Restaurant review

Harbor House, Bristol: ‘Just a delightful place to stay’ – restaurant review | Food

harbor house, The Grove, Bristol BS1 4RB. (0117 925 1212). Snacks and starters £4 to £9, mains £11 to £22, desserts £4 to £7.50, wines from £21

For years this was the restaurant in Bristol that I only ever passed on my way to another location. Instead, I always answered the seductive appeal of the city’s seemingly endless stream of new and entertaining dining options; to the promise of handmade pastas or mature stews inspired by the traditions of French country cooking, as if summoning the ghost of Bristol’s most beloved culinary son, Keith Floyd. I liked the look of the place, nestled there on the edge of Bristol’s floating harbour, but nothing made me think I should bother stopping.

Scrolling through online reviews for what used to be the Severnshed, those footprints in the digital snow that all defunct restaurants leave, I can see it had an interesting history. First there is the building itself, a boathouse designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel when he was working on the Clifton Suspension Bridge at the beginning of the 19th century. It became a well-regarded restaurant in the late 1990s, with a chef who spent time at the River Café on his resume. In 2000, it hosted an exhibition by a cult local artist called Banksy. The restaurant changed hands and appeared to go downhill, culminating when in 2018 a customer complained he was charged £13 for being served a £1.15 Asda camembert. They knew it was an Asda camembert because it was still in its packaging. The chief was fired.

‘A big old brothel of brown and white crabmeat, prawns and mussels’: seafood linguine. Photography: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Eventually, just before the first lockdown, the previous company went into receivership. Now it’s been reborn as Harbor House, with local chef Ross Gibbens overseeing the kitchen and looking west towards Cornwall. Much of its menu seems to be useful rather than entertaining: Caesar salad and club sandwich, burger, risotto, steak and fries. But at its heart is a list of dishes celebrating ‘southwest seafood’ and in particular the charming Cornish fishing village of St Mawes. This is where the main action is.

Before I get into that action, let me say this: Harbor House is just a delightful place. On a hot summer day, the vast vaulted dining room, with its greenery and bare rafters, glistens with sunlight bouncing off the harbor waters outside. We’re shown through the doors onto the bridge, once again full of that dazed, relaxed chatter you hear from people who know they’ve been lucky. They are happy to be there, at the edge of the water with the view of the multicolored houses overlooking the path. The young team also seem delighted to have them here. With all of this in place, the job of food is very simple: don’t be garbage. It’s not zero.

'Big, round and puffy business': chic onion rings.
‘Big, round and puffy business’: chic onion rings. Photography: Karen Robinson/The Observer

For snacking, we start with what they call their “chic” onion rings, because I’m a sucker for anything that shows up as having faster scratches. I don’t know about the chic ones but they are certainly big and powerful. These are big, round, puffy affairs, beaten to the brim and served with a coarse tartar sauce worthy of the name. It’s quite the snack for a five. The rest of our choices come from this seafood menu. There’s grilled mackerel fillet, its quicksilver skin bubbling and blistered, on ribbons of pickled cucumber, with mint leaves and the tickle of a wasabi glaze. Three fatty scallops from the daily specials list arrive in the form of a military column marching onto the plate, on a heavy saffron mayonnaise alongside chunks of chorizo.

A seafood linguine for £17.50, which would make Il Borro’s clumsy £46 offer last week grossly ashamed of itself, is a big old mess of brown and white crabmeat, prawns and mussels in a seafood bisque so rich she could buy one of those yachts with a jet ski in the back. A big piece of cod rests on a spicy tomato-flavored white bean stew with a few nuggets of chorizo, with the slightly bitter joys of cavolo nero. We have fries, really good, because we are at the water’s edge. That’s my excuse. Is everything perfectly executed? Well no, not exactly. There is a slightly avid hand on the salt in the mackerel dish; the cod could have stopped cooking 15 seconds earlier. But when you look at the price and the proposition, the laid-back beauty of this bridge in the heart of Bristol, those little things only count as observations rather than details to grapple with.

'On a spicy stew': cod with beans.
‘On a spicy stew’: cod with beans. Photography: Karen Robinson/The Observer

The dessert menu stops at all the stations of the Sweet English Cross. There’s a lemon pie and a sticky toffee pudding and an Eton mess. But there’s also something called a profiterole tower, £10 for two. It’s one of those goldfish bowl-sized glasses that hen nights drink before good ideas go wrong, filled with perfectly made golf ball sized profiteroles, Chantilly cream and a few strawberries. On top of this is poured a small saucepan of hot chocolate sauce. If you need me to describe the childlike joy of this, then you suffered from a huge lack of imagination. While acknowledging that I should have stopped here when it was the Severnshed back then, I can finally confess my joy at having stopped here now that it is Harbor House.

I was in Bristol to interview my stunt double, the ever cheerful Reverend Richard Coles, who recently took on the professional knife and fork while I was down. He has just published his first novel, the very entertaining Murder before the evening songand after questioning him in front of an audience of Bristol devotees, we headed to Cotto Wine bar and kitchen. This is the new location on St Stephen’s Street of the skilled team behind Ripiena Pasta and At Bianchi, among others. It’s everything I love about small town restaurants: a nifty interior that looks like it was crafted out of plywood, an Allen key and a few boxes of eggshells; a small menu with Italian influences full of good things at damn decent prices, and a relaxed atmosphere.

'Perfectly done': Profiterole tower.
‘Perfectly done’: Profiterole tower. Photography: Karen Robinson/The Observer

We have braised then crispy lamb belly rounds with salsa verde and incredibly bitter radicchio, and tagliatta steak with an arugula and parmesan salad. We share a polenta cake topped with a thick layer of chocolate ganache, then stumble down the hill to our hotel, propelled by a funky wine, but don’t ask me his name because it was late and I wasn’t not officially reviewing. The point is this: everything was fine with the world and everything was fine with Bristol. Like always.

News

Jeremy Clarkson says he has found a loophole in planning regulations which means he can now open a restaurant at his Diddly Squat farm in Oxfordshire, despite a request being refused by the local council earlier this year. The “al fresco dining” will be overseen by Chef Pip Lacey from Hicce at King’s Cross and will attempt to use only ingredients from the estate, featured on its Amazon Prime show Clarkson’s Farm. There’s no menu, but according to the blurb on reservations site OpenTable, “It’s small, mostly outdoors, and very rustic.” Ordering a beer and going to the toilet isn’t as easy as at your local pub and we don’t cater to faddy’s. The set menu costs £69 a head. For more go here.

Newcastle City Council has introduced new rules stating that all pubs, bars and restaurants in the city that serve alcohol must provide staff finishing after 11.30pm with a taxi home. The provision of taxis for night staff will be a requirement of a liquor license. Newcastle is the first council in England to make the decision, but follows similar patterns from two Scottish councils.

The company behind Brighton’s Shelter Food Hall is opening a venue called Sessions in London’s Islington next month. It will only feature four outlets at a time, managed by a rotating roster of chefs. The opening lineup includes Jay Morjaria’s Korean-influenced Tiger and Rabbit and Zoe Adjonyoh’s Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (sessionsmarket.co.uk).

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1