You can’t complain that the Bristol restaurant scene isn’t exciting, with new and innovative concepts opening almost weekly, it seems. But what makes it thrilling can also make it tough, even for the best-established restaurants. New foodie destinations such as Wapping Wharf and North Street have pulled the masses south-side, leaving gaffs in Clifton and on Whiteladies Road jostling for attention in the minds of diners and the food media alike.
Perhaps this is why long-loved Bristol favourite Rosemarino is injecting some of its hard-earned turnover into a new collaboration with the Hyde and Co group, who are also behind the likes of The Ox and Bambalan. They’ve been working together on new menu ideas to keep things fresh, while a gradual refurbishment will go on in the background – the facade is already sporting a new olive green look.
Indeed, the elegant York Street building looks most contemporary at the moment – thanks to a fresh and clean lick of paint – and when we made a recent visit on a Tuesday night, the city slick after a day of torrential rain, the place seemed reassuringly busy, with a mix of Clifton regulars and a handful of tourists.
For those who haven’t already visited, this is a refined yet cosy space with rustic pine tables and pastel-coloured walls – effortlessly elegant, I’d say. Two floors mean that, even when busy, it still feels like an intimate space.
The wine list meanders through Italy’s favourite vineyards, focussing on grapes you’re less likely to have heard of as well as regional favourites. Tonight, a glass of Grillo is cool and lively – the perfect accompaniment to our ensuing small plates. There’s an extensive Grappa list and a Vermouth and liquors section, as well as five Amari (digestive bitters) – those who like their oh-so-fashionable herbal flavours certainly won’t be disappointed.
And what about that reconsidered menu? Well, the cicchetti (small plates) cover all bases, ranging from £3 for bread or olives to £7 for the polenta condita. And it’s the polenta that JC and I kick off with tonight. It’s not easy to flavour this bland, starchy staple perfectly, and many make it too rich with excess cream or butter. (The best way I’ve found to cook it is a Gill Meller recipe, where you boil ham with parsley, thyme and bay, then use the deliciously salty ham water to cook the polenta.)
Still, I’d say the Rosemarino chef has more than topped this. Here, the seasoned polenta has been set, cut into wedges, loaded with the richest of beef ragus, then baked like some extraordinary lasagne. The beef, which has surely been cooking away for hours in the kitchen, is rich with wine and rosemary, and sprinkled with salty, hard cheese. It’s a dish to go back for.
The zucchine e alici (£6.50) balances it perfectly. A plate of lightly roasted courgettes, it’s lifted with tastes from the North African coast that the Sicilian chef loves to use – toasted almonds, salty anchovies, and fresh pomegranate. There’s a light char on the green veg, which has been slashed with criss-cross marks allowing all the flavour to seep into the courgette flesh.
Breaded artichokes are hard to pass up, as is pickled beetroot salad, but under advice from co-founder and manager Sam Fryer, we try the arancini di porro (£6.50). Two huge golden-crumbed balls sit atop a bed of vibrant green leek mayo, oozy and delicious inside and rich with fried leek and taleggio.
We skip antipasti, despite all the meats being cured on site. For mains, the special chalked onto the blackboard gets my attention: bigoli alla sarde (£15). It’s pasta heaven for me, thick strands with a salty-sweet sauce made of anchovies, shallots, raisins and pine nuts. Lightly fried whitebait – with just a light taste of the sea – sit on top, with parsley and pangrattato (light breadcrumbs) to add extra bite.
JC laps up the Rosemarino amatriciana (£15), thick noodles of bucatini with tomato, ’nduja and goat’s cheese. It’s deliciously rich, so probably best served with a fresh salad as opposed to after three starters.
Pudding comes in the form of a classic tiramisu with orange mascarpone (£7) and forta di ricotta (£6), the softest ricotta cheesecake, with grilled apricots, honey, pistachio and rich vanilla ice cream.
Rosemarino has long been loved for its breakfasts, but now it’s upping its evening game to remind Bristol’s diners that its chefs put up a mean fight when it comes to dinners, too. This place has been trading for almost 10 years and, going by tonight’s experience, has another healthy 10 ahead of it.
Rosemarino, 1 York Place, Bristol BS8 1AH; 0117 973 6677