Restaurant review: River Cottage Canteen, St John's Court, Whiteladies Road, Bristol

Tracey Macleod visits Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's latest River Cottage Canteen housed in a former church hall in Bristol. But will she be subjected to lengthy sermons about locavorism and sourcing fish responsibly?

Is there a busier man in the food world than Jamie Oliver? He just keeps on giving us new restaurant concepts we don't want, even before we've realised we don't want them. Earlier this summer, he unveiled yet another new diffusion line – Jamie's Italian Trattoria – while simultaneously launching Jamie's Diner, a dude-food-for-rubes pop-up in Piccadilly Circus. He's obviously got some brilliant business minds around him, but even Jamie must worry he's spreading himself as thin as one of his Union Jacks flatbread pizzas.

Meanwhile, Jamie's Channel 4 stablemate, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, has taken a rather different approach to brand extension. Not for him the pell-mell expansion into shopping malls and airports. As you'd expect from an evangelist for the Slow Food movement, his approach has been steadier and altogether more organic.

Building on the values hymned in the various River Cottage series, he opened the first River Cottage Canteen in Axminster in 2007. The mantra – local, sustainable, seasonal nose-to-tail eating – has been trotted out a thousand times by a thousand restaurants, but few have HF-W's credentials to back it up.

A second Canteen followed four years later in Plymouth. And now there's a third, in Bristol's Clifton area, a neighbourhood whose studenty/boho constituency makes it prime River Cottage territory.

The restaurant sits on a busy stretch of the main shopping drag, a traffic-clogged artery that feels a very long way from any rivers or cottages. Appropriately, for the high-minded campaigner known as Saint Hugh, his Canteen occupies a converted church hall, with vaulted ceilings and tall stained-glass windows, and a mezzanine which just cries out for Hugh to appear like a wild-haired prophet, preaching the doctrine of locavorism and denouncing sinners who don't source their fish responsibly.

But the congregation will search in vain for any iconography in this church of Hugh. No pictures, no come-hither blurb on the menu, no mention of him anywhere, apart from a display of books behind the reception desk. The notice boards in this well-scrubbed, ascetic dining room are reserved for the names of the local food heroes – farms, dairies and producers – who have supplied the kitchen.

Some really good things came out of that kitchen when I visited for lunch. Crisp, airy croquettes filled with smoked mackerel whipped to a brandade-like lightness. An enormous fishy sharing platter, terrific value at £12.50, which paired fingers of battered pollock with a punchy gremolata, and smoked trout with a satisfyingly complicated wild rice salad. And – surprisingly enjoyable – a "speltotto", made with pearled spelt, broad beans and Ogleshield cheese. A collision between a risotto and a fondue, with the cheese doing that raclette-ish trick of staying oozily fondant to the last bite, it tasted far better than it looked.

Of course, speltotto sounds like just the kind of worthy gear you'd expect a River Cottage restaurant to turn out; ditto the nettle, chestnut mushroom and chilli sourdough pizza. But the Canteen offers more straightforward crowd-pleasers, too. Chicken pie and mash; pulled pork bap with slaw and chips; mussels, bacon and cider – it's a menu which invites you to fearlessly eat it all. Given Hugh's mission to get families cooking and eating together, the children's menu is also unusually varied, offering grilled whiting and onion bhaji, as well as things you might be able to persuade children to actually eat, like bangers and mash and flatbread pizza.

The only miss was a claggy "clafoutis", not a puffy, fruit-studded batter, more a slab of cold custard with embedded berries. And my guest, the wine-matching guru Fiona Beckett, was disappointed to see the shortish drinks list wasn't doing as good a job for local beers as the Canteen was for local food.

Overall, though, it was an impressive performance. There's no shortage of casual, family-friendly restaurants in Bristol – including an enormous Jamie's Italian on the other side of Clifton – but the Canteen already seems to be preaching to the converted, and was doing good business on a midweek lunchtime.

It may not feel like a place you'd go for a fun night out with friends – it's more somewhere to take the parents-in-law, or the kids for Sunday lunch. But River Cottage is doing most things right. It doesn't go in for long sermons about its sustainable credentials, but they are there in every honest, homely dish. This may be the one celebrity-led restaurant concept which has no room for the cult of personality. The food is allowed to do all the talking, and amen to that.

Food ***
Ambience **
Service ****

River Cottage Canteen, St John's Court, Whiteladies Road, Bristol (0117 973 2458). Around £30 a head for three courses, including service

Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect