Chefs have a notoriously tough gig. The hours. The budgets. The heat. The physical demands. Nevertheless, Henry Eldon decided that it wasn’t quite tricky enough, knocking up praise-worthy food every night for a dining room full of fussy punters using a conventional kitchen. Nah. Instead – when he opened his own gaff, fresh from a role as exec chef at Cowshed – he decided he’d forego a couple of pretty imperative ingredients that most professionals cook with every single day. Like, gas and electric.
Uniquely, the equipment in the open kitchen here is powered purely by charcoal and logs. From your table you may well be able to spot flames licking the undersides of cauldrons, and the glowing heart of a large wood-fired oven. Have a proper nose and you’ll even spot an old Victorian stove.
The good-value menu may be concise, but it covers a lot of ground, bouncing from mushroom and smoked garlic soup with home-cultured mascarpone to steamed mackerel with prawn siu mai; wood-fired squash and spelt faggot (which I fully intend to go back for) to skillet-roasted brill with mustard cream sauce. (They also do a banging Sunday roast, which my picky-eating family – including a chicken-dipper-worshipping-six-year-old – declared the best they’d had.)
The whipped bovine marrow and pickled allium (£7) was bumped up from my shortlist (that mackerel was a real contender, too) at the recommendation of our server. The light and creamy whipped marrow was heaped into the trough of a bone, and topped with gently tangy and sweet rings of the purple bulb. The underlying smokiness was more apparent in some mouthfuls than others, meaning each dollop that I spread onto the crisp, well charred hunks of bread tasted different.
The charcoal-grilled halloumi (£6) was soft and meaty – not blackened and squeaky as it so often is. Well-balanced in flavour, it had a subtle salty kick (unlike the oft-found overbearing one), which was offset by the sweetness of smoked jalapeno pepperonata. Main courses came swiftly, despite the restaurant becoming rapidly more full (it was chocca by the time we left – not bad for the first Friday service of the New Year). The braised lamb flap ragu (£13) saw ragged ribbons of silky, homemade pappardelle, slicked with the light and flavoursome sauce, weave around tender chunks of meat. Cooked with bite and topped with tufts of crisp kale, this rustic pasta dish was not so much about perfection as it was about character, which it had by the bucket – sorry, cauldron – load.
The mixed-breed beef burger (£13) involved a patty made from a juicy blend of forerib and brisket cuts, and flavoured with thyme. Sandwiched in a shiny bun along with homemade mayo, mustard, pickled cucumber and Cheddar, it sat next to a small pile of chips, which we need to discuss further, please. These fellas were more like mini roast potatoes, roughed up, crisp and well seasoned on the outside with angelically fluffy innards. Two down, and they were already being referred to as ‘crack chips’ by my dinner date.
Desserts (all £6) are just as off-the-wall as the rest of the menu; a key lime pie (of sorts) arrived in a skillet as a collection of dots of meringue, cubes of lime jelly, biscuit crumbs and zingy lime curd. I don’t think either of us were prepared to enjoy it as much as we did. Instead of being constrained by the specialist kitchen, the menu is actually liberated by it, each dish bolstered by a gentle backbone of smokiness and depth of flavour. The food doesn’t rely on said smoky character, though – it’s far from a gimmick and is never overpowering – but it ties it nicely together. Even the rich chocolate truffles are graced with smoked salt.
If the magic here is fuelled by charcoal and logs, then it’s sparked by the fiercely local ingredients; they are just as key. Meat (from John Sheppard Butchers), salad (grown by Purple Patch) and beer (brewed by Wiper and True) all come from within literal meters of the restaurant. And, as if all that doesn’t prove The Cauldron enough of an exemplar of Bristol’s indie, community-minded character, Henry cemented it when he encouraged us to pop over the road (literally) to his neighbour – the Wiper and True brewery taproom – for an after-dinner ale (which we did, of course). This is what it’s all about.