Updated October 2013 – Since writing this post, Bell’s Diner has been taken over by new owners and a new team. It’s now called Bell’s Diner and Bar Rooms. We’re yet to visit the new restaurant but you can find out more about it here.
Bell’s Diner really is a funny little place. Tucked away in Montpellier, Bristol’s Bohemian hub, it’s all about contradictions. Whilst we ooohed and aaahed our way through one of the most incredible meals I’ve ever had, a snaggle-toothed tramp danced in the sunshine on the street outside. The decor inside Bell’s, formerly an old green grocer’s, could still be just that, with the deep windowsills overflowing with baskets of fruit and vegetables and the walls lined with eclectic paraphernalia, it’s hard to believe that somewhere so unassuming could serve some of, if not the best food in Bristol. Add to this combination, as quoted on the website “one of Bristol’s finest and most respected chefs”, coupled with laid back, approachable yet impeccably knowledgeable waiting staff, and you really do have a recipe for success.
We visited Bell’s on a Thursday lunchtime, and opted for the Tasting Menu, as well as the recommended wine flight. Although there was only one other diner in the whole restaurant (who turned out to be a wine critic!), there was still a warm, relaxed atmosphere, and none of that stifling silence you can sometimes experience in a very quiet restaurant. We were greeted by our waitress for the afternoon, who seated us, talked us through the wine flight and provided everyone with drinks in a way so effortless and engaging that you hardly noticed her pottering about the table and filling glasses. And so it began…
An amuse bouche of butternut squash velouté, topped with a cumin foam was the perfect way to start the menu. Warm, creamy and seasoned to perfection, served alongside a bite sized, melt in your mouth, blue cheese gougère, it was promptly followed by a goat’s cheese cannelloni, served with a pickled winter salad with walnut and honey, which was quite possibly one of the most beautiful plates of food I’ve ever seen, and was exactly the unusual flavour combinations that a tasting menu is designed to provide.
Up next was a hand dived scallop with confit potato, kipper dressing and deep fried spring onion and gorseflower, which arrived under its own glass “fishbowl”. This was removed once the dish was at the table, releasing a kipper smoke. We were informed that this was added to make the diner think of the sea, and to complement the fishy flavours combined in the dish.
Following this was one of the more interesting dishes of the afternoon; salt baked celeriac, with black olive tapenade, pickled beetroot and elderflower, with the addition of a caramelised black olive, forget-me-nots and pea shoots. We were reliably informed that to fully appreciate the flavours in the dish we must make sure that we ate the forget-me-nots, which could otherwise be mistaken for a garnish. This was sound advice, as the perfumed taste of the flowers combined with the salt baked celeriac and rich black olive tapenade made for a fantastic combination. Even the olive-phobics around the table agreed that whilst the caramelised black olive wasn’t necessarily to their taste, it was a feat of culinary work!
Our gastronomic journey continued with the most widely praised dish of the day. Perfectly cooked halibut, served with a lasagne of oxtail, salsify and turnip. Again, our waitress explained that the pasta sheets were made with the addition of Alexander flower, and talked us through the various layers in the lasagne, which consisted of salsify in a cream sauce, and a base of oxtail ragout that can be described as nothing other than melt in your mouth.
After the praise heaped upon the previous dish, the next course wasn’t received quite so well. Although the flavour combinations of wood pigeon, beetroot, rhubarb and cocoa proved for an incredibly rich, flavoursome and beautifully coloured plate of food, the wood pigeon was served so rare it was bordering on too rare, and that’s coming from someone who upholds the principle of “the rarer the better”.
This signified the end of the savoury courses, and we were served our pre-dessert of pine and gin. As a massive gin fan this was one of the courses I was most looking forward to, and with the lack of explanation in the menu, the one I was most curious to see. We were served a base of gin, pine and lime set liqueur, topped with a pine foam, which was one of the most bizarre yet delicious flavour and texture sensations I’ve ever experienced.
The last dish on the tasting menu was the dessert of chocolate and praline parfait, with salted caramel and pain au chocolate ice cream, all beautifully presented and equally as tasty. This was quickly followed by coffee and a selection of macaroons, which were almost too pretty to eat.
Finally, as we were celebrating, we opted for the addition of the cheese board, providing us with a diverse selection of English cheeses, ranging from a Cornish stilton to a gorgeously gooey goat’s cheese from Staffordshire, all served with a variety of homemade crackers.
As well as the tasting menu, you may remember that I mentioned we’d opted for the wine flight, which although I would have loved to have included alongside the review of each dish, would have made for laborious reading. What I will say is that each wine was obviously extremely well considered, as the way in which each wine worked with its partner dish was simply brilliant, and the reasoning behind each match was clearly explained by our waitress, who was nothing short of fantastic throughout the whole afternoon.
So no surprises that Bell’s Diner well and truly exceeded all expectations, and has deservedly shot to the top of my “favourite places to eat in Bristol” list. Realistically though, at £47.50 a head for the tasting menu, and an extra £37.50 each for the wine flight, Bell’s is the sort of place best saved for a very special occasion! Regardless of this though, it goes without saying that I’ll be waiting with baited breath for my next visit, which can’t come soon enough!!
1-3 York Rd, Montpellier, Bristol, BS6 5QB
T: 0117 924 0357