Monday, 8 July 2019

Rooting for it

I've pontificated on age before, but I'm definitely coming to realise that getting older is (mostly) a good thing. Apart from things occasionally popping and cracking and creaking, you don't really notice it's happening. You just begin to start waking up early and liking ready salted crisps and going to garden centres and voluntarily watching Sunday night TV.

I mention this after reading Grace Dent’s review of Woky Ko. A 'restaurant' housed in a shipping container at Bristol’s Wapping Wharf. While the level of cooking was ’very high’ she also decried the location as not a place to linger. Timely, as Woky Ko happens to be housed in the container right next to Root, the location for a recent long lunch date with my wife.

After Dent surmised ‘although I enjoyed myself, it was Saturday night and I wished I’d gone to a restaurant’, I wondered, as we turned up just as biblical rain clouds opened, are we just too old for this? (In my head narrated in a Carrie Bradshaw-esque voice, but really the only similarity was the way my hair had gone hella curly, thanks to the inclement weather.)

Things took an upward turn after we arrived, to a very genial, welcome to be presented with a drinks menu that included several local ciders, Being in the West Country, how could we resist? I chose a bottle of Pomme Pomme, a crisp keeved cider with quince from Pilton, and the Ewing went with Smokey Plum, a collaboration between Pilton and Wild Beers (who also have a bar opposite Root). 

They offer a seasonal sharing plates menu, consisting mainly of vegetable dishes with a few sustainably sourced fish and meat specials, from which we picked oysters, served topped with blackberry vinegar, herb oil and lime pickle. Of all my attempts to try and enjoy oysters (as opposed to just closing my eyes and thinking of England) this ranks up there with one of the most successful. Certainly one of the prettiest.

I do sometimes question why I keep persevering – I mean, I dislike hard boiled eggs, and I’m not planning to turn into Cool Hand Luke any time soon - but it’s moments like this when it seems worth it; the sharpness of the lime and berries taking the edge off the plump mollusc without overwhelming it’s creamy subtlety.

Purists may scoff at what sounds like such an outrĂ© combo, but it’s not that far from mignonette and a squeeze of lemon. Even the Ewing, who prefers her oysters au naturel, rhapsodised about these while lamenting we didn’t go for four for a tenner.

Gnudi - gnocchi-like dumplings made with Homewood ricotta instead of potato - had an ethereally light punchy cheese, filling barely contained inside a gossamer thin polenta crust. 

These glorious nuggets were served on a very good romesco - made with roast pepper, ground almond and sherry vinegar - sauce and were topped with 'wilding leaves'. While it felt a bit weird at first to have the lettuce getting warm on top of the hot dumplings, I really enjoyed this.

Beetroot came in lightly pickled discs and cooked chunks, alongside toasted hazelnuts and blueberries. It was the kind of simple arrangement that makes you think ‘oh, I should try and knock this up at home’, only to quickly realise that anything involving a beetroot in your own house – save popping open a jar of the stuff once a year, to go with Boxing Day dinner – quickly leads to the kitchen resembling a crime scene.

Far better to let the experts don the latex gloves and do the hard work, especially when the result looks as pretty and tastes as good as this did.

Cured sea bream with dill, cucumber and pickled chilli was pleasant without quite living up to the heady heights of the previous plates, with the fish rather lost by all the accompaniments. I did, however, very much enjoy how the blobs of (caramelised onion?) puree complimented the astringent pickles.

Isle of Wight tomatoes with baba ganoush and toasted homemade focaccia was delicious. So much so that, after being given first bite of the cherry tomato, as it were, the Ewing watched me carefully cleaving each chunk of bread in half, and then again in horror as I ate my share plus half of hers, too. 

What can I say, I think I was concentrating so hard on not hoovering it all up, so that pretty much what seemed to happen…. Or I was distracted by her sparkling wit and conversation. Either way, I’m hoping to atone by recreating something similar at home with our home-grown toms later in the summer (if we ever get a summer).

There’s few things – well, that I can talk about here, anyway - better than a dish of buttered cabbage and here a wedge of hispi cabbage – currently still on a one man mission to make the cabbage trendy – was charred until blackened around the edges and served in a pool of brackish seaweed butter punctuated with pickled shallots and covered in a neat carapace of raw, thinly sliced radish. 

Again, another dish that was beautiful to look at although slightly trickier to eat, as I watched the Ewing contrive to cut into and manage to flick a perfect arc of sauce all over herself. Still, worth the grease stains when brassicas taste this good.

We finished our mains with john dory, from the specials menu, served with smoked cod’s roe and chargrilled fennel. The dory was nice - pale yet interesting, the well-cooked flesh breaking in fine flakes – and who wouldn’t love fronds of slippery, sweet fennel with fish, but I was really here for that sauce. A big puddle of that with a bunch of crisp radishes, or raw fennel to scoop it up, plus a glass of crisp picopul would be almost as much fun as you could have on a summer afternoon.

Like the seldom seen rice pudding and spotted dick, rum baba, here served with carrot jam, is one of my must orders if I ever see it on the menu. Obviously, this was the only dish that was off on our visit. No matter, as it meant I got to branch out and try the pavlova with Cheddar (the nearby town, not the cheese) strawberries, strawberry sorbet, lime curd and, just to gild the lily, a jug of custard served alongside.

Normally not much of a meringue fan, this was an excellent pudding. Sharp curd and sorbet cutting through the sweetness of the fruit, with the lake of glorious vanilla custard tuning the crisp meringue all gooey and chewy. Along with the oyster that kicked things off, this was my standout dish.

The Ewing chose ice cream – chocolate malt with a pleasingly chewy texture and a cherry ripple, mined with chunks of fruit which she mixed together to make a kind of hybrid, frozen black forest gateaux. Good, and good value at £3.50 for two scoops, but not a patch on my pud (which, needless to say, I had eager assistance to help me finish).

The most scathing commentary in Dent's review was saved for the queue for the loos, housed away from the restaurants and accessed by a passcode and described as ‘all a bit day three at Glastonbury – jolly, but directionless’. Also timely as I sit here watching the evergreen Cure rip up the Pyramid stage on iPlayer.

Yes, the loo thing is a pain. Not helped by the fact we then had take it in turns to put our coats back on and navigate the delightful June weather. Although, after all that, I have to report, rather mundanely, the loos were absolutely fine. Rather nice in fact and far better than any festival I have ever attended.

In the end, though, it was the quality food that shone through (and the quality of my dining companion), even if the sun wasn't following suit. 

If you had told a younger me that the older version would be rhapsodising over raw radishes and tomatoes on toast, I probably wouldn't have believed you. But then I wouldn't have thought I'd have started enjoying Hoovering and walking up steep hills and watching Antiques Roadshow and Countryfile. No, I still draw the line at Countyfile.

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