This week, like some contestant from an awkward cross between Come Dine with Me and Blind Date, I find myself in Bristol, eating at a random restaurant, with a man I have never met.
The venue for this socio-gastronomic assignation is an up-and-coming Bristol newcomer with the evocatively vinous name of Flinty Red. I heard about it from one of the restaurant's previous conquests, a love-struck foodie who took me aside at a party to hymn the place's charms. "It's only small, but it tries really hard," she swooned. "Especially in the evenings..."
What woman could resist? I was on the train to Bristol at the first opportunity. As for the man I was meeting – well, I won't betray the network of human traffickers who help out when reviewers urgently need warm and hungry bodies in unfamiliar cities. Let's just say that I placed a call to a certain gentleman who discreetly set me up with a male "companion".
On a sweltering Saturday night, Flinty Red was fully booked. We scored the last remaining table, at a time you'd call pre-theatre, were there any theatres here at the scruffier end of smart Clifton Village. First impressions – of the restaurant, rather than of my companion, Pete – was that it was small, minimal and unbelievably hot (apparently the air-con had broken down).
The cramped store-front premises on a narrow street are more bare-bones bistro than restaurant. But for those who know, here are all the reassuring signifiers that bespeak food-centred authenticity: photos of artisan produce against scrubbed-brick walls, marble-topped bar with stools; and, doing double-duty as no-frills place settings, delectable daily-changing menus of unusual range and flexibility.
My new friend Pete and I launched ourselves into that night's menu with gusto, starting with the house apéritif, Punt e Mes bitters with fresh orange juice, and, to break the ice, a shared plate of cecina – silky, air-cured beef from Spain. Next up, a Provençal-inspired nibble called panisse – misshapen nuggets of deep-fried chickpea flour, which were good, in the way that most things are when they're deep-fried, salted and accompanied by alcohol.
The marriage of food and drink is fundamental to Flinty Red, a collaboration between a local husband-and-wife chef team and the independent wine merchants Corks of Cotham, a few doors up the street. The school-of-Moro menu, like the wine-list, is strongly influenced by Spain, Italy and France, and many dishes are available in smaller tasting portions. So Flinty Red can be used for a tapas-style experience, with shared plates matched to wines by the glass, or for a more conventional three-courses-with-a- bottle dinner.
The evening menu is sub-divided by category – "cured/smoked/preserved", "fried/pan-fried", "pasta/dumplings", "charcoal-grilled" etc, and dishes range from the simple – anchovy toast, grilled chorizo – to those that require their own Google tool bar. The appearance of verjuice, morcilla, tonka beans and wet garlic sent Pete and I spiralling into a frenzy of "name the mystery ingredient" (he won).
Almonds were a feature of both our starters; adding welcome crunch to slippery mascarpone-filled ravioli, blowsy with fresh thyme and wet garlic (ask Pete), and to a dish of charcoal-grilled quail, served pink, with chunks of cucumber, grapes and a verjuice reduction.
In a gender-bending defiance of dining norms, my main course was a hefty pork chop, while Pete went for a more delicate fish dish. The chop didn't quite have enough char from its time under the grill, but the oozy blast of Mediterranean flavours supplied by a blanket of morcilla (Spanish black pudding), raisins and pine nuts more than compensated. Pete's pan-fried grey mullet was so delicate as to be almost overwhelmed by its accompanying fennel.
Finding wines that work with strong flavours is something Flinty Red clearly prides itself on. And as no one wants to spoil a good date by making an arse of themselves over the wine list, we put ourselves in the hands of co-owner Rachel Higgens. Her recommendations – an £8.50 carafe of Verdiccio and an £18 bottle of Juan Gill Monastrel – saw us happily through the meal from soup to nuts.
Desserts were simply put together but fine – almond buttermilk pudding with fresh raspberries, and an assembly of chocolate fritters, whipped yoghurt and roast wild cherries. Our time-slot expired, but the staff seemed in no hurry to move us on. Noise levels rose as the room filled up with happy diners, delighted to have discovered this reasonably-priced hotspot.
With its wine dinners and tasting events, Flinty Red is trying hard to make a connection between the worlds of food and wine, which all too often operate at arm's length. The result may be cramped, noisy and hot. But it's also adventurous and eager to please. The kind of place, in other words, that's made for a long-term relationship, rather than just a one-night-stand.
Flinty Red, 34 Cotham Hill, Bristol (0117 923 8755)
Around £40 a head for three courses with wine
Tipping policy: "No service charge. All tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Bristol bites
89 St Mark's Road (0117 951 0100)
Café Maitreya serves imaginative veggie food such as fennel and vegetable ceviche with tomato lavender water and cheese kromeski.
Friary Building, Cabot Circus (0117 910 2410)
One of Raymond Blanc's more informal eateries; make sure you try the classic favourite dish of Burgundian snails in garlic herb butter.
The Thali Café
12 York Road, Montpelier (0117 942 6687)
Try the six-dish thali at this lively café serving authentic and healthy Indian food; there are three other branches across Bristol, too.