Saturday, 26 August 2017

Birch, Bristol

Tomato Salad with summer herbs and salted elderberries
at Birch, Bristol

It's late summer and you see a 'Tomato Salad' listed on the menu.  How many times has it been a let down?  Being presented with some tough-skinned, watery, flavourless sliced fruit happens far too often, and yet still we order in hope.  As you can see, there was no such experience at Birch, my favourite restaurant in Bristol and one of my favourites anywhere.  Ripe, juicy, herb-dressed and pepped-up with salted green elderberries.  Summer's peak.  Home-made Sourdough bread, which came with home-made butter, mopped up the juices.  Perfect, and if I could eat this dish every day for the rest of the season I would.

Courgettes with Westcombe ricotta and oatcake
at Birch, Bristol

Local and seasonal is what Birch is about.  True seasonality.  No "spring lamb" in March, when well-farmed lambs aren't ready until mid-summer.  No out of season peas or broad beans.  When ingredients are at their best, they go on the menu.  And a great many of those ingredients are grown organically by the restaurant owners, in a three-quarter acre field on the southern fringe of Bristol. Gathered in the morning, prepped in the the kitchen in the afternoon, and on your plate in the evening.  Excess bounty is cannily preserved for the leaner months.  If they can't grow it, they forage for it and source it from people they know well and trust implicitly.

Sweetcorn and Langoustine broth
at Birch, Bristol

The dedication required shows in plate after plate.  This is a truly ingredient-led restaurant in the hands of owners Sam Leach, in the kitchen, and wife Beccy who runs the most welcoming front-of-house you are ever likely to find.  The menu is usually mostly small plates with a couple of mains, a few puddings and a perfectly ripe cheese.  I don't live in Bristol but have managed to eat at this little neighbourhood restaurant on a residential street in Southville four times.  Each visit has been a joy.

Speckled face Mutton with monk's beard
at Birch, Bristol

Last week we were served that very Tomato Salad with summer herbs and salted elderberries; slices of Air Dried Beef, made in-house, were a superior Bresaola; Sweetcorn and Langoustine broth was deeply fragranced with summer herbs; freshly picked sliced raw courgettes came with a house-made oatcake spread with Westcombe Dairy cow's milk ricotta; Spider crab rolls were rich crabmeat encircled by flavourful ribbons of cucumber topped with borage flowers; a main of Speckled face mutton, served pink, was juicy, tender and full of flavour, and came with the restaurant's lovingly grown monk's beard and a deep-green kale sauce.

Greengage and rye pudding
at Birch, Bristol

Dessert included a Greengage and Rye pudding with Jersey cream, the rye flour bringing a depth of flavour but no heaviness, a nice pairing with these most luscious of plums.  After all that, a Blackcurrant Baked Alaska for 2 was, sadly, out of the question, but a scoop of deeply-flavoured Blackcurrant and yogurt ice cream came with, as you might hope, a crisp buttery biscuit on the side. Prices start at £2.50 for oysters, £6-8.00 for small plates, £14-17.00 for mains and £5.50-7.00 for desserts or cheese.

Blackcurrant and yogurt ice cream
at Birch, Bristol

Wine is from suppliers who specialise in low intervention, small domaine, producers.  I particularly enjoyed a glass of Les Vignerons d'Estezargues Rhone red for £4.20 and a Henri Lapouble-Laplace Jurancon at £6.00.  Cider and Perry drinkers are well catered for, this is the West Country after all.

So good to see Birch packed with regular customers on our visit.  Do book and cross the Gaol Ferry Bridge to neighbourly Southville.  

47 Raleigh Road
Bristol  BS3 1QS
Tel: 01179028326

Currently open for
Dinner: Wednesday-Saturday
Lunch: Saturday

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Westerns Laundry

Cockles with Fennel
at Westerns Laundry

Finding a really good fish and seafood restaurant in London is, to my mind, a challenge.  We are an island so how can we consistently get it so wrong? Yes, I know there are a few names that come up when fish is mentioned but the place that always has Lobster Thermidor and Grilled Dover Sole on the menu is not what I'm looking for.  What I want is a place where the menu is lead by the fish that has been landed by day boats; where the menu changes daily and where a quick look at the chef's notepad for that week gives you a coherent picture of the thinking going in to it.  I don't believe I'm being unrealistic in expecting this yet I am so often disappointed.  So, here is my dream London restaurant that is "Focusing on produce from the sea" Westerns Laundry.  Not only does head chef David Gingell sit down to write those notes but he posts a photo of the notepad before service.

Front Row
at Westerns Laundry

The name, Westerns Laundry, doesn't so much conjure up pictures of pan-fried John Dory as memories of hauling a bag of washing down to the laundrette.  The space was once a laundry and I like a bit of history.  A single visit will have you appreciating the semi-industrial feel, attention to detail and convince you this is a seriously good place to eat.  The 1950's factory-style building stands out in the middle of a residential street on Lower Holloway's Drayton Park so even though, at the time of writing, there is no sign to draw your attention, you really can't miss it.  Part of the ground floor is now home to this second neighbourhood restaurant for the team behind Primeur, with its more meat-based menu a 20 minute walk away in Stoke Newington.

John Dory with Roasted Fennel
at Westerns Laundry

Westerns Laundry has a truly ingredient-led kitchen where David Gingell's true love of fish is clear. Expect British and southern European flavours with a little Asian influence.  Prime ingredients are highly seasonal and sensitively cooked, whether they are dealing with a fillet of Brill or a fennel bulb, the skill of the kitchen in bringing out flavours in everything I have eaten here, in two visits, is joyous.  Cod cheeks, crumbed, deep-fried and served with an exemplary tartare sauce; a bowl of Cockles with shaved fennel followed by the freshest fat, juicy fillets of John Dory with fennel which, in some hands I can think of, would have been a bad idea to order.  Here the shaved fennel had been acidified to a slight softness and, for the John Dory, roasted to bring out the vegetable's natural sugars.  On a second visit I've had a plate of roasted courgettes and fennel with the freshest ricotta and an opalescent fillet of cod on a bed of braised courgette.

Roasted Fennel and Courgettes with Ricotta
at Westerns Laundry

I'm drawing attention to these vegetables to make a point.  They appear on the menu a lot right now, and rightly so as they are at their best.  By judicious use of cooking techniques and flavouring - with herbs in particular - they have never been at all 'samey'.  I've had Beetroot with roasted shallots and parsley which sounded way too simple, even for me.  Next time I see it on the menu I won't hesitate to order it.  I've shared a scalding pan of fideo - one of their favourite dishes (and mine too).  This one was Baked Squid with Cockle, making use of the squid ink, of course, and veal stock, with the finest of pasta and a generous dollop of alioli.  I'm on for the Baked Lobster version at some point.  The pudding list is short and sweet.  If there are at least 2 of you, go for the fantastic Rum Baba for sharing, and/or a glass of Botrytis Pinot Gris.

Rum Baba for two
at Westerns Laundry

Plates are for sharing, with appetisers £2.00 upwards, small plates to large ranging from £4.50 to around £16.00.  There's a large sharing table too.  There will be good bread - if ever there was a place for needing bread to mop up, it is here.  The food achieves a fantastic juiciness and you won't want to leave a drop.  The wine list is mainly natural/low intervention and range from £4.50-£12.00 a glass.  They had a particularly lovely Savagnin Cavarodes 'Pressé' Jura on my last visit at £9.00.  If you enjoy water kefir, as I do, you could start with a refreshing glass of Agua de Madre.   

Currently Westerns Laundry is open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday, but only Friday-Sunday for lunch, reflecting its neighbourhood nature.  Dinner gets busy, so best to book ahead.  The kitchen brigade are highly skilled and front of house staff are amiable, knowledgeable and attentive.  For me, this is my go to place in London where the focus is firmly on produce from the sea and where there is a really good wine list to go with it.  And, carnivores, don't worry, there's always something on the menu for you.

Out front
at Westerns Laundry

Westerns Laundry
34 Drayton Park
London N5