Eating out: The seven year hit
LETTONIE; 9 Druid Hill, Stoke Bishop, Bristol BS9 1EW. Tel: 0117 968 6456. Open Tuesday to Saturday 12.30-2pm and 7-9pm. Three-course menu, pounds 38.50, lunch pounds 19.95, supper Tues-Thurs pounds 25. Seven-course menu pounds 48. Credit cards accepted
I am talking about the problem of what to do when you are anticipating a particularly fantastic eating experience. How, much, for example, do you eat? You want to arrive hungry, but not starving: if you're too hungry, you will crave un- adorned carbohydrate, and probably find the idea of meat and rich sauces something of a turn off.
On the other hand, a late decision to take a light bite for purposes of pacing could be fatal. Imagine, come seven o'clock, you're bordering on too peckish for optimum palate performance. What do you eat? An apple? A banana? A jam sandwich? You decide it's too risky, and you'll hold out for 8.30. But just before you leave you realise that you really are too famished. Before you know it you've scoffed seven packets of Hob Nobs and you're groaning on the floor, begging your partner to cancel the booking.
Am I exaggerating? Maybe a little. But I know what I'm talking about - I'm writing this review before visiting the restaurant that is to be its subject. It's 4pm, and so far today I've had two apples for breakfast, and a bowl of whole earth organic cornflakes, with semi-skimmed milk, about half an hour ago - delicious, but will they keep me going until dinner at eight?
Why the build up? Because Marie and I are due to get the 6.15 from Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads, where we will be met by my parents. They will drive us to the suburb of Bristol called Stoke Bishop, where we will all have dinner in a small restaurant called Lettonie, tucked into an unprepossessing row of shops between the vet and the launderette.
I last went to Lettonie in 1990, to review it for Punch, and had some of the most sophisticated and brilliantly executed food I have ever tasted. Seven years on, I'm itching to get back, and not least because I hear that its days may be numbered: chef Martin Blunos and his wife Sian are looking to move, and reincarnate Lettonie in the country.
The next day ... The dining-room, though small, is sumptuous, as if the Blunos are in rehearsal for country-house life. It may be scaled down grandeur, but it could hardly be more comfortable - which is just as well, because we had a pretty long wait for the first of our dishes. I struggled not to ruin my careful preparation by overdosing on bread, and eventually Dad took the inscription on the menu quite literally, and went out to the street to smoke "with consideration for other guests". Which meant, of course, that our amuse-gueules arrived at once.
My first taste of Blunos' food for seven years, and the other's first ever, was pretty sensational: little coffee cups filled with an intense fish soup. They came with croutons topped with a blob of rouille into which had been mixed (according to some unlikely but, as it turned out, inspired whim of the chef) little pieces of potato. "A cunning ruse," my Mum observed, "to make you wait so long for something they know will instantly make you forgive them."
This was a knockout preface to a meal in which, almost for the first time I can remember when dining in a party of four, all of us liked everything we ordered. My only disappointment was that the starter I craved, red mullet with a caviare butter sauce, was not available. I felt like fish, so went by default for squat lobster tortellini with a lobster and cream sauce - just a touch reluctantly as pasta somehow seemed an unadventurous option in a restaurant like this. But the filling was superb - not the standardised mousse of nondescript crustacea, but a really meaty affair packed with the sweet flesh taken from the tails of the little squatties.
Marie was having a Faberge-esque time with Blunos' celebrated signature dish: a scrambled duck egg put back in its shell, topped with Sevruga caviare and served with blinis and a glass of iced lemon-grass vodka. It arrived spectacularly, in a gold-plated egg cup, on a dish aflame with yet more vodka. Such theatrical dishes are inclined not to live up to their billing - but not in this case. The buttery, nicely sloppy eggs with proper buckwheat blinis were comfort food of the highest order, but the generous heap of Sevruga turned a peasant's breakfast into something decadently aristocratic.
My main course, roast monkfish with a clam sauce and nettle fritters, was a pleasantly light dish to come back to between raids on the richer dishes which the others had chosen. Mum's sweetbreads with a lemon sauce, and Marie's stuffed pigs trotter with Madeira sauce showed the kitchen had offal well under control. I advised Dad against ordering guinea fowl, a bird that so often disappoints through dryness and lack of favour He was right to overrule: the breast, which came with a deeply flavourful morel cream sauce, was as tender as that of a nicely cooked chicken, and infused with a faint and intriguing taste of it's own liver. Perhaps the result of a long hanging, or of pot roasting with a stock made from its giblets. Perhaps both.
And for once there were dessert choices that promised to revive rather than fatally hole you below the waterline: orange terrine with passion fruit sorbet was outstandingly zesty, while apple and vanilla parfait with apple sorbet was the best thing I have ever seen done to a Granny Smith.
It would be hardly be fair to question the Blunos' decision to look for a country property where they can offer Martin's brilliant food in a more conventional setting. After all, it's as much a decision about the kind of life they want to lead, as about the kind of business they want to attract. But if you've never been to Lettonie, and have the chance to do so in the next few months, before the move, then grab it. It's a suburban gastronomic folly of enormous charm, and I guar-antee the experience will linger in the memory - especially if somebody orders the egg.
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