EATING OUT / Creme de la creme of Bristol: Hunt's

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The Independent Culture
HAVING DINNER at Hunt's in the prettiest part of old Bristol, I realised how much I rely on my usually long-suffering wife. She knows all about cooking, has a sharp ear for dialogue and has grown used to me feigning conversation while I strain to overhear someone else's at the other end of the restaurant.

Entertaining the director of a television documentary I'm making about a mysterious local girl, the Princess Caraboo, was a different kettle of fish. We had to have a rational conversation. I also found I was no longer muttering but talking quite audibly.

I happened to wonder out loud about the elaborately tiled art nouveau building on the other side of Broad Street - little more than an alley, and one of the rare bits of the city that survived the German bombs - and

the waitress instantly came over with a free

printed guide. It had been Edward Everard's Printing Works, built in 1901, 'when it was considered so controversial that for two

days police had to control the crowds who flocked to view it'.

My director friend also shook me slightly as he was looking through the menu by remembering the time he worked in Swaziland. Grateful tribesmen, he said, asked him to

select a goat, slaughtered it on the spot, cut out a kidney, grilled it, and offered it to him still smoking from the fire. I was not sure that Hunt's would be able to match that kind of ethnic authenticity, but I was wrong.

Andy Hunt, the proprietor, is a Bristolian born and bred, and talks about food and wine with a fierce fundamentalist passion. Anyone was welcome, he said, to look in his kitchen - I declined, thinking it might mean confessing in advance that I was there to write about it - where they would not find a deep-freeze. They would not find a microwave cooker either. Everything was fresh. He loved cooking fish, and the catch came up three times a week from Cornwall.

He founded Hunt's three years ago with his equally Bristolian wife, after cooking round the corner at a restaurant called Markwick's. Since then the two places, according to the press reports at least, have been at war. Andy Hunt has no comment; he prefers to let the food do the talking.

There was a separate fish menu, though he told us this is shortly to be incorporated into the main menu due to the rising price of fish. It offered fish soup Provencale, turbot with scallops, and baked sea bass with roasted peppers, pesto and beurre blanc.

The starters included smoked haddock souffle, baked goat's cheese with sweet onion marmalade, smoked chicken salad with roasted hazelnuts, and a ravioli of wild mushrooms with sauteed lamb's kidney. Among the main courses there was lamb, venison, veal cutlet with wild green lavender and a lemon butter jus, and Hereford 'Trelough' duck breast with spiced plums.

My guest ordered a dressed Cornish crab salad, followed by guinea fowl with apples, Calvados and sweet marjoram. I asked for the sorrel soup with cream and croutons and then monkfish Amoricaine with brandy, cayenne, tomato and tarragon. I also ordered a bottle of Chateau Matinon 1988, which cost pounds 11.50 and was a very decent red.

The restaurant was not full, but there was a well-matched pair of lovers, a table of distinguished old craftspersons discussing their craft (I think it may have been furniture making or possibly bookbinding), some sophisticated local executives and a very rum party of nine who might have been students. Their table vaguely suggested the Last Supper; they were led by a Christ-like American wearing a beard and sweater, seemed to know each other hardly at all and were coaxed very gently through the menu by the proprietor.

Judging Hunt's by the highest international standards, there were small faults. My sorrel soup was good, smooth and full of flavour, but the croutons that came with it in a separate cup were somehow not as crisp or porous as they should have been. Among the vegetables were very long sliced green beans; although they were sliced extremely thinly they still kept that slight sandpaper edge that beans acquire when they are picked too late.

Apart from that the food was excellent. Entertaining a sensititive and intelligent director, I could hardly reach over and scoop up a forkful of his crab salad, but he seemed to be a person of taste and discernment and said it was wonderful, and perfectly fresh. He also liked his guinea fowl. My own monkfish was delicious, approaching the texture and flavour of lobster, and the other vegetables were fresh and not over-cooked.

For pudding he had a chocolate marquise with coffee-bean sauce - he described the chocolate mousse as 'sturdy' and liked the pattern in the coffee sauce - and I had apple and almond tart with butterscotch sauce which was very light and tasty.

Filming had gone quite well that day, so we used this as an excuse to push the boat out and have two glasses of pudding wine. Both came from the Mediterranean coast of France, near Port Bou at the southern end of the Pyrenees. The Vieux Rivesaltes was like a plummy Madeira with all sorts of complicated flavours, and the Muscat de Rivesaltes a pleasant, middle-income man's Chateau Yquem.

It was after dinner, when Andy Hunt brought over an unopened bottle of Clos Thou like a work of art and raved about its honey flavour, that I really admired him: he talked about the days when all you could get to drink in some restaurants was Mateus Rose, and the awful past came flooding back. Thank God for Andy Hunt and provincial chefs like him who have brought about the revolution.

The bill for the two of us, with the extra booze and drinks before dinner came to pounds 71.60 including service.