Bristol review: Wilsons
25 November 2016
"With just Jan and one other chef in the tiny open kitchen, the tersely written menu is kept short and to the point. A chef with a genuine passion to feed people, Jan often brings out dishes himself "
This small but perfectly formed neighbourhood restaurant in Redland manages to make an immediate fan out of Mark Taylor
Bristol restaurant-goers have never had it so good. In the past year alone, the city has seen a raft of top-flight new openings, many of which have already appeared on the national radar. In a year that has seen the likes of Pasta Loco, Adelina Yard, Box-E and Bulrush open, Bristol’s quality levels seem to have been cranked up to 11. And Redland restaurant Wilsons is very much part of this vanguard of exceptional new launches.
Squirrelled away down a quiet side street – albeit one that already boasts £1m houses and a Michelin-starred restaurant in Wilks – Wilsons is the first venture for chef Jan Ostle and his wife Mary Wilson, whose family name inspired the restaurant. Mary’s parents ran a successful London eatery of the same name in the 1970s and 1980s, and the original stained glass sign hangs proudly in the window here.
A former café, Wilsons is an intimate restaurant with a strikingly simple decor of white walls, black floorboards, unclothed, wooden bistro tables, and lamps with retro Edison lightbulbs. As far as interior design goes, this monochrome simplicity takes its lead from places like St John in London, although a more local reference point might be Birch in Southville, which is similar in many ways.
At Wilsons, there are vintage vases full-to-bursting with wild flowers from the owners’ allotment, and Kilner jars of homemade quince vodka and sloe gin on the bar. Indeed, when we arrive for lunch, Mary is deseeding rosehips for another homemade tipple, as Jan prepares pheasants for the day’s menu.
Before opening Wilsons, Jan worked briefly at the neighboring Kensington Arms, and prior to that was in London at such high profile places as The Square (working under uber-chef Phil Howard) and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.
A keen hunter-forager, he spends much of his free time in the countryside, specifically Devon, where he and Mary have earmarked land on a friend’s farm to grow their own produce next year. This plot-to-plate philosophy is the natural extension of their urban allotment and an exciting development. In the meantime, wild mushrooms and game gathered by Jan on his days off steer the seasonal blackboard menu, which changes frequently.
With just Jan and one other chef in the tiny open kitchen, the tersely written menu is kept short and to the point. A chef with a genuine passion to feed people, Jan often brings out dishes himself with a Jack Nicholson-like grin. We had barely tucked our legs under the table before he was rushing over with cups of warming game broth spiked with dashi. Rich, intense and spicy, it may well have been something Jan had rustled up for his hip flask for the next shooting and foraging trip.
There are just three dishes per course on the menu, so a table of more than two diners can taste everything with ease. As there were only two of us, we had to forego the gravlax starter and vegetarian main course of celeriac, trompette, hen egg and truffle, both of which deserve a return visit.
A starter of pork terrine (£7) was just that – a thick mosaic of piginess (pork belly, shoulder, and back fat) served at the correct temperature (that’s to say, not fridge-cold) with a couple of slices of toast and a dab of fruity plum purée. A simple classic perfectly executed.
Across the table, J was making light work of her picture-perfect charred leek and punchy romesco (£7), topped with razor-thin slices of pickled red onion, a few mint leaves and a flurry of colourful edible flowers.
J’s arresting starter made way for an equally enjoyable main of hake, roasted carrots, snails and parsley (£16) – the opaque, thick-flaked fillet of fish teamed up with chewy (in a good way) snails and a tangle of different coloured baby carrots, as gnarled as witches’ fingers.
My main course of pheasant, chanterelle, onions and chestnut (£16.50) was quite literally early winter on a plate. The tender breast (it had been poached in mead and hay before being cooked in a water bath) was dusted with shaved chestnuts, whilst the more robustly flavoured leg was just visible beneath a bosky carpet of wild mushrooms and roasted onions. It worked especially well with the Villa Saint Croix Pinot Noir from the Languedoc – one of the jewels on a concise, intelligently curated wine list.
To finish, slices of perfectly poached quince (£6) and a delicately floral rose sorbet had been placed on a bed of bee pollen with its uniquely soft and chalky texture. Meanwhile, the intense richness of a classic chocolate mousse (£6.50) was tempered by a clean and fresh almond milk sorbet.
With deceptively simple cooking in an unpretentious, Bohemian setting, and people who care about single every detail of the food and service, Wilsons is a benchmark in neighbourhood bistros, and Bristol is lucky to have it. Drop everything and go now.
WILSONS, 24 Chandos Road, Bristol BS6 6PF; 0117 973 4157