Restaurants: Riddle of the sands
East meets West Country at the curious Byzantium restaurant in Bristol, a feast for (some of) the senses. Photographs by Dave Young
Saturday 23 January 1999
My only friends in Bristol, the tree surgeons, had moved to Spain a couple of years ago without telling me, so my boyfriend set me up with a friend of his (who lives with another tree surgeon, as it happens). A same-sex blind date may not be the best test of a restaurant that is setting out to seduce with more than just its food. But then again, Byzantium is not an intimately sized restaurant and is also attracting group outings, such as hen parties and packs of businessmen who fancy their chances with the belly dancer.
This makes it sound more vulgar than it is. It's not like anywhere I've ever been in this country, but reminded me of the Tunisian resort hotel I recently stayed in. Byzantium has a cavernous, evocatively lit, flower-filled, musk-scented ground floor with pillars and urns and padded seats arranged around low marble tables (more attractive than the lounge where our rep had listened to the tour group moaning). A woman with an unplaceable accent came and sat on our table to tell us what to expect. We would be brought our starters here, before being summoned upstairs for the main course, and then we would return here for dessert.
The wine list is helpfully divided into styles: "I think this calls for full and spicy," said my date gamely as we attempted to settle back into the sofa to get to know each other. Spared a display of belly dancing, any awkward silences could have been filled by the plaintive accordion and bongo played by two Bristol busker types in the centre of the marble floor. Where on earth were we supposed to be?
The arrival of a north African, two-tier, pastry-bearing contraption, the food lantern, did nothing to clarify our whereabouts. This was loaded with a symmetrical arrangement of generally rather delicious canapes from all over the world: two tiny bowls of good vegetable broth with herbs; sesame prawn toasts; mini bruschetta with sundried tomato paste; puri filled with guacamole that oozed out with each bite; a cube of cured salmon with half a slice of lemon on top. We politely nibbled our way through each of these, hesitating at the silver spoons laden with mushroom curry and vegetables in lime and coconut, which seemed to be an invitation to spoon-feed each other. We were inhibited by the discomfort of having to hunch over the table to reach these delicacies.
As with any foreplay, the spell can be broken by removal upstairs; in the large first-floor dining room, Byzantium seems to have given up on the exoticism. Was there a side room where swingers were getting at it or hubbly-bubbly pipes were being smoked? No such luck; around one promising corner was a group entirely composed of men wearing ties.
Beef daube in a loaf of bread was nicely spiced with a touch of the Middle Eastern - well, a slice of aubergine and a pinch of cumin. "They're trying to tart up steak pudding," said my new almost best friend. Red onion and goat's cheese tatin with coriander seeds was one of several decent vegetarian choices that perhaps reflect the high ratio of tree surgeons in the region; squiggles of red pepper sauce round the edge added abstract artistry but seemed odd beside the hearty portions. New potatoes, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower were nicely cooked, and welcome, but hardly what the sultan ordered. If Byzantium had been a pub, it might have been pleased with our verdict - hearty, wholesome and tasty - but a restaurant that sets out to offer "contemporary, creative and eclectic cuisine that is French in origin but contains hints of the Near and Far East", might be hoping for higher praise. Especially at pounds 40 a head.
Desserts returned to foreplay form, with another lantern of stamp-sized puddings, including a chocolate mousse cake, passionfruit bavarois and lemon tart.
That we were feeling relaxed was no thanks to the furnishings. More drinks were needed to take the edge off the concrete divan - what have you got? "Drambuie, Tia Maria, Baileys, just about everything, really," said the waiter, showing theme fatigue. His colleague, who brought us drab coffee, further blew the gaff. "They aren't any comfier," she cheerfully assured us as we looked hopefully at alternative seats, "it's a bit deceptive."
"I'd have thought the slightly hippyish, sinking-into-cushions thing would be something Bristol would do quite well," said my pretend paramour.
As the evening wore on, a rugger bugger swung his pants across the floor, singing into a beer bottle. Another man in a sports jacket swayed over to ask us whether he was in a Turkish restaurant or a German one. The French manager joined in; he just wanted everyone to be happy, he said.
Despite some unusual sensual pleasures on either side of the main course, Byzantium falls uncomfortably between two ottomans. Not a total Turkey, though.
Byzantium, 2 Portwall Lane, Bristol (0117-922 1883). Mon-Sat dinner. Set menu pounds 16.50 two courses; three courses around pounds 27.
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