Prince Street, Narrow Quay, Bristol, BS1 4QF
Situated in the smart and shiny yet austerely façaded Bristol Hotel, the River Grille restaurant faces out on the other side from the gritty main road, overlooking the river by a bridge sporting fanciful modern bronze-coloured sculptures reminiscent of slender gramophone horns, with the lights of myriad shops, restaurants, bars and cafés reflecting atmospherically on the wet cobbles. One felt glad to be indoors, looking out such ephemeral beauty from the safety of a warm and dry room.
The restaurant itself is reached through the piano bar, with its cosy sofas and low tables. The dining area aims for a mixture of rustic – with its light wooden floorboards and tablecloth-less tables – and modern. Dark brown wicker chairs match the dark brown tables while lighter beige cushions tie in with the colour of the extensive banquette along a long brown wall. Lighting is also modern, with lampshades formed of long golden spikes, and the paintings on the wall are colourful post-Expressionist naive-style representations of a food-orientated nature.
The loos were clean and smart – only one ladies and gents each, but reasonably spacious as a result. Gilchrist and Soames hand wash and hand lotion were provided – although it was a shame that in the gents (well, it would be, wouldn’t it?) selfish and thoughtless patrons had deemed it appropriate to throw used hand towels on top of the pile of clean ones, rather than in the bin provided, and that staff had not rectified this issue.
Music was live on the Saturday evening that we visited; a saxophonist and pianist desperately trying to drown out with their reasonably decent jazz (and far from succeeding) the execrable and horrendously intrusive thumping sound presumably emanating from a neighbouring nightclub. The noise of the bass beats thudded through and over and above everything; such that one yearned for a pair of wire-cutters.
Service was friendly, attentive and swift, and we were soon seated at a table by the window with a fine view of the river. Mineral water was brought on request and, with it, two types of foccacia with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The plain foccacia was slightly dry and hard and the olive foccacia was also a little on the resilient side – both could have done with being a little softer and fluffier.
One is presented with the choice between a la carte or set menus, the latter offering a selection of four starters, mains and desserts at a very reasonable £19.95 for two courses or £24.95 for three, with a good range covering fish, meat and vegetarian dishes. (Since writing this review, the menu and its format and prices have changed, with new and highly acclaimed chef, Matt Lord, now at the helm.) The a la carte menu was also pretty good – not many starters perhaps, but it had a decent selection of mains including salads and grills (steak and pork), winter game choices, two reasonably imaginative vegetarian options, and the market catch fish of the day. I found myself mildly irritated by the unnecessary affectation of the grill accompaniments being listed on the menu in quotation marks. Food is sourced as locally as possible, although this isn’t mentioned on the menu, nor were suppliers listed.
The wine list was also fine, if slightly pricey. I approved of the division of the wines into types: sparkling; fresh, dry and unoaked whites; aromatic, floral, fruit driven or fuller-bodied and rounded whites; then light, soft and fruity reds; medium bodied; juicy or rich; robust and spicy. Such listings might perhaps encourage those who know and usually stick to what they like to experiment a little more – always a Good Thing. There were only two roses and one dessert wine, however, which I did find disappointing – as was the fact that there were no English wines present on the list, nor anything spectacularly exciting, unusual or interesting. Most of the wines listed were from Australia, Chile, Italy and France.
We opted for a bottle of the house red – Solandia, Nero D’Avola 2011 from Sicily. I was expecting something good, if not outstanding, but I believe that this must be the best house red I’ve ever experienced. It was a dark, rich ruby colour with a nose of black berry fruits and cherries and a slight hint of liquorice, too. The taste was soft, rounded and well balanced – with those blackberries, blackcurrants and cherries being tempered by a dash of sweetening vanilla; and there was a touch of ash and coffee in the mixture as well. The wine developed and gained complexity as it breathed, resulting in a spectacularly fine wine by the end of the meal.
My husband started with the cold press of ham and pheasant, with tomato and mustard seed jam, veal sauce and granary toast, all served on a slate. This was pronounced a very lemon-y dish that was slightly on the pedestrian side – the flavours rather nondescript; perfectly inoffensive, but not cuisine that leapt off the plate. The tomato relish and accompanying toasted bread were, nevertheless, very good – the relish pleasantly tangy and the bread fresh and crisp, while the crunchy mustard seeds added an extra textural dimension.
I had chosen the game sausage. The sausage itself was undeniably good – flavoursome and quite spicy, and was served on a crostini, with a paprika bacon stew with white beans and micro herb salad, which complemented the sausage well. The cassoulet-type stew might be a little too much on the salty side for some, yet I enjoyed it. On the whole, both elements were pleasantly warming and filling without being overpowering or leaving too little room for the main course.
Yet these hefty, hearty and reasonably generously-portioned starters were in stark contrast to my main at least. I had been unable to resist the rosemary-crusted venison and was presented with a plate consisting of three small slices of venison – one can imagine that some customers might be mildly outraged at being charged £20.95 for so diminutive a portion. However, these scanty pieces of meat were very good indeed – served pinker than I had requested but nevertheless full of flavour; very gamey, succulent and tender – almost to the point of melting, and the accompanying jus worked well with the venison. The advertised buttered kale had – to my regret and disappointment – mutated into spinach, while the rosemary-infused potato gratin had a layer of bacon running through it – a nice touch, although said bacon was not desperately flavoursome. The final element of the dish, puréed broad beans (mashed, actually, not puréed – but let’s not quibble), lent a welcome addition of sweetness to what was otherwise quite a salty meal.
My husband was less successful in his choice of an eight-oz sirloin steak, which he found somewhat disappointing – rather stringy in places and not as flavoursome as it should have been, especially considering its weight; while the lack of a steak knife exacerbated the difficulty of the process of dissection. The accompanying chips, however, were very good: nicely firm on the outside, but soft and fluffy on the inside, and the béarnaise sauce was also excellent. The vegetable accompaniment came in the form of tomatoes on the vine – fine for advertising their freshness and flavour, but which made them somewhat awkward to manage in the context of a knife-and-fork operation.
The cessation of the saxophonist and his accompanist, who had been battling valiantly on, led to light pop, jazz and easy listening piped music that was so discreet that at first it just sounded like tinklings coming from the kitchen radio. I know I usually complain about non-classical music in restaurants, but, quite frankly, almost anything would have been welcome to try to mitigate that ghastly boom boom boom, so we were grateful for at least some continued shield against it.
On to desserts – my crème brulée was good, although the pistachios were rather shy, hardly making their presence felt at all – and soft, rather than crunchy and flavoursome, when they did. ‘Hedgerow salad’ was, in fact, a selection of flavoursome and fresh berries, and the clean taste aptly complemented the richness of the brulée. The accompanying biscotti was dry and crumbly and nutty in taste.
My husband’s apple crumble was a little on the dry side (the crème anglaise was definitely necessary) but otherwise good – the apple fresh and in decent-sized chunks, and the constituent particles of the crumble topping of a suitable size to complement the texture. The vanilla ice-cream, too, was good, not overpoweringly flavoursome, but with just enough presence to add an extra dimension.
I also indulged (as usual) in a dessert wine – Conchya y Toro late harvest Sauvignon Blanc, from the Maule Valley in Chile. It was a good golden – almost apricot – colour, with a full, rich, sweet and fruity nose. Although the taste was full of apricots and honey whilst remaining very clean and entirely free from any sense of being sticky or cloying, it nevertheless didn’t fully deliver; that final heaven-sent riot of flavours that thrills and enchants, and uplifts one’s senses to ecstatic delights, was not quite there. Mind you, it was the best dessert wine I’ve had in a restaurant for a good year or two.
The staff were content to let us sit, savouring our wines and chatting relaxedly long after the other customers had gone, and although they did indeed set the surrounding tables for breakfast, there was absolutely no sense of wishing to get rid of us – which was a very welcome conclusion to overall an enjoyable meal.
EM MARSHALL-LUCK is the QR’s restaurant critic