Sunday, April 22, 2012

Manna and Bravas

Manna & Bravas may sound a bit like an upmarket deli (or a '70s pop duo) but these are in fact the names of two separate wine bars that have opened in Bristol in the last two weeks. And what a great addition they are to the Bristol restaurant scene.

Bravas is the welcome consequence of the Bravas supperclub, which I never managed to get to, and is basically a tapas bar - a pretty authentic one at that. There are small circular tables at the front you have to perch at on stools, a glass-covered counter and some tightly packed tables at the back with - I vaguely remember - some fairy lights festooned around the place. I came straight there after a heavy couple of days in London so my recollection is a bit hazy.

There are typically tapas-y things to eat like lustrous fat green olives, a slightly over-gooey tortilla, chorizo in cider and excellent patatas bravas served, imaginatively, as deep-fried potato slices to be dunked in an accompanying punchy bravas sauce. One to try at home, definitely.

Other good dishes were some impeccably fresh, simply fried hake, a perfectly cooked lamb chop and some very tasty Iberico pork. But it’s the wine as much as anything I’d go back for - a brilliant short list of artisanal Spanish wines and, of course, sherries. I was off-duty with friends so didn’t take notes - or photographs - the light was too murky.

I was going to go back before writing about it but last night happened to be the opening night of Manna, a similar set-up in the Westbury Park neighbourhood so it makes sense to group them together. It’s run by the team who operate the immensely successful Prego opposite but is in fact more like a restaurant with small plates - similar to Flinty Red, if you’re a Bristolian and familiar with that.

This kitchen obviously likes meat too. There was a first class slab of brawn, nicely seasoned with tarragon, a lovely sticky pice of veal cheek with what tasted like home-made morcilla (certainly I’ve never tasted morcilla with as much cumin in it) and some outrageously rare onglet lavishly scattered with grated horseradish - but served without chips to which I think they’ll have to succumb in the long run.

Other dishes sent out (unbidden, but thanks) included some beautifully tender chargrilled squid with a punchy salsa, ‘butifarra’ (Spanish-style meatballs) with beans and aioli and fresh peas in their pods with mature parmesan (pecorino would have been better, I think). Oh, and we also ordered a pissaladi√®re which was correctly oniony rather than tomatoey. The winelist is pretty short but decent and there’s a good selection of beers including two from one of my favourite West Country brewers, Moor’s of Pitney in Somerset.

The interesting thing about the tapas/small plates format is that it’s not cheap, or not cheap if you’re as greedy as we are. At Manna we spent about £30 a head (excluding the complimentary dishes), at Bravas about £38, the same as a conventional meal. But you don’t have to spend that much - you could drop in for a glass and a couple of dishes. And this style of eating means a faster throughput than a conventional restaurant, hence more profit for the restaurant and a greater likelihood these places will be around for some time. All good news.

Which should you go to? It depends what part of Bristol you live in or whether you're just visiting. Bravas is more central with more of an urban vibe. Manna, on the basis of last night’s experience, attracts the sort of crowd you might find in a local village pub and is more of a neighbourhood joint. But I suspect it will pull in people from wider afield as the word gets out.

We’ll certainly be back to both.

Bravas is at 5 Cotham Hill. Open Tuesday-Saturday 5-11pm Manna is at 28 North View, Westbury Park, BS6 7QB Check the opening hours 0117 970 6276

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why Scandi women don't get fat

Yesterday's EatScandi brunch, run by my friend Signe Johansen, revealed the devious way Scandinavian women avoid putting on weight.

The answer is to start healthily - well quite healthily, if you opted for the non-alcoholic Bloody Mary*, but needless to say I didn't - followed by a 'Green Goddess'*, a bracing concoction of cucumber, mint, ginger and apple juice and a raspberry, vanilla and ginger smoothie*.

Even the Jarlsberg and fennel muffins* (above) had bee pollen in them.

There was homemade yoghurt* (delicious - never buy it ready-made again) with Queen's compote* - a tart, anti-oxidant-rich concoction of blueberries and raspberries.

And gravlaks* with beetroot salad and wafer thin, and I'm sure not the least calorific, sourdough crispbreads by which time we must have clocked up our five a day.

And then the descent into sinfulness: irresistible cinnamon buns.

Norwegian vanilla and sour cream waffles* (with more Queen's compote).

And indecently chocolatey chocolate and hazelnut brownies.

Fortunately for our waistlines the promised cardamom doughnuts didn't materialise. Sig said the dough had played up but I think she was merely taking pity on us.

So that's the Scandi diet, folks. Plenty of fruit and veg, a moderate amount of dairy and protein and a treat (or three) at the end of the meal. Oh, and probably a fair bit of wild-water swimming, cross-country skiing and other energetic Scandi pursuits and you too could look like Sig. Maybe.

If you want to experience the Scandi brunch - and Scandi suppers - for yourself you can check the dates on Sig's blog. You can find all the recipes marked * in her brilliant first book Scandilicious - and the brownies and more in her new book Scandilicious Baking which is out in July.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A tale of two restaurants: why good food is not enough

I’ve had two meals recently, one in Bristol, one in Bath that have underlined why ability in the kitchen doesn’t necessarily make for an enjoyable restaurant experience. Of course you need good food but there are so many other factors - design, location, service and above all, good old-fashioned hospitality that determine whether you leave looking forward to going back again.

Telling your customers that their credit card will be docked £68 per person if they cancel within 48 hours (if they can’t resell the table) isn’t a good start. Which is what happens when you book at Casamia in Bristol. The two chefs Peter and Jonray Sanchez-Iglesias shot to fame a year or so ago when they won Gordon Ramsay’s Best Restaurant competition on Channel 4 and the pair are undoubtedly talented but that kind of attitude doesn’t make for a cossetting experience.

Nor does their inflexibility. Given the fact they had a no-choice menu we’d been asked to express dietary preferences (no dairy, in my husband’s case) so with the exception of the last course where they provided a rhubarb sorbet they simply left out the offending ingredients. My broad bean tart was a delicious creamy mouthful. His was a tart shell with a few skinned broad beans. My John Dory with lemon jelly (lovely and the best course on the menu) arrived with a creamy cider sauce, his was totally undressed. It was as if the kitchen were saying ‘oh FFS’.

You got that sensation a bit too with the main course of roast lamb with mint jelly which came with a spookily Bisto-ish gravy (not that I'm suggesting for a moment it was). The boys, I remember from my one previous visit, used to go in for foams and other elements of Heston-esque molecular gastronomy. Obviously that didn’t go down too well with the locals so they seem to be saying ‘you want a roast dinner? We’ll bloody give you one’. The lamb was cooked at a fashionably slow temperature, granted, but to be honest my late mum cooked a better roast dinner than that. And she served potatoes which were notably absent, replaced by an ‘onion and garlic family’ of crunchy, undercooked spring onions and leeks.

Obviously the Sanchez-Iglesias brothers don’t approve of carbs. Or fat. Which is praiseworthy and I’m sure they’re the fitter for it but if your customer asks for some bread as we tentatively did, “no I’m sorry we don’t have any” is not a good response. Nor is a powdery, fat-free (I would guess), granola-style topping with undercooked rhubarb going to satisfy someone who spots rhubarb crumble on the menu.

The minimum you can spend on food in Casamia is £45. On a Friday or Saturday night the menu is £68 or £88 - or 88 sterling pounds as they irritatingly put it - with an extra £40 or £55 respectively for an accompanying wine flight. With service, water and coffee that could easily top £250 for two - a lot to pay for a restaurant without views in a suburban shopping parade.

There are similar problems at Menu Gordon Jones, the bizarrely named new restaurant in what looks like a converted estate agent's on the corner of the busy A367 on the outskirts of Bath. Like the Sanchez-Iglesias brothers the eponymous chef has an impressive pedigree (Martin Wishart, Martin Blunos and The Royal Crescent) but only offers a ‘surprise’ no choice 5 course menu. At least it included some delicious and imaginative red cabbage and caraway bread though that appeared to be one of the courses. And the asparagus soup was as good as any I've had. But serving ox cheek and then reverting to fish is a disorienting experience and plays havoc with with your wine choice. And with just one other table (the place only has 14 covers) it lacked any real warmth or atmosphere. Although they only charge £25 for lunch, which is a bargain for the quality of food they offer, I wouldn't go back.

Obviously the economic situation is tough for new start-ups but in their desire to express themselves it’s as if these chefs have lost sight of what a restaurant experience should be. OK, they spring a surprise menu on you at Noma but Noma is Noma with one of the most talented chefs and brigades in the world and the food is not only cutting-edge but delicious.

The main problem is that none of these chefs has grasped the importance of a stylish (though not necessarily expensively fitted-out) interior and a warm and welcoming reception which is what separates successful restaurants from merely good ones. Compare this with the recently opened Dabbous whose eponymous restaurant works like clockwork. Or Ollie Couillaud’s Lawn Bistro in Wimbledon which is casual, friendly but with no lack of culinary fireworks. It's a shame.

What do you think of no choice or surprise menus? And is it fair for restaurants to charge for no-shows - a growing problem for the industry?