Harbor House, The Grove, Bristol BS1 4RB. (0117 925 1212). Snacks and Starters £4-£9, Mains £11-£22, Desserts £4-£7.50, Wines from £21
For years it was the Bristol restaurant I only ever stopped by on my way to another location. Instead, I always responded to the beguiling call of the city’s seemingly endless stream of new and fun dining options; to the promise of handcrafted pasta or seasoned stews that draw on French rural cooking traditions as if invoking the spirit of Bristol’s favorite culinary son, Keith Floyd. I liked the look of the place tucked down there on the edge of Bristol’s Floating Harbor but nothing made me think I should bother to stop.
Scouring online reviews for what was once the Severnshed, those footprints in the digital snow that all abandoned restaurants leave, I can see that it had an interesting history. First there is the building itself, a boat shed designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel while he was working on the Clifton Suspension Bridge in the early 19th century. It became a respected restaurant in the late 1990s, with a résumé featuring a chef with time at the River Café. In 2000 it hosted an exhibition by a local cult artist named Banksy. The restaurant changed hands and appeared to be going downhill, peaking at the moment in 2018 when a customer complained about being charged £13 for serving a £1.15 Asda camembert. They knew it was an Asda Camembert because it was still in its packaging. The chef was fired.
Finally, the previous company went bankrupt just before the first lockdown. Now it has been reborn as Harbor House, with local chef Ross Gibbens overseeing the kitchen and his eyes west towards Cornwall. Much on its menu seems more useful than distracting: a Caesar salad and club sandwich, a burger, a risotto, steak and fries. The focus, however, is on a list of dishes that celebrate ‘Southwest Seafood’ and in particular the pretty fishing village of St Mawes in Cornwall. That’s where the main action takes place.
Before we jump into this action, let me say this: Harbor House is just a gorgeous place. On a warm summer’s day, the wide-vaulted dining room, with its greenery and bare rafters, sparkles in the sunlight reflecting off the harbor waters outside. We’re ushered through the doors onto the deck, again full of that dizzying, laid-back chatter you hear from people who know they’re lucky. You’re glad to be here, by the water with a view of the colorful houses on the other side. The young team seems really pleased to have them here as well. With all this, the task of eating is very simple: don’t be trash. It’s not trash.
For nibbles, let’s start with what they call their “fancy” onion rings, as I’m a fan of anything flaunting faster stripes. I don’t know about fancy, but they are certainly awesome and powerful. They’re big, round, daft affairs, smashed to a jarring crunch, and come with a coarse tartar sauce worthy of the name. It’s quite a snack for a fiver. The rest of our selection comes from this seafood menu. There’s a grilled mackerel fillet, its mercury skin bubbling and blistering, on pickled ribbons of cucumber, with mint leaves and the tickle of a wasabi glaze. Three fat scallops from the specials list arrive as a military column marching across the plate, on a saffron-laced mayo alongside chunks of chorizo.
A £17.50 seafood linguine that would put Il Borro’s clumsy £46 offer to shame last week is a big ol’ mess of brown and white crab meat, prawns and mussels in a chowder so rich that they could buy themselves one of those yachts with a jet ski on the back. A huge chunk of cod sits atop a flavorful tomato white bean stew with a few more chorizo nuggets, with the slightly bitter delights of Cavolo Nero. We’ve got fries, really good ones because we’re by the water. That’s my apology. Is everything done perfectly? Well, no, not exactly. There’s a slightly eager hand on the salt in the mackerel shell; The cod could have stopped cooking 15 seconds sooner. But when you look at the prices and what’s on offer, the laid-back beauty of this deck in the heart of Bristol, these little things only count as observations and not details to fret about.
The dessert menu stops at all stations of the sweet English cross. There’s a lemon tart and a sticky toffee pudding and an Eton mess. But there is also a so-called profiterole tower, £10 for two. It’s one of those fishbowl-sized glasses that hen parties drink from before the good ideas go bad, filled with perfectly made golf ball-sized cream puffs, Chantilly cream and a few strawberries. A small pan of warm chocolate sauce is poured on top. If you need me to describe the childlike joy of it, then you have suffered a massive loss of imagination. Whilst I acknowledge that I should have stopped here when it was then the Severnshed, I can finally acknowledge my delight in stopping here now that it is Harbor House.
I was in Bristol to interview my stunt double, the always cheerful Rev Richard Coles, who recently picked up the professional knife and fork while I was down with the Lurgy. He has just published his first novel, which is tremendously entertaining Murder Before Evening Song, and after interrogating him in front of an audience of Bristol faithful, we made our way to the Cotto Wine Bar & Kitchen. It’s the new store on St Stephen’s Street from the experienced team behind Pasta Ripiena and Bianchi’s, among others. It’s everything I love about the city’s small restaurants: a clever interior that looks like it was assembled with plywood, an Allen wrench, and a few cans of eggshell; a short Italian-leaning menu full of good things at damn decent prices and a come-here vibe.
We have braised then crispy lamb belly with salsa verde and throbbing bitter radicchio and a steak tagliatta with arugula and parmesan salad. We share a polenta cake with a thick layer of chocolate ganache, then stumble up the hill to our hotel, fueled by a fancy wine, but don’t ask me the name because it was late and I wasn’t officially reviewing. The point is this: all was right with the world and all was absolutely fine with Bristol. As always.
Jeremy Clarkson says he has found a loophole in the planning regulations, meaning he can now open a restaurant at his Diddly Squat Farm in Oxfordshire, despite local council rejecting an application earlier this year. The ‘Alfresco Diner’ is overseen by chef Pip Lacey from Hicce in King’s Cross and tries to only use ingredients from the estate, featured on his Amazon Prime show Clarkson’s farm. There’s no menu, but according to the blurb on the OpenTable booking site, “It’s small, mostly al fresco, and very rustic.” Ordering a pint and going to the loo isn’t as easy as it is in your local pub and we don’t serve the faddy.’ The set menu is £69 per person. More information can be found here.
Newcastle City Council has introduced new rules that say all pubs, bars and restaurants in the city serving alcohol must provide a taxi home for staff who finish after 11.30pm. Providing taxis for night staff will be a requirement for an alcohol license. Newcastle is the first council in England to make the decision but follows similar schemes from two Scottish councils.
The company behind Brighton’s Shelter Food Hall is opening a venue called Sessions in London’s Islington next month. There will only be four branches at a time, run by a rotating roster of chefs. The opening lineup includes Jay Morjaria’s Korean-tinged Tiger and Rabbit and Zoe Adjonyoh’s Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (sessionsmarket.co.uk).
Email Jay at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1