Today, as a fully paid-up grumpy old bastard, I approach plenty of situations expecting the worst. This way I’m rarely disappointed and am even pleasantly surprised now and again. I use the phrase now as much as my old boss used to. And I thought of it again last week as I approached The Ethicurean for dinner.
To get there we walked through a walled garden, passing rows and rows of orderly fruit and veg, all of which I assumed would make its way onto the menu. With early summer in full bloom, I thought I knew pretty well what to expect here; namely plates of well-cooked, seasonal veg, not all that different from the kind we serve at home at this time of year. It wasn’t going to be gastronomic rocket science, right? Wrong.
It’s sometimes so good when predictions are so helplessly off beam. The Ethicurean does revel in the simple quality of the freshest ingredients. But what it does with them is a revelation. The kitchen strikes just the right balance between giving the flavours room to speak and working them just that bit harder. Rather than leaving flavours alone the Ethicurean’s approach is to amplify them. The meal was an endless series of deliciously vivid eulogies to the glorious tastes and textures of vegetables.
It was clear early on that my expectations would be surpassed when I had to stop myself drinking too many pre-dinner cocktails. The Ethicurean’s Gardeners’ Old Fashioned is now firmly lodged in my list of top cocktails of all time. Based on local cider brandy, it was so delicious it earned a reappearance at the end of the meal, where it shone even brighter.
As a quick side note, the only bum note from the evening was an out-of-date wine list, listing 2015 and 2016 vintages and serving 2017 and 2018. So much care is taken over the food, this was just sloppy. The wines were good, but none were quite right to match the food.
The food itself was a plant-based tasting menu (or “journey through our garden in growth”). At its core it is a vegan menu, but it allows for omnivorous additions, with egg, meat and fish options at various stages. An early taster of fermented ramson (wild garlic) soup, came with additional black garlic, a tapioca crisp and astonishing chipotle aioli. We all instantly wanted more and it set a high bar. What followed leaped over that bar at every turn.
Potato, truffle and garden herbs sounded dull, but delivered the perfect mix of intense flavours and textures, while a baked onion with beetroot molasses was presented with a cashew curd (who needs goats to make cheese?). This last dish was presented in a small ramekin that made it tricky to eat. And as I moaned about the bowl I realised how good this meal was. Was this really all I could find to gripe about?
Next up, leek-cured asparagus got the best from both, alongside a delightfully unctuous sesame hollandaise. At this stage I was awe-struck by the prettiest pickled egg of all time. I ordered the kvass-cured egg as an option because I didn’t know what it was. When it came out I was none-the-wiser. I asked and in simple terms it’s an egg pickled in fermented beetroot juice. Sounds disgusting, tastes like perfection. Expectations be damned.
Still marvelling at the purple eggs, we romped through main courses – the vegetable option being more baked onion, this time even more earthy thanks to roasted shitake mushrooms and fermented leeks. Pick a flavour, make it pop. Simple.
A palate cleansing orange sorbet with anise sherbet divided the table, while we all united in wanting more of the cashew chilli chocolate pudding that rounded things off (with an odd, but delicious, marshmallow as a full stop). By the time pudding came we’d given up dancing round the wine list and reverted to the Old-Fashioneds.
The menu was £45 per person and the total with drink came to £90 a head. If that was more than I expected to pay for dinner in a village on the outer fringes of Bristol, it was another expectation I was delighted to have got wrong.