( Theguardian) – Lucky Bristol is full of great little places to eat and Italian-inspired Marmo is an absolute corker
Sun 27 Oct 2019 06.00 GMT
‘A high-ceilinged white box of a room’: Marmo.
‘A high-ceilinged white box of a room’: Marmo. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer
Marmo, 31 Baldwin Street, Bristol BS1 1RG (0117 316 4987). Lunch: two courses £14, three courses £17. Dinner: starters £7.50-£9, mains £13.50-£18, desserts £6, wines from £17.50
I’m beginning to wonder whether they breed them in tanks, these small, perfectly formed Bristolian restaurants. But that makes them sound like Identikit operations, a catering version of the cabled-up podded bodies in The Matrix, which they are not. Yes, they share qualities. They are usually single rooms, basically furnished, and decorated in shades which run the whole gamut from white to off-cream. They have short menus, written in a clipped prose. The prices are eminently reasonable. If you want a three-course lunch, a really good one that will make you sigh and feel sorry for the friends who are not with you, one which will almost certainly give you change from £20 for food, go to Bristol.
After that, however, they all have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies and personalities. In any case, none of these characteristics should be described as exotic. They are the starting points for a good meal out. They direct you down to the food on the plate. And lucky Bristol has a bunch of them: from trailblazers such as Flinty Red and Wilsons, though to Box-E, Pasta Loco and Ripiena. Now there’s Bianchi’s, Pasture, Kensington Arms, Cauldron, the recently relaunched Ethicurean and more… What’s remarkable is not that these restaurants are opened but that, for the most part, they stay open. (Yes, I know; RIP the lovely Wallfish). The people of Bristol support their independents.
‘It’s a simple dish but very effective’: tagliolini with artichokes and shrimps.
‘It’s a simple dish but very effective’: tagliolini with artichokes and shrimps. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer
There are theories. One draws romantically on the radical traditions of the city, which fosters a culture of the independent against the corporate, but I’m not quite up to the task of finding the correct historical references to back this up. More compelling is the fact that slabs of the independent TV industry have relocated to the city from London over the past couple of decades, to comply with production quotas from outside the capital. Here come the producers, fed fat on the trattorias of London’s Charlotte Street, determined to carry on lunching well. They have provided a burning heart of reliable custom from which to build on. Or maybe the good people of Bristol just have far better taste than those of other towns in the United Kingdom. Let’s go with that.
For here is Marmo, the Italian for marble. It is indeed a high-ceilinged white box of a room, hung with a few food and wine posters. At the back is a compact open kitchen, staffed by just two cooks for most of our lunch. The new venture belongs to Cosmo and Lily Sterck, who met at the city’s university. Cosmo cut his teeth in the kitchens of St John, Magdalen and Brawn. Lily ran away from the law to join the circus front of house at Six Portland Road and Luca. They know what they are doing. Now they are doing it here.
‘Not a drop of that liquor goes back to the kitchen’: mussels with leeks and cider.
‘Not a drop of that liquor goes back to the kitchen’: mussels with leeks and cider. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer
The menu at lunch is almost self-consciously short. There are some snacks, including Cetara anchovies to go with the bread, at £5 for a plateful, or smoked cod’s roe. We ask for the pork crackling and hear the anticipatory fizz of the deep fat fryer as the two sheets of dehydrated skin are puffed, to be served still warm and spice-dusted with a scoop of quince jelly to drag them through.
Sign up for Word of Mouth: the best of Guardian Food every week
After that it’s a choice of three dishes at each course: one meaty, one pescatarian and one vegetarian. Have just a main course and it will cost you a tenner. Add a starter and it rises to £14. Throw in dessert and you’ll reach the dizzy heights of £17. At dinner the menu is longer and the dishes individually priced, but it is still tough to break through £30 for the food element.
How do they keep the prices so low? At lunch, by bolstering many of the plates with carbs, though not in a way that looks cheapskate. Only our starter of mussels with finely shredded leeks and a cider butter broth does not depend upon them. Pick up the spoon and make sure not a drop of that liquor goes back to the kitchen. Folds of mortadella, the pink of a giggling baby’s cheek, come layered over gnocco fritto, those pork fat-enriched pillows of bread, puffed up in the fryer. The plating gives you permission to use your hands to wrap one across the other. Get on with it.
‘Dense and chunky’: saddleback sausage with polenta and braised lettuce.
‘Dense and chunky’: saddleback sausage with polenta and braised lettuce. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer
Two of the mains are based around their own pasta. There is pumpkin ravioli with sage and walnuts. And then there is my choice, a tangled heap of hand-cut tagliolini, the yellow of the best butter, with the sort of bite which makes chopping off the strands with your teeth a thoroughly satisfying act. The ribbons come spun through with quartered globe artichokes and handfuls of sweet brown shrimps. It’s all brought together by the sort of butter emulsion that you don’t want to let get away. It’s a simple dish but very effective. I would be invading my own privacy if I revealed how much of that sauce landed on my shirt.
A Saddleback pork sausage is dense and chunky, with an edge of chitterling honk to it, as if a little offal found its way into the mincer on the way through. It’s the Margaret Rutherford of sausages, big-shouldered and broad of calf and most definitely no-nonsense. It needs the hillock of buttery polenta upon which it sits. There is some grilled red lettuce with a stroppy bitter edge, because we all must have our veg. This is robust cookery, determined to get the best out of the humble.
Desserts are also simple but still effective. A scoop of deep dark chocolate mousse comes under a duvet of thick clotted cream dusted with cocoa so it looks like a cappuccino caught in a storm. And then there’s a classic affogato: a dark-roast espresso with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream dropped into it. You scoop up the ice-cream with a spoon, until you realise the time has come to lift the cup and knock it back. We drink a glass each of a Pinot Noir rose from the Loire, which has lots of fruit without being cloying, and end up with a bill for two of less than £70.
‘Knock it back’: affogato.
‘Knock it back’: affogato. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer
It would be easy, now, to go off on one about how all restaurants should be like this. And yes, I wish they were. But environment plays its part. It’s about the city’s economics and the expectations of those running restaurants like this. It just makes me happy that right now we have cities like Bristol, playing host to restaurants like Marmo.
I love a good outdoor swimming pool. I especially like looking at the one at Bristol Lido, from the comfort of their glass-walled restaurant with its wood-fired oven. The floor show is terrific – all those people exerting themselves – as is the food. Think wood-roasted cauliflower with chickpeas and preserved lemon followed by a Basque-style fish stew or a baked rice dish of wild mushrooms (lidobristol.com).
To mark the announcement of this year’s Turner Prize at the Turner Contemporary in Margate in December, the Indian restaurant Ambrette, located opposite the art gallery, is staging a series of meals themed around dishes from the artist’s period. The next two are on 6 and 21 November and include quail scotch eggs, a Raj-era chicken curry with a mango and cognac pie to finish (theambrette.co.uk).
Without an announcement, let alone the whiff of a press release, Gordon Ramsay has reopened the space formerly occupied by Maze Grill in the Marriott hotel on London’s Grosvenor square as a steak house called the Gordon Ramsay Bar & Grill. Prices are astonishing. Rib eye costs £13.33 per 100gm as against £8.25 at Hawksmoor and fillet is £22 per 100gm as against £12 at Hawksmoor (gordonramsayrestaurants.com).
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
As the climate crisis escalates…
… the Guardian will not stay quiet. This is our pledge: we will continue to give global heating, wildlife extinction and pollution the urgent attention and prominence they demand. The Guardian recognises the climate emergency as the defining issue of our times.
Our independence means we are free to investigate and challenge inaction by those in power. We will inform our readers about threats to the environment based on scientific facts, not driven by commercial or political interests. And we have made several important changes to our style guide to ensure the language we use accurately reflects the environmental catastrophe.
The Guardian believes that the problems we face on the climate crisis are systemic and that fundamental societal change is needed. We will keep reporting on the efforts of individuals and communities around the world who are fearlessly taking a stand for future generations and the preservation of human life on earth. We want their stories to inspire hope. We will also report back on our own progress as an organisation, as we take important steps to address our impact on the environment.
More people in Vietnam, like you, are reading and supporting the Guardian’s journalism – made possible by our choice to keep it open to all. We do not have a paywall because we believe everyone deserves access to factual information, regardless of where they live or what they can afford.
We hope you will consider supporting the Guardian’s open, independent reporting today. Every contribution from our readers, however big or small, is so valuable. Support The Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.