Its great to see Wallfish in the Financial Times Magazine (8th Aug) If you haven’t yet been – we’re sure this article will encourage you to go!
(It’s on Princess Victoria Street – near the Avon Gorge Hotel)
Wallfish Bistro, Bristol by Tim Hayward
There’s a long and noble tradition of restaurants run by husband-and-wife teams — a couple who’ve met in the trade and decided to strike out and set up in business together.
Apart from the romantic appeal, running your own restaurant means you can put so much more in. Sure, you don’t sleep much and you have no life outside work but the “sweat equity” will make a huge difference in the challenging first few years of a start-up. If you care about the restaurant business, then you’ll have a soft spot for these operations. You want them to succeed. I think if Wallfish in Bristol had in any way failed to come up to scratch, I’d have had to leave quietly and find somewhere else to review. Thankfully, it is exceptional.
The bistro, in a quiet, mews-like street in Clifton, is not as unassuming as it first looks. The previous owner was Keith Floyd, so the place, at least to a certain kind of hard-partying bon viveur, has the same kind of significance as the Brontës’ Haworth. The route to the basement bathroom passes just the kind of wine cellar-cum-grotto where you can imagine Floyd reclining after a night of excess.
Chef Seldon Curry is Bristol-born, has travelled and worked widely and returned a clear and present talent; partner Liberty Wenham runs front of house with the kind of quiet competence you hope to find when your stretcher crashes through the double doors and a machine starts beeping ominously.
The menu is deceptively simple. All the ingredients are treated with profound respect and consummate skill. You may not find Wallfish in a Michelin guide yet but it’s in my thesaurus as a synonym for “ideal neighbourhood restaurant”.
Pork scratchings with Bramley sauce is not, on the face of it, an innovative dish. Curry, however gives his a going-over with some sort of implement. A thousand tiny, regular cuts in the surface let the fat run out, leaving a texture like finest lace — pork lace, admittedly . . . but what’s wrong with that?
I always feel a touch of guilt when the word “baby” appears in a menu. “Very small” squid, possibly, or “immature”, but these, deep-fried and dusted with chilli and cumin, tender of heart and crisp of exterior, banish squeamishness. I embraced my superiority in the food chain with a worryingly clear conscience.
The herb-baked queen scallops were topped with chunks of chorizo and a breadcrumb crust that may have contained some fashionable seed. This produced precisely the sort of gritty texture that one hopes not to find in any kind of shellfish — but were delicious nonetheless.
The fillet of Cornish turbot was a whacking great slab of meaty fish, christened with a gratifying amount of butter — if perhaps a little light on the salt. Along with the whole cracked Portland crab, this was proof of Curry’s pedigree. He’s an alumnus of Mark Hix’s outpost in Lyme Regis where, if you can’t actually lean out of the window and pluck a crab from the bay, you can yell to a bloke who can.
Whole Portland crab
Boiling a crab, by the way, should be taught on day one of basic chef training. Everybody assumes it’s just about chucking the poor crustacean in and cranking up the heat — so most of us end up eating something the texture of school fishcakes in body armour. It takes a delicate hand to do these ugly things justice and Curry has it.
Champagne jelly with elderflower ice cream is a lovely sounding combination and half of it was stunning. But the jelly was underpowered and the only place in the meal where a cheffy “idea” seemed to have dominated over pure taste. Any post-pud tristesse, however, was dispelled by some outstanding local cheeses including Bath Soft, a Camembert-ish confection, discouraged from trickling off the plate solely by Wenham’s stern authority. This was actually so good that I’m not going to tell you anything more about it until I’ve bought the rest of this season’s stock and can sell it to you at ridiculously inflated prices.
Places such as Wallfish create a dilemma. For their diligence, hard work, skill and bravery in serving simple food, I wish them the success they deserve — yet, at the same time, more staff, bigger premises and maybe taking a couple of days off every now and again might diminish the charm. We need a plan. We need to think of a way that we can all visit Wallfish, enjoy its food and make Curry and Wenham rich — without actually making the place successful.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @TimHayward