As has been well reported on this blog - despite stiff competition from Saturday lie in - my three favourite words remain long birthday lunch. This year, the birthday lunch had the added advantage of being proceeded by a Saturday lie in, making it, already, doubly good.
Our joy continued when – after walking though Bristol’s Bear Pit and up the colourful Stoke’s Croft Road to Bell’s Diner, location of said birthday lunch – our opening greeting of ‘how’s your day so far’ was delivered in a rich West Country burr so sweet and thick, like clotted cream topped with honey, that it took a minute or two for our urban ears to decipher.
But, Bell’s Diner is the sort of place that would, I imagine, make all but the steeliest heart, feel happy; and from that initial moment our visit was nothing but a delight. The interior is a comfy jumble of mismatched furniture; with great racks of wine lining one wall; the words from Jerusalem hanging - above a table laden with loaves of fresh bread - on another; and all topped off by a, working, record player in the corner, complete with a box of vinyl records for sale.
The lunchtime menu starts with little snacks of bread, olives and salami, followed small tapas-y types dishes – at priced at £4 each or £10 for three - and some larger tapas-y like things, which can also be pimped into ‘main’ dishes come the evening.
The drinks menu is worth a mention, too. With its carefully chosen selection of ales - from the Wild Brewing Co., Dawkins and the Camden Brewery amongst others – and wines, including the uber trendy 12 Volts, a red from Mallorca. It was a bottle of the latter - a birthday present from my father, so cheers, Dad – with which we chose to kick off the day’s drinking, and it proved a good choice with its sweet red fruit and leathery undertones.
The colourful homemade pickles were little piquant bursts of joy - particularly notable were the sweet shards of crisp globe artichoke - while the famed Abernethy butter, all the way from County Down, was quickly and thickly lavished on slices of warm bread.
The lamb Ste Menhold - slices of tender braised lamb’s breast, coated in breadcrumbs and fried, based on an Elizabeth David dish - came with a quite magnificent, dill-spiked tartare sauce that had us fighting over the third crispy slice to mop it up with. I won; well it was my birthday….
Surprise standout of the afternoon went to the slow cooked cauliflower with brown butter and pine nuts, a creamy, smoky, nutty dish that turned the bland brassica into a delight, while the cured herring with new potatoes crème fraiche and fish roe was a light and gentle plate with surprisingly clean and delicate flavours.
From the larger dishes on the menu we shared the girolles, ceps and cherry tomatoes on fried sourdough, draped with a blanket of lardo. The tomatoes were a zingy delight, possibly to the detriment of the milder- mannered mushrooms, while the smoked pig fat bought nothing but an extra layer of piggy joy; the perfect brunch plate.
The chicken oyster pinchos combined the most fiercely fought over nuggets of meat on the bird, grilled on skewers and served with yoghurt and harissa. Smoky, crispy and sticky, the French got the joy of morsels quite right one right on naming them sot-l'y-laisse, or "the fool leaves it there’.
For desert I couldn't pass up the opportunity to taste the homemade ice cream, churned in an old fashioned machine. Sticking with the seasons, I chose apple and blackcurrant crumble, a fruit and berry flecked custard-based ice topped with a buttery rubble. It didn't disappoint. The far more indecisive Ewing went for a trio of tonka bean, rhubarb ripple and vanilla with plum sauce. All the ice cream was smooth beyond superlative and perfectly flavoured, with a special mention for the creamy vanilla doused with the puree of sharp orchard fruits.
To make amends for my restrained pudding choice, I also enjoyed a plate of gently oozing Wigmore – a ewe’s milk cheese made in the brie style in Berkshire - served with fresh honeycomb and oatcakes; the perfect combination to end a pretty perfect meal.
We finished things off with a perfectly made macchiato, made with Extract Coffee beans and another couple of tunes on the record player, before wandering outside to poke around the bric a brac stalls set up in the streets outside the restaurant.
While the rest of the afternoon/evening may have spiralled out of control, thanks to a few pints of cider on the Apple Barge and some further beverage sampling for Bristol Beer Week, nothing could spoil the simplicity of a fabulous meal in a fabulous city with fabulous company. If it wasn't for the getting older, I’d declare it my birthday every weekend.