“Inventive cooking at full throttle” is how the 2011 Good Food Guide describes Chris Wicks’ Bell’s Diner, and a “highly idiosyncratic restaurant”. The word “idiosyncratic”, on reflection, sums up the evening perfectly for me…
Who’d have thought that they would find a venue generally acknowledged as being one of Bristol’s finest restaurants nestled in the back streets of Montpelier? Bells’ sleek, smart exterior seemed completely at odds with the garish lights of the Thali Cafe across the road. Smartly dressed couples sat at tables by the window while guys in hoodies and carrying pizza boxes and beer walked past just outside. It really was like stepping into a completely different world when we walked through the door…and I loved it.
Formerly an old grocer’s shop, Bell’s is divided into three intimate dining areas. If possible, I’d suggest sitting in the front room rather than the more plainly decorated back rooms. Decked out with a quirky assortment of objects such as old meat grinders and baskets of fruit and vegetables, the restaurant feels less like a fine dining establishment and more like a French bistro – and with the relaxed, un-stuffy atmosphere to match.
The incongruity continues when the food is served, with original and modern food at odds with the more traditional and down to earth environment. Armed with vouchers for deals from the LivingSocial site, my three fellow diners and I were all there for the tasting menu, and despite the evening lasting a good three hours, the atmosphere, food and company meant that the evening flew by.
An amuse-bouche of squash velouté topped with a cumin foam and served alongside a blue cheese gougère kicked off the evening, and the arrival of the bread basket certainly perked up the bread-obsessed blogger amongst our group, who managed to sample the olive tapenade focaccia, raisin and walnut bread and sourdough over the course of the evening, omitting only the mini French baguettes.
The purpose of a tasting menu is to expose diners to as much of a variety as possible – and is an opportunity for the chefs to demonstrate their abilities. Mission accomplished. Our menu took us on a journey through a variety of ingredients, flavours and textures, with some more traditional combinations and others more innovative. Wicks himself wasn’t in the kitchen on the evening that we went, but he’d described chef Alex as “the best number 2 I have ever had”, so we knew we were in safe hands.
Delicately presented goats’ cheese cannelloni with walnut and pickled winter salad was a great exercise in combining flavours and textures, while the second course of a perfectly cooked scallop, vichysoisse, confit potato and a smoked haddock foam was one of the less complicated dishes of the night, and also one of the tastiest.
A hen egg, poached for two hours and served with wild mushrooms and a truffle mousse was fantastically earthy and full of flavour, but possibly a little too fussy. The following course, however, was one of my favourites: Perigord truffle-poached chicken served with perfectly cooked chips, endive, foie gras (although a little underdone) and a caper dressing.
Brill served with an oxtail ragout and a sea purslane, salsify and parsley lasagne followed…and full credit to the staff on this course. We only remembered to tell them after the amuse-bouche that one of our party did not eat beef, and they were more than happy to substitute the ragout with a square of pork belly for her instead. The ragout was delicious, very rich and really complementing the slight sweetness of the fish…which was unfortunately a little overcooked.
Our pre-dessert of a bright green pine liqueur topped with a pine foam was delicious, but with two non-drinkers at the table (and the other two barely drinking) we struggled to finish it. Onto dessert, layered sheets of very fine pastry encasing a praline parfait and a rich chocolate ganache, served with chocolate and salted caramel ice creams and a thin meringue.
Coffees were served with a selection of macaroons: raspberry jam, green tea and chocolate and hibiscus, with the green tea variety definitely the most popular amongst our table.
At £47.50 per head for the tasting menu (and another £37.50 for the optional wine flight), Bell’s may not be a venue for everyday dining, but the value for money is a given: not just for the food, but for the entire experience. I’ll definitely be heading back to give the à la carte menu a try. Thanks to Chris and the team for a very enjoyable evening!
Address: 1-3 York Road, Bristol, BS6 5QB
Telephone: 0117 924 0357