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

One woman's exotic seduction fantasy is another's nightmare on theme street, especially if she is not with her seducer of choice. "An empire of the senses," is what Byzantium claims to be, otherwise known as a restaurant in a converted warehouse in Bristol with Middle Eastern tricks up its kaftan sleeve. So how would it be for me?

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
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 General

    Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

    £25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

    Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

    Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

    Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

    £45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible