Bradford-on-Avon is somehow under the radar of lots of Bristol folk, despite it being a rather painless 35-minute journey by train. (Yes, I’m aware I just put ‘painless’ and ‘train’ in the same sentence, which is more than GWR deserves, many would argue.) Bath residents are much more in the know, though, about this gorgeous Wiltshire town, being that bit closer to it and seemingly already having a bit of a thing for handsome landscapes and olde-worlde architecture.
If you’ve not been, expect historic Bath-stone buildings, a pretty river and canal, plenty of littleantique shops and (now we’re really talking) some rather decent restaurants and pubs.
Even on the dullest, greyest of days this place looks effortlessly charming. Not that we experience it like that on this trip; the glorious summer sun is, in fact, smiling kindly on us.
The Bunch of Grapes – taken over by chef-owner Tony Casey last summer – stands three storeys high on one of the corners of Silver Street, the road that winds its way through the town and over the river. Inside, I don’t notice too much that’s changed aesthetically – it was always a really tasteful space, all weathered varnished wood, charcoal hues and dim lighting, with the bar area on the ground floor and extra restaurant space above. Elegant and cosy.
Tony arrived here from many years spent cooking in Bath and Bristol and brings with him a solid rep. He has headed up respected kitchens like that of The Chequers and The Pump House, cooked at Lucknam Park and run his own supper club at Green Bird Café, so his food is familiar to many around these parts.
First: drinks. They’re taken happily seriously here, and there’s a long list of cocktails as well as plenty of wines and beers. In fact, so good was the range of craft brews that my lunch date went all in with a little flight of three local numbers.
There is a great-value set lunch menu – think three courses for £22.50 – as well as an all-out seven-course tasting option for £55. It was bang in the middle we decided to plonk ourselves though, ordering from the a la carte.
The tuna starter (£8.25) arrives as small mounds of raw meat, joined by cubes of watermelon, discs of cucumber and a peppering of edible flowers. A small jug of gazpacho is poured at the table, the chilled soup refreshing and layered with delicate flavour.
Meanwhile, M’s asparagus dish (£10.50) consists of three chunky spears, beautifully cooked to retain just enough crunch, and what looks like a little cushion or pouffe. This is actually, we find upon initial investigation, slivers of pickled mooli – the Anglo-Indian name for a mild Asian winter radish – sat on top of a pile of dressed semi-sweet white crabmeat. Brown crab mayonnaise is dotted around, and there is a hint of chilli heat in there somewhere, too. A fresh, bright taste of the seashore, this.
Lamb (£22.50) comes three ways – neatly trimmed rack, shredded shoulder (shaped into cuboids, breadcrumbed and fried) and soft sweetbreads. Lamb is often too heavy and rich for hot weather – the sun is properly beating down on this early July day – but the ensemble that sits in front of me is perfectly pitched, with a sharp and nicely acidic tomato dressing (summery in flavour and able to cut through the rich meat), cubes of pleasantly pokey mint jelly and lots of plump and vibrant fresh peas and beans.
The hake (£20.50), meanwhile, sees a good fillet of flakey white fish – skin on and nicely charred – surrounded by, sitting on and covered in sprigs of samphire, a few red and green grapes and cockles, a little potato and small florets of roasted cauliflower. What makes the whole dish, though, is the not-so-small jug of crab bisque. Creamy, luxurious and just intense enough, with that amazing deep spicy aftertaste, it is happily slurped straight from the spoon by my unapologetic date.
Pud is a soft and spongy sticky toffee pudding with toffee sauce (£6.50) and an arrangement of strawberry, miso ice cream, chilled yoghurt and meringue (£7.50). A really thoughtful combination of textures, tastes and temperatures.
The Bunch of Grapes is a real treat, with a relaxed, pub-esque atmosphere and rather special culinary offering. And all of that is here to be enjoyed amongst the aesthetic delights of its historic rural town, perched on the edge of the Cotswolds. Ideal.
The Bunch of Grapes, 14 Silver Street, Bradford-on-Avon BA15 1JY; 01225 938088