Tonight I went to visit Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Canteen, which recently opened in loverly Bristol. Half expecting alfalfa sprouts with a side of sly lecturing about local produce, I was still very eager to see what he had to offer me.
The building is beautiful (as a converted church, there’s very little scope for it not to be) and it had been treated with respect by the design. Open and inviting, the space was slathered in wood in a sort of earthy, eco-warrior way that makes you feel good but doesn’t make you use a compost loo. The aesthetics of the good life, without all of the fuss. Menus on brown paper, that sort of thing.
We began with the meat sharing boards. In my experience, the carnivorous sharing platter often consists of some chorizo, a few slivers of prosciutto and maybe a chicken skewer or two. Now, as much as I appear to slate this formula, I have no problem with it, for it does the job of tiding you over until the main attraction comes along. This was until I had the Canteen’s version. Smoked venison, pastrami and some slow cooked and fried pork fritter affair – “Chef ran out of the pork balls”, the waitress tells us apologetically, “So he’s given you the last ones and thrown on some extra pork terrine.” Fine by us. The meat was partnered with your standard salad leaves and some slaw. Nestled amongst all of this also sat some fried capers, which pop into a salty explosion of joy in your mouth and have been on my mind ever since.
I wanted to try the fish sharing board too, but with my Dad being allergic, we settled for a meaty double-whammy. The veggie board was not even an option, for it seemed so unimaginatively dire, offering the usual fare of falafel and hummus, blah, blah blah… The hummus may have been made from carrot and beetroot, but I see through all that.
My main was the wood roasted gurnard, which came with spring greens, bacon and ‘green sauce’ (capers and whatnot). It was entirely delicious and generous in size for the £12.95 it cost. The dish as a whole was pretty oily, but fortunately enough I’m not the kind of person that really sees too much fault in that. Nope, it was really good.
I also had a dutiful taste of the Jerusalem artichoke, wild sorrel and hazelnut speltotto (risotto, but with spelt, obviously), which was creamy and gooey and served in a large, homely bowl. Things often taste better in bowls.
My sister opted for the mackerel fishcakes from the ‘Smaller’ menu, which came with sorrel leaves and aioli. Unlike the usual breadcrumbed fishcake, these had been fried in some kind of batter, which gave them a beautiful crunch before you got to their delicious fishy centre. She also got a side of slaw, most of which she ended up taking home because she couldn’t finish it. The waitress whisked it off downstairs and returned with it in a tub without even a hint of judgement.
True to form, the three men in our party went for the lamb, although in fairness to them it was the only meat option. It came on the bone for some caveman styled gnawing and I didn’t taste it, but plates were left clean and I heard many a contented grunt. Be prepared to order sides, though, as it doesn’t come with any veg.
For pud, I shared the rhubarb, apple and ginger ‘fumble’, a cold, deconstructed crumble that proved to be much nicer than it sounds. There was nothing new here, but the fruit was delicious, cooked carefully so that it retained a very slight bite. Flavoured with cinnamon and ginger, it packed a tasty punch but didn’t feel too heavy for a dessert. Everyone else got tea, apart from my sister’s boyfriend, who opted for a portion of chips. Props to the waitress for putting up with our very specific needs without batting an eyelash.
The children’s menu also looks pretty good – it even includes some of dishes in smaller portions. Best of all, it offers ice-cream for a quid.
So there you have it: a boring veggie sharing platter, but otherwise a good variety for you to mull over. There wasn’t even a burger in sight, which usually acts as the go-to cop-out crowd-pleaser. Some people may be put off by the minimal menu, which relies on local flavours and produce and thus changes daily, and I might be inclined to suggest that an extra meat dish wouldn’t have gone amiss. However, I’ve always been told that if there’s not too much choice, the grub can be given more attention, and this seems to be the case here.
It doesn’t really matter what you think of HFW: I doubt he’s really got much to do with Bristol’s River Cottage Canteen. Either way, prices were actually pretty decent and, most importantly, I liked my experience very much.