MARK TAYLOR makes like a gastronomical magpie and discovers a real bobby dazzler in the form of Bristol’s latest Michelin-starred gaff
It might seem odd to compare gastronomy’s most coveted award to public transport, but Michelin stars in Bristol have a certain bus-like quality. After years of not having one, three have come along in quick succession.
Last year, Wilks was the third Bristol establishment in four years to pick up a star from the respected French tyre manufacturer, a particularly impressive feat for a new restaurant that had barely been open 12 months. But then a quick look at chef-owner James Wilkins’ star-spangled CV shows why it shouldn’t come as any surprise that several Michelin inspectors visited his first solo restaurant venture as soon as the paint was dry.
Dorset-born Wilkins cut his culinary teeth in London under such luminaries as Gordon Ramsay and the Galvin brothers before working in Cannes for Richard Neat (the only English chef to hold a Michelin star in France). His next move proved to be his most life-changing, as he secured a job at the world-famous Michel Bras restaurant in Laguiole, one of the few establishments to have a maximum three Michelin stars. He went on to work for Bras in France and Japan before a spell as a head chef in the five-star Swissotel The Bosphorus in Istanbul.
With years of experience at the highest level, it was only a matter of time before this ambitious chef would open his own restaurant with partner Christine Vayssade, who has a long and distinguished career front-of-house in restaurants across France and Turkey. Rather than choose London, though, the couple decided to open in Bristol, a city they weren’t familiar with but one they realised had a strong and growing food scene.
Wilks opened in 2012 on the site previously occupied by Culinaria (and Red Snapper before that). Tucked away in a quiet side street in a leafy part of Redland, it’s off the beaten track, despite being only five minutes from Whiteladies Road. With its grey and black interior, black bamboo table coverings and cruet sets from Clifton’s Village Pottery, it’s a contemporary, stylish space, with slate grey suede banquettes and black blinds on the windows. There’s no music in the background, but that doesn’t mean to say this is a temple of hushed reverence. It’s relaxed, there’s plenty of chat and, heaven forbid, even some laughter.
Uncluttered and airy, there is a general feel of serenity without any hint of stuffiness or the bowing-and-scraping pomposity that often goes hand-in-hand with other Michelin-starred gaffs. Christine works the floor with the unflappable grace that only comes from working in serious French restaurants of a very high calibre.
It all sets the scene for the food, which is underpinned by precise, exacting technique and a mastery of the French old-school, but the cooking is light, contemporary and driven by high-quality ingredients. This means lots of local produce – including exceptional salads grown at the Ethicurean’s Walled Garden in Wrington – but also from Rungis market in Paris, if that’s what a dish requires. It’s all about putting the very best quality ingredients on the plate, rather than using local just for the sake of it.
Considering the cost of the raw materials and quality of the cooking, the lunch menu at Wilks is exceptional value, at just £17 for two courses or £20 for three. You would be hard pressed to eat that well anywhere else in the city for the price.
After a never-ending basket of exceptional bread (supplied by Mark’s Bread in Ashton), things kicked off with dainty amuse-bouches, including Lilliputian tarts of goats’ cheese, date and oregano, and a pissaladière topped with black olive and sweet, caramelised onion.
From the a la carte, a starter of rich and creamy pumpkin velouté (£8) the texture of liquid velvet tasted of the main ingredient, but was topped with razor-thin slices of musky Périgord black truffle for an added touch of cashmere sweater-like luxury.
A main course of wild turbot fillet (£24) – cut from a 5kg fish – was impeccably timed, the thick, pearly white flakes virtually collapsing into the teardrops of sweet and earthy parsnip purée boasting a gentle kiss of star anise, sautéed fresh chanterelles and a slice of meltingly soft pancetta ‘finocchiata’ that added a salty, meaty edge. To the side, a neat pile of wilted mustard leaves and a few nuggets of roasted chervil roots completed a dish of perfect poise that illustrated a robust understanding of flavour combinations and textural contrasts.
Presentation at Wilks is important, but it’s more classic than the ‘squiggles, froths and foams’ school of cooking. That said, a dessert of caramelised quince tart (£7) was visually stunning – a perfect sphere with a thin, crunchy caramel shell revealing soft slices of quince, an ambrosial pastry cream flavoured with vanilla and nutmeg and a brittle disc of pastry.
If you wanted to eat food of this quality in Bristol a few years ago, a trip out of the city was usually your best bet, but that’s no longer the case. Along with its fellow Michelin-star recipients Casamia and The Pony & Trap, Wilks is one of the brightest jewels in Bristol’s sparkling gastronomic crown.
*Wilks, 1 Chandos Road, Redland, Bristol, BS6 6PG; 0117 973 7999; www.wilksrestaurant.co.uk