Considering this blog is called ‘Bristol vs the world’, so far I’ve spectacularly failed to post much about the ‘Bristol’ side of things (though in fairness to myself, I have only been in this guise for a month. Any posts over two years were written before I moved here on another journal. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it). So for today’s Food Friday, we’re going local – in more ways than one.
Sitting on Whiteladies Road, Clifton, River Cottage Canteen – a venture from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – opened just last year. He may not be a resident chef, but his influence is very much present. The Canteen’s big ‘thing’ is organic, seasonal produce – and I believe 90% of food is sourced from within a 50-mile radius of the restaurant.
The first time we came here, I’d heard good things but was a little worried – I know people who love a certain chain of restaurants with a celebrity name that proclaims to be affordable, but I personally find it massively overpriced, especially considering the quality of food you get. The fact that River Cottage Canteen sits in a similar price category to the other chain (£10-£15 for most mains) didn’t help matters. These niggles were somewhat assuaged by the incredible smells coming from the open kitchen when we came in – and after one bite of the soft, flavoursome complimentary bread I knew I had nothing to worry about!
Not only did it smell good, it looks pretty attractive too. Housed in a converted church, a number of the original features – including stained glass windows – have been retained. Together with the wooden floors and furniture, it’s simple and unfussy, but that’s somehow that’s what makes it so appealing. Quite like the food.
The open plan also creates a great atmosphere – a constant, underlying chatter comes from surrounding diners (anyone from young families to older couples seemingly popping in after a walk) to create a buzz, but it never but really impedes your conversation.
This is probably helped by the fact that – even though they could probably fill more tables – they don’t try and cram you in. Although I appreciate some restaurants don’t have that luxury – and I often like to eat in those places – it really frustrates me when bigger restaurants pack you in so tightly that you feel like you can’t move your chair back an inch for fear of clipping the person behind, or when their conversation seems to invade yours somehow. River Cottage Canteen has none of those problems. Overall the experience is just very, well, pleasant.
The staff really help with making that experience. The menu isn’t especially fancy in terms of the ingredients it uses, but it does feature some unusual combinations (polenta lasagne) and words (‘speltotto’, meaning pearl barley risotto) and they’re more than happy to explain these to you or give you a rundown on a particular dish, what it features and sizes – without making you feel stupid.
And then, most importantly, there’s the food. My potted crab was delicious and the texture was perfect – smooth, but not so much so that it felt more like a pate or baby food! This dish was actually on the ‘lighter’ menu (meant for small lunches or starters) and so was only served with an artichoke salad and crostini. However with a side of chips it was the ideal size for a main meal. And the chips were well worth it – the perfect balance of crunchy on the outside, soft on the in and the seasoning was just right.
My sister, predominantly a vegetarian (too complicated to explain in a short blog!) went for the speltotto which she really enjoyed. I may have snuck a taste and can confirm it was really tasty. Not too heavy and while you could taste all the individual flavours, they also worked together really well.
John went for fish and chips. I’m not usually a huge fish fan, but he forced me to try and bit and even I have to admit it was pretty tasty – nice and meaty and not too, well, fishy… (I’m told that’s the sign of a good fish dish, so is intended is a compliment!) I do enjoy a bit of batter, too.
And then there were the desserts. When we ordered two the waitress warned us that we’d regret not having one each. We – already quite full but taken by how good other people’s had looked – laughed at what we assumed was a joke.
It was not. We shared the chocolate and coffee cake and a slight variation on their rhubarb and vanilla mess (they had run out of meringues, so it was served with ice cream instead), but I could quite easily have wolfed down either (or both!) on my own! Both were rich, but not in that way where it’s really heavy. Needless to say that we left our plates very, very clean!
Another thing worth noting about River Cottage Canteen is it’s great drinks list, which also sticks to the local ethos – Bristol Beer Factory and Orchard Pig (both for ciders and soft drinks) both make an appearance, alongside your typical wines and a few cocktails (alcoholic and virgin).
The only thing that might be a slight negative for some is that service can be a little slow – on both occasions we’ve been there have been quite long gaps between taking orders for each part of the meal unless you prompt them – though the actual food didn’t take too long to be brought out. For us that wasn’t a problem – we didn’t feel like we were being rushed out for the next table and thoroughly enjoyed our leisurely two-hour lunch. But if you have a limited amount of time then it might just be worth mentioning it at the beginning of your meal.
Overall our meal – three mains (well two mains, and one ‘lighter’ meal + chips), two desserts, one bottled beer and one bottled soft drink – came to £55, not including a tip. Not too shabby!
I don’t think it needs to be said that I would thoroughly recommend the River Cottage Canteen (although now I have…). If you’re looking for good value, tasty food in an informal, unpretentious environment then this is the ideal place for friends, families and couples alike. Book your table now!
Where: St John’s Court, Whiteladies Rd, BS8 2QY
How to book: Under 6 people in your party? The easiest way is online. For larger groups, phone 0117 973 2458
Menu: Changes every day (I won’t link as it’ll be out-of-date almost as soon as the post goes live!) but sample ones are available online