They might not open for dinner on the regular, but this old-school Bristol boozer has a kitchen team worth squealing about, says LAURA ROWE
There aren’t many proper pubs left are there? I’m talking a place where you can drink with abandon without feeling the glare of the landlord, who wishes you’d stumble into the street with your packet of crisps, which you’ve painstakingly torn down the middle to share with your five friends instead of ordering from the overpriced a la carte. A place where if you want a bite to eat, you can still get something supremely delicious, but beer will always be king. And with every serving of ale (or whatever your chosen poison) you’ll get a side serving of banter, too. Where the landlord, and his merry men and women, know your name. That’s what pubs of yore were made of.
But, hush it reader, don’t tell everyone: they still exist. Let me talk you through The Bank Tavern, which markets itself as a ‘uniquely inhospitable environment’. It’s been operating in the centre of Bristol since the 1800s and is now open seven days a week but food is only served between 12 and 4pm, the rest is dedicated drinking time.
That’s not to say, though, that the food isn’t worth making a special journey for. You can grab a sandwich for £5.95 (chips will cost you an extra quid), or you can push the boat out and order a burger (cow, hen or squirrel – that’s the vegetarian option) or a main (think beef shin with mash and burnt onion purée or pressed chicken gnocchi with Dijon cream) all for well under a tenner. Sunday roasts are similarly good value – so good, in fact, that they were named as a finalist in the Bristol Good Food Awards earlier this year. Ingredients are well sourced – “we only cook animals that we have bested in unarmed combat, and all vegetables are ripped from the ground with extreme prejudice” says the menus. There are no microwave operatives here – these are proper chefs, just with perhaps the jammiest hours in the city. They bake their own bread, cure ham and even make their own sausages.
And so it was no surprise, really, that head chef Luke Spencer-Harrop managed to persuade landlord Sam to let him host the first (of hopefully many to come) evening supperclubs at the pub earlier this summer. Not wanting to alienate the drinkers, Sam assures me there will be a couple a year max, but to kick things off was an adventurous Swine Dining event.
For £40 a ticket, hungry guests got the pubs to themselves for the night, along with a glass of Prosecco on arrival, and six courses (not including a couple of amuse bouches thrown into the mix, too). I settled in for the night with a fellow offal fan – Fred the French chef (who is sous chef at a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, no less – no pressure Luke…). Between us we’ve eaten most parts of a pig and so the nose-to-tail menu didn’t faze us, in fact, we were probably a little over excited…
First up was a parsley and bone marrow salad. Served simply on a thick wooden board, with flat-leaf parsley and a large slice of toast, a hunkin’ great bone had been sliced in half to reveal the silken marrow topped with crystals of sea salt. If you want the true taste of an animal, followed by a greasy smile, bone marrow is where it’s at, deliciously savoury and spreadable, and this starter didn’t fail to deliver.
A quick interjection of a celeriac velouté and truffle oil shot was followed by a terrine – this time layers of coarse pork and pistachios, sandwiching a creamy brain. Luckily it wasn’t Fred or I’s first time – I’d tried pigs’ brains fried with bacon in Lithuania a few years before, and Frenchy Fred had been fed them as a child – but the difference in texture served cold was quite remarkable. Almost the consistency of room-temperature lard, it was far more delicate than more popular liver or kidneys, similar to sweetbreads (offal king Fergus Henderson likens it to a “rich cloud”), while segments of orange sliced through any richness.
With another four courses to go, a second amuse bouche was hardly necessary but that didn’t stop Fred and I swallowing our puff pastry bite, filled with a smooth baba ghanoush, whole.
Fall-part pig cheeks followed, which had been panéd. They were served with a salted liver, which had intensified in flavour, a soft and well-spiced hodgepodge (homemade black pudding), wet mash and seasonal veg. My favourite course of the night.
So far, so easy to stomach, as it were. But then came the spleen, rolled, to be precise, with bacon. That’s a whole lot of offal right there, and when braised, it’s a touch tough and bloody – think overcooked liver. I could manage about a third, while Fred powered through the whole lot. Not awful but not my favourite kind of offal. The accompanying broth was delightfully light though, fragrant with fresh herbs and braised fennel and harboured some delicate Chinese-style dumplings filled with minced pork – an inspired balance to the heavy organ.
No bacon brownies or porky puds graced the dessert round – instead a lip-smacking, palate-cleansing lemon tart brûlée – while stomachs were settled with a round of Bristol Tea Company teas, coffee and petit fours.
So, my gut feeling (come on, you knew there’d be at least one…) on The Bank Tavern? My kind of boozer. A great team. Good banter. Cracking ales (and wine) and a creative kitchen team that’s quietly overachieving behind the scenes. Cheers to that, from this well-fed porker. Check out the website for future supperclubs, coming soon.
The next Bank Tavern supperclub will take place on 1 December with a ‘surf and turf’ themed menu. For more details check out the website.
THE BANK TAVERN, 8 John Street, Bristol BS1 2HR; 0117 930 4691; www.banktavern.com