Review: The Arts House Café

I love surprises, me, and especially when they come in the form of food like this …

Okay, I don’t need to tell you that being a food editor comes with its perks – but the best of said perks might not be the one you’d expect. It’s not all about the actual stuffing of the face (honestly); what lots of us get the biggest kick out of is the places it takes you to, and the people you meet there.

Case in point: had K and I been in the market for some Thursday night dinner without being nudged in any particular direction, the chances of us ending up at The Arts House Café are pretty much zero. Not, though, for any real reason; it’s just that we had no idea about what’s being knocked up in the kitchen here. As it happens, however, we found ourselves bound for the place in the name of this here magazine, with not much idea of what to expect.

Right on the corner of Stokes Croft and Ashley Road, this place is easily recognisable, with its bright red frontage and floor-to-ceiling windows. You know the one, don’t you?

It was taken over back in February by mates Giles Coram, who you’ll find front of house, and Craig Summers, who heads up the kitchen. The pair met while working at Wallfish Bistro in Clifton, and jumped at the chance to do something of their own when this busy café came up for grabs.

They’ve given it a fresh look inside, turning it into a bright and airy space. The whitewashed panelled walls are lit up by the buckets of sunlight that pour in through those windows and a large skylight at the back. Strings of festoon lights zig-zag across the ceiling, local art hangs on the walls, and a mix of wooden chairs and tables fill the floor space.

The result is cool and pared back, with a super chilled but buzzy atmosphere which attracts all kinds of punters – from coffee-drinking students to more seasoned visitors after a decent glass of vino. They – and numerous others – were all in for the evening when we rocked up, securing ourselves a perfect people-watching spot in the window.

Brunch finishes at 4pm each day, then at 5pm, Monday to Saturday, the dinner menu is brought out. It’s made up of a selection of sharing dishes that are perhaps a bit bigger than most small plates, but smaller than full-on mains.  The menu reads well – the options are big in variety but small in number – with each plate made up of just a few ingredients.

The heritage tomatoes with goat’s cheese and tomato essence (£5) was first out, the tomatoes coming in different shapes, sizes and hues, and offsetting the hunks of creamy, salty cheese perfectly with their ripe sweetness. Nope, we had not expected this.

Butterbean and blue cheese hummus (£4) was scooped up with thin, crisp slices of home-baked sourdough, while a dish of cured hake (£6), served in delicate, translucent discs, had us in real summer spirits with its freshness, which was given a further nudge by the flavours of raw pea, mint and yoghurt.

The roast hispi with nutty romesco (£6) was as gorgeous to look at as it was to chew on, and came topped with a fried duck egg, the bright yolk of which spilled its silky gooeyness onto the soft cabbage. Meanwhile, a radish, fennel and gem lettuce salad (£3) was lightly dressed, crunchy, and happily uncomplicated.

Last came the hanger steak (£8), served in deep pink slices and coated in a decadent chorizo and butter sauce, which was mopped up greedily with truffle chips (£3).

There was just as much A-game going on in the dessert section, too. The elderflower jelly (£5) was elegant and subtle and had us forgetting the flaws of the English summer. The delicately floral jelly melted in the mouth, and came surrounded by sweet, soft strawberries, bathing in their poaching liquor and topped with tiny springs of micro basil. A scoop of tart and smooth blackberry sorbet (£3) may not have been strictly necessary, but we didn’t regret a thing.

We took our time with all that – and a couple of glasses of the really decent house white – as the evening light turned from yellow to orange, and finally began to fade completely.

Casually understated, this food shows real style and lightness of touch. And it’s great value; you can get three dishes for £12, or three dishes and a glass of wine for £14. Go. Seriously.

The Arts House Café,
108A Stokes Croft, Bristol BS1 3RU; 0117 923 2858