelt risotto was of pourable texture with a stunningly foliar flavour and topped with a sprinkling of grain puffed in the style of a breakfast cereal; a dish showing real judgment in taste, if not aesthetics. A fillet of John Dory followed, under a sheet of lemon jelly and a drift of microgreens.
Spring lamb is not a powerfully flavoured meat at the best of times, but here its treatment – predictably sous-vide – did nothing to help it. The “onion + garlic family” it was served with was a purée wrapped in a blanched leek leaf. There was also mint sauce, contributing to the realisation that I was seeing familiar combinations repackaged with the full battery of molecular gastronomy.
At this point the sous-chef returned to explain the rationale behind the next course – a “transition” to take us from the savoury into the sweet. Quite a lot of thought – and liquid nitrogen – had gone into this to turn the sheep’s curd into an ice-cream-like grit, laid over cold peas. I could have kept a straight face had my date not whispered “Cheesy-peas”. After being told how to use a straw for the mango and lovage shake, the final element, a rhubarb crumble with custard ice-cream, felt like the finishing post at a marathon.
This kind of cooking doesn’t aim to be intellectually simple, it wants you to ask questions, so let’s ask. Does deconstruction of ingredients and witty reassembly in a smaller portion create a restaurant dish or the sort of canapé you throw past your tonsils while trying to balance your chardonnay glass at a corporate bash? At what level of chef’s intervention does a plate of raw veg rise above being, well, a plate of raw veg? It’s a truism that food has flavour and texture – pickled onion Monster Munch has both in spades – but don’t we need something else? Maybe the feeling that there’s some creativity in the juxtapositions or that, ultimately, it delights the palate. And perhaps the toughest question of all, what happens when the techniques of molecular gastronomy cease to add value? Are they really supposed to be an end in themselves?
Casamia has received recognition on a national level but feels deracinated. It would be as logical a fit in Copenhagen, Spain or Leeds. The Michelin star in particular could lead you to suppose that it’s the best restaurant in the area, which I flatly refuse to believe. The West Country is becoming one of the most interesting food environments in Britain and it would be a tragedy if Casamia can’t find a way to become part of it.
Tim Hayward is the FT’s regular restaurant critic in Nicholas Lander’s absence and editor of Fire & Knives, which won Food Magazine/Section of the Year at the 2012 Guild of Food Writers Awards. He also won Food Journalist of the Year for his work in the Financial Times and Observer Food Monthly.
High Street, Westbury-on-Trym
Bristol BS9 3EE
tel: 0117 959 2884