Harbor House, The Grove, Bristol BS1 4RB. (0117 925 1212). Snacks and starters £4-£9, mains £11-£22, desserts £4-£7.50, wine from £21
For years it was a Bristol restaurant that I only passed on my way to somewhere else. I was always responding instead to the enticing call of the city’s endless stream of new and diverting dining options; Promises of handmade pasta, or stews cooked in the cooking traditions of French country, as the ghost of Bristol’s most beloved culinary son, Keith Floyd, beckons. I loved the view of the place hanging out by Bristol’s Floating Harbour, but I couldn’t think of anything to stop me.
Scanning the online reviews of what was once Sevenshades, those footprints in the digital snow that all departed restaurants leave behind, I can see that it had an interesting history. First, there’s the building itself, a boat designed by Isambard Kingdome Brunel in the early 19th century while he was working on the Clifton Suspension Bridge. It became a well-respected restaurant in the late 1990s, boasting a chef with time at the River Cafe on his CV. In 2000 it held an exhibition by some cult local artist called Banksy. The restaurant changed hands, and appeared to have gone downhill, in 2018 when a customer complained they were being charged £13 for a £1.15 Asda Camembert serving. They knew it was Asda Camembert because it was still in its wrapper. The chef was fired.
Eventually, before the first lockout, the previous company went into receivership. Now it has been reborn as the Harbor House, with local chef Ross Gibbons overseeing the kitchen, and turning his gaze westwards towards Cornwall. Much of his menu seems serviceable rather than diverting: Caesar salad and club sandwiches, burgers, risotto, steak and chips. But at its heart is a menu of dishes celebrating “seafood from the southwest” and in particular the pretty Cornish fishing village of St Mawes. The main action is there.
Before we get into that action let me say this: Harbor House is just a fun place. On a warm summer day, the spacious vaulted dining room, with its greenery and bare rafters, glistens with sunlight on the harbor waters outside. We are shown through the door to the deck, once again filled with that giddy, comforting chatter you get from people who know they’re lucky. They are happy to come here by the water to see the colorful houses along the way. The youth team also seems really happy to be here. In all of those places, the food job is pretty simple: don’t mess up. It’s not garbage.
To surprise, we start with what they call “posh” onion rings, because I’m a sucker for anything that shows itself as having quick-stripes. I don’t know about posh but they sure are gorgeous and powerful. They’re big, round, blousy affairs, battered to a crunchy crunch, and come with a thick tarte sauce worthy of the name. This is quite a snack for Panchar. The rest of our choices come from that seafood menu. There’s a grilled mackerel fillet, its silver skin blistered and blistered, in ribbons of pickled cucumber, mint leaves and a tickle of wasabi glaze. Three plump scallops from the day’s specials list arrive like a military column marching on the plate in heavy mayo with saffron, along with slices of chorizo.
A seafood linguine for £17.50, which itself puts the clumsy £46 offering from Il Borro last week to utter shame, the seafood bisque is a big old mess of brown and white crabmeat, prawns and scallops that could buy itself. One of those yachts with a jetski on the back. A large piece of cod in a spicy stew of tomato white beans with a few more nuggets of chorizo, with the mildly bitter pleasure of cavolo nero. We have chips, really good, because we are next to the water. That’s my excuse. Is it all fully implemented? Well, not exactly. The mackerel dish has a slightly keen hand on the salt; Cod can stop cooking 15 seconds earlier. But when you look at the pricing and the offering, the relaxed beauty of this deck in the heart of Bristol, these little things count as observations rather than details to tick off.
The list of sweets 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’s something called the Profiteroles Tower, £10 for two. It’s one of those goldfish bowl-shaped glasses that chickens drink at night before their good ideas go bad, filled with perfectly formed golf ball-sized profiteroles, Chantilly cream and some strawberries. A small pan of warm chocolate sauce is poured over it. If you need me to describe the childish joy of this, you have suffered a major failure of imagination. Admitting that I should have stopped here when I was sevensed back in the day, I can finally admit to my happiness at stopping here that it’s Harbor House.
I was in Bristol to interview my stunt double, the ever-delightful Rev Richard Coles, who had just picked up a professional knife and fork while I was at Lorgie. He has recently published his first novel, Much Entertainment Murder before Evensong, and after questioning him in front of an audience of Bristol faithful, we headed to Cotto Wine Bar and Kitchen. It’s a new space from the talented team behind Pasta Ripiena and Bianchi on St Stephen’s Street. It’s everything I love about small restaurants in town: a slick interior that looks like it’s been knocked together using plywood, an Allen key and a few egg tins; A short Italian-influenced menu full of good things at very good prices, and come here.
We have braised then crisped lamb belly, a round of steak tagliata with salsa verde and thumpingly bitter radicchio and rocket and parmesan salad. We top the polenta cake with a thick layer of chocolate ganache and then stumble down the hill to our hotel, powered by a funky wine, but don’t ask me its name because it was late and I wasn’t officially reviewing it. The point is this: all was right with the world and all was right with Bristol. As usual.
piece of news
Jeremy Clarkson said he had found a loophole in planning rules that allowed him to open a restaurant at Diddley Squat Farm in Oxfordshire despite an application rejected by the local council earlier this year. The ‘alfresco dinner’ will be overseen by chef Pip Lacey in Kings Cross and will try to use only ingredients from estates featured on his Amazon Prime show. Clarkson Farm. There’s no menu, but according to the blurb on booking site OpenTable, ‘It’s small, mostly outdoors and very rustic. Ordering a beer and going to the toilet isn’t as easy as in your local pub and we don’t cater to Faddy.’ The set menu costs £69 a head. For more, go here.
Newcastle City Council has introduced new rules requiring all pubs, bars and restaurants in the city serving alcohol after 11.30pm to provide finishing staff to taxi home. Liquor license will be mandatory when arranging for late night taxis. Newcastle is the first council in England to govern, but the two Scottish councils follow similar schemes.
The company behind Brighton’s Shelter food hall is opening a venue called Sessions in London’s Islington next month. It will feature just four outlets at any given time, manned by a rotating roster of chefs. The opening lineup includes Jay Morzaria’s Korean-inflected Tiger & Rabbit and Zoe Adjonyoh’s Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (sessionsmarket.co.uk).