River cottage canteen
St John’s Court, Whiteladies Rd
t. 0117 9732458
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest offspring is a welcome addition to the often-overlooked Whiteladies Rd. The last few years have been kind a bit further down the road on Cotham Hill with the opening of both Bravas and Flinty Red, but the top end has been lacking for eating inspiration for a while (apart from Kohi Noor). We were invited to a preview meal before the canteen officially opened this week, and unlike Jay Rayner, we didn’t say no!
The interior is far from any ‘canteen’ I have visited before. Set in a 19th Century church building, the builders and interior designers have done a good job turning what used to be a bank (they are always in the nicest buildings) into a warm and rustic restaurant spanning two floors. They really have planned everything down to the last detail – the leather-bound wine list smelled so good Gemma had to stop me from sniffing it and the Neal’s Yard toiletries in the loo got the thumbs up too. However, what those touches do is suggest luxury, which doesn’t really match the food or the ethos of River Cottage – not that I’m complaining.
The menu changes daily and is printed on brown paper, the back of which is dedicated to provenance. Big brownie points for sourcing everything as local to Bristol as possible – other big name chefs could learn a thing or two there. Although of course it is not Hugh himself that cooks here at the canteen, it is head chef Mark Stavrakakis who has worked for Rockfish Grill and Goldbrick House in the past.
We ordered some delicious French white wine, which we enjoyed with some equally tasty homemade bread – both rustic white and focaccia – served with enough butter to allow a good slathering. The menu is simple, with just enough selection and a generous and inventive kids section. Our lovely waitress suggested one of the sharing platters to start, and given that both things I was toying between appeared on the meat sharer, I wasn’t going to say no.
The starter consisted of a perfectly seasoned and chunky pork terrine (my favourite bit) with tiny cornichons to cut through the fat, slices of wafer thin smoked venison loin, and bread crumbed, deep-fried Bath chaps (Gemma’s favourite) with tasty homemade aioli. At £12.50 this was definitely value for money and a great way to sample a few dishes on the menu rather than choosing just one.
We struggled a bit when it came to selecting a main. If I’m completely honest, nothing jumped out at me. The menu is very ‘Hugh’ and high in vegetables and his beloved pollack, but I fancied meat, so with limited choice I plumped for the ham. Boring you may say, but the other meaty option was chicken breast, yes breast! Not succulent leg but dry, boring breast. We were surprised.
Anyway, to cut a long story short the main courses were a bit of a let down. The ham and accompanying gloopy mustard sauce were so salty they made my mouth burn and the kale was sodden. The ham was a good colour, and had it been less salty I’m sure it would have been delicious, but it wasn’t. It was a very reasonable £9 though… Gemma reluctantly chose the chicken and it wasn’t much better really. It was literally what it said on the menu ‘Chicken breast, purple sprouting broccoli, aioli’, not that we were expecting anything else, it was just a bit ‘meh’. The side order of chips were the highlight!
I still wanted to try pudding though, as the starters had been good. I was looking forward to ordering the chocolate mousse, but unfortunately the chef wasn’t happy with it so had decided not to serve it. Instead we shared a praline parfait with coffee syrup and shortbread. Unlike the mains, this didn’t disappoint. Crunchy praline, rich coffee and delicate shortbread – it was delicious!
The verdict? Great atmosphere, great interior, great prices, great philosophy, but a few teething problems in the kitchen that clearly need work. I did get Gemma to taste the ham too to make sure it wasn’t just my imagination, and it wasn’t. Service was excellent though and so were the starters and pud, I will definitely return to give the mains another chance!