Eating Out: Feed your fantasies

Bristol's once rundown docks are now home to a vibrant crop of restaurants, of which Severnshed is the latest
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The Independent Culture
It's easy for a day-tripping Londoner to fall in love with Bristol. The majestic hilltop terraces of Clifton, the snaggled lanes crammed with antique shops and bookstores, the happy gangs of young people roaming about on an apparently perpetual pub crawl - all prompt a bout of fantasy lifeswap, in which you press your nose against estate agents' windows and calculate just how much airy, riverside floor-space you could get for the price of a cramped London one-bedder.

The answer, in elegant Clifton, is not very much. But a little further upriver, a run-down dockland area called Welsh Back has been kicked into life by local entrepreneurs, who are promoting it as the city's funky and fashionable alternative.

The Arnolfini arts centre has recently been joined by a vibrant crop of restaurants, including the well-regarded Riverstation, and its new neighbour, Severnshed, an ambitious, month-old restaurant and cafe-bar which specialises in the cooking of North Africa and the Middle East.

Severnshed's credentials are impressive. It boasts a chef, Raviv Hadad, who has worked at both the River Cafe and Moro in London, and it's housed in a building designed by engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel, an honorary Bristolian whose legacy survives all over the city, from the Clifton Suspension Bridge to the locks and dredging system he designed for the once-thriving docks.

The transhipment warehouse which now houses Severnshed probably wasn't one of Brunel's loftier projects, and from the outside it isn't very special - a white-planked block which resembles nothing so much as a municipal cricket pavilion. But inside, his engineering artistry is immediately apparent; an elegant cast-iron framework holds up a vaulted wooden ceiling, in an ingenious pillar-free design later used for Paddington station.

In converting this huge space, Severnshed's architect (one of the owners) has carved it into two smaller eating environments using a free-standing, brushed-steel bar, which apparently can be floated around at will on compressed- air jets. The decor is designer-spartan, with bare, black tables, bendy cherry-wood chairs, and minimalist artworks for sale. The view, by contrast, is positively opulent - sliding floor-to-ceiling windows on the river side look out over an Amsterdam-like scene of brightly painted houseboats, bobbing pleasure-craft and a cliff-top parade of candy-coloured Regency houses. A canopied terrace runs the length of the building, from which al fresco diners can lob bread to the passing swans. The cubes of sourdough which arrive fresh from the wood-burning oven are so delicious, however, that you'd be mad to squander them on a swan.

Severnshed's kitchen uses organic ingredients wherever possible, and its respect for fine prod- uce is signalled from the start by the superior quality of the bread, and the peppery olive oil provided for dipping.

The daily-changing menu is shortish, and manages to be both excitingly unfamiliar and extremely seductive. The cooking of North Africa and the Middle East inspires rather than dictates the dishes, with exotic spicing and sauces adding a twist to what is essentially a modern European menu. Red lentil and lemon soup comes with sourdough; spinach is dressed with brown garlic butter and sumac, and, as at Moro, the wood-burning oven is a key element - cod and red mullet were both available wood-roasted on the night of our visit.

David, my partner in the moving-to-Bristol fantasy sequence, was game enough to order a starter of lomo, chanterelles and aubergines, even though he had only a hazy notion of what the first two ingredients might be. He was just grateful that I'd already opted for the sliced tongue in pomegranate and mint juice, so he didn't have to.

As it happened, he was right. The combination of tongue and mint, with its unfortunate dental-surgery overtones, wasn't a particularly happy one, with the juice just too sharply flavoured to allow the delicate taste of the meat to emerge. The accompanying Judion beans (like butterbeans, but less floury) were fine but bland, and overall, it was a dish which read better than it tasted.

David's mystery starter, on the other hand, was a lesson in successful fusion food - where my ingredients collided, his held hands and did a little dance. Smoky, char-grilled strips of aubergine topped a finely shredded warm salad, in which the lomo ("It's a kind of bacon!" David exclaimed after a tentative nibble) and chanterelle mushrooms were joined by figs, parsley, onion and Epeautre wheat, a bloated, barley-like grain. "Once you get a bit of lomo involved, the whole thing makes sense," David pronounced rather self-consciously, then proceeded to despatch it with a speed which wouldn't have shamed those swans.

The kitchen's organic policy came into its own with the main courses. David's grilled marinated lamb was densely flavoured and aromatic with spices, a barbecue dish fit for a Berber chieftain. "You can tell this comes from a culture that really knows how to cook lamb," he enthused.

A slice of wood-roasted pumpkin was charred and sweet, while freshness came from a salad of cucumber and coriander. Nothing was quite like he expected it to taste, and all of it was remarkable.

I was curious to see how my roasted fillet of cod, that most British of fish, would work with a sauce of yoghurt, tahina and barberries, the sour, red berries used in Persian dishes. Frustratingly, the fish was marginally too salty to allow a fair assessment, though the sauce was good, the tangy little berries cutting through the creaminess of the yoghurt and sesame paste. A couscous with chickpeas and caramelised onions was superb, each element retaining its own personality, rather than merging into the wallpaper-paste that is customarily produced by less accomplished kitchens.

My meal ended on a note of pure indulgence - a home-made honey ice-cream fragrant with rose-water and containing whole pistachio nuts. David's choice of chocolate citrus cake was rather more severe - almost bitter, in fact. We weren't sure if this was Middle Eastern tradition, or they just hadn't added enough sugar. "For a cake, it's very tart," he puzzled. "In fact, it's more savoury than my starter."

Afterwards we took our coffee and Calvados out on to the terrace, to join the relaxed groups of trendy young Bristolians who make up Severnshed's clientele, their knee-length cargo pants paying tribute to the shipping warehouse's historic function.

As the sky turned dark-blue, and orange lights danced on the river, only the jeers from stag-nighters on passing pleasure-boats reminded us that we weren't on holiday in some exotic Mediterranean port. "If only we lived here," we sighed again, and once more with feeling when we got the bill - a very reasonable, very non-London pounds 25 a head, excluding wine and service.

Severnshed, The Grove, Harbourside, Bristol (0117-925 1212). Open 12 noon-2.30pm, 6pm-10.30pm (currently closed Mondays). All cards except Diners. Disabled access

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