Bell’s Diner opened as a restaurant in 1976, and has, in the past decade, become the vehicle for chef-proprietor Christopher Wicks’s culinary creativity. Set in the bohemian Montpelier district of Bristol, somewhat appropriately, in a former grocery shop. Probably to pay homage to that, the window displays consist of baskets of seasonal fruit and vegetables, and antique kitchenalia. The neat looking restaurant sticks out a little from its ‘rustic urban’ surroundings, which just adds to its charm in my opinion, it’s also walking distance from my flat which is always a bonus. It is one of the few fine-dining establishments in Bristol and has been showered with accolades over the years. I have been a few times and tried various a la carte dishes (3 courses averaging at £28.50 per person, menu changes seasonally) but had never sampled the tasting menu. When I spotted a LivingSocial deal £49 for 2 people to have the 8 course tasting menu, I told some (food blogging) friends and we decided to partake of this great offer. Usually priced at £47.50 per person with an optional wine flight for £36.50 chosen by manager/sommelier Lionel Perinier, one of the few certified sommeliers in the South West. He is very serious about wine and knows his stuff. The other staff, I have to say, are also very knowledgeable about both the food and the wine. The service throughout the evening was faultless. We had a glass of house wine included in the deal which was surprisingly good. Unfortunately, none of us were really in a drinking mood, otherwise I would have loved to have tried a wine matched with each of the courses.
So, anyway, on to the food…
Firstly, an amuse bouche of butternut squash velouté topped with a cumin foam, served in a shot glass, and a goat’s cheese gougère which certainly kept us busy for a couple of minutes and whetted our collective appetites.
Next, the bread was served, eagerly anticipated by my neighbour who challenged himself to try all four varieties, if the waiter allowed. Freshly baked in-house, the choice was from a tapenade foccacia, sourdough, a French-style baguette or walnut and raisin. We managed every one except the baguette, all were delicious but the foccacia was my favourite.
When the ‘first’ course arrived, it was so pretty I almost didn’t want to disturb it. A goat’s cheese cannelloni (made of truffle jelly I believe) with pickled vegetables, and walnuts. It’s not something I would have chosen from the menu, but the flavours worked well together. Ok so far.
Next up was a seared scallop, confit potato, haddock foam and baby leek served with Vichyssoise. I really liked this dish, elegantly presented, seasonal ingredients that married well. Not too fussy or complicated.
Following, was a two-hour-poached hen egg with truffle mousse and wild mushrooms. This dish had quite an Autumnal woodland feel to me. Again, not a dish I would have chosen from the menu but, as this was a tasting menu, I was willing to try anything. The egg is cooked at a very low temperature, in a water bath, for two hours to achieve a texture that would be difficult to recreate by any other method. The egg is cooked but still soft, very clever and technically skilled. However, it wasn’t particularly to my taste and I was beginning to get bored of truffle. I think the others liked it though.
Next to come was truffle poached chicken (ahh, truffle again!), chips and foie gras. The chicken was tender and moist and thankfully the truffle didn’t come through too heavily. The foie gras was nicely seared on the outside but was a little too soft in the centre. The chips were fantastic. There was a tart caper dressing which balanced it well. I think we all liked this one.
The ‘main’ course was brill with oxtail ragout, sea purslane and salsify lasagne. I think this was my favourite dish of the night. In ‘E’s opinion the brill was a little over-cooked but the layered ‘lasagne’ of oxtail, sea purslane and salsify was as delicious as it was beautiful. An interesting combination of flavours and textures, and the oxtail was wonderfully rich. ‘M’ suggested that it being the ‘main’ it should have been a larger portion and I suppose some may feel disappointed but I felt, as did ‘E’, that it was just right. After all, we still had courses to come.
We had a brief break and then the ‘pre-dessert’ arrived. At the table, a waiter poured a small amount of pine gin into iced shot glasses and then filled with lime foam. It was fun to watch him do this. The foam was lovely and refreshing, and together with the pine gin, was a nice palette-cleanser. The gin was very strong however and none of us managed to finish it.
The dessert was chocolate praline parfait, salted caramel and pain au chocolat. The pain au chocolat was thin sheets of pastry layered with the parfait, caramel and ganache. There was also chocolate ice cream, praline ice cream and a meringue-like tuille. The portion was quite large, compared to the other courses and was a bit of a struggle to get through. However, it was lovely. All the different componants were delicious. It was rich but not heavy. The different textures kept the mouth busy and interested. Our table fell silent for the first time while we enjoyed the jouney through this quite complex chocolate arrangement.
We then had a selection of dainty macaroons to finish; chocolate, raspberry and green tea (if memory serves). The green tea one was particularly yummy!
So, in summary, a fantastic meal. I can’t say we were completely bowled over, most of the dishes were excellent but there a few niggles here and there. Don’t get me wrong, this is far above my standard of cooking and is always interesting to try food at this level. It is not too pretentious and fussy so it’s still accessable, however, probably not as cutting edge as it used to seem. The discerning foodie expects that bit more for his/her money nowadays. I know I will go back again and again as I always enjoy the experience and I heartily recommend it for an occasional treat.
Bell’s Diner is open for lunch Tues-Fri 12-2pm and dinner Mon-Sat 7-9.30pm.
1-3 York Road, Bristol, BS6 5QB.
‘E’s review http://t.co/549cAVe